Saturday, December 10, 2011

Not Quite Chick-Lit, But Close Enough

I'm glad to have finally found some engrossing fiction; I was seriously contemplating burdening you all with a posting on a veritable doorstop of a book (Jerusalem:  A Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  Fascinating, but not for the faint of heart).  Fortunately, this week's random grab at the New Books section came up trumps.

First, Falling Together, by Marisa de los Santos.  This looks a lot like chick-lit; the cover features a small cafe table with three teacups, two grouped together.  The story itself is more complicated.  Yes, there is an enduring friendship thing going on, as well as an on-again, off-again relationship complicated by custodial issues.  The requisite cute-child-perpetually-wearing-tiara is present also.  However, something about this book sets it (just a little) above that genre.  Three friends meet at college.  One is male, two are female.  They share very little in terms of character traits, but Pen, Will, and Cat become fast friends.  Fast forward a decade, and they are no longer in touch, and the reader does not discover why for many pages.  There's friendship, trauma, travel, and enough humor to leaven the whole thing.

When I first opened the cover of The Time In Between, by Maria Duenas, I wasn't altogether sure that I would stay the course.  The jacket blurb mentioned the Spanish Civil War, and that is a period about which much has been written, very little of it easily readable (think Hemingway, think Falangists, think various Communists and all the death and destruction and depressing ideology.  What a bore.  And I firmly believe that more people claim to have read Hemingway than have actually made it through an entire Hemingway novel).  I was pleasantly surprised by this book -- it starts a bit slowly in a messy failed romance sort of way, but it turns out to be a really excellent spy novel.  The main character, a Spanish woman called Sira at the beginning and Arish when she begins her career as a dressmaker/spy, develops quite a bit over the course of the plot.  The book is 609 pages, which is a real treat -- when I am enjoying a book, I want it to go on as long as possible.

Last of all is a confection of a book that is more like a graphic novel than a work of writing.  The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is exactly that -- a scrapbook.  Circa 1920's dance cards, photos, advertisements, postcards, and typed commentary by the eponymous Frankie Pratt fill this book, as the reader traces her story from Cornish, New Hampshire, to Vassar, to Greenwich Village, to Paris, and then back to Cornish.
This is a book that can be read in one sitting (marvelous bathtub book), requires no intellectual exertion whatsoever, and has a movie-like happy ending.  Didn't you love picture books when you were little?  It's written (or should I say assembled?) by Caroline Preston.  Enjoy!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Back With Some Decent Reading

Sorry for the long break between posts; I hope to post regularly now that we're settling into a routine once more.  I recently re-read a good book, nonfiction, by Alexander Stille.  Best known for his book about the complicated relationship of Italy's Jews with the fascist regime, Benevolence and Betrayal, Stille also wrote a riskier and more complex book about Sicily's mafia.  The book is called Excellent Cadavers, and if that sounds odd to English speakers, it makes a lot more sense in Italian.  The "excellent cadavers" refer to the trail of murdered magistrates, prosecutors, law enforcement officials and politicians who had the nerve to challenge the mafia's boa constrictor-like hold on Sicily's infrastructure.  Having insinuated their way into every profitable facet of life in Palermo, Sicily's capital, the mafia even had allies within the very organizations designed to combat its pernicious influence.  If you enjoyed The Godfather (and that's one movie that is far better than the book) you will like this book; however, it makes the fictitious Corleones look like mildly criminal juvenile delinquents.

For those of you who read crime fiction, you have probably noticed the recent flood of translated mysteries from Scandinavian writers.  Most popular seem to have been the series of three from Stig Larsson, whose predilection for graphic and gratuitous violence and detail is shared by nearly every other Scandinavian mystery writer I've sampled.  Hence, I was pleased to read Asa Larsson's (I'm assuming she's no relation; it's a ubiquitous name up north) Until Thy Wrath Be Past.  It's a nicely written and well-translated mystery with its roots in World War II era Sweden, and Larsson does not hesitate to dig up the painfully equivocal details of Sweden's relationship with Germany.  It's a satisfying mystery in every way, once you get past the complicated names.

I've mentioned Leah Cypess and her popular Young Adult fantasy novel, Mistwood.  This week I finally got my hands on Nightspell, her second book, and though I had to read it fairly quickly (my teenager was waiting to read it) I liked it a lot.  I hope I don't insult the author if I say I enjoyed it more than the first -- somehow, Nightspell drew me more into the story and I liked the characters better.  Perhaps it's just that I have an easier time dealing with ghosts than with shapeshifters.  In any case, it's a good pick if you like fantasy, and I'd recommend it to teen girls as well.  It's a pleasure to have female protagonists in fantasy stories who aren't waiting pathetically to be rescued.

Monday, October 10, 2011

On the End of Children's Literature

No time for a post -- things are a bit hectic (in a good way) and I'll resume posting in a week or two.  However, I read this New York Times article this morning, and it gave me food for thought:

What do you think?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Penchant For Mystery

There are two kinds of mysteries I enjoy -- books that are true "whodunits;" that stump the reader to the very last page, and mysteries that aren't terribly complicated, can be solved by chapter 4, but are fun to read for other reasons.

In this first category one can fit most of Agatha Christie's work, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout, and others.  Into the second category I now add Martin Walker's French wine country mysteries.  Bruno, the chief of police of St. Denis, is an almost lovable character.  His exploits include foiling criminals whilst dressed in a Santa Claus suit, and rescuing small children from dung pits.  I've lost count of the number of times he needs to replace his uniform.  As well, this series is a pleasure to read if you are a foodie.  Vast meals shared by longtime friends are described in great detail, to my great delight.  The mystery is a side attraction, and in any case a clever reader can see where the story is going by the end of the second chapter, if not sooner.

I recently read another mystery that fits the first category but is fun to read none the less.  Death and the Maiden, by Gerald Elias, is another installment in the series starring Jacobus, a crabby old violin teacher.  Peopled by intriguing characters such as Nathaniel, an African-American cellist who wears a dashiki, and a Seeing-Eye bulldog called Trotsky (because he can't runsky), these books are written from the point of view of Jacobus, which is interesting, because he is blind.  This series does focus strongly on music and music-related crimes, but the reader does not need a great deal of acumen to enjoy the mysteries.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Some Old Favorites

I've been trying to get through a pile of new books that I've accumulated; sadly, many are so dreadful they are practically unreadable.  My progress has also been hampered by obligations at work and home, school having shifted into high gear once more.  Therefore, I've decided to designate this post as an addendum to this one, and write about some books that were (and in some cases, still are) favorites of mine.

  • I'm going to begin this list with E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan.  These, to my mind, are the quintessential American children's novels.  Both books focus on animals with very human attributes, and there's a secondary focus on the humans around them, sympathetic and not.  I recently read a new (adult level) book about White and the creation of Charlotte's Web; quite fascinating, really.
  • No new reader should be denied a chance to read Pippi Longstocking.  This Swedish character is incorrigibly everything a good girl should not be, and yet she is one of the most lovable protagonists in children's literature.  Astrid Lindgren, the author of the Pippi books, wrote others that are not widely available.  Mio, My Son is one that I didn't really get into, but I loved Ronia, The Robber's Daughter.  Targeted to a more mature audience, (11-12 years) this book pulls the reader into another world completely.
  • Jean Little was a very popular author when I was growing up; many of her books focus on children with disabilities.  She has also written some impressive autobiographical books.  From Anna is one of the former, and it focuses on a little German immigrant to Canada who discovers that her stupidity and clumsiness are really a result of her extremely poor eyesight.  I'll confess that I still sometimes take it out of the library and read it, and I always cry at the end.  Another favorite of mine is Stand In The Wind, which does not have her usual disabled character; it deals with the children of two families and some ruined summer plans.
  • I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who didn't like The Secret Garden.  Its mysteriousness, its spoiled brat protagonist, the dramatic denouement, all combine to make the perfect story.  If it gets a little sappy occasionally, who can blame Burnett?  That's most likely what her contemporary audience was looking for.
  • My children recently discovered that the movie The Parent Trap was based on a book, long out of print.  As a child, I read this book multiple times, so I was happy to buy a used copy for them.  If you've never read Lisa And Lottie, you'll enjoy this story of twins separated at birth.  Originally published in German in 1949, it's been adapted for film many times, twice in English.  (Side note:  The author, Erich Kastner, had many of his books burned by the Nazis, and effectively was banned from publishing any of his material throughout the time of the Third Reich).
  • The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, is a book I've read countless times and has recently come back into print.  A Great Depression Era book, this novel was probably the first coming-of-age type story that I ever read.  Robin, the protagonist, is really the perfect character for a girl in her early teens to relate to as she reads.  Snyder writes about feelings very well, and manages to be emotional without being cloying.  Other books I've enjoyed by Snyder include Below the Root (fantasy) and The Famous Stanley Kidnapping Case.
  • Most avid readers have heard of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and it's hard to find a reader who didn't like this unusual book.  E.L. Konigsberg writes here of every child's deepest and darkest wish -- to run away, but not just anywhere;  to run away to somewhere special.  In this case, it's the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the story's mood alternates from suspenseful, to humorous, to businesslike, all in a few chapters.  A prolific writer, Konigsberg has written some other excellent books (such as The View From Saturday) but because of certain poor choices in language I don't feel comfortable recommending them to a wider audience.
  • The Secret Language was the only book written by Ursula Nordstrom, who was for many years editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row.  This book shows such a deep knowledge of how the minds of children operate that no reader can help but be moved.  The illustrations are also wonderful.
  • As a final pick, I'll mention the inimitable Encyclopedia Brown.  This series, by Donald Sobol, seems to have grown by several volumes since I last read it.  It's enjoyable even for adults to read the short mysteries and try to guess the solutions before turning to the back of the book where all is made clear.
  • I'd like to wish all my readers a sweet Jewish New Year, with good fortune, good health, and only happy occasions.  My next post should be some time after we've emerged from the holidays, and I hope I'll have read several noteworthy books by that time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rite of Spring?

After a long wait, I finally got a hold of The Hunger Games, which everyone on the hold list seems to have been reading.  Classified as a Young Adult book, this is a strange futuristic tale of a country (ours, in a future I hope doesn't come) in which a terrible yearly rite is carried out.  Each year, every district is required to select two young people to participate in the nationwide Hunger Games, which seems similar to Survivors but without the scruples.  In the Hunger Games, the last one alive wins.

This book is quite dark, but engrossing.  It put me in mind of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, a story I read in high school, about a contemporary community which still practices something like the pagan rite of spring sacrifice.  I won't say too much more; I don't like spoilers.  This isn't a book I'd give to my young teen, but it is a well-constructed story with an unexpected ending.  Even better, it begins a series, and I'm waiting now for the second installment, Catching Fire.

Switching genres entirely now, I would like to recommend an excellent nonfiction book recently published.  1493, by Charles C. Mann, is subtitled Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and could just as easily have been called The Columbian Exchange.  Mann's sizable tome covers all populated continents, as he documents the ripple effect (in some places, more of a tsunami effect) that the European conquest of the Americas caused.
Mann also published 1491, about the Americas before Columbus.  I enjoyed this book, but not quite as much as 1493.  In 1493, he spends some time on the devastating effect of European diseases on the local people, whose populations were decimated by smallpox, measles, and other diseases they had never experienced, and writes at length of the effect of the malarial mosquito on Europeans.  Anyone who is interested in food will find interesting the chapters on origins of certain fruits, vegetables, and grains we take for granted as native to our lands today.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Smart Reader's Kids

I often get requests for book recommendations for children; nowadays it's so difficult to find books for kids that have literary merit.  Another issue is the fact that one doesn't want one's children picking up, say, bad language from the books he/she is reading.  It's also hard to pinpoint which books reflect the values one is trying to inculcate in one's family.

Although this may sound like a pain in the neck, I pre-read nearly every book my children take out from the library.  This isn't really as hard as it sounds, because I spent most of my childhood reading every book in existence; it only remains for me to read the newer ones.  Also, I read faster than the average person (practice makes perfect! Read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers if you don't believe me).

In this post, I offer a short list of recommended reading for emerging readers and onward.  If you are looking for good books in a particular genre for your child, you can request those in the comments and I'll do another post later this month.

Emerging readers:  These are the children who are just beginning to read on their own and are moving beyond read-aloud; there is usually a special section in the library for these readers.  Unfortunately, each publisher has its own leveling system, so it takes some time to figure out what is what, but you can't go wrong with:

  • Dr. Seuss; Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham are perfect for young independent readers.
  • Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series
  • David Adler's Young Cam Jansen, and when they are ready they can move on to the regular Cam Jansen series.
  • I was very fond of Amelia Bedelia when I was very young; I've noticed, however, that today's children often don't grasp the double meanings of the words the way we used to.  A lot of those words are not in common use today, and it just doesn't seem as funny.  Take them out anyway; it's worth a little bit of explanation.
Intermediate readers:  These are children who read well on their own, and can deal with real chapter books that have lots of words.  The subject matter is usually straightforward and the plot is generally uncomplicated.  Vocabulary is on or slightly above level.

  • I don't really like series books, but this one is actually not bad (although it's a tad commercial for my taste).  The American Girl books, with each series focusing on a child growing up during a particular era in American history, are nicely done, well-written, and comfortingly predictable.  The values are quite nice, and each book features an appendix that tells the reader more about the period in history.  If you can restrain yourself from purchasing any of the merchandise, you should be fine.  The authors vary.  These are usually most suitable for ages 7-10.
  • A good author for children ages 8-11 is Eleanor Estes; her Moffat family series is charming and funny.  Other good authors for these ages are Elizabeth Enright, whose '50's era books are all now being reprinted, and Edward Eager.  Eager is an E.Nesbit wannabe, and for those of you who have never heard of Nesbit, she was an English children's author who was very well known and is still widely read.  I would recommend her books to older children, though, because the language is quite British, if you get my meaning.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are a good place to start for a girl who is ready for a book that is a bit longer.  The series officially begins with Little House in the Big Woods, and moves onward.  The last two might not be appropriate to children younger than 11 or 12; the last book is actually a bit tragic.
  • Andrew Clements skyrocketed to fame with his bestseller, Frindle, and seems to have been consistently churning out entertaining novels since then.  I particularly enjoyed A Week in the Woods, as well as Room One.  Parents should be aware, however, that Clements also published several Young Adult books that are not targeted to this age level.
  • Of course, it's impossible to look for books for intermediate readers without mentioning Beverly Cleary.  One thing (out of many) that is appealing about her books is how they are so suited both to boys and girls.  Ramona is a character girls love and boys find hilarious.  Ralph S. Mouse has universal appeal.  
  • Noel Streatfeild was a great favorite of mine growing up.  Her "Shoe" books (Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Theater Shoes) are endearing and beautifully written.
Older and advanced readers:  Children aged 11 and over are often looking for books with more complex plots, abstract themes, that don't unfold predictably.  However, this age and level is difficult because much of the fiction marketed to this group depicts values and behaviors parents don't want their children immersed in.  Here I offer a short list of some suitable reading material, but it is very important here to know what your child can handle, and what you do/do not want him/her exposed to.
  • Zilpha Keatley Snyder:  One of my favorite books, even now, is Snyder's Velvet Room.  One of her several books set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Snyder's story carries a lesson but does it so gently that the reader delights in learning it.  I didn't love all her books, but she's definitely an author to acquaint yourself with.
  • L.M. Montgomery was the creator of Anne of Green Gables and published oodles of similar books.  There's no real middle ground with Montgomery -- either you love her or she sickens you.
  • Newbery Medal books:  Click on this link to get a full listing of all the Newbery winners I have read and reviewed.
If you post your requests in the comments section for this post, I will take up this thread in my next post as well.  For example, if you have a child who likes fantasy, or mysteries, I would be happy to publish a separate post for that genre.  Be sure to check out my quasi-kid post on this page.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Magical Reading

If it were possible to lock C.S. Lewis, J.D. Salinger, Terry Pratchett, and J.K. Rowling into a room and force them to collaborate on a book, the result might possibly be a lot like Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King.  These are, strictly speaking, fantasy, but they do seem to bridge the gap between that genre and regular fiction.

The Magicians introduces the reader to the character of Quentin Coldwater, who is a familiar figure -- a teen with no clear direction.  Through an odd sequence of events, he lands at Brakebills, a Hogwarts-like institution of magic.  However, the similarity to Hogwarts is quite superficial -- Grossman's books, while lighthearted (and really funny) at times, lack the fairy tale/happy ending/hope for the world moods that underlie the Harry Potter series.  The sequel, The Magician King, builds on the foundation of the story told in the first book, and has its share of surprises. These books are about people who seem real in their characters and have a greater share of flaws and faults, and while their choices do have a great impact, there are situations in which the characters cannot win, and simply have to deal with in their own ways.

I don't really give a blanket recommendation for these books, even though I have reread the first one several times and intend to do so with the sequel.  If you really don't like fantasy, these books aren't for you.  These books can be graphic at times, disturbingly so for some readers.  This is not crossover kids' fantasy; these are real grownup books.  But if you enjoyed  any of the writers listed in the first paragraph of this post (with the possible exception of Rowling) you will probably enjoy these books as well.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Call For Guest Posters

It's been a pretty dry summer for me -- I've been plowing through lots of books, but I haven't found many that are worth posting for my discriminating audience.  It occurred to me that not everyone is necessarily having that experience, so I am calling for submissions for guest posts.  Sadly, I am not in a position to reward winning posts, but if you live in my vicinity, I'll be more than happy to make you dinner one night or watch your children for a few hours.

Interested?  Leave your contact info and a brief summary of what you'd like to post in the comments form below, and I'll get back to you post haste.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Little Women, Revisited

If you've never read Little Women, or if you've read it (or watched it) and loathed it, go play some Angry Birds, because this post is definitely not for you.

The Little Women Letters, by Gabrielle Donnelly, is a fluffy treat of a book.  It's nearly chick lit, but not quite, because there isn't anyone nasty in the book (and if they are, you soon see their redeeming features).  It's a feel-good book that will make you laugh out loud; in my case, I did so several times.

The book is based on the premise that the story of Alcott's Little Women is actually true, and that the March family did exist.  It focuses on three contemporary sisters, Emma/Josephine, Lulu, and Sophie, and their lovable but slightly odd parents.  There are truly no evil characters in this story -- everybody is really so nice!  Even the characters who initially seem standoffish or rude quickly are dealt with and their inner niceness is revealed.

Lulu, the middle sister, is going through a bit of a career crisis when she discovers the letters of her great-grandmother, Josephine March.  (Just a note of explanation -- the book takes place in England; her father is English and her mother is a transplanted American).   Through the letters, Lulu finds a lot of comfort, and of course the storyline cooperates.

The relationships in this book are ridiculously too good to be true, and the conversations almost sitcom-like, but who cares?  It makes its reader so so happy.  This is definitely a book to pick up if you're blue.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Persistence of Memory

I just finished a new book called What Alice Forgot, which I haven't been able to stop thinking about. By Liane Moriarty, an Australian author who I have never heard of until now, this is chick lit with a twist.

Alice takes a hard fall during her weekly spin class, hits her head, and when she comes to, it's 1998 and she's pregnant with her first child (she calls it the sultana; I think this is Australian for raisin).  Except it's not 1998 -- it's 2008, and Alice has lost the memories of ten years, has no recollection of her three children, and is evidently about to divorce her husband and can't remember why.

The ensuing action is fascinating.  The 2008 Alice, as depicted through the eyes of the other characters, is a hardened woman with uber-mommy features and doesn't seem at all like the sweet, loving, idealistic 1998 Alice. My favorite part deals with an episode involving her teenager (the former sultana) who is suspended from school for some infraction.  It's clear that the 2008 Alice, full of resentment towards the child who's evidently been giving her a hard time, would have dealt with this in a very different way than the new/old Alice who has just met her.  1998 Alice thinks Madison is a lovely girl, and with none of the backstory to affect her behavior, deals with the problem easily in a loving and proper manner.

I won't give away any more of this delightful story, but I would definitely categorize this as a must-read.

This reminded me a little of another book that I've mentioned before, which shares the theme of memory and the effect it (and the lack of it) can have on one's life.  Welcome To The World, Baby Girl, by Fannie Flagg, kept coming to mind as I read this book, even though in many ways they are not alike.  However, in this book memories that are buried and forgotten set off a sequence of events that culminate in a real comfort of a novel.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

China In American Fiction

This weekend I read a recently-released book by Lisa See called Dreams of Joy; she's also the author of several other China-themed books which I read but haven't really retained well.  The protagonist, Joy, flees her native Los Angeles in the 1950's after a series of events uncovers a family secret. Joy, a naive-to-the-point-of-stupidity college student, decides to go to Communist China to find her father, believing that she can be part of the glorious revolution that is making China so wonderful.  Boy, is she in for a surprise.  Her mother, Pearl, fully recognizing the danger Joy faces, returns to China to find her and bring her home, but of course it's not that simple.

See's descriptions of life during the Great Leap Forward remind me of the books of Betty Bao Lord; I loved her The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson as a child and enjoyed Eighth Moon and Spring Moon as an adult.  The way life is portrayed during this time is almost too horrible to be believed, but if one reads the latest biography of Mao Zedong by Jung Chang it seems natural that such a man would create these terrible circumstances.

Amy Tan is another writer who seems to have defined the genre of the Chinese in America -- her Joy Luck Club is an excellent book, as well as The Kitchen God's Wife and others.  My favorite, and an exception to her usual genre, is Saving Fish from Drowning, which is set in Burma and features a group of tourists who get lost.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fiction That Reads Like Nonfiction, and Vice-Versa

This week I got through several books that seemed to be one thing but were in fact another.  Every so often I'm fortunate enough to find a nonfiction book that is so well-written and interesting that it reads like fiction.  Chasing Aphrodite is one such book.  This book focuses on the Getty Museum's acquisitions of art and antiquities looted and sold by back-door methods all over Europe, and it reads like a thriller.  Forgery, vendettas, packing ancient statues in car trunks in the dead of night -- this book has it all.

On the other hand, I also came across a couple of novels that, sadly, read like nonfiction.  That's not to say that they were boring -- on the contrary, they were both interesting.  But when one is expecting a novel, it's disconcerting to read through what is essentially a memoir/history with a few made-up characters.

Farishta, by Patricia McArdle, is the story of Angela Morgan, a diplomat who finds herself in Afghanistan.  The plot is pretty bare bones; most of the story paints a compelling picture of a service life in a war zone and the particulars of life in Afghanistan.  By the time one is done reading, what happens to Angela seems parenthetical and the reader is left with a sense of wonder at the mysterious country that is the graveyard of empires.

The Girl in the Blue Beret is a complete waste of time as a novel -- it's the story of a retired pilot who returns to France to retrace his steps in World War II.  A downed aviator, he was aided by the French Resistance all the way over the Pyrenees to Spain, and he is returning to find the brave men and women who saved him and his crew.  Most of the book consists of narratives from each resistant as he meets them along his journey.  While these narratives are fascinating, the book's plot is barely necessary and is almost nonexistent.  It's worth reading simply to get an idea of the courage and determination of those French who would not stand by and tolerate the German Occupation.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Wild Ride, Indeed

It's not unusual to find overlap between different genres; a case in point would be historical fiction and mystery.  There are many good examples of books which represent the best of both types of writing.  More rare, however, is a book that is a fusion of, say, chick-lit and fantasy.  Wild Ride, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, is just that type of book.

Crusie has published several entertaining chick-lit type books; I've never read anything by Mayer, but I'm assuming he brings the fantasy to the table.  Essentially, Wild Ride is a book about an amusement park that is inhabited by demons.  Called the Untouchables, these demons are enclosed in chalices to keep them from wreaking havoc; the longtime park employees make up a group called the Guardia and must endeavor to keep the world safe from the demons and their minions.  Add several young women, a few young men, family secrets, and a love interest, and, Ta-Da! chick-lit and fantasy meld quite entertainingly.

Another book I read this weekend got a song stuck in my head, playing in an endless loop.  Remember that Herman's Hermits song, Henry the eighth I am?  About the fellow who married the widow who'd been married seven times before?  Well, The Ninth Wife doesn't quite play out like that, but at its center is Rory, a man who narrates the stories of his eight marriages, interspersed with the story of Bess, who meets Rory and seems destined to be wife number nine.  The characters in this book are very likable and  don't necessarily develop the way the reader would expect. All in all, this is an engrossing and diverting book.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Daughter? Or Was It The Unnatural Selection?

I've done very well with nonfiction lately; not so well with fiction, sadly.  It's a shame, because now that my summer vacation has begun, I could really do with some lovely frivolous reading.  Well, it can't be helped.

One very entertaining nonfiction book I read lately was Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein.  A prolific writer about girls and growing up female, Orenstein has a bit of shock when she finally has her own daughter.  Determined to raise an empowered girl, who does not feel trapped by stereotypes, she encourages her to like the characters of her choice (Thomas the Tank Engine) and engage in any type of play, not simply girl-specific activities.  However, she soon realizes that this will not work -- Daisy's Thomas lunchbox hits the dirt as soon as a classmate points out that "only boys like Thomas the Tank Engine," and Orenstein soon sees her daughter swallowed by the whole Disney Princess culture -- in spite of her best efforts to indoctrinate her daughter against that world.

This book explores much of this culture -- Orenstein goes into the world of kiddie pageants, American Girl dolls, fairy tales, and Disney movies.  She explores the role of girls in popular culture (or lack thereof) and does a great deal of hand-wringing over her lack of control over how her daughter finds her place in the world.  I think this book speaks more of our inability to really form our children in the way we'd ideally wish, and how culture and the outside world has so much influence.

Once we're on the topic of gender, Unnatural Selection comes along with a warning tocsin, citing new research in Asia and even parts of Europe that show parents electing to abort female fetuses after ultrasound identification.   Mara Hvistendahl, the author, sketches for the reader the cultural background for this alarming trend, and goes further by proposing the unintended consequences of such behavior.  And these consequences may in fact be dire.  It's an interesting read, if a bit panicky.

On another topic entirely, Malled is the account of a journalist seeking some additional income who goes to work as a sales associate for The North Face.  She goes on and on about how industry culture treats the lowly sales associate like dirt, who subsequently treats the customer badly, eventually quits or is fired, explaining the ridiculous turnover rate.  One thing I came away with -- I will, in future, always attempt to be friendly, appreciative, and courteous to any sales associate who assists me.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I Win Again!

For the third time this year, I have managed to beat the New York Times Book Review -- I've read at least two books a week or more before the NYT has had a chance to publish its review.

Last week I spent most of my spare time (when I wasn't grading papers or reading essays) reading The Storm of War, a  new history of World War II.  By Andrew Roberts, this book covers the topic admirably, and I should know by now, having attempted to read nearly everything I can get my hands on within this topic.  Roberts puts forth the thesis that Hitler's war was a war fought for ideological as opposed to political reasons; he proposes this as the answer to why this war was lost as well.  This is a very thorough treatment of the events of World War II, and Roberts manages to combine this thoroughness with a brevity and concision of writing which is a pleasure to read.  This book would make a good companion to Richard J. Evans' Third Reich series, which delves much more deeply into the psyche of Hitler's Germany, and you can read about these books here.

Another book in the NYT spotlight this week is State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.  Patchett originally rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists with her beautifully written Bel Canto; its odd plot notwithstanding, it is a wonderful book.  State of Wonder is set in a different type of world than Bel Canto, but one similarity is how Patchett seems to enjoy pushing together characters from vastly different worlds almost just to see what will happen.  This sometimes feels a bit like experimental cookery.

In this story, a dispassionate letter informing a pharmaceutical company of the death of an emissary catapults another employee into actions she wouldn't normally take.  It's important not to give anything away, though, because the reader will enjoy this book far more coming into it with complete ignorance.  I would recommend not even reading the jacket blurb.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Vicarious Travel

It's always wonderful to get a chance to go away on vacation, a change of scenery, different people.  Nicer still is the opportunity to shed household responsibilities, childcare responsibilities, and the constant burden of one's job.  Unfortunately, we're not all so lucky.  While it would be a treat to spend a few days on a tropical island, or touring a beautiful cosmopolitan city, some of us have to resort to other means of getting away -- a vacation of the mind, as it were.

There are some really diverting books available which, if read during a calm moment, in a quiet spot, can take you away in spirit if not corporeally.  This week I spent time in Hawaii, in a book entitled Unfamiliar Fishes.  Really a history of the American takeover of the island, the author tries to get under the skin of Hawaiian culture and succeeds in taking the reader with her.  I never did know much about our 50th state, and I didn't have much interest, but this book successfully sucked me in.

Ireland Unhinged, by a writer who transplanted his family from Connecticut to Cork, is another matter.  This is more like travel writing, with a bit of history and a lot of humor thrown in.  Again, a topic in which I had no previous interest, but the book held me until the last page.

To go to India without the inconveniences of unreliable electric and water service (not to mention the pollution), read Sideways on a Scooter, written by a journalist who spends time living in Delhi and is enraptured by the country.  Her experiences discovering quite how deeply the concept of caste is still embedded, and how marriages take place, are worth reading.  One comes away with, perhaps, a less than wholly positive opinion of the writer, but no matter -- it's a very readable book.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What the World Eats

If you're looking for a book to engage your whole family, What the World Eats is just the ticket.  I took out this book from the library last week and, without exaggeration, every member of the family has read it at least once.  We've even read it together!

This unique book, which is really more of a coffee-table book than a book to read in bed, features portraits of twenty-five families from twenty-one countries -- surrounded by a week's worth of food.  Each portrait is accompanied by a breakdown of their food expenditure (i.e. beverages, condiments, restaurants) and a short description of how the family lives.  It's very difficult not to feel embarrassed by the riches our kitchen cabinets offer when reading about a family in Chad, who spend $2.20 a week on several bags of assorted grains, and also have to lug their water in large plastic jugs.  Also interesting are the separate sections on street food (grubs on a stick, anyone?), kitchens, and other food-related customs from all around the world.  This book is the sort-of juvenile version of Hungry Planet, which was written for adults.

While I'm on the topic, another fascinating book about food is Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.  He also published a juvenile version, called Chew On This, and both books focus on the influence of the fast food industry on American culture, as well as its impact on health and culture.  Read in tandem with The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, as well as The End of Food, by Paul Roberts, this practically constitutes a seminar!

These books all have one thing in common -- they all exist to inform Americans in some way about food.  Where it comes from, how much we're eating, how much we're getting out of it, who's going without it -- all this information is not usually sought out by the average American supermarket shopper.  Maybe it should be?  What do your think?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Summer Reading

Summer is an absolutely blissful time for those of us who are fortunate (?) enough to work in the field of education.  The old joke, what are the two best reasons for being a teacher (July and August), is quite true!  For me, as well as for those of you who live in countries where a two-week vacation in August is practically mandated, summer is a great time to catch up on the accumulated tasks we've not had time for all year.  One of these things is reorganizing closets.  Another is baking complicated pastries.  A third, as I'm sure you've guessed, is reading all the books I haven't had time to get to as yet.

Most summer reading occurs in one of three places:

  • at the beach
  • at the pool
  • on a lawn chair on the lawn, porch, or deck
Of course, it may occur elsewhere, such as the plane you are taking to your summer destination, or your boat, if you're that type.  I have tailored my selections for this post to the needs of these locations.

A summer book should ideally be a paperback; failing that, it should be relatively small and light.  You don't want another heavy thing to lug around in your beach bag.  If you prefer audiobooks, that is optimal, as it necessitates only an MP3 player.  A reader such as the Nook or Kindle is good as well, as long as you don't drop it in the pool or bury it in the sand.  
I don't really recommend buying books for the summer, unless they are very inexpensive.  Summer books often get wet, left on planes, or very sandy.  Another factor to consider is what you are meant to be doing as you lie poolside and read.  If you are supposed to be paying attention to the aquatic feats of your children (or someone else's children), you should not bring a book that will so monopolize your attention that you will fail to respond.  Let me also note here that if you are meant to be a lifeguard, or the sole supervisor of children near water, you had better not be reading anything if you intend to bring them home safely.

A summer book should also be light in its content.  One doesn't really want to read something heavily philosophical or profound during vacation time, especially if supervising children is one's task.  It's better to read a book that is easily picked up and put down multiple times without losing the thread of the story.

Now to the recommendations:
I recently finished reading The Wilder Life, a nonfiction book by a Little House on the Prairie fanatic.  Apparently there are a lot of people like her, who loved the books, loved the show, and want to live in "Laura World."  If you have no idea what I am talking about, this book is not for you.  It's mildly amusing, easy to leave and come back to later, and relatively light (in every way).  One comes away with an impression of a slightly loopy narrator, but not unlikeable.

Chick lit always works very well at the beach or pool; you can refer back to my chick lit post.  Mysteries work well also if they're not the terribly suspenseful type that make you sweat in panic.  Best of all, I think, are those relaxed, pleasant stories that help you believe that the world is a good place.  A book like this is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a historical and epistolary (written in the form of letters) novel set in the Channel Islands after World War II.  I'll bet you didn't know that the Channel Islands were the only part of England occupied by the Germans.  It's a lovely story, and easy to get through.

I'm not sure if this fits into the historical fiction genre, but Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is exactly the sort of book to read in a deck chair, preferably with something to eat on a table next to you.  This book will make you hungry.  The author, Fannie Flagg, wrote a few nice books of this type; I also liked Welcome to the World, Baby Girl.   If you like these, you might also like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, part of a genre I call "women against the world."  It's by Rebecca Wells, and she's also written some other nice books of the same type.

If you have any suggestions for this post, please comment.  Also appreciated would be suggestions for short, inexpensive vacations for a family with several children.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Laughter: The Best Medicine

As one grows older, those occasions in which a good, long belly laugh occurs grow fewer and farther between.  As children, so much of what we saw and read and experienced was just so funny! Like the knock-knock jokes we told endlessly, to very very patient parents who concealed their rolling eyes and giggled politely.  Where did the humor in life disappear to?

It hasn't gone anywhere, but if you are normal (or approximating normal) you have matured to the extent that what seemed hilarious at age 7, or 12, or 16, seems gross, or dumb, or sophomoric in your 20's or 30's.  This is a bit of a disappointment, in a way; kids have it so easy when they need a laugh.  Pick up a volume in the My Weird School series, and they're laughing all the way home.  Whereas mature adults such as ourselves will seldom find that kind of satisfaction in a book anymore; hence, this post.

Donald Westlake has been around for years; I haven't read all of his books yet but I've read most of the Dortmunder series.  These books, centering around a group of bumbling thieves, is as close to slapstick as one gets in literature.  Dortmunder is just so pathetic -- but the situations he falls into are ridiculously amusing, and so are his friends.  I especially like Stan.

If you want to be amused in a useful sort of way, the nonfiction of Bill Bryson is the way to go.  Whether expounding on hiking the Appalachians (A Walk in the Woods), the English language (Mother Tongue), or the history of the home (At Home), he is relentlessly funny.  The only one that disappointed me was the one about the Royal Society; unfortunately he is capable of writing serious nonfiction when called to do it.  I, however, was unprepared for it; expecting a funny book I hurled it at the wall in disgust.  It didn't deserve that kind of treatment, as it was an excellent book of its kind, but it's all about expectations, you know.

This would really fall under the fantasy genre, but it's just too funny to leave out:  A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.  Some people actually think this is philosophy, so that's funny too.  Another fantasy author who is belly-laugh worthy is Terry Pratchett; his books are mostly based in the Discworld, a sort of parallel universe.  My favorite is Monstrous Regiment; I also loved The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, which is a young adult book.  It's actually the Pied Piper with a talking cat and some genius rats.  Just fabulous.

The difficulty here is that once one has read this supremely amusing book, it's never as funny the second time around.  So now it's your turn -- can you recommend any funny books for me?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Fantasy and Sci-Fi Post

I think that this genre is very "love it or hate it."  Readers who like fantasy can't get enough of it, will try practically any kind, and sometimes even write their own.  Those who don't can't stay far enough away.  There's a small, small subgroup in the middle, consisting of those who dip a toe in very cautiously and seldom:  that's where I fit in.  I'm not talking about juvenile fantasy a la Harry Potter -- adult fantasy and sci-fi is a completely different kettle of fish.  Being asked as a rational grown-up to suspend your disbelief and bear with the author for a while is a lot more difficult than whiling away a couple of hours with what is essentially a fairy tale.

I'm going to single out Mistwood, by Leah Cypess, not simply because it's a good read, but because I've known Leah practically forever and it tickles me to know a published author.  This is actually a Young Adult book; I enjoyed it and I'm waiting to buy the next book, Nightspell.  The books deal with shape-shifters, and have just the right amount of suspense and creepiness minus the gore you might find in an adult book of this kind.

I'm not sure how Tolkien would feel being relegated to second place here, but here he is:  The Lord of The Rings.  Somehow, TLOTR doesn't seem like fantasy to me -- it's almost like historical fiction.  Tolkien was, in fact, a historian, and he even created languages (with grammar!) for the different races he dreamed up.  The writing is absolutely beautiful, though I will admit the length is off-putting -- I would recommend getting it volume by volume rather than in the single book form.  I also recommend the movie, which I normally would never do, as movies based on books tend to completely ruin the book for me; this one, however, is terrific.

Isaac Asimov is always an easy choice.  He's written the same book about a hundred times, but always quite competently.  I prefer the Foundation series; also good is Caves of Steel.

One aspect of sci-fi that makes it a classic (or not) is the degree to which it actually anticipates the future.  I think that one element that keeps the classic Star Trek episodes constantly in reruns is the fact that so much of the technology used in the show is actually reality today.  On the other hand, books written years ago which failed to anticipate today's way of living tend to disappoint.  For example, The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, published in 1992, describes a near future in which time travel is possible, but fails to predict the wide usage of cell phones.  The first time I read this book I enjoyed it tremendously; one of the protagonists goes back to the Middle Ages and gets stuck at the time of the Black Death (also, sort of historical fiction).  I read it again and found it ridiculous -- back at Oxford, where they are desperately trying to retrieve the lost character, the other figures in the story race each other all over town, missing vital phone calls as they chase their tails.  The absence of something that is today ubiquitous seemed obvious and totally ruined the book for me.  Don't let it hold you back, though, if you want to try it.  Willis recently published two companion books which take place during WWII; some of the same characters time-travel back to the Blitz:  Blackout and All-Clear.  They're poorly edited and full of errors; don't bother.

Any opinions here?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Confession

Sometimes I read my kids' books.  Yes, that apostrophe is correctly placed -- I don't mean that I sometimes read books to my children (though I do, sometimes interminably) -- I sometimes find myself riffling through their piles of library books in search of a guilty pleasure.  Occasionally it's the result of a very dry week at the library, or a slew of incredibly depressing picks, read one after the other.  Other times, I'm just down in the dumps, and there's nothing like a couple of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books to lift one out of that state.  Very rarely, I spy a book that really looks interesting, and I squirrel it away to read it myself; I recently read the I, Q books,  which feature children + famous singers + terrorism.  Quite a good read, even if it is written for middle-schoolers.

By far the best books to read when one is blue, or bored, or desperate, are the books one is most familiar with.  I often go back to those I loved as a pre-teen; the ones I read over and over and formed so much of who I am today.  One of these is The Long Secret, the not-so-well-known companion novel to Harriet the Spy.  Another is The Night Journey, by Kathryn Lasky, which I don't know if I'd give my pre-teen daughter to read, but I still love to dip into.

Also good when I'm in that kind of mood are books that are so predictable one can figure out from the first page what the denouement will be, and one forgets the whole story within minutes of completing the book.  Often, these are books penned by authors who can only write one kind of story, so all their books are pretty much the same -- but so comforting, like hot soup.  One whose adult novels are now out of print, but is experiencing a renaissance as a childrens' writer is Eva Ibbotson.  Her adult novels used to be shelved with the bodice-rippers at the library I patronized as a teenager, but her books couldn't be more different.  They're all at some point before 1940, and tend to wander around Europe a bit.  There's always a nice female protagonist who's rather special in some way (this varies); a man or two is involved, and one is really nice.  Even the one who isn't nice isn't especially nasty.  My personal favorite is Madensky Square, but the others are just as good (and just the same, I might add).

I can't sign off without mentioning Rosamund Pilcher.  Her books are so comfortingly written, and her characters so likeable, that the reader finds herself (sorry, really not "guy" books) condoning the most immoral behavior on their parts.  I must have read The Shell Seekers fify times; it's a great beach book because it's set in Cornwall. 

So now it's your turn -- what are your guilty pleasures?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Brave Mom Writes "Brave Girl Eating"

This is, emphatically, not the type of book I typically select.  In fact, I've been seeing it on the library new book shelf for the last couple of weeks, and passing it by.  However, this week I took it out, and read it, and now I'm writing about it.  In part, this is my way of marking Mother's Day on my blog (why not?), but the impetus to actually read this book came from the fact that I was recently touched, quite indirectly, by the death of a friend's friend who was rumored to have suffered from anorexia most of her short life.
What I know about anorexia is fairly limited -- it's taught in the Abnormal Psychology class that was a requirement; nowadays most schools try to educate their female students about eating disorders, but this was not something that was talked about -- not out loud -- when I was a teenager.  It is also poorly understood; not just by the layman, but by experts as well.  The theories I learned in college are no longer in vogue and have been replaced by a new set, perhaps more valid, perhaps not.
Harriet Brown pens this memoir of her experiences with her daughter, Kitty, with remarkable aplomb.  What must have been a gut-wrenching experience for her comes through so remarkably and believably, the reader wants to reach through the pages and hug her.  Once Brown comes to the realization that her daughter has this terrible illness, she casts around for ways to help her.  Her choices at the time boil down to sending her away to a specialized residential clinic, or keeping her hospitalized on an outpatient basis.  Brown, helped by her sympathetic and ultra-competent pediatrician, decides on another path -- Family-Based Treatment, or the Maudsley approach.  This entails the support of the entire family, and their goal is to get Kitty to eat, whatever it takes.  This is much, much harder than it sounds.  At times, Brown writes of anorexia as a demon that has inhabited her daughter; she tries desperately to take her daughter's aggressive anxiety and separate it from the daughter she loves so much and whose life she actually saves.  Yes, saves -- this painful and wretched ordeal, calorie by calorie, saves Kitty's life, and gradually she begins to emerge whole again.
As a mother, I cried for Harriet Brown as I read her book, because (although I pray that I will never be tested) any mother should hope to do the right thing, as she did, even though it was so desperately hard.  The FBT was hard on Brown, it was terrible for her husband, it was traumatic to Kitty's younger sister, and it almost completely shattered any semblance of normal family life.  However, as a mother, she knew that this was her job, and that Kitty's mother, father, and sister were the ones to bring her back and rid her of the demon anorexia.  Anorexia has cruel statistics -- close to 20 percent of anorexics die, according to Brown, half of those from suicide.  Harriet Brown and her family continue to battle these statistics, as anorexia can be a lifetime disease, and they refuse to allow their child to become one of the 20 percent.

Gosh, what a downer.  I'll get a bit more cheerful now, and introduce another new book that I read over the weekend.  A Jane Austen Education:  How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter is pure fun for the Austen lover.  One of the only negative things about Austen is that she wrote only six books, and Janeites who finish all six are left with a craving for more.  This has led to a small industry in Austen copycats, mysteries featuring Austen characters (cringe), Austen sequels (gag), and Austen spoofs (actually, some of these aren't bad).  This isn't one of the above list.  This is the nonfictional account of William Deresiewicz, who started off his adult life as an immature, obnoxious pseudo-intellectual.  Forced to read Austen in college, he slowly comes to the realization that it is not chick-lit, it is quite relevant, and it helps him gradually reorient himself and become, in a word, a mentsh.  This is an entertaining and light read, and it has a lovely happy ending.  What more could you ask?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Asperger's in The Kitchen Daughter and The Way Things Look to Me

I've noticed an odd phenomenon -- occasionally, I'll take out a load of books from the library's 14-day bookshelf (new and bestseller list), choosing quite randomly because I'm rushed.  Then, I'll read my new stash, and gradually I'll find some odd similarity -- for example, all the books might feature abductions, or addictions, or dead pets.  Sometimes the connection is even more odd, and most of the books will feature a combination of events (Jews living in Northern Italy during the German occupation).  These similarities are never noted by me before I read the books; they're usually not notable enough to be included in the jacket blurb.  This week I read two books, actually quite dissimilar (both in quality and in plot) which shared one important characteristic:  both featured a prominent character with Asperger's Syndrome, and the plots both revolve around this character.

I read The Way Things Look to Me first; I've read Roopa Farooki's previous book, Bitter Sweets, and I thought it was excellent.  Her books feature characters who are Indian or Pakistani in ethnic origin, but who no longer live there.  The character in The Way Things Look to Me around whom the whole story (and all the characters) revolve is Yasmin, a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome.  Having lost both parents, Yasmin lives with her brother, Asif, who gave up his Cambridge education to return home and care for her after his mother dies.  Her sister, Lila, is more distant but also deeply tied to Yasmin; she bears the emotional scars of growing up in a home where the other siblings were sacrificed to the one with special needs.

I found this book to be very moving.  The characters aren't always likeable; at times Lila comes across as downright unbearable and Asif pathetically stuck in his role as martyred caregiver.  But it is a story that rings true, from Yasmin's narrated selections, which really do sound like those of a person who has great difficulty connecting to other people, to the raw pain and bitterness of her siblings.

The Kitchen Daughter did not provide the same experience.  In this book, the narrator has Asperger's Syndrome, which the reader is not made aware of in so many words.  Also, it seems that neither the narrator nor the narrator's family have any idea why she is different, which I find unlikely -- she apparently made it to adulthood with no diagnosis at all, even though she periodically hides in her parents' closet and has tantrums in public if people touch her.  The pivotal event in this book is the death of both her parents (yes, another coincidence) and Ginny turns to cooking for solace.  As she cooks from the recipes of her dead relatives, they appear to her on her kitchen stool with messages from beyond the grave, none of which make too much sense.  This story does not build up to much of anything, and it just did not ring true to me.  I did enjoy reading about the food she cooks, but she just doesn't come across as the character she is meant to be.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mysteries and Whodunits

Sometimes your head needs a little bit of a workout, but not the sort of exertion you'd need for, say, Kant or Sartre.  You've had a long day, you're tired, but you want a book to sink your teeth into and get the cerebral wheels turning.  That's when you really need a mystery to read.  There's so much variation out there that you'll find a lot of cross-genre mysteries to suit any taste, even chick lit! 
Start with the classics of mystery fiction --  one can't mention mystery without a bow to the master, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Author of some dubiously sci-fi books, his career really took off when he created Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes and his sidekick, Watson, live eternally in Doyle's short-story series, as well as his novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Study in Scarlet, and The Sign of Four.  Doyle also provided subsequent generations of mystery writers with the pattern of genius detective and somewhat dopey friend to serve as a kind of straight man.
Of course there's Agatha Christie as well, who created the characters of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.  I've always loved Miss Marple -- it's so easy to underestimate the scatty old lady knitting in the corner; however, she's nosey as anything and has a wealth of knowledge that no one would imagine her having at all.  Christie wrote prolifically, but the quality is a bit uneven.  (She was quite mysterious herself; she disappeared at some point during her adult life, reappearing later with no explanation).  I recommend as a start Murder on the Orient Express (with Poirot), At Bertram's Hotel (Miss Marple), and then you can take it from there.
I've mentioned Dorothy Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey before, so I won't get too fulsome here.  I'll only mention that The Nine Tailors is considered by many to be the finest and least solvable mystery ever written.
Other classic mystery writers include Josephine Tey, who didn't write enough of them to make me happy -- I've reread her Brat Farrar until it fell apart, and The Daughter of Time, in which Richard III has his character rehabilitated by a police detective stuck in the hospital, is generally considered one of the best mystery/historical novels ever written.
Not to neglect the American classic mysteries, it's worth trying Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries.  A more unpleasant, more brilliant, and fatter detective you will not find, but these books take the reader straight to 1920's New York City.
Moving along to our times, P.D. James has, at this point, donned the crown of mystery queen in Christie's place.  Also British, her mysteries feature Adam Dalgliesh, who is a far more complex character than any ever created by Christie.  James, I think, is really a very sophisticated writer who has chosen to write mysteries.  Sometimes a bit horrifying, her stories are the kind that keep you guessing, but not wildly.
I also like Robert Parker's books, which are not too complicated (anyone can pretty much solve them by the end of the first chapter) but are a delight to read.  The dialogue is hilariously written, and by the end of the book the reader thinks Spenser is a real person.  Last time I went to Boston I looked for him every time I saw someone walking a large black dog (in the books she's called Pearl).  Sadly, he died recently, so you'll have to make do with what he's written already.  Another similar writer is Bill Pronzini, whose Nameless Detective novels are terrific.  Interestingly enough, he's married to Marcia Muller, another well-known mystery writer, but I can't say I like her books as much as I like his.
This weekend I read Martha Grimes's latest, Fadeaway Girl.  I really prefer her Richard Jury series, but she's such a hoot to read that I enjoyed it anyway.  Grimes creates terrific characters -- each one has bizzare idiosyncrasies.  One doesn't read Grimes for the mystery; I think her books are more about the process.  Fadeaway Girl is the sequel to Belle Ruin, and is narrated by a twelve-year-old girl who works in her mother's hotel.  Among other responsibilities, she mixes novel cocktails for her Great-Aunt Aurora, who lives on the top floor.  Oh, and there are two characters, brothers called Ubub and Ulub (after their license plates -- don't ask) with speech impediments.  If you like Grimes, you're lucky -- she's written a lot of books.
A new mystery series I've gone through recently features Flavia De Luce, a ten-year-old growing up in '50's Britain who makes her debut in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  No, it's not for children.  Flavia plays with chemicals as a hobby.  There are at least two more of these by Alan Bradley, and he seems to be on a roll.
I'll stop here, because otherwise I could go on all day, but if you have comments, questions, or special requests, please post in the comments section.  Also, try to think of any contributions you could make to my Guilty Pleasures post!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

What I Read This Weekend

This post is going to present a sort of smorgasbord of reading material; I had some themes in mind, but I got wrapped up in several books I read over the past two days.  Which reminds me -- before I launch into the meat and potatoes of this post, I would like to address a personal issue.  Since I began this blog, I've been frequently asked, "When do you find time to read?" and variations of that question, many asked in a borderline insulting way, have been getting to me.  I've said this before:  people make time for the pastimes they most want to do.  Some of you crochet, cook fiddly and complicated meals, carve watermelons (if you don't know what I'm talking about, don't ask, you'll never understand), exercise at the gym daily, paint, shop obsessively, surf the net -- you get my point.  If those are your favorite pastimes, you find time to do them, and more power to you.  I like to read.  I like reading better than any of the above.  So put a sock in it, please.

Back to business -- I started my weekend reading with Suffer the Children, by Marilyn Wedge.  A family therapist, Wedge proposes a whole new way of viewing the psychological maladies that are so often diagnosed in children today.  While I found her writing style to be a bit self-aggrandizing, her methods seem so sensible and down-to-earth when compared to the veritable frenzy of medicating that we seem to be doing lately.  In many cases where a child is displaying behavioral symptoms, Wedge finds that it is often a function of how the family is doing holistically.  For this reason, Wedge often meets with the parents alone after initially meeting the child, and she has, in many cases, treated a child successfully by addressing problems in the parents' marriage, for example.  Other situations included a child who was on the verge of being diagnosed as ADHD and on the autistic spectrum, whom she discovered was simply very nearsighted and no one had noticed.  It's a must-read for any educator, and if you're a parent, it will really make you think.  I know it gave me much food for thought.

A couple of fun books I got through this afternoon included The Peach Keeper,  by Sarah Addison Allen, and Friendship Bread, by Darien Gee.  Friendship Bread is a fluffy confection of a feel-good book; it features estranged sisters, more than one character with a tragic loss, a flood, and lots of talk about cake.  I can't resist books that talk about cake; it's almost as good as eating it.  Of course there's a lovely happy ending, but it's a worthwhile read just for the occasional funny parts -- Gee does a great job of spreading out the laugh-out-loud bits while keeping the tone fairly serious.  You don't want to miss the part where two characters are having a pregnancy-test marathon, one thrilled and the other disbelieving.
The Peach Keeper, on the surface, seems to be much the same, but a few pages in it becomes evident that this book has a touch of something different.  In a way it reminded me of Chocolat, which had an undercurrent of magical menace; The Peach Keeper has this supernatural vein running just below the surface; blink and you might miss it.  It's the story of a southern town, ladies' society and all, where an old mansion is being regentrified into a posh bed-and-breakfast, and old classmates return and reunite in unexpected ways.  Sounds familiar, no?  Throw in a corpse under a peach tree, and some weird poltergeist-like events, and that's the book.  I enjoyed it, even though I didn't expect to like it much.

I just put down another new book I wasn't wild about, but I'll mention it here because I have a feeling it will be talked about -- these types of books that feature historical figures, weird characters, and lots of subtext usually are.  Mr. Chartwell, by Rebecca Hunt, features the about-to-retire Winston Churchill.  If you're into that period of history, you may know that Churchill was prone to periods of depression; he called it his "black dog."  Well, Mr. Chartwell is the physical manifestation of that Black Dog.  He's on the cover as well.  At the opening of the story, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in the house of a widow, Esther Hammerhans, whose own loss is not immediately revealed.  Over the course of the story, Esther and Churchill are drawn together, albeit briefly.  It's not a comfortable story to read.  Some parts are downright disgusting (he is a large black dog, living in a house); but for the most part, it's not really a book to inspire and exalt the spirit.  Like the Black Dog, it depresses one.  However, because this shows every sign of being an Important Book, you may as well read it and seem to be up on things in the literary world.

I'm planning a post on Guilty Pleasures in reading -- I'd appreciate any comments and suggestions you'd send my way.  Think of the books that you feel a little sheepish reading, that you wouldn't necessarily flaunt but are just the thing for a bubble bath or with cake and tea late at night.  Thank you!