Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mrs Hughes, I need to steal you for a minute. I have to check the linen books.

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Story:
The third part of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo saga. Resumes after the events in Played With Fire and concludes that story.

The Review:
I really liked it. As I read I was constantly feeling like What just happened? Seriously? Where did that come from? and Ooh, smart!

From all of that, you should understand that it kept me on my toes and guessing about how everything was going to work out. I really didn't know, and didn't even have many good guesses. It was clever and engaging and I very much enjoyed it.

Again, I recommend it with the caveat that you have to be ok with violence, language, and sex.

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

The Story:
A true-crime novel about a multiple murders that occurred in Western Kansas in 1959. Four members of the Clutter family were murdered in their home by two men who had been paroled from the Kansas Penitentiary. The story begins with the family and the murder and then follows the work of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to find the men, their capture, trial, and sentencing.

The Review:
It's a fascinating story. It is so brutal and the murders are so cold about it that there is just something that draws you in to the tale, even though it is terrible.

Capote has an interesting way of keeping himself out of the story, but there are a few moments when I realized how often he must have interviewed these guys and how much time he actually spent with them. It's kind of amazing. And I found myself almost more interested in that than in the actual story -- why did Capote get so interested in this story that he didn't have any real ties to, and how did the researching go, how much time did he really spend with these guys? And none of that is in the book at all.

 It's a fascinating story. Through some of the middle, I got a little bored because I didn't have any sympathy at all for the murderers. In fact, I really didn't like them at all, so I didn't want to read about them anymore. But I really liked the ending. I think it was a nice way to end and have kind of a tribute.

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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Story:
A distopian world in which the premises are based mostly on Biblical readings of the roles of women. For some, not fully determined, reason, the birthrate has plummeted. There are suggestions of nuclear fallout being the cause, but also women are blamed. So the government is taken over, the society is restructured, and roles for women are redefined. Our narrator, who we only know as Offred, is a Handmaid like in the Biblical stories of Sarah who gives Hagar and Leah and Rachel who give their handmaids to have children when they can't.

The Review:
A fascinating and horrifying look at a distopian future. It's an interesting commentary on how women are valued/devalued by society, both today and in this possible future. It's got a striking commentary about the current situation for women, and also a striking commentary about how women are treated and used in the distopia (Gilead).

The structure and telling of the story is also interesting and I particularly like how Atwood/the narrator embeds a discussion of how stories are told, how we discuss them, and how our memories are actually recreations.

I'm glad I finally read this one, it will keep me thinking for a while. I definitely recommend it (of course with the usual caveats about violence, sex, and language).

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Story:
In this autobiography, Angelou begins with her memory of being sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother when her parents get divorced. She then tells the story of her life until she is sixteen years old.

The Review:
Things seem to all come together and happen at the same time for me. So when my Lit class was reading The Catcher in the Rye, I had just finished reading Out of Africa, which Holden mentions reading. Then the last two weeks we have been reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harper Lee worked as a researcher on In Cold Blood, which I read for book club and one of my students presented on. So at the same time I was reading this, one of my students presented on Angelou's poem by the same name. All interesting intersections.

On to the book itself. It dragged a bit in the middle, enough that I actually thought about not continuing with the book. But I ended up liking it. Angelou is forthright and it's an important perspective. She has moments within the narrative where she ponders life and blackness and why things are the way they are that are poignant and touching, but also thought-provoking.

I recently heard a student comment about Latino writing that it is not his experience so he doesn't like it and just isn't interested, and I was disturbed because I think the beauty of reading and literature is that we get to experience other people's experiences/lives/point of view. And this book allowed me to do that.

I recommend it (always with the usual caveat).

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Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

The Story:
A journalist returns home to her small Missouri town to investigate the murders of two little girls.

The Review:
I wanted to read something less heavy and serious, so I picked up this because I'd been thinking about Gone Girl while I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

Warning! This is super dark and quite disturbing! Super, super dark.

I'm not completely sure what I think of it. It was riveting. I read it in three days and it moved super fast, because those three days were days I didn't have a lot of time to read. The violence against female characters was horrible and disturbing. But one of the things that bothered me was that I didn't feel as horrified as maybe I should have, and I decided that was because the characters didn't really fit their actual age, so it made the horror harder to see.

I was irritated by the main character's poor decisions. I understand why the events happened and why those decisions were made, but that didn't keep me from thinking she's an idiot. And it didn't keep me from not liking her very much.

And there weren't as many turns as I thought there would be, or as I expected from the writer of Gone Girl. I knew fairly early who the killer was.

Final thoughts: If you are looking for something super dark and disturbing to read, go for it!

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The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Story:
Gregor wakes up one morning to find he has turned into a giant bug.

The Review:
Kim read this in her short story class and it is on my list of books to read, so I got it.

What a weird little story. Gregor ruins his life and his family's life by becoming a giant bug. I get the commentary and why this is important, but really? It's weird. I managed to feel a little bad for the characters, but not a lot bad. There were a lot of interesting things to think about, but mostly this made me think of the children's book Imogene's Antlers.

Product Details Which is a hilarious take on sort of the same problem.

If you are trying to feel well-read and this is on your list, go for it. It's short and easy to read.

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Candide by Voltaire

The Story:
A young man Candide is cast out of the home he has been taken into and where he has been raised and goes on many adventures.

The Review:
Another weird little story.

The point is optimism versus pessimism versus you create your own destiny. So Candide has been trained by a philosopher who believes that everything happens for the best. But in his adventures many trials and bad things happen to Candide, so he questions the philosophy and almost begins to agree with a friend who is a pessimist. But the conclusion is that we have to create our own happiness.

It's a lovely message, but the way to get there was totally bizarre. And yes, I am going to judge Voltaire out of his time period, but it is a totally weird idea to have characters go to El Dorado and find an ancient Incan land untouched by foreigners where they serve European food and live in European style houses and wear European style clothes.

Again, if you are trying to feel well-read and this is on your list, go for it. It's short and easy to read.

A closing thought that is slightly separate from the reviews. I don't know if you noticed, but almost everything on this list is about, or contains a lot of violence toward women. What is up with that? Why is that what I am continually reading? I'm trying to choose a happier book for my next one. If you have suggestions, I'd love to hear them. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Did you say it? Make a plan. Set a goal. Work toward it. But every now and then look around.

Sometimes I feel like there are so many books that I haven't read. And sometimes I feel like all the books that I haven't read are big books -- not big as in size but big as in big deal. Sometimes this really embarrasses me, because I feel like as an English professor, I should definitely at some point have read all of the big deal books.

Combine that feeling with the feeling that I get sometimes that I don't read fantastic books. -- Don't get me wrong! I read some fantastic and amazing books that I have certainly loved. -- But sometimes I read 2 or 3 or even 4 sort of duds in a row, and I start to feel like wow, I just want some good books in my life.

And so, not fully knowing where to turn, I start seeking out lists. Lists of the top 100 books, lists of the books you should read, should have read, everyone has read, etc.

On Smart People Podcast, I heard an interview with Kevin Smokler who wrote a book called Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School.

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I checked out the book from the library and decided it would be a good place to start, because it has all kinds of big deal books that are commonly taught, but he's also chosen ones that still have some kind of resonance or value for adults. So I went through the book and made a list of all the books he highlights that I have never read. This book list is now my goal for a while.

I'm including the list below. Obviously I'll keep you posted on how I'm doing as I post my reviews. If you see something on the list that is absolutely not worth my time, please please please let me know.

The List:
1. Candide -- Voltaire (Click here for my review)
2. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter -- McCuller
3. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings -- Angelou (Click here for my review)
4. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven -- Alexie (Click here for my review)
5. Autobiography of Malcolm X
6. The Age of Innocence -- Wharton
7. Surfacing -- Atwood
8. The Handmaid's Tale -- Atwood (Click here for my review)
9. Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep? -- Dick
10. Labyrinths -- Borges
11. The Bell Jar -- Plath
12. Portnoy's Complaint -- Roth
13. Cannery Row -- Steinbeck
14. And the Band Played On -- Shilts
15. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again -- Wallace (Click here for my review)
16. Master Harold... and the Boys -- Fugard
17. Fahrenheit 451 -- Bradbury (Click here for my review)
18. The Metamorphosis -- Kafka (Click here for my review)
19. The Phantom Tollbooth -- Juster
20. Camp -- Sontag
21. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction -- Benjamin
22. Understanding Media -- McLuhan
23. The Stranger -- Camus
24. The Lottery -- Jackson (Click here for my review)
25. Bastard Out of Carolina -- Allison
26. Leaves of Grass -- Whitman
27. Emily Dickinson (Yeah, Smokler doesn't give something specific here, so I'll probably just go with a "Collected Works" or something. Needs more research).
28. The Day of the Locust -- West
29. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek -- Dillard
30. The Things They Carried -- O'Brien (Click here for my review)
31. Animal Farm -- Orwell (Click here for my review)
32. The Crying of Lot 49 -- Pynchon
33. The Remains of the Day -- Ishiguro

These are in no particular order, and I'll read them in any order. For the moment, I've started just by looking at the beginning of the list and searching to see what I can check out as an ebook from the library. So I'm starting with The Handmaid's Tale and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Friday, October 4, 2013

If the history books are full of them, I'd say they already are.

A new month started this week. How did that happen? Where did September go?

In honor of the new month (which I'm going to be able to catch up on and believe at some point), I thought I would let you in on all the things I've been reading over the past month.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Book 1 of the Millennium Trilogy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Story:
A journalist is approached and asked to investigate a family mystery. As he gets farther and farther in, he discovers that this is not merely a family mystery important only to those who hired him, but that it is a huge mystery with far-reaching effects. He calls in help in the form of Lisbeth Salander a "researcher."

The Review:
Ok, I know I'm late to this party. I just wasn't sure that this was really going to be my thing. I'd heard that it was super dark and super violent, and a lot of the time I don't seek that out in my pleasure-reading.

I liked it. It's a good mystery and really engaging. At first I wasn't sure about Lisbeth Salander, she's a really odd character, but I wound up really liking her. The book reminded me of Gone Girl with the dark subject matter and twists, but it was less crazy. When I got to the end, I really enjoyed it, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to read the other books in the trilogy. I wanted to know what happened to Lisbeth, but I'm satisfied with the book.

I recommend this only if you can handle extreme violence described graphically and a lot of profanity.

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The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Story:
Set a few years after the Titanic sank, Grace is sailing with her new husband back to New York when their ship sinks. She is thrown onto a lifeboat with 39 others and this is the story of their time at sea.

The Review:
I enjoyed the style. Grace writes a diary/journal of events and her style is very simple and straightforward. The parts on the lifeboat were a little "Life of Pi"-ish. For example, in order to survive they catch fish and birds to eat, so it's the same event/experience as "Life of Pi," but without the beauty of the writing of "Life of Pi."

Grace is writing the journal after the fact while she sits in prison waiting for her trial. The parts about the trial were interesting, but made Grace seem a little mercenary and manipulative. So as a reader, I'm not sure she was really likable and I found myself frustrated with her.

At the end, it was a good book that had me asking many questions, but it isn't one I would read again.

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The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Story:
A retelling of Jane Eyre.

The Review:
I don't fully understand the need for a retelling like this. It was the same story with a change in time (set in the 1950's) that wasn't obvious or big. She still doesn't deal with modern conveniences like phones and her life remains pretty much the same as it was. I don't mind retellings or reimaginings, but there needs to be some substantial difference -- like telling the story from a completely new perspective. Instead of working through Jane's eyes, go the route of "The Wide Sargasso Sea" and tell it from Bertha's view.

The other major issue with this retelling was the biggest change was to get rid of the wife/madwoman in the attic. While I can understand a young reader's frustration with that plotline (like being frustrated with the Lydia/Wickham plotline in Pride and Prejudice), it's vitally important! Without that, Jane (Gemma Hardy in this version) has no reason to run away from Mr. Rochester! (Ok, I don't usually use the exclamation points in these reviews, you should know there's something seriously wrong). It was a stupid change.

Final word: Did not like it. Do not recommend it.

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The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser

The Story:
A non-fiction account of the theft of paintings and other art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

The Review:
Remember a couple months ago when I read The Art Forger?  After I thought about that book for a while, I decided that as interesting as that fictional account was, and as much as I enjoyed the stories about the forgeries, what was even more fascinating there was the completely true story of the heist itself -- which remains unsolved to this day. It's amazing!

So I came across the title for this book, and immediately wanted to read it. And I was right. The true story is more fascinating than The Art Forger. So much is known and the author writes a great, entertaining account of the various characters who are suspects and those who just get sucked in.

It's honestly an hommage to the power of art, a look at the seedy underworld, and a journey through obsession. I highly recommend it.

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The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Story:
A lighthouse keeper and his wife live on a tiny island off of the coast of Australia where two oceans meet. One day a boat washes up that has a dead man and a live baby in it. The wife takes the baby and chooses to keep her without letting her husband tell anyone what they have found.

The Review:
Just reading-wise, this was hard to get into. It is pretty stilted in its descriptions and has a lot of jumps. The paragraphs often are very short and bounce from one subject to a new one immediately.

I had a very difficult time feeling connected to the characters. I wanted to feel bad for them because they went through so much difficulty and I wanted to want them to be able to find a bit of happiness, but mostly I felt disconnected and didn't care. I think this was partly because of the style, and partly because the book is often told from Tom's perspective and he is completely disconnected, and partly because they were making really wonky choices.

I don't really recommend this.

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Eighty Days by Mathew Goodman

The Story:
The true story of two female journalists, Nelllie Bly and Elisabeth Bisland, who set out to circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days. Bly begins first and sets her goal at 75 days and Bisland follows her (going west to Bly's east) and wants to beat her.

The Review:
Fascinating story. It's amazing that these two very young women set out alone to travel around the world at that time period and did so in trains and ships and boats.

Unfortunately, it was a very boring telling of a fascinating tale. Goodman inserted so much information into this story that it was constantly completely off topic and really bogged down with unnecessary details. Also unfortunately, I got so annoyed with the women because they were such typical American travelers who expect everything around the world to be like American and to conform to them. They were in amazing places, but didn't take the opportunity to sightsee and appreciate the new cultures and the differences. I got really frustrated.

I don't recommend this.

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The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Story:
Book 2 of the Millenium Series about Lisbeth Salander. A mystery is revealed when Salander is accused of a double murder.

The Review:
I went to book club, and my friends have talked about reading this series, so I asked them if it was worth continuing. Joanna said that she liked the second and third books much better than the first. The first was good, but it was mostly set up and an introduction to the character of Lisbeth Salander and in the second and third books, she really gets to shine.

So I picked up the second book. And couldn't put it down. I was completely shocked by one development after another. Just when I thought I had a handle on things, something else happened that caused a major twist. Again, I will compare it to Gone Girl. It was a great book and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

I recommend it, again, only with the warning that you need to be able to deal with extreme and gruesome violence and profanity.