Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Tens of 2009

The year's nearly over, and it is so fun to look back and remember all the books I've read -- 133, and counting (might get up to 135 by the end of the week!).  Some great books, some mediocre ones, but overall, a good year.  There's really no fair way to compare say, Steinbeck to Suzanne Collins, so I've taken a cue from Suey and created four different lists.  Since I've read more than 100 books this year, I think it's pretty reasonable.  And how could I narrow it down to just 10 anyhow?

Top 10 Adult Current Fiction/Nonfiction

1. A Very Long Engagment by Sebastien Japrisot -- why did I wait so long to read this book?

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
3. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynn -- again, kicking myself for waiting so long.  This book sat on my shelf untouched for about 15 years.  I loved it!
4. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
5. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper -- irreverent, bawdy, hilarious
6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini -- I was dreading it after The Kite Runner, but I couldn't put it down.
7. The Family Man by Elinor Lipman
8. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
10. In the Woods by Tana French -- a good thriller, if slightly frustrating.

Top 10 Juvenile/YA
1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak -- I cried like a baby at the end.
2. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead -- my top pick for the Newbery Award
3. The Hunger Games/Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
4. The Dead and the Gone and Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer -- engrossing and scary.  Made me want to go out and stock up on canned goods and batteries.
5. The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich -- the Native American side to all the Little House books. 
6. Pedro and Me by Judd Winick
7. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples -- a great feminist YA book, and a great look at life in the Middle East.
8. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis -- made me laugh and cry.
9. The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiminez
10. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Top 10 Classics:

1. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell -- the perfect book for the Jane Austen fan.

2.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens -- made me into a Dickens fan.
3.  The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
4.  Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster -- the book that made me start blogging.  Undeservedly ignored by readers today.
5. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope  -- still reading it, but I love it already.
6. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton -- not her best, but still a fascinating character study.
7.  Elizabeth in Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
8. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell -- not so much like the miniseries, but gently humorous and endearing.
9. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
10. Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
11. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins -- the groundbreaking sensational novel of the Victorian era.  Brilliant cliffhangers.  (Sorry, I couldn't stop at just ten!)

Best Rereads of 2009

1. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton -- so bleak and tragic, but I can't stop reading it. 
2. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones -- give this to all the Harry Potter fans who need a new author to love.
3. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham -- Kitty is another heroine who needs a good sharp slap, but her personal development makes for a great read.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier -- poor Mrs. de Winter.  Best Gothic novel, ever.  The great plot twists overshadow some beautiful writing.
5. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
7. Emma by Jane Austen -- I want to smack her, but I still love her.
8. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (OK, so it's seven books. Forgive me.)
9. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Swag

Wow, I really cleaned up on Christmas!!  NINE new books, all of which are fantastic.  Here's the rundown:

-- Two books by Pearl S. Buck:  Peony and East Wind, West Wind.  Very exciting!!  I loved The Good Earth, and I got to visit Pearl S. Buck's home in Pennsylvania when I was at the JASNA meeting in October -- if you're ever in Bucks County, it is so worth the trip.  Her home and history are fascinating, and I was itching to catalog her library!  Unfortunately the gift shop has very few of her books for sale, but that's easily remedied.

-- More teeny tiny portable editions of Jane Austen:  Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility  -- my three favorites.  Great for putting in a purse or carry-on.  There's no excuse not to read while waiting in the doctor's office, in line at the post office, etc.  And they're illustrated!  And have cute little ribbon bookmarks.  Too cute.

-- The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier.  An Englishman visiting France meets his double, who then steals his identity.  Great concept, with hints of A Tale of Two Cities.  But creepier.

And now for the nonfiction:

-- In Morocco by Edith Wharton -- one of the first, if not THE first, travel books on Morocco.  Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, writing about Morocco, a place I've always wanted to visit.  What could be better?

-- Tea With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson -- a great little cookbook with traditional recipes adapted for modern cooks, plus excerpts from Austen's works and letters, etc.  Plus cute illustrations.

And finally. . . A Christmas Carol Keepsake by Dr. Elliot Engel, a Dickens scholar.  It includes the abridged version of A Christmas Carol that Dickens used for his performances of the novel, plus Victorian Christmas recipes, games, crafts, etc., and all kinds of interesting tidbits.  This was a fantastic gift from my mom, who had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Engel speak at her library.  And it's a signed copy!!!  

Plus, my stocking was filled with teeny author puppets from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild. My favorites: Oscar Wilde, Zora Neale Hurston, and Edgar Allen Poe.  And Santa also included The Scream, just because it's funny. 

My biggest problem now:  not enough space on the bookshelves.  Dear Santa, please bring me more bookcases next year!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Wow, I really needed this book. 

This book has been sitting on my to-read pile for a couple of weeks, and I came thisclose to returning it to the library unread -- it had been on my hold queue for so long, I'd forgotten why I put it on reserve.  Last night, on a whim, I picked it up, and I honestly can't remember the last time I laughed so hard reading a book.  More than a year, I'm sure.  I laughed so hard my kids were staring at me, my husband was staring at me, and I'm pretty sure the dog was staring too.  If I'd been on an airplane I would have been completely embarassed.

Unfortunately, I can't go too much into this book without spoiling it, and that would be so wrong of me.  I'm terrible at repeating jokes, I ruin them without fail.  But I'll give a basic synopsis:  Judd Foxman, his siblings, in-laws, and mother are sitting shiva for his late father, per his dying request (which is ironic because Dad basically didn't believe in God anymore).  Nevertheless, this dysfunctional family is back together for the first week in ages, and it shows.  They really, truly, put the fun in dysfunctional. 

Let's face it, every family has problems.  But the Foxman family, besides the patriarch's slow, painful death from stomach cancer, is dealing with divorce, infidelity, infertility, drug problems, a struggling business. . . stuff that sounds extremely realistic and depressing.  Oh, and did I mention Judd and his wife have been separated since he caught her in an, um, extremely compromising position. . . with his boss?  Plus, the soon-to-be-ex drops a major bombshell on him just before he leaves for the funeral.  Yeah, his life sucks.

Somehow, Tropper manages to intertwine all the family horrors and tragedies with moments of outright hilarity.  Mom is the bestselling author of a beloved parenting manual, which includes the most embarassing anecdotes ever about all four children; Wendy, the oldest, is struggling with three small children and an egotistical fund-manager husband who won't get off the phone; the ne'er-do-well youngest brother Phillip shows up with his life coach/fiancee; middle brother Paul is still bitter about taking over the family business after his sports career was destroyed. . . not to mention colorful neighbors, a rabbi with an R-rated nickname, and various friends and relatives who straggle in to pay their respects to the deceased.  Yet, none of the hilarity descends into farce, and the family's serious problems are dealt with honesty that's never maudlin. 

A warning:  this book is not for those who are easily offended.  It's pretty explicit, especially regarding  Judd's love life and raging libido, plus some drug references and scatalogical humor.  But if this doesn't bother you, it will definitely put your family's problems into perspective -- a great choice for the holidays when most people are stressing and a lot of people are downright depressed. 

According to the book's jacket, This is Where I Leave You is already being adapted into a movie, which doesn't surprise me in the least. As I read this book, it reminded me of two movies: Death at a Funeral, the 2007 black comedy; and A Christmas Tale, a French film starring Catherine Deneuve which has been in my DVD player for about five days -- it's 2 1/2 hours and there's only so much Gallic dysfunction I can take in one sitting. However, isn't nearly as silly as the first and is a whole lot more enjoyable than the second.  I'd recommend reading this book before the Hollywood producers get their hands on it and ruin it.

Friday, December 18, 2009



Oh, joy of joys! My Secret Santa swap arrived, and I love it! It's an ARC of a brand new book, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. I am just tickled because a) I am a huge Janeite -- just went to my local JASNA meeting on Sunday, which was great fun -- and b)because I just saw the first book at the library this week! I was drooling over it but decided to restrain myself. It looks very fun -- in the first book, a modern LA girl wakes up in Regency England, so it's the whole fish-out-of-water scenario. I think I'd enjoy this, because I really liked the Regency House miniseries from the BBC that we watched in our Jane Austen book group -- a pretty accurate assessment of what life was really like in Jane Austen's time. And I loved Lost in Austen as well.

This book is the sequel, in which a young lady from Regency England wakes up in 21st century L.A. Now that would be a rude awakening! At any rate, I am delighted to get an early Christmas present -- I just couldn't wait until next week to open it. Thank you, Secret Santa!!!!! And please send me your blog or email address so I can write a proper thank you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

I’m reviewing this book together with my good friend Amanda of The Zen Leaf.

Synopsis:  Set in the 1920s in England, Hong Kong, and China, The Painted Veil is the story of  Kitty Fane. Young, beautiful, and shallow, she marries Walter Fane after realizing she was running out of time and needed to catch a husband quickly.  After a short courtship, she accompanies Walter to Hong Kong where he is working as a bacteriologist. She soon becomes bored with Walter, and has an affair with a diplomat. Walter discovers her infidelity and decides to punish her by forcing her to accompany him on a dangerous medical mission to a cholera-stricken village in China. Oddly enough the worst circumstances bring out the best in Kitty.
Amanda: Hi Karen! Thanks for buddy-reviewing with me!
I think I want to start out by talking about William Somerset Maugham. I first read one of his books in January 2001 – Mrs. Craddock – and fell in love with it. I’ve since read 12-15 of his books, several of them more than once. He’s one of my favorite classic authors. His books are easy to read and well thought out. The Painted Veil is one of my favorites of his. This is the third time I’ve read it, and I think I love it just a little bit more with each reread! So how did you discover Maugham?
Karen: I discovered Maugham back when I was a freshman in college. I had a huge crush on a boy in my dorm who had read Maugham the year before in a lit class. He insisted on lending me Of Human Bondage to read during the winter break. Of course, since I was crushing on him, I had to read it, and I loved it. It was one of the first classics I read for pleasure. I didn’t read any more Maugham until I met the man who is now my husband, also a Maugham fan — The Razor’s Edge is one of his favorite books. (Obviously, I’m attracted to men with great taste in literature!) So I read Razor’s Edge, and a couple others, but then I didn’t read hardly any more Maugham for quite awhile. Then, in 2008, our classics reading group chose the books for this year, but The Painted Veil wasn’t scheduled for almost a year! I couldn’t wait that long and read it right away. It’s just as good the second time around.
I agree, Maugham’s works are not difficult reads. I’ve been reading quite a few Victorian authors this year, so he’s really a refreshing change. I remember that I was pleasantly surprised at how easy Of Human Bondage was — it’s quite long, more than 600 pages (depending on the edition), yet it’s pretty fast for such a long book. The Painted Veil is much shorter, only about 250 pages, and I could probably read the whole thing in one day.
Amanda: One of the things I find most fascinating about Maugham was how little respected he was amongst his fellow authors. He was a pulp novelist. Often his writing tended more toward the cliche, and his prose was straightforward. With people like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Woolf as contemporaries, he was looked down on for not being experimental like them. He was old fashioned. But really, it was his straightforward, easy prose that hooked me on classics. Without him, I’m not sure what sort of reader I’d be today, or if I’d be a reader at all.
So. The Painted Veil. I loved it. All three times. One of my favorite things about it is the characterization. Each character is so round. None of them are all good or all evil. I personally find Kitty obnoxious, and really sympathize with her husband, but others might find Walter cruel and callous. Personally, I understood him and while I didn’t think he always made the best of judgments, I really admired his dedication to the people he was taking care of. What did you think of the characters?
Karen: There aren’t that many characters, but I agree, they’re well-rounded, especially Kitty. When I started the book, I really wanted to smack her, but I kept on reading — which just shows what a great writer Maugham was. These are seriously flawed people, yet the story is so fascinating that it holds the reader.
Anyway, I’ve really been thinking about some of these flawed characters lately, I’ll probably write a blog entry about it soon. I always think of them as Fascinating Train Wrecks. However, I’m not sure if I’d put Kitty in this category, because she actually makes changes to try and improve the situation. She’s proactive, and as annoying as she was, I actually ended up respecting her. Not that she’s perfect, she still makes mistakes, but you can see at the end that there’s hope for her.
So, Amanda, what did you think of Walter? Did he deserve Kitty?

Amanda: I think the real question is – did Kitty deserve Walter? Taking them back, prior to the affair and him taking her to the cholera epidemic. Walter is smart, hardworking, and sensitive. He has a very hard time relating to other people, and he has no patience for frivolity and social customs. Kitty, on the other hand, is empty-headed, self-centered, and a bit of a bimbo. Why he ever fell in love with her is beyond me – I suppose we can’t always explain why we fall in love with someone – but I think it’s interesting that he went into the whole marriage with his eyes open. He knew what she was. He knew she was like a doll – beautiful but empty. He was willing to put up with that in order to be near her, and he was always very kind. I don’t think Kitty ever realized – not even at the end – how badly she hurt him. She kept thinking it was pride, that her infidelity didn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, but to him, it killed his love.
I do think she became a better person, to a certain degree, but even at the end, she’s still selfish. I hope she’ll be better, and I do like that she plans to have daughters and raise them to be strong and smart, unlike her. That brings up another point, though – I thought this book said a lot of interesting things about the role of women at the time. It seems to take place in a very transitional time when women were gaining some independence but could not entirely be strong. Did you feel Maugham had a feminist slant in mind when he wrote it?
Karen: I think Kitty’s definitely less selfish at the end than at the beginning. Without spoilers, there are several instances when she tries deliberately not to hurt people. And she’s much better at reading people, and reacting to them.
The feminist angle didn’t strike me at all when I read it, but I can see it as a possibility. There are some strong female characters — even the Mother Superior, and Charlie’s wife Dorothy. They’re in traditional roles, nun and wife, but they’re a lot stronger than Charlie and maybe even Walter. I wish Maugham had developed Walter a little more. I think he was the least developed of the main characters. My favorite male character was definitely Waddington, but he was also tragic in his own way. Do you think in general the male characters were as well developed as the female?
Amanda: I actually thought Walter was very well developed, but that might be because of how much I could understand him. He wasn’t traditionally developed – it was just a brushstroke of information spattered here and there throughout the novel, leading to a whole picture. I think about things and feel things in very much the same way he does, so it was easy for me to relate to him and make a full picture of him in my mind, I suppose. I could see other people relating to him less, though, because he’s the sort of personality that many people have trouble relating to in real life. I think Maugham wrote the social awkwardness well.
I have read, though, that Maugham tended to understand women better than men in his own life, so it’s possible that’s why the women characters felt more developed. I loved the Mother Superior. I don’t normally like reading about Catholics, having grown up Catholic, but the Sisters in that convent were so different from traditional Catholics. Take, for example, one of my favorite quotes from the book:
Beauty is also a gift of God, one of the most rare and precious, and we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that others possess it for our pleasure.
I love this. This goes against most traditional viewpoints of beauty. Most books treat beauty either as a precursor to emptyheadedness, or as a great evil. To hear someone speak this way – especially the head of a Catholic convent – is just amazing. I loved that the Sisters were so open, forgiving, and loving. They were the very picture of charity. Even though normally I don’t like to read much about religion in books, the passages with the Sisters just blew me away and I think they played an integral role in how much Kitty changed. What do you think?
Karen: I completely agree! They’re much more forgiving than Catholics are usually portrayed. It’s no wonder Kitty was really drawn to them. I wish I knew them! And I loved that quote also. I don’t normally make notes when I write, but I think I have to go back with sticky notes and tab all the passages I loved in this book.
One thing that did bother me about this book was the racist way in which the Chinese are portrayed, mostly the way they’re described — ugly, yellow, etc. That’s the one thing that really put me off in this book. But it’s possible that Maugham was merely reflecting the attitude of the British of that time, or Kitty’s attitude. What do you think?
Amanda: I do think that was reflective of Kitty’s attitude. It’s possible there was a certain amount of British superiority to it – I think that’s almost a given in that time period – but the main characters other than Kitty seemed to have compassion for the Chinese. The nuns, Waddington, Walter. They saw past the racial differences and did everything they could to help. The Chinese were just other people to them, not some strange foreign race that repulsed them. Even Kitty tried to get over her prejudice against them once she was surrounded by the children every day. I liked that. I thought it was a good message – that to overcome prejudice, one must spend time with those one is prejudiced against.
Without giving away spoilers, what did you think about the fate of Walter and Kitty’s relationship? Do you think, given the chance, they could have ever come to live together peacefully? Or were they, as Kitty says at one point, “Two little drops in the river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an indistinguishable part of the water?” (That’s my other favorite quote.)

Karen: That’s going to be tough without giving away the ending. I went back and forth as I read the book. Kitty seemed to really be growing and maturing as a person, so I began to feel hopeful, but then I didn’t know if Walter would ever forgive her. It sort of bothered me that Walter was so unforgiving, though he was surrounding by people dying horrible deaths. I would have thought it might have put her transgression in perspective somewhat — but that also relates to him deliberately bringing her into a situation where she might get infected and die, which is so bitter and vengeful. I saw Kitty changing as a person more than Walter, and I began to actually like her better than him.
This book has so many issues that are great for discussion, but it’s really hard without giving away major plot points — and I reaaaallly hate spoilers. I would highly recommend this book for a face-to-face discussion group — not too long, an easy read, a great plot and interesting characters. This was a great choice, and I am so looking forward to reading more by Maugham. There are three more on my to-read bookshelf right now, and I am so tempted to go back and reread Of Human Bondage.
So, I know you’ve read most of the Maugham oeuvre. How does this compare to the others? Is it one of your favorites? Definitely one of mine.
Amanda: Well, I haven’t read his entire works – he was an extremely prolific author. Wikipedia has 54 entries for him under the “Novels, Travel, Criticism, and Assorted Pamphlets” section, plus another 24 plays, 187 periodical contributions, and 123 short stories. I’ve only read a mere glancing of that. I haven’t read a single play or short story, though I hope to fix that next year. Of the novels I’ve read, though, I count The Painted Veil among my favorites, alongside Mrs. Craddock. Some other good ones are The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, and Theatre. In fact, there have only been two Maugham novels I disliked (The Magician, and The Moon and the Sixpence). I would definitely recommend his books as easy-to-read classics that are fun but also deep.
Thanks again for doing this review with me, Karen! I was having such a hard time figuring out how to review this book, since I love it so much.
Karen: Thank you, Amanda, for inviting me! It was really fun! We’ll have to do it again soon!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mr. Harrison's Confessions and My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell

Though I feel slightly guilty, while reading and reviewing these two novellas, I can't help but refer to Cranford, the excellent BBC miniseries which aired in the U.S. in 2008. Like many of us here on the Classics Circuit, I fell in love with the charming and quirky residents of this English village and was eager to read the book. As many of us are aware, the series incorporates not only the novella of the title, but other stories as well:  Mr. Harrison's Confessions and  My Lady Ludlow.
The Cranford Chronicles includes all three of the novellas that were the basis for the miniseries.  I had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of Cranford this summer, so I was eager to read the rest of the stories as well.
If you read Cranford, you won't find the hapless doctor who's the center of the village love triangle. (Or quadrangle. . . I can't keep track of how many women fall in love with him. Anyway, it's very humororus.) Nevertheless, if you want to read about poor Mr. Harrison, this is the edition you want.  Essentially, Mr. Harrison is chatting with a visitor, Charles, and reminiscing about his arrival, his early career, and his romantic misadventures. In this case, the town is actually called Duncombe, but it shows strong parallels to Cranford. His medical colleague, Mr. Morgan, points out soon after he arrives:

"You will find it a curious statistical fact, but five-sixths of our householders above a certain rank in Duncombe are women. We have widows and old maids in abundance. In fact, my dear sir, I believe you and I are almost the only gentlemen in the place. . ." which sounds an awful lot like Cranford.  Of course, being one of the only eligible males makes the hapless Mr. Harrison the target of a lot of scheming and speculation. Though he's an excellent doctor, Mr. Harrison makes quite a few social missteps that are nearly his undoing. (Of course it all works out in the end.) Fans of the miniseries will find a few surprises, but it's very close to the the TV production, and in a good way. It's a quick, charming read (only 89 pages), but as with Cranford, not much really happens, just charming sketches of provincial life that will make you laugh and cry.
The final novella of The Cranford Chronicles is My Lady Ludlow, the longest of the three at nearly 200 pages. Sadly, it was my least favorite. It begins with an interesting setup: Margaret Dawson, a young lady of about 17, is one of nine children living with her widowed, impoverished mother when they receive a letter from a distant relative, the rich noblewoman Lady Ludlow.  he has heard of the situation and offers to have Margaret come and live with her as a sort of lady-in-waiting.  Lady Ludlow is the benefactress of several other young ladies in similar situations.Through Margaret's eyes, we get a look into the life of this aristocrat, who seems to be holding on to a former way of life, resisting changes.  
Lady Ludlow, though kindhearted and well-intentioned, is snobbish and elitist. The idea that lower classes should receive any education is absolutely abhorrent to her. Though she petitions to have a poacher released from jail since his wife and children would starve, she completely rejects the suggestion of her estate manager that said poacher's whipsmart son be given any sort of education that could help him later in life --  i.e., pull himself by his bootstraps and not have to steal to survive. Nope, he needs to learn his station and stay there!! Hang around a cow pasture until you die, because that is your lot in life, and you need to accept it. Reminds me an awful lot of how American slave owners kept the slaves in check by keeping them illiterate. 

Lady Ludlow uses this opportunity to tell a long, detailed, drawn-out story about French aristocratic friends and how they suffered tragically during the French revolution because those upstart revolutionaries were such meanies and killed off all the poor, misunderstood aristocrats. Apparently the English aristocrats were terrified the same things would happen to them. This part was really difficult for me to read, since as a librarian, it's the antithesis of everything I believe in. Knowledge is power. 

Besides, this section went on waaaay too long, about 70 pages, and I always find it irritating that characters in books can recall entire conversations and minute details of events years later, when they heard about it second or thirdhand. Riiight. I'm not sorry to admit I skimmed more and more of this section and finally skipped ahead until the poor aristocrats lost their heads. There's a reason this episode was left out of the TV series. 

I very nearly gave up during this section, but finally, Lady Ludlow offers a solution to this freethinking estate manager:  the well-born but poor spinster Miss Galindo will help you with the accounts! This is pretty radical for her, since women have no business doing men's jobs, bu the story picks up again.  After Miss Galindo agrees to take the job, Gaskell includes a great little zinger aimed at her fellow writers. I just love this quote. Miss Galindo is explaining to Lady Ludlow that she once aspired to write a novel:

"Well! I got paper and half-a-hundred pens, a bottle of ink, all ready --" [says Miss Galindo]

"And then --" [asks Lady Ludlow]

"O, it ended in my having nothing to say, when I sat down to write. But sometimes, when I get hold of a book, I wonder why I let such a poor reason stop me. It does not others."

That just made the entire novella worthwhile. It's equally as witty as something Jane Austen would have written. The story really improved after this, and I'm really glad I finished it.  Gaskell combines a great story with some social commentary. The characters are so well drawn, and she does a great job of tying everything together in a delightfully satisfying ending. It's well worth reading.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A House to Let by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins

It seemed serendiptious when Wilkie Collins was chosen for the very first Classics Circuit, as it just so happened that the Classics Book Group to which I belong  had selected The Woman in White for its November discussion.  (This would be the Real People book group, which makes it much harder for me to wiggle out of reading the book in a timely fashion.)  "Aha!" I thought.  Cleverly, I planned to kill two birds with one stone, and I eagerly signed up on the Classics Circuit to review TWiW. 

Foolishly, it did not occur to me that quite a few other people decided to take this opportunity to read and review what is most likely Wilkie Collins' most popular work. What did occur to me, however, that I would most likely be unable to come up with something clever and pithy and insighful that had not been said already.  Oh dear.

But as luck would have it, my generous lending library -- how I love you, SAPL -- is chock-full of other works by Mr. Collins.  Twenty-three of them, to be exact.  However, since most of them are unfortunately available only as downloadable e-books, and as I had just completed the 600+ pages of The Woman in White (you can read my pithy and insightful review here.) I was most intrigued by A House to Let, which lists joint authorship by Mr. Collins and two of my favorite Victorian authors -- Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell -- plus a writer called Adelaide Anne Proctor. I was intrigued -- how interesting to compare some of my favorites on a collaborative novel.  Well, novella, to be exact, since it's a mere 94 pages.  According to The Victorian Web, A House to Let was originally published as a 1958 Christmas edition of the magazine Household Words.

A House To Let is comprised of six chapters: an introductory chapter credited to both Collins and Dickens; then a chapter by each author individually; and a closing chapter, again written by Collins and Dickens (of course, as the editor, Charles Dickens gets top billing). 

Our story begins in the first chapter, "Over the Way," jointly written by Dickens and Collins. An elderly lady named Sophonisba, upon the advice of her physician, rents a house in London for several months.  Her manservant, Trottle, finds the perfect place.  The only drawback is that it is directly opposite a mysterious house, which has stood vacant for many years.  Sophonisba is not put off by this, but soon after moving in, she believes that a mysterious eye is watching her from the vacant house.  She is determined to learn its history, and both Trottle and Sophinisba's old friend and admirer, Jabez Jarber, get to work to trace the previous owners and tenants.

Each subsequent chapter, written by a different author, traces another owner or tenant in the history of the mysterious house.  This was an interesting (and quick) way to compare the styles of the different authors, each of which show some of their personal, typical styles.  The first chapter was fairly light, witty, and easy to read, and I definitely recognized Collins' direct, easy-to-read style. The second chapter, "The Manchester Marriage" is classic Gaskell, a beautifully written, somewhat tragic domestic tale of a couple from Manchester who move into the house.  It is the second marriage for the wife, who was widowed when her first husband was lost at sea. 

However, the third and fourth chapters were nearly my undoing.  I didn't care much for the third story, "Going Into Society," which was the Dickens contribution, about a carnival man and his friend, a dwarf who is desperate to join high society.  One of Dickens' greatest strenghts is his fascinating, quirky, supporting characters.  They're wonderfully colorful when sprinkled throughout his novels, but ten pages straight was a bit much for my taste.  It's written in dialect, which I found difficult to wade through, and besides, I've always found carnival and circus characters a little unnerving.  The fourth chapter was also tough, as it's written as a long narrative poem by Adelaide Anne Procter.  I know next to nothing about poetry, so this was pretty challenging, though it's only ten pages long.

I was glad I stuck with it though -- the Wilkie Collins story, "Trottle's Report," is a standout.  It's spooky and gothic, with creepy, mysterious characters, just as I expected from Collins.  And the final chapter "Let at Last," wraps up the mystery and provides the reader with a happy ending.  Without giving anything away, I'll just say it's exactly what I would have expected from Dickens, very reminiscent of Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit.

This book is a nice introduction to some Victorian writers.  Although the stories are all meant to go together, I could have easily skipped the chapters by Dickens and Procter, which I didn't much care for anyway.  Still, it's a quick respite after some of the lenghty works by these authors.  If you want to try Dickens, Collins, or Gaskell, but you don't have time or energy to attack a 600 page tome, this is a fine place to start.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Black and White and Dead All Over by John Darnton

This was another book group selection.  Normally I wait until closer to the meeting so I won't forget anything, but we're low on copies so I decided to start it right away so I can return it for someone else on the wait list.  Plus, I was looking for another excuse to put off reading Jude the Obscure, the selection for one of my online groups, which I have been dreading.  I did vote for it, months ago, but now that it's time to actually make the committment to reading it, I'm worried.  But that's fodder for another blog.

I haven't been reading that many crime books or thrillers since I've been on my Literary Fiction/Classics obsession, but I was vaguely interested in this since Once Upon A Time I had aspirations of a career in journalism.  I even went so far as to select it as my college major, which included an internship at a small paper in a small city in Michigan -- though nothing nearly as complex or fascinating as The New York Globe in this novel [a thinly veiled version of the New York Times] but we did actually have presses and editors and deadlines and whatnot, though this was in the days before the Interwebs.

The premise of this is book is intriguing -- a much-disliked editor is killed in the newsroom, with an enormous cast of supporting characters with various motives, which provides the author with endless opportunities to create cliched characters and thinly veiled counterparts to the actual NYT times employees.  However, I think he was so busy making up clever names for them, and satirizing the decline of print journalism, he forgot how to write a coherent mystery. There are way too many supporting characters, most of them poorly developed, and they popped in and out of the story so fast I couldn't keep track of most of them. Some of them are so briefly introduced with so little explanation, that when they finally reappear at the end of the book that I had no idea who they were. I felt as if I should have taken notes -- and the book's not that long, only 350 pages!  It's not like a Charles Dickens novel -- Bleak House [one of my personal favorites] -- is almost 1000 pages long and was published serially over 18 months, and includes about 40 principal characters.  In that case, I feel that notes are justified.  Not so much with this book.

And the thing that bothered me the most is how sexist the characters were -- all the female reporters are sluts or bitches, or both, and apparently they can't possibly write anything but fluff pieces or get promoted unless they've slept their way to the top or both.  In the non-reporter female roles, the murder victim's assistant is a dried up old spinster, the protagonist's estranged girlfriend is a shrew. . . the only remotely likeable female character was the detective assigned to the case, because she's the love interest for our intrepid reporter Jude --who, naturally, solves the case. Because, obviously, women should just aren't smart enough to do that, and should stick to their assigned roles as the love interest. Annoying.

I'm not even going to attempt to describe the plot, but I will mention that there are various subplots which I suppose are satirizing/exposing the difficulty of putting out a newspaper, the good old days of journalism, plaigairism, the dumbing down of the media, tabloid journalism, corporate takeovers. . . shall I go on? I didn't think so. If you like convoluted mysteries, I won't spoil it for you, and if you don't, don't bother. On Goodreads, I gave it 1 1/2 stars.  At the time I was reading it, I didn't hate, but now I really wish I had those hours back.  Maybe Jude the Obscure would have been the better choice after all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Portugese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith

Lately, I'm feeling really overwhelmed by my to-read lists.  And all the unread books sitting on my shelves, making me feel guilty by their mere presence.  And of course, all the thousands of books that tempt me every time I go volunteer at my local library branch.  I love helping out, but every time I go in the stacks to shelve or search for books, it's as if there are thousands of tiny little voices saying, "Pick me! Pick me!"  And of course, I can't help myself, sometimes I impulsively check out books that -- gasp! -- aren't on the list.

A couple of weeks ago I was searching in the audiobooks aisle and two ladies were discussing this book and how funny it was.  I've read quite a bit of McCall Smith's works, but never gotten around to these (I love the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but I'm indifferent to the Isobel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street series). If nothing else, I've always been amused by McCall Smith's witty titles -- the other books in series are The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances; my favorite titles in his other series include Morality for Beautiful Girls and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built.

This book is a nice, light read, a welcome respite between weightier works.  There's not even a real plot, just a series of vignettes about the life of Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a rather pretentious, self-absorbed professor of philology (I admit, I had to look that up -- it's another word for linguistics).  His claim to fame is the seminal work on Portugese irregular verbs, and one story about the book is a good example of Dr. von Igelfeld's ridiculousness.  Although almost a thousand copies of this tome have been printed, the publishers have sold only 200, and at the current rate they won't sell out for more than 100 years.  The publishers then contact Dr. von Igelfeld, suggesting that they sell the books to an interior decorating firm, who would like to use the books (with a slight change in the title) as fodder for their clients' bookshelves -- basically, turning this academic achievement into mere furniture.  He is of course outraged, and decides to suss out his friends to see if they've actually purchased his book.  The results are both amusing and a little touching. 

The book contains eight short stories (all numbered in German) about Dr. von Igelfeld and his slightly ridiculous colleagues, and it's illustrated with charming woodcuts which give it a vaguely European feel.  Some of the stories are funny (like when the three colleagues attempt to learn how to play tennis from an instruction book), and some I found a little pointless. The best thing about this book is McCall Smith's great sense of irony.  None of the stories are particularly related to one another, and this makes it easy to pick up now and then.  I wouldn't call it laugh out loud funny, but I smiled, I smirked, and I even snorted once or twice, so I would call it worth reading, if you need a little change from your usual books.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

There Will Never Be Another You by Carolyn See

This is an odd book.  Interesting, well-written, but odd.  I'm having a hard time figuring out how to describe it, much less review it.  Quite frankly, I don't think I would have ever chosen this book on my own, but it was the selection for my Real People book group.  (Where we meet and discuss -- face-to-face!!  Like in the olden days.)  But here goes: The book starts out with Edith, (first person narrator) a sixty-four year old woman, who is dealing with the immediate loss of her terminally ill husband, who had apparently died in their Los Angeles home the night before.  She wakes up early and starts cleaning the house of all the parephernalia of his illness, shocked and grieving, wondering what's to become of her.  Sounds like the beginning of a heartfelt domestic-type novel, right?  Wrong.  Meanwhile, the phone is ringing off the hook.  In her grief, she could care less about talking to anyone.  When she finally answers, it is her son telling her to turn on the television.  It is the morning of September 11, 2001. 

So then, I thought, okay, this is a book about how terrorism is changing our daily lives, with Edith as the main character.  Wrong again.  The action then cuts to Edith's son Philip (third person narrator), an unhappy dermatologist working at UCLA medical center.  He's kind of just coasting through life, not wanting anything too challenging either professionally or personally -- he chose dermatology because it was less messy and difficult than other specialties, and he puts up with his spoiled wife's whining because her brother's a divorce lawyer and he's not smart enough to hide his assets and ditch her.  (Seriously. It says so, page 52, second paragraph.)  Plus, they have two kids, a teenage girl who has nothing but contempt for her dad, and a ten-year-old son who is so seriously messed up, no private school wants him and he'll be forced to go to a public school.  Wow.  Phil's life sucks. 

Phil's not all bad though -- he really loved his stepfather (i.e., Edith's most recent husband) and did his best to help out through his terminal illness.  So there is a glimmer of hope for Phil.  But now, the book starts to feel like a literary domestic novel.  But wait!  There are hints and undertones of some serious medical problems on the horizon -- mysterious dead cats, intrigue at the lab, and a colleague who suddenly goes on a permanent vacation.  Is this book actually about some kind of bioterrorism or undiscovered plaugue.  I thought, okay, this book is now a medical horror/mystery/drama, i.e., Michael Crichton-esque or about some kind of nasty disease like Ebola as a metaphor for life.  Or maybe some kind of dystopia like a Margaret Atwood novel.  However, this book is only 256 pages, not a lot of time left to set up a whole alternative future.

Well, that wasn't it either.  Without giving away the rest of the book, I will say it did not turn out at all as I expected.  In retrospect, some events are cleverly foreshadowed, but there are some extraneous events and several loose ends that never seemed to resolve.  It's not a bad book, to say the least.   It's a pretty easy read, the writing is good, and Carolyn See does an excellent job at creating characters and scenes without a lot of silly fluffy descriptive writing.  As a contrast, I recently attempted to read the latest Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol.    I put it down in a snit after 80 pages, I just could not put up with the ridiculousness and bad writing. Dan Brown's idea of creating a character pretty much consists of describing their clothes and dropping in a lot of brand-names, which to me is a sign that the writer couldn't think of anything else.  Not so with Carolyn See.  She doesn't tell you so much as show you, without a lot of extra garbage. 

And somehow, I actually sympathized with poor Dr. Phil.  He's not a very interesting character, but Carolyn See made me care enough about him, and his mother, to find out what would happen, which I find admirable.  It's tough to make readers want to finish a book about annoying characters that they basically dislike. 

As I mentioned earlier, I read this book because it was the monthly selection of my book group, which met yesterday.  Nobody loved it, a few people (including the coordinator) really hated it, but if nothing else, we had a great discussion about it.  And we had seventeen people show up, which is the biggest book group I've ever attended.  This group is held at  the public library, so it's open to anyone, but never know how many people will show up.  And there weren't even enough copies for everyone.  So, hats off to our book group and our coordinator Wendy for her choice.   I may not have loved this book, but I certainly don't regret reading it. 

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot

This book has been on my to-read list since I watched the DVD several years ago.  Lately, I've been trying really hard to be strong and only read books that are A) on my bookshelves, unread or B) for a book group. However, I was volunteering at the library last week, and I could not help myself, the book went into my book bag and I finally gave it the attention it deserves.

In a way, I really dislike seeing the movie adaptation of a novel first, because then I have a preconcieved notion of the characters, locations, etc.; however, I only very dimly remembered hearing about this book before I watched the movie, which is wonderful. It's actually tough to say which is better, since I watched it about four years ago, but it really stuck in my mind and I've been wanting to read the book ever since. But is it literary snobbery to only read books, and pooh-pooh film adaptations, especially if they're wonderful?  Discuss!

Anyway, back to the novel:  This is a historical fiction/mystery novel about a young Frenchwoman, Matilde, who is searching for answers about her fiance's death during WWI.  In 1919, two years after Matilde's fiance, Manech, supposedly died at the front, Matilde receives a letter from a dying soldier, who has information about the day Manech died.  Matilde, who's been unable to walk since she was three, visits the soldier, Esperanza, at the hospital, where he confesses that Manech, along with four other soldiers, didn't die in the line of duty -- they were court-martialed and convicted for self-inflicted injuries.  Instead of execution, the five convicts were sent to the front and pushed into the no-man's land between the trenches, where they died in the crossfire. Esperanza was the soldier who wrote out and mailed five farewell letters the condemned men sent to their loved ones. 

Esperanza gives Matilde copies of all the original letters, but she isn't satisfied, and begins digging deeper into the story.  She becomes convinced that Manech, and perhaps others, somehow survived.  She begins to investigate the mystery, writing letters to the families of the men and placing ads in newspapers.  Her family is wealthy and she uses their considerable resources to aid in her quest.

I found this to be a really intriguing mystery, as well as a romantic story.  Matilde is dogged in pursuit of the truth.  Much of the story is told in letters and interviews she has with other soldiers who witnessed the event and the lost soldiers' families and friends, so there are a lot of different viewpoints and opinions by different characters.  This approach really reminded me of how many different truths can exist, even if it's all the same event, especially amid the confusion and horror of war, and how narrators in books can sometimes be unreliable. 

The only difficulty I had with this book was that I did find it a little difficult keeping some of the characters straight -- besides the five soldiers, who have their given names, plus the nicknames given by their comrades, plus the other soldiers who were witnesses, plus family members. . . and they're all French, of course.  After a few chapters I began to wish that I had made a running list of all the characters and taken notes as I went along.  However, I can't say that I blame the author, it's probably my fault for not paying better attention at the beginning. 

I loved this book, and I was just as drawn in by the characters and the mystery while reading it as I did when I watched the movie. I really felt like I was right there, experiencing everything in France right along with Matilde and the soldiers.  I'm only sorry I took so long to finally read it, and I'm going to watch the movie again as soon as I go pick it up from the library.  After I watch it I'll report back and see if the movie holds up as well to the book.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Before I started reading classics, the idea of Victorian novels made we want to run screaming from the room -- I always thought they were long and boring and full of sentences that never end.  Well, I'd be lying if I said there weren't any Victorian novels like that, but The Woman in White is definitely NOT one of them. 

For a 600+ page book, this is a quick read.  I brought it with on my trip to Philadelphia, and found myself reading it every night with a flashlight (so as not to disturb my traveling companion).  It's a real page turner, and some nights I was up pretty late since I had to find out what happened next.  Between the late nights and the plane ride, I zipped through 300 pages of this book in less than a week -- pretty good considering I had other books and was busy with lots of convention activities.

A quick summary of the setup, without spoilers:  the hero, Walter Hartright, has been hired for several months as an art instructor for two sisters at a wealthy English estate in the country.  The night before he's scheduled to depart, he's out for a midnight walk, and encounters a mysterious woman in white who is desperate to escape someone or something, she won't say what.  He helps her find a carriage and then she mysteriously disappears, leaving him naturally curious.  After he arrives in Cumberland for his new post, he discovers that this mysterious woman is somehow connected to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, one of the two sisters, with whom he falls madly in love.  The story becomes a page turning thriller, with mystery, deceit, crime, and some excellent plot twists.  I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling the story.  And if you decide to read this book, please, don't read the explanatory end notes, which include spoilers -- so irritating!  It's hard enough to avoid spoilers nowadays without having them included in the book itself!!

Anyway, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the use of multiple narrators.  I don't know if Collins was the first novelist to use this technique, but he does it really well.  What I found particularly interesting is that the range of narrators includes not only the hero but minor characters like the housekeeper, and villainous characters as well, so you get everyone's side of the story.  It also made me wonder how reliable some of the narrators are.  Collins also uses this technique in another of his most famous works, The Moonstone, which I read several years ago for an online classics group.  At the time I liked it, but it didn't really make much of an impact, unlike The Woman in White, which I consider to be the superior book.

My only complaint about this book is that the love interest, Laura, is so underdeveloped -- a problem which I also have with Dickens.   The reader has absolutely no information about Laura and why Mr. Hartright (another punny name, much like those used by Dickens and Trollope) is so in love with her, except she's beautiful.  Was that all that was necessary for Victorian male authors?  In almost every Dickens work I've read, the female love interest is beautiful and boring, almost vapid.  By far the most interesting character in The Woman in White  is Laura's half sister Marian, who is quickly described as mannish and unattractive, if not downright ugly.  But she's smart, loyal, and resourceful, and she's one of the first private detectives in literature, if not the first female detective.  So is Collins implying that smart women are ugly?  That bothered me.  Maybe intelligence was considered an inherently masculine trait and therefore Marian couldn't possibly both be smart AND attractive.

The Woman in White is the selection for my library's classic book group this month (a face to face group! with real live people!).  Originally I was going to wait and publish this review as part of The Classics Circuit, but my review is supposed to appear in early December, and frankly, I just couldn't wait that long and I really want to read more Collins.  I was pleased to discover my public library has quite a few of his works available, including some that I'd never heard of (like The Evil Genius -- sounds intriguing!  So theres Collins aplenty coming up soon. New postings start tomorrow.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Baking Cakes in San Antonio

This past weekend was my daughter's school carnival.  Though I am unwilling to spend two hours manning an unshaded booth on a hot Texas afternoon, I am willing to provide something for the cakewalk.  Possibly inspired by my previous read, Baking Cakes in Kigali, and by my recent discovery of the hilarious blog Cake Wrecks -- and if you have not seen this blog, please, do yourself a favor and visit immediately -- I decided to bake a cake.  From scratch.  No last-minute trips to the grocery store bakery or boxed-mix cakes from me, no sirree!  Even though I would most likely never meet the lucky recipient of my handiwork, I pulled out one of my family's tried and true favorite recipes.  It has no name, it is just the Good Chocolate Cake.  It is quick and easy, and mighty tasty.  [Disclaimer: the above is not an actual photo of said cake, but it's pretty close.]  Sadly, my children did not win our own cake in the cakewalk, so instead they were awarded a dozen Wal-Mart cupcakes.  They had cute plastic Halloween rings on top, but other than that they were pointless calories. (Well, at least they weren't Cake Wrecks.) Luckily, I bought enough ingredients to make another cake. 

I think this cake recipe originally came from Food & Wine, but it's been so long that I have no idea.  If you know the origin of this recipe, please let me know so I can give the appropriate credit. 

It's kind of an unusual recipe -- you don't cream the butter or fold anything in, but you boil water and sugar together until dissolved, then pour it over chopped unsweetened chocolate and butter.  The batter is really thin and the crumb isn't the most delicate I've ever eaten, but it has great flavor and is one of those quick and dirty recipes necessary when you need something both fast and impressive.  And the frosting, your basic ganache, brings the cake to a higher level.  When in doubt, heavy cream is your friend.  Always.

Excellent Chocolate Cake:


2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
6 Tb unsalted butter.
1 tsp vanilla.
2 eggs, lightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 2 8-inch cake pans. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil over high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves, then pour into a large bowl. Add the butter and chocolate. Stir occasionally until melted and slightly cooled, and add the vanilla.

3.  Beat the eggs into the chocolate mixture at medium speed until combined. Add the dry ingredients all at once and beat at medium speed until smooth.

4.  Divide batter evenly between pans and smooth the tops. Bake about 25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pans about 25 minutes, the invert on a rack to cool completely.

Frost with Chocolate Ganache:
8 oz heavy cream -- do NOT substitute milk or half and half.  Don't even think about it.
12 oz chocolate chips (1 bag)

1.   Place chips in a mixing bowl.  Use the best quality chips you can find.  Guittard and Ghirardelli are good chioices. Nestle is passable but not nearly as good -- buy a bag of each and do a taste-test.  You will not look back.

2.   Bring the cream to a boil in a small sauce pan (careful, it will boil over the minute you look away). Tip: rinse the pan with water, but don't dry it, before you heat the cream.  It will be much easier to clean afterward.  Nonstick pans are also recommended.

3.   Let the cream and chocolate stand for 5 minutes, then stir until smooth. Don't wait too long, or the cream will cool and you'll have tiny lumps.  Let the mixture stand until thickened. Will frost one 8 or 9-inch layer cake, a 9x13 cake, or a batch of cupcakes. Any leftovers can be chilled to make truffles, heated to dip fruit, or on top of ice cream. Or straight off the spoon.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Warning:  I know a lot of people loved this book, but sadly, I wasn't one of them.  If you are, feel free to skip this review.  For an opposing view, see Amanda's review here.

To me, this book has all the trappings of a book group fad:  a quirky African lady meets people from all walks of life due to her little business and solves all their problems.  Sound familiar?  That's because it's been done before, and actually done well. It's probably wrong of me to compare this to another book, but I think it's inevitable -- this is undoubtedly going to be compared to the far superior No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.   Both books are about busybody African ladies of a certain age and certain size, and both are fairly short books.  But that's where the comparison ends.  I found this book a poor copy of that charming series; it's didactic, preachy, contrived, and frankly, the writing isn't that good.  This book was a huge disappointment from the first chapter.

McCall Smith has written ten books in his series about Botswana, and though they're starting to feel repetetive, they're still warmhearted and appealing.  His characters are well-developed, his descriptions of the everyday life of Africans seem realistic (since, sadly, I've never visited), yet he's able to include subtle messages about African problems without using the sledgehammer approach.  Kigali, on the other hand, is less than subtle.  Our angel, Angel, the baker in the title, segues from a sales pitch about her fantastic cakes to lecturing an Ambassador's wife about the official denial of AIDS in Tanzania on page 9!  It's so heavy-handed and obvious:  "This book has an important message.  Things in Africa are bad!!"  Well, duh.  But of course, Angel is quickly able to make this woman see the light.  Uh huh. 

Even her name is sort of a McCall Smith ripoff.  His character is called Precious (which is both endearing and ironic, since her first husband beat the crap out of her), Parkin's is Angel -- is she the selfless Angel of Kigali, sort of like Mother Teresa?  I will admit, this may be common in Africa.  But it comes off as cutesy and annoying here.  Before the third chapter she's convinced her landlord to change the water bill of two feminist volunteer workers in the building, who were massively overcharged because they're considered Wazungu, rich white foreigners, and convinced a woman to change her infant girl's name from Goodenough (parents disappointed because she wasn't a boy) to Perfect. 

However, Angel, she supports a couple's decision to marry and spends an awful lot of time planning their wedding and raising money for said couple -- despite the fact that the husband doesn't decide to marry the bride until his other girlfriend gives birth -- and finds out if the new baby is a boy or a girl.  [SPOILER ALERT!!] See, the first girlfriend, who runs the convenience store, had his first child, and it's a boy, so she's already ahead.  The writer mentions that it's sort of unfair to celebrate this union because of the disadvantage of the second monther, but pretty quickly she's forgotten -- besides, the chosen wife is from a rival tribe, so it's all about overcoming prejudice.  What about the prejudice the unwed mother and this fatherless baby girl will face for years?  Too bad, so sad.  Angel arranges an enormous cross-cultural shindig and involves all the other characters. The first couple are going to be in the papers!!

And I was really annoyed by a little anecdote about a dentist. [Disclosure:  my husband is a dentist, so I'm a little sensitive about how they're portrayed in the media.  Ignore your teeth, and they'll go away.  Okay, back to the story].  In chapter 8, Angel takes her grandson to the dentist.  Excellent, great to hear that they have dental care in this war-torn country.  However, as a reward, she buys him a soda -- immediately after the omniscient narrator explains that the dentist lectured her about feeding the grandchildren sweets.  See, Angel doesn't necessarily believe him, because after all, he's from some island far away, and because he's a Seventh Day Adventist.  So, if you don't agree with someone's religion, you should ignore his/her medical advice.  So why is she paying her hard-earned money to go to this dentist in the first place??!!? 

Besides this hypocritical annoyance -- since this book is all about tolerance and how all races and religions should tolerate each other -- this books crams too many characters in too fast, many of whom never show up again, and I just didn't buy the story of how this Tanzanian woman is in Rwanda baking cakes fancy cakes for people, despite being surrounded by poverty and unreliable utilities.  The appeal of McCall Smith's books are the slices of life of the Botswana native, and most of the characters in this book are expats that just aren't that interesting.  And the explanation of how she's able to procure supplies to make sophisticated cakes is a pretty contrived.  Plus, Angel keeps repeating the same tragic back story about her family's losses over and over.  The author crams in tragedy after tragedy -- there are so many, I won't even list them.  I'm not trying to belittle the pain and horrors of Africa, believe me.  I see enough of it on the news.  But trying to package them as a charming book isn't going to help Africans.  "Charming" and "genocide" just don't belong in the same paragraph.  I'm not saying readers shouldn't learn about some of the horrible things that have happened there.  I just don't think you can mix the two successfully.  There are plenty of books about the Holocaust and they sell like crazy, but nobody ever tries to package them as charming. 

Overall, I get the impression that this author, inspired by Mcall Smith's literary success (and HBO series), thought, "Hey! I lived in Africa! I can write a book about it, and get rich, too! I'll just change the main character to a woman who bakes cakes. . . and change the setting to Rwanda, so I can add all kinds of political stuff and teach oblivious Americans to pay attention to Africa! And I'll write lots of sequels and get a movie deal, too! Easy-peasy!" Or else someone at Random House thought so, and went out and found an author in Africa to compete with McCall Smith. Either way, it's pretty annoying. I really hope I don't see this as The Next Big Book Group Selection.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Girl of the Limberlost

Since I'm always on the lookout for an overlooked classic, I was eager to read this book.  It came highly recommended by a friend (the same one who was shocked I'd never heard of E. Nesbit) and it was mentioned in the introduction of my new favorite, Daddy Long-Legs.  But again, it's not nearly as widely read as great coming-of-age stories like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I also love). However, that suggests a question -- can it be considered a classic if it's not widely read?  And why isn't anyone reading it anymore?  In this case, I think there's a pretty good reason.  This book started out with such promise and ended so disappointingly -- with a whimper, you might say.

The setup:  set in the early 1900s, teenaged Elnora has grown up in the Indiana countryside, on the edge of the Limberlost Swamp -- a virtual nature preserve.  It's her first day of high school in the big city, and of course, she's dressed all wrong, has no friends, and no money for the books and tuition which she owes because she lives outside the district.  Her grumpy, distant mother is unsupportive, and had hoped Elnora would quickly be discouraged from such upstart notions and stay on the farm where she belongs, since there is no ready cash to pay for such foolishness.  Though her widowed mother owns acres of land with valuable trees, she's clinging to it, symbolizing her lost love for Elnora's dead father, who perished in the swamp when she was an infant.  They're so cash-poor they can't afford the taxes, much less school. 

But hark!  Elnora can pay her own way -- the Bird Lady, (a local botanist/collector of moths and other flora, fauna, and historic artifacts) will pay good money for the treasures that our heroine can collect from the swamp. So it looks like Elnora will spend the rest of the nearly 500 pages learning about life and love from her benevolent naturalist patroness, and somehow reconnect with her embittered mother, possibly learning more about the story of her lost father.  All will end well.  Right?

But sadly, this story sort of went downhill about halfway through. [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!] Quite a few plot developments are just waaaay too convenient.  Elnora and her mother reconcile seemingly overnight, characters like the beloved neighbor couple and an orphan boy essentially disappear, and the second half of the book is dominated by a plot about Elnora's true love and his evil fiancee, which drags on forever.  Finally, Elnora is aided by some friendly characters who were mysteriously mentioned earlier but never explained.  When Elnora first starts collecting moths etc. for cash, she refers to someone called Freckles, without any explanation or backstory.  Later, the Bird Lady suddenly refers to someone called Swamp Angel.  Who the heck are these people?  It turns out A Girl of the Limberlost is actually a sequel to another book called -- wait for it -- Freckles. There is no mention of this previous volume on the book jacket, and none of the characters are included in the list that precedes the first chapter. Yet, [SPOILER!!!] Elnora suddenly takes off from Indiana, take a train ALONE to Michigan, and goes to meet these people -- complete strangers -- in chapter 23!!  Who, of course welcome her with open arms.  Riiiight.

It also really annoyed me that this is sort of two stories in one, a detailed story setting up Elnora and all the hardships she's going to overcome, then, without minimal transition, the book just jumps forward in time three years to set up the scenario in which she meets her true love Philip. Seriously, the book reads,

So the first year went, and the second and third were a repetition; but the fourth was different, for that was the close of the course, ending with graduation and all in attendant ceremonies and expenses.

Hold the phone, what happened in those three years?   Not one thing worth mentioning the rest of her high school career -- up until the point at which Elnora is valedictorian and a star musician.  How convenient!  It's as though the author had some really good ideas about the setup of the character, and a couple of major events in her life, but couldn't take the time to expand the rest of her life. Doesn't she have a single sweetheart in high school?  A nasty teacher?  Doesn't her character develop at all in those years, or the relationship with her mother?  And some foreshadowed events never take place -- in the beginning, there's a whole setup about how dangerous the Limberlost is at night, full of robbers, bandits, etc., and it appears in the first couple of chapters that Elnora's being stalked -- yet, there's no payoff as these characters and plot elements simply disappear.  Ooops!  Forgot about that, never mind. 

The ending of this book digressed so much that I stopped reading it with less than 20 pages to go.  Seriously, I put the book down and did not care how it ended.  I finally picked it up again last night so I could force myself to finish it --  frankly, I just didn't care any more, but I didn't see how I could post a review without actually finishing it.   And, sadly, the ending is just horrible, unbelievable and preachy. 

The final message of this book (which is about as subtle as a sledgehammer): "Everyone should be just like Elnora, who is perfect!"  I honestly don't think she had a single flaw.  In retrospect, I wonder how I made it through this book.  I did like the first half; I was really rooting for her, and it's not a difficult read.  I got through a lot of it on an airplane (it was just easier than rooting around in my carryon for another book) and in the shuttle to my hotel.

Would I have liked it when I was fourteen?  I guess parts of it are a little romantic, since Elnora is a sort of a Cinderella figure.  But aside from the structural flaws (which I probably wouldn't have noticed as a YA), the writing is pretty stilted, it's sentimental, and really preachy. I'm really not surprised nobody reads this book any more.