Saturday, February 28, 2009

What book would you become?

Earlier today I reviewed Fahrenheit 451, and mentioned my mom's assignment for her English class - we talked about it a couple of months ago, and it has been brewing in my head ever since. I'm intrigued by the idea of a group of people dedicated to keeping the ideas of books alive by "becoming" those books - actually memorizing, word for word, the books they are most passionate about, to keep them from being forgotten. And so I have asked myself:

What 5 books do you believe are important enough to be saved, and why?

I'll be the first to admit it's hard to make a book list that includes only five titles. Selfishly, I've decided not to include any "important" works - you know, the stuff that ends up on the Top 100 Books of All Time type lists. I figure someone will inevitably have chosen those already, right? So I'm making a list of books that are important to ME.

1 - Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - there is so much to this novel, but I love it for its thoughts about the nature of mercy and forgiveness
2 - Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery - for its humor, and honest portrayal of the difficulties of growing up
3 - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis - because of its wonderful allegory for the sacrifice of Christ
4 - The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel - for its beautiful writing, and the idea that the differences between us are not as big as we think
5 - The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay - because I just love it!

Which book would you choose to "become"?

Again, it's hard to choose one out of that list. There are many things to consider, not the least the fact that Les Mis would be a pain to try to memorize! Ultimately, the book I would choose to become is Anne of Green Gables. I have loved Anne for so long, and I think this book is about so much more than a young girl growing up. It's about friendship, and love, and choosing to care about people even when it's not easy. It's about embracing your imagination, and the value of ideas, and being proud of the differences that make you unique. This is the book I would want to share with the generations to come.

Here are a couple of quotes from the book, to show why I love it so much:

"Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?"

"There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting."

"Marilla, isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

So is there any one else who would like to answer these questions for me? I think the book blogging community is so interesting, with such varied reading tastes, that finding out other people's ideas about this would be fascinating. I'd like to start a weekly feature here, with
a new blogger answering these two questions each week. See, I even made a little button for it!
(Thanks to BethFishReads for the tutorial!) I'm calling it 451 Fridays, because I like the alliteration. =) And since it was my mom's idea, I'm hoping to convince her to be my first participant. Is there anyone else interested? Leave me a comment, or send me an email, and we will talk!

Review - Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Synopsis from B&N:

Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires...

The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning...along with the houses in which they were hidden.

Guy Montag enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames...never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid.

Then he met a professor who told him of a future in which people could think...and Guy Montag suddenly realized what he had to do!

My thoughts:

I can't believe I'd never read this novel before. It's odd to think of all the English classes I've taken, and realize that no professor ever thought this would be worthwhile to teach. I'm sure lots of them assumed it had been read before - but that certainly didn't stop them from making me read Huckleberry Finn 5 times! (But that's another story...)

There is so much to consider in this short little novel - Bradbury really packed a lot into a small package. His writing style is full of simile and metaphor, which sometimes seem a little over-the-top, but they give the narrative a feeling almost like a dream. It is very visual, giving the reader detail after minute detail in which to see the drama unfolding. When Montag goes to a house to burn books one night, "Books bombarded his shoulders, his arms, his upturned face. A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering. In the dim, wavering light, a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon."

Guy Montag is the focus of the book, and as such the only character who really gets a chance to develop. Mildred, Guy's wife; Clarisse, Guy's neighbor; Faber, the professor - we meet each of these people, but never get the opportunity to find out much about them. They are merely catalysts, propelling Guy forward on his journey. Each has their small part to play, and then they are gone, because the author is mostly only interested in Guy.

It is fascinating to read Bradbury's vision of a world gone mad, written in the 1950s, and realize how similar it is to the world we live in today. In his world, people don't want to read books, or be challenged by new ideas - they would rather sit in front of their gigantic television sets and be entertained. In his world, no one wants to stand out or be different, but would rather conform to the image that the majority has decided is ideal. In his world, people don't connect with each other, but spend their time blocking out the world with the earphones in their ears. Does this sound familiar to anyone else? I have to wonder if Bradbury ever feels chilled by his prophetic vision.

Of course, what resonates most clearly with me is the few people in the novel who are trying to save the books. When Montag decides, for the first time, to sit down and read one of the books he has been secretly stashing away, his life is forever changed, and that is truly the moment of triumph in the novel. When he finds Professor Faber, and later the band of men in the forest (Bradbury has referred to them as the Book People), and decides he wants to do something - anything - to keep the books from being lost, it is the flash of hope that lifts the novel from despair.

And Bradbury knows it is not the books themselves that are important. Books are little more than ink and paper, which don't add up to very much. "It's not the books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books...Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us."

The only part of the novel that really disappointed me was Montag's meeting with the Book People. They are a group, scattered throughout the land, that are trying to keep the ideas of books alive. Instead of trying to save the books themselves, however - which would be really dangerous - they choose to "become" a book. They memorize the book, word by word, and tell each other the stories. Eventually, they will pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Their great hope is that one day, they will once again be able to commit what they remember to paper, and the books will be born again. I just wanted MORE of this section - I was fascinated by it, and wish his time with the Book People would have lasted longer.

Fahrenheit 451 is quite a magnificent novel. I have no doubt it is one I will be reading again and again.

Finished: 2/27/09

Source: Franklin Avenue Library

Rating: 8/10

As a side note, my mom (the brilliant english teacher) has her class participate in a very interesting activity to go along with reading this novel. Inspired by the Book People, she asks her students to list 5 books they believe are important enough that they should be saved, and the one novel from that list they are passionate enough about that they would be willing to "become" that book. It's an interesting question, which I'm going to ask of myself. If enough people are interested, I'd love to make it a feature on the blog for a while. So what do you think? Would you like to answer that question for yourself? Let me know!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Poe Fridays

This week's selection is "Never Bet the Devil your Head: A Tale with a Moral". I have to say I think it's the weirdest of all the weird Poe stories I've read so far.

Our friendly first-person narrator expresses chagrin that he has been accused of never writing a story with a moral. So, he says, he will give us one, and even better, we won't have to guess what the moral is - he's already given it to us in the title. Yep, that's right, his moral is "Never Bet the Devil your Head."

He then tells the tale of Toby Dammitt, a bad young man, made worse in his youth by his mother's flogging him with her left hand. (Apparently, flogging with the right hand drives the evil out, but flogging with the left hand pushes it deeper in.) Toby has lots of vices, and his favorite curse is "I bet the devil my head..." One day he bets that he can jump over a covered bridge. Unfortunately, this is the day the devil has come to collect on the bet. You can imagine the rest.

This is pretty clearly a satirical tale, making fun of the notion that every story needs a moral. Apparently, it is also an attack on Transcendentalism. I'm really fascinated by the way in which Poe, and probably other writers of his time, used their work to send very clear, pointed messages against the ideas and people they disliked. It would be like Stephen King writing a short story dissing Stephenie Meyer. Today, people just say they don't like you - back then, they would channel the irritation into something weird and creative, and readers could spend their time figuring out who was being attacked. Interesting the way society has changed.

As for this particular story, it was just weird. Not one of my favorites, but it certainly got its point across!

Next week we will be reading another short story, The Angel of the Odd. Poe Fridays is hosted by Kristen at We Be Reading.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Teaser Tuesday

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  • Grab your current read.
    Let the book fall open to a random page.
    Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
    You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given
    Please avoid spoilers!

"My mother always said that he was a frustrated lawyer. I think she meant executioner. Anything could set him off. He was never not in high dudgeon. We always had to be on our toes. Speaking of toes, he was paranoid about our damaging them in the shop. 'The toe is just a tomato with a bone in it', he'd say, warning us angrily not to drop heavy objects on those fragile digits."

(from Twisted Head: An Italian-American Memoir by Carl Capotorto, page 62.)

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at ShouldBeReading. Stop by to visit and read more teasers!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mailbox Monday

I'm sorta easing myself back into the book-acquisition thing - see, I knew I wouldn't last long.

This week, one book found it's way into my mailbox -

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer
- compliments of Caitlin at FSB. Thanks!

Want to see what else is making its way around the blogging world? Stop by and visit Marcia at The Printed Page.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

TSS - Review - The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Finished: 2/16/09
Source: my sister (Thanks, Carolynn!)
Rating: 9/10

Synopsis from B&N:

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod's family . . . Beloved master storyteller Neil Gaiman returns with a luminous new novel for the audience that embraced his New York Times bestselling modern classic Coraline. Magical, terrifying, and filled with breathtaking adventures, The Graveyard Book is sure to enthrall readers of all ages.

My thoughts:

It's almost difficult to put into words exactly how good this book is. I don't hesitate to say that I'm a Neil Gaiman fan - I believe he is one of the best storytellers of our generation, and I always have high expectations for his work. So when I say this novel exceeded my expectations, what I mean is that I'm not sure I have, even yet, realized exactly how brilliant it is.

Gaiman talks in his introduction about how much he owns to Kipling's "The Jungle Book", and the parallels are easy to see - a real, live boy, raised apart from his family by creatures not like himself, figuring out which world he truly belongs in - Gaiman does this sort of thing in many of his novels, and I think it works particularly well here. His characters are interesting, a little creepy, and somewhat mysterious, and he always leaves the reader a little bit of room for their own imagination.

He also doesn't force a "happily-ever-after" ending - I don't want to give too much away, but he allows the natural progression of the story, even though it doesn't end with happiness and joy, and the book is better for it. It is never a light, happy read - it does, after all, take place in a graveyard - but Gaiman's humor keeps it from feeling like a downer. Bod does his share of silly, impulsive things, and there are beautiful moments, as well, that make reading the book a pleasure.

Each time I think about it, I remember something else I loved. This is a novel I will certainly read again, and I'm sure discover more to enjoy. I'm thrilled for the author that it won this year's Newbery - I believe it deserves the praise.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review - The Story of Forgetting

The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block

Synopsis from the publisher:

Abel Haggard is an elderly hunchback who haunts the remnants of his familys farm in the encroaching shadow of the Dallas suburbs, adrift in recollections of those he loved and lost long ago. As a young man, he believed himself to be "the one person too many"; now he is all that remains. Hundreds of miles to the south, in Austin, Seth Waller is a teenage "Master of Nothingness" - a prime specimen of that gangly, pimple-rashed, too-smart breed of adolescent that vanishes in a puff of sarcasm at the slightest threat of human contact. When his mother is diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimers, Seth sets out on a quest to find her lost relatives and to conduct an "empirical investigation" that will uncover the truth of her genetic history. Though neither knows of the other's existence, Abel and Seth are linked by a dual legacy: the disease that destroys the memories of those they love, and the story of Isidora - an edenic fantasy world free from the sorrows of remembrance, a land without memory where nothing is ever possessed, so nothing can be lost.

Through the fusion of myth, science, and storytelling, this novel offers a dazzling illumination of the hard-learned truth that only through the loss of what we consider precious can we understand the value of what remains.

My thoughts:

This was quite a remarkable debut novel. I'm not sure why I picked it up - probably something about the title struck my fancy - but once I started reading I could barely put it down. There are actually four intersecting narratives in the novel - Seth's story, Abel's story, the story of Isidora, and the story of Seth's mother's genetic history. I realize it sounds complicated, but the pieces fit together beautifully.

It was really Seth's story that resonated with me so deeply. A young boy, just trying to figure himself out, suddenly has to deal with a mother who is disappearing. He loves her, and doesn't want her to leave, and yet feels guilty because he hates visiting her in the assisted living home, where she sometimes knows who he is, and sometimes can't even remember her own name. Block captures this young man's struggle perfectly, and I was captivated by his story.

Block also illustrates the devastation of life with early-onset Alzheimers very well. I feel like I am painting this novel as fairly bleak, and while really, really sad things happen, it doesn't feel like a sad novel. It was quite funny in parts, and lovely in others. Mostly just a great read - I recommend it!

Finished: 2/15/09

Source: Franklin Avenue library

Rating: 8/10

Friday, February 20, 2009

Poe Fridays

This week's short story, "Hop-Frog", is quite different in tone from the ones we've read in previous weeks, although certainly not a cheery story by any means. Hop-Frog is a court jester for a king with a love of practical jokes. His physical deformities, and the fact that he is a dwarf, make him the butt of jokes by many members of the court. His only friend is Tripetta, another dwarf, who is beautiful and graceful, and dances for the king.

One night the king decides he wants to be entertained. He forces Hop-Frog to drink several goblets of wine, knowing it does not sit well with him, and then demands a masquerade. Tripetta pleads with the king to leave her friend alone, but the king cruelly pushes her to the ground. Hop-Frog tells the king he has an idea for a new masquerade, which the king and his 7 advisors will all have parts in. The king thinks this is a grand idea, and the jester's revenge is set in motion.

I'm not going to reveal the ending this time, because I don't want to ruin the surprise for all of you who are going to rush right out and read this one (*grin*), but needless to say, the king and his friends get a nasty surprise. It was interesting to read a story by Poe not written in first person. It is still suspenseful, but I think it loses some of that intensity that Poe is able to capture when he allows his characters to speak directly to the reader. It has been suggested that this story may have been written as a sort of "literary revenge" against some people who had been spreading rumors about Poe - reminding us all to not tick off the budding writers in our acquaintance, or we might find ourselves on the receiving end of a nasty literary demise.

Anyone who is interested can find the full text here - once again, it's not a long read, so take the plunge!! =)

Next week we will be reading Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale with a Moral. I already can't wait!

Poe Fridays is hosted by Kristen at WeBeReading.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review - Alaska and Journey by James Michener (Relative Reads)

This is the first in a new series I will be spotlighting here at Need More Shelves, entitled Relative Reads. I was given the great fortune of growing up in a family of readers. Both of my parents read, and so do the majority of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In fact, my Great-Grandma had cataract surgery in her 90's, because she couldn't bear to not be able to read. I thought it would be interesting to read some of the books THEY have discovered and enjoyed over the years, so I asked them to send my some recommendations, and the fun began! I have a list of the titles various family members have suggested on the side of the blog, so if you want to see what will be coming up you can take a peek. =)

The first books I decided to tackle were Alaska and Journey, both by James Michener, recommended by my Grandpa Warren. (Here's a picture of my grandparents, taken this holiday season.)

Journey actually started out as a section of Alaska, and was eventually cut and made into its own novel, so it made sense to me to read them together.

First, Alaska -

Synopsis from B&N:

In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us across Alaska’s fierce terrain, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling technological present, as his characters struggle for survival. The exciting high points of Alaska’s story, from its brutal prehistory, through the nineteenth century and the American acquisition, to its modern status as America’s thriving forty-ninth state, are brought vividly to life in this remarkable novel: the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the discovery of oil and its social and economic consequences; the difficult construction of the Alcan Highway, which made possible the defense of the territory in World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community struggling to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic history of the enduring spirit of a land and its people.

My thoughts:

Wow. It's almost hard to put into words my reaction to such a vast novel. Michener literally traces the entire history of Alaska - his first chapter deals with the crashing together of plates that formed the region into its mountainous terrain. Next, he introduces us to the animals that would have inhabited the region before humans moved onto the scene. It's hard to describe his style of writing, because it is very detailed, almost in a textbook sort of way, but it never feels like reading a dry history book. It is very much a novel, with excitement brimming on each page.

Michener must have done an enormous amount of research before writing this novel, and in the front of the book he details, section by section, which characters and situations are historical fact, and which are author inventions to further the action of the novel. He is able to weave the fact and the fiction together so seamlessly that I was never aware of which was which. It is quite an accomplishment to write an 800+ page novel that never feels too long, but I was definitely left wanting more.

I was completely captivated by the characters he created, from the men and women of the native people to the animals who survived next to them. On several occasions he writes from an animal's perspective, and manages to not make that seem weird. Only after I had put the book down did I think, "Wow, I just read about salmon spawning from the salmon's point of view - that's never happened before." I appreciated that he wrote female characters who were just as strong and capable as their male counterparts - the people who settled Alaska were incredibly brave, and he allowed us to experience their journeys along with them in a completely fascinating way.

One of the best parts of the novel, for me, was feeling like I was learning about the history of our country as I was reading. I know one of the reasons my Grandpa enjoys Michener so much is that he includes so much history and geography in his novels, and in this one particularly there is much Grandpa would be able to relate to. He was stationed in the Pacific Theater during WWII, so when Michener describes the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, that is something he would have been very familiar with. (This is a picture of my grandparents, circa WWII - aren't they a handsome couple!)

Also, when the US government selected Minnesota families to move to Alaska to start a new life during the Depression, they were chosen from the area in which Grandpa grew up. He loaned me his own copy of the novel, and in it he underlined the names of the cities he knew, as well as other events and ideas he remembered from that time. I really enjoyed reading about a part of history that my own family lived through - amazing.

I did have a little bit of trouble with the pacing of the novel - because Michener covers SO MUCH ground, each chapter is essentially about a new era of Alaska's development, and much of the time would involve a completely new set of characters. I found that prevented me from becoming completely engrossed in the story, since I had to acquaint myself with a new cast each time. However, it would be ideal for someone who reads more than one book at a time - this is the type of novel that could easily be set aside, and resumed a few days later. Also, I felt like it ended rather abruptly - suddenly, we were just done! That's an odd thing to say for such a long novel, I know, but true.

In general, however, I loved this book. It was a fascinating and encompassing look at a place I would love to visit someday!

Finished: 2/8/09
Rating: 8/10

Next, Journey -

Synposis from B&N:

Gold fever swept the world in 1897. The chance for untold riches sent thousands of dreamers on a perilous trek toward their fortunes, failures, or deaths. Follow four English aristocrats and their Irish servant as they misguidedly haul their dreams across cruel Canadian terrain toward the Klondike gold fields.

My thoughts:

Another completely engrossing novel, and I am happy I read these two back to back. At the end of Journey, Michener discusses why he ultimately decided to take this story out of its original place in the novel Alaska, and it makes sense. However, I found it a very compelling read, having so recently finished the first novel.

Because Journey is so much shorter (just over 300 pages), I found it much more difficult to put down. This is not a feel-good novel, as much of what happens to the main characters is quite tragic. I will admit that I am not a fan of Lord Lutton, who would probably be considered the novel's lead - he was extremely pompous an arrogant, and much of the tragedy is a direct result of his inability to admit he made bad decisions. The other characters were much more sympathetic, which made the events even more sad.

This novel would be a great introduction to Michener for someone who has considered reading his work, but is intimidated by the length of his other stories. It gives a good example of the writing style, but won't break your shoulder being lugged around in a bag. (Or am I the only one that does that?)

At the end of Journey, Michener talks about his three goals in writing these two novels:

"I wanted to help the American public to think intelligently about the arctic, where large portions of future international history might well focus; I wanted to remind my readers that Russia had held Alaska for a longer period, 127 years (1741 through 1867 inclusive), than the United States had held it, 122 years (1867 through 1988); and I particularly desired to acquaint Americans with the role that neighboring Canada had played and still does play in Alaskan history."

I feel like he accomplished each one of those goals in the two books, and I absolutely have been converted to a Michener lover! I will certainly be reading more of his novels in the future.

Finished: 2/14/08
Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Teaser Tuesday

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  • Grab your current read.
    Let the book fall open to a random page.
    Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
    You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given
    Please avoid spoilers!

"Ghouls move fast. They swarmed along the path through the desert more swiftly than a vulture flies and Bod was carried along by them, held high overhead by a pair of strong ghoul arms, tossed from one to another, feeling sick, feeling dread and dismay, feeling stupid."

(The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, page 82.)

If you would like to read more teasers, visit MizB at ShouldBeReading.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mailbox Monday

It's been two weeks since I received any books in the mail, and all I feel is relief. I think that's a sign that things were getting a little out of control. Not to worry - I have no doubt I'll fall off the bandwagon before too long. Obsessive people tend to do that. In the meantime, however, I've had fun rearranging some of my shelves, and finding some books I'd forgotten I owned. (How sad is that!)

More interested in people who actually DID get something this week? Check out Mailbox Monday, hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

TSS - Review - The Marchesa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

The Marchesa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby

Rating: 5/10

Constanza Safamita is the second child and only daughter of Baron Domenico Safamita, a noble in 19th-century Sicily. Scorned by her mother from the moment of her birth because of her bright red hair and because she was supposed to be a son, what love Constanza enjoys comes from her doting father and her older brother, Stefano. The Safamita servants quickly become aware of the daughter rejected by her mother, and soon gossip about the baby swirls around the town - she must be deformed; she must be a witch; she must be a bastard. Growing up the subject of the townspeople's speculation and curiosity, Constanza becomes quiet and withdrawn, preferring the company of her beloved nurse to the children of the nobility.

As his children grow, Domenico soon realizes that Constanza is the smartest, most capable of the three - her two brothers are strong-willed and selfish, unworthy to carry on the Safamita fortune. When Stefano falls in love with a woman below his station and marries her against his family's wishes, Domenico disinherits him and begins making plans to install Constanza as his primary heir. With his youngest son, Giacomo, becoming increasingly troublesome, Domenico presses Constanza to marry. He allows her to choose her own husband, unaware of her terror at the idea of marriage. When she falls impulsively in love with Pietro, the Marchese di Sabbiamena, Domenico regrets his decision to allow her the freedom to select on her own. Pietro is handsome and charming but a confirmed rake with immense gambling debts. Constanza refuses to choose another, and the two are married.

Constanza quickly realizes that the new husband she adores is not in love with her. She does earn his respect and friendship, and the two settle into a chaste marriage. When on his deathbed Domenico urges Costanza to discover what makes her truly happy, she is finally able to put her own needs first. When her husband comes to the realization that he loves her, Constanza must decide if she is willing to let him back into her life or if she will continue to live on her own terms, with the people and things that bring her true fulfillment.

The Marchesa is told in a series of flashbacks by Constanza's nurse, Amalia, as she cares for her niece in a small cave settlement. It covers a vast amount of material, introducing an almost endless array of characters. Hornby includes minute details of the lives of her characters, and this is where the novel bogs down. Instead of focusing on aspects of the plot which could be fascinating if fleshed out - the situation of Amalia and her niece, the incestuous relationship between Constanza's parents, the truth about Constanza's father - Hornby chooses to spend pages describing every tiny detail of the lives of the nobles and servants, down to how they washed the linen and the taste of the holy wafers at the convent. Each time the reader gets fully engrossed in the narrative, it breaks for a description of a conversation between two nearly unknown characters.

Hornby also seems to be relating her story at a distance, never allowing the reader to feel like they know any of the characters. Almost like she is reciting history, she gives a list of events but does not allow the reader to feel the emotions of any of her characters. While the setting and situations of her novel are interesting, her lack of connection to the protagonists leaves the reader feeling empty. The Marchesa is a novel with a great deal of promise that sadly does not deliver. Historical fiction fans will be disappointed by the plodding narrative and distant characters. It is an interesting glimpse at a specific period in history, but not an engaging novel.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Elizabeth Schulenberg, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

Poe Fridays

This week for Poe Friday, we read the short story The Black Cat. I was unfamiliar with this story, which made the reading that much more fun.

The basic premise is this: A nice, normal man marries a nice, normal lady, and they populate their house with a whole bunch of pets - the man's favorite is their black cat. For reasons that only make sense in Poe's world, the man suddenly goes crazy, and kills the cat. In a strange twist of fate, another cat shows up on his doorstep, identical to the first cat, except for a white patch on his chest. As the man grows increasingly more crazy, the white patch looks increasingly more like a gallows. Eventually, the man tries to kill this cat, also. When his wife intervenes, he kills her instead, and bricks her body into the basement wall. When the police come to investigate (as the always do), he thinks he is in the clear, until the cat starts to yowl - the cat he unknowingly bricked into the wall with his wife's body!!!!!

It is interesting to note the themes that seem to be common to Poe's work - the unreliable narrator, alcoholism as a "disease" that causes madness, murders with little to no defined purpose. This story also brought to mind The Cask of Amontillado, with the victim being concealed behind the brick wall. This is an incredibly dark story - as usual, one wonders what was happening in Poe's life to bring about this much evil. It's hard to tell exactly when his stories were written, because they were published multiple times, but certainly something bad must have been going on. I found this story to be just as engrossing as his other work, and would encourage others to read it.

Also, I found a review of a movie from the Masters of Horror series based on The Black Cat - on to my Netflix queue it goes!

Next week, we get to read the short story Hop-Frog. Poe Fridays is hosted by Kristen at WeBeReading. Head over and join us!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review - Tiger, Tiger by Galaxy Craze

Tiger, Tiger by Galaxy Craze
Finished: 1/24/09
Rating: 7/10

Tiger, Tiger is the second book by author Galaxy Craze (yes, that is her real name) about a young girl named May, her younger brother, Eden, and their loving but flighty mother, Lucy. Her first novel, By the Shore, finds the threesome running a broken-down hotel by the sea, living apart from May's father as Lucy tries to go it alone. Tiger, Tiger is set a few years later, with the family back in London with May's father, Simon. Lucy and Simon have a troubled relationship marked by breakups and reconciliations. When Simon leaves the family to go to India, purportedly to do some valuable purchasing for his antique shop, Lucy is angry at once again being left behind. When Simon runs into trouble on his trip, Lucy decides she won't wait around for him to return home. She packs up May and Eden and flies to California to an ashram.

Telling her children they will be spending the summer holiday here, Lucy quickly settles in to life at the ashram. Taken under guru Parvati's wing, Lucy becomes her new favorite, winning privileges like helping to cook Parvati's daily meals. May and Eden, however, are not as easily won over, resisting the enforced chores and unpalatable vegetarian food. Eden discovers that Parvati is not completely truthful about her past life, and the children hope to convince Lucy not to stay. Lucy won't hear anything negative about the strict leader, though, and May and Eden realize they need to make the best of their new life.

As the summer wears on, May and Eden both start to make friends and find a level of comfort with the simple ashram ways. May becomes especially close to Sati, a young girl whom Parvati has married to God and whose mother is soon to give birth to another child. When Sati's mother is asked to make a horrible sacrifice, Lucy tries to help her and incurs Parvati's anger. Faced for the first time with a true picture of the uncontested power wielded by the leader of the ashram, Lucy must ultimately choose between Parvati and her children.

Tiger, Tiger examines the bonds between parents and children, and what happens when those bonds are strained by outside forces. Both of May's parents are neglectful in different ways, each blaming the other for their deficiencies. As May tries desperately to remain loyal to both parents, Craze paints a heartbreaking portrait of a young girl confronted with the reality of her parents' shortcomings. Her trust in each of them is betrayed, drawing the reader in to May's despair as she learns the hard lessons of growing up. As in her first novel, Craze captures the voice of the young girl perfectly, with a first-person narrative that is arresting from the opening paragraph.

Readers of Craze's first novel may notice some inconsistencies which could be jarring, specifically in the timeline of Lucy and Simon's relationship. By the Shore had a certain hopefulness to it that made it a captivating read, while Tiger, Tiger is mostly concerned with hopelessness and despair. Perhaps for that reason, it doesn't quite live up to the brilliance of its predecessor, leaving the reader feeling just the slightest bit let down. It is, however, a fine second novel, and it is hoped that Craze won't leave her readers waiting quite as long for a third installment in May's life.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Elizabeth Schulenberg, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
  • Please avoid spoilers!

"By the time I reached the carriage stand, I was beginning to have serious doubts that I could get back to the Gypsy camp without creating so much of a fuss that the entire world would know I had gone. But I'd come this far. Now I just had to find the driver who would take me."

(From The Musician's Daughter by Susanne Dunlap, page 75)

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB at Should be Reading - head over and check it out!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Mailbox Monday

This week, my mailbox is empty. Empty, folks.

Actually, this is on purpose - I have really been feeling the need to catch up on some of my backlog - do you have any idea HOW MANY BOOKS I have waiting to be read?? So I have decided to cut WAAAAY back on the books I request, swap, accept, etc. I need to start reading MY books again.

So, things might be a little slow on the mailbox end, but don't worry - I'm still reading!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page - I'm sure SOMEONE else has something a little more exciting to report!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

TSS - Modern Library's 100 Best, #1

Modern Library's 100 Best Novels Challenge - Ulysses by James Joyce

Wow, I did not like this book. I decided I would just tackle the 100 Best Novels from the beginning, and I had a feeling this would be a tough read for me, so I thought I just dive in and do my best. And what I can tell you is, I did not like this book.

From Wikipedia:

Ulysses is a novel by James Joyce, first serialized in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, then published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach on February 2, 1922, in Paris. It is considered one of the most important works of Modernist literature.[1]

Ulysses chronicles the passage through Dublin by its main character, Leopold Bloom, during an ordinary day, June 16, 1904. The title alludes to the hero of Homer's Odyssey (Latinised into Ulysses), and there are many parallels, both implicit and explicit, between the two works (e.g., the correspondences between Leopold Bloom and Odysseus, Molly Bloom and Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus and Telemachus). June 16 is now celebrated by Joyce's fans worldwide as Bloomsday.

Ulysses totals about 265,000 words from a vocabulary of 30,030 words (including proper names)[2] and is divided into 18 "episodes". The book has been the subject of much controversy and scrutiny since its publication, ranging from early obscenity trials to protracted textual "Joyce Wars." Ulysses' stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—full of puns, parodies, and allusions—as well as its rich characterisations and broad humour, have made the book perhaps the most highly regarded novel in the Modernist pantheon. In 1999, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses first on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.[3]

My thoughts:

This was not at all an enjoyable reading experience for me. I made the decision to read it along with a study guide - I think the first time I've ever used Cliff's Notes! - and that was actually a good decision, because otherwise I'm pretty sure I would have had no idea what was going on. I consider myself to be a pretty smart person, in general, but I am NOT smart enough for this novel. Wikipedia refers to puns, parodies, and allusions - all completely over my head. I have noticed in the past that I don't enjoy stream-of-consciousness, and that proved true here again. I feel like it was an educational reading experience, but not even a little bit fun. I'm glad to say I've read it, but don't ever want to again.

Also, I had planned to read ALL the books on the list - even if I have read something already, I was going to read it for this challenge. However, after Ulysses, I've changed my mind. I've already read Joyce's The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and I'm calling it done. I don't think I can face another book like this one. Whew, I'm glad it's over!

***Edited to add rating - 3/10

Friday, February 6, 2009

Poe Fridays

So we all know the story of The Tell-Tale Heart, right? The crazy neighbor decides to kill the old man next door, simply because he has a creepy, vulture eye. After he kills him, he shows the police around the apartment, to let them know nothing is wrong - except he starts hearing the dead guy's heart beating through the boards in the floor.

This is, of course, a master tale by a master storyteller, but the best part of this story isn't the actual story - it is the narrator, calmly informing the reader that he ISN'T, in fact, crazy.

"True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses - not destroyed - not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily - how calmly I can tell you the whole story."

Poe has written a spot-on description of a mentally ill man, down to the auditory hallucinations and the perfectly illogical reasoning for killing someone. As the narrator describes, in chilling detail, exactly how he procedes with his crime, he appears perfectly reasonable, and yet it becomes more and more clear that he is not.

Once again, Poe sets his mood brilliantly, culminating with the narrator shining his flashlight on the old man's open eye. His use of dashes and exclamation points heighten the crazed effect of the story, until the reader is almost breathless, along with the narrator, by the end of the story.
In my anthology, The Tell-Tale Heart is a mere four pages long, but Poe can sure do an awful lot in that short span.

Next week's selection will be another short story, The Black Cat.

Poe Fridays is hosted by Kristin of We Be Reading - stop by and check it out!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My month in movies

First of all, I am blatantly stealing this idea from Alea at Pop Culture Junkie, and I didn't ask if it was okay. Alea - if you want me to stop, let me know! I just think it's brilliant, and that's why I'm copying you. =)

Since I love opening my mailbox to see a Netflix envelope ALMOST as much as I like seeing a new book, I thought I'd talk a little about the movies I've watched this month.

The Women - 2008 version

It's so nice to see that Meg Ryan and Annette Benning haven't fallen off the earth! Although, I worry about Meg's face - ladies, don't get lip injections. They never work. As for the movie, it was alright, although not as good as the original (more on that later.) It was an interesting look at the relationships women form with each other - I watched it while my husband napped on the couch, and when it was over he said, "I can't believe you made it through that whole movie. It put me back to sleep three times!" I'm guessing this means he won't be recommending it to his friends. Which brings me to...

The Women - 1939 version

Which is a completely different movie, ultimately. The 2008 version used the idea, and much of the dialogue, but the tone is completely different. In many ways, the 1939 version is more empowering, with Mary's speech about not having to accept a marriage in which her husband has a different standard than she does. It was very over-the-top, and the women were deliciously catty, but I think I liked the original better.

Towelhead (Nothing is Private)
- 2007

Powerful, uncomfortable, disturbing, ultimately hopeful movie about a young girl struggling with her identity, torn between two pretty awful parents, dealing with racism and abuse. This movie has garnered a lot of criticism because of it's use of a racial slur for a title - almost more interesting than the movie is the discussion included at the end of the disc between the director, stars, and members of the Arab-American community about the racial issues dealt with in the movie.

Beyond the Gates (Shooting Dogs) - 2005

Heartbreaking story about two British men - a teacher and a priest - who, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, have to choose between staying with the Tutsi people they have come to love, or saving their own lives. It portrays the UN in a pretty negative light, and asks some hard questions about whether or not people have a moral obligation to go against their "orders" to save people's lives. Definitely worth watching.

The Duchess - 2008

Really, this just made me happy I didn't live in the 18th century - very glamorous, but kinda bad for the women. Also, you notice a lot more with a Blu-Ray DVD player (thanks mom!), like Keira Knightly has a very strong underbite.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - 2008

I know they were not 100% true to the book, and making Caspian look about 18 years old was a little annoying, but I still really enjoyed this movie. I'm just a sucker for this type of epic fantasy, and because I already know and love the stories, they are very comforting for some reason. And Reepicheep is one of my favorite literary characters, so that didn't hurt. =)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Teaser Tuesday

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
  • Please avoid spoilers!
(I never manage to limit myself to ONLY two sentences!!)

"Single parenthood is hard, but it's simple too. You just do everything yourself. Doing everything yourself has a way of relaxing a person's standards. The kinds of things that drove me crazy during my marriage - my husband's passive incompetence or indifference when it came to certain childrearing chores - didn't seem quite so devastating when I was at fault. Undercooking the macaroni, skipping a nap, not changing a diaper on time, or falling asleep during a bedtime story didn't seem like such a crime when I committed it."

(The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson, page 40)

To read more teasers, stop by Should Be Reading!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mailbox Monday

Mailbox Monday is hosted each week by Marcia of The Printed Page.

Only one book found my mailbox this week, but it sounds like a good one -

The World in Half by Cristina Henriques - a woman travels to Panama to meet the father she never knew.

If you'd like to see more mailboxes, stop by The Printed Page!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

TSS - Monthly Wrapup and NaJuReMoNoMo

National Just Read More Novels Month has come to a close, and I'm pleased to say I attained my goal of reading 5 novels this month - I'm a winner!! Here's the scoop:

The Marchessa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby - did not start the year out with a bang, this historical novel read too much like a textbook and not enough like a story. Finished 1/9/09, Rating 5/10.

The Eyes of a King by Catherine Banner - Young adult fantasy by a British teen author touted by some as "the next J.K. Rowling". She's going to have to do better to live up to that praise, because while her first novel shows promise, it won't connect to audiences in the way Rowling has been able to. (My review here.) Finished 1/20/09, Rating 7/10.

By The Shore by Galaxy Craze - beautiful coming-of-age novel about a young girl and her loving but troubled mother, this novel captures the voice of its protaganist perfectly. (My review here.) Finished 1/23/09, Rating 8/10.

Tiger, Tiger by Galaxy Craze
- pseudo-sequel to By The Shore, this novel follows May and her family to an ashram in California. A good story which does not equal its predecessor. (My review here.) Finished 1/24/09, Rating 6.5/10.

The Last Nightingale by Anthony Flacco
- Excellent historical suspense, the first in my current favorite series of this genre. I have a sad feeling there won't be any more novels to come, because of a really bad decision by its publisher, but I will certainly savor these two again in years to come. (My review here.) Finished 1/26/09, Rating 8/10.

So, who else wants to celebrate their NaJuReMoNoMo success with me? Tell me about the novels you read this month in the comments, and head over to Foma, the official blog for NaJuReMoNoMo, to pick up your awards!