Thursday, November 15, 2012

Relative Reads - The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

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 me 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 Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
published 2002
320 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

In October 1886, Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the British War Office: he must leave his wife and his quiet life in London to travel to the jungles of Burma, where a rare Erard grand piano is in need of repair. The piano belongs to an army surgeon-major whose unorthodox peacemaking methods — poetry, medicine, and now music — have brought a tentative quiet to the southern Shan States but have elicited questions from his superiors.

On his journey through Europe, the Red Sea, India, and into Burma, Edgar meets soldiers, mystics, bandits, and tale-spinners, as well as an enchanting woman as elusive as the surgeon-major. And at the doctor's fort on a remote Burmese river, Edgar encounters a world more mysterious and dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

My thoughts:

First Impression - 10/28/12

So. I am feeling somewhat ambivalent toward this novel right now. On the one hand, the premise is quite interesting, and I have a lot of interest in this part of the world. My Grandpa was stationed in Burma during WWII, and it's geography and history are ripe for fictionalization. The author's writing is quite lovely, and there are times that I re-read paragraphs just to take in his words a second time. I loved the novel's first line -

"In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman's parasol."

There is so much imagery and promise in that line, that I am inclined to read the novel just to see if that promise is met.

But I am SO annoyed with the way the author presents dialogue. No punctuation, no line breaks, just wordsandwordsandwords, occasionally separated by a comma, then more words. No indication of who is speaking or when the character changes. As in this example -

"It isn't that, I don't want you to change your mind. You want me to go. I don't want you to go, but at the same time, I know you should go, I have been expecting this. You have been expecting an out-of-tune Erard in Burma? Not Burma, this, something different, It is a lovely idea, to use music to bring about peace, I wonder what songs you will play there." (p.35)

And there are sentences, almost always at the ends of chapters, that are either the most obvious red herrings in the world, or else so much foreshadowing that I already know what is going to happen. And these two little irritations jar me out of the flow of the novel, because everything else is so good, that they just stand out like sore thumbs. Sigh. But I am going to press on, and hopefully it will get better or I will decide I don't care.

Second Thoughts - 11/6/12

Something about this novel is just dragging for me - I think it's fair to say that it is not a terribly plot-driven novel, as it took us over half of the book to finally get to Burma. I still think the author's writing is lovely in many places, and his descriptions of the geography and setting paint quite vivid pictures for me as I'm reading. I also feel like I am learning a great deal - the author's description of tuning a piano was fascinating, and I've been playing the piano for 30+ years.  I do feel like the pace has picked up slightly now that we have actually (finally) arrived at the piano, but I don't know if it is enough to fully sell me on the book.

Last Word - 11/9/12

I think I would have liked this book better if the author had chosen a specific topic and written some nonfiction. I think he has great talent as a writer, but his story did not draw me in. The parts of this novel that I enjoyed the most were the times that he spent a significant amount of time explaining something - the intricacies of tuning a piano, or the complicated history of the Burmese war lords. The story itself just didn't feel developed enough - I kept getting the feeling that the author either didn't care enough, or hadn't developed the characters enough in his own mind to really bring them alive on the page.

And there was the weird dialogue thing throughout the novel which never did stop irritating me. I understand that authors chose that method at times to illustrate some type of point, but this author's point was never clear to me, and it just seemed lazy.

In summary - talented author, disappointing story. If you have an interest in this time period, or the location, or piano tuning, you will find interesting information, but I can't recommend it as a great novel. In this instance, my mom and I definitely do not agree.

Finished: 11/8/12
Source: loan from my mom
MPAA rating: PG for some danger and allusions to adult situations
My rating: 6/10

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Re-Education of a Book Lover - Part Three - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have loved to read for as long as I can remember. Recently, however, it has come to my attention that there are some G A P I N G holes in my literary education. For example: I have read every Austen and Bronte you can get your hands on, but somehow had never managed to read a Charles Dickens novel in its entirety. So, with a little help from my mom, the English Teacher, and a couple of good friend, the English Majors, I am setting a course to re-educate myself by filling in some of those gaps.

Next up - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

originally published in April, 1925
160 pages

Synopsis from publisher -

Jay Gatsby is a self-made man, famed for his decadent champagne-drenched parties. Despite being surrounded by Long Island's bright and beautiful, Gatsby longs only for Daisy Buchanan. In shimmering prose, Fitzgerald shows Gatsby pursue his dream to its tragic conclusion. The Great Gatsby is an elegiac and exquisite portrait of the American Dream.

My thoughts -

I listened to this novel as an audiobook, read by the actor Tim Robbins, and blew through it so fast I haven't had time to do my normal post "style", so all my thoughts will just be in one long chunk.

I was surprised at how much I really enjoyed this novel. Although I've read a lot of classics, they aren't the novels I think of when I am looking for a "fun" reading experience. Usually it takes me a while to really become engrossed, due to the writing style, or the language, or the subject matter. Gatsby grabbed me from the very beginning, and hooked me in to this tragic story.

Fitzgerald does an excellent job of portraying his characters - none of them are particularly likable in any real way, and yet he manages to give them enough humanity that the reader isn't turned off. Gatsby is not a good guy - he is shallow, and impatient, and probably a criminal, but his demise is not something that the reader rejoices in.

I was most interested in Fitzgerald's portrayal of the lavish lifestyles of the Buchanans and Gatsby, and how hollow he wanted to make them seem. Daisy and Tom, and Jay himself, had attained everything that they could ever want, and yet each was ultimately lonely and bitterly unhappy. As one of the icons for that lifestyle himself, it seemed an interesting and telling depiction.

I completely understand why this novel is considered one of the greatest of American literature. I found it to be compelling and fascinating, and wished it could have gone on much past it's last sentence. If you haven't read it (and I know the odds are slim, but hey - I can't be the only person in the world!), I encourage you to pick up a copy. This is literature at it's finest.

Finished: 11/5/12
Source: audiobook from the library
MPAA Rating: R for adult situations, language, and violence
My rating: 9/10

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Book Thoughts - Kisses from Katie by Katie J. Davis

Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption by Katie J. Davis
published 10/31/2011
audio - read by Jaimee Draper

Synopsis from publisher:

What would cause an eighteen-year-old old senior class president and homecoming queen from Nashville, Tennessee, to disappoint her parents by forgoing college, break her little brother’s heart, lose all but a handful of her friends (because the rest of them think she has gone off the deep end), and break up with the love of her life, all so she could move to Uganda, where she knew only one person but didn’t know any of the language? A passion to make a difference. Katie Davis left over Christmas break her senior year for a short mission trip to Uganda and her life was turned completely inside out. She found herself so moved by the people and children of Uganda that she knew her calling was to return and care for them. She has given up a relatively comfortable life - at a young age - to care for the less fortunate of this world. She was so moved by the need she witnessed, she’s centered her life around meeting that need. Katie, a charismatic and articulate young woman, is in the process of adopting thirteen children in Uganda, and she completely trusts God for daily provision for her and her family.

Despite the rough conditions in which Katie lives, she has found a life of service to God to be one of great joy. Katie’s children bring constant delight and help her help others by welcoming whoever comes to their door. As the challenges grow, so does Katie’s faith and her certainty that what she’s doing in Uganda, one person at a time, will have far-reaching rewards. It isn’t the life she planned, but it is the life she loves.

My thoughts - 

I think if more people who identified themselves as Christians chose to allow themselves to make a difference in the way Katie Davis has, the world would be a profoundly different place. She doesn't advocate changing the world - she's not trying to start a revolution. She believes in loving unconditionally, always and in every situation. She believes in making a difference for the person who needs help that is right in front of you, wherever you happen to be. She believes that we are not promised tomorrow, so our best option is to do as much good as we can today, because we don't know what the future will bring.

Katie obviously has a passion for caring for the orphaned, and in her story she remarks on it again and again. I have always known that there are millions of children in the world that need parents, but I think this was the statistic that blew me away:

“The truth is that the 143 million orphaned children and the 11 million who starve to death or die from preventable diseases and the 8.5 million who work as child slaves, prostitutes, or under other horrific conditions and the 2.3 million who live with HIV add up to 164.8 million needy children. And though at first glance that looks like a big number, 2.1 billion people on this earth proclaim to be Christians. The truth is that if only 8 percent of the Christians would care for one more child, there would not be any statistics left.”  (Katie J. Davis)

And I know it's not always that simple - and I know there are many wonderful families around the world who would love to help one of these children and are caught up in red tape and governmental regulations, but that still stops me in my tracks. We, who call ourselves Christians, could make that much of a difference - if we chose to.

I admit that I spend a fair amount of time feeling sorry for myself. Circumstances in my family's life have left our current situation difficult, in ways that are completely out of my control. Reading this book has re-adjusted my perspective in ways I couldn't have anticipated. I am sure there will still be times that I feel scared and abandoned and alone, but as I remember Katie's story, I won't feel helpless, and I won't feel hopeless, because this, too, will pass. 

"Sometimes I want to spend hours talking with my best friends about boys and fashion and school and life. I want to go to the gym; I want my hair to look nice; I want to be allowed to wear jeans. I want to be a normal young woman living in America, sometimes. But I want other things more. All the time. I want to be spiritually and emotionally filled every day. I want to be loved and cuddled by a hundred children and never go a day without laughing. I want to wake up to a rooster’s crow and open my eyes to see lush green trees that seem to pulse with life against a piercing blue sky and the rusty red soil of Uganda. I want to be challenged endlessly. I want to be taught by those I teach, and I want to share God’s love with people who otherwise might not know it. I want to work so hard that I end every day filthy and too tired to move. I want to make some kind of difference, no matter how small, and I want to follow the calling God has placed on my heart. I want to give my life away, to serve the Lord with each breath. At the end of the day, no matter how hard, I want to be right here in Uganda." (Katie J. Davis)

I know this book won't be for everyone, but it was certainly the right book for me at this time in my life. I don't generally promote charities or causes on this blog, but if something about this post or Katie's story has peaked your interest, I encourage you to visit her website, Kisses from Katie, or Amazima Ministries, where you can learn more about what she is doing in Uganda.

Finished: 10/28/12

Source: audiobook from the library

MPAA Rating: PG for some scary situations

My rating: 9/10

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Shorts

The Odd Sea by Frederick Reiken
published 1998
214 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

One sunny spring morning, 16-year-old Ethan Shumway walks down his gravel driveway and vanishes without a trace. A gifted athlete and musician, he leaves behind a wake of family and friends who search for understanding in the unbearable presence of loss.

My thoughts:

More than anything I think this is a coming-of-age novel - of a boy, and of a family, who have to learn how to survive and keep going in the wake of a tragedy. Reiken's family rang true to me - each character felt authentic, and their individual reaction to the events seemed appropriate. Watching Phillip travel the bumpy path of grief, loss, and acceptance was difficult at times, but ultimately I found his story moving. I don't know that I will remember this novel's specifics months down the road, but I would certainly give this author a second read.

Finished: 10/6/12
Source: loan from my mom
MPAA rating: R for language and adult situations
My rating: 6/10

Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth
published October 2, 2012
272 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

In 1962, Jackie Hart moved to Naples, Florida, from Boston with her husband and children. Wanting something personally fulfilling to do with her time, she starts a reading club and anonymously hosts a radio show, calling herself Miss Dreamsville.

     The racially segregated town falls in love with Miss Dreamsville, but doesn’t know what to make of Jackie, who welcomes everyone into her book club, including a woman who did prison time for allegedly killing her husband, a man of questionable sexual preference, a young divorcee, as well as a black woman.

My thoughts:

This is a very lighthearted novel - really too lighthearted for my taste. Hearth takes on a vast number of social and political issues from the 1960s - race, gender, religion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the KKK - but spends so little time on each that it's hard to take the novel seriously. I would have preferred a few less issues, and a bit more time developing characters. I have a feeling this novel will be pretty popular, but it didn't hit the mark for me.

Finished: 10/14/12
Source: review copy from publisher- thank you!
MPAA rating: PG-13 for discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and violence
My rating: 5/10

The Passage by Justin Cronin
published 2010
audiobook read by Scott Brick, Adenrele Ojo, and Abby Craden

Synopsis from publisher:

First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear — of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he’s done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. He is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors. But for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey — spanning miles and decades — towards the time and place where she must finish what should never have begun.

My thoughts:

I read this novel two years ago for the first time, and loved it (my review here), but hated the fact that I would have to wait for the second installment in the trilogy. I decided to revisit the story this fall because the long-awaited second book was released this month, and I am glad I did. The Passage holds up extremely well to a re-read - knowing the plot twists and turns did not lessen the impact of the story, and sometimes knowing what was coming almost made the experience sweeter. I enjoyed listening to it as an audiobook a lot - the first time through, there were some parts that moved a bit slowly for me, but I didn't feel that drag as much as an audio experience. This is such a good novel, and now I am even more excited to start book #2! If you haven't read it yet, do it! It's a great choice for fall/winter, and now you won't have to live through the horrible cliffhanger!

Finished: 10/29/12
MPAA rating: R for language and violence
My rating: 9/10