My latest reads

I’ve read a lot of books since my last update due to my New Year’s resolution to read 70 books in 2012. Have you made any reading or writing resolutions? I got my boyfriend to try for 70 books as well, so I’m pumped about getting this done! Here are the books I’ve read since my last update – you can click on the covers to view/buy them online:


1) Kindred by Octavia E. Butler – I finished this a while ago, and I gave it five stars on GoodReads. Butler’s writing was vivid and difficult to read at times because of the subject matter, but touching and awesome when it needed to be. I liked the relationship between Dana and her husband, which was romantic without being saccharine; it also showed the racism of the late 1970s that mixed-race couples experienced, which was then juxtaposed with the brutal racism of the 1800s. I also appreciated how Dana was portrayed as a strong woman but one who had conflicting emotions about the plantation owner. I thought that was true to her character, and added shades of gray to the novel when I wasn’t really expecting any. I adored Dana, and felt extremely connected to her, which is something I haven’t felt about a literary character in a long time.


2) The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing by Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards – I admit with no shame that I am not the best book reviewer or writer, so I was hoping this little book would help me. While there were some good tips throughout and a huge list of resources at the end, I found most of this guide to be extremely repetitious and poorly edited. Sections could have been combined to save from the verbosity, and countless run-on sentences made for a tedious reading experience. I would suggest looking elsewhere for a book about the art of reviewing.


3) On Agate Hill by Lee Smith – This wasn’t as good as I was hoping. When I read the summary on Amazon, it looked like something I would love; a fictitious collection of court records, letters, and diary entries from the days of the Reconstruction era, that follow the life of one woman from childhood to her death. Supposedly, these documents were found in the attic of the house she grew up in, and the main story is framed with the letters of the person who found them. It sounds like the book was written just for me, but I kept losing interest when I got past the first few chapters. Parts of the novel were well done and engaging, like the sections about her time as a child and when she was a teacher, and a bit at the end that I won’t spoil, but huge chunks of this novel could have been cut. I hate it when authors write about the same event from different character’s perspectives without changing the style of writing or even what the characters are thinking. That literary technique only works if you are showing how different their views are, but not if you are going to simply repeat their observations. Also, the technique of using letters/diary entries to document this woman’s life, as well as the inclusion of the framing narrative, seemed a bit unnecessary and clunky. I still don’t really get the point of the framing narrative or it’s connection/relevance to the protagonist’s journey, so I probably would have liked this better as a linear novel rather than a collection of documents.


4) The Ghost of Blackwood Hall by Carolyn Keene (or whoever actually wrote this one) – I don’t know what to say about this, because I truly love all Nancy Drew books. She’s a smart, kick-ass girl who solves mysteries and lives in a crime-ridden but otherwise perfect world. Her main gripe is that her dad is sometimes too awesome and her dog barks. I just love the old-timeyness of these, and how Nancy showcases bravery, intelligence, and strength when taking down the baddies. Certainly, sometimes it can be problematic, but it’s like 98% awesome.


5) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – Five stars. Almost flawless. Beautiful writing, humorous, haunting, exciting, and one of the greatest literary journeys anyone could take. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read this. I know this is trite, but I didn’t want it to end. I wish someone would find a long-lost manuscript for a sequel, but that will never happen. I don’t want to say any more because so many others have had the same reaction to this book but have written more eloquently on their thoughts. Get your hands on this if you haven’t already! You can download a free Kindle app for your computer and download the book for free on Amazon.


6) Dust Tracks On a Road by Zora Neale Hurston – I was disappointed when I finished this, but my love of Hurston bumped this up from a 2-star rating to a 3. I believe part of the issue I had with this biography was that I just finished Great Expectations (which has a vastly different tone, style and narrative) and I couldn’t wrap my brain around this one for a while. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I started to get into the flow of it. I appreciated Hurston’s thoughts about race and class, and I found her story to be interesting and important, but the writing itself didn’t have the same power for me as her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. You should definitely read this anyway, and pass it on to friends, because it would be such a tragedy if the world forgot her works again.


7) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Doctor Who meets The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. So, basically, I enjoyed it immensely. The elements of time and space travel coupled with a fierce, brave young girl made this one of my new favorite YA/children’s novels. If I tell you what I truly appreciated about it, I would be giving away a huge spoiler, so I’ll refrain myself. Check this out from the library if you haven’t read it yet, especially if you enjoy sci-fi/fantasy and strong girl leads.


8) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – When I read the first chapter of this book, I had a sense that this was going to be my favorite book of all time, usurping that title from The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Oh dear, was I wrong. While the story itself is interesting, certainly enough to hold your attention, I absolutely cannot take the treatment of the female characters in this book. Objectified doesn’t even begin to cover it. I understand that the author doesn’t always hold the same ideas as his characters, but every! single! woman! in the novel is a sex object for the dude characters – and then there’s rape, murder, assault, etc. The author must have some huge contempt for women or something; there’s no grand message here that I’m missing – it’s just disheartening. It takes away most of any enjoyment I might have had from this book. I haven’t finished it completely (I have about 80 pages left), but I hope the end wraps up the random plots in the book because, if they aren’t, then it would really feel like a waste of a read. So upsetting, especially considering all the hype around this book.

What’s next on my reading list? I’m still deciding. I want to read a lady author, maybe Cristina Garcia’s Monkey Hunting. I have to see what I’m in the mood for after Shadow of the Wind.

Expect more frequent posts here, because I’m reading up a storm! It’s a huge relief to be done with school, and now I have all this free time to spend with my books. Yay.

On V.C. Andrews, Wastelands, and Why I Hate Stephen King

I finished A Moveable Feast, and found it much better than The Sun Also Rises (well, most books are) but not as good as A Farewell to Arms. I keep trying to find a Hemingway as good as the latter book, but nothing has really come close. I’m kind of done with him right now, anyway. I was thinking of reading The Paris Wife, but I will put that off for the time being.

After A Moveable Feast, I moved on to Flowers in the Attic. I read it when I was a child, around 9 or 10, and I loved it – probably because it had sex and curse words in it, and I knew this was something my mother would never have let me read had she known what it was about. I read the entire series at that age, and was absolutely fascinated by this twisted family and their stranger-than-soap-opera lives. As a 28-year-old woman, the story was still captivating and I could see why the story drew me in at that age; the narrator, Catherine, is very relatable as she goes through budding sexual feelings, emotional changes, and the general pre-teen/teenage angst. Of course, it’s framed in the most fucked up story imaginable, but the core of Catherine’s growing up rings true to many young persons’ experiences.

Looking at the story with the knowledge I have now, of how racism/sexism/ableism/etc manifest themselves, I did see that the author has this obsession with beauty and being perfect and white and blonde, and how any imperfection is deemed horrifying and not worth living with. I know that V.C. Andrews suffered a spinal injury and spent most of her life in a wheelchair, so I was trying to think of how she was using the themes in FitA to make some grand statement about disability/racism/sexism, but I couldn’t piece anything together to make it fit any other mold than fucked up beauty standards.

Besides that, the writing was atrocious (I am no Shakespeare, but can pick out crap writing from oceans away) and some of the story seemed to drag on, despite the page-turniness (new word!) of the book. I’m glad I read it again, if only to laugh at what I thought was *ama-zing literature* when I was a wee child.

Now I’m half-way done with Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, which I purchased on my Kindle when I went through my dystopia obsession. Well, I’m not really through that obsession – I imagine I will always be in it. This book is a compilation of (mostly dude) writers and their short stories about the after-effects of the Apocalypse. I bought this based on a recommendation, and am bummed that there has only been one woman author out of the ten stories I’ve read so far. I can’t say I’m surprised, but still frustrating.

Most of the stories have been good, though. My favorite was “When Sysadmins Ruled the World” by Cory Doctorow, which spoke to my computer nerd self and showed us what might happen to the internet if the world went to shit. I also liked “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin, which was about the human population living underground for decades after a nuclear attack, and what that did to their biology/psychology. My least favorite was “The End of the Whole Mess” by Stephen King – I even went into that one with an open mind, knowing that I hated every King book I have read thus far. His stories are just so dragged out and his characters are straight-up asshats, and I can never pump myself up enough to give a shit about anything he writes. I want to appreciate his work, and I keep going trying to find something I like, but no – apparently, this is impossible. I do like some of his movies, though, and his concepts are interesting and would make awesome books if he didn’t write them.

After Wastelands, I’ll probably dive into Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which intrigued me with its antique photo cover. Never judge a book by it’s cover? Pffft, I say. I also bought Alice I Have Been: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin, and you can guess why I picked that one up. Or maybe I’ll just tell you – I’m a big Alice in Wonderland fan. I liked it before it was cool to like it (how hipster of me to say – I apologize), so I’m in heaven with all these Alice-related books popping up.

What have you been reading lately?

On How I Might Be Related to Ernest Hemingway

I finally finished The Age of Dreamingby Nina Revoyr, and ended up giving it two stars on Goodreads.com, which translates to “it was okay”. It was very flawed in many aspects, mostly having to do with the ending that seemed completely tacked on, and the unnatural way the plot twist was revealed, but overall, it kept my interest. I love silent movies, so I enjoyed all the references to Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, the way the movies were filmed, and the contrast between silents and talkies. The first third of the book is painfully slow (that’s why it took me so long to finish), but once we learn more about the happenings of the murder case, it really picks up. The narrator was naive, almost child-like in the way he viewed people, and it was a weird juxtaposition when he kept stating that he was a ladies man. I just didn’t buy that, and it really feels off when you get to the end of the novel. I would recommend this if you enjoy works about silent movies, filmmaking, and/or racism in the early days of film and beyond.

I started reading A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, which I picked up at this awesome independent bookstore (Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe) in Washington, DC. I loved it so much, that we went back twice and I purchased four novels. I wish we had places like that where I live – the closest that we have here are either not wheelchair accessible or too far to drive to. This is why I would love to live in a city – awesome shops and places to eat or hang out wherever you look. But back on point – A Moveable Feast. I am a huge fan of A Farewell to Arms and Hemingway’s style of writing – the beautiful simplicity and organic flow of words that just hit you right in the heart. I have also read The Sun Also Rises, and hated it so much, plot-wise (let’s get drunk! Let’s go to the bull fight! Let’s go back to our hotel and get drunk! Let’s go back to the bull fight, drink, and go back to our hotel to drink some more!), but the writing was still fantastic. Or, as Hemingway would say, it was very nice. A Moveable Feast is a collection of autobiographical stories by Hemingway, and so far, it is beyond fascinating. I went to bed last night thinking about it, and it makes me want to write. The last book I read that evoked this sort of reaction was Finding Miracles by Julia Alvarez, and I read that almost two years ago. I’m not even half way done with A Moveable Feast, but I can’t recommend it enough. If you plan on reading it, purchase (or borrow from the library) the restored version, as it reflects his original intentions with the novel as well as unfinished manuscripts that have been included in their own section.

You may be wondering what is up with the title of the blog post. I was reading the forward, written by Hemingway’s son, and came across this passage: “When I was a young person being raised in the Roman Catholic religion of my maternal grandmother, Mary Downey, born in County Cork, I heard [the Bible] read from the pulpit during service on Sundays and feast days.” My ancestral name is Downey, or so I thought until my dad and cousin informed me that it’s actually MacEldowney, and was shortened to Downey. But maybe Hemingway’s family did the same thing! Realistically, there are a lot of Downeys from Ireland and we are probably not related – but my cousin is still going to look into it, because there is always that chance that one is related to a famous author. I’m just going to pretend Hemingway is my cuz until I found out differently.

Books #5, #6, #7

book cover

Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853 (The Royal Diaries) by Barry Denenberg
151 pages

*** out of five stars.

Purchase from Amazon.com

This faux diary is based on the real life of Elisabeth, princess of Austria.  It only encompasses the time during which she met and wed her husband.  However, the most interesting part of this book is the appendix.  It tells you what happened to the princess and her family members after she was married (which is far more gripping than the material presented in the diary). Photos of Elisabeth and her relatives, a detailed family tree, and additional sources to further read about her are also included.

This book is geared towards children or preteens, so it’s a very quick read.  I read it in the span of an hour or so, and it was fairly interesting.  It wasn’t the epitome of fine literature as the prose is quite simple, but it kept my interest.  I needed something light and fun after reading my last book, and this was just what I needed.

***********************************

Suite Francaise

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
448 pages

** out of five stars

Purchase from Amazon.com

This unfinished work by Nemirovsky is set in France during the Nazi occupation.  She had originally planned to include five sections in the novel, but was only able to complete the first two before she was sent to a concentration camp.

The first section is titled “Storm in June,” and is a sampling of different residents of Paris, and how they fled for their safety.  Many critics have said that the reader gets a feel for exactly how those people felt, but I found that this was not true.  Each character or family had a chapter, and as soon as you became somewhat involved in their story, you were sprung to another point of view.  I wasn’t able to grasp fully the scale of the event and the emotions that the characters experienced; because of this, I found most of this section to move along slowly.  I didn’t care about the people involved, and found myself anticipating the next section.  It needed to be reworked and edited, and maybe she should have focused on two characters instead of the five or so she included.  This part really bogged down my mind, and I had trouble keeping my eyes open for more than three pages.

Part two, “Dolce,” focuses on the German occupation of a small village.  I connected more with this section because the character development and descriptions were able to flourish.  She includes a story of a young French woman who has a love affair with a German (even though her husband is fighting in the war), and must hide it from everyone in her home and town.  Nemirovsky did a great job at describing the conflicting emotions between hatred and sympathy for the occupying soldiers.  There was a lot of tension between the villagers because of this conflict, and that leads to some interesting events.  However, because it took me such a long time to complete “Storm in June,” I had sort of mentally checked out of this book and just wanted it to be done.  In retrospect, I probably should have taken my time and enjoyed the story more.

The appendix of this novella was the most interesting.  It included Nemirovsky’s notes and what she planned to do with the rest of the book, a short section on her life and what eventually happened to her, and (the best part) letters that she and her husband wrote concerning this work and her eventual deportation to Auschwitz.

Overall, I don’t know if I would recommend Suite Francaise.  Maybe pick up a biography of Irene instead, and read one of her completed works.  Even though I enjoyed “Dolce,” I think there are other books out there (such as Sarah’s Key) that detail the German occupation of France in a more interesting manner.

***********************************

cover

Pocketfull of Rye by Agatha Christie
224 Pages

***1/2 out of five stars.

Purchase from Amazon.com

When a wealthy businessman is found dead in his office with rye in his shirt pocket, investigators are unsure of what to think.  There was no logical reason for the rye to be there – until Miss Marple, and elderly amateur detective, comes along and presents a plausible explanation that involves a popular nursery rhyme.  The deeper the investigation went, more clues were revealed and suspicious individuals came out.

I thought this was classic Agatha Christie, with the usual red herring here and there, but I found the end to be not that plausible.  I was waiting to be blown away with the end, as I usually am with her work, but this time I was left unsatisfied.  However, the story was a fun, quick read, but I would not recommend this as someones first Christie book.  If you want to read her books, start with And Then There Were None or Evil Under the Sun.

Books #3 and #4 – Amrita and Sarah’s Key

Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto
384 pages

**1/3 out of five stars.

Amazon.com

I wanted to like this novel – Yoshimoto is one of my favorite authors.  When I read her book Kitchen, I instantly fell in love with her style.  It was very magical and dream like.  I’ve read five other novels by her, and and each one did not disappoint.  However, this one bored me and left me feeling cold.  The protagonist, a young woman named Sakumi, is struggling with home life after the suicide of her sister.  Her young brother possesses powers that let him read minds and see dead people, and Sakumi often has powers of her own.  She has visions of her sister, her friends, people from her past, and loved ones in distant lands.  The premise seemed interesting, but I found that about half of this book repetitious.  Sometimes I would have to go back a few pages to make sure I had the right page and I just wasn’t reading something from a past chapter.  The descriptions were often too mystical and far-fetched; I felt like I was reading a book written by a doe-eyed highschooler.  The middle of this book was extremely slow, and the characters introduced were so ridiculous.  The end was not fulfilling.  This book was 200 pages too long.  Maybe I’ve just gotten over the whole mystic dream-like writing, but that aspect really grated on my nerves this time – I really believe Yoshimoto overdid it.  Skip this one, and pick up N.P. or Kitchen instead.

***********************************

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
304 pages

*** 1/2 out of five stars.

Amazon.com

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve read books about the holocaust.  For some reason, the topic has always intrigued me.  I’m ashamed to say that I did not know the extent of the French government’s involvement in the deportation, containment, and extermination of Jewish families.  It’s not something that’s widely discussed or written about – this novel tackles that subject.  It is based on true events.

There are two stories in Sarah’s Key.  One takes place in the past, during the summer of 1942 in Paris.  It follows a young Jewish girl named Sarah, who is captured in her home, along with her mother and father, by the French police.  Before they are taken away, Sarah hides her young brother in a cupboard and locks him inside, believing they will soon return to set him free.  She takes the key and keeps it in her pocket, hoping that her little sibling would be safe.  Along with thousands of other Jewish families, her and her parents are taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a local sports arena, where they are left for days without much food or water.  They are all then transported to local concentration camps, and eventually to Auschwitz.

The other story that takes place in this novel follows Julia Jarmond, a 45-year-old woman living in Paris in 2002.  She is a writer for a local magazine, and is assigned to write about the anniversary of the Velodrome roundup.  Julia learns about Sarah during her research, and discovers that the young girl and her family used to live in Julia’s new apartment.  The more she learns about Sarah, the more she feels the need to locate and meet Sarah.  Julia’s search for information is quite interesting.

I really found the majority of this book to be engaging.  The descriptions of the roundup and concentration camps were graphic, but necessary.  Even though I’ve seen countless books and movies about the holocaust, the descriptions never fail to shock and disgust me.  There were scenes in this novel that turned my stomach, but readers should know what went on and how these individuals suffered.  It is necessary in order to never forget.

Unfortunately, the story takes a sharp decline when Sarah’s story ends mid-novel.  We find out the fate of Sarah’s brother way too soon, and we are left with the story of Julia’s marital problems and a contrived ending that does not satisfy.  I wish the author would have kept Sarah’s narrative throughout the novel, as that was the most powerful part of the book.  It lacked power after that, and I had to force myself to finish.  Despite this, I still think it’s an interesting and important read.

Book #2 – A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
192 pages

Rating: ** stars out of five stars.

Amazon.com

I knew that this book would be disturbing but I didn’t realize how much certain scenes would bother me. I understand that the prevalence of assault and rape in the story is supposed to enhance the climax of the plot, but at times the violence seemed gratuitous. Especially the one scene where two minors were involved…I won’t give it away. I’ve read multiple reviews of A Clockwork Orange online, and many readers stated that they felt bad for the protagonist. I don’t know how people can feel that after all that this character did in the first third of the book. While I do not agree with the methods of the government and police, I had a hard time working up any empathy for the kid. The other thing I didn’t like was the ending. Originally, the ending of the novel was cut by the publisher, but my edition had the ending still intact. I could see why the publishers wanted to cut this ending. It seemed forced, unrealistic, and unnecessary.

A Clockwork Orange does have some redeeming qualities. The slang used by the protagonist and his friends is known as Nadsat. It’s a combination of Russian, gypsy talk, and english slang. I thought I would have trouble reading it because most of this novel includes Nadsat words, but it wasn’t difficult at all. Most words you could figure out by the context alone, and some words were self-explanatory. The way Burgess crafted the language was just pure genius.

I read this right after finishing John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden, so it was definitely a sharp difference as far as style and genre go. However, there were similarities in theme: good vs. evil, free will, and the importance of choices. A Clockwork Orange definitely had a more fatalistic brutal way of portraying these themes, whereas Steinbeck was more delicate, yet powerful.

Book #1 – East of Eden

east of edenEast of Eden by John Steinbeck
602 pages

Rating: * * * * * out of five stars.

Amazon.com

This book was amazing. The ending gave me chills. It made me think a lot about what it means to be a good person and the expectations people put on others to always do the right thing. And how we have the power to decide between right and wrong, and make different choices that lead us down different paths. Lee was, by far, my favorite character. I’d like to sit with him and drink tea and discuss the concept of timshel – the Hebrew word for “thou mayest” – which was the central theme of East of Eden. Here’s a paragraph from the book:

“Don’t you see?” [Lee] cried. “The American Standard translation [of the Bible] orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

A small word can change the meaning of central themes in the Bible. I never actually thought about that until I read this passage, so it’s always exciting to examine and think about new topics. My brain likes the workout.

Overall, I would consider this one of my favorite books. I may write about it again later on. While I was reading A Clockwork Orange (which was the next book I read), I kept relating the two novels, as both are about choice and the freedom to choose.