Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Goodbye, Maurice Sendak.

This morning I lie in bed after my alarm went off & scrolled through Twitter before getting up. It was just a string of book industry posts: Maurice Sendak Dead at 83, Maurice Sendak Dead at 83, Maurice Sendak Dead at 83.

I wept for half an hour before making myself get ready for work. All day I kept tearing up & having to duck into the bathroom to collect myself. As soon as I got home I lifted the stack of his books from my shelf, sat down, & cried into them. He wasn't a relative. I never met the guy. But to the extent that a twenty-something girl could be in love with an 80-year-old gay man, I loved him. If that sounds creepy, well, whatever. I did. & if you're reading this you probably already knew that.

The Light Princess, The Golden Key, The Juniper Tree, The Animal Family, & Mr. Rabbit & the Lovely Present - all illustrated by Sendak

My first Sendak memory is reciting Chicken Soup with Rice in kindergarten. "In April I will go away to far off Spain or old Bombay, & dream about hot soup all day..." The rhyme is so perfectly memorable. "Oh my, oh once. Oh my, oh twice. Oh my, oh chicken soup with rice."

The Nutshell Library

I probably read Where the Wild Things Are (Does it make me a Sendak hipster that I scoff whenever someone's only reference to him is Wild Things?) & the rest of the Nutshell Library & maybe a few others as a kid, but I didn't really connect with Sendak until a few years ago, when I sat in a tiny chair in the children's department of the Hollins U library & read through a stack of Sendak books looking for inspiration for a paper (which I found). That's where I first read The Sign on Rosie's Door, Outside Over There, & - my favorite Sendak book of all - Kenny's Window.

The scary ice baby from Outside Over There

I read Kenny's Window over & over. It was crushing sadness & falling in love all at once, though I guess those go hand in hand more often than not. Kenny's Window, published when he was 27, is the first book he wrote & illustrated. It's almost unrecognizable from his best-known works like Wild Things & In the Night Kitchen. The drawings are more like rough sketches, though with Sendak's same hatching, & the same little terrier. It's colored only in browns & yellows, & the story's very wordy & far from straightforward. Most critics who've touched on the book aren't fond of it, but it speaks to me like no other book I've read. One copy I have (I have a few...) has a gift inscription in it: "This book is strange. Let it be strange, & see where it takes you." Whoever wrote that was spot-on.

Kenny's Window

It pokes a finger straight into my heart in a spot that I don't like anyone else to know is there, the part that feels the painful passage of childhood & the guilt of growing up. The part that wants to fly on a horse to the sea where a boat waits to take me away from the place I grew up - but that also looks back at the teddy bear sitting on my bed & is so heartbroken all I can do is throw things. It's the same reason I love J. M. Barrie so much.

From there I was completely smitten. I've collected as many of his books as I can get my hands on (& still have a long way to go), including the first book he ever illustrated, a physics textbook called Atomics for the Millions. I've tried to learn everything I can about him short of knocking on his door.

Atomics for the Millions - It's easy to see his comics/Disney influence.

There are so many things that draw me to Sendak. His illustrations are captivating & his fairy tales are beautiful. But more than that it's the way he views children & childhood. He respected them; he thought them gutsier & smarter than grownups. Shelter a child from the harsh realities of the world? As he said about parents finding his movie too dark or scary: "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate. ... If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."

That might be my favorite Sendak quote. That or his delightful comment on ebooks: "Fuck them."

Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life, his pop-up book Mommy?, & The Art of Maurice Sendak

Sendak didn't have an agenda; he just did what he loved & said screw anyone who doesn't like it. He never caved to parents who sought to censor him. He was nothing more than himself & thought children should be left to be themselves, too. Children, who are selfish, creative, lonely, gleeful, unrestrained, & sometimes tragic.

My favorite Sendak illustrations, from the book Dear Mili by Wilhelm Grimm

"Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, & then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don't like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it's vapid, so they'll go for the hard words, they'll go for the hard concepts, they'll go for the stuff where they can learn something, not didactic things, but passionate things."

It was an honor just to have my life overlap his, to be alive while he was alive. I can't say that about many of my favorite authors. & it would be selfish to wish that an 83-year-old man who welcomed death, saying, "I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready," would've stayed longer. It's just so hard to see him go.

What Sendak book was your favorite? Feel free to mourn with me.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Age of Miracles

(coming June 26, 2012)

“It still amazes me how little we really knew. Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

Thursday my Random House rep handed me The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, saying not only that Random House expects it to be really big, but it'll be the book he'll still be pushing ten years from now because it's just that good. I was intrigued. I went straight home & started reading it (I should probably mention I'm halfway through A Clash of Kings & was eager to take a little break). I can't say I read it in one sitting, but in the times I was either at work or otherwise not reading, I was constantly thinking about it. I finished it last night, wiping away torrents of tears.

One Saturday morning, 11-year-old Julia & her family wake to discover the news that the world's rotation is inexplicably slowing. Minutes are added to the day, then hours, until eventually the sun stays up for a week at a time before plunging into a week-long night. The story is about how Julia copes with the changes in her family & friends, the perils of middle school & the beauty of first love, as the world disintegrates around her.

I'm not sure exactly why I loved this book as much as I did. Walker is a beautiful writer; I was underlining memorable passages left & right. The concept is super cool & she portrays it in a very human - not to mention terrifying - way. But more than that, I think it's the spot-on way she captures the pain, sadness, & awkwardness of being an unpopular middle-school girl. It hit seriously close to home. Walker had to have been one of us, too; she never would've known, otherwise. But she gets it. This book has a heart that so many books these days don't have; it mainly resides in its characters - Julia, her mother & father, her neighbors, her grandfather, her school friends, her crush.

If the scientific aspect of the novel (the repercussions of the slowing of the earth's rotation) is what most draws you to read the novel, I might not recommend the book so strongly. I was constantly having to suspend my disbelief because I'd ask a question regarding the environment, animal & plant life, the world's temperature, what was happening at the poles, the effects of the slowing on the human body, etc., that couldn't be answered, or because Walker's theory wasn't satisfactory to me.

But if you're willing to suspend your disbelief & focus on the novel for what it is - a realistic picture of how relationships flourish or crumble in the face of uncertainty & tragedy - then I think you'll love this book. I rarely am so deeply affected by a story. It's one of those books that leaves you wandering aimlessly after you turn the final page. You're so numb from the experience that all you can do is keep reading - you read the acknowledgements, the jacket copy, the back cover blurbs, you reread the last chapter two or three times, all because you aren't ready to pull yourself out of the world. These are my most memorable reading experiences, & are almost always coupled with uncontrollable sobbing. The Age of Miracles falls into company with Beatrice & Virgil, The Amber Spyglass, The Moor's Last Sigh, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Peter & Wendy, Jude the Obscure, & a precious few others.

I was worried my Random House rep had oversold the novel, but he absolutely didn't. This book will take up a special place on my shelf, to be reread many times. Three months from today, seriously, pick up this book. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I am the worst blogger! &, why ebooks certainly can burn.

Last week I did a brief interview for my friend & Hollins classmate Robin's blog in which she linked to my blog. Which made me go "Holy crap! How long has it been since I posted?" A shamefully long time. I never even finished my 50-something end-of-the-year book reviews & giveaways (although Kim will receive her books & it's likely she would've won them all anyway). My intentions were good, & I wish I could promise I'll be a diligent poster from here on out, but I can't. I can promise though that I am hard at work on my thesis. So yeah. Productivity.

But I am posting today partly out of shame & partly because the New York Review of Books made me mad enough to rant about something! It's this essay, "E-books Can't Burn" by Tim Parks, which made today's "Quote of the Day" in Shelf Awareness (if you're interested in keeping up with book industry news from a recreational &/or professional perspective, Shelf Awareness is a must-read).

Parks posits in this essay that e-books are a "medium for grown-ups," implying, then, that people who insist upon reading & owning paper books are whiny babies. It would be easy to write this whole essay off as asinine (as one commenter said, "what a silly attempt at an essay") but I'd prefer to pick Parks' essay apart because I got all riled up reading it & I like to get angry about things.

Parks' points on practicality & the environmental perks of ebooks are plenty valid. I love that I can take my Nook Tablet with me when I travel (though honestly I use it more for Netflix & still travel with paper books most of the time), but past the first paragraph, his essay falls apart.

The assertion I find most contentious is his opinion that the essence of a book is nothing more than the sequence of words & the words themselves. In Parks' view of the reading experience, nothing else matters. We don't take anything from a text other than the bare-bones words.

Unlike painting there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike sculpture, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at literature. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat.

I could try to sound scholarly & whatnot, but you know, this is just one of the dumbest things I've ever read. Does looking at a 14th-century manuscript of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight not inspire awe? What about a copy of the Gutenberg Bible? Lewis Carroll's scribbled & doodled notes? Thomas Hardy's handwritten manuscript of Tess of the d'Urbervilles? Philip Pullman's various incarnations of His Dark Materials? Shakespeare's first folio? Parks clearly hasn't had a chill creep up his spine when looking at Wordsworth's Prelude written in his own hand on paper he touched standing in the house he lived in.

I've done all those things, & I traveled a long way to do all those things. I don't say this to make myself sound important or privileged, just to show that "artifacts" do in fact mean a lot to some people. Many people, in fact, or else why preserve them? Why make people line up in a dimly lit room to squint at the Magna Carta through a layer of glass? Why do people whisper in that room? Because it's freaking amazing, that's why. Looking at a 600-year-old piece of paper with written words on it is a holy experience to those who love books.

In 600 years will people be crowding around an ancient tablet that died long ago but once held a bunch of ebooks? Or the computer that some famous author typed their work on but crashed eventually so now it's just a useless block? It's laughable. The digital format is transient; nothing digital lasts forever. You can burn an ebook. Computers crash. Paper books do not crash. Paper burns but ebooks do not last any more than than computers do. Funny what happens when you amend Parks' above statement to be talking about ebooks instead:

"Unlike paper books there is no physical image to contemplate, nothing that impresses itself on the eye in the same way, given equal eyesight. Unlike paper books, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at an ebook. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat."

Now that is an accurate statement. 

Literature is made up of words. ... If written, the words can appear in this or that type-face on any material, with any impagination. Joyce is as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman. ... Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate. We can change everything about a text but the words themselves and the order they appear in. The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.

Really? So if I took a poem of e. e. cummings, removed the formatting & had a seven-year-old copy it in crayon on a sheet of construction paper it would mean the same thing? If I took Jane Eyre & painted it in stories-high letters on a brick wall that wrapped around the world it would read the same as if you were curled up in a chair with a paper book? Would reading a Hemingway ebook written in comic sans feel the same as reading an old Hemingway paperback? I don't even like Hemingway & I still wouldn't do that to him. If the "literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception" what the hell does it lie in? What do we do with words but perceive them? What is perception but "the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end"?  

It’s true that our owning the object—War and Peace or Moby Dick—and organizing these and other classics according to chronology and nation of origin will give us an illusion of control: as if we had now “acquired” and “digested” and “placed” a piece of culture. Perhaps that is what people are attached to. But in fact we all know that once the sequence of words is over and the book closed what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.

First, owning & organizing books does not give one the illusion of control. It builds an identity that is definitely not illusory. Want to know who I am? Look at my bookshelves. Being able to place a worn copy of one's favorite book on a special place on the shelf does indeed mean that you have "'acquired' & 'digested' & 'placed' a piece of culture." It is a highly personal act that every book lover does differently. I do not shelve my books to say that this is where the essence of the book belongs in the grand scheme of things; it's where the book belongs in my grand scheme of things. & to say that all we need to do to revisit a book is to close our eyes & experience the memory of that book is, again, ridiculous.

I suppose Parks doesn't keep a book of Romantic poems beside his bed in case he needs a little Wordsworth before he falls asleep. He must never walk past his bookshelf, glance at a forgotten title, & thumb through it just because. He must not own a book whose spine is broken & pages are softened from reread after reread. He must never have highlighted & underlined & jotted down notes in a book, only to pick it up 10 years later & laugh at himself because of how silly the notes were. Parks must not own a passed-down book that his grandfather scribbled his name in as a 6-year-old. He must not have a child to curl up in his lap & read a book with at night. (& if he does, & he's using ebooks to read bedtime stories to his kids, shame on him.)

"But are these old habits essential," he asks? Essential to what? Survival? Of course not. I could survive with nothing but digital books, but life would lose a lot of luster. The richness that physical, paper books add to life isn't an illusion. There is no pleasure for me like spending unhurried time perusing a used book store, or digging through piles of books at a library sale, or holding a brand-new hardcover you've spent months waiting for. Can you imagine a Harry Potter release party without stacks of those massive books to hand out to eager fans?

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names.

I just keep getting angrier! The first sentence of this paragraph, again, is almost comical in its sheer wrongness. An ereader is as much a physical object as a book; it is just another "variation." How exactly does the disappearance of a read page bring one closer to the "essence of the literary experience" than turning the physical read page? What does austerity, or spareness of text or font or text size, have to do with bettering the literary experience? It is not better. It is different.

& calling the collection of books a "fetishistic gratification" makes me want to puke. If books covering my walls is fetishistic, I guess I should just live in an empty apartment. I guess owning DVDs is fetishistic too. Or artwork. Or photos. Should the objects that fill our lives be only utilitarian? Why is removing the aesthetic, personal aspect of a book a desirable thing? 

This is a medium for grown-ups.

My first typed response to this sentence was four words long. Two were "Tim Parks" & one was a certain four-letter word. You can probably guess. But I deleted it because I'm a classy lady or something. For the sake of being nice, I will treat Parks' statement as true (WHICH IT IS NOT) & respond with the words of C. S. Lewis: "Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. ... When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Lastly, I'll share this Opus comic, which is one of my favorites ever & sums up my retort nicely. I guess I could've just posted this comic, actually. It would've been a perfect response on its own. But it was fun to rant.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Books of 2011, part 3, & giveaway #3!

For this installment I'll be giving away a hardcover copy of Angel Burn by L. A. Weatherly, a YA paranormal romance that pubbed in May about, you guessed it, angels & love & some kind of intergalactic war I think. This isn't my kinda book, but I've heard it's really good. I bet it is because Candlewick publishes fantastic books. So comment away!

Books of 2011, Nos. 11-15

11. Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan (2010)

I think Sarah, Plain & Tall is one of the most perfect books ever written. I remember just thinking it was okay as a kid, but rereading it for grad school I was blown away. There is not a wasted word in it, just 60-something pages of beautiful, seemingly effortless prose, a simple story that's concise & complex at once. Needless to say, I was expecting a lot from Word After Word After Word. But... insert sad trombone sound here. I read this book in March & remember literally nothing about it. I remember that there is a creative lady who visits a classroom of students & inspires them to... do something. Write? I think they write stories? There was nothing impressive or inspiring about this little book; it was completely unremarkable. I was going to take a few minutes & look up the plot to give you a better idea of what it's about, but ya know, it's not even worth the time. Just read or reread Sarah instead.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Someone looking for a simple story they can get through in about an hour

12. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (2003)

Unlike with MacLachlan's book, I wasn't expecting a lot from this one. I thought it would be a pretty run-of-the-mill middle-grade fantasy, but to my pleasant surprise, it was much more original. Ember is a city - a sort of last resort of the human race - surrounded by total darkness, whose only light comes from huge lamps that are starting to flicker. Lina & her friend Doon discover a garbled message that they decide holds the key to saving the city, & try to unravel the mystery before the city is plunged into darkness forever. The scenes are so vividly imagined that even now, months later, I can picture exactly the layout of Ember, the architecture, the key characters, & some of the integral scenes. There are some logical fallacies where you can't help but ask, "Why didn't the people of Ember ____?" or "But how did they go all these years without ____ happening?" but eh, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for a good story. & it is a very good story, almost like a Plato's Allegory of the Cave for kids. I went right out & bought the sequel, The People of Sparks, though I haven't read it yet.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Readers (young or old - this book is classified as YA but I'd recommend it to a third or fourth grader, no problem) of fantasy, suspenseful stories, dystopian lit

13. The Small Adventure of Popeye & Elvis by Barbara O'Connor (2009)

I am a sucker for a charming, Southern story (as long as they're authentic), & this little book is full of Southern charm. I fell in love with the cover instantly: "That was me as a kid!" Popeye is perpetually bored in his little town in South Carolina, so when a motor home breaks down belonging to the rambunctious Jewell family & Popeye meets Elvis, who rocks a "so what?" attitude, life gets a little more interesting. Their small adventure begins when they start finding paper boats sailing down the creek with secret messages in them. This isn't a groundbreaking or life-changing story, but a sweet, solid, Southern read.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Kids (as young as maybe second grade) who like safe adventures, humor, & mystery, & any kid (or former kid) who gets a thrill out of playing in a creek

14. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2006)

God, this book. It broke my heart & didn't even care. The matter-of-fact style Boyne uses to tell this story makes it feel like a centuries-old fairy tale, but give it a Holocaust setting & you end up with something much darker than fantasy. I hesitate to pigeon-hole books into "for children" or "for adults," but that this book was marketed so hard as a kids' book really confuses me. Even the cover I think you'd have to be at least an older teen to understand the nuances of Boyne's story - as the narrator is clearly an adult voice commenting on childhood innocence, but perhaps as a group read, a teacher could use this in a younger classroom. I'm not sure about that, though. People generally think of fairy tales as being "for kids," & I don't think they are, so do with that what you will. 

What I can say for sure is that you read the book with a sense of impending dread & then the end hits you like a bus, & you feel pretty dead inside. In the story, Bruno, the son of a Nazi officer, makes friends with a boy in striped pajamas who lives on the other side of the fence beside Bruno's house. That's about all I'm going to say. If you read this book hoping for a realistic Holocaust story, it's not. A lot of the things the characters do/say/believe fly in the face of reason, so you really have to take it with a grain of salt. It's not realistic; it's not fantastic; it's a bizarre story. But definitely worth reading, & not one you're likely to forget.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: If you need a good punch in the heart, or if you're on a Holocaust kick like I was (The Book Thief, followed by this, followed by The Diary of Anne Frank). I hesitate to recommend this book for kids.

15. Bossypants by Tina Fey (2011)

First, I have a major girl crush on Tina Fey. I love everything she glorifies: the woman who's not smooth, who's trying to have it all but who doesn't want to settle, who celebrates nerdiness & being smart, who gets to date Jon Hamm but would really rather stay at home watching Bravo & eat cheese than go out with a dude. Not to mention that she is freakin' hilarious. From her thoughts to physical beauty to unrequited love to career success, this book is a wonderful trip into her head. I should note that for me it was very important to look at this as a book of essays; it is not a memoir. If you go into it expecting her life story, as I did, you're going to be disappointed. But about halfway though (I read it in one sitting) I realized this is not supposed to be her life story, just a bunch of snippets of her life - none too specific - that have brought her to this point in her life. This was really my first "celebrity read," & not a genre I plan on frequenting, but hey, Tina Fey got to where she is by being an awesome writer, & this is an awesome book. I cried a lot - mostly from laughing so hard, but also when she sneaks in really beautiful, yet still silly thoughts, like this poem for her daughter. If you love her as much as I do, & if you too had a rough patch from 12 to 17, you will absolutely love Bossypants, this celebration of all her neuroses. 

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Everyone who loves Tina Fey or humor writing

Come back soon for reviews 16-20, & you guessed it, another giveaway! & in case you're wondering, I'll "draw names" for the winners at the end of the list, not as I go along. Patience.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 2 - & another giveaway!

The giveaway for this post will be... the wonderful 2008 Newbery winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, with illustrations by Robert Byrd. Just comment for a chance to win. & yes, you can leave comments on more than one post. Comment on all 11, if you like!

Books of 2011, Nos. 6-10

6. The Wheel on the School, written by Meindert DeJong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1954)

Two of my book quests overlapped with the acquisition of The Wheel on the School: to own all of the Newbery winners & to own all books Maurice Sendak wrote &/or illustrated. & I'm glad they did, otherwise I might never have come across this gem. This is an incredibly delightful, unique story about a girl named Lina who wonders why the storks no longer come to Shora, her village in Holland, to nest. Her curiosity sends waves through the village, & soon everyone has joined together in an attempt to get the storks to come back. There are numerous great messages woven though this timeless story: cooperation, friendship, the value of asking questions, the idea that everyone has something to contribute - young, old, rich, poor, tall, short, regardless of physical ability. The longer I think about this book, the more I find to appreciate about it.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Anyone who appreciates a really good story

7. The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson (1994)

I picked up this book after hearing more than once that J. K. Rowling plagiarized from it; it was published three years before Sorcerer's Stone. This claim comes mostly from the fact that both books are about magical portals on train station platforms in London. After that, the theory pretty much falls apart. & what children's fantasy novels don't resemble each other in at least one way? In Platform 13, the portal in the station - which opens onto an Island filled with all manner of fantastical creatures - is only open nine days every nine years. The baby prince of the Island was kidnapped nine years earlier, & now it's up to a wizard, a fairy, an ogre, & a hag to go to London & try to save him. The humor is a little cheesy, the surprises are pretty predictable, the "bad guys" are pretty tame & the suspenseful situations pretty low-risk - but this book is fun, completely enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Young fantasy readers, adults who'd like to jump back into a Harry Potter-esque world for a minute

8. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)

Oh boy. I'm going to catch some flak for this one. Confession (I think I confessed this last year): I just don't get the fuss about Hemingway. I can't say I haven't tried. I've read The Old Man & the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, & this year, A Farewell to Arms. I found some of his writing really sharp & poignant, but only in spurts. Thoughts of "What a lovely passage" would follow with "Do I seriously have to spend a hundred more pages with these insufferable characters?" I guess that's what my frustration with Hemingway boils down to: the characters. I know he's known for his misogynistic "man's man" protagonists who describe women by nothing more than how they look in a skirt, but I can't get behind that. It's not that I'm offended by it; it just isn't interesting. A guy like that gets old after about a page, & the ditzy child-women he chases get old after less than a page.

In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is only interesting & dynamic when he's talking about war. In all matters of love - enter sexy nurse Catherine - he is an asshole, & she is a needy, confusing, not-very-intelligent doormat. Neither are thinking, feeling beings. Neither enjoys the other; they are both so damaged that they just need something. & the end? (SPOILER ALERT!) Good god. I saw it coming from 20 miles away, but was hoping against hope that he wouldn't go there. Why, Hemingway? Did you think, "Well, I haven't managed to dredge up any sympathy for these characters yet. I guess I should kill one of them." Or maybe you were just particularly drunk & morose that day. Or maybe you just hate women that much. What a cheap move. That is a Nicholas Sparks move, Hemingway, or as I sometimes like to refer to it, an Upton Sinclair in The Jungle move. When enough awful things happen to miserable people, I stop caring.

I'm just ranting now. I really didn't like this book. I'm starting to wonder why I keep reading his books; suppose I just keep hoping I'll "get it," but I think I've about come to the conclusion that I just don't like Hemingway. Yeah. I said it. & I'll say it again next year when I inevitably will read another of his books.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Manly men? I don't know. Appreciators of flat characters & overrated American lit? I'm just being mean. Some people really love Hemingway & that is just fine with me.

9. On Writing by Stephen King (2000)

How you feel about Stephen King's fiction has literally nothing to do with the usefulness of this book. I've had to say this a number of times to people to whom I've recommended this book, who told me "Stephen King's writing sucks. Why would I take writing advice from him?" It doesn't matter how good or bad you think his writing is (I've only read The Shining, & I loved it), this memoir/writing guide is immensely beneficial for any aspiring writer who needs to learn how to get the job done. It is frank & true. He pulls no punches. In a nutshell, he says: "You want to write a book? Then stop talking about it, get off your ass, & write. & don't stop writing until it's done." Further, don't expect any of it to be easy. It will be tough, you will want to quit, you will encounter a thousand distractions, you might never get published, but keep doing it because you love it, & because you want it that badly. He does include technical advice as well, & it's good stuff. All fairly basic (e.g. cut out useless adverbs), but great advice.

I will never forget his assertion that you can't turn a good writer into a great writer, but you can turn a competent writer into a good writer. Some starry-eyed wannabe writers out there might disagree, but as a cynical person who knows she will never be the next Eudora Welty, it is incredibly helpful for me to keep that statement in mind anytime I write. Always strive to be better, but don't get discouraged by comparing yourself to the greats. & speaking of Eudora Welty, for writing inspiration of a different kind, read her One Writer's Beginnings. It's brilliant.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Any aspiring writer who needs some honest writing advice, & any fan of King's who's curious about his writing process

10. The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (2001)

Oh, this book... I was kind of hoping it would disappear so I wouldn't have to badmouth Kate DiCamillo, beloved children's book writer by virtually everyone in the industry. I've read three books by her to date:  The Tale of Despereaux (fine, but not Newbery-worthy), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (fine also, but elevated to good by the beautiful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline), & this one.

The Tiger Rising is one of the most obvious books I've ever read. Twelve-year-old Rob (who has some strange leg disease) & his dad have moved into a run-down motel after the recent death of Rob's mom. Rob befriends a fiesty girl named Sistine. (Yes, as in the chapel.) Both kids are fairly unpopular & angry. There's a big woman named Willie May who's a cleaning lady/prophet, & a tiger in a cage in the woods that the hotel manager gets Rob to feed. Does it sound like too much? Because it is. The symbolism is so blatant & heavy-handed I just kept groaning under the weight of this miniscule, 128-page book. I know I was supposed to feel shock & sadness & perhaps a kind of vindication at the end of the book, but I didn't. I was just glad it was over.  

I know how mean this sounds & I honestly do feel bad for saying it, but this book reads like some overachieving writing exercise out of a very self-important MFA student. & yet, it won a Newbery Honor? I can only guess it's because of DiCamillo's name, though I don't know why any of her books have received the accolades they did. Any big DiCamillo fans out there? If so, I'd really love to hear why you love her work. Like Hemingway, I will keep reading her books, hoping to get it.

Rating: 2/5 stars
Recommended for: Perhaps children coping with grief? Or creative writing students who need a really obvious example of how symbolism works. "So what does the caged tiger represent, class?"

Next time, books 11-15, & another giveaway!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 1 (& WIN A BUNCH OF BOOKS!)

Am I the worst blogger ever or what? It's been almost two months since I last posted. I'm not proud. I've been hard at work on my master's thesis though, so while I haven't been writing here, I have been writing somewhere! Can I make it up to you with some free books and 50-something brief book reviews?

This year I've read 53 books so far (plus countless picture books I read and forgot to log on Goodreads). I hope to make it to 55 by the end of '11 - I have to finish The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks & then A Clash of Kings is up. Between now & the end of the year, I'll post 11 installments of five book reviews each & tell you a little about all the books I read this year. & for each installment, I'll be giving away a book! I think that will assuage my guilt.

I'm starting this thing off with a bang by offering up my FAVORITE picture book of 2011. It's one of my favorite books of '11, picture or not. I've already blogged about my adoration for it here.

Just leave a comment on this post for a chance to win. Trust me, you want this book. Unless you don't have a sense of humor, in which case, go away. & now, the first installment of my book review list.

Books of 2011, Nos. 1-5

1. Amy's Eyes, written by Richard Kennedy and illustrated by Richard Egielski (1985)

I read this book at the recommendation of a Goodreads friend, & had really high hopes, since many of the Goodreads reviews begin with something like "I read this book as a child & it's still my favorite book of all time." This charming story is about a girl who's left on the steps of an orphanage with a sailor doll. Through a series of events that's surprisingly unmagical, Amy turns into a doll, and her sailor turns into a human - albeit a tiny one. There's sailing, swashbuckling, talking animals, battles, lost treasure, a stuffed animal who's weirdly obsessed with Biblical prophecies, & a fair balance of humor & sadness. The story was well written, but at 437 pages, it really dragged, & this is coming from someone who loves long books. (Why do I always assume massive children's fantasy books will be good? I should've learned my lesson with Inkheart.) While I read this book almost a year ago, I remember thinking over & over again, "This is a lovely book, but I wish it was over." So in the end, it was only okay. Maybe I would've been more captivated if I'd read it when I was little, or if 150 pages or so had been edited out.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Readers who like their fantasy pretty tame, children, readers with a lot of patience
2. The House with a Clock in Its Walls, written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey (1973)

I know a lot of people grew up reading the gothic mysteries starring Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday, or Johnny Dixon, but this was my first experience with a John Bellairs book. Unlike my Amy's Eyes experience, this book made me feel like a kid again. It was funny, a little dark, had some really well thought-out supernatural elements - & of course, Gorey's illustrations are fantastic. In the story, the newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt moves in with his uncle, a mediocre wizard. Their house was previously inhabited by some evil wizards who plotted to end the world by sticking a doomsday clock in the house's walls. There are ghosts, spells to raise the dead, cemeteries, Halloween - all elements of a really fun scary story, that's surprisingly offbeat & challenging for essentially being a series chapter book. It prompted me to go pick up more books by Bellairs.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Children who enjoy books with a dark or supernatural twist, Halloween reads, readers who fall in between chapter books & middle grade

3. My Lobotomy by Howard Dully (2007)

Howard Dully was pretty much your average boy - rambunctious & prone to acting out. To fix the child she deemed uncontrollable & dangerous, Dully's stepmother arranged for him to be lobotomized. His father went along without asking questions. So, Dully writes, at age 12 in 1960, "I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. ...Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars." Most of Dully's life thereafter was spent in halfway houses, prison, & mental institutions, dealing with drug & alcohol addictions. In his 50s, he decided to ask why.

This might be the most heartbreaking book I've ever read, but also one of the most remarkable. I'm really into medical literature (see: anything by this guy) but you don't have to be to appreciate this book. "Enjoy" would be the wrong word. I can't say I enjoyed this book, because it is unbelievably tragic. It is incomprehensible what Dully went through, & so horrifying that by the end of the book you will wish you could personally, violently murder Dully's stepmother, father, & Dr. Freeman, even though a couple of them are already dead. ...Too much? The most incredible aspect of this book is Dully's ability to forgive those who ruined his life, & who couldn't look him in the eye & admit their wrongdoing. A painful read, but completely worth it. I'll never forget this book.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of medical literature & memoirs

4. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (1907)

Reviewed earlier this year here. Sad to say, six months later I barely remember the book. Even after finding this & The Railway Children pretty lackluster, though, I've bought at least three other books by her, so there's something that keeps me coming back. I love her writing style, but her plots leave something to be desired.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Adults readers of antiquated British lit, child readers who appreciate dry humor & tame fantasy

5. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2006)

I have a love/hate relationship with this book. The title made me want to read it; it's a really good title. The fact that it's written by Nicole Krauss made me not want to read it; I imagine she & her husband (Jonathan Safran Foer) to be really snooty, pretentious jerks. Probably because I met him & he was indeed snooty & pretentious. The History of Love is essentially a diet version of Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I picture them in a Brooklyn brownstone, facing each other across flea-market desks, clicking away at vintage typewriters & bouncing ideas off each other while their vegetarian children run circles around the room. "How 'bout we throw some old Jewish folks in here?" "Great, I'll use that, too!" "I'm getting a little bored with this format. I think I'll throw in some blank pages for fun." "It's like you're reading my mind! Precocious child narrator?" "Well, duh! Of course there's a precocious child narrator!" "I'm so glad we're married! We practically finish each other's -" "Sandwiches?"
But dammit. I adore Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I've read it four or five times. & dammit if I didn't fall for The History of Love as well. I fell for all of its silly postmodern tricks & old Jewish folks & precocious kids & multiple narrators & bizarre string of circumstances that brings everyone together in just the right way at just the right time & brings a tear to your eye at the very end. It feels cleverly formulaic but it works. So, whatever. I resolve to continue reading & begrudgingly loving their books while bitterly hating their attractive brunette selves for no real reason.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of Jonathan Safran Foer, postmodern tricks, offbeat love stories, & convoluted family histories

Part 2, coming soon!

Friday, October 14, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I put off reading Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle for a long time because I built it up so much, & the anticipation was fun. The longer I waited, the more I was sure it was going to be an amazing book. The building up was totally unprovoked. No one had told me it was a great book; in fact, a friend who posted it on Goodreads gave it just three stars. The buildup came from the fact that it's one of the best titles I've ever heard, I enjoyed Jackson's story "The Lottery" however many years ago I read it, & after receiving a copy of the freaking gorgeous Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (pictured directly below), I was even more convinced it had to be great. Yeah, I totally judge books by their covers. 

I've posted three covers, by the way, because this book has a beautiful cover history all around. Not many old books (Castle was first published in 1962 and was Jackson's last book) can say that. So anyway, I finally read it. This book is everything I love: It's off-putting, it's unnerving, it's dark, it's weird, it's somehow charming. It's a horror story without being overtly scary. The horror is in the characters Jackson portrays. The book's narrator is 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat, who lives with her sister Constance & Uncle Julian in a large house, empty of the rest of their family who were poisoned with arsenic years before. Constance hasn't left the house since then, Merricat braves the leery townspeople to keep the house stocked with supplies, & doddering Julian writes & rewrites notes about the family's last days.    

It's hard to imagine two scarier characters in literature than Merricat & Constance, & much of this is due to the fact that they seem so innocent. Their quiet, mundane life in isolation isn't peaceful, just ominous, as Merricat is constantly alluding to the upcoming "last day." Merricat is 18 & Constance is 28, but they both feel much younger, 13 or 14, like they've been in arrested development since their parents died. Merricat is one of the most brilliantly written protagonists I've ever encountered. She's superstitious and believes in magic, though this reads almost as more of a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, since she ritualizes everything. Her thoughts are sometimes frantic, she slips into near-hallucinations, and she gives off a constant aura of danger. Being stuck in her head for the duration of the book is a scary place to be. Yet in her head, her madness is justifiable - inviting almost. Constance mothers her. They adore each other, & their happy home life is disturbed by the entrance of Cousin Charles, who's got his eye on the family's money.

While the underlying question for much of the book is, of course, "Who poisoned the family?", when we finally find out, it's almost secondarily of interest, because so much more has been put on the line. How is Merricat going to get rid of Charles, whom she distrusts & hates? Whose side is Constance, who's smitten with Charles, going to choose? How long can Uncle Julian stick around in poor health? How will Merricat react to the major upheaval that's coming? Are the townspeople, who love to persecute the Blackwoods, going to do something drastic? The whole book is a question of "us versus them," but which side is the safe one? Are these girls ever going to live a happy, normal life again? Do we even want them to? Do they deserve it?

This book is absolutely unforgettable - the ending is chilling - & worth a million rereads. Merricat's almost fevered thoughts read like dark poetry. I'll leave you with one of my favorite sentences, & hope that you'll be intrigued enough to pick it up yourself. Oh & one last thing: If you do get the Penguin edition, don't read the introduction until after you read the book! It's excellent, but it gives away everything!

Like children hunting for shells, or two old ladies going through dead leaves looking for pennies, we shuffled along the kitchen floor with our feet, turning over broken trash to find things which were still whole, and useful.