Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes

Ginger Pye (Young Classic)Title: Ginger Pye
Author: Eleanor Estes
Pages: 320
Published: 2000 Sandpiper (orig.1951)
Read For: School--Aloud to my kiddos
My Rating: 3 stars

Ginger Pye won the Newbery Award in 1952.  It looked like such a happy puppy dog story that I was looking forward to reading it aloud to my kiddos.  Unfortunately, we were all disappointed to find that this book, while using Ginger as an anchor, is more about the rambling thoughts and activities of two well-adjusted siblings.  Jerry and Rachel get along wonderfully, and are proud of the fact that their mother is the youngest mother in town, and their father is a famous "bird man".  Much of the book is taken up by the search for Ginger after she is stolen, and is filled with happy little detours exploring the town and explaining their thoughts.

The book is not without its charms.  It was nice to read a book filled with happy people, however unrealistic that may be.  There are many things in the book that recall a different era in small town American life, although many of those things are more confusing than they are endearing.  Better choices on that regard are, in my opinion, Mr. Popper's Penguins (Newbery Honor 1939), Miracles on Maple Hill (Newbery 1957), Gone Away Lake (Newbery Honor 1957) and Thimble Summer (Newbery 1939).

If you approach Ginger Pye as an introduction to the Pye family and the bygone times and town they lived in rather than a cute puppy story, I'm guessing you'll have a better chance at liking it.  Don't be in a hurry to get through, because it really takes its time.  My kids thought it boring, although I wouldn't be surprised if--at some point--they remember it fondly.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lemon Cake Revisited

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A NovelThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake provided one of the best book discussions I can remember--good enough to warrant commenting further on the book.  Perhaps a slightly deeper look is necessary to really understand what is going on here.  There were five of us discussing the book last night,and the range of opinions about the book is what made it such a great discussion.

Two flat out did not like the book.  One was frustrated with the fact that it was not plot driven--she was bored; nothing in the book seemed worth caring about.  The second was okay with everything until the incident with the brother and the chair, which she felt went too far with the bizarre.  Both seemed to take the book at face value, neither one considered that the author might be trying to communicate something other than the story of a family with some very odd issues.

A third person enjoyed the book and what it had to say, but didn't have strong feelings on it either way.  I (as you know if you read my review) had a love/hate sort of relationship with the book.  I liked that it was unique, that it had something to say--that it was more than just the funny/heartwarming story I'd expected.  But I felt that the characters were rather flat, and I had some other issues with the writing that I just couldn't get past.

The reason for revisiting the book, however, is the person who absolutely loved it.  Why did she love it?  What is she seeing that you might see as well?  Mostly, she connected deeply with what she saw as a metaphor for mental illness--things that are carried down through families but dealt with in very different ways through the generations.  Some types of mental illness are present from the get-go, others manifest themselves at some point in early adolescence, most can be difficult to understand or explain.

At one point in the book, the main character, Rose, tries to tell her father about her "gift" by creating a story about someone at school.  Her father says:  I know you're trying to tell me something, but I have no idea what it is.  Okay?  I don't think I like that.  What are you trying to tell me?  I saw this as not only an interaction between father and daughter, but between author and reader.  The author is trying to say something.  What is it?  I think that the circumstances in the book were purposefully bizarre in order that the reader would be spurred to ask questions. If you read the book for the surface of the story only, you will be missing something.

The book ends with a story that Rose had read in a magazine, which--while it seems to be unrelated to anything else--is actually an explanation for the book.  It speaks of the trees on an island off the coast of California: how one old tree fell over into the ocean--an old elegant palm type, a beauty. It grew closest to the edge of the island, and despite its voracious roots, its enormous trunk, it was no match for the steady impact of beaks and thinner dirt and unprotected weather and the gopher holes that eroded its root system below.  Another tree, up a little higher, was also constantly under attack, but found a way to survive.  Even though it had tangled branches and a misshapen, leaning trunk, it found a way to cope with the circumstances.  Farther up the island, trees grew straight and strong.

Are these trees so different from us?  Can those who find it easy to grow straight and strong really understand or judge how it must be for those to whom life is a constant struggle?  Is one person's way of coping necessarily better than another's?

If you can relate to, or are interested in understanding, the struggle that some people have in finding a way to live a "normal" life, this book provides an interpretation worth reading.  If you enjoy an original metaphor, or books that make you think without being too hard to read, you might enjoy this book.  If you really do not like interpreting the concrete in an abstract way, you probably won't like it (the same two that didn't like this book also did not like Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle...for pretty much the same reasons.)  If you do end up reading it, I'd love to know what you think (especially on the style/quality of the writing--somebody talk to me!). Either way, I hope I've helped to shed more light on the book that created hours of great discussion for our book club.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel
Title: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Author: Aimee Bender
Pages: 304 e-pages
Published: 2010 Doubleday
Read For: Monday Night Book Club
My Rating: 2.5 stars

Based on who picked this book club book (she loves the heartwarming, yummy food type books) I was expecting something similar to Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, however, was not such a book. It was more melancholy than heartwarming, the food more disturbing than appetizing. But it was unique, I must give it that.

On one hand, the pace was great. It moved quickly, kept interest high throughout, and didn’t really bog down anywhere. Also, it had something to say. It wasn't just a story without a point. You see, everyone has something in their life that they have to figure out how to deal with. It might be rather normal, as shown through the parents in the book, or it might be something big, different, traumatic. Either way, there is strength in opening up to others, sharing part of yourself, and accepting part of someone else. The human bond makes us whole.

On the other hand, character development was lacking. I kept feeling like I was watching a '50s TV show with two-dimensional characters. It really made it difficult to figure out when it took place. 2010? 1980? The setting, also, was rather 2D. It took place in Los Angeles, and while the place-name-dropping was fun at first, it got old really quick. It started to feel like street names were included for novelty's sake.

The other gripe I have is that the POV wasn't solid. The second section of the book was titled "Joseph", (the main character's brother) and I assumed that meant it was switching POV. But it wasn't. And it took me 5 pages to realize that. Ugh. Also, even though I eventually figured out that Rose narrated the whole book, I had a very hard time keeping track of her age progression. Chapter 14 started this way: “There are heightened years. One was nine. Another twelve. A third, seventeen.” But then the narrative made it seem as if it continued from 12 years old…so much of this book is told as if it were memories, that the progression of time was never really certain.

I love how Fizzy Thoughts puts it: "it ended up being less about lemon cake and more about chair legs." (A pretty funny comment after you've read the book.) 

Last But Not Least, A Little Geography Lesson:

Southern California seems to view the state divided into two regions (anything north of Bakersfield is "Northern").

Northern California, however, tends to see three regions (Northern, Central, and Southern).

Therefore, when you declare that Fresno is in Northern California, a good 1/3 of the state is likely to be a little irritated. (Probably just as irritated as So Cal would be if Fresno was declared to be in Southern California.)  Just thought you all might want to know. (As a Nor Cal native living in So Cal, I have much experience observing this phenomena.)

[edited to add: I didn't mean to make it sound like nobody wants Fresno!  I'm simply lacking in the Central Calif. opinion...if you can provide that perspective, please do!]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Creative Cohesion

How do you write a book review?  Is it a methodical process, progressing hand in hand with the reading of the book?   Or do you wait until you've experienced everything the book has to offer before churning out your thoughts?

Writing, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, creation or critique, is--for me--a highly creative process.  That is not to say that there is no skill or method involved, only that creativity is the driving force in the process.

I've never much enjoyed dissecting books into sterile pieces, mining out subtleties and imperfections.  I'd rather just dive into it, surrendering myself to whatever magic (insight, beauty, humor) it may hold...discovering along the way those nuances embedded in the layers.  Thus my note-taking and quote-making is rather erratic.  Something has to really stand out for me to take the time to write it down (and when I do write something down, I find it hard not to include it in my review!)

My book reviews are typically written within a day or two after finishing a book.  I wait for all the dust to settle in my mind while I mull over what really stood out as the defining part of the book.  I do try to limit the length of my reviews, striving for organization and clarity, in order to prevent boredom.  (This is directly related to the length of my attention span--not necessarily yours!)  Because of this, I often don't include enough of a synopsis: something I need to work on!

Thank you to Jennifer at Crazy for Books for hosting the Book Blogger Hop. I think I'll finally have some time this weekend to look around at what's new in the Blog-o-sphere.  How wonderful that the question she asked just happened to be one that I've been contemplating lately!  Leave me a comment so that I can be sure to visit your blog, and have a great weekend!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In my Bag and On my Plate

Despite my attempt to make up for my summer book buying ban by raiding the book store, I've actually done surprisingly well limiting my purchases in the last month.  Unless my selective memory has kicked in (and it very well may have) I've only purchased 5 books (apart from books for my kiddos for school, but who's counting those?) two of which are book club books (read: mandatory).  My new books in the last month:

1. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
2. Possession, A.S. Byatt
3. Winter's Bone, Daniel Woodrell
4. Star of the Sea, Joseph O'Connor (Book Club)
5. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender (Book Club)

Wolf Hall: A NovelPossessionWinter's Bone: A NovelStar of the SeaThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: A Novel

With the last quarter of the year approaching, and thoughts of reading goals for next year already hounding me, I thought it might be wise to corral some of those panicky urges by writing some logical, well organized goals for the rest of the year (breathe in, breathe out, the year isn't over quite yet).  I happened across the Fall Into Reading challenge, which fits my needs perfectly, so I decided to join in.

Before October or so:
1. Finish reading Our Mutual Friend, thus conquering the I-haven't-really-read-Dickens guilt.
2. Finish reading Dubliners, defeat Joyce, cross that off my list.
3. Read Lemon Cake before book club on Monday (5 days? no problem)
4. Devour Wolf Hall and Possession. yum. yum.

Before 2011:
1. Non-fiction: The Children's Blizzard and Paddy's Lament, finish Rooted in Barbarous Soil.
2. Books I received for Christmas 2009 and haven't read yet: (!!!)  How Green Was My Valley, Independence Day, Three Cups of Tea, A Room With a View.
3. 3 or so additional book club books before the end of the year.

There's other books I'd like to have read before 2011 hits, but I'm going to keep my goals manageable so I have a better chance of reaching them.  15 or so books is plenty, especially considering the length of some, and the fact that I'll definitely be reading other last minute things as well.  Thanksgiving through the New Year are always impossibly busy so I definitely need to be proactive.  Are you thinking about the end of the year yet?  Want to join another challenge?

The Children's Blizzard (P.S.)Paddy's Lament, Ireland 1846-1847: Prelude to HatredHow Green Was My ValleyIndependence Day: Bascombe Trilogy (2)Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time