Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Kidnapping in Milan by Steve Hendricks

A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on TrialTitle: A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial
Author: Steve Hendricks
Pages: 352
Published: 2010 W.W. Norton
Read For: Review
My Rating: 2.5 stars

The CIA and Italian police, politics and government, terrorism and counter-terrorism, Egypt and Islam, torture and extraordinary renditions...the stuff movies are made of, right?  They are also all things I don't hold much interest in, and yet I gave it a shot, inspired by my experience with Thunderstruck by Erik Larson--another nonfiction book I read recently (one that I wasn't interested in and ended up enjoying).  They are also all things that I think are vital to be interested in, if loving this book is the ultimate goal.  This book may be just the thing for the person who loves the inside scoop, who revels in well-researched details and isn't bothered by a very full cast of characters.

While one of the resources in the back of the book lists 53 different significant characters, (an impressive number,) I came away only remembering the names of 3 and don't feel worse off for it: Abu Omar (whose kidnapping the book focuses on), Milan's CIA Chief Bob Lady (because I'm tickled by the idea of calling someone Mr. Lady), and the Italian investigator Spataro (because his last name shares the same nationality and 1st 3 letters as my married does spaghetti, my husband informed me.)

I can only imagine how difficult a task it must be to whittle down the vast amount of information a project of this sort must entail, to a size that will make the information accessible to the maximum number of people.  I'll not attempt to opine that any of the characters in this book were unnecessary, yet I wish that it had been easier, while reading, to determine which characters it was more important to pay attention to.  I also wish that the book had been anchored by a character whose personality, beliefs and experiences were better known and easier to identify with (such as Spataro or the author himself) instead of floating around an issue or an aloof character.

In many ways, it has a documentary sort of feel about it: it is non-fiction based on current events, and the author obviously put a lot of personal work and research into the book.  He seeks to inform the public about an issue that, especially since 9/11, has become big enough to demand some thought and answers.  What level of illegal actions is acceptable for a government organization?  What level of inhumane treatment is acceptable in response to unrepentant terrorism?  Also discussed is the history of unrest in Egypt, which makes for a nice base of knowledge in light of current events.  While I am glad that I don't have to be the one making these decisions, I am also glad to have some background knowledge about them.

(Many thanks to the author and publisher for providing me with a copy of this book!)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Villette Read-Along: Chapters 12-17

I seem to have spent all of my normal-review-writing-skills on a particularly taxing one last night, so all that Villette gets this time around is some bits that you get to piece together.  (my apologies!)

One thing I know,
These chapters didn't inspire me
to be insightful or delightful.
They weren't horrid, just a bit of a bore.
Closer to vapid than lively,
to mundane than intrigue.

Although, there was this one part
With some insight into stage fright just might--change my life:
"That first speech was the difficulty; 
it revealed to me this fact, 
that it was not the crowd I feared, 
so much as my own voice."

The humor wasn't absent, nor was the writing poor.
I still have hopes, I'm not done yet.
I'm glad the Brettons have resurfaced,
even if Lucy is still vague--rather unreliable, they say--
and hope this means we soon will meet
the [comparatively] grown up Polly.

Villette still remains more engaging, more fun,
than some other classics I happen to be reading
And if I don't identify with Lucy so much,
at least I'm appreciating her depth as a character.
One of my favorite quotes thus far:
"Medicine can give nobody good spirits."
Happy pill, anyone?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures: A NovelTitle: Remarkable Creatures
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Pages: 320
Published: 2010 Plume (orig. 2009)
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Wikipedia
My Rating: 4 stars

For a book that has been on my wishlist since it was first released, the story came as quite a surprise.  I think I saw "Tracy Chevalier" and stuck it on my wishlist.  If I'd known that it had so many other things to make me enjoy it, I certainly wouldn't have waited until I saw it on a shelf in Target to pick it up.

First, the time period.  This takes place during Regency Era Britain (a well known era for fans of Pride and Prejudice).  I like the time period because it seems to balance old and new.  It is the era of the gentleman and the servant, before the growth of middle class yet after new advancement in many fine arts.  Technically, Regency Era only lasted from 1811 to 1820, while George IV was the Prince Regent, although in terms of trends and styles it covers 1795-1837, from the Georgians to the Victorians.  Obviously the era had its problems, don't they all?  There were wars (with Napoleon and elsewhere) and lavish spending in the aristocracy brutally contrasted the squalor of the poor.
Assembly Rooms provided entertainment for many.
Next, the location.  Lyme Regis (nicknamed The Pearl of Dorset) is a place that has struck my fancy since first reading Persuasion.  It is well known for The Cobb (a harbor wall first found mentioned in 1328), and plays a vital role in that book, and is also a setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles.
A view of the Cobb with boats grounded at low tide.
A view of Lyme Regis from the Cobb.
Third, the characters.  Although I didn't know anything about Mary Anning or Elizabeth Philpot before reading this book, I wish that I'd known that Remarkable Creatures is more than historical fiction, it is closer to a biographical novel (or as some say, historical FACTion) and reminded me of Irving Stone (a good thing!)  It seemed to be a fair representation, and was definitely a good story.  As unmarried women (a.k.a. spinsters) they provided an interesting point of view on this time period, especially due to Mary's involvement in the scientific community (which, due to her gender, wasn't what it should have been.)
Mary Anning with her dog Tray.
Finally, the topics.  Lyme Regis and Mary Anning are known for the discovery of fossils.  As a child, Mary would collect "curies" on the coast to sell to tourists, helping to support the family from a young age.
The "Jurassic Coast" at Charmouth,
where Anning made some discoveries.
The ocean and the coastline play quite a role in this book, not only because this is where fossils were searched for, but because it really shaped the tone and meter of life in the area.  From Elizabeth Philpot's laments that her hands were stained from digging through the Blue Lias clay, to the danger of landslips, (contrasted by the opportunity a landslip provided for discovering previously hidden fossils,) the town and the coast make the setting a big part of the book.
Blue Lias cliffs at Lyme Regis...easy to
imagine this clay staining your hands!
Landslip, east of Lyme Regis.
Small fossils, like ammonites, didn't cause much of a stir, since they'd been around a while, and were thought of as coiled up snakes.  The discovery of some of the larger fossils, however, spurred some disturbing thoughts for many in terms of what science says about God and the bible.  At the time, considering an interpretation of the bible apart from traditional beliefs was a dangerous thing, and could see you ostracized from society.
Saint Michael's Church, the parrish church.
The established opinion was that God created the world in 6 literal 24-hour days, and since God is perfect, he created the world perfectly--he made no mistakes.  This necessarily means that everything which is in the world is God's perfect creation, the corollary being that since creation was perfect, everything that was in the world at the time of creation remains the same today.  The idea of extinction was a novel, renegade idea.  To believe that creatures could become extinct was to entertain the idea that God made a mistake.  It was fascinating to peek into such a pivotal time as far as world-view.  Something that I take for granted: being able to consider, interpret, and believe as I choose, was almost unheard of then.
Anning's Plesiosaurus

Ichthyosaurus skull
I hope you've enjoyed my little tour through the history that I wish I'd known before reading the book.  I think Tracy Chevalier does a fabulous job at bringing history to life, in a very readable, accessible manner.  If you enjoy grounded historical fiction (meaning, not romantic or idealistic but something that feels fully historical as well as being a good story,) Chevalier is a great find.  Her books include the following (info taken from her website):
  • The Virgin Blue (1997) American woman searches for French ancestors and uncovers more than she’d bargained for.
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999) Modest Dutch maid becomes poster girl for the painter Johannes Vermeer.
  • Falling Angels (2001) Two families love and feud among the gravestones of London’s Highgate Cemetery.
  • The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) Love is blind among the weavers of a lavish set of medieval tapestries.
  • Burning Bright (2007) Two pre-teens bond with radical painter-poet William Blake in 18th-century London.
  • Remarkable Creatures (2009) Two eccentric women search for fossils on English beaches.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle: A NovelTitle: Cat's Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Pages: 304
Published: 1998 Dell Publishing (orig. 1963)
Read For: Personal Challenge (5 Books From the Top 5 of 2010)
My Rating: 3.5

All right, book number 2 I've read by Kurt Vonnegut.  I settled on reading Cat's Cradle, (when I had been thinking of going with Breakfast of Champions,) because that's what my Local Indie Book Shop had in stock (as well as Timequake...but I know next to nothing about Vonnegut and his novels, so I made an uniformed impulsive decision.)

Slaughterhouse Five made it to my Top 5 of 2010 list, largely because of the unique writing, and I wanted to experience more of it.  Cat's Cradle grabbed me: the format of having a bazillion chapters (well, 127) in so few pages, combined with the humor that had me laughing instantly, and I was ready to dive in.  The first line(s):
Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did.  They called me John.
...and so starts a story of the end of the world.  For that is what the narrator sets out to tell, although he believes it will have a marked different ending than it ends up happening.  Before you even turn from the first page, you get straight into the story.
When I was a younger man--two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago... 
When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended. 
The book was to be factual. 
The books was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. 
It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.
I love the writing, I really do. I think I'll be reading Vonnegut's works for a long time simply because the writing is so much fun (and it is quick to read--bonus!).  But the story on this one just wasn't as fascinating to me as was the one in Slaughterhouse Five.  The storyline and characters started to feel a little Dickensian (I seem to be sensitive to that at the moment, anything slightly bizarre seems to be straight from the pen of Dickens) and was told in a much more straightforward manner than Slaughterhouse Five was, making it feel a bit less unique.

Still, he does say a lot with few words, (always amazing to me,) and relates a heavy message in a humorous voice, (a baffling talent).  There are all kinds of themes here to expound upon if you're up to it.  The issues presented (God, science, government, etc.) felt a little ho-hum to me, though that may be just my personal interest level (or lack thereof).

So this one won't be making it to any of my "Best Of" lists, but neither has it lowered my opinion of Vonnegut.  Next time I'm in my bookshop I just may hold out for Breakfast of Champions...maybe I'll have a bit better luck with that one?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Villette Read-Along: Chapters 6-11

Yeah, I'm posting a day late.  Maybe next week I'll make up for it by posting a day early.  That would even it out, right?  Well, better late than never, I guess.

This week's reading covers Chapters 6-11 (pages 58-134 of 657 in my copy).  I'm not going to recap what happened in these chapters, because Wallace did it perfectly already.  Look here for my First Impressions, on Chapters 1-5.

The Reading Experience
The biggest difference in this section, as far as readability and pace, is all of the French included.  I know no French.  I am French-less.  I kept thinking it would be so much nicer if the French bits were Spanish bits.  I could do Spanish, (I had 4 years of it in high school,) but French?  Was it assumed that Bronte's readers would know some French?

Well, Google Translator became my close friend in these chapters.  I'm loving the layout/typesetting of my Everyman's Library edition, it's easy on the eyes, but it doesn't offer even a hint of translation.  I may switch to a Kindle version so that I don't need to keep up the reading/typing/translating cycle.  Aside from that the reading went quickly.  Much more quickly than I was expecting based on my memories of reading Jane Eyre.

The Cast
I'm still intrigued by Lucy Snowe.  We are getting to know more and more about her, but what is fascinating is how the information is related.  We get snippets of how she thinks of herself:
"If left to myself, I should infallibly have let this chance slip.  Inadventurous, unstirred by impulses of practical ambition, I was capable of sitting twenty years teaching infants the hornbook, turning silk dresses, and making children's frocks.  Not that true contentment dignified this infatuated resignation: my work had neither charm for my taste, nor hold on my interest; but it seemed to me a great thing to be without heavy anxiety, and relieved from intimate trial; the negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know."
We also get some of her opinions (like the Protestant/Catholic issues, and the class/behavior issues) get to see some of her actions (in the classroom, around the doctor) and even get a hint of what she thinks others think of her.  "It was very seldom that I uttered more than monosyllables in Dr John's presence; he was the kind of person with whom I was likely ever to remain the neutral passive thing he thought me."  For all this information, however, she still holds herself somewhat aloof.  She is certainly a character with layers.

Other characters?   I'm loving them.  Ginevra, the Madame's children, and indeed all of the students at the school feel...foreign.  And fascinating, and frustrating.  At times it seems that Lucy is a bit bewildered with their way of living and thinking, that it is backwards and perhaps a bit daft--a fabulous representation of living in a foreign country, I would think.

The Plot and The Writing
Plot-wise, the simplicity and convenience with which Lucy lands in her new arrangements was a bit implausible, although the enjoyment I'm getting out of the book has made up for that.  This is not to say that her journey was easy, only that it seemed to lack some complexity.  Is this where the Gothic influence comes in?  Regardless, I thought this sentence was lovely:
I knew I was catching at straws; but in the wide and weltering deep where I found myself, I would have caught at cobwebs.
This paragraph made me think I was in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for a moment, so dramatic did it seem:
I started.  About a hundred thoughts volleyed through my mind in a moment.  Yet I planned nothing, and considered nothing: I had not time.  Providence said, "Stop here; this is your inn."  Fate took me in her strong hand; mastered my will; directed my actions: I rung the door-bell.
Observations & Thoughts
It is rare for me to be so entranced with a classic...usually they are enjoyable, but a bit of work.  Villette has sucked me in.  The characters are interesting, and the writing sparkles.  Apart from all the French that I'm apparently supposed to be familiar with, it has been a great reading experience so far.  I'm surprised that I have so much to say about such small portions of the book!  I may end up reading ahead...I've just realized that I will be in Ireland during the last two weeks of the Read-Along, so it might be best if I finish beforehand and schedule my posts.  If the pace and interest level keep up, though, I'll have no problem reading it a bit more quickly.  Until next week!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Book for Good Times or Bad...Really Bad

Literary Blog HopI'm glad to be able to join the Literary Blog Hop this week (I missed the last go round because I was out of town or busy or memory is failing me.)  The question of the week is from Mel u @ The Reading Life: If you were going off to war (or some other similarly horrific situation) and could only take one book with you, which book would you take and why?

I don't know if I've ever really imagined myself going to war, so this question has caused me to stop and think.  It's like your desert island pick, only opposite, right?  One book that will get you through it all...except that in war (or some other similarly horrific situation) you may not have much time to read, you are probably a little worried about having courage or facing death, and not necessarily in prime living conditions.

There is one book that I think would fill the necessary areas brilliantly:
  • engaging to read in small bits or long stretches (also, straight through/mixed excerpts)
  • real situations to make it more personal/meaningful
  • different enough setting to make the themes universal
  • main character I can identify with
  • difficult situations to contrast my difficult situation
  • display of courage, integrity, and hope--to inspire those qualities in my situation
  • substantial and satisfying in size and themes
It isn't Persuasion, much as I love it.  Nor is it War and Peace, despite the war-time setting and the fact that I loved it as well.  It is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn...and just thinking about it makes me want to jump into reading it again (must resist! did you see my recent post?!)  I think I love everything about this book.  I love the setting, the characters, the plot, the writing.  It has the power to put me through the whole range of emotions, from laughter and compassion to sadness and anger.  Francie Nolan's childhood really is a sort of battle, and she shows so much courage and integrity that she should come off as gratingly good, too perfect to be plausible, yet somehow she doesn't.  Certainly a good enough companion in the midst of war, this might be my desert island book as well.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bigger Isn't Always Better

Apart from the fear of toppling over, like Borders, the idea of size is something interesting to consider to consider in the grand scheme of literature, publishing and reading: bigger isn't always better.  I like independently owned books stores, small publishing houses and the authors they work with for the same reason I like the book blogging community: they are easier to get to know (more personal), and the chances are higher that you'll come away with a really great book.

Recently, the winners of the first annual Independent Literary Awards were announced, and the winner for Literary Fiction was Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye, published by Unbridled Books (see my review).  The author's and publisher's appreciation and respect for the awards (and book bloggers and readers in general)  has made the awards process so much more fulfilling than it might have been, although I didn't really consider that aspect while reading the shortlist.

Lyndsey at Amused, Bemused and Confused, one of the judges for the Indie Lit Awards in Literary Fiction, interviewed Peter, and his replies are such a delight to read (see the full interview here).  Whether you typically enjoy author interviews or not, this is one you should check out.  It doesn't happen very often that I enjoy an interview.  (No offense meant toward anyone--it is a personal defect, I am certain.  My mind drifts and I start to wonder if I have some odd form of ADD that inhibits me from concentrating on single paragraph responses.)  This interview, however, was an exception.

I'm looking forward to more writing from Peter Geye, and will definitely be getting my hands on more fiction from Unbridled Books.  If you want to know more, check out these links:

Monday, February 14, 2011

It Is Too Much! (A Day in the Life...)

It's Valentine's Day...I should probably be talking about that, about love or something...maybe link you to my review of A Lover's Dictionary.  But I've never really been a fan of Valentine's Day: it's pretty high up there on the Hallmark Holiday list, and that bugs me.  So I'm going to talk about what I want to instead--a normal day of reading.

I swear it was just a few short weeks ago that I was thinking how nice it was to read a single book at a time (or as close to it as is feasible) and now I've gone and sunk myself in the exact opposite situation.  True, there are very many books that I want to be reading right. now.  True, I'm afraid some of them will end up on my perma-shelf if I don't read them right. now.  Also true: I'm not finishing any books because I'm simply reading too many right now.

Why is it that as soon as I say that I'm going to aim to read books in a more singular fashion I pile them on all the thicker?  Here's my typical day in reading right now:

1. In the midst of all my other personal challenges, I have made reading through the bible a top priority, partly because I have never read through the whole thing--I get bored in the middle of all the rules and rituals and I quit.  So first thing in the morning is 25 pages (out of 1600) of the Reese Chronological Bible.  The chronological part is a lot of fun, the King James Version, not so much.  I'm a quarter through, so at this pace, I have 48 days left.  It's a heavy daily dose, but it's getting me through it so much quicker.
The Reese Chronological Bible

2. and 3. Next, if I'm lucky, I fit in my Daily Lit installments before starting the day.  So a smidge of Our Mutual Friend and a bit of Daniel Deronda
Our Mutual Friend (Everyman's Library)Daniel Deronda (Modern Library Classics)

4. Then kids are up, and school must begin.  I'm homeschooling three of them this year, and the first thing we do is read poetry and some junior fiction.  I don't count the kids poetry as my reading, but I do count the junior fiction I read aloud (simply because much of it is quality reading, and I'm spending 30-45 minutes a day reading it--what's not to count?)  Right now I'm reading aloud Misty of Chincoteague.
Misty of Chincoteague

5. and 6. During the school day I don't get much of anything done, including reading.  There is way too much entailed in teaching three children academics as well as all the normal momma stuff.  At the least, though, I'll be able to fit in a couple of poems in between helping with math and spelling etc.  The current volumes are Leavings by Wendell Berry and If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova.
Leavings: PoemsIf There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems

7. and 8. If I'm lucky enough to be able to grab a couple of free minutes in the afternoon, I'm likely to do some compulsory reading, which right now means an ARC (currently A Kidnapping in Milan) or read-along book (currently Villette) but soon will need to be a book club book....the meeting date for Everything is Illuminated is getting closer and closer).
A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on TrialVillette (Everyman's Library (Cloth))

9. Evenings are crazy, filled with errands, exercise, chores, and dinner.  At the tail end of this crazy hour is putting my girls to bed, which means more reading aloud.  My 10-year-old daughter is loving Jessica Day George's Dragon Slippers series, so we are now on the third in the trilogy, Dragon Spear.
Dragon Spear (Dragon Slippers)

10. or 11.  Finally, at night time, I'll get a chance to crack open one of the books that I'm wanting to read.  It may be fiction (right now, Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier) or nonfiction (right now, At Home by Bill Bryson) but these are the books that I'm reading because I want to, not due to any obligation or challenge--this is simply down time.
Remarkable Creatures: A NovelAt Home: A Short History of Private Life

12. And that's not my eyes are involuntarily closing at the end of the day, they alight on a forlorn book on my nightstand: the collection of short stories: The Troll Garden.  Oh, right, I want to be reading those too. Hmm, maybe tomorrow.
The Troll Garden and Others

Looking at my day laid out, I can see where the main craziness is.  It's having TWO Daily Lit installments, TWO volumes of poetry, TWO books I view as compulsory, TWO books I'm reading for fun, in addition to speed reading the whole entire bible and having a collection of short stories on the side.  It's a little ridiculous.  I need to focus on a couple of these books and whittle down the number I'm reading all at once to a manageable number.  Wish me luck.  :)