Friday, April 29, 2011

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

Ten Thousand Saints: A NovelI love it when I read a book outside of my typical fare and find a treasure.  Finding a wonderful book that you read because you were pretty sure you'd like it is one thing, but finding a wonderful book that you read despite your lack of interest is thrilling.  Fresh air and discovery. Because you know it could just as easily ended up horrid.

Same goes for the ARCs, quite honestly.  I don't know what it is, but I just don't have very good luck with ARCs.  Perhaps I am not selecting them judiciously enough, perhaps what begins feeling like a treat turns into feeling like a duty and I enter into them predisposed to be irritated.  I don't know, but I was on the verge of severely limiting their place in my reading diet when I cracked open the cover of this book.

Okay, a note about the cover (and title) of this book.  They don't really match the story, in my opinion.  I delayed starting this book because the cover/title and synopsis seemed so different.  The cover looks like a quiet, descriptive, thoughtful book.  The synopsis speaks of die-hard hippies in the late 1980s and their adopted children that are getting high on whatever they can get their hands on.  The synopsis is much more accurate than the cover/title.  I like the cover/title, but have to say that the advertising must not have read the synopsis, let alone the book.

Right, so anyhow, Ten Thousand Saints was an ARC (provided by Powell's Indiespensible program and included in the shipment with The Fates Will Find Their Way) as well as a book that I never would have picked up myself based on the synopsis.  Even during reading, even after reading, I couldn't stop thinking that this was a book that really wasn't my style--making it all the more shocking that I enjoyed it so throughly.

Why wasn't it my type of book?
  - the excessive drug use/abuse (condoned and otherwise)
  - the irresponsible parents (and one extremely controlling one)
  - the teen in 1980s NYC (I just don't relate--small town CA in the 90s was my scene)
  - the die-hard hippie focus (my parents were ex-hippies--nothing like these people!)
  - the hard-core punk and straight edge movement (whew, intense!)
  - social issues: discrimination, tattoos, AIDS, homelessness, adoption (just not my go-to topics)

Why on earth did I enjoy it so much?
  - the people seemed real (even if I didn't relate or like them much)
  - it felt like the 80s (even though my 80s was quite different)
  - it kept me on the edge of my seat (takes a special book to do that to me)
  - it was educational (I'd never heard of the straight edge
  - it felt new and fresh (not your average NYTimes Bestseller)
  - the writing was fun to read (intelligent but not cumbersome)

What is it about? (In which the GoodReads description is added after the fact because I realized belatedly that I forgot to talk about the storyline. oops.)

Adopted by a pair of diehard hippies, restless, marginal Jude Keffy-Horn spends much of his youth getting high with his best friend, Teddy, in their bucolic and deeply numbing Vermont town. But when Teddy dies of an overdose on the last day of 1987, Jude's relationship with drugs and with his parents devolves to new extremes. Sent to live with his pot-dealing father in New York City's East Village, Jude stumbles upon straight edge, an underground youth culture powered by the paradoxical aggression of hardcore punk and a righteous intolerance for drugs, meat, and sex. With Teddy's half brother, Johnny, and their new friend, Eliza, Jude tries to honor Teddy's memory through his militantly clean lifestyle. But his addiction to straight edge has its own dangerous consequences. While these teenagers battle to discover themselves, their parents struggle with this new generation's radical reinterpretation of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll and their grown-up awareness of nature and nurture, brotherhood and loss.
So what I want to know is this: whether what felt very much like the 80s to me would seem the same to someone who was a teen in the late 80s.  I was about 10 in a small mountain town when these teens were fighting the drug scene in NYC--apples and oranges.  I suppose it's possible that this degree of separation made the book more appealing to me than it might have been otherwise.

Many issues pop up in this book, but it didn't feel over-saturated.  It remained balanced.  It has restored my faith (hope?) in ARCs somewhat and has made me even more impressed with Powells.  I'm dying to see what other people think about this book.  Will you go read it so that we can chat?

Title: Ten Thousand Saints
Author: Eleanor Henderson
Pages: 400
Published: Ecco 2011
My Rating: 4 stars...or 4.5 stars? can't decide
Read For: ARC from Powell's Indiespensible (included with The Fates Will Find Their Way)

Eligible to be Nominated!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Swooning for the Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog HopI'm looking forward to the discussion that emerges from this week's Literary Blog Hop (brought to us by The Blue Bookcase--thanks Ingrid!)  Discuss your thoughts on sentimentality in literature.  When is emotion in literature effective and when is it superfluous?

One of the big reasons I gravitate towards literary fiction rather than general, popular fiction is because the sentimentality and emotion--when present--often feel much more genuine.  One thing that really bugs me in books is manipulation of emotions, (which is funny because in my late teens I absolutely loved Victoria Holt, Danielle Steel, and Mary Higgins Clark whose main purposes--if I remember correctly--were to do exactly that.)  If the emotion and sentimentality in a book does not feel like a genuine portrayal, an artistic expression so to speak, then it's pretty much guaranteed I won't like the book.  Perhaps I just had too much of it and just can't stomach it any longer?  Perhaps that phase in my life is over (the hormones have settled down and so have I?)

My least favorite books last year all had an element of the insincere or implausible, or in some way felt like it was more about the author than the characters...the emotions in them (whatever type of emotions they might be) felt superfluous: Gods in Alabama, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, The Alchemist, 13 Reasons Why.

My most favorite books last year managed to strike me as very genuinely felt, more concerned with expressing emotional feelings than instigating emotional reaction: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Star of the Sea, Speak, The Good Earth.

I don't mind emotion and sentimentality, but it seems rare to find a book that really pulls it off.  Without a personal connection, emotion and sentimentality have no lasting value...feelings are fleeting.  There are enough dramatics and emotional roller coasters in real life...inside a book is where I find the comfort of some intelligent conversation and humor, beautiful language and interesting observations.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics)Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a wonderfully charming way to spend a couple of hours. It's funny, quaint, and even a wee bit shocking at times.  This is the first Persephone I've read, but if it is any indication of how unique their titles are, I'm definitely interested.

You may have seen the movie with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams (that is where my familiarity with the story began) but whether you have or not, reading the book is well worth the time.  It is quick paced and packed full of adventure.  At the beginning of the day poor Miss Pettigrew has no idea what she is in for, and by the end of the day she's had the incredible fortune to have been swept off her feet and into a whole new circle of friends.  This truly is a Cinderella story.

One of the things I loved was that the Cinderella-ish-ness wasn't based solely on the guy.  There was that element, but the real change and miracle was in how Miss Pettigrew discovered her identity.  She had muddled her way through life feeling like she wasn't good enough for her parents, wasn't competent enough for her work, wasn't attractive enough for marriage, and wasn't enjoyable enough for friends, and this single day changed all of that for her.  Even though the book doesn't take place in modern times, I think it still applies.  I think that it is amazing how much the opinion of others affects our view of ourselves, whether we'd like it to or not.

This is a book that manages to be a fairytale and somewhat grown up at the same time and it left me feel smiley and content.  It's one I'll read again, and deserves a place on the shelf.  Next time you need a little vacation, don't go out of town--read this book instead!

Title: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Author: Winifred Watson
Pages: 234
Published: Persephone 2008 (orig. 1938)
My Rating: 5 stars

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sunday Salon: Happy Easter (and the Reese Chronological Bible)

The Reese Chronological BibleOn Easter weekend, I can't help but think about my recent journey through the bible.  Before this year, I'd never read the bible in its entirety.  I've read a lot of it many times, but every time I try to read the bible all the way through I get to the middle of all the Levitical laws and my good intentions fly out the window.  In January, the month of resolutions, I bought a copy of the Reese Chronological Bible (even though it only came in the King James version) with the intention of reading it straight through.  There is something fascinating about placing the scriptures in a chronological order and historical context, don't you think?  Well, by the end of January I was about to stick it on my shelf, resigned to the idea of picking it up sometime later, (when my TBR wasn't so huge--ha!) but as I was carrying it away from my nightstand and toward my bookshelf I felt that I needed to make a concentrated effort to read through it instead of giving up on the idea so easily.

This bible is 1600 pages, and I read it in 66 days...25 pages a day (and 50 the last day).  Some days it felt like insanity: one day I read the books of Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter.    Now those aren't the largest books in the bible, but it does sound impressive, doesn't it? :)  It equalled out to about 45 minutes of reading...if I was focusing well.  If not, (and there were many portions of the bible when it was quite difficult for me to maintain focus,) then it would likely be the only reading I'd be able to fit in that day.   Why did I read it at such a pace?  It was sort of a Lent project, I suppose.  I felt challenged to read it as quickly as possible, and this pace ended up being about the exact amount I could read without getting frustrated and giving up.

One of the fabulous things about reading the bible in chronological order is that it provides a better Big Picture.   There is more continuity; it makes sense historically, which makes a world of difference for a brain like mine.  I loved the inclusion of historical facts, even if they were brief.  Before the book of Malachi, the birth of Plato is listed (429 BC) as is the reign of Darius II of Persia (423-404 BC).  In between the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is a brief commentary about Greece and Rome as world powers, which further aids in understanding the timeline.  The Big Picture goes beyond the historical context and into understanding the ultimate message of the bible: that of Yahweh's view and plan for humankind.

So although it was definitely a challenge, it had a rewarding outcome.  As far as the specific version is concerned, I was very pleased with how it was organized.  All other chronological bibles I've seen were much less specific in arrangement--while this version occasionally divided books into verse-sized sections, the others seem to be by books or perhaps chapters.  I thought this attention to detail was amazing, really adding to the poetry of some parts.  The story of David told in a way that interspersed the Psalms into the historical bits made for a beautiful, full retelling.  When I was previewing the book, the first few verses sold me:
John 1:1-2  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.
Psalm 90:2  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
Genesis 1:1  In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
While I wish that I'd had the option to read it in another version, I remain pleased with my experience.  It has provided a great frame of mind to head into Easter weekend, and beyond that into the rest of the year.  If you've been considering reading through the bible, this is one I'd recommend.  If you celebrate Easter, have a joyful day celebrating friends, family, and the risen Lord!

Title: The Reese Chronological Bible
Author: King James version, work by Edward Reese based on Frank Klassen's chronology
Pages: 1600
Published: Bethany House 1980 (orig. 1977)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Coachella 2011

Coachella is a music festival, and has nothing to do whatsoever with books...apart from the fact that it is what kept me from reading, writing, and blogging this last weekend.  It is a music festival that tens of thousands of people attend.  Not only was it crowded, but it was ridiculously hot.  It's by Palm Springs, so I suppose it is fairly normal to be hot, but nature exercised its sense of humor last weekend and temperatures spiked solely for the three days we were there.  Which means that there were tens of thousands of sweaty people there.  Sound fun yet?

I got to see some favorites: Mumford and Sons, The Swell Season, and Freelance Whales, find some new favorites: Flogging Molly, Gogol Bordello, and !!!, as well as listen to many others that are popular right now.  Really there are too many to mention...we managed to see around 40 bands in the 3 days, and I decided that music festivals are best left to the extroverts of the world.  On the bright side, it inspired me to write 3 poems. :)
At the end of the 3 days, Nature apologized for the horrid
heat by rewarding everyone with a spectacular sunset.
As far as books go, I've read some great ones recently that I'm eager to write reviews for.  I'm not sure how much blogging I'll get done before Easter, but I'm crossing my fingers.

I usually keep my language geekishness to myself somewhat, because I'd hate for people to feel like I was making fun of them, but seeing this sign repeatedly (at the vacation rental we stayed at during the festival) finally did me in and I posted it on Facebook.  Something so simple as misspelling "handle" really shouldn't be so entertaining, right? But I just can't help thinking about what poor Handel would think about it.

I hope you all had a great weekend (at much cooler temperatures than the festival's high-90s F) with plenty of reading opportunities.  Enjoy what bits of spring you can find this week!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard

The Fates Will Find Their Way: A NovelTypically I'm pretty sure within a minute or two of closing the covers of a book what I thought about it and why...and typically my opinion doesn't change.  This book was different.  I thought I'd let this book simmer for a couple of days before writing my review, but a couple of days turned into a couple of months, and I'm still not entirely settled in my thoughts about it.

Partly at fault was myself--for coming into the book with expectations.  You know how that goes: you highly anticipate something, making it that much harder for it to live up to your ideals.  In this case, my high hopes were focused on Powell's and their Indiespensable program, since this was my first installment.  I was so excited to have found a program that would pick out and send me new, independent, literary fiction without me having to do a single thing (apart from presenting my credit card number) that I simply couldn't wait to dive in.  Also, the cover art is gorgeous.  If it had been a photo of the back of some girl, my expectations would have been sufficiently lowered.

Apart from expectations lies the simple fact that there were things I really appreciated about this book and things I found rather unimpressive.  I couldn't identify with any of the characters (a group of horny high school boys who didn't mature much as they aged) and thought the premise was a stretch.  What group of boys shares a lifelong obsession--fantasies and all--about a girl that disappeared during high school?

However, I did enjoy the writing.  It was written mostly in 1st person plural ("we") which was a fun change of pace, and had a very loose chronology, weaving the past in with different points in the future--both real and imagined.  The writing style actually reflected the mental state of the guys who were still trying to come to terms with their classmate's disappearance decades later.  This might drive some people crazy, but I thought that it was a lot of fun.

Ultimately, this book left me still excited about future Indiespensable shipments...just a more normal-person-excited-in-moderation type of excitement rather than the escalating fervor I'd reached previously.  It also left me thinking about my own high school some ways so tame and normal by comparison, in other ways tinged with a similar sadness.  This is a book that I won't forget, and that definitely says something.

Title: The Fates Will Find Their Way
Author: Hannah Pittard
Pages: 256
Published: 2011 Ecco
Read For: my first Indiespensable book!  &  my Published in the Current Year Challenge

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench: A Novel (P.S.)Are you still enjoying the last vestiges of winter? Or is it time for some of those summer reads yet?  A book that grabs you and won't let go?  Something that doesn't require huge concentration and does some of the work for you?  Wench, for me, felt like a summer read in that sense.

That is not to say that the subject matter is light and fluffy, for it is anything but.  In this book we peek into the lives of four slave women who are their masters' mistresses in the mid-1850s.  Their experiences--thoughts, feelings, hopes--are all vastly different from each other, but they are united by their shared sense of injustice and the complexity of their situations.

It wasn't so much that individual portions of the book were emotionally difficult to digest (although there were a couple of parts that were somewhat rough) but rather the fact that they kept happening and kept happening.  Which I suppose is one of the points the author was trying to make.  Some slave owners were kind, and some slaves really weren't mistreated horribly, but regardless of the degree of horror in circumstance, one of the really horrid things about slavery is that it is ongoing.  Forever.  With no real hope in sight.

Considering the heavy subject matter, Wench still managed to feel like a light read to me.  I was reading to find out what was going to happen, rather than to stop and ponder the situation...which is interesting because there were definitely enough things to stop and consider.  The story really seemed to flow until it ended quite abruptly, with the last couple of paragraphs becoming all poetic.  I don't think it was a book that absolutely hinged on the ending, though, so the last page was forgivable.  The fact that it was inspired by an actual resort made it all the more interesting.  While not necessarily a favorite, it was an above average read.

Title: Wench
Author: Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Pages: 304
Published: 2011 Harper Collins (orig. 2009)
My Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Salon: Junior Fiction (Happy Birthday Beverly Cleary!)

You may or may not realize that there is some really wonderful Junior Fiction out there.  You are all readers of some sort, and were all kids at some point, so I'm guessing that most everyone has read some Junior Fiction in their lives.

You may or may not have continued reading Junior Fiction after ceasing to be of "junior" age.  If you have kiddos, like I do, the chances that you've dipped back into Newbery territory are probably greater, but whether you have children to read aloud to or not, Junior Fiction plays a vital role in literature.

This week, on April 12, Beverly Cleary will celebrate her 95th birthday.  Here is an author that set out to entertain children and has consequently made an impression on a nation (and perhaps beyond?)  Multiple generations have enjoyed Ribsy and identified with Ramona.  The power of the written word, even when in the form of simple sentences and young characters, is enough to bring laughter and comfort to people of different ages and backgrounds.  I'd like to wish Beverly Cleary a happy birthday, from my daughters and myself--thank you for remembering what it was like to be a child, and daring to write about it...your books will always have a place on my shelf!

I haven't written regular reviews of my Junior Fiction reads in a while, and I thought I'd start doing a quarterly the following books are the ones from the first quarter of 2011.  Most of these are read aloud to my kiddos, some for school and some just for fun.  Hope you find something worth looking into or something you've read that will spark a happy memory (if not, at least my unreviewed-books-guilt has been alleviated somewhat!)

The Door in the Wall (Books for Young Readers)The Door in the Wall by Marguerite DeAngeli
I reviewed this Newbery Winner (1950) at The Newbery Project in January.  I read it aloud for school (Middle Ages and all that) and while it does discuss some interesting parts of the era (illness, the role of the church, the feudal system) we found it a bit boring and hard to follow.  We had already read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (another Newbery winner) and we'd recommend that instead--very different styles of books, but as far as interest goes, we enjoyed the latter more. (3 stars)

The School StoryThe School Story by Andrew Clements
This is a fun story for the young writer or entrepreneur you may know.  Natalie's friend Zoe is amazed at Natalie's talent for writing and is determined to help her get her story published.  Although Natalie's mother works in publishing, she refuses to enlist her mother's help, determined to make her own way.  Everything works out way too easily for these girls, but it is still a fun adventure.  The plot was rather predictable, but the characters and the dialogue felt real and refreshing. (3.5 stars)

Dragon Spear (Dragon Slippers)Dragon Flight and Dragon Spear by Jessica Day George
I've talked about these books and the author before.  These 2 titles follow Dragon Slippers to make a nice middle grade dragon-fantasy trilogy.  The first book takes a little while to really suck you in, and the last one ends rather gently, but generally speaking they are full of fun and adventure throughout.  In addition to that, the thing I really appreciated was that they were rather innocent as far as love and battle goes.  It included both, but hit a good balance of intensity--my sensitive 6 year-old daughter enjoyed listening to them, and my 12 year old son enjoyed reading them as well.  (4 stars)

Adam of the Road (Puffin Modern Classics)Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
Back to the school subjects...I have to say that by the end of this book my kiddos were tired of the Middle Ages and tired of minstrels.  That being said, however, this Newbery winner was much more fun to read than The Door in the Wall.  It was easier to follow and easier to identify with.  I'd still say that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was their favorite from the medieval bunch, though.  At least Adam of the Road seemed more like a book about (and geared towards) children than the prior one! (3.5 stars)

Misty of ChincoteagueMisty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
My 6 year-old daughter lives and breathes horses. We've been reading My Chincoteague Pony (picture book) for years, and so she was very excited to finally hear the story inspiring the picture book.  A fairly simple story from a fairly simple time, it is nonetheless a heartwarming book for the horse lover.  Marguerite Henry is a great author to go to for books about horses! I'm sure I'll be re-reading this at some point.  (4 stars)

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. FrankweilerFrom the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
I didn't know what to expect out of this Newbery winner, I just knew that I'd heard many people declare their love of it.  I found it enjoyable enough, although I'm afraid the magic passed over me somewhat.  I think my kiddos enjoyed it more than I did.  Perhaps if I'd read it as a child??  Maybe not...I didn't really identify with the characters or the adventure: I never wanted to run away and be out on my own, and museums always creeped me out as a kid.  If you don't have those issues, you're much more likely to love this book! I did enjoy the dynamics between the brother and sister, though--the constant grammar corrections and budget discussions were entertaining.  (3.5 stars)