Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Top Ten Beach Reads

I personally don't like reading at the beach.  Too windy, too many distractions, and often too cold.  But I'll attempt to ignore those irritations for now and just give you a list of a variety of favorites that happen to have what I consider the necessary qualities of a beach read:  entertaining (high interest level), quick (lively writing style), and smart (mentally engaging).

Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb
1. Something Current:  Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb by George Rabasa
A tale of dysfunction, mental illness, and purpose of life, all told in a remarkably funny and lighthearted manner.  From the lovely Unbridled Books.

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel
2. Something Modern ClassicSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Check this off your list: a bizarrely historical and science-fiction-y book that jumps around as much as the beach volleyball team.

Stardust Publisher: Harper Perennial
3. Something FantasyStardust by Neil Gaiman
A quick trip into the fantastic, Stardust is never short on action.  Creativity and humor abound in this finely imagined tale.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics)
4. Something Vintage ClassicMiss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson
 Whether you are up for a romp through London's social scene in the 1930s or just want a little Cinderella daydreaming, this delightful book fits the bill.

(TRUE GRIT)) BY Portis, Charles(Author)Paperback{True Grit} on 05 Nov-2010
5. Something WesternTrue Grit by Charles Portis
More in the mood for a quirky western?  Look no further than True Grit.  Its fairly simple story is told with such a unique voice that it may be a struggle to refrain from reading out loud.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
6. Something Young AdultThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Showcasing some of the best attributes of YA (honesty, growth, humor) this book will have you laughing, but may have you crying as well.  And you just may learn something in the process.

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen: A Novel
7. Something Sweet and SouthernLooking For Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore
Looking for proof that all the oddball irritations in life can turn into something worthwhile?  Look no further than the Dairy Queen.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie Collection)
8. Something MysteryAnd Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Fun in that classic mystery suspense sort of way, this book will keep you turning pages.

Lois the Witch
9. Something ClassicLois the Witch by Elizabeth Gaskell
There's no reason why the beach must stand in the way of your classic literature goals and desires, especially with a trim piece of historical interest such as this.  A tale of the Salem Witch Trials by the author of North and South, Wives and Daughters, Cranford and others.

Ella Minnow Pea
10. Something Linguistically CleverElla Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
Finally, if you tend towards wanting something witty and love word plays, this might be just the thing.  A fable told in a series of letters, it's a delightful way to pass the time.

(Thanks to The Broke and the Bookish for hosting Top Ten Tuesday!)

Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby

I came into this book knowing that it seems to be one of those "love it or hate it" books for Nick Hornby fans, and as it was only the second novel of his I'd read, I was a bit worried.  I actually skipped over it at the book store many times for this reason.  In a happy turn of events, however, I ended up loving it.  The narrator is a girl--which is always a little strange coming from a male author, but it worked for me.

I can see why some people aren't thrilled with this book.  In many ways it is an oddball, so if you head in thinking you'll be meeting another version of High Fidelity, you'll be in for a surprise (although High Fidelity does have a cameo appearance in this book, which was also surprising).  While there is plenty of humor, it is a quieter, more introspective flavor of humor.  And honestly?  The subject matter does venture into the land of the ridiculous at points, so if you have a difficult time finding relevance in the bizarre, this book may be a stretch for you.

Mostly, I just liked what this book said about marriage and long-term relationships.  When I got married (at an unbelievably young age) I had quite a few friends and family that had very outspoken opinions about the fact that at [barely] 18, I couldn't possibly know who I was or what I wanted out of life...and certainly not enough to make a huge life decision such as marriage.  And they were right: people do go through massive changes in their twenties, and may come out as completely different people than they used to be...perhaps as someone you may not even like.  But you know what?  Those changes keep happening throughout life, and if you aren't ready to change and roll with the punches, then it won't matter what age you are when you deal with them.

The couple in How to Be Good is dealing with exactly that issue: when you've each changed, when you aren't even sure you like each other, how (and why) do you make things work?  Some of the situations they are dealing with are not your normal problems, but by stretching normality into an extremely silly shape, it is easier to see the big picture.  Nick Hornby did a great job at talking about deep things in a fairly lighthearted manner, and succeeded in making me want to go out for a curry the entire time I read it.  Mmm...curry.

My favorite quote (from page 138):
It seems to me now that the plain state of being human is dramatic enough for anyone; you don't need to be a heroin addict or a performance poet to experience extremity.  You just have to love someone.

Title: How to Be Good
Author: Nick Hornby
Pages: 320
Published: 2002 Riverhead Trade (orig. 2001)
My Rating: 4.5

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Reading Life

The last few months have been laced with craziness for me, so I have subsequently found my reading comfort in smaller, quicker books.  A couple of months back I put the classics on the sidelines, and since then have read more regular old Adult Fiction than I have in a very long time.  A lot of that is changing now, however, as work is becoming less stressful and school is nearing completion.  Books that would have seemed refreshing last month are tiring this month.  I think I've actually read too many books this month.  Shocker.  

So I've decided it is a good time to slow down on the speedy books and allow myself some slower reads--something I like to transition into for the summer months anyhow.  Summer break gives me the mental space to be able to put more thought into what I'm reading, as well as spend a bit more time with it.  Here are the books that have been floating around my house lately:

Currently Reading:
Gilead: A Novel
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Pulitzer Prize winner that I've been meaning to read for quite a while.  I'm about halfway through, and it is much quieter than I expected.  Still, it continues to pull me in.

Recently Finished:
The Weird Sisters
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
Didn't enjoy it as much as I was hoping to.  I just couldn't seem to bring myself to care about the characters.  I think I may be biased against books set in the present day.  :(
That Night
That Night by Alice McDermott
An alternate book club selection--some beautiful language/thoughts, but the plot felt somewhat incomplete.

Next Up:
Revolutionary Road
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
At least this is what my mood is aiming for at the moment...looks good, doesn't it?
The Stolen Village, Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates
...and maybe this one too--I'm about ready for another NonFiction book, and this one is about Ireland. I can read it and dream of going back. :)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

All Right. I'll admit it.

I, too, wish I were at BEA.  I also wish that I had the time to join in Armchair BEA, but my brain just isn't there this week.  I've got the end-of-the-school-year-scatterbrain.  Maybe next year I'll be able to go (to either NYC itself, or if all else fails, my comfy armchair). Or maybe I'll have to keep saying "Maybe next year" until I'm no longer plagued with end-of-the-school-year syndrome (one of those things that seems as if there is no end in sight).

Speaking of fabulous new books and bookish events, I have 2 exciting bits of news about the Indie Lit Awards!
  1. You no longer have to be a book blogger to nominate a book once nominations open up!  So let all of your book-loving acquaintances know that 2011 their opinion matters.  Also, nominations will be private this year, so no peer pressure worries.  (and some clarification:  to be part of the running/judging of the awards, you still must be a book blogger...the only thing that has opened up is the nominations.)
  2. If you are a book blogger, you can now put your name on a list to be considered to receive free books from publishers.  Go to the ILA website, select your preferred genre, and look for the linky @ the bottom of the page.
For more detailed posts on the above items, check out Wallace's announcement and Ti's announcement.  If you are in the dark about newly published books, check out this list to get you going!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Short Stories by Willa Cather: The Troll Garden and Others

The Troll Garden and OthersAfter falling in love with Willa Cather's Prairie Trilogy (O Pioneers! Song of the Lark and My Antonia) I decided to read through all of her published works chronologically.  Even with how much I enjoyed those three books, however, this is quite a challenge for me for a couple of reasons:
  - first: I have a hard time staying on a single author, so this may take me forever
  - second: I like to choose books based on my mood, so this may take me forever.

Which is why I've only just finished #2 of her 19 published works.

The Troll Garden and Others is a collection of short stories, and is Willa Cather's second published work (first was April Twilights, a collection of poetry published in 1903.)  It was first published in 1905 and contains the following short stories: (titles link to an online copy of the story, titles in bold were my favorites)

The Troll Garden:
  - Flavia and Her Artists interesting peek at the artsy social scene at the turn of the century.
  - The Sculptor's Funeral layered, complex characters--felt like the Willa Cather I know
  - "A Death in the Desert" a sad look at the inequality of love
  - The Garden Lodge delightful little character sketch
  - The Marriage of Phaedra a story of art and artists
  - A Wagner Matinee another lovely happy/sad story with great insight into character
  - Paul's Case "A Study in Temperament" ...truly does feel more like a study than a story.

And Others:
  - On the Divide the old world in a new land--thought provoking look at culture clash
  - Eric Hermannson's Soul beautiful but saddening look at religion back in the revival days
  - The Enchanted Bluff a look at the dreams of boys and how the years pass
  - The Bohemian Girl community and family expectations are at odds with happiness

I have to mention that I've discovered I'm really no good at reading short story collections.  This took me forever to read, simply because I'd read one story and then be in the mood for other things.  I finally forced myself to just finish it already--and I'm glad I did!  This collection had some gems in it--much more poetic than her poetry, funny enough. Some of these stories have that spark of magic that make Willa Cather so easy to love.

The Garden Lodge 
Much of Cather's works seem to try to make sense of the disparity between poverty and art, and the choice between familial duty and pursuing dreams. The Garden Lodge, which at first glance seems to be a completely different type of story than the others, soon shows itself as exploring the same concept from another light.  This story is more lighthearted, yet in some ways more dramatic, than many of her other stories, and was a fun change of pace.  Apart from addressing poverty and art, this story also skillfully shows the internal struggle even the staunchest character may have with the choices made in life.

A Wagner Matinee
American grade schools exalt the Pioneer Spirit--the strength and sturdiness of the people who conquered the West--and rarely explore the more personal side (or drawbacks) to the lives they lived.  Cather's work sets some of this to rights.  In A Wagner Matinee, we experience the generational divide (as in O Pioneers!) that separated the strength of character  in the pioneers from the industrial innovation of their children.  Again, this story speaks to the love of art and following dreams, contrasted with convention and duty (and the poverty that often went along with that.)  This story is a precious peek into the wealth of feeling and experience that resides in the older generation.

Eric Hermannson's Soul
How sad is it that the one thing that should bring comfort and relief (namely, faith) is often the very source of contention and misery?  It would be nice if I could claim that the church was represented incorrectly in this book, but it felt painfully realistic.  Again, Cather explores the choice between pleasure in art and duty to family/community, but this time underpinned by religion.  The look at that "old time religion" was fascinating to me, and it was made even more poignant by the element of love.  We, as humans, are continually evaluating our priorities, whether consciously or not, and sometimes that requires a big decision--an eternal decision--to be made.

The Bohemian Girl
If the character sketches (like in The Garden Lodge and A Wagner Matinee) aren't really your thing, you might try The Bohemian Girl, which--as the longest story in the collection--has a more developed storyline.  Thematically, it still focuses on generations and expectations, choices in life, and love.  A young man returns home, to the surprise of his family, and makes some waves.  The story doesn't end with this young man or the Bohemian girl, however, but continues on to examine some of the consequences of their decisions.  Our choices rarely affect only ourselves, even if we are convinced that they do.

My two favorite stories were A Wagner Matinee and Eric Hermannson's Soul.  Those two I'd highly recommend--and the good news is that you can read them online for free!  The other stories weren't bad, but unless you are a Cather fan or a short story fan, I don't think that this collection is a must-read.  However, the amount of growth in Cather's writing from her first published work (poetry) to her second (these short stories) seems quite significant.  In her poems, there were hints of her interest areas, but it seemed like she had a difficult time expressing herself.  In prose, however, she has really opened up.

Alexander's Bridge (Vintage Classics)Next up in my Willa Cather Journey: Alexander's Bridge--her first published novel.  First published in 1912, and weighing in at a slim 128 pages, it is the only novel published before the Prairie Trilogy.    I'm eager to see how it compares, especially since the setting is not the prairie but rather Boston, Canada, and London.  In my experience, it is Cather's ability to understand and draw a character that makes you feel their surroundings...we'll see if my theory holds true after reading this one!

Title: The Troll Garden and Others
Author: Willa Cather
Pages: 200
Published: 2006 Aegypan (orig. 1905)
Read For: personal challenge
My Rating: 4 stars