Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, Gone With the Wind is a well known epic of love and war.  My copy weighs in at a hefty 959 pages, which is rather remarkable when I look back at how quickly I turned the pages.

I have to say upfront that the story is too sweeping and dramatic for my taste.  It was sort of like a soap opera, Civil War style.  The characters, except for Mammy perhaps, were tiring.  Scarlett is super annoying, Rhett is grating, Ashley is weak, Melanie is naive.  Yet for all of that, I found it all surprisingly enjoyable.

What makes Gone With the Wind so striking is how quickly and [seemingly] easily it pulls you into the world of the Confederacy.  The only other time that stands out in my mind that I experienced that was with The Good Earth.  Interestingly enough, The Good Earth won the Pulitzer only a few years before Gone With the Wind.  Being very readable and yet deep and layered is a quality that I find quite impressive.

Some of my favorite quotes:
I tell you they're born queer. Look at the way they go tearing up to New York and Boston to hear operas and see oil paintings.  And ordering French and German books by the crate from the Yankees!  And there they sit reading and dreaming the dear God knows what, when they'd be better spending their time hunting and playing poker as proper men should.
Throughout the South for fifty years there would be bitter-eyed women who looked backward, to dead times, to dead men, evoking memories that hurt and were futile, bearing poverty with bitter pride because they had those memories.
He felt there was something unbecoming about a woman understanding fractions and business matters and he believed that, should a woman be so unfortunate as to have such unladylike comprehension, she should pretend not to.
A woman had no business even knowing what a mortgage was.
She was twenty-five and looked it, and so there was no longer any need for her to try to be attractive.
Live's under no obligation to give us what we expect.  We take what we get and are thankful it's no worse than it is. 
I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge: my book with a wartime setting.  It was a great experience--I'm glad to have read it--and puts me in the mood to read more about the Civil War.  What a great way to experience some history!

Title: Gone With the Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Pages: 959
Published: 1996 Scribner (orig. 1936)
Read For: Back to the Classics Challenge
My Rating: 4.5 stars

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Yes, Please!

Posters I'd actually decorate with from Spineless Classics: Imagine a whole book on a single sheet.

If they weren't so expensive I'd be all over it is, I'll have to cross my fingers and hope to find one of these under the Christmas tree.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing: a Giveaway!

Sometimes too much of a good thing is still just that: too much.  Other times, too much of a good thing is wonderful.  Today, two examples:

1. Too Much:  Interviews.  In the past I've thought that I dislike reading interviews, but somewhere along my adventure in book-blogging I've realized that it isn't the interviews I dislike--finding out details about authors and fellow bloggers can be quite fun--it's the length of the answers.  5 Paragraph Essay Answers to each simple question leave me feeling like it is all too much.  I like getting Bill Bryson-esque bite-sized factoids...they satisfy my curiosity and leave me wanting to know more.  

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for The Book Base (my interview appeared yesterday--check it out!) which does a good job of keeping interviews interesting.  One of the things I really like about how the interviews are structured on this site is that the questions are the same, and the answers are all fairly brief.  It makes it easy to digest and discover new bloggers.

2.  Wonderful: Classic Novellas.  In gearing up for the Art of the Novella Challenge starting August 1st, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how I want to approach these wonderful little tidbits of classic literature.  I ended up (under the influence of my husband, no less) buying the entire 42 volume series.  For me, they're classic literature.  For him, they're modern decor. Win/Win.  Even with a licence to buy, this splurge means that I feel obligated to put maximum effort into reading every single one of them in August.  Still, they're gorgeous and exciting...even if there are too many to get through next month, I can't help but feel that they are only wonderful.

One of the things that I love about the novellas that Melville House Publishing has chosen (apart from the general idea of classic novellas) is that most of the titles sport a reputation or a history.  From Mary Shelley's Mathilda with its shocking themes, to Cervantes' The Dialogue of the Dogs (the first talking dog story in Western Literature) these selections go beyond the typical canon of classics.

On that note, I've decided to host a giveaway!  Whether you are interested in joining the challenge in August or not, you have to admit that these novellas are enticing.  Who wouldn't want to own a couple? or four??  Fill out the form below before July 31st, selecting which 4 classic novellas you would most love to own, and stay tuned for my Challenge Kick-Off post on July 31st when I announce the winner.  The winner will be chosen randomly, and the giveaway is open internationally.  Good luck!

Head over to Melville House to see the 42 classic novellas you can choose from and to read the descriptions.  Happy reading!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top Ten Books My Kids Need to Read

The Broke and the Bookish bring up a subject this week that I've been thinking about lately: Required High School Reading. There are many different opinions on what should be required of our teens (and why) and I've found that my own opinion has evolved over time. There is certainly some credence to the idea that high school may be the last opportunity to expose students to the classics, but there is also validity to the idea that reading should be fun...too often schools seem to go to extremes: Homer or Harry Potter, Les Miserables or The Lovely Bones. I think that a balance can be found if we simply view high school as a continuation of the younger grades: an effort to instill a love of learning and a foundation for the things life holds, rather than a last ditch effort. I wonder how many of our own High School English Horror Stories would have been different if the focus was more on opening minds instead of pounding knowledge into them.

All this to say that if I had to choose 10 books that I'd like my kiddos to have read by the time they graduate high school, (I admit that it is far easier to come up with a Top Ten for my kiddos than it is for every American teen in existence) I think I would approach it in a way that would show them possibilities, giving them a taste of what else is out there. There is room in AP courses to go crazier on the classics, and room in daily life to enjoy the ultra-popular-current-books, room in other core classes to delve into cultures and history, so these books attempt to show the approachable side of quality literature.

Speak(Laurie Halse Anderson) YA literature is a huge part of the modern reading diet. At its core I think the trend shows a desire for creativity and adventure, a new way of telling a story, and Speak is an extremely well written example. Discussion points (beyond exploring trends in literature) are multitudinous, from society & peer pressure to psychology and trauma, even family life and the role of education.

The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) The [historical, cultural, ethical] value of this book is obvious, the fact that it was written by a young girl makes it easier for young people to identify with, while also being good exposure to nonfiction written in diary form. Being able to find a connection to someone in a different time or situation is an important life lesson. Nobody is ever to old to read this one.

To Kill a Mockingbird(Harper Lee) One of the brilliant things about this book is the deceptive simplicity. Sure it teaches an important aspect of American history and challenges you to think about your opinions on society, but it is also a great example on how a piece of literature can be enjoyable on many different levels.

Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare classic, play, humor) I'm not a huge Shakespeare fan, but I do think he's a "must", and Much Ado About Nothing just seems like more fun than some of the others. Personally, I would choose the Shakespeare Made Easy version, because I love how it has a side-by-side comparison of the original language and a modern interpretation. If the point is to show them that Shakespeare doesn't have to be a drag, this is a great way to do it.

The Importance of Being Earnest(Oscar Wilde)  I settled on this book for a couple of reasons.  First, the wit and use of language is delightful.  Second, there is humor throughout, and it isn't very long.  Third, it shows the lifestyle and writing style around the turn of the century--a pivotal point for modern literature.  There are so many other books that could fill this last purpose (Fitzgerald, Woolf, etc.) but I think that Wilde livens it up a bit.

The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)  As the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and an incredibly easy way to understand a culture so very different than modern America, this book has much to offer.  Prize winners can be intimidating (or off-putting) for many, and while I can't say that I've loved all the prize winners I've read, there certainly are many worth reading.  The Good Earth is one of those rare books that makes an alternate universe (so to speak) seem as familiar as your own home.  I'm a great fan of complex simplicity, and this is a perfect example of just that.

The Devil in the White City(Erik Larson) Because it is easy to brush off nonfiction as boring, I think exposure to some interesting topics is important. Something by David McCullough perhaps, or maybe C.S. Lewis, Erik Larson, or even Bill Bryson...but something nonfiction, preferably non-memoir (simply because the point for me is realizing you can continue to learn, even outside of school.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) or  Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)  Very different books, I know, but I'm thinking of the boy/girl factor.  I just know that I couldn't finish LOTR (no, not even the movies) and my husband wouldn't make it through more than a couple of minutes of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn...but in a way, I think that they accomplish similar things.  They bond you to a character and put good and evil into perspective, getting you to think about why things are good/bad and what you can do about them.

The Three Musketeers (Alexander Dumas)  Here's a classic from somewhere in between Shakespeare and Wilde, chronologically speaking, that exhibits a similar appreciation for humor while adding in plenty of adventure.  Pretty much everybody is familiar with the story, which allows the reader the opportunity to pay a little more attention to the writing.

Short stories: Flannery O'Connor or Haruki Murakami would be great options for interesting, quality short stories, although there are plenty to choose from.  Short stories can often be more thought provoking than a full length novel, and lets face it: being quick to read makes them enticing for many readers.

This list might not work for every teen in every situation, but overall I think I stuck to my goal of finding quality literature that encourages a desire to continue learning.  Have you made a list for this week's Top Ten Tuesday or thought about how you would go about it?  What do you think the purpose is (or should be) of having required reading?  Is there something you would add to (or subtract from) my list?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices

I love the concept here:  instead of bringing 36 local authors together to do a series of readings, how about bringing them together to do a series of writings?  That's exactly what Seattle7Writers and Open Road Media did last fall: a week long marathon of writing live on stage.  Not only that, but the outcome is one quirky, action packed novel--not separate stories or essays, but a single, fabulous, cohesive story.
The story centers around 14 year-old Alexis and her home, the Hotel Angeline, which she is desperately attempting to save.  Hotel Angeline is a resident hotel (and former mortuary) filled with some of the most bizarre tenants imaginable, and was managed by Alexis and her mother until her mother suddenly passed away and Alexis is left trying to figure out how to hold her life together on her own.  The story is engaging, with enough action to keep the pages turning.  The different authorial voices didn't disrupt the story being told, although the multitudinous plot turns did start to wear on me slightly--I guess I'm used to more contemplative stories?  This book seemed to be more about collaboration, community, and story telling than it is about character development or plausibility.

The special part about this is how all of these authors were willing to work together, putting aside their writing quirks--turning a typically isolated exercise into a social, community-wide event.  (Check out the video below to see the authors speak for themselves on the matter.)  I didn't recognize many of the writers, but I loved the experience of being exposed to so many new authors in such a fun way.  

Title: Hotel Angeline
Author: 36 of them! Including Jamie Ford and Erik Larson
Pages: 260
Published: Open Road Media, 2011
Read For: Review, thanks to Open Road and NetGalley for providing my copy!
My Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My Book Club discusses BELOVED

Beloved is a perfect example of a book that needs discussion or processing time after reading in order to really appreciate what you've just experienced.  There are so many layers in the writing that it could be easy to brush it off as unenjoyable or just-another-book-about-slavery if you didn't stop to think about it.  The only thing I knew about Toni Morrison before venturing through this book was that there were an awful lot of her books on Oprah's book club list...which meant that they likely included some sort of oppressed woman scenario.  Oh, and I'd also heard a faint whisper that Beloved was weird...something about ghosts and comments like I have no idea what I just read.

Based on this premise, I found it much more approachable than I thought it would be.  Apart from the bits in the middle written from Beloved's point of view, the book was much easier to understand than I thought it would be.  This is not to say that it is easy reading; it isn't.  The content is rather horrible (if this book doesn't make you feel the horrors of slavery, I'm not sure anything would) and the writing is challenging enough that it is not a chapter-before-bed type of book.

My book club's discussion began by attempting to clear up some confusing plot points.  The story isn't told chronologically, nor even from one person's point of view, nor even always in straight-forward clear-cut sentences, which add up to the writing requiring more attention from the reader.  Each chapter seemed to start from an entirely new place, as if they were joined together randomly.  Only towards the end of the book was I able to see how delicately the story had unfolded.

One of the girls in my group loved the writing to pieces.  She filled pages with notes and quotes.  There were a few parts that stood out to me as well--some descriptions and phrases launched my mind into viewing the scene from a different direction.  Morrison definitely has a way with words.  Here are a couple of passages that really stood out to me:
What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.
"Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child.  They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that supposed to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing."
Beloved isn't a book to be read or digested lightly.  The content is rough.  The themes paint a picture of grief: a reflection of how much despair we, as human vessels, can  hold before we crack.  The story follows Sethe, a former slave living in Ohio, whose life is controlled by the spirit of a murdered child who haunts her home and her life.

Beloved isn't a book that I'd call enjoyable or recommend without a care.  This is a  novel that requires the reader to step up and engage in the emotional and intellectual challenge.  But if you are willing to look slavery in the face and dare to admit the atrocities humans are capable of, there is a payoff.  Sometimes it takes extreme examples to show us errors in the mundane.  The errors of the past are a first-hand example of what to avoid as we plunge into the future.

I can't say that I'm eager to run out and read another of Toni Morrison's books--I'm going to have to work up to that.  But I can say that this is a valuable piece of literature and I'm glad my book club made me read it--especially as it also counts for my personal Pulitzer challenge and my Back to the Classics Challenge! :)   It didn't take me long to read, once I was able to secure some quiet time.  Most of my book club's discussion ended up revolving around trying to wrap our minds around the incidents in the novel that were difficult to comprehend for one reason or another...there was no disagreement on the quality of the writing or importance of the work.  It may take the right set of circumstances to get you to read Beloved, but if the opportunity presents itself don't pass it by.

Title: Beloved
Author: Toni Morrison
Pages: 360
Published: 2006 Everymans (orig.1987)
Read for: Book Club, Pulitzer Challenge, Back to the Classics Challenge
My Rating: 4

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I was going to write about Beloved next, seriously I was, but then The Art of Fielding knocked my socks off and I just can't seem to go about doing anything else until I get them firmly on my feet again by getting all my thoughts out of my system.  See? This is what happens when I don't have anyone sitting next to me to absorb the energy when I finish a great book: I go blog-wild.

(Now, if you are trying to comprehend how a book about baseball could steal the limelight from a literary classic such as Beloved, (especially when literature wins over sports every day of the week in my mind,) the answer is simple: baseball is much more fun than slavery, even if you aren't a fan of the sport in general.  And it's summer, so fun wins the day.)

The Art of Fielding doesn't come out until the beginning of September, (many thanks to the publisher for sending me my copy!) but the synopsis is simple and should become fairly familiar before long (I'm expecting to see this book pop up more and more the closer we get to September).  The bare bones description goes like this: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Sure, this book might be about college, about baseball...and about Moby Dick, (an interesting addition I wasn't expecting,) but more than those things, it is about the people: real, layered, complex, flawed people.  I can't say that I'd want them all in my life, but I adored being able to spend a bit of time with them.  Their idiosyncrasies were exaggerated just enough to make them humorous while still being a great example of the quirks we all have.

President Affenlight and his daughter Pella are definitely not the most stable family--if you can call them a family at all.  They both have some level of obsession with appearances and expectations, although they would most likely deny it. Honestly, I wouldn't be able to spend much time around these two before wanting to slap them upside them head.  I don't think either of them really knew what they were doing.

Henry and his roommate Owen make odd additions to the college baseball team in very different ways.  Owen is one of those people that comes off as incredibly self-assured, (which still has me wondering what drives him,) while Henry--in some ways the person whom events revolve around--is one of those guys that is a mystery even to himself.  And not in the mysterious/captivating sense, more in the content-being-behind-the-scenes sort of way.  You just aren't sure (and he probably isn't either) how many layers you'd find if you were to try to get to know the real Henry.

And then there's the gruff, lovable Schwartz. Schwartzy.  Shorts.  I loved Mike Schwartz, even though he didn't take care of his pain (or his apartment) properly.  He put others first, just as a way of life, and I wanted to give him a big teddy-bear hug more than once.  I don't know if I would have washed his dishes for him...but maybe...even though I think washing dishes is about on par with scrubbing toilets.  Schwartz carried this book for me; he made me care.

For characters that are so brilliantly portrayed, in situations so keenly felt, there is a surprising elusiveness to them.  Instead of feeling underdeveloped, though, this is an element that adds to the novel's depth and meaning.  None of them are perfect--far from it--but that's part of the joy and charm behind this book.  If anything, they show us that we are all on a journey to know ourselves and figure out why we do the things we do.  Perhaps their mistakes can help illuminate our own.

What else do I want to say? I know I'm going to leave something out...
  - For a chunkster (500+ pages) this was remarkably quick to read.  The writing is spry and full of humor, the observations are entertaining and witty while retaining a remarkable amount of insight.  The pace is great, balancing detail with fascinating plot turns.
  - For a sports UNenthusiast like myself, the baseball factor was (surprisingly) not a barrier.  In fact, it had me fondly remembering the year when I played T-Ball (too bad the one photo of me holding a bat is proving un-findable).  There's something patriotic about baseball for me...or there was until the strike in the mid-90s which destroyed my lingering fancies of old-fashioned sports-related romantic political chivalry.  I won't go as far as to say that the book has made me like baseball again, but close.  Pretty close.
  - A warning on some of the content...the mild locker-room humor, language & antics really weren't a big deal.  The bigger thing for me was the rather casual attitude toward sex, especially [*possible spoiler*] between Affenlight (the 60 year-old president of the college) and Owen. Hrm.  [*that's all*]  Nothing sexual was ever described in detail, it's more the idea behind it all that bugged me.  I was able to set aside my opinions and enjoy the book, otherwise it could have affected my reading experience.

How does a book with so many apparent strikes against it from the get-go leave me sad that I'm done, reluctant to pick up a different book, and eager to read it all over again? Talented writing, insightful observations, depth in the characters, and a sense of humor.  If you enjoy it as much as I did, you might consider nominating for the Indie Lit Awards--out of the 2011 fiction I've read so far, this is certainly a contender.

Title: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Pages: 509
Published: Liitle, Brown 2011 (release date is September 7)
Read For: Review--Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy!
My Rating: 5 stars
Eligible to be nominated!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

For the Record: June 2011

The end of June always brings to mind the passing of time.  The year is half over, the summer months are starting to speed by, my birthday strikes once again, and my kiddos graduate into a higher grade.  It isn't a bad feeling, though.  In fact, taking a bit of time to reflect usually gives me more purpose and strength to push on...perhaps even make some Mid-Year's Resolutions. :)

We just got back from camping in the Sequoias, where I didn't have as much time to read as I thought I might (even though I was down with a stomach bug one day).  I sure love the Sierra Nevada Mountains; they're home to me.  Between visiting with my parents, telling stories around the campfire, seeing bears and deer, and exploring caves, waterfalls, and giant trees, books naturally were on the back burner much of the time.  Much of June's reading was comprised of shorter reads, but it was a relaxing, balanced, summery sort of combination, which made it fulfilling.
My dad & 12 year old in a partially hollow
Giant Sequoia. are the stats, titles link to book description...
10 Books Read in June: (62 books year-to-date)
1 for Book Club:
  - Beloved by Toni Morrison (review coming soon! 4.5)
3 for Challenges:
  - Journey to Jo'Burg by Beverly Naidoo (Reading the Books on my TBR shelf--JF, 3.5)
  - The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman (Newbery Award, 3.5)
  - Elske by Cynthia Voigt (Reading the Books on my TBR shelf--YA, 4)
4 Just Because:
  - The Stolen Village by Des Ekin (NF, review coming soon! 4)
  - If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova (Poetry, 4.5--see my review)
  - Small Acts of Sex and Electricity by Lise Haines (from Unbridled Books, 3.5)
  - Beautiful & Pointless by David Orr (A Guide to Modern Poetry, 3--see my review)
1 ARC:
  - Hotel Angeline by 36 Seattle area authors (from NetGalley, review coming soon! 3.5)
1 Recommendation:
  - Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen (2...This would've been a DNF if it weren't for the fact that it was a short, quick read.  Almost everything about Susanna irritated me; the book pulsated with anger and made me writhe with frustration.  After reading the book I remembered that I'd felt the same way about the movie, so it's my fault that I had a poor reading experience! *smacks forehead*  Anyhow, for a favorable review that will give you a different (better, more objective) and more thorough opinion, head over to Unputdownables.  Wallace was able to look at the book through a less agitated lens!)  :)

The Stolen Village

3 Current Reads:
  - The Story of Christianity Vol. 1 by Justo L. Gonzalez (nonfiction...on page 292 of 411)
  - Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon (taking it easy with this book of poetry)
  - The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (almost done with this fabulous ARC)

On My Nightstand:
  - Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather (next up in my Willa Cather Challenge)
  - Down From Cascom Mountain by Ann Joslin Williams (ARC from LibraryThing)
  - The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton (Recommended by a Book Club friend)
  - State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (I'd better read it's becoming more hyped by the second)
  - Irma Voth by Miriam Toews (ARC included with State of Wonder in Powell's Indiespensable box)

Plan for July:
  - Fit some of the JF on my TBR shelf in between the books on my nightstand.
  - Save Daniel Deronda from becoming a DNF
  - Gear up for some great novellas in August.  I still don't have a game plan for this challenge.  I'd like to buy the whole entire collection and attack the book from longest to shortest, but I generally stink at challenges and can't stomach the idea of spending $300 on a whim.  What if I only end up reading a small handful of them in August? However, if I don't have the novellas in front of me, it will be akin to sabotaging my mission.  Are you sensing my constant struggle to arrive at a happy medium?  ...can't decide can't decide running out of time can't decide...