Saturday, March 31, 2012

For the Record: March 2012

March blew my alternating-obligatory-books-plan to shreds.  It wasn't March's fault, it was the fault of an ARC that I finally gave up on.  And now, with my plan to focus on Junior Fiction in April, I may as well wait until June to regroup.  Still, thanks to a lot of read-aloud time with my girls, my reading count is once again high, despite the aforesaid ARC as well as Cutting For Stone - a fabulous novel that I was happy to take my time with.

13 Books Read in March: (36 year-to-date)
5 for challenges or fun:
  - Martin Dressler, Steven Millhauser (4)
  - The Sense of An Ending, Julian Barnes (3.5)
  - The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (4)
  - So Big, Edna Ferber (4)
  - An Irish Country Doctor, Patrick Taylor (3.5)
2 for Book Club:
  - Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (4)
  - Cutting For Stone, Abraham Verghese (5)
1 ARC:
  - Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Susan Ella MacNeal.  (ARC from LibraryThing) (2.75)
5 Read-Alouds for my kiddos:
  - Pedro's Journal, Pam Conrad (3)
  - Fairest, Gail Carson Levine (3)
  - Pocahontas and the Strangers, Clyde Robert Bulla (3)
  - A Lion to Guard Us, Clyde Robert Bulla (3.5)
  - Eating the Plates, Lucille Recht Penner (4)


1 DNF:  The Odd Clauses, Jay Wexler (ARC from LibraryThing)
This book has many things going for it.  For a book about the Constitution, it is remarkably readable and easy to understand, with even a bit humor mixed in (though it wasn't the Bryson-esque collection of oddities and factoids I was hoping to find.)  Rather than being about odd clauses and curious provisions, it was about the odd conundrums that result from some relatively well-known clauses.  Still interesting, but certainly no Bryson.

[warning: rant ahead, proceed with caution]

I ended up discontinuing it half-way through because it suffered from an unfortunate case of extreme bias.  Bias in politics is unavoidable, in my opinion, so that in itself wasn't surprising or unexpected.  However, when his opinions began taking the form of immature insults and derision, calling half the population "nauseating" and "silly",  he lost his credibility with me.  I don't always identify with the stance of the Republicans/Conservatives/Irrational Extremists (all the same group of people apparently) that he rails against, so this isn't a matter of taking his insults personally.  I simply don't have patience for insults, arrogance, or lack of consideration.  Those are things that I admit I'm touchy about.  I can't find anything tolerable in belittling others.  If you are able to look past a bit of bullying, you might enjoy the look at the Constitution that this book has to offer, and indeed find that I've overreacted. I'm fine with that. [/rant]

This month I read 3 books of 51 (13 year-to-date) for my various year-long challenges:
   - Pulitzer: Martin Dressler and So Big (3 more to go)
   - Wishlist: The Sense of An Ending (9 more to go)

2 Current Reads:
  - Watership Down, Richard Adams.  This was one of those books that I always assumed I'd read, but am thinking that perhaps I never did.  Maybe I was just pretending and didn't know it.  Am correcting that problem now, thanks to
  - The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O'Farrell.  Haven't actually cracked this one open, but it's next in line...not counting the Junior Fiction that I'll be focusing on now that it's April.

On My Nightstand:
  - Heat Lightning, Helen Hull (still)
  - The Lola Quartet, Emily St. John Mandel (ARC from LibraryThing/Unbridled Books)
  - Lots of Junior Fiction: I'm going to try to read the 15 books on my challenge page during April.  If I need a break from them, I'll be reaching for one of the above books listed.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shaking it Up with a little Stephen King

I like to vary what I'm reading, but even so, I'll often find myself firmly entrenched in my Comfort Zone reading my Typical Genres and Very Little Else.  11/22/63 was the perfect opportunity to interject something different into my daily diet.  I've read Stephen King before, typically leaving his super bizarre stuff on my husband's nightstand.

Enter 11/22/63: more history than science (or creepy stuff, rather) and that wonderful time-travel element.  It feels so rare to find a time-travel-ish book that examines the idea thoroughly and doesn't seem to be a byproduct of science or sex instead.  King is not only an incredible storyteller, but he's got an amazing talent for creating extremely believable worlds (of which science and sex are, of course, a byproduct, but that is much more manageable than the other way around.)

For all that the title, cover art, and synopsis declare that this is JFK-centric novel, I'd hardly describe it as such.  Certainly the assassination is a pivotal component, and those with a passing fancy for Camelot may be induced to read Stephen King because of it, but it is much more a time travel novel.  What really matters here is the idea of time, what holds it together, what the future holds, and the world to which you are transported in the meantime.

This book has a strong sense of place without being overly atmospheric.  It has a cast of believable characters even though they aren't incredibly layered or fleshed out.  The writing is fun and fluid--not encumbered with lengthy sentences and descriptive prose, nor yet distracting for being elementary or simplistic.  These elements (setting, character development, writing skill, and enjoyability) may not rise to award-winning levels, but when you add in the cracking good story...well, it's really quite impressive.  It made for a massively enjoyable read that still sits in my imagination, waiting for a conversation to jump into.  Plus, it feels rather fabulous to blow through 800+ pages in no time, doesn't it?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Do you ever feel the need to make a detailed disclaimer before spouting an opinion?  Or is that just my middle-child-pacifist sneaking up on me again?  Let's just get this over with:

  - I'm not a fan of the circus. Clowns? Side shows? Scary. A pretty circus? It's just hiding the scary.

  - Fantasy settings & suspension of disbelief? Difficult for me. They aren't even pretending to be real, so why should I care?

  - Atmospheric and descriptive are all well and good...if it's a sideline to a rocking plot or amazing character development.  Otherwise? Yawn.

  - And Now We Must Speak of HYPE.  Typically, I turn away from things that are All The Rage (be it a book or something else entirely) but I knew I'd be reading this sooner or later when I found out that it was an Indiespensable selection.  Then this massively publicized book made the Indie Lit Awards short list (along with four minimally hyped books) and I can tell you that it made for an interesting comparison.  The hype ended up affecting me much less than my other reservations.  Contrary to my seemingly negative observations, I actually enjoyed this book - certainly more than I thought I would.

You all know the premise (or you won't have to look far to find it) so the question is What Did I Think?

Right off the bat it was apparent that there had been more money put into the production of this book.  The book itself was gorgeous, with the magical black and white theme carried throughout the design of the pages.  My copy had a black velvet[ish] slipcase, which further enhanced the richness of the production.  This sense went farther than the art design and typesetting - when compared to the other books on the short list, the writing glowed with the polished shine that evokes hard work and a dedicated editing process rather than raw talent.

Don't get me wrong - the descriptions are beautiful.  Morgenstern has an imagination, no doubt about it, but that really is where her talent lies.  There wasn't enough plot to keep me invested, and the main characters don't have a lot of depth.  There came a point in the book where I almost wanted to skip over the descriptions because I wanted to get on to something meatier.

In the end, when comparing it to the other short list books, this book fell in the middle for me.  It was more polished and enjoyable than Cross Currents and The Last Time I Saw Paris (reviewed here) but lacking the depth in characters and themes that Silver Sparrow and Dance Lessons had.  I'd recommend The Night Circus to readers attracted to the magical circus setting as well as those in the mood to get their imaginations spinning.
     The ground beneath her feet shifts, suddenly unsteady, but Marco puts a hand on her waist to keep her upright.
     When she opens her eyes, they are standing on the quarterdeck of a ship in the middle of the ocean.
     Only the ship is made of books, its sails thousands of overlapping pages, and the sea it floats upon is dark black ink.
The world of The Night Circus remains mysterious and magical from the beginning of the book to the end.  It isn't a world with well-defined rules.  Like the characters, we never find out exactly how things work or why.  This ties in with the high level of imagination and creativity, but made for a somewhat detached reading experience.  It is a showcase of creativity: magical, mysterious, elusive, atmospheric.

(By the way...I don't recommend reading this book on an e-reader, simply because I had to look back at previous chapter headings all the time - what a pain on an e-reader!  The reason it was necessary to flip around was the chapter heading details, which indicate time and location.  Especially in the beginning, when I was still trying to figure out who everyone was and where/when they were, it was frustrating.  This book convinced me that any information at the beginning of a chapter should enhance the text, not take the place of it.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

It's Not You, It's Me: the Indie Lit Awards Edition

While it would have been a delightful experience to have loved the entire Fiction Short List, it's always a little more interesting to add a little repulsion and despair into the mix, isn't it?  Especially when my opinions aren't universal, and I need to abandon my middle-child-peacemaking-tendencies and stand by my impressions.  That's always a fun exercise.

Actually, it wasn't as dramatic as all that.  But every now and then exaggeration makes for a nice spice for normality.

The Last Time I Saw Paris
 Lynn Sheene
One thing that I find inconceivable, however, is the ability to exaggerate how many times I cried "Terrrrrrible!" while reading The Last Time I Saw Paris.  I do hope that Lynn Sheene will accept my apologies, because this was absolutely not a universal feeling.  This was very much a case of It's Not You, It's Me.  But maybe we can still be friends?

The characters were caricatures, the writing was simplistic and conversational to the point of being obviously and drastically different from the 1940s setting, much of the plot was improbable and dramatic, and the word "damn" was used more times than I think I've ever heard it in my life (cumulatively).

However.  The pace was sprightly, the period interesting, the juicy bits weren't overly tawdry (though I could've done without the juicy bits altogether), plus there were flowers and fashion (it was Paris after all).

If you can value plot and pace above the characters and writing (a talent I don't really seem to have) then there's a good chance you'll find this to be an entertaining, vaguely historical, romp through Paris.

Cross Currents
John Shors
Unfortunately, there was another title that simply wasn't for me, either, though I can imagine it being quite enjoyable for someone else.  I wouldn't be surprised if John Shors has a pretty solid fan base...a conjecture I've developed simply based on reading Cross Currents.

My main issue?  The catastrophe upon which the story hinged came too late in the book.  I wanted to know more about how everything pulled back together.  Having so much time leading up to the main event only gave me more opportunity to pick apart  the things that were bugging me.  The characters were pretty stereotypical, everyone was way too good, the writing was much more about telling than showing, and the ending was much too tidy.

I must say, though, that Shors brings the island to life. Even though the characters weren't very layered, I did want to know what happened to them, and was concerned about the devastation.  This would actually be a terrific beach read--easy to read and enjoy with only a small time commitment.

"Hanging from one wall were ropes, a fishing net, electrical cords, brooms, tools, and strands of holiday lights." [how 'bout this: let me just tell you about the hut instead of showing you!]

"Ryan walked past a jewelry store and into a shop the size of his bungalow.  A middle-aged woman wearing a traditional head scarf greeted him.  He'd seen a small mosque somewhere nearby and wished he knew more about Islam." [and then he continues shopping...]

[up next: The Night Circus]

Announcing the Winners: Indie Lit Awards

Have you seen?  The winners have been announced!  The Indie Lit Awards have had another exciting year, thanks to the participation of readers and bloggers like you!  I've had a marvelous time being involved in the whole process and am looking forward to another year.

The winning book in the Fiction category is:

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

followed by the runner-up: 
Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney

Stayed tuned to hear my thoughts on these books (as well as the rest of the short list).  In the meantime, check out the wonderful blogs of the others on the Fiction team...they did a wonderful job reading and discussing these books.

Meg @ Write Meg
Carrie @ Nomad Reader

Looking at the Short List: Indie Lit Awards

The Synopsis Edition

With the winners of the Indie Lit Awards set to be announced quite soon, I thought I'd begin a series of posts about the Short List for the Fiction category.  Today is a refresher course on the finalists, so that you can get ready to cheer (or groan) when the decisions are announced on Tuesday morning.

When this list was finalized at the beginning of the year, I could only claim real familiarity with one of the titles: The Night Circus. (Really, how could I have avoided familiarity with that one? Talk about publicity campaign!)  I'll talk about my thoughts on each of the books later this week, but here are some front/back cover details to get the ball rolling. (Shown in alphabetical order.)  Who do you hope takes the prize?

Cross Currents, John Shors
published by New American Library (Penguin Group)
Thailand's pristine Ko Phi Phi island attracts tourists from around the world, offering a haven to people from all walks of life. Yet even paradise has its perils.  Struggling to make ends meet, resort owners Lek and Sarai are happy to give an American named Patch room and board in exchange for his help.  But trouble looms when Patch's brother, Ryan, arrives, accompanied by his beautiful girlfriend, Brooke.  Lek learns that Patch is running from the law, and his mere presence puts Lek's family at risk.  Meanwhile, Brooke begins to doubt her love for Ryan, while her feelings for Patch blossom.  The two brothers, once inseparable, clash over a choice that could alter their lives.

In a glorious landscape of sea and sky, where nature's bounty seems endless, these two families are caught in the cross currents of conflict and change--and swept up in an approaching cataclysm that will require all their strength of heart and soul to survive.

Dance Lessons, Aine Greaney
published by Syracuse University Press
A year after her husband's death in a sailing accident off Martha's Vineyard, Ellen Boisvert bumps into an old friend.  In this chance encounter, she discovers that here immigrant husband of almost fifteen years was not an orphan after all.  Instead, his aged mother Jo is alive and residing on the family's isolated farm in the west of Ireland.  Faced with news of her mother-in-law incarnate, the thirty-nine-year-old American prep school teacher decides to travel to Ireland to investigate the truth about her husband Fintan and why he kept his family's existence a secret for so many years.  Between Jo's hilltop farm and the lakeside village of Gowna, Ellen begins to uncover the mysteries of her Irish husband's past and the cruelties and isolation of his rural childhood.  As Ellen reconciles her troubled relationship with Fintan, she discovers a way to heal the wounds of the past.

The Last Time I Saw Paris, Lynn Sheene
published by Berkley Books (Penguin Group)
May 1940: Fleeing a glamorous Manhattan life built on lies, Claire Harris arrives in Paris with a romantic vision of starting anew. But she didn't anticipate the sight of Nazi soldiers marching under the Arc de Triomphe. Her plans smashed by the German Occupation, the once- privileged socialite's only option is to take a job in a flower shop under the tutelage of a sophisticated Parisian florist.

In exchange for false identity papers, Claire agrees to aid the French Resistance. Despite the ever-present danger, she comes to love the enduring beauty of the City of Light, exploring it in the company of Thomas Grey, a mysterious Englishman working with the Resistance. Claire's bravery and intelligence make her a valuable operative, and slowly her values shift as she witnesses the courageous spirit of the Parisians.

But deception and betrayal force her to flee once more--this time to fight for the man she loves and what she knows is right.  Claire just prays she has the heart and determination to survive long enough to one day see Paris again.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
published by Doubleday (Random House)
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. 

Within these nocturnal black-and-white-striped tents is an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way—a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a "game" to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop.  The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved--the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them--are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration.  With no knowledge of how the game must end, the innocently tumble headfirst into love.  A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones
published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist," author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man's deception, a family's complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon's two families: the public one and the secret one.  When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters--a relationship destined to explode.

As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters, she reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to one another's lives.  And at the heart of it all are the two girls whose lives are at stake--portrayed with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy Paddy's Day!

The grass is greener in Ireland.  Literally.  But figuratively too...Paddy's Day in Southern California will never compare to Paddy's Day in Dublin, even considering the chilly rain that had the decency to commiserate with me today.  I didn't awake to the sound of a rowing competition on the River Liffey, haven't run into any incredible live street music, and won't be joining a half-million people to watch the most incredible parade.  But I can still wear green, raise my glass of Smithwick's, and thank the Lord I come from an Irish family!

And, since I can't seem to blog without mentioning a book, let me mention one I recently read: Love and Summer by Irish author William Trevor.  It was a lovely, quiet book that effortlessly created the feel of a small Irish town.  

The description (from Indiebound):

"In spare, exquisite prose, master storyteller William Trevor presents a haunting love story about the choices of the heart, and the passions and frustrations of three lives during one long summer. Ellie is a shy orphan girl from the hill country, married to a man whose life has been blighted by an unspeakable tragedy. She lives a quiet life in the Irish village of Rathmoye, until she meets Florian Kilderry, a young photographer preparing to leave Ireland and his past forever. The chance intersection of these two lost souls sets in motion a poignant love affair that requires Ellie to make an impossible choice."

William Trevor is an author of some standing--29 published books as well as many other accolades.  I loved how he approached the issues of love and family, of right and wrong, and the ever-present gossip and judgement in a small town.  Life and love are never as simple as it seems they should be.

Enjoy your day, your weekend, whether you are wearing green & dreaming of Ireland or not. Sláinte!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

thoughts on How It Was: 1920

The earlier part of the 20th century: I can't get enough of it.  I want to know more than stories and facts; I want to understand.  Coming across the line quoted below (from the 1925 Pulitzer Prize winner) made me stop and consider as I may not have if I hadn't just read Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark.  It's a peek into society: one of those mood-setting, reaction-dictating nuances of a culture that is too current to seem altogether foreign, and too far in the past to be completely familiar.

Passion was a thing no woman possessed, much less talked about.  It simply did not exist, except in men, and then was something to be ashamed of, like a violent temper, or a weak stomach.
from page 69 of So Big by Edna Ferber (1924)

The Song of the Lark was published in 1915, 9 years before So Big, but they both address this societal change from angle that would be easy to trivialize, (or to seemingly miss or ignore altogether, as in Millhauser's more recent Pulitzer, Martin Dressler,) looking at it from this late date.  The Song of the Larks is about art, about passion.  Cather does a wonderful job at fleshing out such personal experiences, and yet reading it twice wasn't enough for me to receive the full impact of her message.  It took this cross-referencing to really be brought to light.

Harsanyi rumpled his hair irritably and shrugged his shoulders. “Her secret? It is every artist’s secret” --he waved his hand-- “passion. That is all. It is an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials.”
from page 429 of Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (1915)

Of course, I knew that the Victorian era had a very confining effect on women--in America as well as Britain--but getting a clear picture of the transition from that to something more modern can be difficult.  Anyhow, that was my brain-expanding moment for the week.  Thoughts?

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Classics Club

Chances are, if you like to read and blog classics, you've heard of Jillian's Classics Club.  I read a lot of not-exactly-classics books, so I'm trying to keep my list modest--these are all classics that I want to read now.  5 years sound more realistic.  (Actually, I've whittled down the list, knowing my propensity to set lofty goals.)

I'm viewing it more as a way to be organized in my Classics Wish List rather than as a Challenge To Conquer, even though 2 of my challenges (Willa Cather and Classic Novellas) feature heavily here.  The list will be linked on the tab: Book Lists.

  1. Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes
  2. Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe
  3. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
  4. The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
  5. Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell
  6. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  7. The Warden, Anthony Trollope
  8. Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope
  9. Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  10. Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
  11. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  12. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte
  13. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  14. The Devil's Pool, George Sand
  15. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky
  16. Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov
  17. Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
  18. My Antonia, Willa Cather
  19. One of Ours, Willa Cather
  20. A Lost Lady, Willa Cather
  21. The Professor’s House, Willa Cather
  22. My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather
  23. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  24. Shadows on the Rock, Willa Cather
  25. Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather
  26. Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather
  27. The Razor's Edge, W.Somerset Maugham
  28. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
  29. The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis
  30. Watership Down, Richard Adams
  31. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  32. Native Son, Richard Wright
  33. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  34. A Room With a View, E.M Forster
  35. The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  36. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  37. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
  38. How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn
  39. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  40. The Bell, Iris Murdoch
Stories, Novellas, Plays, Etc (cumulatively worth apprx. 10 classics)
  1. Youth and the Bright Medusa (stories) Willa Cather
  2. Obscure Destinies (stories), Willa Cather
  3. Not Under Forty (essays), Willa Cather
  4. The Old Beauty (stories), Willa Cather
  5. Willa Cather: On Writing (essays), Willa Cather
  6. The Kruetzer Sonata and Other Stories, Leo Tolstoy
  7. Eugene Onegin and Other Poems, Alexander Pushkin
  8. The Collected Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  9. Lady Windmere's Fan, Oscar Wilde
  10. Living/Loving/Party Going, Henry Green
  11. Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw
  12. Freya of the Seven Isles, Joseph Conrad
  13. Stempenyu: A Jewish Romace, Sholem Aleichem
  14. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
  15. The Duel, Anton Chekov
  16. My Life, Anton Chekov
  17. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, Italo Svevo
  18. The Touchstone, Edith Wharton
  19. The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling
  20. The Duel, Alexander Kuprin
  21. The Lemoine Affair, Marcel Proust
  22. Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf
  23. Parnassus on Wheels, Christopher Marley
  24. May Day, F.Scott Fitzgerald
  25. La Fanfarlo, Charles Baudelaire
  26. The Alienist, Machado de Assis
  27. The Distracted Preacher, Thomas Hardy
  28. The Enchanted Wander, Nikolai Leskov

Friday, March 9, 2012

Oh Flannery, You Charmer You...

When, in 2009, Flannery O'Connor's collection of stories (A Good Man is Hard to Find) became our next book club selection, I decided to attempt super-reader-status and read the complete, entire, whole she-bang instead. It took me 2 1/2 years to finish.  Not so super-reader-ish after all.

From that, you may think that these stories aren't any good, but you'd be [mostly] wrong.  Admittedly, there are a few that had me thinking that one of us (either Flannery or I) was off her rocker, but for the most part these stories are all very entertaining.  The problem is, they are rather dark and a bit heavy.  Even the humor is dark.  Reading very many stories in a row is like being smacked up-side the head with a heavy dose of hopelessness.  Still, there are many more gems than duds, proving O'Connor a true champion of short stories.

Most of her characters have major issues regarding prejudice, religion, and pride.  It would take some serious work to catalog the number of slack-jawed, dull-eyed folk between these covers.  If you're looking for something pure, pretty, and politically correct, these stories won't suit.  If you're looking for a sharp eye and witty cynicism, however, look no further.

So.  Maybe I don't recommend reading straight through this collection.  But I do recommend experiencing some of her writing, and there are some fabulous options here.  Generally speaking, I enjoyed the stories from A Good Man is Hard to Find more than the others, but there is much to enjoy throughout.  Here are some stories that were highlights for me:

A Stroke of Good Fortune
"Standing up straight, she was a short woman, shaped nearly like a funeral urn."

Instead of pitting two people against each other to illuminate their faults, this story allows the main character Ruby Hill to do it all herself in the span of time it takes her to walk up the stairs to her apartment.  Ruby's particular plight is unique in that she mixes pride with a dose of hypochondria.  (I've just discovered that this story later grew into her first novel, Wise Blood, so I've got more Flannery on my list.) The reader quickly ascertains Ruby's true condition, making all of her thoughts and complaints all the more entertaining.  At a mere 13 pages, this story is well worth the ride.

A Good Man is Hard to Find
"The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey's wrath would not come down on her all at once."

I love this story.  Even though the ending is absolutely horrid, it is a delight to read.  The characters are so vivid (but then, that is to be expected with Flannery) and the dialogue lively.  Have you ever taken a road trip with a grandmother and a cat in the vehicle?  Not the most peaceful of moments.  Even if you've wisely avoided such a catastrophe (terrible pun, my apologies) there's something enjoyable about seeing someone else experience it.  If you want to experience a gritty story with distinct Southern character, this story is a standout.

The Lame Shall Enter First
"Grudgingly, Sheppard felt a slight return of sympathy for the boy."

What is good? What is bad?  How well do you understand the motivations and thoughts of those around you?  How well do you understand your own motivations?  This story does more than illuminate the faults and prejudices of its characters and show the difference between people in different walks of life.  It goes a little deeper--into those times when we deceive ourselves, convinced we are operating for the greater good and doing more harm in the process.  Some interesting thoughts to consider.

Good Country People
"The reason for her keeping them so long was that they were not trash.  They were good country people."

Like in many of her stories, this one contrasts two kinds of people, and the one that is supposed to be "better" ends up looking rather foolish.  Of course, there are no "good" characters and "bad" characters, there are only human beings that have faults, whether they believe it or not.  This story was a nice change of pace from some of the others because the ending wasn't as quick and drastic.  If you're feeling timid about diving into Flannery O'Connor's stories and are looking for something a little more mild, this is your story.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

I may never have come across Steven Millhauser's books if it weren't for seeing his name on the list of Pulitzer Prize winners for Fiction, but apparently he is very much an established author.  Having been in the mood for that turn-of-the-century vibe lately, it didn't take much convincing for this book to jump off my shelf and become my next must-read (besides, I needed to get a Pulitzer read, and I love multi-tasking).

Millhauser has a very different style of story-telling, and it was quite intriguing throughout the first half of the book.  Martin's opinions about life are brought to light early on, beginning with the ways he goes about improving business at his father's cigar shop and continuing when he tells an employee "You're any kind of man you damn well want to make yourself."  He doesn't have an end goal for his life, like many entrepreneurs; there isn't one single accomplishment that will satisfy the yearning to get more out of life than it wants to give.

Not solely gifted with drive and ambition, there were certain things that Martin understood about people.  When it came to improvements at the hotel he was working in, he knew that "People needed to be assured that they weren't missing the latest improvements, while at the same time they wanted to be told that nothing ever changed." Conversely, there were things about his own life that he did not see clearly at all.  After he moves from his parents house, they are out of the picture.  When women enter his life, they are seen vaguely, as if part of a dream.  Even in his business projects, there is a certain mystery to his decisions; he is taken by his whims more often than not.
Martin knew that what attracted him wasn't the actual lunchroom, for he had no passion for lunchrooms, no special fondness for them, in a sense no interest in them; his passion was for working things out, bringing things together, arranging the unarrangeable, making combinations.
For all that this book is about one single person, we see his life at a distance--held away from forming a personal connection that would enable us to sympathize with his plight and rejoice in his success. By the second half of the book I was beginning to become bored.  The story becomes bogged down with his building projects to some extent.  As the ending spiraled into a deeper sort of magical realism, I simply didn't care anymore. Which is sad, because Martin Dressler's world was vivid, and his aspirations provided a fascinating peek into the entrepreneurial mind.

Whether you leave the book with the firm opinion that chasing your dreams is an empty pursuit or with the conviction that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round, you won't regret having experienced the burgeoning city and the endless possibilities alongside Martin Dressler.  If nothing else, you should open it up just to find the 4-page sentence. (no joke.  it was quite noticeable since most of the book had pretty short chapters a moved along nicely.)  My desire for turn-of-the-century cities hasn't been completely satiated, however, so I'm hoping to get to another Pulitzer soon that may help in that department: the winner from 1925, So Big by Edna Ferber.  Should be an interesting comparison, no?