Library Loot

This time I went to the library with a set list and limited myself, so that I’ll be mixing in TBRs from my shelves as well. Here’s the output.

library-lootChocolat, by Joanne Harris. I’ve heard so many things about the book and movie! For some reason I thought this had actually been written in French; I guess I won’t be using this for the Lost in Translation challenge, but at least that gave me an excuse. All the regular copies were checked out so I took the large print one, which always makes me feel slightly guilty.

Murder on the Eiffel Tower: A Victor Legris Mystery (Victor Legris Mysteries), by Claude Inzer. I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately and would love to work some mysteries back in. This actually is translated from French, and has the same setting as Black Elk in Paris, the 1888 Exposition.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg. Another translated mystery, this one Danish. From the jacket: “To read Smilla’s Sense of Snow is to be taken on a magical, nerve-shattering journey–from the snow-covered streets of Copenhagen to the awesome beauty of the Artic ice caps. A mystery, a love story, and an elegy for a vanishing way of life, Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a breathtaking achievement, an exceptional feat of storytelling.”

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. I found it lying of the floor by the YA aisles, and now seems as good a time as ever to cross it off the TBR lists. This one has generated a lot of buzz, and I’m interested to learn what it’s about.

The Secret of the Ruby Ring, by Yvonne MacGrory. My only impulse selection. I always feel slightly odd checking out a children’s book, but this was front-facing as I passed the shelf and looked too good to pass up–a girl named Lucy and time traveling in Ireland.

Published in: on June 30, 2009 at 11:33 pm  Comments (1)  

Little Dorrit (Complete)

True to my personal goal I finished Little Dorrit in June with a day to spare! I found that as I neared the end it got a lot faster (kind of like life…). I had read A Tale of Two Cities for school about six years ago and remember only enjoying it, not anything stylistic or critical. There will be spoilers in this review, basically because it’s impossible to talk about a 900 page book without giving at least something away!

I wrote about the first half of the novel here. In the second book the newly-rich Dorrit family is traveling in Europe and meets up with characters both familiar (Mrs. Merdle, for instance) and new (Mrs. General). Of all the opportunities their new-found wealth has given them, the biggest is the opportunity to put on airs. Mr. Dorrit suffers from an immense pride that threatens his relationship with his younger daughter; I silently scolded him several times. Fanny, on the other hand, becomes much more likeable and affectionate with Amy after the uncle defends Little Dorrit. This inheritance is not the only change of fortune, however, as extraordinary disclosures both public and private affect all the characters by the end of the book.

I suspect it to be no great coincidence that as a whole, the characters who are most sincere and most happy are those who live simply without extreme ambition, either social or financial (which often dictate each other). Those who scheme and climb, however, build castles and facades whose very fabrication is a constant threat. Based on this novel I would much rather live in Bleeding Hearts Yard than any crumbling mansion!

Even beyond social commentary, I love how Dickens paints his characters, unique caricatures each with a trademark feature expressing their deeper self. Flora maintains a stream of friendly but nearly incomprehensible prattle, while Mrs. Merdle is simply “the Bosom.” Pancks, who became one of my favorite characters, is described as a tugboat constantly letting out steam and pushing people or plots into motion.

The cunning and violent Rigaud (alias Blandois) is a stereotypical villain straight out of a gothic melodrama–a swarthy foreigner with a mustache, cape, and talent for striking fear into innocent hearts. Those whose crimes are more insidious are far less identifiable, such as the Barnacle family. I’m not sure if Dickens intended this contrast, but it certainly struck me how much easier it is to beware the first type!

The only aspects I was torn about in this book were the May/December romance and Tattycoram. Normally I do not like large age gaps, especially when Arthur kept calling Little Dorrit “my child,” but it seemed to work her because he is so young for his years and she so old. Tattycoram complained of her treatment in the Meagles household as always being jealous of Pet and treated like a child. I actually sided with her for most of the book, but after hearing the bitter Miss Wade recount her own similar situation and denounce any kindness as condescension I saw that such a view can be false. I was more sympathetic then to Tattycoram’s repentant return to the family, especially considering she was always meant to be a companion rather than a daughter, but I still think a middle ground would have been more appropriate, in which she was given a chance for intimacy.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book, especially the way in which the large cast of characters all wound up connecting and interacting (an aspect expanded on in the introduction). You could easily play the two degrees of separation here, and yet due to his deft characterizations I had no trouble telling everyone apart. It may be a bit before I pick up another, but I know not to be intimidated anymore by the length.

This book is my first for the Classics Challenge, and is also on the Guardian list (though not intended for that challenge).

Published in: on June 29, 2009 at 7:29 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Mysterious Affair at Styles

I am shockingly uneducated when it comes to Agatha Christie, or indeed any classic mystery novelist, though I have read a couple volumes and most of her short stories. My attitude was always to save the classics till I was older for fear of becoming too high brow. Now that a few years have passed I have a little less patience for poor writing, and figure I might as well go for quality.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduces us to the charming and extremely astute Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The narrator, Hastings, is paying a visit at Styles Hall to his old friend John Cavendish, wife Mary, and brother Lawrence. John’s stepmother stills owns the estate and has recently remarried Alfred Inglethorp, a yonger man whom everyone else dislikes. Also present are Mrs. Inglethorp’s companion Evie Howard and protégée Cynthia Murdoch. After a violent quarrel with her husband Mrs. Inglethorp is murdered with strychenine during the night, but somehow the evidence seems a little too neat for Poirot.

I really enjoyed this dizzying web of secrets, all of which are unravelled by the end. This is one of the few I read before, and though the premise and method seemed familiar I didn’t know the killer. That stayed true throughout the book–most of my suspicions were off as usual.

Actually, I would be immensely impressed with anyone who guessed the final destination of this convoluted route. Parts of it seemed a bit contrived to me (I won’t give spoilers), so that like Hastings what we are led to believe isn’t always necessarily the truth. I do enjoy poison as a murder weapon though, not only for the lack of gore but also because it opens up so many more opportunities.

I was slightly annoyed with Hastings, who seemed a little too ridiculous. He is observant but opinionated, as as Poirot points out he lacks the intuition often crucial for detecting. He is infatuated with Mary and then Cynthia as well, which clouds his judgment. He is a good-hearted fellow, though, and I hope he improves with time.

I hadn’t even realized that this was on the Guardian list– I’m racking them up unintentionally. I’d like to shoot for one a month chronologically so July will bring up The Secret Adversary, one of the few others I’ve read and the introduction of Tommy and Tuppence.

Published in: on June 28, 2009 at 5:33 pm  Comments (1)  
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Under-Appreciated Books

Kelly at The Novel Bookworm is hosting a giveaway in honor of her blogiversary. I’m new to her site, but it’s such a neat idea that I couldn’t resist myself.

Kelly is a big fan of Big Sid’s Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime, a touching memoir about rebuilding a father-son relationship by undertaking an seemingly impossible project after the father’s medical trouble. However, the motorcycle aspect of it has been made most prevalent by publishers, so that it fails to draw a larger audience to appreciate it’s lessons on life and love.

To be honest, I’m not a huge expert on strained parent/child relationships (my brothers, father, and grandfather get along fine), and know even less about motorcycles. But if my library has a copy I’m willing to give this one a read, and at least help contribute to the buzz about it.

In addition, I also want to plug one of my favorites that also deserves much more attention than it gets. Cordelia Underwood: Or, The Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League, by Van Reid, is a wonderful rambling story set in late nineteenth century Maine. Some critics compared his writing style to Dickens, and after becoming more acquainted with the latter I have to agree. It’s filled with the escapades of a slew of delightful characters whose lives and adventures seem to interlace, as well as a gentle humor. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it last year (it lingered on my TBR pile for a few before that, unfortunately), and was dismayed to find that the following four books in the series are all out of print. I’ve been keeping my eyes open for used copies in decent condition, because I know these are keepers.

Published in: on June 27, 2009 at 9:47 pm  Comments (1)  

Topical Nonfiction

Sometimes I’m shocked by the small amount of nonfiction I read. To be honest, though, I think my excuse is legitimate. As a student the focus of much of my work was for class, so that reading was always an escape and therefore fiction. I do read books about books, especially series books (like the fantastic Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her), and the occasional memoir or biography. Craft books, too, but I don’t really count those.

Recently, though, I’ve been dipping into Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, which my mom has lying around. And I realized the absence I’m noticing is more what I’d call “topical nonfiction”–books about politics or hot-button issues. I don’t feel the need to go out and devour the New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller list, but I do think I should at least be aware of these books, and consider reading them.

<a href=””>Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her</a><img src=”; width=”1″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” style=”border:none !important; margin:0px !important;” />
Published in: on June 26, 2009 at 12:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dressed to Steal (Nancy Drew Girl Detective #22)

I’m still behind in the Girl Detective series (this one is from February 2007) and hoping to catch up a little over the summer. Of course this sat on my shelf at school all year, unread until I brought it back home.

In Dressed to Steal, the grand opening of Alicia Adams’ new boutique in River Heights gets quickly out of control when the store is vandalized. Nancy soon finds herself investigating, but which are real clues and which are red herrings?

True to her Girl Detective character Nancy mourns her lack of fashion sense and runs out of gas for her hybrid, a plot device now even more cliche than cut brakes. Later, however, she’s more the sleuth we know, picking locks and sneaking around for evidence.

Some people have commented on the trend of “girly” crimes, especially as this one seems an obvious tie-in to the Danger by Design game. While I prefer haunted houses, this option is a lot more real, and also allows for the clothes-related details we love in the classic books anyway. The small subplot about animal rights fleshes the case out nicely, too, and allows development of Nancy’s character.

In fact, I would almost think that the books might be copying off the games in general, or at least the format. To be fair I’ve read very few of the late classic paperbacks and can’t comment on their style, and maybe it’s just modern detecting trends in general. But most of the sleuthing involves direct questioning during conversations or paper trail clues like the emails and magazine articles. Maybe this is intentional, or maybe I’m only noticing it because I’m playing one of the games right now as well (Danger on Deception Island).

Ned and Nancy’s relationship seems to be a perfect balance in this book. They are affectionate rather than mushy, and while he does his own thing he supports her sleuthing and is always willing to help. In fact, he says he prefers helping her with mysteries to a model shoot!

For the series, I would rate this about a 4.

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 11:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Books in the Mail

I was selected as one of the random winners from MotherReader’s 48 Hour Reading Challenge, and I received my prize in the mail today. One of the books is Gringolandia, a young adult novel concerning an immigrant family in the 1980s. Here’s a summary from the book:

Though haunted by memories of his father’s arrest in Pinochet’s Chile, Daniel Aguilar has made a new life in the U.S.–far away from politics. But when his father is suddenly released and rejoins the family, Daniel sees what five years of prison and torture have done. Papa is partially paralyzed, haunted by nightmares, and bitter about being exiled to “Gringolandia.” Trying to reach his father, Daniel finds himself in the democracy struggle of the country he thought he had left behind.

This book looks very enlightening, and will be the perfect follow-up to Detective Story. I also received What I Did on My Summer Vacation: 40 Funny Poems About Summer Adventures and Misadventures. The poems are hysterical, and I can’t wait to share them with my younger cousins when they visit!

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 5:17 pm  Comments (1)  

Emma: Volume 1

Emma: Volume 1 seems like the manga I’ve been looking for all my life. I love the characters, the plot, and of course the illustrations. It even spawned an anime series available on DVD that I will definitely be looking for when I’m done!

In Victorian England Emma was raised out of poverty and trained to be a maid by kindly Mrs. Kelly Stownar, a retired governess. She is beautiful but very reserved, and spurns all suitors. Far on the other side of society is William Jones, one of Kelly’s former charges and son of a wealthy merchant. Circumstances keep conspiring to bring the two together but other circumstances are equally disruptive, not the least of which is a visit from William’s friend Hakim the Indian prince.

Not too much happened in this volume, and I flew through it; mostly it introduces the characters and sets up the basic factors of the plot. My one complaint is that minor characters meant to further the plot, such as various servants or William’s friends, are sometimes confusing because they are not given names or contexts.

The period detail is amazing in all the illustrations. As an example, you can see the clothing changes between the “present” and flashbacks to twenty years ago. Even though Mori is a young Japanese woman, she has a self-professed love of Victorian England and has clearly done her research. On a side note, I wonder if this counts as a translated book?)

The series is complete, with all ten volumes now available in English. I think I can get volumes 2-4 from other libraries in the area but I’m not sure what to do after that. I may just break down and buy them online if I can find a good enough deal!

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Uncommon Reader

Of course as soon as I promise to make progress with Little Dorrit I find myself turning instead to much shorter books. The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett, is a novella about the Queen of England, who finds herself irrevocably changed (for better and for worse) when she begins reading. She is aided in her pursuits by Norman from the kitchens, but otherwise her staff and subjects are shocked at the concept. Overall. the story is fine blend of ph

The Queen is named at one point as Elizabeth, so I assume she is meant to be the current monarch. I wonder if her approval was needed to write this, or what her reaction was. The portrayal is somewhat sympathetic, but also matter-of-fact.

I read two of his other novellas several years ago, The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van, and at the time they were interesting but not memorable. I don’t think I was necessarily a lower-brow reader (I read Elizabeth Berg around the same time and loved her), but I was often looking for escapism more than ideas.

As Bennett suggests here, however, reading is a way of learning about life and those around you through fictional experiences.By following characters we become more perceptive of others emotions. Ultimately, however, reading remains a passive experience. This intake of information is only useful if then integrated into action, a moral that may seem obvious to some and exaggeration to others. Me? I follow the old “everything in moderation” and leave it at that.

I didn’t even realize until afterwards that this is on the Guardian’s 1000 Novels list under Comedy, but I’m going to try to stick with my original list for the challenge

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 4:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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Invisible Cities

I remember a book from my childhood where seven blind mice stumble across an elephant, but because each touches a different feature they are unable to reconcile their descriptions.

Invisible Cities is a little like that.  From the back of the book: In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo–Tartar emperor and Venetian traveler. Marco Polo diverts the emperor with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading  cities, hidden cities. Soon it becomes clear that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

The book is highly structured, with 1-2 page descriptions of city titled and numbered by the focus on them, yet grouped into chapters thematically. Each is like a microscope slide; you see one small aspect of a city, not enough to visualize it, yet enough to gain insight into both the city and humanity. Calvino’s writing dances along the border between prose and philosophy, and though there is not much plot in Invisible Cities there is plenty to think about.

This is definitely not a book to read straight through. Since it is a little hard to take in too much at once, the frequent breaks made it perfect for dipping into before bed or during work breaks, leaving time to savor what you’re read.

To get a taste here is the first city:

“Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.”

This book counts for both the Lost in Translation Challenge and the Guardian Challenge. It is also one of the “1001 Books to Read Before You Die.”

Published in: on June 21, 2009 at 6:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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