Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 2011 in Review

Total Pages Read in May: 1,301

It's been a slow reading month.  I read fewer pages and books than in any other month this year.  It was for a good reason, though.  I was out of town for a week at the end of June to visit friends in Kansas, and I didn't touch a book the whole time I was gone.  Losing more than a full week to the trip and its preparation cost me precious reading time, but it was time well spent with people I love.

I read a couple books I really loved this month, including one of Markus Zusak's older novels.  Rumor has it that Zusak will be releasing a new book this fall (in the UK and Australia, at least), which I am SUPER EXCITED about, obviously.

Overall, a pretty good reading month.  July promises to be even better.  I'm currently in the middle of Wuthering Heights, a book I will have a lot to say about by the time I finish it.  You can't quite imagine this book; it's so different from everything else out there.  I have some books by favorites Neil Gaiman and Alice Hoffman on my desk, too.  I can't wait to get to all this great stuff!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Weird, But In a Good Way

Book Reviewed: Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link

Kelly Link is one of those writers I really like but almost never recommend to others.  Her work is too strange and requires a mind that likes puzzles and mysteries.  It's not just an expression to say that Kelly Link isn't for everyone.  So while I loved this book (her debut collection), I offer a caveat: You might not like it.  You might even hate it.  But if you're feeling adventurous and fully immerse yourself in Link's world, you'll be greatly rewarded.

Link's short stories blend elements of fairy tales and the supernatural with mundane human experiences.  The weird and the heartbreaking exist in perfect harmony with one another.  Loss and love stand right beside ghosts and gods.  It's a strange world, but it's almost always beautiful.  It helps that Link is a truly great writer.  Her prose is pitch-perfect, and she knows what to describe and what to leave to the reader's imagination.  It's hard to believe that Stranger Things Happen is her first book, as it is so well done.

Some of the stories here hit me harder than others, and I tended to like the stories with the strongest emotional underpinnings.  My favorites in this collection include the Neil Gaiman-esque "Flying Lessons," which feels like an unknown section from American Gods.  I also enjoyed "Louise's Ghost," which is one of the most bizarre and yet realistic pieces in the whole book, with a killer ending scene.  It's a story about the lifelong friendship between two women, but it's also about death and longing and not being the person you want to be.  It also features a small, hairy ghost that moves between cellos.  This is what you get in a Kelly Link book, folks.  My favorite story, though, is "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," which is the first in the collection and probably one of the less known works from it.  In it, a dead man who can no longer remember his name writes letters to the wife whose name he also can't remember.  As he tries to piece together what has happened to him, he writes of the guilt and love he carries with him from their relationship.  It's really heartbreaking, and Link does a great job of getting right inside her lost narrator.

I enjoyed reading Stranger Things Happen.  Kelly Link has only written two short story collections for adults and one for teens, but I wish she'd release something new every year.  She's too good to be silent for too long. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What Goes Unsaid...

Book Reviewed:  A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

Once again, my library-loving friend has led me to a great book.  J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country is a short, poetic novel about, well, a month in the country.  Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran, takes a job restoring a medieval wall painting in a northern England church in 1920.  Birkin is affected both physically and spiritually by the war, and the summer he spends in Oxgodby is perhaps the closest he has come to healing his many inner wounds.  He meets a fellow veteran, Moon, who is also doing his own uncovering job: looking for a body buried hundreds of years earlier near church grounds.  Birkin also forms relationships with the minister's wife, Alice Keach, and a young girl and her family.  These friendships, as well as the countryside, act as a kind of balm for his soul, even though he must leave the place behind in the end.

It's a very internal book, and it's as much about what is unsaid as is said.  What Birkin doesn't say to others mirrors the ways us readers have to fill in holes based on what Birkin does and doesn't tell us in his first-person narration.  I once had a lit professor who explained that what made William Wordsworth interesting wasn't what he said but what he left unsaid.  Wordsworth would get close to saying something in his writing, then back away from it, almost in fear of what he might find in his words.  Birkin's narration reminded me of this idea.  There are startling and devastating sentences to be found in the midst of some lovely language here, but there's also something in Birkin that seems just beyond our reach. He talks about the war, and yet there's so much he never says about it.  I think this is the most clever device Carr uses in his novel.  This is a book where you have to read between the lines, and what you find there isn't always as cozy as you'd like it to be. 

I think A Month in the Country is a lovely little book, although I admit I wasn't as attached to Birkin as I would have preferred.  However, I will gladly add it to my list of wonderful books written with a beautiful sense of language and narrative derring-do.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Some Books Sneak Up on You

Book Reviewed: I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

When I was half-way through Markus Zusak's young adult novel, I Am the Messenger, I still couldn't decide how I felt about the book.  I have a lot of faith in Zusak because he wrote a book I truly love, The Book Thief, and because his books have a kind of brave honesty to which I'm attracted.  So even while I entertained doubts about the plot and the writing, I still had faith that things would turn out okay in the end.  And of course, I was right. 

I should have known to trust Zusak.  Like his earlier books, the writing style is pretty choppy and a little too self-conscious at times.  The first-person narrative keeps it from becoming annoying, though.  Ed Kennedy, the narrator of Messenger, seems like the kind of guy who might actually talk in short, repetitive sentences.  Ed's a nineteen-year-old cab driver who admits he hasn't amounted to much.  His self-esteem is low, but he deals with life in a humorous and clear-eyed way that keeps him from becoming completely inert.  In the novel's opening pages, Ed stops a bank robber while out with his three best friends - Richie, Marv, and Audrey (with whom he's also in love).  After his heroic act, Ed begins getting ace cards in the mail, each one carrying three messages.  After he accomplishes the necessary acts that the messages tell him to do, he gets another card until he ends up with tasks that become increasingly personal.

The plot of this book keeps you going even when things seem implausible.  You're as eager to find out who's behind the cards as Ed is.  At least I was.  I liked being inside Ed's head, and I wanted things to turn out well for him.  As Ed becomes attached to the people he helps in his ordered acts, I began to like them as well.  That's why the book's final hundred pages make such an impact.  When he receives a card that asks him to help those closest to him, I had my gut in my throat in the whole time.  Oh, how I wanted everyone to be okay in the end!

This is one of those books that sticks with you after you finish it.  I enjoyed reading the book - and true to Zusak's awesome powers over me, I cried a few times - but I wasn't prepared for the way certain images and scenes came to mind while I laid in bed that night.  All of Zusak's books pack a surprising emotional punch, but he's not playing with emotions like a lot of young adult writers.  Rather, he sticks to the basic building blocks of a good story.  His principle characters are people for whom you want good things and his plots are complex enough to keep you occupied but simple enough for the reader to add his own shades of meaning.  By sticking to these simple concepts, Zusak leaves lots of room for the reader to become attached to certain moments in the book.  While I do think he has a tendency to overwrite, he is more than capable of adding a simple poetry to certain images - an old woman swinging her legs in a chair, a reserved young man gripping his steering wheel as he cries, one proud father talking to another.  I read Zusak because he writes big books in which the smallest things count the most.  That's not an easy thing to do.

I Am the Messenger is a book I expect to come to mind every once in a while.  It really sneaks up on you, even when you aren't sure what to think while you're reading it. 

Note:  This book's protagonist is a nineteen-year-old, which is quite a bit older than most young adult novel protagonists.  It made me think about all those arguments about whether or not The Book Thief deserved to be classified as adult literary fiction rather than being published as a book for teens.  I think Zusak's writing style fits the young adult "mold" (even though I don't like using those kinds of terms), but the ideas his books present work for all age groups.  I don't think it's wrong to classify him as young adult novelist, but I do worry that such a title makes it harder for adult readers to find his work.  Each book he's written has been better than the one before it, so if his writing keeps up at this exponential rate, he might finally get the wider audience he deserves.  One of the best things about reading all of Zusak's books is that you can literally watch him grow into a stronger and stronger writer over time.  I cannot wait for his next one!

Poem of the Week: "The Writer," by Richard Wilbur

As I was going through the Poetry Foundation website looking for this week's selection, I saw this poem and realized I'd never included it here before.  Considering that "The Writer" is one of the first poems I ever loved, I find that hard to believe.  Well, here it finally is.  Enjoy!

The Writer, by Richard Wilbur

Note:  You might have noticed that I'm posting this on a Monday instead of the usual Sunday.  You see, I tend to be off doing more adventurous things (away from my computer) on Sundays this time of year.  For this reason, Poem of the Week postings will take place on Mondays for the rest of the summer.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cutesy Pie

Book Reviewed: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The title of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society really bothers me.  I hate this title.  It's too long, too precious, and "potato" is a cover word that I associate with "boring."  When I started reading this book for my book club earlier this week, I thought maybe the title was just an unfortunate mistake and that I was going to like the book anyway.  Well, in the end, the cutesiness of the title infused too much of the book for me to like it.

Things started off well.  Society is written as a series of letters between the protagonist - London writer Juliet Ashton - and a variety of people a year after World War II.  Juliet ends up receiving a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer on the island of Guernsey, located in the English Channel.  Dawsey mentions the title society to Juliet, and she soon becomes intrigued by the society and all its members.  She exchanges letters with society members and friends from home, all of them becoming connected through their stories of survival and reading. 

At first, this is all very interesting.  I had never heard of the German occupation of Guernsey throughout the war, and I was fascinated by this little-known bit of history.  (Also, there's a lot of talk of books and reading!) And at first, the characters are endearing.  But by the end, it all got very twee.  I can tolerate a pretty good deal of sentimentality and even sweetness in fiction, but there's a certain point where cuteness becomes toxic for my reading brain.  Even some of the trashiest romances I read have more substance than this.  I feel a little bad disliking this book, as so many people do love it.  Let's just say I am not the ideal audience for this kind of thing, and it might be a bit hard for me to discuss at book club.  There's a certain kind of preciousness in books like this - about friendship and love and the power of positivity - that I just can't take.

Finally, I should mention the one thing that bothered me about this book more than the sugary sweetness.  It's supposed to be made up of letters by lots of very different people.  Then why do they all have the EXACT SAME WRITING STYLE?!  Different characters use different phrases and whatnot, but they all seem to break up their paragraphs and sentences in the same manner.  Also, they are all awfully descriptive in the same way, a trait that I don't even share with my other writer friends, let alone with people from a variety of backgrounds and educational experiences.  As a writer, this style problem bothered me so much that it made it a little hard to enjoy the book at all. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Adventures in Re-Reading: The Hunger Games

Book Re-Reviewed:  The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

When I read Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series last year, I tore through those things like something was chasing me.  The series' three books were so well-plotted and absorbing that I couldn't stop reading them, no matter how hard I tried. (It seems this is a common response.)  Now mind you, I am not a plot person.  Usually, plots just seem like a way to get to what I'm really into in fiction: character advancement.  I'm a character reader first, with a love for great prose coming second.  Loving plots is a very distant third.  That rule didn't apply to any of the Hunger Games books. 

So I was interested in seeing if this excitement would still hold if I reread the first (and my personal favorite) book in the series, The Hunger Games.  I'm here to tell you that it did.  I finished the bulk of the book in one long day of reading outside.  It was hot out, my knees were being sunburnt, and I had other things to do, but none of that mattered.  I was far too obsessed with Katniss's story to care about anything else. 

I won't say much in this review, since I said most of it when I read the book the first time around.  But on this second reading, I had more of a chance to figure out just what makes this book so good.  And I found out that as much as I loooove the plot, it's still the characters and their interactions that I like the best.  I think Katniss Everdeen is a really kick-ass character, and I don't just mean that literally.  Somehow, Collins manages to give Katniss a lot of personal strength and put her down in impossible circumstances without losing the fact that she's only a teenager.  Sure, she's in a life and death battle (and in the later books becomes a major symbol of a political revolution), but she's still confused by things like boys and her own emotions.  When I read The Hunger Games, I can't help but be transported back to my teenage years, and I mean that as a compliment.  Collins clearly remembers exactly what it's like to be somehow observant and obtuse at the same time, a trait that pretty clearly marks teenagers.

I love this series, and I'm going to once again recommend that you all read it.  Katniss isn't the only great character.  There's Peeta, the morally upstanding and lovelorn co-competitor; there's the talented and friendly Cinna; and there's the ominous President Snow (who plays a bigger role in the later books).  Best of all, there's Haymitch, the pathetic, alcoholic mentor who bumbles along a path towards more heroic efforts.  Woody Harrelson's been tapped to play Haymitch in the upcoming Hunger Games movie, and I think it's a fantastic choice. 

This book definitely holds up a second time around.  It's as awesome as ever, even when I know everything that's about to happen. 

Note:  I should add that this is the only book of the series I plan to reread this summer.  I only have a couple months until grad school, so I'm starting to get really picky about what I read in June and July. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

May 2011 in Review

Total Pages Read in May: 1,964

May wasn't quite as successful a reading month as April was.  I only read about 100 fewer pages, but I wasn't as in love with my reading material this time around. I did manage to fit in something from just about every area - nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and lots of graphic novels.  The only regular genre I didn't cover was romance, with which I'm getting increasingly bored. 

Without a doubt my favorite book this month was Alice Hoffman's The Red Garden.  It had something for every part of my reading brain - tragedy, sweet love stories, hope, humor, and strong sentences.  I loved it.  I read a couple other Hoffman books this month, too, but none of them struck me the way The Red Garden did.

I got a nice dose of history with Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, about the rise of Hitler in 1933 Berlin and the American response to the early Nazi regime.  I also read a lot of graphic novels, including a re-read of Jason's Hey, Wait..., one of my favorites of the medium.  I also reread Barbara Kingsolver's awesome novel, The Bean Trees, which I hadn't read in years. 

I'm pretty happy with how May turned out as a reading month, even if I enjoyed April more.  I have a few coming-soon books I'd like to read in June, including the latest historical romance by Julia Quinn and a memoir from one of my favorite funny guys, actor Simon Pegg.  I have a few rereads planned as well.  Hopefully, June's weather is much, much dryer and sunnier than May's, as I would love to be able to do more reading outside.  There's nothing I love more than sitting on the back deck with a good book and a nice breeze.  What summer reads do you have planned?