Monday, April 27, 2009

A Smorgasbord of Reviews!

I have been away for over a week, in San Diego running a long and tiring conference for work. Needless to say, when I'm working 13+ hours a day on my feet and getting up at 5:00 am, I don't really feel I have the time or the inclination for blogging. Fortunately, this only happens 2 or 3 times a year :)

Being away, however, does NOT mean that I haven't been reading my little heart out! After all, I did have many, many hours on airplanes and in airports to get to San Diego and back. Rather than doing these separately, I'm going to give you all three reviews below.

Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips

This is a fascinating crime story. A criminal known as much for his cowardice as for his talent and intelligence somehow lets himself get involved in a really messy heist that goes bad...and for the first time, he can't run away. The most interesting element of the story to me revolves around why our hero is known as a coward: he doesn't generally carry weapons, if something goes wrong he runs from the scene immediately, he always has a back-up plan to get himself out of any sticky situations. And that is what has caused his fellow hustlers and theives to label him a coward. In the end, though, he reveals that his so-called cowardice has a rather unexpected reason (as he tears to pieces everyone who caused the hell of the last several days, including himself). There are some touchy-feely moments with him and a dead buddy's wife (and her daughter), a bartender friend, a heroin junkie with Alzheimer's who raised him after his dad went to prison...but mostly, the story itself is fascinating and gripping and the art is BEAUTIFUL.

Bound South by Susan Rebecca White

I picked this book up after hearing the author read from it at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Her description of it at that reading felt like it was equally about three characters whose lives were all tied together, but really, I think this is Louise's story. Her daughter, Caroline, and her housekeeper's daughter, Missy, also have stories to be told during the book, but Louise is the tie that binds. She has the most chapters in the book written from her perspective, and she is the character who experiences the most real growth. So I'm going to talk about her last.

Missy's story is the most concise. She's a teenager living in a poor area outside of Atlanta. Her mom has been working for Louise Parker for as long as she can remember, and Louise is kind to her, like a second (wealthy) mother. Her dad abandoned them when she was a small child, and she has hoping for him to come back and have a relationship with her ever since. She finally gets the chance to meet him when she finds out he's starring in a Christian drama on public access out of North Carolina, and she goes on a road trip with Louise's son, Charles, to find him. She finds out the truth about her dad, so she can let him go, and also goes through an experience that will change her life forever.

Caroline is the rebellious wild child of the Parker family. She's the oldest child and has been openly defiant of her mother's proper Southern ladylike ideals since she was five years old. She won't eat, dress, talk, or act in any way befitting her heritage and stature. She and her mother are constantly battling over everything, until she gets caught in a compromising position with her teacher. Then she runs off to San Francisco with her teacher, and their relationship is remarkably improved by the distance. She explores her desires and passions, works in the local theatre community, gets in and out of a bad marriage, gains a lot of weight and finally ends up with someone suited to her. In other words, she grows up. And it's a nice growing up story, but not ground-breaking.

Then there is Louise. Bizarre, struggling, complicated, proper Louise. Her entire adult life has been structured around being a good wife and mother and a wonderful hostess and friend. She believes in being polite at all costs and serving delicious food. The one thing she does for herself is buy folk art. She doesn't care what anyone else thinks of the art she buys; she just buys what she responds to emotionally and intellectually. Her daughter moves out, her son announces he's gay, her husband shares that he thinks his twin brother who committed suicide while they were in college was gay, she turns her house into an art gallery a few times a month, she smokes weed for the first time with her daughter in California, she lets an artist take a photo of her lady parts...and she generally lets go and becomes herself. And becomes happy. Hers is by far the most detailed and interesting transformation.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I'm a total Southern lit junkie, as most of you know, and this is right up my alley.

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Let me just say up-front that I read McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when I was in 10th grade, for English class with the best English teacher I had ever, including in college. And I loved it. With all of my heart. I've read that book over and over, and I even wrote a curriculum unit on it when I was in college for secondary education. Interestingly, I haven't read that many of her other books. I got The Member of the Wedding for free off of BookMooch, and I decided to do this crazy Fill-in-the-Gaps Project around the same time, so I put the book on my list and knew I'd read it soon. So this is book #2 I've finished for Fill-in-the-Gaps.

I read this book almost entirely on the plane to San Diego. I was about 30 pages in when I got on the plane, and it was over 2 or 3 hours before I landed in CA. It's good to know her writing is always amazing. I adored this book. It's sad and touching and nostalgic and beautiful. Frankie (aka F. Jasmine) is a rough-and-tumble tomboy just entering puberty and feeling desperately alone. Her best friend has moved away, her other friends have all turned into teenagers and she's not ready to do that, her dad works all the time. She spends most of her summer with her dad's cook/maid and her six-year-old cousin. When her brother comes home from the military and brings his new bride-to-be to visit, she falls in love with them because they belong to each other. And she decides that she belongs with them to, that she'll finally not be lonely any more when she goes to their wedding and they will of course take her with them after they're married.

Ninety percent of this book takes place the week before the wedding happens. Not a lot happens as far as action, but a lot happens in Frankie during this week. Her decision to grow up and to belong somewhere, and the actions she takes to make it happen, and her anticipation of the wedding are all so true emotionally, it's hard for me to believe that this could have been written by a grown-up and not by an 11-year-old. And then her utter heartbreak when her brother and his bride leave the wedding without her, and her determination to run away from home are stunning. It's such a simple tale, a child's story of the last vestiges of her childhood being stripped away from her. But it's just so real. And that is McCullers' true talent in all of her books I've read. She puts you through the same emotional paces as her characters, and you come up from the book gasping for air. I can't think of another writer who does this as viscerally, at least for me.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Book 1 for the Fill in the Gaps project - DONE!

The Awakening is a classic. A wealthy Southern woman, entrapped in wealthy Southern Victorian conventions, decides to start living for herself and doing what she wants to do instead of what her husband wants her to do or what is expected by society. Not such a shocker these days, but wealthy Southern Victorian ladies just did not do such things. Being a proper feminist, the idea of this book was really quite appealing to me.

Unfortunately, I found the heroine to be utterly inconsiderate and self-involved. I mean, it's one thing to want to break free and build your own life; it's quite another to treat a husband who adores you with indifference and your kids who are sweet and adorable like utter crap. And then to kill yourself in the end because life is so boring if you can't have the man you want because he's too decent to want to cuckold your husband.

I still applaud the general sentiment behind the book, even though I wasn't crazy about the woman. In addition, it made me think about how it might still apply in modern times. I mean, we are clearly way more liberal in our thinking about who can marry whom and about marrying for love. But I still think in some wealthy, high-society circles, there is a lot of pressure to "marry well" and to mate with someone "appropriate" - love be damned. Not having come from any money whatsoever myself, I can't swear to that, but I certainly think that if you're a Kennedy, it will be severely frowned upon for you to marry a regular person.

I'm not sorry I read the book. And I certainly was not bored while reading it. But I won't read it again, and I did not at all like the main character. So take that for what it's worth.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"True Life" Crime Story

I will say up-front that this was not my favorite Denise Mina book. I prefer her more straightforward mystery stories. This book is written in an interesting manner, though - it's the diary of a husband whose wife is currently in prison for murder. She is a psychiatrist, and she was accused and convicted of killing a serial killer she was treating while he was in prison. She swears she didn't do it, and her husband believes her. His diary reveals all of this thoughts - anger, confusion, changing his mind to think she did it and then back again - as he tries to discover the truth of what happened, searching for something that could set her free.

Mina sets it up as a true crime story - there is a foreword describing how she obtained the diary through perfectly legal means and has finally obtained permission to print it. This is all part of the story, of course, but it sets you up really well to believe it might be true. The best part about the story is how she really gets into the head of the husband writing the diary. It's totally believable, the ups and downs he goes through while trying to find the truth and decide what to do about it. It's very real and very human. And the ending was something I did not see coming. Well, I foresaw a part of it, but certainly not the biggest part of the twist. And I always respect an author who can do that for me, surprise me at the end.

I've read two other of Denise Mina's novels before this, and I think she is fabulous at taking a relatively ordinary paperback mystery kind of story and imbuing it with all kinds of character complexities and real human experience. She's fantastic, and I will keep reading her books!

Friday, April 3, 2009

I'm Scared: Project Fill-in-the-Gaps

At the behest of MoonRat, over at Editorial Ass, I'm taking on a terrifying challenge. I scared of it, really and truly. You have no idea. It's called Project Fill-in-the-Gaps, and there's a whole blogging collective site for posting about this. I haven't gotten permission to post to it yet, but I have asked and will throw my list up there when permission is granted.

The challenge is this: to pick 100 books that you want to read, but somehow never get around to (because they're kinda hard and you're tired and there are other fun and easy things to read). Commit to reading at least 75% of them in the next five years. That's more than one great but tough book per month. I'm not sure I can do it, even with my voracious reading habits. But I do think it's a great idea because, honestly, without something like this, when will I ever be motivated to read these books?

It was actually hard for me to come up with 100 that I felt were worthy of a project called Fill-in-the-Gaps - at least, to come up with 100 that I was interested in reading and that I hadn't already read. As it is, eight of the books on my list are things I've read before, but I read them so long ago and I only read them once; I keep meaning to re-read them but meet the same problems as with the rest of the list that I've never read. I marked the ones I've read before with a little "(R)" in front of the titles.

So here's my list. They're in alpha order by author, but I probably won't read them in that order. I may post about my progress from time to time, but I'll give the nitty-gritty details on the Fill in the Gaps blog. If you're interested, join the fun!
  1. Watership Down, Richard Adams
  2. The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
  4. The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
  5. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
  6. (R) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  7. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  8. Continental Drift, Russell Banks
  9. Peter Pan, J M Barrie
  10. The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
  11. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
  12. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  13. (R) Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  14. The Good Earth, Pearl S Buck
  15. Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
  16. Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs
  17. Possession, A S Byatt
  18. The Plague, Albert Camus
  19. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
  20. My Antonia, Willa Cather
  21. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
  22. Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, Agatha Christie
  23. The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
  24. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick
  25. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  26. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
  27. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  28. The Barrytown Trilogy, Roddy Doyle
  29. Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser
  30. The House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III
  31. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  32. Spartacus, Howard Fast
  33. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  34. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  35. This Side of Paradise, F Scott Fitzgerald
  36. A Room with a View, E M Forster
  37. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  38. Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
  39. Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  40. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  41. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
  42. (R) The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  43. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  44. (R) Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  45. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
  46. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
  47. The Lottery, Shirley Jackson
  48. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
  49. Daisy Miller, Henry James
  50. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
  51. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  52. The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
  53. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
  54. The Road to Lichfield, Penelope Lively
  55. At the Mountains of Madness, H P Lovecraft
  56. Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham
  57. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
  58. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  59. The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
  60. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
  61. Promethea, Alan Moore
  62. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami
  63. Invitation to a Beheading, Vladimir Nabokov
  64. Everything that Rises Must Converge, Flannery O'Connor
  65. Animal Farm, George Orwell
  66. (R) Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  67. Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
  68. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  69. Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello
  70. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
  71. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  72. The Wanderers, Richard Price
  73. The Shipping News, E Annie Proulx
  74. (R) The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
  75. The Human Stain, Philip Roth
  76. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
  77. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  78. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  79. Fair and Tender Ladies, Lee Smith
  80. Maus, Art Spiegelman
  81. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
  82. Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
  83. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
  84. Short Stories of Mark Twain, Mark Twain
  85. The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
  86. Burr, Gore Vidal
  87. Myra Breckenridge/Myron, Gore Vidal
  88. Candide, Voltaire
  89. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  90. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  91. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
  92. (R) A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
  93. (R) A Curtain of Green, Eudora Welty
  94. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
  95. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  96. Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe
  97. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
  98. Orlando, Virginia Woolf
  99. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
  100. The Book Thief, Mark Zusak