Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: In the Country of Last Things

In the Country of Last Things
By Paul Auster
Penguin 1987
188 pages
From my shelves

In The Country Of Last Things

Anna Blume is writing a letter to someone back home. She writes about the things that have happened to her since she arrived in an unnamed city, searching for her brother. It's the end of the world here, she knows no one, and she can't find her brother. People are dying in the streets, either murdered for their resources or finally giving up on a better future. Can Anna escape the city or will she join forces with another person in order to survive?

I read Auster's Oracle Night and really enjoyed its magical realism and multiple narratives. I happened to pick this one up, but it's wildly different from his other writing. This book is sparse and terrifyingly real. In this city (which seems like NYC, but is never named), almost no one has a job or a permanent place to live. People with more strength or better weapons can force you to leave your home at any moment. Citizens simply wander the streets, looking for relics of a better time that they can sell for food money. Babies haven't been born for a long time, and the population is dropping rapidly. People are truly desperate as they look for ways to end their miserable lives. Some hire an assassin to take their lives, some pay their last few dollars to be euthanized in a posh clinic, and some train for months to run until their hearts give out. The darkness and desperation of these people permeate the pages of this book. 

Anna is an interesting narrator, although as she admits, everything she says is suspect because no one knows what to believe anymore. One of the most striking things is her realization that things just cease to be - one day a street is there and then gone, a person is alive and then dead, entire words and concepts are leaving collective memory. "When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn't waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it." 

This is a good book, but it suffers from dystopian syndrome. While this book was written 25 years ago, it seems that today everyone and their mother has written a novel about the end of the world. So why should you read this novel about the end of the world instead of the thousands of others? Auster utilizes a lot of things that seem familiar to people who regularly read dystopian stories, but he does it with a level of perception and insight that makes other books pale in comparison. This is a short book, but it is one to be read slowly and carefully. In Auster's capable hands, the end of the world seems terrifyingly plausible.

Considering another book by Paul Auster? Here's my review of Oracle Night.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: People of the Book

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks
Penguin Books 2008
372 pages
From my bookshelves

People of the Book

Hanna Heath is surprised and pleased when she is offered an incredible opportunity: she is asked to travel to Sarajevo to examine the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. This book is unique among Jewish volumes because it is one of the first to include images alongside its stories from the Torah. Hanna begins the painstaking work of discovering the potential origins of the book. As Hana finds small pieces of evidence, we are taken back into history to meet the men and women who made and preserved this remarkable book.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book and a mystery among scholars. Ms. Brooks has imagined a possible history by having Hanna discover a clue or anomaly and then giving us the story behind it. The stories are beautiful and heartbreaking and I was constantly impressed by Brooks' ability to bring all of these characters in all of these different places and times to vibrant life. Lola, a Jewish freedom fighter who is taken in by a Muslim family; Giovanni Vistorini, the Catholic priest with the power to save or destroy the Haggadah during the Inquisition; and the young artist who creates the book are just a few of the characters we meet on these pages. There is something incredible about the importance each person grants the Haggadah and the ways in which they fight to protect it.

As Hanna pieces together the history of the book, she also makes important discoveries about herself and her family. Some reviewers find Hanna to be the weak link in this book, but I found her an interesting character. As she becomes close to the the director of the library museum, she finds her ideas about relationships and trust rapidly changing. Her already tenuous bond with her mother is tested when Hanna discovers that people in the present can keep secrets just as devastating as the ones that threatened and preserved the Haggadah.

People of the Book is, like many books that I adore, at its core about our relationship with this unlikely combination of paper and ink, pictures and glue. Books are important, and the people who realize that are our kindred spirits regardless of whether they are real life friends or just people we meet on a page. This is a gorgeous book that reveals the importance of words, faith, and love. It's one I will be returning to time and again. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wednesdays with David: Just Go to Bed

Just Go to Bed
By Mercer Mayer
Random House 2001
From our shelves

The story: Little Critter is not so fond of this bedtime thing. He would much rather play cowboy or sea monster or bunny rabbit. Can his dad convince him to just go to bed?

Mama opines: I love Little Critter. I love how he is always getting in trouble. His particular brand of mischief is seen in little boys everywhere. It's not that he means to disobey - it's just that there are better things to do than go to bed! I like that this story features a dad putting his child to bed. Dads do this kind of stuff too, you know. I think Mayer strikes a nice balance in this series of parenting from both mom and dad. This is a great book to read if you have a little one who can procrastinate going to bed for oh....the next twelve hours or so.

Thoughts from David: I like it because he sleeps in his bed and before that, he does not want to sleep in a bed.
Favorite part: When the evil daddy puts him in the bathtub!

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: Redwall

By Brian Jacques
Ace Books 1998
333 pages
Borrowed from a friend

Redwall (Redwall, #1)

This is the first book in the beloved Redwall series by Brian Jacques. The stories are about the animals who live and around Redwall Abbey. The mice are peace-loving healers who are shocked when their home is besieged by a terrifying rat named Cluny the Scourge. Their only hope for defeating the rat army is to find the lost sword of Martin the Warrior, the ancient protector of the Abbey. Can an awkward mouse named Matthias find the sword, defeat Cluny, and save the day?

This is a charming read. When I was a kid, I think I would have adored this series. But as an adult, it strikes me as simplistic. The good characters are oh so good and the bad characters are terribly evil for no discernible reason. Cluny wants to take over the Abbey seemingly because he can and he manages to find a  horde of miscreants and outcasts that will follow him to the death with no previous association. 

This is not to say that there aren't good things to be found in this book. Jacques does an excellent job of world-building and it's fascinating to see the relationships between the animals. I love reading books where I sit and marvel at the author's imagination. There seem to be two things that are really important within Redwall Abbey. One is food and the other is loyalty to your friends. Both of these things get a lot of attention and if a book if going to make your kid think about how to treat others and then make them hungry for dinner, you really can't complain. 

I think Redwall is a book I will recommend to David when he is old enough to understand the magic of immersing yourself in another world. I think it teaches its readers about the importance of family and community. It shows that courage is rewarded and that good will triumph over evil. But as an adult, I won't be rushing out to read the rest of this series. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

It's Monday and boy, it's been a week!

So, this's been an interesting one. Thanksgiving was lovely. We had breakfast with my in-laws and that side of the family and watched the parade. Then we went to my grandmother's house where we enjoyed a giant dinner with twenty or so of our closest family members and friends. On Friday, we pulled out the Christmas decorations and got to work. We watched that Eloise at the Plaza Christmas movie while decorating (I got David to watch a movie that wasn't Cars or Toy Story!) 

Friday night was when things got interesting. I was upstairs putting some laundry away when David came up and told me he was hungry. My husband had gone to help someone from the church, so I started to follow David downstairs but stopped to grab the laundry basket. David took this opportunity to try to slide down the banister. He didn't make it. He landed face first on the floor after falling several feet. We called the EMTs and we are so thankful to report that he didn't suffer any broken bones or a concussion. He is, however, currently sporting a black eye, a split lip, and some serious abrasions on and around his nose. It's been a very interesting weekend and while I am forever grateful to our local police force and EMTs, I hope to never ever see them in my house again. 

Read This Week:
Full Disclosure
By Dee Henderson

By Alexa Thomson

Posts from this Past Week:

Reading Now:
Coming Up:
Wonder Boys
Wonder Boys
By Michael Chabon

What are you reading this week? 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wednesdays with David: The Boxcar Children

The Boxcar Children Series
By Gertrude Chandler Warner
From our shelves/borrowed/from the library

The story: "One night, four children stood in front of a bakery" remember, don't you? The Boxcar Children series tells the stories of four siblings - Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. The children are orphans who find refuge in an abandoned boxcar. They are happily living together until they discover that their grandfather has been looking for them all along. They move to his mansion, but their adventures are not over yet!

Mama opines: Didn't everyone love this series as a child? I wanted to start reading these books with David (we needed a break from the Magic Treehouse!) but I didn't have the first book. My best friend lent it to us and we jumped in. We are currently reading our third book, but we are reading a bit out of order. My collection began with the sixth book, so we read #1, then #6, and now #2 and #3 have arrived at our library. 

I think these books are great for teaching siblings to work together and get along. The Boxcar Children are so incredibly resourceful. Their favorite thing is basically to figure out how to live on their own by finding or building what they need. It's funny though, that when I read them as a child I didn't realize that they were taking place so long ago. But this reading, I realized we were talking about the end of carriages and the beginning of 'automobiles.' It's lots of fun for me the second time around and for David as he experiences it for the first time.

Thoughts from David: I like it because they are the best best books because they might be going from one to eleven. (Wait until he finds out that there over one hundred!)
Favorite part: When they find that kid on the island

Friends, have a very happy Thanksgiving tomorrow. 
David and I are grateful for each one of our readers who visits us here to read our thoughts about the books we love. Happy Reading and Happy Turkey Day!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: The World is Bigger Now

The World Is Bigger Now
An American Journalist's Release from Captivity in North Korea
By Euna Lee with Lisa Dickey 
Broadway Books 2010
306 pages
Won from Alita of Alita Reads

The World Is Bigger Now: An American Journalist's Release from Captivity in North Korea . . . A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness

Americans held their breath when they learned that Euna Lee and Laura Ling were captured by North Korean authorities and held indefinitely. The journalists had been gathering stories of people fleeing North Korea's oppressive regime. When they briefly crossed the border from China into North Korea, they were apprehended by soldiers. Lee and Ling were separated and faced interrogation and the uncertainty that they would ever see their families again. The World is Bigger Now is the story of Lee's experiences in North Korea and the ways in which she was changed forever.

This is an interesting read but it lacks any real tension. Even if you didn't follow the news closely, you can tell just from the cover that Lee will be released from her imprisonment. Lee also writes with some journalistic detachment. While you may be interested in her story, you never feel really invested in her. Part of this may also be self-preservation. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for Lee to revisit the darkest days of her captivity, so far away from her husband and daughter. 

The most interesting part of this book is learning the stories of the North Korean refugees who were interviewed by Ling and Lee. They believed in the film they were making when they started, but as they met people who had fled for their lives they found renewed commitment. I think that anyone reading this will finish the book with a deeper understanding of the current situation in North Korea. That being said, Lee does a wonderful job of showing a human side to her captors. Even while they are holding her captive, she finds moments to share with these people who are simply doing their job. 

The World Is Bigger Now is an inspirational book. It's a story about a woman who trusted in God to get her through incredible circumstances. Lee's faith is an integral part of how she got through her ordeal. It's a realistic look at belief, though. Lee's relationship with God is ultimately strengthened through this  experience, but it's a journey that has many bumps along the way. As she sits alone and wonders what her future will be like, she can't help but wonder if God has abandoned her. While this book has faith running throughout the whole story, it can be appreciated by readers of all beliefs. 

This is a good read for anyone who is interested in the plight of the North Korean people. While Lee is not the most captivating writer, her story is still inspiring for the ways in which she truly committed to the people she had interviewed, the kindness she bestowed on her captors in spite of everything, and the ways in which her experiences caused her to reevaluate what is truly important. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Monday and it's almost Thanksgiving!

Hey fellow bibliophiles. What have you been up to? This week has been a bit crazy. We went to a wedding and then out to dinner with another couple and then we celebrated my aunt's birthday. And then of course, there is all of the usual work and David going to school and church and laundry and life.

I'm excited about two of my sisters coming home from college for Thanksgiving and having a few days off this week - I think we all need it! We will be celebrating Thanksgiving at my grandmother's with twenty other people or so. I'm making pumpkin crunch cake. Yum. What are your plans for Thursday?

Read This Week:
Redwall (Redwall, #1)
By Brian Jacques

In The Country Of Last Things
In The Country of Last Things
By Paul Auster

Reading Now:
Full Disclosure
Full Disclosure
By Dee Henderson

Posts from this Past Week:
It's Monday
Reviews of The Last Tycoon and Wish You Were Here

Up Next:

Antarctica On a Plate
By Alexa Thomson

What are you reading this week?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here
By Stewart O'Nan
Grove Press 2002
517 pages
From my bookshelf

Wish You Were Here

Emily Maxwell is meeting her family for one final summer at the house on the lake. After the death of her husband, she plans to sell the summer home that holds so many decades of memories. Emily makes the trip with her sister-in-law as each remembers the man who meant so much to them. They are joined by Emily's son Ken, who is trying to decide if his love for photography is enough to justify his decision to quite his job. Ken bring his wife Lise and two children. Last to the party is Meg, who was always Emily's problem child. She hopes this trip will help her move on from the end of her marriage and connect to her children, who seem increasingly distant. One week at the lake house with the Maxwell family is a revelation about the ways in which our families members disappoint each other and the bonds that cannot be broken. 

I read Wish You Were Here primarily because I heard rave reviews about its sequel Emily, Alone. It felt wrong to read that book without reading the first book. This was an excellent choice. Wish You Were Here is a great book. It is one of those rare stories that seems to be about the minutiae of life, but it is ultimately about the ways in which our families shape us.

This novel had so much in common with The Red House, a book I read earlier this year. But this one was superior in every way. Wish You Were Here is devastatingly real. This is a family mourning the loss of a husband, a father, a brother. It's about appreciating the people you love and the time you had with them, but not until it's too late. It explores a mother's disappointment that her children did not become all she dreamed that they could be and the children's knowledge that their mother feels that way. It delves into the competition between a sister and a wife and how both can feel that one man belongs to them because he did...but for different times in his life. The insights into family dynamics that O'Nan makes between the covers of this book are stunning.

Mr. O'Nan is one of those wonderful authors who can inhabit the mind of anyone - an elderly woman who doesn't know how to hold her tongue, a grown son trying to balance his passion for photography and the need to support his family, and a teenage girl who feels like the ugly duckling in the shadow of her beautiful older cousin. The movement between the characters is effortless and it is just as heart wrenching to live in the mind and heart of Meg as she tries to pick up the pieces of her broken family as it is to witness Emily wonder how she will be remembered. 

"That way of life seemed unthinkable now, antique, and yet it had been hers, was still the guide and yardstick she relied on. She wondered if the children would remember her the same way, these strange corn cakes hopelessly old fashioned.
Of course. She would be their past. Time was not a circle or a line but a kitchen, a lamp, an armchair."

Wish You Were Here is a gorgeous novel. The characters are intricate, and their relationships will make you smile in recognition and consider your own family. This is the perfect read for a lazy summer day or an endless winter evening. If tales of the connections and complications of family are your kind of reading, this is a book you don't want to miss. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: The Last Tycoon

The Last Tycoon
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Charles Scribner's Sons 1941
190 pages
From the library

The Last Tycoon (Twentieth Century Classics S.)

The Last Tycoon is F Scott Fitzgerald's final novel. It is largely unfinished, but the edition I read includes his notes detailing his plans for the rest of the story. This book is based on Fitzgerald's experiences in Hollywood and it centers around Monroe Stahr, one of the last moguls in the golden age of movies. Stahr's whole life revolves around the studio until he happens to see a woman who reminds him of the love he lost. 

Similarly to Tender Is The Night, this novel is narrated by a young woman with a fascination with our protagonist. Cecilia Brady is the daughter of another powerful producer who attempts to explain why Stahr was one of the last great producers in Hollywood. This device seems strange to some readers, but I found it a wise choice. Stahr needs to maintain some mystery and Fitzgerald achieves this by distancing him from the readers a bit. Cecilia knows and admires Stahr and we see a different version of him through her eyes than we would if he narrated his own tale. 

Fitzgerald gives us an insider's look at the inner working of the Hollywood studios of the past through both Cecilia's eyes and Monroe's. We see Stahr interact with all sorts of film people from extras to camera people to directors. While many movies depict the glamour of old Hollywood, this novel shows the loneliness of truly being invested in making art. Stahr gives everything he has to the movies, working all hours and often sleeping on the couch in his office. Through this story, Fitzgerald asks a question that plagues authors, musicians, and artists: Is it possible to commit to both your art and to another person? 

It's fascinating to read Fitzgerald's notes and look at the direction he planned to take this story and his characters. I wonder what he would have changed, had he lived to complete the novel. The chapters we do have contain intriguing characters and a flow and cohesion in his writing that is sometimes lacking in his other works.

The Last Tycoon gives readers a wonderful and terrible taste of what might have been if Fitzgerald had not died so tragically young.  In the middle chapters, it has the same magic as The Great Gatsby. Reading this book will remind you of Fitzgerald's genius and make you mourn the novels he might have written. 

For the last selection in my "reading F Scott in a year" adventure, I think I'm going to pick up a biography. Any suggestions? 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

It's Monday and my best friend is here!

Hello, there. How was your week? Ours has been busy and I am really happy because my best friend has been here visiting for the past few days. We have been friends since high school and although we live in different states now, I'm always so glad when we can fit a few days into our busy lives. This might help to explain why I am still reading the same book. It could also have something to do with the mountain of reviews I have to catch up on. Oops....

Still Reading:
Redwall (Redwall, #1)
By Brian Jacques

Posts From This Week:

Up Next:
In The Country Of Last Things
By Paul Auster

What are you reading this week? 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review: The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists
By Tom Rachman
Dial Press 2010
269 pages
From the library

The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists, the debut novel from Tom Rachman, follows the staff of an English newspaper based in the city of Rome. Each chapter focuses on one person integral to the publication of the paper - Lloyd Burko, the Paris correspondent desperate for relevance and a relationship with his son; Kathleen Solson, the editor-in-chief who discovers her husband is having an affair and contemplates one of her own; Winston Cheung, the inexperienced Cairo stringer who worries that his job has already been taken by someone more experienced; and Oliver Ott, the publisher who can never hope to fill the shoes of his grandfather who founded the newspaper. Together, these vignettes give the readers an intimate view into the everyday workings of a newspaper and the complicated lives of the employees who work there.

There is also a lot to be found on these pages about the evolution of print media. We get snippets of the Ott family history and discover how and why Cyrus Ott founded this newspaper. As time passes, Rachman shows us how the newspaper changes and how it stays the same, much to its detriment. While I don't imagine that this story is indicative of all newspapers, it does make you think about the tremendous change we have experienced as readers in just the last 50 years or so. While everyone read and trusted the newspaper in the 1950s, few people turn to print media now as their main source of news. 

While each chapter focuses on just one character, you do find small glimpses into the history and relationships of other characters. When I closed the book, I felt like I could go back and immediately read it again to find new insight into the ways that these characters impact each other, both professionally and personally. Perhaps best of all, Rachman managed to surprise me again and again with twists of plot and character I didn't see coming. When that is done the right way, it's a lovely experience for a reader. 

The characters are brilliantly constructed. Each one has a very distinct voice and personality and you will find yourself invested in their lives in spite of (or perhaps because of) their very obvious flaws. As you start to read a chapter, you may find some characters unlikable, but Rachman is very skilled at peeling back the layers to show you the humanity of each of these people. By the end of their stories, you will be intrigued by them and care for them.

The Imperfectionists is an excellent debut and it's easy to forget that it is, in fact, Mr. Rachman's first novel. He loves these broken, floundering characters so much that you can't help but do the same. When I finished this book, I had one of those rare, wonderful moments where I was sorry a book was over and so sad that there were no other books by this talented author for me to enjoy. This book is an exquisite look into our triumphs and failures as human beings. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wednesdays with David: Who Is Coming To Our House?

Who Is Coming to Our House?
By Joseph Slate
Illustrated by Ashley Wolff
G.P. Putnam's Sons 1988
Passed down to David from his Mama 

The story: The little mouse who lives in the barn tells his companions that someone is coming. They begin to clean their home and prepare for their visitors. But no one knows who will be arriving! The animals are pleased to discover that Mary and Joseph arrive at their door. They won't have just two guests for long! 

Mama opines: Alright, I did it. I pulled out a Christmas book and November just started. But in my defense, it is snowing here. Yes, you read that correctly. Last week, Hurricane Sandy and this week, we are "enjoying" a snow storm. I love this book. It's very sweet and just repetitive enough to help young readers without driving Mom or Dad crazy. I'm probably biased because this was my book as a little girl from someone very special to me, but it remains one of my favorite Christmas books to this day.

Thoughts from David: Well, I like it because it has a lot of animals and they ask who is coming to their house and they wondered who it was.
Favorite part: When the little little chick was sweeping the floor.

When do you break out the holiday books? 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

October Wrap-Up

October ended? I'm confused. The hurricane and the subsequent time away from normal routine has me all out of sorts.

But I know that it's now November and I have been reading some books, although I haven't been reviewing as many as I would have liked. So, without further ado...

Books Reviewed in October: 8
Pages Read:2423
Fiction/Non-fiction: 5/3
Female authors/male authors: 6/2
My books/library books: 5/3
Lindsey's favorite book in October: The Devoted

Books reviewed by David: 4
David's favorite book in October: Ramona the Pest 

What was your favorite book in October? 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

It's Monday and the power is back on!

Hey there, everyone. It's good to be back. I am happy to report that power was restored to our neighborhood on Thursday night. Thank you to all of the people who have been working around the clock to bring power back to the East Coast. And thank you to all of you who have been sending prayers and good thoughts our way. You are the best. 

After we got the power back, we shifted gears and have been working with our church on hosting a big spaghetti luncheon for everyone who is still without power or who cannot live in their homes right now. We are also hosting a coat and blanket drive because temperatures here are plunging quickly and without heat, it's really dangerous for a lot of people around here.

In the midst of everything, I did manage to get quite a bit of reading done. Some of it was by candlelight, which sounds novel but is more difficult than you might think! Here are the books for this week:

Read This Week:
The Last Tycoon
By F. Scott Fitzgerald

The World Is Bigger Now: An American Journalist's Release from Captivity in North Korea . . . A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness
By Euna Lee

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks

Posts from this Past Week:
It's Monday
Review of Let's Take the Long Way Home
Hey everyone, we are still here! 

Up Next:
Redwall (Redwall, #1)
By Brian Jacques

What are you reading this week and how are you doing after the storm?