Friday, December 11, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

I love Russo's writing, and his Empire Falls is one of my favorite books. But this book didn't wrap me up the way his others have. When I finished reading it, I figured out why. Russo's other books are set in towns that become as much a part of the story as any of the characters. I can see the towns as if I've lived there my entire life. And that's what's missing from this book. It is mostly set on Cape Cod, but not really in any one place. The story revolves around Griffin, his now-dead parents who still argue with him in his head, his estranged wife and their daughter, and their annual trips to Cape Cod. I liked the characters well enough, especially Griffin's caustic mother, but the book just doesn't have the spark that Russo's books usually have.

Although, the rehearsal dinner scene was one of the funniest I've ever read. Russo does have a talent for setting up absurdly funny situations.

Daphne du Maurier

I hadn't read du Maurier since high school, and twice in two weeks, someone mentioned Rebecca, so I grabbed a copy while I was at the used book store. And oh my gosh I forgot how good a book it is. Not only is the story suspenseful, it is so well written. I loved reading it so much that I went back to the store the next week and grabbed Jamaica Inn, and I loved it too. I couldn't stop reading it.

With both books, I remembered the basic plot lines, but I didn't remember the gasp-worthy shockers that both books have.

I was back at the book store last week, and I looked for more of du Maurier's novels (and show wrote a lot of them), but they didn't have any others in stock. I'm going to have to put in a request at the library.

One interesting fact, the house in Rebecca - Manderley - is based on a real estate in Cornwall called Menabilly, where du Maurier lived on and off. Du Maurier was able to rent Menabilly from the family that had owned it for generations, and she did a tremendous amount of work to restore it to its grandeur. You can find some pictures of it at

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Catching Up

I have read so many books in the last month thanks to being terribly ill. I spent so much time in bed that I got lots of reading opportunities. Instead of doing separate entries for each book, I'm going to do a quick rundown.

Otherwise Normal People - It's about the world of competitive rose growers, and it's fascinating. It's sort of Like Susan Orleans' Orchid Thief, but without the crazy guy. My only complaint is that it didn't have pictures of the roses. I ended up going to the Jackson & Perkins website to look up some of the varieties.

Mutiny on the Bounty - I've always had a fascination for tales from the high seas. Perhaps it's because I grew up in a beach town and loved sailing. Or maybe I was a seafarer in a former life. This book is a fictionalized account of the very real mutiny on the Bounty, led by Fletcher Christian against Captain Blye. And while Blye comes across as the bad guy in the book, Christian is no peach either. He sets the captain and 17 crew men adrift in an open boat with barely any food or water in the middle of the South Pacific. Amazingly, Blye and company survive and make it back to England, where they report the mutiny and send the Royal Navy after the mutineers. The Navy never gets it's hands on the mutineers, but they do round up several members of the crew who were left on the Bounty with Christian, who then put them ashore on Tahiti. The story of those crew members' return to England is worth reading all by itself.

Pitcairn Island - This is the third of the Bounty trilogy. It's about what happened to the mutineers after they set Blye adrift and abandoned other crew members on Tahiti. Fletcher Christian and 8 English sailors basically kidnapped 6 Tahitian men and 12 Tahitian women and searched through the South Pacific for an island on which to settle. They eventually found Pitcairn, where they lived for 20 years without being discovered.

Unfortunately, their life was not idyllic. There was rape and murder and alcoholism. the Tahitian men, tired of being treated like slaves and tired of having their women stolen, plotted to kill all the English men. They managed to kill a few before the English figured out what was going on and returned the favor. By the time the bloodshed was over Fletcher Christian was dead, and only four English sailors were left alive, along with several of the women. The alcoholism among the remaining men got so bad that the women built their own encampment and lived there with all the children. By the time an American sailing ship landed at the island, 20 years later, only one man was left, acting as father to all of the children who had been born.

The book fascinated me. As much as a recluse as I tend to be, I can't imagine settling on an island and then deliberately burning the only ship that could get them to the world beyond. But that's what they did, forcing themselves into complete isolation for decades.

Lost Paradise - This book pretty much ended any desire I had to visit Pitcairn Island. It's by a New Zealand journalist and chronicles the sex abuse trials on Pitcairn five years ago. It turns out that for generations, Pitcairn men had been raping girls as young as 9 and 10. Often, these girls were nieces or cousins on the men. There wasn't a family on the island that not involved in some way. The trials were a legal challenge - magistrates and attorneys had to be imported from England and New Zealand and housed on the island, among the accused and victims. Six reporters were allowed to attend, and they also had to live on the island amidst a very hostile population that was convinced the outside world was trying to paint them all in a bad light. Many of the girls and women who initially reported the rapes ended up not pressing charges or refusing to testify. The girls and women who did ended up isolated from their families and the island itself.

The book is a fascinating account about how a closed society can go so badly wrong. I'd love to get my hands on an account of the island's history during the 200 years between its discovery by the outside world and the trial. Even though I no longer have any desire to visit the island, it still fascinates me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Another reading meme

It's Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and while I'm not sure what that means exactly, there have been some fun reading-related memes floating around. I found this one on Melanie's Musings.

Do you snack while you read? If so, what snack? I usually read in bed at night, which limits the amount of snacking I do. I don't like crumbs in my sheets, so that rules out cookies, crackers and the like. But I have been known to eat candy in bed while reading. Right now, I have a bag of candy corns in my bedside table.

Hard copy or audiobooks? When I first got my iPod, I experimented with listening to audiobooks while running, but I gave it up. I'd lose track of what was going on in the story between runs, and I'd have to rewind in the hopes of catching myself back up. Hard copy books aren't as portable, but it's easier to keep track of what's going on.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Book habits

I swiped this meme from Melanie's Musings. It's right up my alley.

Hardback, trade paperback or mass market paperback? I prefer hardback, but they usually aren't in my budget so I end up paperback.

Barnes & Noble or Borders? Until 6 months ago we had a Bookstop, which was owned by Barnes and Noble, within minutes of our house, but it closed. So now I go to Bookpeople, a locally owned store, or Half-Price Books.

Bookmark or dog-ear? Dog-ear. I always lose bookmarks.

Amazon or brick-and-mortar? When I have specific books in mind, I go with Amazon. But if I'm in the mood to wander and find something new, I'll go to an actual store.

Alphabetize by author, or alphabetize by title, or random? I have a system, although my husband would argue that point. I group books by author, and then certain authors belong together. Like no way David Sedaris and Edith Wharton belong together, but David and Sarah Vowell completely do.

Keep, throw away, or sell? I keep them unless I really hate the book, then I give it to my kids' school for the annual used-book sale.

Keep dust jacket or toss it? Keep. I take them off while I read, but then they get put back on.

Short story or novel? Novels

Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket? Harry Potter. I tried Lemony Snicket and couldn't get through the first book.

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks? I read until I can't keep my eyes open.

“It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”? Either

Buy or borrow? Both. I like owning my books, but I've also discovered some great books through borrowing from friends.

Buying choice: book reviews, recommendations, or browse? All of the above.

Tidy ending or cliffhanger? Tidy

Morning reading, afternoon reading, or nighttime reading? I have four kids, so the only time I get to read is after they're in bed.

Stand-alone or series? Depends on the series.

Favorite series? Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Harry Potter, Horatio Hornblower

Favorite children’s book? Where the Wild Things Are

Favorite YA book? Anne of Green Gables, Phantom Tollbooth

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard? I have no idea

Favorite books read last year? I read too many to pick.

Favorite books of all time? They have changed through the years, but I think Age of Innocence would have to rank way up there.

What are you reading right now? Otherwise Normal People - it's about competitive rose exhibiting.

What are you reading next? I'm hoping to get my hands on Lost Paradise, about the recent sex-abuse trials on Pitcairn Island.

Favorite book to recommend to an 11-year-old? Phantom Tollbooth

Favorite book to re-read? I read Age of Innocence and A Room with a View at least once a year.

Do you ever smell books? Yes. I think I could probably identify some of my favorite books by their smell.

Do you ever read primary source documents like letters or diaries? Yes. I love reading histories and biographies, the best of which include primary sources.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My life in France

I should admit, right off the bat, that I am not a food person. Anthony Bourdain would HATE me. So much of Julia Child's memoir of her life in Paris and the beginning of her cooking career was lost on me. Her descriptions of the fabulous meals she ate and cooked meant nothing, because I cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would ever agree to eat a snail. Or pate. Or or or. The list is endless.

Despite my food issues, I found this book completely charming. Child's enthusiasm for life and cooking and her husband shine through on every page. Even though the cooking didn't interest me, I was swept along in her story and her life.

The parts of the book about actually getting her cookbooks written and published were amazing. She and her partner worked for close to 20 years on the two books, coming up with recipes, converting them for American audiences, testing and retesting everything. The amount of work that went into the books was astronomical.

She also discusses her start in television, and she seemed to just fall into it. She filmed a few shows for her local PBS station, and everything grew from there.

I haven't seen the movie Julie and Julia yet, and I'll probably wait until it comes out on Netflix, but I can't wait to see Meryl Streep channel this amazing woman.

Bridge of Sighs

I had forgotten how much I love Richard Russo's writing. I picked up this book while I was at my parents' house in July, and I couldn't put it down, so I "borrowed" it. (Hi mom!)

Russo has a knack for creating these complete little worlds populated with real people - so real that I could probably draw a map of his towns.

His characters aren't particularly happy or successful people, but I end up truly liking them and wanting to find out what happens next. As with Empire Falls, I didn't want this book to end because I wanted to stay with the people and see what happened next.

Mom just read his newest book and said it wasn't as good. I guess I'll wait for it to come through at the library, or just steal it the next time I'm at her house.

Street Gang

I heard an interview with the author on NPR, and the book sounded fascinating. I've always been a huge fan of "Sesame Street," so a book about the history of the show seemed right up my alley.

Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment. The book covers so much ground leading up to the formation of Sesame Street - bios of the people involved, a history of children's television, a long section on Captain Kangaroo - that by the time we get around to the actual show, it feels almost like an afterthought. Thirty years of Sesame Street go by in a flash.

But the section about the actual show did confirm what I have long suspected - that the show is now driven by market research and polling. I watch it with my kids, and the new shows seem to have lost much of their anarchic whimsy that I loved as a kid. Plus, Elmo has completely taken over the place.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

I grabbed this while I was at my parents' house. It's about a modern-day woman who lives in Los Angeles waking up one morning to find herself in Regency England living a life straight out of a Jane Austen book. At first, she thinks it's a dream because she fell asleep the night before while reading Sense and Sensibility, but as the days go on and she doesn't wake up from the dream and starts having memories that belong to this other woman, she starts to question more and more what is going on. And the book never really makes it clear what has happened - whether it's a dream or she has magically switched lives or what, and that's fine.

The interesting part of the book, which is at best a fluffy airplane read, was the culture clash of putting a 21st Century woman into Regency England and having her cope with chamber pots and limited bathing and need chaperones to go on walks and sleeping in disgusting road-side inns. Oh and having to be bled to "cure" her of her perceived illnesses.

Through all of this is a love story, that's supposed to be along the lines of Darcy and Eliza, but it isn't. It's formulaic, but it's still fun.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I'd heard a lot of chatter about the book, and my sister had read it, so when I saw it at the bookstore, I couldn't help but grab it.

And it was just OK. I wasn't expecting great literature, but somehow I thought it would have a little more to it. Once you get past the gimmick of mixing zombies into the world of Jane Austen, the book doesn't really work that well. The author uses a lot of the original text, but then he changes bit and pieces here and there for no real reason other than he can. It's like watching a movie of your favorite book and having the actors say the wrong lines - it's jarring.

Plus, the author assumes that everyone reading already knows how P&P ends, so he puts in little hints about Eliza and Darcy and has them say things that are completely out of character, zombie killers or otherwise.

It's a good airplane book, but that's about it.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

I saw this book on display while at the bookstore with a friend a few weeks ago, and I snatched it up. I LOVED this book when I was about Ella's age, and I bought it hoping she would, too. But before I handed it over to her, I re-read it.

I still love the book, although the mystery of the statue plays a much smaller role in the story than I had remembered.

When I was nine, the idea of running away from home and living in a museum really appealed to me, and it still does. I'd love to spend a night or six living someplace so grand and filled with treasures, whether it's a museum or Hearst Castle.

I've given the book to Ella, but she hasn't started it yet. My sister bought her Holes, and she's been busy reading that. Perhaps I'll start reading this book to Lily in the meantime.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


I still think Malcolm Gladwell is a genius, even though I didn't like this book as much as I have his others.

The whole premise of the book is that smarts and talent alone aren't enough to guarantee success - a measure of good luck and being born at the right time in the right place comes into it.

Gladwell profiles a number of highly successful people and looks at what how they got where they are. For most, including Bill Gates, it was something like having access to a computer lab at a time when such a thing was a luxury. If Bill Gates hadn't gone to a private school that installed a computer lab and hadn't been able to work at the lab at the University of Washington, Microsoft might never have come into being.

To prove his point, Gladwell also profiles a man who has one of the highest IQ scores ever recorded, and shows how the hasn't "succeeded" in life because he didn't have the same types of opportunities that others have had.

I found the book strangely depressing, and I can't quite put my finger on why.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Know-it-All

I read A.J. Jacob's book The Year of Living Biblically, and I loved it. So I finally remembered to put in a request for this book at the library. And, again, I loved the book.

The book chronicles Jacobs' task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover, a feat his father attempted and failed at. Jacobs, however, makes it. In the book, Jacobs does a good job of including fun facts he's learned and incorporating them into his life. He also writes about his trip to the EB publishers and his not-so-good attempt at editing an entry.

I love trivia and details and facts. My brain absorbs them without my even trying or realizing that I'm doing it. So there were many times while reading the book that I thought, "I want to do this!" But then I'd read about the sacrifices Jacobs made to complete this task, which took more than a year, and how gruelling reading could be, and I'd change my mind.

Maybe it would be better if I skim the EB instead.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Killing Dragons

I was wandering through Half-Price Books in a haze one afternoon when I came across this book, by Fergus Fleming. It's an account of the earliest days of mountain climbing, which started in the Alps.

Prior to the invasion by British adventurers, in the late 1800s, the Alps were pretty much ignored by those who lived in their shadows. People who lived near them actually believed that the mountain caves were inhabited by dragons and other mythic creatures.

When the climbers first started ascending the mountains, they had no specialized climbing gear, no ropes, no fancy shoes, but they did carry barometers and thermometers to take readings at the top of the mountains. Mountaineering wasn't seen as a legitimate pursuit unless it was for scientific purposes. The mountaineers also traveled with large groups of porters who carried their tents and hammocks and wine.

Through the years, climbing became more of a sport, and teams of climbers competed, sometimes in cut-throat ways, to see who could bag the most peaks.

I'm an armchair mountain climber, and I was fascinated by the book. I'd love to go to the Alps, not to climb them, but to at least look at them.