Monday, January 28, 2008

Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers


I confess that trying to choose books for the decades list has been overwhelming, so I've had to take a step back to mentally regroup. As usual, that mental regrouping has led to rereading some old favorites to cleanse my palate so to speak. Let me go on the record as a lover of mysteries, especially British mysteries of a certain era. With odd exceptions (P.D. James, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George), I dislike modern mysteries- too much blood, too much violence, too much cursing, too little plotting- but the old standbys are always worth a reread, even when I know all too well whodunit.

I've been reading Agatha Christie since elementary school, and have an admittedly troubling affection for Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. When I had worked my way through everything Christie had to offer, a helpful librarian recommended Dorothy Sayers as another writer along the same lines. I read one of Sayers' Wimsey novels (can't remember which one) and found it almost incomprehensible, it was certainly nothing at all like those Christie books I loved. With all the smug wisdom of a 13 year old, I wrote off "that Sayers woman", and happily embraced another recommendation (Ngaio Marsh who thankfully wrote another long series of Christie-like mysteries).

Flash forward some 10 or 15 years, and I picked up a Sayers novel at my local library sale- for $0.50 a book, I'll grab almost anything that looks vaguely readable to give it a try. I sped through Strong Poison and was hooked- it turns out "that Sayers woman" is a genius. I set to work acquiring the whole set, and was truly crushed that there weren't more available. I remain convinced that there were many more Peter Wimsey stories that could have been told.

Many people criticize Sayers for making Wimsey too eccentric and simultaneously too perfect, but I've never been bothered by his affectations when reading. Harriet Vane has a story that closely mimics that of Sayers herself (minus the murder charge of course) but I only learned that by reading Wikipedia, and Harriet remains a favorite character for me. The romance between Peter and Harriet spans four books (Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman's Honeymoon) and I have to admit these are my top four of the Wimsey novels. Gaudy Night is especially notable for its detailed picture of Oxford life, and its focus on Harriet and women at Oxford rather than on Peter or on a murder (the more usual fare).

I find Sayers' writing exceptional, her references to classics educational, and her character explorations inspirational. If you like mysteries, or maybe even just a good love story with a few bodies thrown in, I highly recommend any of the four novels highlighted up above (but start with Strong Poison if you're a person who wants the story to unfold in order). The passages in Busman's Honeymoon about marriage and expectations are some of the most interesting relationship assessments I've ever read, and certainly make me stop and think even more now that I'm married and working through some of the same questions.

Other reviews (per Weekly Geeks):
A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

Monday, January 21, 2008

Decades '08


Inspired by MellaDP, I've decided to participate in the Decades '08 challenge. I'm working on a booklist- stay tuned for more details...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Watch out for those Scots!

Scottish? English? Library Thinks Twice
By Mike Wade
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; Page C05


The stroke of a pen at the Library of Congress -- which rebranded 700 years of Scottish literary tradition as "English literature" -- has in recent weeks generated a spluttering uproar here. And last week, faced with Celtic fury, the American institution made an undignified U-turn.

Full article can be found here.

My sister who spent a year studying creative writing and poety at the University of St. Andrews is no doubt celebrating this reversal as well. Knowing how fiercely proud the Scots are, I can't imagine how the LoC thought it would get away with rebranding all Scottish literature as English. I don't know the reasons behind the original decision to change, but do believe the change was wrong, that it confused rather than clarified as I hope the LoC intended. The rich history of Scottish writing does stand apart in style and tone and language, and should not simply be blended into the larger body of English literature to make cataloging easier. Kudos to the Scots for fighting and winning this battle!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

The Runaway Jury is one of those old favorites that I do actually reread periodically. I find it hard to review a book like this because I do know the plot and the characters so well that it is impossible to recapture the sense of suspense and mystery that I know I experienced the first time I read it. Nevertheless, the fact that I still enjoy reading this book even without the mystery is a testament to the quality of this Grisham novel. I like the plot and the characters, and still appreciate the dry humor that permeates the novel.

Tracking the course of a civil trial against Big Tobacco, and detailing the lengths both sides will go to to secure a victory, The Runaway Jury is one of Grisham's fast-paced legal dramas. This book is probably the last Grisham book that I bought and enjoyed, and I've read it more than any of the others (except A Time to Kill). After scheming for years to make it onto the jury of a tobacco trail, Nicholas and his partner Marlee finally succeed in placing themselves squarely in the middle of a pitched battle about tobacco and product liability. As Nicholas works to gain control of the jury, Marlee works on both plaintiff and defendent, offering victory to both sides (for a high price). The twist at the end is enjoyable, and despite the fact that Nicholas and Marlee are working to undermine our entire legal system, you can't help but like them and support them in their efforts.

I picked up The Runaway Jury a few days ago when reshelving books, and decided to give it another whirl. It is an enjoyable light read that helps to cleanse the palette after more serious or depressing fare. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend The Runaway Jury.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read Eat, Pray, Love several months ago for book club, and I have to say I was horribly disappointed. I know this is a terribly unpopular opinion, but I could not stand this book. Obviously this book spoke to a lot of people, but it truly is beyond my comprehension. Despite a great title and a decent premise, I found the the book both disappointing and aggravating from beginning to end. To me, the author came across as self-absorbed and irritating, and her 'insights' into the people she met and the places she went were shallow and annoying. The endless reflection on the horror of a marriage that didn't seem that horrible to me, and the quest for spirituality that had Gilbert chatting with God in India made finishing this book a torment.

Finding out that Gilbert got the book advance before heading out on her journey made total sense to me; I definitely felt the trip fit into the book proposal rather than the other way around. The fact that Gilbert's giant spiritual journey to learn how to be alone ends with her pairing up with a Brazilian expat was the final straw; I certainly don't believe she grew or learned anything at all about herself on this quest. On Amazon, I recommended getting this book from the library because I was seriously annoyed that I helped fund this venture by spending money on this drivel.

We read Eat, Pray, Love in book club because one of our members had just returned from her honeymoon where she read and fell in love with this book. I suppose that the honeymoon glow might have impacted her decision- goodness knows I love the movie Dodgeball because I saw it on my honeymoon. Nevertheless, no one else in my group liked this book (though no one else was as virulent in their hatred as was I). It is clear to me that I'm in the minority, that most readers love this book and the message it sends, but for the life of me I can't figure out why. If you read this one, and loved it, can you please share your reasons? Can you help me try to understand this phenomenon?

Other reviews (per Weekly Geeks):
The 3 R's

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

I picked up this book in the English language section of the bookstore in the Athens airport back in November on my whirlwind tour through Eastern Europe. I'm a sucker for airport bookstores- I always stock up on the off chance that I'm stranded for some long period of time and run out of things to read. I never do run out of English books because I stock up before I leave, but that never seems to stop me from shelling out a ridiculous number of Euros to be sure...

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the haunting tale of a stolen life. Locked up decades ago for such outlandish behavior as dancing, Esme Lennox is finally released when the asylum in which she has been living is shut down. Esme is thrust into the care of her grand-niece Iris, a modern young women whose struggle to overcome her "unnatural" love for her step-brother gives her more in common with Esme than either could imagine. As Iris tries to unravel the mystery of Esme's existence, she learns more (though ultimately not enough) about her hidden family history, information she never obtained from her Alzheimers-suffering grandmother Kitty. The shocking ending packs a powerful punch, and leaves an indelible mark on the reader.

This remarkable novel tells the sad tale of the fate that awaited women who didn't fit society's mold not all that many years ago. Marked, and then punished, by events beyond her control, Esme was locked up at 16 and lived in a virtual prison for her entire life. Iris is also living a life constrained by society's expectations, denying her love of her stepbrother yet unable to form a strong connection with anyone else. The parallel stories highlight the similarities between these two women, but offer hope that Iris will be able to break free in a way Esme never could.

From beginning to end this book made me both sad and angry, and maintaining that level of intense negative feeling was draining to say the least. Though the ending was like a punch in the gut, I applaud the author's ability to stay true to the tone of the novel (though I might have wished for a happier ending). I also wouldn't have minded another chapter to fill in at the end, but suspect that would have diluted the power of the narrative. I highly recommend reading this book, but not if you're already having a bad day!

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I thoroughly enjoyed this month's book club selection, The Book Thief, a novel I'm afraid a lot of people are missing because it was marketed as a Young Adult book here in the U.S.

Set near Munich during WWII, this novel tells the story of a young German girl living with a foster family and trying to cope with the daily realities of the war. She exerts a measure of control over her life by stealing books even though she is illiterate when her story begins. Though marketed as a teen book, I think The Book Thief far transcends that limited label. The message, the sensitivity of the subject matter, and the stunning prose mark this as a powerful novel of the Holocaust. This book is by turns gritty and ugly and redemptive, but is it always real and always gripping.

Populated with strange and wonderful characters, the story itself is narrated by Death, whose reflections lend even greater poignancy to the sad tale that slowly and artfully unfolds through the novel. Death often offers commentary on both the life of the Book Thief and on the war itself in a voice that sent chills down my spine:

An abridged roll call for 1942:
1. The desperate Jews- their spirits on my lap as we sat on the roof, next to the steaming chimneys.
2. The Russian soldiers- taking only small amounts of ammunition, relying on the fallen for the rest of it.
3. The soaked bodies of a French coast- beached on the shingle and sand.

Death views war as a harsh taskmaster, and marvels that humans have so perfected the means for mass killing. While Liesel's story focuses on the realities of the war from a personal perspective, Death's commentary keeps the big picture in focus, and reminds the reader of the context of the tale. I would highly recommend this book to any adult reader, and would love to know if any of you have read it?

Other Reviews (per Weekly Geeks):
A Striped Armchair
Historical Tapestry
Clare Swindlehurst
Passion for the Page
Dewey at Weekly Geeks

Book Reviews 2010

June 2010 (2)
Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

May 2010 (7)
The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell
A Soft Place to Land by Susan Rebecca White
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
Breaking the Bank by Yona Zeldis McDonough
A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

April 2010 (6)
The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran
Greyhound by Steffan Piper
Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler
Half Life by Roopa Farooki
The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield

March 2010 (6)
The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
Waking Up in the Land of Glitter by Kathy Cano-Murillo
And Then Came the Evening by Brian Hart
For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose
The California Roll by John Vorhaus
The Bride Collector by Ted Dekker

February 2010 (5)
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian
Never Tell Our Business to Strangers by Jennifer Mascia
Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School: We the Children by Andrew Clements
Weekends at Bellevue by Julie Holland

January 2010 (7)
Knit, Purl, Die by Anne Canadeo
Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers
Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
When Skateboards Will Be Free by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
Saving Cicadas by Nicole Seitz

Book Reviews 2009

97 books reviewed in 2009

December 2009 (12)
The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan
True Colors by Kristin Hannah
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill Alexander
The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah
Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

November 2009 (4)
After You by Julie Buxbaum
The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathie Marie Buchanan
The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson
The Imposter's Daughter by Laurie Sandell

October 2009 (6)
Everyone She Loved by Sheila Curran
William S and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf
The Promised World by Lisa Tucker
Secrets She Left Behind by Diane Chamberlain

September 2009 (7)
This One is Mine by Maria Semple
A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve
The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson
The Tory Widow by Christine Blevins
Unholy Business by Nina Burleigh
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen

August 2009 (5)
The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley
Summer of Two Wishes by Julia London
Trouble by Kate Christensen
Damas, Drama and Ana Ruiz by Belinda Acosta
Idea of Love by Louise Dean

July 2009 (7)
Ravens by George Dawes Green
I Can See You by Karen Rose
The Chocolate Lover's Club by Carole Matthews
The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand
Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles
Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood
Knight of Desire by Margaret Mallory

June 2009 (7)
Gifts of War by Mackenzie Ford
Hollywood is Like High School with Money by Zoey Dean
The Lost Chalice by Vernon Silver
Escape Under the Forever Sky by Eve Yohalem
Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn
Mercury in Retrograde by Paula Froelich
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

May 2009 (14)
East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
Mating Rituals of the North American WASP by Lauren Lipton
Mrs. Perfect by Jane Porter
Bella by Anne & Edward Syfret
A Hint of Wicked by Jennifer Haymore
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Perfection by Julie Metz
Palace Circle by Rebecca Dean
Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino
Soft Spots by Clint Van Winkle
The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato
The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams
Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
One Deadly Sin by Annie Solomon

April 2009 (10)
The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips
Flirting with Forty by Jane Porter
Darling Jim by Christian Moerk
The Believers by Zoe Heller
The Sweetness as the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide
Harlot's Sauce by Patricia Volonakis Davis
Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Deadlock by Iris Johansen

March 2009 (5)
How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson
The Mischief Maker's Manual by Sir John Hargraves
The Towering World of Jimmy Choo by Laura Golstein Crowe and Sagra Maceira DeRosen
Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling
King of the Screwups by K.L. Going

February 2009 (9)
All That I Have by Castle Freeman Jr.
A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith-Rakoff
The Error World: An Affair with Stamps by Simon Garfield
Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
Sima's Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross
Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling
Age Before Beauty by Virginia Smith
The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

January 2009 (11)
The Leisure Seeker Michael Zadoorian
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
The Laments by George Hagen
A Thousand Veils by D.J. Murphy
Going to See the Elephant by Rodes Fishburne
Never Tell a Lie by Hallie Ephron
Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth
The King's Rose by Alisa M. Libby

Book Reviews 2008

December 2008
The Last Stand of Fox Company by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
The Irish Americans: A History by Jay P. Dolan
Santa Responds by Santa Claus
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain by Kirsten Menger-Anderson
Moon Shines Down Margaret Wise Brown

November 2008
Dogfish by Gillian Shields
Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson
Any Given Doomsday by Lori Handeland
Freakin' Fabulous by Clinton Kelly
The Twins of Tribeca by Rachel Pine
Die, Decorator, Die by Franklin H. Levy

October 2008
Dewey: The Small-Town Cat Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
My Father's Paradise by Ariel Sabar
Where Is Home, Little Pip? by Karma Wilson
Sarah's Key by Tatiana Rosnay
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

September 2008
Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau
Because She Can by Bridie Clark

August 2008
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica
Tall Pines Polka by Lorna Landvik

July 2008
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
The Diplomat's Wife by Pam Jenoff

May 2008
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

April 2008
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
A Singular Hostage by Thalassa Ali

March 2008
The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

February 2008
Accidental Mother by Rowan Coleman

January 2008
Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers
The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Suddenly I've got TWO blogs?!?!?!

I've been thinking about Creativity Resolutions, and about my desire to write more, especially about what I read, and so this new blog was born. No matter where I travel, no matter where I live, books have always been a central unifying theme. My last packout from Bosnia included an ungodly number of book boxes- I probably shipped back around 1300 books! I've never been a person who gave away books; I jealously guard them and generally hate to lend them out as I fear I'll never get them back. Though I spent many happy hours in the library as a child, I've fallen out of the habit as an adult because I hate to give the books back. I've even spent time tracking down old favorites from those childhood trips that are now out of print so that I can have them in my collection- thank goodness for ebay and!

That said, I did clear out about 200 books last year as part of my Apartment Therapy cure and the process was cathartic. Recently I've been looking at my shelves again and thinking it is about time for another donation to my local library's used book sale because I'm running out of shelf space again. For me, letting go became easier when I discovered software that allows me to maintain a complete record of the donated books just in case I ever need to reread them in the future.

In honor of my books, and in appreciation of the countless hours of pleasure they have given me, I've decided to blog about them- the ones I loved, the ones I hated, the ones that made me think or laugh or scream or cry. I'll be reviewing new additions as well as old favorites, and I welcome your thoughts/opinions/comments/refutations as you see fit.