Sunday, October 24, 2010

MONSTER OF FLORENCE – Douglas Preston & Mario Spezi



The Jay County Public Library book group met to discuss this book last Monday. (Sigh) I took so long to stew about the meeting that now I'm not sure what I want to say.

This piece of nonfiction is a fascinating narrative of two men, an America author newly living in Florence and a noted and respected Italian journalist, who investigated a series of cold-blooded murders in the hills around Florence, Italy. In the process of their investigations the Italian was arrested for the crimes and the journalist had to flee back to America to avoid the same fate.

But that didn't end the friends' investigations and this book is the product. Preston and Spezi had been on TV in a special by Stone Phillips and that is what prodded me into reading their book. The story of their trials and difficulties with Italian authorities and the strange justice system is as engrossing as the stories of the murders. I couldn't wait to finish it to see how the book got completed and if they ever found out who the killer was.

The murders had begun in 1968 and continued well into the 1980s with many people being investigated but no hope of any real closure. The crimes were perpetrated always against young lovers and the bodies were terribly mutilated.

As the reader you delve into more than just the murder investigation. Generations of secrecy and taking care of ones own, misuse of the justice system, incompetent authorities, sub-cultural mores, and ideas about social strata are all examined. I was shocked to find out how different the laws are in Italy and on what little evidence one can be arrested and even convicted. Several people were in fact convicted only later to be found innocent!

I read this a few years ago with my Monroe adult group and that discussion was animated, lively, and so much fun. The hosts of the discussion had brought maps, copies of news articles and transcripts from the Stone Phillips interviews. Most of us if not all were equally entranced with this book.

Alas, The JCPL group did not feel the same. Maybe two or three of us were glad we read it. The rest either didn't like it at all or didn't even read it. Anyway, that so disappointed me. I am thinking that the JCPL group likes to read “shallow” or in other words they don't want to read anything that is disturbing, that they have to really dissect or think deeply about, or anything that questions their values or ideals. Also, many of them won't read anything that has “ugliness” like death, or persecution which leaves out holocaust material, books where the people struggle with abuse, poverty, etc, and any book about current war issues. They love to read what they refer to as “sweet,” “beautiful,” or “warm.” Now, that is not a bad thing. There are a lot of people like that and they read what makes them happy, and once in a while I like that too. However, that is not what I want to do steadily. I want to feel, really feel, and think, wonder, predict, be shocked, surprised, etc. especially when reading a book that will have a discussion. I don't always have to like a book to finish it, or see value in the discussion. I must the oddest of oddball readers?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY - Audrey Niffenegger

I was entranced with this book from the moment I picked it up: the intriguing cover; the dark and brooding cemetery pictures; even the spooky font of the chapter titles served to fuel my anticipation. Hooked from the first line, “Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup,” and the rest of that first page which contained memories of smells and conversation, and the dying woman calling to her much younger and doting lover who doesn't get there in time to hear her. (sigh)

If you are in the mood for a bit of noir with mystery and romance revolving around a cemetery in London this book is for you. Elspeth, the dying woman bequeaths her flat and most of her possessions to the 21-year-old American twin daughters of her own estranged twin sister. Julia and Valentina must live in the flat for one year before they are allowed to sell it and their parents are not allowed to enter it at any time. Elspeth willed Robert her diaries so the secret as to why she and her sister were estranged resides in his flat, in boxes, unread.

The tiny elfish and pale girls arrive and take up with Elspeth's neighbors, friends and her lover, Robert. Robert is a fascinating character. He is lost without Elspeth and can't seem to get focused. He is working on his master's thesis while serving as an historic guide for Highgate Cemetery. I must confess I see him as Johnny Depp-ish as he works through his grief, tries to keep poor Martin the reclusive OCD victim upstairs in one piece, and help the twins navigate London.

Let us not forget that this is a ghost story. She is residing in the flat with the twins practicing her haunting and getting stronger each day, along with the stray kitten the girls lure into their home. There are many subplots and twisting turns to this book and I loved them all. The reviews weren't all kind when this book hit the stands, but I tend to like what other (and often more educated people) do not. I liked the characters, the complicated plots, the engaging language and even the creepiness.

The adult Literati group at Adams Central has picked this title for our October read and since my friend Al and I are the hosts I wanted to read it in enough time to plan my props and refreshments for the meeting. Absolutely made me half-angry to put it down every day to go to work! I think I am going to serve tea, digestives, and sandwiches but may be not prawn-mayonnaise.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

SOUTH OF BROAD - Pat Conroy

Last evening for Adams Central Adult Literati we discussed this title. I must say it went very well. My only regret is that we had new members and they were not prepared for the content. When we met in the summer to choose our titles we probably didn't make it clear that sometimes in our literati world we do have salty language and mature content as well. Their problem was mostly with the flying "f" word and violence. 

Getting past that, we had a very involved and positive discussion for which 15 of our 23 members attended. For group a few years ago we read Conroy's autobiographical book, The Water is Wide. Many others of us had read Prince of Tides and Beach Music also.  Therefore we were prepared for lyric text, complicated characterization, and lively intricate plot. We were not disappointed. I have to say it is a really great read. 

Newspaper columnist Leopold Bloom King narrates this saga of Charleston, South Carolina. As the reader you follow Leo from the late '60s after his brother (the family golden child) commits suicide through 1989 right after Hurricane Hugo. During his senior year in high school Leo’s circle of friends become a strange conglomerate of Charleston aristocracy; Appalachian orphans; a black football coach's son; and an astonishingly beautiful pair of twins.  Early on it is made known that the twins, Sheba and Trevor Poe and their alcoholic mother are evading their psychotic father. 

The book then alternates between 1969-1970 high school stories and 1989 when the friends are once again banded together to find Trevor who is purported to be dying of aids somewhere in San Francisco.   The high school chapters are full of social, sexual, and racial escapades including the romances and struggles of all the friends, (who incidentally end up with each other which may or may not stretch your believability) along with the major development of Leo’s character. The 1989 chapters are full of intense scenes of adults re-bonding, inspecting where their life has taken them, and dealing with scary violent situations foisted upon them when the twin’s psychotic father reappears.  

In my humble opinion the character development is phenomenal. Some of the high school chapters come together a little too easily or pat to suit my taste but never-the-less they served to move the plot along. One reviewer I read said, “Fans of Conroy's florid prose and earnest melodramas are in for a treat.” A real treat it is. One of our members said, “Usually I don’t like stories that have so many wordy words, but I really liked this one.” By “wordy words” I think he is referring to the reviewers “florid prose” as mentioned above. I know that can be annoying sometimes.

Once I picked it up I didn’t want to put it down.  Romance, rivalry, murder, danger, warmth, religious issues, it has it all, and “wordy words” too for language lovers everywhere. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE – Barbara Kingsolver

Monday was Jay County Public Library book group and this was our chosen title. Pretty good show this time! There were nine of us and discussion went pretty well. Most of us had read Kingsolver's novels and they are delightful. Many of us agreed that our favorite of her novels was The Poisonwood Bible. Animal, Vegetable however, is a work of nonfiction. It chronicles one complete year for the Kingsolver family after they move from Arizona to Virginia to live upon only locally grown food. It is a book to make you think about your food and what the complete cost of every morsel is.

I don't think there is an issue that isn't examined when it comes to food production. She tackles corporate farming, CAFOs, processed foods, pesticides and hormones in farming, transportation of foodstuffs, exotic imports, farm subsidies, taxes to support the food industry, vegetarianism and much more.

This is truly a thought-provoking work. I spent many hours in hmmmm mode thinking about chapters and ideas. She definitely made me think about how much meat we eat. By the time I finished the chapter on carnivory I felt better though. She had many statistics on the price of eating only vegetables when you add up the cost of fossil fuels used to get it to you, the resources depleted growing it in hostile environs, the packaging etc. While it is a known fact that Americans need to eat less meat, it isn't actually helping the unprivileged in any way to do so like so many try to tell us. According to Kingsolver anyway.

Her style is as usual engaging with delightful storytelling and a rich vocabulary. Her family is intelligent, dedicated to each other and to their experiment. I believe the author's aim is to make us more aware of our food and our impact on our world by what we choose to consume. Also she would like us all to get better in touch with our environment including our neighbors in order to be productive and helpful. Their year was filled with a lot of joy, much learning, and some travail. Overall, it was a very good read for nonfiction which isn't my usual fare.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

THE THIN PLACE - Kathryn Davis

I actually picked this short novel up last summer and kept looking at it all year but other titles kept getting in my way. I was intrigued with the cover for one thing (I tell my students not to do that – pick a book by its cover) and then the idea of a story about a small closely knit town of church goers piqued my interest.

After spending a good part of yesterday sitting on my porch swing with this book I am a bit aggravated to realize I have no idea who the strange looking people on the cover are supposed to be! What is the deal? Now I want to talk to the cover artist or the publisher because I want to know why there are no recognizable characters depicted. Oh well. It is actually an extraordinary read and quite peculiar. Not really like anything I have read before.


The book is set in a small town named Varennes which is apparently close to the Canadian border. There are three preteen girls who have been best friends since kindergarten. It begins when these three girls come upon a seemingly dead Mr. Banner on the beach. While two girls go for help Mees Kipp stays with him. As she sits with him the reader realizes that Mees has some kind of spiritual powers and she revives him. All the while the other two girls are dealing with trying to get help from other neighbors and the reader learns that Lorne is a slightly pudgy child forever looking for stability and acceptance. Sunny is the pretty one, the good one, the boss of all.

 

After that introduction the point-of-view jumps among various characters even the neighborhood animals. Also the narrative is not always in the same form. Sometimes it is in the form of a police blotter, a letter to a friend, or a diary entry. But the reader starts to feel the lives connect and to feel the thin place where the miraculous may slip through.

Don't be mislead, this is not a sweet syrupy story of finding religion. The reader is privy also to the hidden lives of the community members and of course there is plenty of deceit, lust, manipulation, and meanness. All along also one character is reading a piece of Varennes history as she rebinds the journal of a late 19th-century schoolmarm who apparently had a secret romance and was responsible for the drowning of many of her pupils in what has become known as the Sunday School Outing Disaster.

 

My favorite character is Helen Zeebrugge. At 92 she resides at the Crockett Home for the Aged and is always angry at what she sees as the ineptitude and condescension of her caretakers. She is a spunky old gal and all the chapters she is in are so good. Her son, Piet, is obsessed with exercise, looking young and finding his fifth wife. He is irritating but he does look out for Helen.
 

There is an interesting high school French teacher and a new-to-town book binder. One chapter includes the escapades of the neighborhood dogs running at night replete with all the canine thoughts and insights. Finally there is much excitement in church one Sunday when criminals break in and the newly installed security system fails, so to speak.

LETHAL LEGACY - Linda Fairstein

My friend Ingrid gave me this book at last Monday's Public Library Book Club. She knew I would like it as it is a mystery about rare books, maps and the NYC Public Library. I loved everything about the NYC library and visited it 3 times during the time our kids lived there. Anyway, it took me all week to finish it because I was so busy and dratted things kept getting in my way. Therefore even though I took it everywhere I went all week I didn't finish it until this afternoon.
 

Assistant district attorney, Alexandra Cooper is called to an apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan to an investigation. At the scene the neighbor of Tina Barr is sure the young woman has been the victim of an assault. However, Tina who is a noted conservator of rare books and maps will not cooperate with the authorities. A few days later in the very same apartment another young woman is bludgeoned to death and Alex is once again called in. The dead woman is clutching a very rare book and is dressed in the clothes of noted heiress Minerva Hunt who appears upon the scene to identify the victim as her employee. A few days later while she is working on a conservation project in the library Tina Barr is murdered and her body dumped in Central Park. So the plot thickens including mysterious messages found on the corpses, a dropped key, a hidden cemetery in the city, a noted wealthy family fighting over rare family owned books and maps, and missing pieces of the oldest map in the world.
 

Alex hooks up with her two friends on the NYC police department and the intrigue unfolds. What I really liked about the book, being a bibliophile myself, was all the interweaving of the workings of the NYCPL including how acquisition and deaccession of legacy donations is handled, the details about how conservators work, and also the history of the best-known New York collectors of rare books and maps.
 

I got a little bogged down with the minutia of police procedure and lingo but then again that happens to me often when I read a police thriller. It was fun and kept my attention. Here is my favorite quotation from page 302
           "“Now how do you know that?” Mike asked, patting her  on the back. “I've got a library card, Mr. Chapman. It serves me well.”"

Ah, yes. Libraries have always served me well and I hope they do the same for you my friends.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH - Allison Bartlett

My youngest son is a bibliophile so I thought he might enjoy this piece of nonfiction and purchased it for him for Christmas. Apparently it didn't impress him as it remained at my house so I picked it up one day a few weeks ago. I myself read mostly fiction but I try to get in a nonfiction or two once in a while. This one is perfect for me as it reads much like a fiction book and I couldn't put it down.

This true story of a bibliokleptomaniac (a person who steals books not for profit but for love of them and who simply “must” have them) is really about one man's obsession for rare books and another's obsession to catch him stealing them.

John Gilkey, who had a very unconventional upbringing in a family where thievery was commonplace, grew up to be a narcissistic thief of rare books. In San Francisco Gilkey used his job at Saks Fifth Avenue to steal credit card information that he later used in a very successful scheme to acquire rare books from all over the world.

In Bartlett's interviews he appeared to have no remorse. His claim was that it is unfair that the the books he wants are priced so that he cannot afford them. While feeling strongly that he is entitled to them it follows, in his mind, that he is justified in simply taking them. He remains therefore by his judgment guilt-free as he was only doing what he “had to do.”

The other major character in Bartlett's book is Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer who has been a victim of Gilkey and has turned detective determined to catch him. By interviewing and then following Sanders on his investigative travels Bartlett opens up to the reader the inner workings of the rare book collecting world. Much is revealed about how a book acquires the status of “rare” and what kinds of people pursue the ownership of them. Beyond just recognizing rareness in the book world there is a whole psychology to collecting that Bartlett gives some insight into.

As of the publishing of this book in 2009 the Gilkey story is still evolving as the author revealed in her afterword. Gilkey is still stealing and learning new ways to do so. As a sociopath he is a very interesting character. By the end of her investigation Bartlett realized that he is not only trying to create a collection that is to be admired but is also trying to refashion his own persona into a kind of “gentleman” that others should look up to. How strange. For my most recent nonfiction adventure it was well worth the travel into the world of rare book collecting and also into the world of a strange kind of sociopath.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE - Diane Ackerman

It's 6 in the morning and I have been up since 2:00 with a tummy ache and worry over my sick cat so I finally told myself to post about this book. I have been avoiding it for a month. The reason being that I have read it for two book discussion groups and was waiting until the second meeting to avoid posting twice. But after the second meeting I was a little miffed and so avoided thinking about it. But I digress.
 

My adult Literati group in Monroe, Indiana had been so anticipating reading this selection since last summer when we chose it. We like to pick one or two nonfiction per year to read and member of our group so liked Zookeeper that we could hardly wait to get to it. We finished off our school year with this book in May. We totally enjoyed it.

It is a remarkable true story about Jan and Antonina Zabinski who were the directors and operators of the Warsaw Zoo before during and after the WW II German occupation of Poland. Of course since the book is about the Warsaw ghetto and persecution of Polish Jews a reader knows there will be stories of heartache and loss within. But that is not the book's focus. It is the uplifting and heartwarming story of how the zookeepers spirit Jews out of the ghetto, protect, and feed them in the zoo and then send them on in the underground to safety. All the while they continue to take care of the remaining animals after the Nazi's kill most of the bigger ones and the wild ones they feel might be a threat if left loose. The Monroe Literati members had a good time doing some research about the Zabinski's and other people mentioned and finding out what happened to them after the war. We found later pictures of them and read about the honors they acquired in Israel for their work. In all there were 300 people that they helped to survive the war.

Of course the Zabinskis didn't work alone and there are plenty of stories here to enjoy about how they and other influential Polish people conspired right under the noses of the Nazis to take care of their neighbors. The lessons about how to appear Aryan given to the residents and the story about the extensive bug collection that survived and today resides as an important exhibit in a Polish museum were awe inspiring. I learned so much I didn't know about the Nazi machine also. For instance there is some explanation of the narcotics used to keep the German soldiers aggressive and a bit of their ideas about eugenics and reverse evolution by breeding.

The complicated procedures and signals the zoo residents used while sheltering Jews consisted of using music (a specific piece was played on the piano with gusto to signal Nazis being near) and coded phrases (when Rhys is sent to “feed the lizards” he is actually going to that section of the zoo but taking food to refugees) revealing the elements of both danger and humor in the book.

The hosts for this discussion decorated the tables with animals, WWII artifacts, and books about the Polish occupation including articles about the Zabinskis.

Alas, I was so excited to go to discussion with my public library group in June thinking we would also have a good time with this title but the reviews from that group were negative. Most did not like it and some didn't bother to read it saying someone told them they wouldn't like it. And so it goes. But that depressed me. So finally I am getting around to giving my $.02.

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY - Annie Barrows

Jay County Public Library Book Club met tonight to discuss this selection. I believe we all agreed that it was delightful and we had a good time with it. Eight of us presented ourselves which is a good turnout for this group anymore.

The format of the book is in correspondence between a popular British author/essayist and some of her friends, fans, and her publisher following WW II. When the book begins Juliet is living in London and is recuperating from having lost all her belongings and her precious books in the bombings, and trying to keep her temper in check while dealing with the public during book tours. Her life is drastically changed once she strikes up an interest in the residents of the Island of Guernsey as they begin to tell her through their letters about the time under German occupation. There is much pain and loss revealed in their stories as they share with Juliet, but also they exhibit humor and show her their resilient spirit.

While it was a bit hard for me to get started I was hooked by about the third letter. There are a lot of characters but they all become real to the reader. The culture of the island is so fun to enter into and their stories are enthralling. Of course one of the best stories is the one about the pig party and how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society got started. Bibliophiles will revel in how once the society members are forced to read to continue their “cover-up” they all get hooked on their particular books. They even cite from their readings (Austen, Shakespeare, Bronte) to Juliet as they correspond with her.

There are several websites devoted to this book and to Guernsey which are interesting to investigate. Now I want to go there!

I had not done any research on this title before we read it but I did notice as I read that the last one-third or so of it seemed to not have the exact same feel to it in writing style and even the plot lines seemed to me to get a bit cliché for this particular book, or a bit too predictable. Then I read that the author had died before the editing was complete so I am wondering if that had something to do with it.

But I still liked it a lot. Also, there is really no such thing as potato peel pie. That was made up during the writing of the book to illustrate that nothing was was wasted during the war.

PS
Did you know that the term for something constructed in the form of written letters is an epistolary? Therefore, this book is in epistolary form. Why did I not know that?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

THE UNNAMED - Joshua Ferris

 
Started it Monday morning and had to read until I finished it Tuesday evening. What a page turner. Which is hard to imagine since there is no murder and no mystery. It is a heart wrenching tale of a wealthy couple whose lives are devastated by the husband's strange and unnamed illness. With all their money and influence it is still impossible to find a doctor that can identify or treat his obsession to walk out of and away from his life and continue to walk to the point of total exhaustion. It comes on with no warning and he simply MUST just walk away from whatever he is doing and wherever he is at the time. He will walk no matter what the elements and will walk until his body gives out and he collapses.

Tim Farnsworth is a very successful lawyer in NYC and has survived two terrible bouts of the illness as the novel begins. He and his family have been, up to this point, able to adapt, hide it, and fix things but now it is back and is so aggressive that he begins to lose everything. And I do mean lose in the literal term. Since he cannot stop walking he is subjected to harsh weather causing frostbite and tissue death. For much of the novel the family copes and Tim's wife Jane is able to rescue him each time. But as the illness progresses he walks farther away and can no longer do his job. Eventually it gets so bad and he becomes so irrational that she can no longer figure out where he is. Then begins the long years of trying to find him and make sure he has not died. After years of endless walking Tim starts to become psychotic and his personality begins to split.

The love story between Tim and Jane is heart-wrenching. They try so hard to keep their life together, save each other, and to not damage their daughter. I found it interesting and inventive. Years ago I was interested in another author, Anne Tyler who also liked to create quirky characters with bizarre mental illnesses or personality disorders. I read so many I forget all the titles but I do remember they all took place in Baltimore. Saint Maybe was good and I also liked The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Friday, June 18, 2010

ELLA MINNOW PEA - Mark Dunn

My friend Cindy Strietelmeier asked me if I had read this one as I suspect she knows I like the occasional quirky read. Then when doing inventory in my high school library I noticed it so I brought it home for the summer. A quick one or two afternoon book in fable form, it was not the silly escape fiction I had thought. Off-the-east-shore of the US is this fictional island country populated by people of a cerebral mentality. They pride themselves on being very educated, progressive, and they all have and use in daily discourse a high level and colorful vocabulary.

They also revere a native citizen, one Nevin Nollop for whom the country and all of the cities thereon are named. He is the one attributed with creating the pangram (verse or sentence using all the letters of the alphabet) "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." There is a cenotaph (monument to a deceased who is buried elsewhere) of him in the city square and the phrase he is famous for resides above it. 

One day the letters one by one begin to fall off of the cenotaph. The government studies the situation and decides that it is a sign from the afterlife that the citizens are to change their way of thinking and speaking by eliminating each letter as it falls from their language. The whole story is told through letters written between the people, and most of them to or from the main character Ella Minnow Pea. Each letter is a lipogram (written work composed avoiding one or more letters) and as the book reaches a climax it gets harder to decipher the letters.

I also enjoyed the parts about the underground whose members are trying to create a new pangram. So much so that, had I not been so busy, I might have experimented with my Scrabble letters and tried it myself. As I read my mind kept straying to thoughts of how the book could be used in a classroom to spur kids to research projects. Besides the fun things like trying to compose letters without certain letters, I thought about investigating with kids such things like abuse of government power, civil rights, religious fundamentalism, and immigration.

Anyway I had fun with it.  By the end of the book the only letters left are LMNOP. Try writing a sentence with just those.

Friday, June 11, 2010

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - Stieg Larsson

It's a thriller. Couldn't put it down! I heard about Larsson sometime in the 90s. We were studying and reading about extremism and hate in a group at our church. Mostly we read Morris Dees but articles by the Swedish Larsson cropped up during my research. He investigated and wrote about right-wing extremism in Europe and specifically worked to expose neo-Nazis in Sweden. He died unexpectedly in 2004 and three novels were published posthumously, this being the first in a trilogy.

I read a recent article in Time about the author and the books and then saw the plans in the making for the first book to be made into a movie soon. Of course that meant I had to read the book. So glad I did. It is obvious that his work influenced his novel.

What you have here is a hot but older (40s) journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who is in a state of disgrace and is facing some jail time for libel. He agrees to take a job for an elderly tycoon to investigate the 30+ year old disappearance of his grand-niece and heiress Harriet Vanger. Blomkvist hooks up with a top-notch private investigator and computer hacker in the person of Lisbeth Salander who is a tiny, tattooed creature with multiple issues dealing with being an orphan and a ward of the state.

If you like deep intrigue, shocking events, blood, torture, Nazi hunting, and adventure this is the book for you. It is a thriller and you get a hint of the infiltration of the Nazi party into Swedish aristocracy. Of course what the duo reveals is more than just what happened to Harriet. There are evil and festering secrets in the Vanger family. You also follow Lisbeth through some very dark episodes from which you start to see why she is so different. The only thing I didn't like was some pretty raw and pointless sexual content. Call me a prude if you want.

I'm still not sure how some of the names should be pronounced – guess I'll find out at the movies.

MORAL DISORDER - Margaret Atwood

This book has been floating around my house for several months. I brought it home after the AC Adult Literati group read The Handmaid's Tale by Atwood. I was expecting another noir tale of the future but it was not to be. 

The book is constructed as a series of vignettes telling a life story.  But it is not simply a narrative. It is more like an episodic crazy quilt as the chapters are not in chronological order. The opening story is of an elderly woman and her aging husband, Tig.  She reflects on how they understand each other and how uncertain and scary life has become. In the next chapter the reader is transported to the life of the woman as an eleven-year-old dealing with a depressed mother, an absent father,  and preparing for the pending birth of a little sister. 

About half way through I began to get annoyed that I still didn't know the main character's name. All the chapters up to that point were in first person. Without warning the rest of the book switched to third person and her name was introduced as Nell. Nell's stories then switch between childhood tales of raising her sister, trying to keep her family in tact during her teen years, maneuvering the pitfalls of adolescence, visiting her mother in the nursing home as an adult, and coming of age in the 70s. She avoided drugs and gratuitous sex in college but drifted as a young adult on her own. When she finally began a relationship it was with her friend's husband but with that friend's encouragement. 

I enjoyed mostly the chapters of Nell as a young girl and an adolescent. Maybe because she was a bookworm even when the only book available was The Joy of Cooking and she memorized how to entertain with or without servants.

I liked getting a glimpse into the psyche of a person who lets others make all the rules and simply tries to keep things together. This character took on responsibility without question. For many years she looked after her sister both when she was a child, and again when she was a suicidal adolescent. She even took on the job of caretaker for her husband Tig's ex-wife when she felt compelled to. 

It was a gratifying read and short, so only an afternoon or so of my time. I recommend it. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

LIFE EXPECTANCY - Dean Koontz

Both the Adams Central HS student Literati and the Adult Literati read Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz two years ago. I was cleaning out some school files today and came across these pictures which lead to some ruminating. Al Arnold, a math teacher shocked us by coming to group that day in full "Bezo" form.  We had such a great time with that book. Below is Al/Bezo and a picture to illustrate how we thematically decorate for our meetings.


Even if you are not a Koontz lover this book is a great read. I was hooked by the first chapter. In a hospital in a Colorado resort town is the owner of the bakery waiting for the birth of his first child. However, his father is also in another room in the same hospital and is dying. Just as the baker's son is being born his father sits up and demands that the he take note of five dates that will be important and dangerous in the life of the baby, whom he names Jimmy. Immediately after he dies. Creepy enough but then a deranged Bezo the clown goes on a shooting rampage in the hospital because his beloved wife has died while giving birth.


The lifestyle of the baker's family living and working at night is creative and fun. The whole extended family is fun and colorful. When Jimmy is twenty, one of the dates Grandpa noted arrives  and the son of the deranged clown shows up. He murders the librarian and takes Jimmy and a young girl hostage in the library while in the process of attempting a robbery. 

Each date of course holds a similar catastrophe and the book is a delightful romp through the decades of this family. There is darkness, suspense, wit, and humor. I read it twice!


All the members of both the adult and high school group liked this choice. I recommend it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

OLIVE KITTERIDGE - Elizabeth Strout

Unsettling discussion transpired for me at Jay County Public Library book group last evening. We had chosen the book Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. If you haven’t read this one I highly recommend it. However, many in our group would not. The format is in a series of short vignettes covering several decades. While the stories are about a variety of people in a small town in Maine, Olive Kitteridge is a part of each one.

There is a multitude of unusual characters, perspectives, and issues to grapple with in this book. Olive is a character who is hard to get to know. It is difficult to completely identify with her because she is so complex and you, the reader, don’t get any insight as to her development as a child. She at times is lovable and quirky and then at other times she appears mean and ego-centric. Olive herself is shocked at how others perceive her and aghast when faced with the fact that often other people see her as mean-spirited or cruel. The reader knows early on that Olive never is cognizant of how others perceive her and she has convinced herself that she doesn’t care. She also has altered her own memory so that the unflattering and painful things that she has done are remembered by her differently than those in her life. Some other characters though, see her as strong, and honest, and bluntly truthful as well. She has said and done many other things that had positive influences on other lives.

I was looking forward to putting our heads together for an in-depth discussion of this very unusual character and talking about why she is as she is, and why she does the things that are so shocking and off-putting. It would also have been fun to dissect the town and the people to try to figure out motives and why some people react to Olive in very different ways. However, the mood was set early by two people who so intensely hated Olive and almost demanded that we all see her as totally mean and shallow that discussion ended early and was most unsatisfying. It was asked how such a “poorly written” work could possibly win a Pulitzer which left me at a loss for how to respond. Well, for one thing I thought it was very well written and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I had to admit that I liked Olive a great deal - for which I got a scathing look so I contributed nothing else to discussion. I would love to discuss this book with a different group some day.

I am reminded of The Shipping News by Proulx which also won a Pulitzer. I had loved that book (in the early 90s) with all its strange characters and raved about it to more than a few people who disliked it very much. I am always at a loss when this happens wondering how it is that I see things and feel about people and books so much differently than others around me. Except my niece, Austin who appears to see things for the most part in books identically as I do. Thank God for her and her ability to make me feel like I am not a freak :- )

UNWIND - Neal Shusterman AGAIN!

         
Adams Central HS students read Unwind 

In March our whole Student Literati group met to discuss Unwind by Shusterman. (See below on this blog for notes on our first discussion and a summary.) This time we made discussion like a book party. We decorated with items pertinent to the story including a toy brain to represent CyFi, a towel draped mannequin head and other fake body parts to represent Roland and the unwinding process, an arm with playing cards to represent the truck driver, and a "storked" baby. My library intern made place mats containing a discussion guide and a representation of the UK book cover that she found on the Internet which she liked better than our USA version.  She also put a sign on the library door welcoming the students to Happy Jack's Harvest Camp. 

Each Literati member received their own official "Unwind Order" taped to their locker earlier in the week which served as their reminder to attend discussion. A baby doll was passed about in the hall and between sponsors offices as a "storked" child. Specific students presented at group with round band aids in their palms to represent "Clappers."

My students are so amazing and not afraid in the least to discuss the issues and the parallels. They talked about the values of the characters, the Heartland War (basically between right-to-life and choice), the resulting treaty protecting all life, organ transplants, and the ethics of requiring sacrifice so others can have quality of life. They also talked about the struggles of the characters deciding when life begins and what it means to a culture to have over-population issues. Discussion moved to parallels between events in the book and history such as the Underground Railroad and Sonia's Unwind Underground, Martin Luther King and Conner's work, and unwinding centers versus organ transplants.

Of my 32 Literati kids only one said she did not like this book. She did not elaborate as to why. Apparently a lot of kids in Indiana liked this book as it was voted the Eliot Rosewater winner for this school year. My students (who did vote by the way) are not surprised. I love my kids.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

UNWIND - Neal Shusterman

Adams Central HS students read 
Unwind - Neal Shusterman

Oh my what a read! A few of us read this book for February discussion and there was such a rave going on about it that we have decided that the whole group should read it and discuss it for March.

It takes place sometime in the not too distant future in America after another civil war basically between right-to-life and pro-choice factions. A treaty was signed that assured the protection of every "life" upon conception. However, now there are may unwanted children who grow up in state homes or foster homes. At age 13 any child may be signed over to be "unwound" which is to be taken to a facility where they are used as donors until every piece of them is used to help someone else. Thus they are never destroyed but live on in some form.

Connor has been a discipline problem and so his parents have signed him over to be an unwind. When he flees he ends up banding with other unwinds and a "tithe" which is a person who has been given up to unwinding as a religious devotional sacrifice. If they can live until they are 18 they will be considered as adults and can refuse to be unwound.  What a page turner this is! I am so looking forward to the students insight and what they think about this provocative book.

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE - Shirley Jackson

Jay County Public Library Book Group discussed We have always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Only a handful of us were at group this month and probably it was due to the inclement weather. But, all attending were happy to have read this classic. If you haven't read it I would highly recommend it. The book is only 146 pages so it doesn't take long. All of us had read The Lottery in high school and I had read Haunting of Hill House also so I think we were all prepared for a dark tale. This novel of a brooding mansion, the scene of a multiple murder, and eccentric young girls living alone did not disappoint.  

The reader, knows right away that of an extended family of wealth only three have survived a poisoning. Merricat is 18 and the perpetrator of the crime. She is living with her older sister, Constance and an ailing uncle, Julius. They are reclusive and the people of their small village torment them. However, they perceive their life to be quite content and even happy. That is until a young male cousin shows up to change them.  There is much to ponder and to discuss. Alas, the questions I have go unanswered. Why did Merricat kill her famliy? Why do Constance and Uncle Julius not mind that she did so and why aren't they afraid of her? What is the reason that she is so childlike, is she mentally challenged? Why does Constance never leave the house? And does Merricat even exist or is she a phantom? Anyone care to comment?

Update – October 2010

Adams Central HS Student Literati had this as one of the choices to read for this month. Several balked as to them it looked too short and the cover appeared too juvenile. But, three took it and had a good discussion. Bridget simply loved it and intends to keep it in her personal collection. I believe she hopes to use it to refer to in her creative essays for class. I hope she does. They had concluded with the same questions the adults had. Did I remember to say I love my students? When I work with them I feel good about our future.
 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

LOST - Gregory Maguire

Adams Central HS students read Lost - Gregory Maguire

Ten students tried to read it but only a handful accomplished the task in time for discussion. Winifred is a writer who doesn't like her own work even though in the mass-market world she is a success. When the story begins she is working on a new book about Jack the Ripper. After a strange scene in the opening chapter at an adoption agency (it ties in later) she travels to London to research. She also co-owns a home in the White Chapel area with her cousin and they are distant relatives of the real person that Dickens used for Scrooge. Upon arriving in London her cousin is missing and people in their building are acting strangely. Drama ensues with haunts, specters, and much creepiness.

I liked it very much however, it bogged down a bit in the middle and we all got the irritated feeling that it should have moved along with the plot a bit faster. Maguire is a hard read for kids but I am proud of the ones who stuck with it. We had a great discussion about the literary references which are many (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Flies, 101 Dalmations, Mary Poppins, Wind in the Willows, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings to name only a few) and we had the best discussion of a quote on page 23, "Who would you choose to be haunted by, if you could choose?"

The students and I talked about Briticisms and also the rich vocabulary such as emasculation, nepenthean, verisimilitude. Also I had a lot of quotes to talk about such as, "I'm not superstitious but I an suspicious." and "Beware your childhood reading ... There is no Narnia in the wardrobe, there is no monkey's paw with a third and damning wish to grant."

"B" my reader this year that gives everything the
most thought stayed with it - like the trooper that she is - and since then has commented several times about the book. So I know she got something out of it even if it wasn't her favorite for the year.

It is typical Maguire if you have read his books before - and I personally love them. But... I know they are probably for a limited few of us. I would very much like to re-read it with some adults though.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

AMERICAN ON PURPOSE - Craig Ferguson

I recently heard a segment on NPR with Ferguson which was very entertaining and witty. I thought my high school boys would be interested in this book maybe for one of their required nonfiction choices for class. So, I ordered it for my school collection and just finished it. Not that I read every book I buy, of course I don't, but this one I knew wouldn't take very long to read and I was interested in his story. I did enjoy the read but... I am still pondering whether I can put it in my school collection. It is very raw at times and the drinking, drug use, and swearing is beyond what I feel is acceptable for young people. Sometimes it is still permissible if there is a message or some form of remorse is presented but I don't really feel that from him so I am holding off on putting it in.

I would recommend it to any adult that is interested and the greatest parts are probably his political views and for sure the chapter about meeting president Bush and vice president Cheaney. I found it very interesting that on NPR he indicated that he feels he is a true American but wonders if he will go back to Scotland when he retires because they have better health care, mmmmmm.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

MONSTROUS REGIMENT - Terry Pratchett

Adams Central HS students read Monstrous Regiment - Terry Pratchett

At Adams Central High School we have an extra-curricular reading-for-fun group. We meet once a month during a period of the school day set aside for clubs or study time. Some of the kids are reading this book that is one of many set in an alternate universe called Discworld. In this world humans co-exist with all kinds of magical beings. The main character of MR is a young girl who impersonates a boy to join the military. First she has to practice walking like a boy to take up more space, farting and nose picking etc. and soon learns the trick of using socks in her pants to seem more masculine. Her regiment consists of many other "young men" and also a troll, a zombie, and at least one vampire. They are on their way to the front of a war that their country has been involved in so long that not everyone remembers what they are fighting about. Polly/Oliver soon learns that the war is being lost but those at home have no idea. Pratchett uses his funny discworld stories to discuss all kinds of subjects both political and social. We are having a lot of fun with this title and some of the kids have moved on to reading Wee Free Men by Pratchett. Discussion is in two weeks so I will give an update after that. 



2/12 Discussion was today
A little disappointing that only two kids made it to discussion. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances such as bad weather this week causing us to miss school, and illness so I knew group might be small today. However, we had a great time.  Both of my readers today were young women whom I will call "S" and "SB" they both enjoyed this book. S enjoyed the theme of females doing well in the military and SB pointed out that while reading she was reminded of Joan of Arc. Both girls enjoyed thinking about the references to problems in the real world today such as Corporal Strappi not wanting to let Igor enlist because he is a troll and Seargent Jackrum sternly telling him the rule is "Don't ask, don't tell...enlist him!" (pg. 27), and when thinking about their wars (pg. 224) Vimes says, "...they fought because they had always fought. They made war, in fact, because the sun came up" which they felt referrs to some people today. S particularly liked the way Pratchett explained the thought processes of the characters by the inclusion of footnotes - and especially that of the pigeons. We were all surprised by the end and I hope my students will enjoy other Pratchett books.

Friday, January 29, 2010

THE SECRET OF LOST THINGS - Sheridan Hay

Rebecca read The Secret of Lost Things - Sheridan Hay (twice)

This strange book by Sheridan Hay is a wonderful read. Yes, I read it twice, once for myself and once with my Adams Central Adult Literati group. Again several people I know didn't like it! Oh my, I must be insane but I loved it. After I confess that I bought it for the beautiful cover art, I will say that as I read it I wanted to be Rosemary. I wish that I could have been the kind of young girl that could walk into a bookstore and tell the manager, "I must work here," and walk away with the job! 

Set in the early 70s, at 18 Rosemary fulfills her childhood dream of going to NYC (from her home in Tasmania). She is spunky yet naive and a delightful character. Most of the book takes place in a bookstore called The Arcade which is a thinly disguised representation of The Strand in NYC. The plot line involves unusual and colorful characters who all work in The Arcade, and a missing Melville manuscript. My friend Paula and I both read it right before we took a trip to NYC. It was so much fun to examine the Strand while imagining the scenes that had taken place in the store. We traveled the elevator up so we could get a whiff of the glue in the rare book room, figured out where the restroom was that the manuscript got lost in, and went to the basement looking for the stool in the poetry section. 

There is even a picture gallery in the Strand of long ago scenes of the store enabling Paula and me to well imagine near-blind albino Geist hovering among the stacks, the beautiful Oscar leaving open poetry books about, Mr. Mitchel expounding on the value of books, or Bruno tossing out the occasional shoplifter. There is infatuation, mystery, and great character development in this book. We had a great discussion at book group and about half there really appreciated it while the rest thought it was just OK. I must say though that most of my high school students don't stick with it. 

I am wondering what most who have read it think - was there a real manuscript or was it a ruse to extort money from Geist all along, and was Oscar in on the crime from the beginning?