We interrupt these travelogues for the latest book list...
Monkess the Humonculus by Seth T. Hahne - I don't usually list children's picture books, but this one is special. It is written, illustrated & self-published by a friend. It also just happens to be a delightfully quirky story with beautiful, detailed, colorful (I do so love bold color) imagery and fun vocabulary. If graphic novel form crashed into children's picture literature, this is what it could be. Very fun book.
Tales from the Odyssey series by Mary Pope Osborne - I think Osborne did a pretty terrific job making this classic epic understandable and enjoyable to a younger audience. She sequences the story a little more chronologically and includes a terrific map, and list of characters along with their proper pronunciation. Just for kicks, Little Dude and I buzzed through these alongside the Lattimore and Fagles translations of the Odyssey.
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang - Little Dude and I took a one week break from The Odyssey and read this instead and created a list of similarities to the themes/actions in Animal Farm. And we may have discussed current events and Constitutional rights and their lasting importance in light of what we read in both these books.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen - well, here's something you don't often hear me say: I liked the movie better. So far I'm hit and miss with Miss Austen. I very much enjoyed P&P and Emma. I very much disliked Persuasion. I thought Northanger Abbey was just silly. And I'm just "meh" about Sense & Sensibility. Too many words to say too little.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (book club) - this is a fun little literary soap opera replete with broken hearts, bankruptcy, inheritance windfalls, lying, cheating, gambling, drunkenness, a dead baby, insanity, murder, and finally a "happy" - albeit not HAPPY happy - ending. Which brings us to the title. Apparently the title is a nod to a poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, wherein poor villagers are buried in the churchyard far from the noise and strife ("madding") of crowded city life and live quiet, sober, serious, secluded lives free from crazy-ness. So this is Thomas Hardy being totally sarcastic (which I totally appreciate), because his characters and his story take place entirely in a "quiet" pastoral, agrarian country setting, and the lives narrated are anything but simple and drama-free. Oh, and the movie? It's lovely and well cast. Thumbs up for the book and the movie.
What Maisie Knew by Henry James - this is my very first Henry James novel. In knowing nothing about this author beyond that he's highly esteemed, I inadvertently found myself face to face with his "late style" writing, wherein sentences and paragraphs continue on seemingly forever, across pages and pages (very disconcerting as I'm reading this particular book on my Kindle), filled with double negatives, complex imagery, intense psychological scrutiny & consciousness, and, surprisingly very little discernible action to move the plot forward. It's been suggested that perhaps this new extreme wordiness was engendered by James' shifting from writing to dictating to a typist, a change made during the composition of What Maisie Knew. So. There's the whole question of what Maisie did - and didn't know. Then there's the whole question of what *I* did and didn't know as I read thru the novel. Here's what I do know: Maisie got the short end of the stick in terms of family life: bad mom, bad dad. Horrible. I mean, HORRIBLE. Maisie is horribly used, ignored, and ultimately abandoned by her birthparents, left with the choice of living with her governess, stepmom, stepdad, or any combination thereof. Her governess lands squarely on the question of whether Maisie knows what's "right", does she have a "moral sense". Everything else, I must admit, was murky, gray, not totally understandable territory for me, and reading this on a Kindle - without the ease of being able to flip pages back and forth - didn't help matters. I will be reading more Henry James stories (likely Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, and The Turning of the Screw), but I can't say that I really liked Maisie.
The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. - So this book is peopled with animals, specifically starring roosters with names from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. But it's not a retelling of Chaucer's story. And it's not totally like Animal Farm or Watership Down; though, it's not totally unlike. I want to say it's a "type" of both of the former, except with an overarching Good vs. Evil theme - a Biblical epic, if you will, albeit a mini-epic (I made that up). Strengths of Wangerin's writing: quick, effective character development (he made me care!!), subtle humor, thoughtful scenarios playing out spiritual themes: faith vs. fear, where is God when we're grieving and can't see/hear/sense His Presence, hatred vs. love, the power & importance of being intimately known and called by name ... good stuff. Weaknesses of Wangerin's writing: those animals he made me care about? some of them get snuffed out pretty quickly, in effect becoming mere plot devices. He builds up some scenarios/storylines and doesn't revisit them or carry-out what they set-up. And an element that always bugs me: it's not a stand-alone book; it's one of a trilogy (I didn't know this when I started). I liked this book, but I didn't love it.
Middlemarch by George Eliot (book club) - Something new: I'm reviewing this at the halfway point ... 400 pages in ... George Eliot can totally craft a sentence and strong, believable, deeply-drawn characters. But gosh, the plot moves SLOWLY. This is not a page-turner. But it *is* a cozy, friendly, settle-down-and-watch-the-lives-of-your-neighbors-unfold, non-shallow narrative. (scroll down a couple for my finished-book thoughts)
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin - it's somewhat ironic that I read this on my Kindle (only because Amzn sold it for a mere dollar), as it is a book about a bookseller who is quite passionate about books in paper form (as am I, in general). It's a book about books and how they interact with and inform the characters' lives. This was a fluffy-fun modern, shallow read for me in a sea of older, heavier books. I enjoyed it and finished it in a day. Tiny Note: I'm not a fan of casual sex or books with casual sex, and this has that, tho minimally explicit. Now. Back to Middlemarch.
Middlemarch (book club - the last half) - Alrighty, I've finished, and I've decided that I think this book is VERY GOOD. Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as being "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." and I think I know what she means. This novel has no "stick figures", no thoroughly evil villains, no flawless heroes or heroines, no perfect romances. It has characters who have to face their ideals bumping into their realities and deciding who they will be in the face of it. It's a book that is deeply invested in exploring one's moral character, development, and choices (albeit in a divorced - or at least detached - from "religion" sort of way). To the very end, it remains very much not-a-page-turner. And it's LONG. And ironically, despite the length, I felt like I didn't have enough time with my favorite characters - people whose thoughtfulness, intellect, and/or wit I respected and enjoyed. But, over and beyond all, what I really liked best about Middlemarch, about George Eliot, is simply the style of her writing. She is ... insightful. I leave you with a taste of her style ... "That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity."
it's probably not fair to review a modern, mediocre-ly-written novel after reading a masterpiece like Middlemarch, so I'll just say that after I finished Eliot's tome, I read a fluff of a modern book that felt very YA-ish and was filled with many of my pet peeves. I did not like it.
Rosie by Anne Lamott - also modern, also on the heels of exceptional Middlemarch, not mediocre writing at all (in terms of cadence, voice, description, authenticity), and yet I h.a.t.e.d. it. Skimmed it. Couldn't get thru it fast enough. Worldly, depressing content. Just not my cuppa, even if Lamott is writing adeptly, even excellently.
La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith - modern fluffy easy reading. took it on vacation - it was my airplane book. enjoyable. very similar pacing and "flavor" as No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - despite all the popular acclaim, this is a book I had not intended to read because it heavily utilizes one of my biggest pet peeves: storylines that abruptly alternate (usually right after the author ramps up the nail-biting-page-turning-suspenseful-event technique). This technique is irritating (to me) and I believe leads to lazy writing, particularly in modern works (ie. no “need” to develop a continuous flow in the story. Just drop it where you like and pick it up where you like. This particular method is being soooo overused in the current market. And me no likey.) All the Light also has a very splintered chronology - this technique doesn't bother me as much, generally. But this book uses both split narratives and split/jumping chronology to unfold the story in short little "episodes", with a new chapter (with either new voice, new time, or both) every 2-3 pages. So I wasn't going to read it. But there it was on the bookshelf in our vacation rental house, and I picked it up and read/skimmed my way thru it in two days. Interesting story that kept my attention. Sweet, tender moments (usually between Marie-Laure and her father and/or her uncle). Some beautiful verbiage. Some silly nonsensical verbiage. I don't mind suspending disbelief for a good storyline, but I had to suspend a lot and often. I didn't love this book, but I certainly didn't hate it like I thought I would.
Daisy Miller by Henry James - this was my last day and flight home novella and my second Henry James work. Hmmm, what to say? Another book where I didn't really like the story, per se; but, then again, I didn't dislike it, either. Story held my attention. Henry James is a wordsmith. The story explores American v. European culture, as well as, maybe, modern/changing v. traditional values. I just didn't really like or feel invested in any of the characters. :-/
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - cute, quirky, very enjoyable quick read. note: crass in parts. Methinks this will make a fun rom-com movie someday ...