Saturday, May 28, 2011

Philosphy and Music (but, you know, not in a heavy way.)

I Think I Love YouAllison Pearson's I Think I Love You is her second novel, and I was a little hesitant about it. However, my friend G assured me that it wouldn't irritate me as did her debut, I Don't Know How She Does It. (There are a lot of pressures in being a working mom, especially one whose kids inhabit a world with many stay at home moms, and Pearson's protagonist wasn't the first person in the modern world to confront them, despite the self-congratulatory tone. Pearson is such a deft writer, and funny, which made the flaws all the more aggravating.) This moves to new ground, which is explored with a kindness which is nevertheless unflinching. Here, Petra is one of thousands of 13 year old girls in 1974 obsessed with David Cassidy. Her obsession with the pop star is tied to her mother's disapproval of anything not high culture, and her attempts to find a place for herself within the hierarchy of popular girls in her small Welsh town. The second half of the action takes place when Petra has her own 13 year old daughter, and very effectively holds a mirror up to the early parts of the story.

The Charming Quirks of Others: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel (Isabel Dalhousie Novels)The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith is the latest in his series about Isabel Dalhousie, an Edinburgh philosopher who often obeys what she sees as a moral imperative to do a bit of investigation into a troubling matter - though her friends often see it as an inability to mind her own business. Isabel is full of her own charming quirks, and if I knew her, I, too, would seek out her advice and help. As with everything he writes, McCall Smith's Dalhousie books are so imbued with a sense of place that the character of the city defines the action as much as anything else. And as with many of his characters, her wisdom and considered thought about everyday moments enable Isabel to discern motives that others would prefer stay hidden. I've read just about all of McCall Smith's adult fiction now, and most of it on audiobook - his work is well-narrated by some extremely talented voices, and it's always fun to listen.

A Long Way DownNick Hornby is another author I generally enjoy, but I haven't made much of an effort to read his complete works, as is my wont with authors I like. After finishing A Long Way Down, I might just have to change that. (On one bookshelf or another around here we should have his latest, since R reviewed it.) The unlikely protagonists here are four disparate souls who meet on the roof of a tall London building on New Year's Eve - and they're not there to watch the fireworks. Suicide with an audience daunts all of them, so they instead forge a bond that keeps them all going, at least for a bit. While they don't get around to liking each other much, the support does allow them each to begin valuing themselves. The scandal-ridden t.v. personality, the lonely mother of a severely disabled son, the rebellious teen, and the washed-up musician are largely the same people at the end, but they are (spoiler!) still alive, and intend to keep it that way, which makes all the difference.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The WWW: Bringing Mel Friends with Book Recommendations for a Dozen Years

I love the internet. Every once in a while - or even fairly often, if you're both open and judicious - you can find some superb strangers who can become friends, out there in the vastness of cyberspace. Example: For upwards of a decade I've depended on my amazing Working Moms community of friends ( / co-cult members / axe-murderers, according to my mother-in-law, who owns no answering machine or DVD player, and certainly no computer.)  Another site where like-minded people put up with me these days is at the NPR pop culture blog, MonkeySee, which I've mentioned here repeatedly.

So one voice there belongs to a commenter whose recommendations were so to my taste that we eventually friended on facebook / followed each other on twitter / blah blah blah mindmeldcakes. I mean, anyone who loves Shannon Hale and British costume drama is bound to get along with me, really. (Go, quick, read Goose Girl! No, now. I'm serious.) And at one point, Margaret (who will someday have My Path Not Traveled Dream Job #2: children's librarian) posted a gorgeous list of new-to-me novels. I've just finished several of them, and have to share.

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the BeastFirst up: Robin Mckinley's Beauty which, maybe this is obvious, is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Despite the fact that the dishes moving across the table on their own kept sending me to a Disney place, giving this book an entirely unwarranted upbeat soundtrack, I was enchanted by Mckinley's retelling. (Yes, I said "enchanted." Live with it.) Beauty's voice is smart and a little sardonic, and always true. Her deep love for her family propels her through so much of the action, giving her the strength to deal with the magically opening doors and the claws of The Beast. The class-distinction and hints of time-flexibility story lines add some unexpected depth and interest to the Happily Ever After story.  

The Perilous GardAlso in the fairy stories retold basket is Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard. Here, one of Queen Mary Tudor's maids, Kate, is banished to a mysterious castle where things are not quite as evolved from heathen / fairy-folk times as the 16th-century nobility might have assumed. It's an adventure with some love thrown in, full of music and mystery and the kind of hero who can't ever see herself as heroic, because all she does is what she thinks anyone would do in her place. In Kate's case, it's her clear mind and her self-possession that elevate her actions into the heroic realm. I wish that Pope had given her as strong a voice as Mckinley did Beauty, but I've got no other complaints about this extremely well plotted and paced tale.

Man in the QueueJumping forward a few centuries, I also read Josephine Tey's first novel, The Man in the Queue. Although I'm generally fond of the Scotland Yard mystery stuff, I'd never heard of Tey (or her a.k.a.s), but I quickly added more of her work to my library's hold list. Inspector Grant has an unidentified body, the murder weapon, and several people who were within inches of the man as he was killed, but very little else to go on as he attempts to solve the case. (Confession: about 2/3 of the way through, I told K - my 11 year old - that I was sure Grant was chasing the wrong guy. K had me write a list of everyone it could be, ranked by my level of suspicion, then picked his choice of murderer from the middle of the list. We were both wrong - because although the info was all there, I completely forgot about the relevant person until the confession, so the murderer wasn't listed. And then I had to kick myself.) I can get irritated with mysteries when the solution comes from absolutely nowhere, so although neither Grant nor I figured it out, I admire the way Tey set us up. And oh - her language, her style, her characterizations! Yes, please, more more more.

North & South
Berkeley SquareSometimes I do things other than read, did you know? This month, I watched the BBC versions of North and South and the first four episodes (so far!) of Berkeley Square after Margaret mentioned them both. First of all, yum. I hadn't seen North and South (based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novel, not the Civil War / Patrick Swayze version) in a heck of a long time, and it is chock full of meaningful looks and unfulfilled longings and drawing room manners and class snobbery and all of that repressed goodness. Berkeley Square is new to me and has more of a Duchess of Duke Street feel about it. Which is also a good thing. Plenty of drama below stairs and tempers and secrets and unintended consequences that can result when faced with a raffish smile and a rebellious spirit.

Okay, there's my paean to Margaret. And thanks, internet, for ignoring the fact that we are separated by 1900 miles and 15 years and innumerable other things in favor of the fact that we both know how hot Colin Firth is as Darcy. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Latest from My Bedside Table

The Consolations of Philosophy
After being charmed by his airport book, I checked out Alain De Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy. Oh, such fun. I had no idea I was such a Stoic, but De Botton's section on Seneca showed me I am. (This would be my mature outlook. I was more of a Hedonist earlier in life, naturally.) Anyway, the concept of this book is that whatever you're facing - heartbreak, ennui, aging, job stress - there's a philosophy to help you through it. Each philosopher's history and teaching is related to a current situation, making it a very amusing and different kind of self-help book. Eminently approachable, too - I don't now have a deep knowledge of any of the great philosophers, but I do have a pretty good precis of a field I never paid much attention to before this book.

The PortraitThe Portrait is the novel Iain Pears wrote before Stone's Fall, which I enjoyed reading last year. It has a less complex structure, but is possessed of its own literary tricks. The narrator is the artist, and the entire novel is his soliloquies to his subject, an old friend and art critic who has come to visit him in his exile from the London art scene. So, lots of "you should" and "did you not know?" as the artist covers their interwoven histories and explicates the reasons for his exile - and what he plans to do about it. There are guns on every mantlepiece in this one, so the ending wasn't as suspenseful as I think Pears intended, but it's still a good story and the sense of place and voice is very strong.

Just One of the Guys (Hqn)I read plenty without philosophers or literary conceits, and in the past couple of weeks that's included Kristan Higgins's Just One of the Guys, as well as a couple of her other modern romance/chick-lit novels. Published by Harlequin, so happily ever after and all that. Higgins is a fun writer, very good at a conversational but intelligent style, and her characters are cohesive and fleshed-out, making these sweet love stories with a little heartbreak and soul-searching thrown in. And the three I've read (Too Good to Be True and Catch of the Day are the others) are distinct enough that I'll be able to pick up a Higgins anytime I see one and tell from the back cover whether I've read it already or not, which is a huge plus.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Saturday with my Pup

Stayed up too late Friday night. As is my wont. Party girl, that's me. (...Okay, I was finishing a book.)

Puppy isn't clear on the whole "weekend = sleep in" concept yet, so at 7 on Saturday morning, I dragged myself up long enough to open the door for the dogs to go out. Hoped they could wait for breakfast, tried to fall back to sleep.

At 8, doorbell rang. Sigh. Stumbled out of bed. (No, I don't think the dog has rung the doorbell. She's smart, but she still scratches to get in. Besides, it was the front doorbell.) No one there, but some noise at the back of the house, and lo and behold - my left-side next-door neighbor and my right-side next-door neighbor were standing on my driveway discussing my dogs. Seems LSNDN was pulling into her drive and saw my dogs in the front yard, and the little-used, thought-it-was-locked gate by her house was open.

So THAT'S how she got out while we were out at D's end-of-year concert the night before! We thought she'd propelled herself over the chicken wire which is jury-rigged across the iron fence from our back yard to our driveway. D and I found her waiting for us when we got home, just sitting in the front of the house. Which was a nice change from running off full-tilt, which is what she normally does if we leave a door even a fraction of an inch ajar around here.

I explain to LSNDN & RSNDN about the chicken wire, and cinder blocks, and duct tape, and all other measures which have transformed our previously sorta attractive fence into an anti-puppy containment zone. Which apparently has finally defeated her, since she just found a way to open the other gate instead.
So LSNDN easily convinced the old dog to follow her back to the yard, and puppy followed, and I sighed and gave up on sleep. After their breakfast (while I blocked the other gate with cinder block), the dogs followed me around as I tidied the house. Robert and K were off camping, so I cleaned K's fish tank. As I put away all the tank chemicals, I heard a suspicious cracking sound from my room.

Puppy, it says "chew tablet," not "chew bottle." Or, it did before you snuck into K's room, grabbed his recently-arrived 3-month supply of asthma meds, and took it off to my room to devour. There were 18 pills left in the bottle. For the record, she hasn't sneezed once since then.

Right. I monitor the pup, clean up the shards of plastic, give her a rawhide, shut K's door firmly. (My kids will never lack for privacy. Their doors have to stay shut at all times since puppy arrived.)

Later, I run D over to some event or another with friends. (Note: High schoolers who can't yet drive have to deal with all sorts of questions from their parent chauffeurs.) Gone 30 minutes, tops. Came home, and it seems pup has gone all digital on us. Fortunately, most of that spool was blank discs.

Did I mention that the vacuum is broken? The wand arm and the little attachments work, but the part that rolls over the carpets and picks up all the tiny bits of CDs at once? Doesn't work.
D took her for a nice long walk when his friend's event was over, and I am trying, really I am, to keep her surrounded with toys and chews and to use bitter apple on the woodwork and the toys and stuff. But good gracious, pup. I mean! Popping pills and ripping CDs and running away from home? What are you, a teenager?

She looks so sweet & innocent, doesn't she?

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Tolstoy is a GENIUS"

War and Peace (Penguin Hardback Classics)
My eleven year old announced, a couple of weeks ago, that he wanted to read War and Peace. In a day.

I grinned to myself. He's a mischievous soul, but brilliant, so I found him a copy. Predicably, he fanned through it and said something flippant. I figured I'd be reshelving it soon.

Then he took to carrying it in his (messy, overstuffed) backpack to and from school. Opening it in the evenings. Studying the appendices. Reading the thing.

Okay, why not, right? He's an advanced reader, and he may not be fully comprehending it, but it's cool. When I was in 7th grade my history teacher lent me the complete Sherlock Holmes and I carried that tome around for weeks. K is only in 5th grade, and this is more complex, but there's no harm in indulging him.

Tonight we lounged on his bed reading. (I was reading a modern romance novel on my phone. My elementary-schooler was reading an epic 19th century historical masterpiece in translation.) At one point he groaned, then explained "I thought I was going to like that character."

"What happened, did he die already?"

"No, he's being mean to his wife. I think he's going to end up being a sexist."

"That's a shame," I answered, going back to my own book, smiling that he seemed to be following it pretty well after all. (And that he disapproves of sexism.)

And then this happened: K lowered his forehead to the open page, closed his eyes, went still for a moment.

I figured he was getting sleepy. It was after bedtime, naturally. (Bedtime is easily disregarded in our house in favor of reading time.) And, come on, he's eleven and he's reading War and Peace. I haven't read War and Peace. I suggested it was time for lights out.

"No." Pause. "It's just - the words."

"The words?"

"Yes. The words."

"Are you trying to absorb them through osmosis? Do you need a definition?"

He lifted his head and shook it impatiently. "No, it's... I don't know how to say it. It's so - so subtle." (My eyes widen some, my heart swells. This child of mine!)

He cast about, trying to express exactly what he felt. "It's not a page-turner, exactly, it's not that. But you just can't stop reading it. There's something that's just so good about it!"

"You're absorbed in it."


"And aren't you just so glad that you have so much more to go?" I flipped towards the back. "Imagine when you're here, how devastating it'll be that you only have 200 pages left."

"I know! And 200 pages. That could be a book on it's own for some writers."


"Tolstoy is a genius! It's so good, what he does with the words."

He allows me to take a couple of photos of his cute self, then goes back to the page. I try to collect myself as he mutters, "Footnote 17," and flips to the back.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just one moment when I've found myself breathless with awe at this child, who is all mind and all heart. Tolstoy!

Friday, May 6, 2011

100 Books

On Tuesday I finished my 100th book of the year. (!) (Cue balloons and party horns.)

(I kept thinking I would get there sooner, so I kept not posting, waiting for this, and then I had no time until now. Sorry to keep all of my beloved devoted readers hanging.)

One thing about blogging the books (and even just keeping the spreadsheet of them) is that I do have a better recall on them - even the ones I don't write about. So whatever you beloved devoted readers are getting out of reading me (and thanks for reading!), I'm very happy to have been doing this for the past few months. I love to read just to read, but I also relish the firmer grip I have on the books that entrance me as I go.

A Discovery of Witches: A NovelAnd oh, I've been enchanted lately. The 100th book was Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches. Three cheers for this one, seriously, y'all. Not Harry Potter, not Twilight, not The Passage - an entirely different, delightful, devotee-making world of witches, vampires, and humans. (Hey, I just looked at Harkness's bio on her website - she loves libraries and librarians. No wonder I feel such kinship with her work and admiration for the world she created. Oh, and a huge amount of the novel is set in the Bodleian, so....) The basics: Diana is a witch with a strong pedigree, but she tries to turn her back on her personal history while pursuing her human-adjacent career as a historian. While working at Oxford, she runs into Matthew the scientist / compelling vampire. And some other witches and demons and vampires. But you know what? Forget all of that - the creature element is intriguing and adds depth, but this is really about history, and history repeating itself, and secrets and politics, and traditions and the breaking of them, and love - family love, forbidden love, love of books and wine and passion. It is beautifully constructed and beautifully paced and beautifully voiced and a great novel to act as the marker of my 100-book moment. More, Harkness, more! Write faster!

A Week at the Airport (Vintage International Original)The 99th book was about 1/5 the size, but it packed its own punch. Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport is, as it says, his account of spending a week living at Heathrow's Terminal 5, as their Writer in Residence. (It was sponsored by BA, so this is promotional material, but de Botton is so wry and wide-ranging that seeing the airport through his eyes is, well, eye-opening. It doesn't feel manipulative, just fascinated.) As I said, it's a slim slim volume, and has lovely full-color photos on every page, so it's a quick read. But de Botton clearly enjoys getting to talk to the head of the security team and touring the runways and sitting up late in the airport hotel bar with weary travellers and conference-goers. His vignettes are as much about the nature of coming and going, the history of transport and exploration, as they are about that divorced dad meeting his young son at Arrivals. Next time I'm in an airport, I'll be viewing it differently (and with more sympathy for the TSA dudes, too.)

GracelingI also recently finished the first in a YA trilogy by Kristin Cashore - Graceling. (And Fire, too, actually, but that was after the 100-book mark.) It is a very other-world world she's created, where some in the Seven Kingdoms are born with Graces, which give them super-human powers that the kings love to control. So there are great chefs, or horse-tamers, or, in this case, fighters. And as you can imagine, giving an absolute monarch control over someone who, even as a little girl, can kill or maim dissenters doesn't always work out well for dissenters - or the Graced girl. So, there are allegiances and travels and moral quandaries and love and intrigues galore. It's all very well done, and if you or your teenage daughter like fantasy, this is well worth a look. I hope the next one is out before too long.