Recent-ish reads, digest edition

May 29, 2011 at 10:19 am (book review, current reading)

A month-long posting drought isn’t the most auspicious start to a new blog. Hopefully it won’t happen again. Why the drought? Well, the end of a semester is always intense in academia with lots of papers and odd ends of assignments to grade. I decided to make it more interesting by moving in the midst of all that. In the long run, though, that move should yield more blogging material since I now have more time to both read and crochet. Yes, it turns out that days seem to have more hours in them when one doesn’t have a TV or wireless internet at home. It may be spartan, but my quality of life has gone up as a result. My recent reads list is testament to that:

Dry, Augusten Burroughs – OK, technically, I read this before the move but just didn’t get to blogging it. If anyone has read Burroughs’ previous memoir Running with Scissors, which tells of the utmost dysfunctional upbringing, it should be no surprise that this memoir traces his struggle with alcoholism. It’s got his signature dark humor, but more than anything, his humanity is what shines through. Readers can find something to identify with, whether it’s his attempts to make the right decisions or struggle to come to terms with difficult and painful feelings.

The Midwife, Gay Courter – This was the first book I read in the new place. I love a good work of historical fiction. I also love stories with strong yet believable female protagonists. Oh yes, and I also love immigrant stories of people making new lives for themselves in a relatively young America. This had everything, and once I got into the story, I could barely put it down as I followed protagonist Hannah Blau from an increasingly anti-semitic Russia to America where she struggled to hold her marriage together and was up against a medical profession bent on putting midwives out of business.

Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger – Several years ago, I read Catcher in the Rye for the first time. I chalked up my dislike of it to my being probably too old to be reading it for the first time (the best time likely being the teenage years), so I decided to give Salinger another try. Can’t say I particularly cared for this one either. I believe that he captured some of the listlessness of a post-WWII ennui. That said, I still found the characters self-absorbed and difficult to identify with or even like.

Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories, Margaret Atwood – The first book of Atwood’s I ever read was Oryx and Crake, which while a bit didactic was still an excellent read. That was quickly followed by reading The Handmaiden’s Tale, another powerful dystopian read. Usually two strong books is enough to indicate a favorite author. Not so in this case. Bluebeard’s Egg is one of several of Atwood’s books that I have since tried reading. Several stories are good (the title story, for one), and many of them deal with characters coming to terms with changes or cracks in the facades of their relationships, but as a whole, I would not go out of my way for this short story collection.

Working for the Devil, Lilith Saintcrow – This is the first novel of the Dante Valentine series, and wow, was it hard to put down. To be straightforward, this is not high literature. It is not deep or profound. But it tells a story so fast-paced and engaging with a strong heroine that I maaaaay have set aside my grading for an evening to devour it, which is the mark of great storytelling. I like a bit of urban fantasy with a strong, somewhat mouthy protagonist (a la Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files or to a lesser extent Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series). This tale of a necromancer enlisted by Lucifer himself to chase down a lesser demon and given a demon familiar to aid in her quest was an intensely enjoyable bit of escapism.

Dead Man Rising, Lilith Saintcrow – After Working for the Devil, I promptly checked out the next few Dante Valentine books from the library, and this is the second. I approached this warily since sequels often disappoint, but this one didn’t. At times, Dante Valentine got a bit, well, emo, for lack of a better word, but given the circumstances, it was at least understandable if moderately irritating. However, did it also tell a fast-paced yarn that kept me up late and made an evening fly by rapidly? Oh yes.

The Better Part of Darkness, Kelly Gay – Ironically, I realized that this book had an endorsing blurb from Lilith Saintcrow on the cover. It’s yet another urban fantasy novel with a tough female protagonist (a single mother detective in this case). It’s set in Atlanta, a city that has become almost a portal for otherworldly beings, some creatures of light and goodness and the others much darker and more dangerous. It was also good escapism and I may follow up with the next book in what appears to be the start of a series, but it won’t break my heart if I don’t either.

That brings my current reading up to date. For a preview of coming attractions, here’s what’s on the current reading stack: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

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Red Sky at Morning

April 9, 2011 at 11:00 pm (book review)

As a patron of used book stores and library book sales, I tend to get greedy in my book buying habits. A twenty-dollar book is easy to resist. Twenty one-dollar books is much harder. The result is two bookcases overflowing with books, two thirds of which I’ve never read. Slowly, slowly, I make my way around to reading them.

The most recent of these yet-unread books that I finally got around to reading was Richard Bradford’s Red Sky at Morning. A blurb on the back hailed it as a humorous coming-of-age story, and that’s an accurate depiction.

Seventeen-year-old Josh Arnold was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, but when his father joins the Navy during WWII, Josh and his mother go to live in Sagrado, New Mexico, where they had previously only spent summers. Josh settles quickly into the routine, befriending Steenie and Marcia, making any enemy of bully Chango, and befriending local artist Romeo and his revolving series of mistresses/muses. His mother, however, struggles with the adjustment in large part due to her Southern-instilled notions of propriety and insistence on only spending time with a select few of the “proper” sorts of people. Her attitudes are racist and class-ist, but Bradford never hits the reader over the head with Just How Bad this is; she is simply a character the product of one upbringing who is abruptly transferred into a very different environment, finding herself unable to adapt.

The characterizations are well-done and the dynamics as well. Some of the best passages are comprised of the banter between Steenie, Marcia, and Josh, as they heckle and bounce ideas off of each other. For anyone who’s ever had a tight core of smart-alecky friends, the dialogue rings true.

If I have one criticism, it is that the ending feels rushed. An event in the next-to-last chapter quickly changes the leisurely pace at which the tale had been unwinding to an abrupt end that, while realistic, just felt jarring by comparison. This is a small criticism of a book that I otherwise enjoyed.

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The Book Thief

March 22, 2011 at 9:42 pm (book review)

For a while, I’d heard rave reviews about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, so I flagged it as something to keep in mind as I combed used book stores. A couple months ago, I found it. Recently, during a spring break that I primarily spent huddled up in bed and miserable with the flu, I read it.

It is a dark and beautiful book.

Narrated by Death, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, a girl sent to live with German foster parents in the lead-up to WWII. She is the titular book thief, beginning with the grave digger’s manual she snags at her little brother’s funeral. She can’t read the book initially, but with the help of her loving and constant foster father, she learns, and over the course of the novel, indeed steals other books. Only a book at a time and frequently when she’s the most agitated by life.

The cast of characters of strong. Hans Huberman, the father, is loving and constant. Rosa Huberman, his wife, is a sharp-tongued woman whose constant verbal barrage masks her more caring personality. In time, they end up sheltering a Jew named Max Vandenburg, a man with “hair like feathers” who becomes good friends with the girl and even writes her some stories of his own on the painted-over pages of Mein Kampf. Their friendship is I think the most touching in the book since they are both traumatized by experiences and find comfort in sharing their nightmares with each other. Liesel’s best friend and accomplice to mischief is Rudy Steiner, a boy with lemon-colored hair who always asks her for a kiss. The primary source for Liesel’s later book thefts is the mayor’s wife, a shadowy, depressed woman who leaves her library accessible to the girl, tacitly encouraging the thefts and later recommending that the girl write her own story.

We all know the tragic consequences of the German Holocaust, and narrator Death does mention how busy the events keep him. But Zusak doesn’t dwell on the large-scale casualties, with the result being a more human–and devastating–look at personal loss during war. While the march of Jews through town is heartbreaking, so too are the results of a bombing campaign near the end of the book. As tragic as the losses are, the survivors’ emotions are more so. It’s a no-win situation, which is written well.

That said, the book also has very beautiful moments. As mentioned, the relationship between Leisel and her accordian-playing Papa is touching. His having a fourth-grade reading level doesn’t stop him from doing what he can to help the girl learn to read after she is awakened by nightmares is touching and indeed is a gift that serves her well throughout the novel. As many books are, The Book Thief is also an homage to the power of reading to transport people from dreary circumstances. This is illustrated simply and beautifully when Liesel reads aloud to everybody in the shelter as they wait for a bombing campaign to end. It’s telling that each time they have to go wait out a bombing, Liesel grabs her books to take with her–a bittersweet detail that is sure to make most bookworms smile a little in identification.

Death’s–and the book’s–final words are: “I am haunted by humans.” Fitting words for a haunting book.

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