Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens
 published 1843
completed August 2010

Most everyone is familiar with this A Christmas Carol in one form or another.  Scrooge is a curmudgeonly, greedy old man who is incredibly wealthy and has isolated himself from all of society.  The book opens on Christmas Eve and that night he receives a visit from his old business partner, Marley, warning him of the torment that will result if he continues to live his life in that selfish manner.  He is subsequently visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future as an attempt to change him from his miserly ways.

It's kind of an odd time of year to be reading this book, but I just moved overseas and I could only bring a few books with me (the rest will arrive in a few months) and I don't have a library card yet.  I have seen several movies and even seen a wonderful live production of A Christmas Carol.  I am so glad that I finally decided to read it.  It is so much better in book form.

The first Dickens book I read, I was frustrated because I couldn't read it as quickly as I'd hope.  The language can be difficult at times but I found that if I slow down, I can enjoy the beauty of the writing as well as the story.  I have read a few of his novels so I knew what to expect when picking up A Christmas Carol. I love his wit, and his ability to set an incredible scene.  There are scenes that are funny, dark, and heart-warming that are all equally effective.

At its heart, A Christmas Carol is a beautiful story of redemption.  Regardless of peoples religious beliefs, I think we can all relate to the change of heart in Scrooge.  I know how uncomfortable I would feel if I had to watch some of my not so great moments.  I love the message, that we should use our remembrance of the past as an opportunity to change and to make amends.  I'm looking forward to reading it again this Christmas.  I would recommend A Christmas Carol to everyone.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Plainsong by Kent Haruf


by Kent Haruf
published 1999
completed June 2010

Plainsong takes place in the small town of Holt, Colorado, and focuses on the lives of many of its residents.  Victoria Roubideaux is teenager who has just found out she is pregnant.  Tom Guthrie is a high school teacher, raising two young boys alone while their mother is coping with depression.  The McPheron brothers are isolated as they raise cattle on their farm.  Maggie Jones teaches at the same high school as Tom Guthrie, and is instrumental and bringing them all together.

After discovering she is pregnant, Victoria is kicked out of her home.  She confides in Maggie Jones, and Maggie set about to help her by seeking the help of the McPheron brothers. She wanted Victoria to stay with them on their farm until she had the baby.  The McPheron brothers were old and a bit rough, and they were hesitant to take her in, but the transformation that took place with Victoria around was touching.  They came to love her and went to great lengths to protect her.  At one point Victoria had been reckless and was concerned that she had harmed the baby.  The brothers sweetly told her stories of their experience birthing calves to try to put her mind at ease.  It didn't really make sense, but their effort to cheer her was felt.

I really had a difficult time reading about the Guthrie boys.  My heart went out to them because they seemed to be in limbo.  Their mother deserted them, and their father was never really there.  They were only nine and ten years old, but spent most of their time alone.  It broke my heart the difficulties that these boys had to endure.

Small towns are notorious for their lack of privacy.  In Plainsong, you see the good and the bad of small town life.  The ending shows what it can be like when a people in a community band together to help each other.

The themes in this book are adult, and there is some language, but I would highly recommend Plainsong. 

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway
published 1952
completed March 2010

Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman had not caught a fish in 84 days.  He is determined to catch a fish on day 85 and sets out deep into the sea.  He makes the catch of his life, a huge marlin, but with great difficulty.  Alone in his skiff, he struggles to make it back to shore.

Santiago is not educated, but he is incredibly wise.  This book helps to reiterate that ones character counts for something.  In the world's eyes, Santiago failed in the end, but I would say that Santiago has grown because  of what he experienced and how he chose to react to the situations he faced.   Santiago says at one point, "But a man is not made for defeat.  A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

Santiago's struggle was monumental and I could relate to that feeling.   I'm grateful that I read this as an adult.  If I had chosen to read this in high school, I would have had a completely different reaction.  To appreciate this book, I believe you have to have some life experience.  I think you have to understand what it is like to struggle and feel overwhelmed.  Sometimes its not about the end result, but about the personal, inner journey you take as you face life's difficulties.

This book is a quick and straightforward read, but I the message is beautiful. I wouldn't characterize the ending as happy, but rather satisfying.  I highly recommend The Old Man and the Sea.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Peter Pan

by J.M. Barrie
published 1911
completed August 2010

Everyone knows the story of Peter Pan.  Like many, I had only seen the Disney version of the movie and never read the book.  The bare bones of the story are the same.  Peter Pan comes in through the open window of the Darling home one night and the three Darling children--Wendy, Michael, and John--fly off with him to Neverland.  All of the characters are present--Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, Tiger Lily, the Lost Boys, Smee, and the crocodile.

What surprised me the most was that the tone was much darker than the Disney movie.  I purchased this book with the hope of having my 8 year old read it, but I think I'll wait until he's a little older.  The reading level isn't difficult, but there is much more violence.  Neverland is not a happy place, but a dangerous place where the Lost Boys are on constant alert so as to not be killed by the pirates, Indians, or wild animals.

Peter is not as likable in the book.  He is incredibly arrogant and selfish.  That alone wouldn't bother me if it weren't for the fact that his cockiness put the lives of others in danger.  Peter originally sought out Wendy so that the Lost Boys could have a mother.  Peter was very self-centered and throughout the story you could tell that he didn't really care about Wendy.  When she ultimately went home, he was just sad that he didn't have someone to clean up after him.

Tinker Bell was another character I found to be quite different in the book.  She was a nasty little thing with a sharp tongue.  At one point she intentionally tries to get Wendy killed out of jealousy.

Barrie is an excellent story teller but Peter Pan wasn't as captivating as I'd hoped.  I can see why it is a classic.  I'm glad I read it, although I doubt that this is a book that I will revisit.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

1% Well-Read Challenge

The 1% Well-Read Challenge requires reading 13 books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.  This challenge began April 1, 2010 and ends April 30, 2011.

I have been slowly working through this list but this challenge will help me increase my efforts.  Here is a list of the books I plan to read.

1.  Never Let Me Go by Kazou Ishiguro
2.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
3.  The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
4.  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
5.  The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
6.  The Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro
7.  The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
8.  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
9.  Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
10. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
11. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
12.  Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
13.  The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Guinea Pig Diaries by A.J. Jacobs

The Guinea Pig Diaries

by A.J. Jacobs
published 2009
completed April 2010

Each chapter covers a mini-experiment conducted by A.J. Jacobs.  One month he outsourced everything possible to a company in India.  He also practices radical honesty for a month and an entire month of unitasking (doing strictly one thing at a time).

One of my favorite chapters was the first one where he posed as a woman on an online-dating service.  It was laugh out loud funny.  His young and attractive nanny was single and he wanted to help her get back into dating.  He talked her into signing up for an online-dating service and he wrote most of the correspondence for her.  This was the first chapter in the book and it was a great start.

I loved the outsourcing chapter as well, and the fact that he outsourced apologizing to his wife.  One of my other favorites was when he had pose nude for a photo shoot as quid pro quo for Mary Louise Parker posing nude for an Esquire Magazine article.  His picture is at the front of the chapter.  It is tastefully done but hilarious.  He is so self-deprecating and his description of the photography session and photographers instructions were very funny.

Most of the book was incredibly entertaining, but I found my interest tapering off as I got towards the end.  The chapter where he tried to follow George Washington's code of conduct for a month was quite dull.  It also had some political opinions in there that I wish he had left out.  Not that I mind people's political opinions, but it seemed self-indulgent of him to add it to this chapter when it didn't really fit with his experiment.

Overall it was a fun read and I look forward to reading more of A.J. Jacobs' books.

I read this book for the Take Another Chance Challenge as my genre switch-up.  I have never read a humor non-fiction book.  I'm excited to read more of this genre.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Many Bloody Returns and Dead Until Dark

Many Bloody Returns

edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner
published 2007
completed April 2010

So...I needed an anthology for Jenners Take Another Chance Challenge.  I didn't really know where to start so I used the Book Blog Search Engine and typed in anthology.  I know.  Super creative, right?  So this book kept coming up for whatever reason.  I don't really read vampire fiction but I thought I'd give it a try.

There were thirteen short stories, all involving vampires and some sort of birthday.  It wasn't terrible, but I found it dull.  I guess this genre just isn't for me.

The most interesting was Charlaine Harris' short story.  Sookie Stackhouse attended a birthday party for the original Dracula at Fangtasia, the local vampire bar.  The story was a little too short, but it gave me a good glimpse into the characters from her Southern Vampire Series.

Part of the challenge was to select an author from the anthology and read one of their full length novels.  Harris' short story wasn't perfect but some of the book bloggers I respect have found this series entertaining.  I decided to read the first book of her Southern Vampire Series with Sookie Stackhouse to complete the challenge.

Dead Until Dark

by Charlaine Harris
published 2001
completed April 2010

Sookie Stackhouse is a barmaid and a telepath.  She meets Bill Compton, a vampire, and a relationship begins.  Meanwhile, there is a serial killer on the loose targeting women who are involved with vampires.  Sookie is hoping that the serial killer is caught before the serial killer gets to her.

Dead Until Dark moves along at a pretty good pace and the mystery was entertaining.  It may just be me, but I didn't figure out who the serial killer was until the very end.  The writing isn't anything fantastic and Harris has a few annoying tendencies (describing unnecessary things), but it held my attention.  I like the characters, although Sookie can be a bit irritating.

There is quite a bit of violence but it isn't overly descriptive.  On the other hand, the sex in this book is VERY descriptive and I found myself skimming those sections.  There isn't too much language from what I remember, but I wouldn't recommend this for teens.

I'm still not sold on vampire fiction.  For someone who does enjoy it, I think these books would be perfect.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

A Long Way Down

by Nick Hornby
published 2005
completed May 2010

Four people have the same idea--commit suicide at midnight on New Year's Eve.  Not knowing about the others, they all arrive at the roof of Topper's.  Martin, Maureen, Jess, and JJ meet for the first time that night and can't stand each other, but they all decide to meet to reevaluate their choice to end their lives on Valentine's Day.

The first-person narration switches between the four main characters.  Hornby does an excellent job of making each narrator's voice unique.  This little group never really gets along, but through their interaction they each are able to come to terms with what brought them to the brink of suicide.  For a book being about potential suicide, it is quite humorous.  Nick Hornby is masterful in making this book the perfect mix of dark humor and honest sentiment.  I appreciate the fact that this book never turns into a "Dr. Phil" session.  They aren't sharing feelings or helping each other solve life's problems.  Some members of the group try to meddle, but it ends up backfiring.

There isn't much resolution in the end.  No one has a life-altering experience where they are now healed of their depression.  You just get a sense that they are all in a slightly better place and there is hint of hope.

As a warning, there are generous amounts of the "f" word in this book, so if that is offensive to you, this book is not for you.  It was a little too much for me, but I really enjoyed the book so I kept going.  I've read several reviews of this book and it is pretty evenly split down the middle.  Many hate it, and many love it.  I don't know if I would say I loved it, but I really enjoyed it.  I think the heavy language would keep me from unequivocally recommending A Long Way Down.

I read this as part of the Take Another Chance Challenge hosted by Jenners at Find Your Next Book Here.  This qualifies for challenge #9--Same Word, Different Book.  My other qualifying book is Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster


by Jean Webster
published 1912
completed May 2010

Jerusha Abbot was raised in the John Grier Home, an orphanage.  At 18, having finished her education, she was still there helping out, not quite sure how to move on.  Following one of the board meetings at the orphanage, she was informed that one of the trustees had offered to pay for her to go to college.  In return for his kindness, she was to write him monthly letters updating him on her progress.  He wanted to remain anonymous and requested that she call him John Smith.  She saw him from a distance talking with the director of the orphanage and he seemed tall, so she decided to refer to him as Daddy-Long-Legs because she thought John Smith was dull.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the collection of letters that Jerusha writes to her benefactor.  Jerusha is a colorful character.  She changed her name to Judy at school because she thought Jerusha was embarrassing.  She is feisty and independent, but sweet and full of personality.  Her letters are hilarious.  Not much happens in the book, but the way she writes about the little mundane things that she experiences, is entertaining.  She illustrates her letters with drawings of stick figures.  They cracked me up!  I loved everything about this book.  It is super short and you can read it in one sitting.

I would recommend this to anyone looking for a fun, quick, and clean read.

I read this as part of the Take Another Chance Challenge hosted by Jenners at Find Your Next Book Here.  This qualifies for challenge #9--Same Word, Different Book.  My other qualifying book is A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories

by James Finn Garner
published 1994
completed March 2010

This book takes the fairy tales that we grew up with, and twists them to satirize our politically correct culture.  Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is a quick read, but I found that it works better reading one story in a sitting.  Many of the jokes are similar from story to story so it loses some of its humor if you read them all at once.

I got a few good chuckles from this book but I don't think I would read it again.  I read it a while ago but from what I remember, the first few stories were the best.  Towards the end of the book, the jokes were kind of stale.  I would recommend this to anyone in the mood for a light humorous book.  I wouldn't recommend buying it, but borrowing it from a friend or the library.  This isn't a book for kids.  Not to say that there is anything offensive, but there are adult themes in some of the stories that I wouldn't want to explain to my small children.

I found this book while participating in the Take Another Chance Challenge 2: Blogroll Roulette.  I ended up using a blogroll that led me to this review by J.T. Oldfield at Bibliofreakblog.  It sounded like a fun read, so I picked it up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler's Wife

by Audrey Niffenegger
published 2003
completed January 2010

Henry has a genetic disorder, Chrono-displacement, that causes him to involuntarily and unpredictably time travel.  Clare meets Henry for the first time when she is six and he is in his thirties.  Henry doesn't meet Clare for the first time until he is 28.  The story follows the struggles their relationship must endure as a result of Henry's rare disorder.

I saw the preview for this movie July of last year and really was excited to see it.  Once I realized it was a book, I had to read it first.  I refuse to watch movies based on books without having read the book first. I put it on hold at the library and ended up waiting for SIX MONTHS before it was available!  The minute I got it home I started reading it, even though I had company.  I know, rude, but I had waited SO LONG!  I wanted to love this book, but alas, I did not.

I was turned off pretty early on with the language, but I had to finish it so I kept plugging along.  I just couldn't care about Clare.  She really bothered me.  She was so whiny.  I did not like her foul mouth either.  I usually am not bothered by a little foul language, but this book was full of the "f" word and it felt excessive and unnecessary.  It also bothered me that they only way the author could portray their love was through sex.  I have read plenty of other books that were more successful at illustrating a loving relationship without such graphic sex.

The narrative was in first-person and switched between Clare and Henry.  I didn't feel like I could hear their voice through their individual narratives.  There were several times that I had to go back to the beginning of a section to figure out who was narrating because I couldn't differentiate between the two.

A bit of a spoiler here so skip this paragraph if you are planning on reading The Time Traveler's Wife.  I was disgusted with Clare's behavior with Gomez.  He is her friend and she obviously didn't feel about him the way he did about her.  She was reckless and didn't care if she hurt him, his marriage, or her best friend Charisse.  Absolutely despicable.

The premise was compelling, so on that level it may be worth it for some.  I just didn't get sucked into this book emotionally as so many others have.  Don't pick this up if you are offended by graphic language or sex.  I know there are thousands of people who love this book; I just wasn't one of them.

On a side note.  I did eventually see the movie and enjoyed it more than the book.  It wasn't the best movie I've ever seen, but it was entertaining.  It was rated PG-13, so many of my issues with the book (graphic language and sex) were absent from the movie, which helped make it a better experience for me.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
published 2008
completed February 2010

Juliet Ashton, in post World War II London, is searching for an idea for her next book.  She receives a letter from a man of the island of Guernsey that sparks her interest. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written entirely in letters from many different characters.  Juliet forges friendships with the people in Guernsey as she learns about the formation of their society during the time of the war.

I started this book one evening and read through the night until I had finished.  I loved this book!  I loved the letter format and the quirky characters.  The ending seemed a little forced, but if your in the mood for an upbeat book, it fits just perfectly.  The story of the formation of the society overlaps with the occupation of the island by Nazi troops.  For being a book that deals with WWII, it was surprisingly not depressing.

I would recommend this to anyone looking for a satisfying clean read.

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

The Ice Queen

by Alice Hoffman
published 2006
completed January 2010

One morning a young girl makes a wish that comes true and dramatically alters the course of her life.  The unnamed woman becomes increasingly isolated and depressed until one day is struck by lightning.  This forces her into interaction with others, one specifically Lazarus Jones, and helps her to begin to emotionally heal.

The Ice Queen is narrated in the first person and can be quite depressing.  Her outlook on life is bleak and she is obsessed with death.  It was difficult to see the world through her eyes, but I felt compassion for her because of the circumstances that made her this way.  Although I find her thought process faulty (blaming herself for a tragedy), in her mind, this was perfectly rational.

The writing was beautiful and although there were fantastical elements, it didn't feel unrealistic.  There is a bit of sex in the book, so prudes beware.  If Alice Hoffman's books are all this captivating, I'm looking forward to reading more of them.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns

by Khaled Hosseini
published 2007
completed February 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a story of two Afghan women--Mariam and Laila--who are born into drastically different circumstances.  Their lives converge during a tumultuous time in Afghanistan.  It is a heart-wrenching story told through the perspective of women, of the physical and emotional devastation in Afghanistan over the past several decades.

Afghan history is not one of my strengths, but this book made it come alive for me.  This is what I love about books; it can open your eyes to different parts of the world and different cultures.  Hosseini is an incredible storyteller, and Mariam and Laila are beautiful characters.  They were different, but both had immense strength and an extraordinary capacity to hope, even in the bleakest of circumstances.

As a warning, there is a great deal of violence, but I felt that it wasn't gratuitous.  It made me realize how fortunate I am to live in a country where women have freedom and are treated with respect.  It was not a light read, but this was one of my favorite books so far this year.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White

by Wilkie Collins
published 1860
completed May 2010

Walter Hartright is a drawing teacher and with the assistance of his friend Pesca, finds employment at the Limmeridge House.  On his way to the Limmeridge House, he meets a woman dressed all in white and helps direct her as she seems to be lost.  He later discovers that she has most likely escaped from the insane asylum and is greatly distressed.  He arrives at Limmeridge House and meets Marian Halcome and her half-sister Laura Fairlie and starts to piece together the mystery of the woman in white.

The story is told through the narration of several different individuals that are party to the events.  The characters in this book were so colorful and alive.  I loved Marian Halcombe, who reminds me of my own sister.  She is fiercely loyal, extremely brave, and determined.  Mr. Fairlie annoyed me at times, but his scenes in the book made me chuckle.  I loved how each narration helped to slowly put the pieces of the story together.  There were many twists and turns that made for an interesting read.

The Woman in White was an unusual reading experience for me.  The story pulled me in, but it took me months to finish it.  I read the first third of the book then read several books before  picking it up again.  The fact that it took me so long to read does not affect my feelings towards the book.  I would still highly recommend this book to anyone who loves great characters and an intricate plot.  It takes patience to read this book because of its length, but, in my opinion, it is well worth it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan


by Ian McEwan
published 1998
completed April 2010

The book begins at the funeral of Molly Lane and follows the story of two of her ex-lovers.  Vernon is the editor of a high profile, yet struggling newspaper, and Clive is a prominent composer.  Vernon and Clive were long-time friends and Molly's death has caused them to reflect on their own mortality. 

I don't quite know what to say about this book.  I had high expectations for Amsterdam having read Atonement and LOVED it.  I know it's unfair to compare, but after reading Atonement I thought about it for days, yet when I finished Amsterdam, I was apathetic.  It was well-written, but half-way through, I stopped caring about the characters.  They were selfish, egotistical, and disloyal.  The ending was disturbing and seemed unrealistic to me.

I know there are many people who love this book; it just wasn't for me.  If you enjoy Ian McEwan's writing and are willing to look past unlikable characters, it might be worth a try.

I chose this book for the Take Another Chance Challenge as a prize winner book.  Amsterdam  won the Booker Prize in 1998.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Literacy and Longing in L.A. by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack

Literacy and Longing in L.A.

by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack
published 2006
completed January 2010

In all honesty, I only picked up this book because it met the criteria for one of my challenges.  For the Take Another Chance Challenge, I needed to find an author with my initials, K.M.  Not easy I tell you!  I searched for a very long time and this was the only book that was available at my library that fit the criteria that looked remotely interesting.

Literacy and Longing in L.A. is a story about Dora who goes on book binges when she wants to escape from reality.  She is currently unemployed, separated from her husband, and rapidly depleting her trust fund.  While at a bookshop, she meets Fred and through their relationship, she learns more about herself.

I didn't love this book, but I didn't hate it.  It was just okay for me.  I think the first half was better than the second.  The second half was a bit of a mess. Relating to Dora was difficult for me.  She is a trust fund kid who never had to make her own way and is a snob.  I don't do well with snobs.  Fred, her love interest, was disappointing as well.  He seemed amazing at first but turned out to be a total jerk and unlikable toward the end.  I don't think I would recommend this book to anyone, but if you're inclined to read it, go for it.  

Challenges:  Take Another ChanceWhat's in a Name 3

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

About Me and My Blog

My first child was born the summer before my last year of graduate school and life was CRAZY!  I had two part time jobs, was going to school full-time, and taking care of my son (with the help of his wonderful father, of course).  Once I graduated, I decided to not work but to be a stay at home mom.  After running at such a frantic pace for most of my life, I found myself at home with not much to do.  Looking after one child and living in a small apartment (not much space to keep clean), I found myself with quite a bit of free time.  I went to the library simply for pleasure for the first time since my adolescence and I was hooked!  I have been reading voraciously ever since.

A few years ago I was having difficulty figuring out what books to read.  I refuse to pick up a book on a whim.  I have to know that someone I trust enjoyed it enough to recommend it.  I turned to the internet and discovered book blogs.  I love reading reviews from everyday readers and have been stalking book blogs ever since.  This past year I finally decided to join a few book challenges and even started commenting on some of my favorite blogs.

I decided that I would start this blog so it will be easier to participate in the challenges.  I don't know how many people will read what I write but I like the idea of recording my thoughts on the books I read.  I have a bit of catching up to do as it is August and I have read about 10,000 pages so far this year.  I'll mostly focus on my challenges and maybe post on a few favorites of the other books that I've read this year.