Monday, October 31, 2011

Something Out There: Stories

by Nadine Gordimer
New York : Viking Press, c1984.

This collection of nine short stories and one novella (the title story) published in 1984 is my introduction to acclaimed author Nadine Gordimer. When I first went to the library to get one of her stories, I didn't know much aside from the fact that she was a South African author. I left the library with a couple of choices, and decided to pick this one up mainly because I was in the mood for reading something short before I went to bed instead of beginning a novel.

So far, inauspicious beginnings and (possibly) strange choice as an introduction to Gordimer's works. The first story was "A City of the Dead, a City of the Living," and I was gripped. She intersperses one of the character's thoughts, almost like a journal, between several paragraphs with a third-person omniscient narrator. It didn't take me long to figure out which characters thoughts i was reading, and this added to the tension. This was probably my favorite story of the collection, and I am truly in awe of Nadine Gordimer's way with words and ability to write a short story. Her stories are sometimes depressing, but always striking, and she never wastes a word. "Letter from His Father" was the most over my head. It is a "reply" to Franz Kafka from his father, Hermann. Because I have never read Kafka's "Letter to My Father," I missed much of the nuance, though I could appreciate some of its cleverness.

The only real disappointment in the collection was the novella, "Something Out There." I'm blaming myself for this, at least in part, because I know so little of the politics and history of South Africa, and I'm almost certain that I would have appreciated the points she was making, had I been more familiar with South Africa in the late 70s and early 80s. Instead, while I sometimes caught some of what she was saying, I never could quite bring the themes of the story into focus. Overall, this was a very positive reading experience, which included a couple of trips to the dictionary ("shebeen" and "analemma") and just a tad of research on apartheid. I loved Gordimer's writing style. In fact, I was thrilled to find that the day I returned this book to the library, they had July's People in their booksale, so now I'm prepared when I'm ready to tackle one of Gordimer's novels.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Winter's Here -- Already?

Winter has started, apparently, even though the date says that autumn has barely begun.

Here is the news on the Historic October Snowstorm that I just drove through after work today. There's only a couple of inches, but it's heavy and wet, so I drove s-l-o-w-l-y.

Apparently this isn't even the earliest the northeast United States has been hit with snow. It depends on how you measure it, but according to one article I found, the earliest heavy snowfall in Worcester was 7 1/2 inches on October 10-11, 1979, and the Berkshires were hit with snow on October 5, 1987.

At least I'm at home with my books now! If you've been wondering about the lack of posts lately, it's not that I haven't been reading, just that the books I've chosen lately have not been fast reads. I'm still whittling away at North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, a 500-page classic that I started in September and had to reread the beginning to remember what was going on. I have finished a couple of books, though, so check back in a couple of days or so to see new reviews!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

by Elizabeth von Arnim
London : Virago, 1985 (orig. published 1898).

From what I gather, this book is a sort of fictionalized memoir or memoir-like novel. Told in diary form from May to April, Elizabeth writes of her garden in the country, her husband (the Man of Wrath), her children (the April, May, and June babies), and other observations of her life in Germany, making sometimes acute and witty observations of both people and circumstances.

I was first introduced to Elizabeth von Arnim when I read The Enchanted April in 2009. I found the tale warm and the characters endearing, and determined to read more of her works. I've been following through on that determination ever-so-slowly, but Elizabeth and Her German Garden has rejuvenated that resolution. Every one of her books that I have read (Vera is the other) have been very different from each other, though in both The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, I most enjoyed her wit and humor. Elizabeth clearly lives as a well-to-do woman, with gardeners to do most of the work for her, and much leisure time, but she also discusses the political state of women in her time. I read a bit slower than usual because I had a hard time with the language of the day - long sentences with multiple semicolons make for slow going. But then a sentence or phrase would stand out for how beautifully she captures a description or sentiment. Though The Enchanted April is still my favorite of her works to date, this book stands as a close second.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Al Capone Does My Shirts

by Gennifer Choldenko
narrated by Kirby Heyborne
New York: Listening Library, 2009.

Moose Flanagan's father got a job at Alcatraz prison, so he and his parents and his sister, Natalie, have moved to the island from their home in San Francisco. With such a small group of people, including a small number of kids, living on the island Moose isn't sure about anything - making friends, playing ball. He and the warden's daughter, Piper, have to take the ferry in to school, and Piper has a grand plan involving the notorious gangster, Al Capone, who was in the prison in 1935.

I'm not sure why exactly - maybe it was the title, or the cover, or how I'd heard the book described - but I had the idea that this would be a much lighter, humorous book. Instead, what I found was a sometimes funny historical fiction about a boy and his family. Moose is the narrator, and how I saw the other characters, especially Piper and Natalie, was really colored by his interpretation. At the beginning, I thought Piper was a manipulative little chit, but either she grew as a character or on me, because I grew to like her despite her shenanigans. The historical research is clear in the strength of the story and setting, and the author's note bears this out - there is a note on Alcatraz that includes quotes from people who lived on the island (generally people who worked for the prison and their families), and a note on Natalie. Natalie's condition is never named in the story, though I read her as autistic, and the author's note bears that out. I found that her family's dynamics and challenges rang true, and I liked how clear it was that they all love her in their own way, even if they become frustrated at times.

Friday, October 14, 2011


by Brian Selznick
New York : Scholastic, 2011.

In 1977, Ben Wilson has lived with his cousins since his mother passed away. He has a small collection of things in a box, and finds a book, Wonderstruck, that teaches his about the beginnings of museums. In 1927, Rose Kincaid can see New York City from her window, and has big dreams.

The two stories - Ben's in words and Rose's in pictures - interconnect and intertwine creatively. Selznick shows his fascination with cinema and museums in the historic times he portrays. His illustrations have intricate shading and add a fun twist to the story he's telling. I could tell where the story was going earlier than, perhaps, the book's intended audience would, but I enjoyed seeing it come together.

I recommend it to fans of Selznick's first book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which honestly came to mind before I read the acknowledgments, so when he talked about it then, I felt extremely smart!).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern
New York: Doubleday, 2011.

This is one of those books that is difficult enough to describe while you're reading it, but even harder to do so without spoilers when it's finished. But I'll try, in any case. One day, Hector Bowen - better known by his stage name, Prospero the Magician - comes back from a show to see that his daughter, Celia, is left to him since her mother committed suicide. He has little interest in his child, until he discovers that she has a propensity for magic. Not illusion, but real magic, the ability to affect the world around her. He decides to teach her, and when his friend, a nameless man in a grey suit, comes calling, they decide to play another round in their game: Celia Bowen will be pitted against another, a protegee of the grey suit man's choosing, in a venue as yet to be determined. Interspersed with this story are glimpses of a mysterious circus that pops in and out of town without warning, that opens at dusk and closes at dawn.

Would it be too cliche to call this book magical? The various threads of the story, which is not told entirely chronologically, spin a fantastic web of a fully realized world. I really enjoyed the fully-rounded characters, and found myself wishing I could sit in on a Midnight Dinner. The details of the circus are wonderfully evocative; I wanted to go there and taste the caramel and chocolate mice and cocoa, to see the various acts and tents. Because what this story has most of all is atmosphere. I entirely forgive the almost leisurely pacing of the plot, because sitting for any length of time really getting sunk into the story was a truly incredible, enthralling experience. This is definitely a story I would read again, and I wager I would come away with a different understanding each time.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
New York : Warner Books, [1982], c1960.

If you haven't read the book (or seen the movie) by now, there's not much else I can say to convince you. Do it. Then come back, and we'll talk.

It's been years since the last time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I decided that, between my hometown reading it as a group read and Banned Books Week, it was time for a reread. (Well, at least I started it during Banned Books Week). This is the third or fourth time I've read this book. The first was when I was in middle school. I read it for school, and I remember my surprise as I followed Scout through every plot revelation. The next was listening to the audiobook while on vacation, enjoying a new experience of a well-loved story. This time, knowing the plot practically by heart, I could notice details and social commentary that I had entirely missed before.

***spoilers to follow***

I was much more attuned to the comments by adults that by and large went over Scout's head. This is partly because I know the story so well, but also because I know much more about American history and how African Americans were treated in this country (north and south) during this time period that I did the last time I read the story. I noticed the hypocrisy of adults who had a patronizing attitude towards African "savages" and wanted a better life for them, yet thought their help was getting uppity as a result of trial. And here's what really floored me: Atticus isn't entirely free from the societal dictates of his time. During the trial in cross-examination, he calls members of a white family Mr. Ewell and Miss Mayella. He calls his defendant, a black man, by his first name, and in conversation refers to Tom Robinson as "boy." It bothered me, even knowing that of course these characters were products of their time, and people really did talk and think that way. I could see how some teachers might be leery of using this book in classroom, though I think that it brings up a lot of food for thought and discussion on extremely important issues that are part of our history and should not be ignored.

On a less drastic note, I had also entirely missed that the meat of the story is set in 1935; I had always pictured the 1960s in my head (no wonder Aunt Alexandra couldn't stand Scout in explains so much!). I love that every time I've read the book, I've discovered something new. While not a perfect book, it is one of my sentimental favorites, and I certainly plan on rereading it again.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Heart of a Samurai

by Margi Preus
narrated by James Yaegashi
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2011, c2010.

Manjiro is just a humble fisherman from a small village in Japan. One day, a storm sends the vessel on which he works and his companions out to sea. They manage to wash up on an island, but in the 1840s, Japan is a closed country, and no one can come in - including Japanese fishermen who have washed up away from home. Will he ever return to his country?

I found this historical fiction about the first known Japanese person to come to the United States absolutely fascinating. You can't help but cheer for Manjiro as he learns to navigate a new way of life, a new language, and the prejudices of his new country. Though I listened to the book and enjoyed the narration, I highly recommend checking out the paper copy for the illustrations, some of which are copies of Manjiro's own drawings.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wyrd Sisters

by Terry Pratchett
New York : HarperTorch, 2001 (orig. pub. 1988).

When the King of Lancre is killed by the Duke, and the King's heir is taken away, the three witches - Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, and Magrat Garlick - find themselves reluctantly pulled into affairs of the Kingdom. Their cardinal rule, "Never get involved," is going to be severely tested.

If you've read any Discworld books, you know the general idea of what to expect: over-the-top silliness, but a point in that humor that makes you think about something perhaps more than a Serious Novel can. What I've read, I've read entirely out of order - this one is book six in the series at a whole (the earliest book I've read to date), and book two in the mini-series about the witches (I've already read book 6). One thing I've really enjoyed about the witches series are the - sometimes extremely strong - nods to Shakespeare. In this one, it was mostly Macbeth, though there were some definite references to other plays, and at least one sonnet. The character of Hwel and most of what we see him write cracked me up. I really enjoyed this foray into Discworld, and might just try to read some more in order...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Day the World Came to Town

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland
by Jim DeFede
New York : Regan Books, 2002.

I haven't read any books that deal with 9/11. Though the events were ten years ago, they seem closer than that to me, and have shaped much of my adult life. I wanted to somehow commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11, but I was afraid to read something that might turn dark and dismal. This story of townspeople reaching out to people whose planes were forced to land when U.S. airspace was shut down would be just the thing - true, yet uplifting. Still, especially in the beginning, when various people - pilots, air traffic controllers, the mayor of Gander - hear about or watch the planes fly into the towers, my heart starts pounding and my muscles tense. I find myself curling up tight in my chair, breathless. I didn't expect such a visceral response, or to feel instantly transported to the confusion and fear of that day, only my second week of college classes, the first class an English class from 9:30-11:15, our professor never breathing a word (did he not know?). And I remember how strange was the absence of the noise of airplanes, then the recurrence of them overhead.

There were 6,132 passengers, plus pilots and crews, on the flights diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. The townspeople could have put up a few shelters, called in the Red Cross, and called it a day. Instead, DeFede tells the stories of ordinary and extraordinary kindnesses - people giving their own towels to shelters, opening their homes, offering rides, and filling prescriptions free of charge. The stories of 6,000+ people could not fit in one book, but the stories of several are told here, often switching back and forth quickly between people keeping events in roughly chronological order through the several days Gander and the surrounding towns embraced their unexpected guests. Their stories made me laugh and cry in turn. I can't promise that I'll read any other books about 9/11, but I'm certainly not disappointed I read this one.