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Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Zookeeper's Wife

Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story. Jan and Antonina Zabinski lived in a villa on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo; Jan had become director in 1929, and when he and Antonina were married in 1931, they both devoted themselves to the zoo. For several years, the couple enjoyed their unique association with the zoo animals, and Jan worked at creating "an innovative zoo of world importance at the heart of Warsaw's life, both social and cultural..."

Antonina, with her unusual sensitivity to the zoo animals, was as much a part of the zoo's success as Jan, as deeply in love with its inhabitants, and as actively involved in promotion of its beauty and opportunities. In August of 1939, however, the threat of invasion presaged the end of their comfortable life of serving and caring for their beloved animals. And then, with terrible swiftness, their zoo was decimated by the Nazi regime.

This is the story of the German invasion and occupation of Poland and of the terrible events that ensued, including the confining of the Jewish population in the Warsaw Ghetto, the eventual transportation of the the surviving Jews to concentration camps, the final destruction of the Ghetto, the destruction of Warsaw...and the personal efforts of both the Polish resistance and courageous individuals in rescuing and harboring as many Jews as they could. More specifically, this book is the story of the "Guests" that Jan and Antonina hid in their home and on the zoo grounds at the risk of their own lives.

It is a terrible and wonderful story of real people and quiet courage. In an earlier post, I discussed the book and gave some links that provide background to the entire Warsaw story.

Ackerman has done a fine job in bringing to light the role the Warsaw zoo and Jan and Antonina Zabinski played in saving the lives of over 300 Jews. Relying on extensive research and on Antonina's diaries, Ackerman often digresses, but she never plays on your emotions in her presentation of events. Liberated in 1945, Warsaw's pre-war population of "one hundred and a half million people" was estimated in early 1946 at "half a million at most"--with "living space for a tenth that number," according to Dr. Joseph Tenenbaum. One million Poles and Polish Jews dead or, in a small percentage of cases, successfully escaped from the city to safety elsewhere. Hard to imagine.

Endangered Species: Jews and Buffaloes. An excellent article relating the terrible effect of the invasion on the zoo animals, the plundering of the rare animals by Lutz Heck, Natzi attempts at genetic engineering to "reconstruct" extinct animals, the new purpose of the zoo as a shelter and escape route for Jews, and more.

Nonfiction. Biography/ history. 2007. W.W. Norton & Co. 323 pages.

Another review can be found at CaribousMom.

Friday, September 28, 2007


Tagged by Bybee for this meme:

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why? Hardback, although I love really nice paperbacks, too

2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it… The Book Garden.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is… "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again" There is no way I could possibly decide on a favorite quote from a book, but this line is one that has remained in my head since I read Rebecca when I was in high school.

4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be …. Flannery O'Connor. She was funny and down to earth, and in her letters to her friends, she says "bidness" and "liberry," tells hilarious anecdotes, and makes sly, dry observations. As long as I am "making believe," I would also be capable of making intelligent conversation as, in spite of being a "good old girl," Miss Flannery had a formidable intellectual side.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be…The Collected Works Of William Shakespeare. What other work of fiction could provide such variety and sustain reading and rereading for an unspecified period of time?

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…. ... replaced books on the shelves in an organized manner. I leave mine on every flat surface, including the floor.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…. Childhood books that came from my mother and my aunts and provided so many hours of entertainment and vicarious life.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be….There are days that, like Bybee, I'd like to be Robinson Crusoe, self-sufficient and innovative; days I'd like to be Eloise, imaginative and spoiled and with free run of the Plaza; and days I'd like to be like Elizabeth Bennett, independent and self-assured. (Robinson Crusoe, Eloise, Pride and Prejudice)

9. The most overestimated book of all times is…. I'm not sure; there are so many books that I read that don't meet my expectations based on the hype.

10. I hate it when a book…. ...has characters that are all unlikable. I need to be able to identify with or to like at least one character in order to care about what happens to them.

I thought this meme was fun; anyone who would like to borrow it feel free!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Finally Caught Up on Reviews!

I finally finished the last review of finished books and feel that a load has been lifted.

I've been busy lately and have done less reading (and have been procrastinating on reviews), but The Zookeeper's Wife is keeping me interested. Ever since reading Mila 18 years ago, anything to do with the Warsaw Ghetto has fascinated me. More images and information here. The Nazis planned to eliminate not only the Jews, but the Poles as well, and the living conditions were terrible and terrifying. Jan Zabinski was a member of Zegota, the Council for Aid to the Jews and part of the underground resistance. Jan was recognized as one of The Righteous Among Nations for the efforts he and Antonina made in hiding Jews in their home and the cages of the zoo during the occupation of Poland. More about The Righteous Among Nations. Ackerman's book, however, focuses more on Antonina and her lower key, but just as necessary, efforts in hiding and caring for the Jews who were Guests in her home and the zoo grounds.

On a lighter, note: As I mentioned in an earlier post, I don't care for oysters...and yet, have enjoyed some of the chapters in M.F.K. Fisher's Consider the Oyster. "Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup" is a chapter devoted almost entirely to recipes for oyster soup/bisque and to Fisher's opinion of said recipes. The first recipe is from a newspaper, and Fisher calls it, "almost actively abhorrent." Without mincing words, Fisher says of that particular essay, "It represents with its efficiency, its lack of imagination, its very practicability, everything that Brillat-Savarin, in his forthright manner would have belched at gastronomically." She does go on to say, however, "And yet it can be a good soup" because it allows for individual variations which she lists and concludes with "this sterile recipe can do small harm." From this "abhorrent" version of oyster soup, the author proceeds to the ones she finds interesting or especially tasty.

Oh, the attraction this volunteer lantana has had for butterflies this year! It has been covered this month with Monarchs, Viceroys, Swallowtails, and various smaller butterflies.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Homebody (R.I.P & Cardathon - Becky said we could start early)

Card, Orson Scott. Homebody. A haunted house, a ghost, and a man still grieving over the loss of his daughter are the central elements in this novel. Don Lark makes a living by renovating houses, bringing them back to life, and then buying another to renovate. The Bellamy Mansion, however, which Lark purchases with this end in mind, is powerful in its own right and is capable (to a certain degree) of healing itself.

My problem with this book is that the twists and turns did not always seem to have a genuine purpose. Cindy, the real estate agent, is initially quite interesting, but for some reason, the plot turns, and she becomes merely pathetic before disappearing entirely. The neighbors seem to have deserved their own novel (I liked the characters of Miz Judy and Miz Evvie better than any others), but their circumstances were not sufficiently explained for me. Maybe Card himself wasn't sure where the story was going and let it develop as he wrote; but editing (both eliminating false leads and/or expanding certain aspects including the Bellamy family) would have led to a more cohesive novel. Don and Sylvie were almost too ambivalent about anything and everything.

When I finished, I remembered that Chris said that this was not his favorite Card novel, so I looked at several reviews and found that many Card fans were less involved with this one. Of course, any author as prolific as Card is going to have a flawed novel here and there.

Fiction. Suspense/ supernatural. 1998. 432 pages.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Rebel Angels (R.I.P #7)

Bray, Libba. Rebel Angels. I enjoyed the first book in this series much more than this one. Gemma has lost much of her independence, individuality, and quirky humor. The feisty and funny character at the beginning of A Great and Terrible Beauty is now too easily swayed by her friends.

Gemma, Felicity, and Ann take their Christmas holidays in London, but as things are not going well in the realms, they make frequent visits there. Gemma finds Pippa disturbing, but she is the only one who sees a problem (makes one wonder about Felicity and Ann, who appear undaunted by the deterioration in both Pippa and the realms), but Gemma does little to explain her doubts to the girls--maybe because she knows it its hopeless. Kartik plays a bigger part in this book (a good thing) and seems to be set up to play an even larger role in the next one. There is a bit of "romance" with Simon Middleton, but it is a sideline because Gemma must keep Circe from gaining control in the realms. Who is Circe? In order to fight her, Gemma must determine Circe's identity.

The anagrams may fool the twelve-year-old audience, but I'd think that by thirteen or fourteen most girls would catch on to this twist. Gemma's response to Simon's behavior at the party seems particularly obtuse, and her tendency to allow her friends to browbeat her-- seems at odds with "Lady Hope" and the idea that she is heir to magical powers beyond those of any previous member of The Order. I hope that in the third novel, Gemma comes into her own again.

fiction. Gothic / YA. 2005. 548 pages.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch (R.I.P. #6)

Delaney, Joseph. The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch. A YA book for ages 10 and up, according to the jacket. This YA novel doesn't patronize young readers, and I like that. Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son, and since his eldest brother will be inheriting the family farm, young Tom must be apprenticed elsewhere. His mother has made plans for this: Tom will be apprenticed to Old Gregory, the county Spook. The Spook is responsible for binding boggarts, capturing witches, and taking care of any evil that appears in the county.

Twelve-year-old Tom must learn the trade in order to take over the position from Old Gregory because a Spook is necessary for the safety of the county's residents; but... there have been 29 previous apprentices who were not successful. Will Tom, with the inchoate magic of the 7th son of a 7th son, be able to succeed where the others failed?

The trials and tribulations of Tom as a new apprentice are many. He has notes to take, spells to learn, and chores to perform, and then-- he meets Alice of the pointy shoes and becomes entangled in a dangerous mission that could end very badly, indeed.

I think young people would love the book for all the deliciously frightening events and for the magical education Tom is receiving.

The next in the series is The Last Apprentice: The Curse of the Bane.

Fiction. YA/supernatural. 2005. 343 pages.

Current Stack of TBR

Here is the most current stack.
Treasure Box - Orson Scott Card (recommended by Chris; Cardathon Challenge; R.I.P. Challenge)

First Meetings - Orson Scott Card (for the Cardathon Challenge)

The Sisters Grimm: The Unusual Suspects by Michael Buckley (R.I.P. Challenge)

Renfield: Slave of Dracula -- by Barbara Hambly ( recommended by Chris; R.I.P)

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms - by Amy Stewart (recommended by It's a Book Thing)

The Lace Reader -- by Brunonia Barry (an Advanced Reader's Copy sent by Gary at Flap Jacket Press)

Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales-- by Marie Louise Von Franz (R.I.P. Challenge & Unread Author's Challenge)

The Zookeeper's Wife -- by Diane Ackerman

Without a Map: A Memoir- by Meredith Hall (sent by Anna? darn, I don't remember, and it doesn't have a card in it, but it is a Beacon Press book)

Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (from Emily at Simon & Schuster)

Oops, left this one off the stack: Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - by Mark Kurlansky (recommended by Kim at Mouse Medicine).

I now have 3 books to review...must buckle down and do it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Challenges, challenges

I am not a "foody"--though I like good food. I am amazed that M.F.K. Fisher is able to spend so much time and effort discussing food, past and present. While I thoroughly enjoyed the more autobiographical The Years in Dijon, the Art of Eating (for the Unread Author's Challenge) must be spaced, not eaten whole. For me. One essay/chapter at a time.

There is formidable research in Serve It Forth (the first book in the omnibus) and enough food trivia to satisfy any food aficionado, and there were some personal references that were interesting to me. A return to The Three Pheasants and the waiter, Charles, several years after leaving France was a bitter-sweet experience for Fisher (and for me, the reader.)

Last Saturday, I mentioned that I was reading Consider the Oyster (second book in omnibus), and my daughter looked at me with a half-smile and said, "Why?" Why, indeed, when I don't care for them? The rest of my family enjoys oysters and most seafood, but I don't, so why should I consider the oyster. And how does one manage to write a whole book on oysters? Fisher does, and mostly makes it interesting, if not life-enhancing. The recipes, however, I skip. The day will never come when I need a recipe for oysters as any oysters prepared in our house are, and always will be, prepared by my husband. Oh, I admit to having battered and fried a few, but that is hardly a recipe.

I take it back, Fisher's recipe for "How to Make a Pearl" made me smile and read every word.

Two more books down that need to be reviewed: Rebel Angels and The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch. Orson Scott Card's Homebody is on my nightstand, and Fisher's tome is in the sun room.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Sisters Grimm Book One (R.I.P. #5)

Buckley, Michael. The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives. Written for very young readers (grades 4-6), The Sisters Grimm feature two young sisters whose parents have disappeared. After spending over a year in and out of foster care, Sabrina and Daphne are placed with a grandmother they did not know they had. Sabrina is suspicious of Granny Relda and plans on making an escape. The girls, however, find themselves in the town of Ferryport Landing where humans and characters from fairy tales exist side by side, and they are quickly required to solve a mystery and locate their Granny Relda before it is too late.

I'm of two minds on this book: first, I think it would appeal to very young readers. On the other hand, I'm one of those who doesn't really care for watered down fairy tales. The book takes a humorous approach, but I find the altered personalities of some of the characters disconcerting.

Fairy tales-- the very scary and often very sad kind-- were a part of my early childhood. I read and cried over The Little Match Girl, too many times to count. I found Hansel and Gretel terrifying--what father would obey a stepmother and lead his children into the woods in order to abandon them? Fairy tales made me grieve, they frightened me, and they made me think. I knew no stepmother could ever change my father's love, but what about those children whose parents didn't seem as committed to each other or to their children as my parents? My imagination moved events back and forth from the fairy tale world to the real one.

Memories of one leather-bound set that I loved are as clear as anything in my childhood. That set belonged to my aunt, and my cousins (all boys) were not interested in them, but I loved the embossed and gilded leather of those books and remember turning over and over to certain volumes and certain stories. Aunt Janice treasured those books from her childhood, and so did I. What ever happened to them, I wonder. I can still conjure up the images I formed then, as well as the sense of right and wrong that evolved as I judged the tales and the characters. The original Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen told the fairy tales I loved, feared, delighted in, not Disney.

I don't think the modern, tidy, sanitized versions hold up as well because they skim the surface and avoid the depths; children deserve more credit.

So... what do I think of The Sisters Grimm? It's fine if you want pancakes, but if you want meat and potatoes, the book will not quite satisfy. Or maybe I'm just too old to make a contemporary judgment... I loved Nancy Drew when I was young, not exactly thought-provoking, but thoroughly entertaining. We all want pancakes some of the time. Then, as now, I was an indiscriminate reader, bouncing from adult novels to children's books and from fiction to nonfiction without blinking an eye. Remember the biographies for young readers? And the books about wasps and ants?

I ordered the second in the series, The Unusual Suspects, at the same time and will read it as well. The series may grow on me. I do love the covers!

This site has a great atmospheric piece of music and other info on The Sisters Grimm series.

Fiction. Young reader/ mystery/ fairy tale. 2007. 284 pages.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Moonstone (R.I.P. #4)

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. T.S. Eliot admired The Moonstone and called it "the first and greatest English detective novel." He also added that it was "the longest" of its kind. Collins himself is considered the "father" of the modern English detective novel, but The Moonstone is much more than a detective story: it experiments with multiple narrators of varying degrees of reliability and pertinent information, speaks to British colonialism and racial assumptions, raises questions of class, treats religious fanaticism satirically and humorously, and shows a contempt for the hypocrisy of certain philanthropic organizations.

Collins begins with a background of the moonstone (a huge yellow diamond) and its violent theft, then moves to the narrative of Gabriel Betteridge who gives a background to the Verinder family. The moonstone, with its curse, is presented to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday, but by the next morning has disappeared.

Through the narratives of various individuals, the mystery of the diamond's disappearance and its aftermath is gradually related. The novel first appeared as a serial in Dickens' All the Year Around (which also published such authors as Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Elizabeth Gaskell) in 1868. It is easy to imagine the eagerness with which the audience would have looked forward to the installments that ran from January through August of that year. Rather like a soap opera or a television mini-series, The Moonstone must have been responsible for myriads of conversations and speculations among the Victorians.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I remembered the solution to the mystery, but little else, so it provided an enjoyable reread after 4 decades. While, in my mind's eye, I retained the image I formed of the actual theft, the references to Robinson Crusoe, the narratives of silly Miss Clack and the sadly alien Ezra Jennings were lost over the years. In many ways, it turned out to be a completely different novel that what I remembered, but just as rewarding. The Moonstone is a classic for good reason...

Fiction. Mystery/detective. Signet Classic. 493 pages.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Long Ago in France (Unread Authors Challenge)

Fisher, M. F. K. Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon. When Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was a new bride of 21, she and her husband Al arrived in Dijon for postgraduate study. It was 1929, and for Fisher and her husband, it was a learning experience of unusual proportions in a city between wars. Language, society, and cuisine were all new, and they were young and eager.

Of this time, Fisher recalls, "It was there, I now understand, that I started to grow up, to study, to make love, to eat and drink, to be me and not what I was expected to be. It was there that I learned it is blessed to receive, as well as that every human being, no matter how base, is worthy of my respect and even my envy because he knows something that I may never be old or wise or tender enough to know."

Fisher kept two journals while there in Dijon, living in two small rooms with first the Ollangniers, then the Rigoulots, and finally, their own tiny (yet more spacious than their previous rooms) apartment in a less socially accepted area of Dijon. She describes the two families with which they boarded with great detail, love, and irritation; relates the meals shared there with attention to the dining room, the company, the conversation, and the food; regales us with the first meal she and Al experienced at the Three Pheasants with the little waiter Charles, who guided them with great tact; recalls the scents of the famous Dijon gingerbread and the snails at Crespin, "the simplest and one of the best restaurants in the world"; tells us that Club Alpin was an excuse for fresh air and "orgiastic" eating.

According to W.H. Auden, "nobody in America wrote better prose," and John Updike called Fisher "a poet of the appetites." This memoir of her youth and three years in Dijon is more casual (as I am discovering) than the writing in her first book, Serve It Forth, and much, much more personal.

Short, but fascinating, Long Ago in France allows us a peek into a vanished world.

Nonfiction. Memoir. 1997. 159 pages.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Another Amazon order and books in process

Antonina's List a review by D.T. Max of The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. I've ordered this one. Darn, whose idea was it, anyway, to make ordering books so easy? My determination to hold off on ordering has gone down the tubes...again.

Still need to review Long Ago in France by M. F. K. Fisher and busy reading The Moonstone by Collins and the The Art of Eating, another Fisher. Actually, as Dark Orpheus mentioned, The Art of Eating is an omnibus of 5 of Fisher's works, the first is Serve it Forth. This omnibus may take the full 6 months of the Unread Authors Challenge, because it is (at least so far) very different from Long Ago in France, a fascinating and short memoir. Fisher was so young when she wrote Long Ago in France, as new bride. The nightly marathons continue.

I read The Moonstone (eons ago, when in high school). When I reread The Woman in White last year, I was delighted that it did not disappoint. The Moonstone, however, while not disappointing, is so different from my memories. I had no memory of the humor or of so many of the characters; I retained only the solution to the mystery. my rereading, I'm perhaps too much in the know about the mystery, but completely surprised with Collins' character/narrators (Gabriel Betteridge, Miss Clack, Mr. Bruff, Ezra Jennings--a few of the various narrators) and with Collins' view of "do gooders" and religious proselytizers. Have to wonder about who in Collins' real life aroused his sense of the ridiculous and invited his satirical eye.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Season of the Witch (another R.I.P & Unread Authors Challenge)

Mostert, Natasha. Season of the Witch. I found this one disappointing. The characters, with the exception of Frankie, who was barely necessary to the novel, seemed cold and flat.

I was willing, but unable to"suspend disbelief." The novel read quickly, I did want to finish, and there were some aspects that I found quite interesting, but it just didn't have the quirky charm of A Great and Terrible Beauty, nor were the characters or the narrative as well developed as in Dissolution.

Aspects that did appeal:

  • references to Stargate, the secret government program (dismantled in the 90's) that involved research into telepathy, clairvoyance, psychic abilities. I've always been interested in this program.
  • The Art of Memory and memory palaces. I do agree with Minnaloushe that with all of our modern technology, we no longer need to use our long term memory as much as in the past and that, as a result of books and technological aids, our long term memories have become less capable. I mean, when pre-literate societies could memorize entire histories to pass on orally, you have to admit that our abilities today are pretty meager. Scops that could memorize Beowulf and other epic works may have been the most talented "memorizers" of their time period, but without written works, everyone had to be better at memory tasks.
I had never heard of memory palaces and was interested in learning more about them. Here, and here, and here, are some sites with information about Memory Palaces.

Fiction. Gothic/mystery. Dutton. 2007. 395 pages.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Rejections, Dancers, Books

No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov by David Oshinsky discusses manuscripts rejected by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. While Knopf has published "the works of 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors as well as 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history," they have also let some good ones get away. The article lists some of the authors and works as well as some of the rejection letters--some kind and encouraging and one that ended with "Lay off, MacDuff"! :) Entertaining and informative.

I found this wonderful video of Deaf Chinese Dancers on Living the Questions and thought it too beautiful not share. You have to hang on a while to see the dancers but they are worth the wait.

I've finished two more books: Season of the Witch and Long Ago in France. These marathon reads at night will probably end soon, but I'm reveling in reading right now.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Dissolution (R.I.P. & Unread Author Challenges)

Sansom, C.J. Dissolution. I put this one on my TBR list sometime back, then Jill posted about it and renewed my interest; when the R.I.P. and Unread Author Challenges came up, I finally ordered the book. Given Jill's recommendation, the subject matter (dissolution of monasteries), time period (Tudor era), and genre (mystery), I was pretty sure that I would like this one...and I did.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer, a royal commissioner under Thomas Cromwell, and a hunchback. When Cromwell orders him to solve the murder of another royal commissioner at the Scarnsea monastery, Matthew has no choice. He and Mark Poer find a complicated set of individuals and behaviors at the monastery and evidence of quite a few misdeeds and secrets. Then...another murder.

Gothic elements: monks, monastery, mystery, secret passages, etc. Historic tidbits include information about the Reformation and various viewpoints, the dissolution of the monasteries, the power-hungry and greedy attitude that accompanied many "reformers," a bit out about Ann Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Mark Smeaton.

Matthew Shardlake is a genuine believer in the Reformation, but is forced to confront some of the aspects to which he has willfully blinded himself...about his master and about religious reform. Shardlake is intelligent, flawed, interesting, and ethical in a difficult time.

In May, Jill mentioned Dissolution again and posted some great links that you might want to check out. Mary and Ann have also given it a thumbs up.

I will certainly want to follow up with Dark Fire and Sovereign.

An interview with the author

Fiction. Historical/mystery. 2003. 390 pages.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Great and Terrible Beauty (first R.I.P & Unread Authors)

Bray, Libba. A Great and Terrible Beauty. It is 1895, and sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle is in that awful adolescent stage that often leads to great conflict between mother and daughter. Gemma wants to go to London and escape the boredom of India, but her mother refuses to give her permission. Gemma reacts with teenage pettiness, behaves badly, argues with her mother, and then runs off into the crowded streets of the Bombay marketplace.

Lost and frightened, Gemma has a vision in which she witnesses the deaths of her mother and the Indian man who minutes earlier had approached them and said, "Circe is near."

Two months later, we find Gemma in London, but under the heavy circumstances of her mother's death and her father's decline. Her brother is escorting her to Spence, a girl's finishing school, where Gemma will learn the art of finding a husband.

The tale is full of Gothic elements: the supernatural, an old building (in this case, not a castle, but a large school with one wing locked because of fire damage), omens, portents, mystery, suspense, females somewhat at the mercy of a male dominated society. But it is an updated Gothic, a kind of contemporary Gothic.

While the novel is set in 1895, many elements are anachronistic. Gemma is a much more modern female in both attitude and language than would have been the norm in the late Victorian period; she is independent, stubborn, and has a satiric bent that is modern in its realization. Her voice, especially at the first of the novel, is distinct, and I could easily identify with some of her withering assessments of the school and the girls. She is no mild-mannered, withdrawn, self-effacing Jane Eyre. She immediately goes into battle mode as she tries to win herself a place in the school's social hierarchy.

My favorite part was the first half of the novel where Gemma takes on the school clique; entertaining and humorous encounters because of Gemma's own attitude. The main characters all have their secrets and, regardless of how their lives may appear, their own wounds.

The sequel is Rebel Angels and yes, I'll be looking for this as soon as I can get some of my stack of books squared away.

Fiction. Gothic and YA. Delacorte Press. 2003. 403 pages.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

On books and book reviews

I read Goodbye to All That (The decline of the coverage of books isn't new, benign, or necessary) by Steve Wasserman and although it is a long article, Wasserman makes some points that hit home with me:

Obsessive devotion to the written word is rare. Acquiring the knowledge and technique to do it well is arduous. Serious readers are a peculiar breed. Elizabeth Hardwick, for one, has always known this. “Perhaps the love of, or the intense need for, reading is psychological, an eccentricity, even something like a neurosis, that is, a pattern of behavior that persists beyond its usefulness, which is controlled by inner forces and which in turn controls.” For this kind of reading is a profoundly antisocial act: it cannot be done in concert with friends; it is not a branch of the leisure industry, whose entertainments, whether video or computer or sports or rock ’n’ roll, can be enjoyed in the mass. How many times, for instance, did you ever say as a child: “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m reading?”
There is certainly some truth in that. "Obsessive devotion" to reading is so solitary as to frequently move into the antisocial category, don't you think? Are serious readers a "peculiar breed"? Mmmm...yeah.

As Wasserman quotes statistics and worries that we "totter on the edge of an abyss of profound cultural neglect", he pauses and reflects:

But perhaps this is too bleak a view. After all, 96 million readers is a third of the country. As John Maxwell Hamilton, a longtime journalist and commentator on Public Radio International’s Marketplace, writes in his irreverent and trenchant book, Casanova Was a Book Lover, “People who care about books care profoundly. What they lack in numbers they make up for in passion [emphasis mine]. A typical mid-1980s study illustrates the fidelity of readers to reading. Only half of the American public, the study found, had read at least one book in the past six months. Of those ‘readers,’ however, almost one-third devoured at least one book a week.”
I love that thought--that we "care profoundly" about books and though we may be few in numbers serious readers are passionate about books.

And I agree with Wasserman that:

...It is through the work of novelists and poets that we understand how we imagine ourselves and contend with the often elusive forces—of which language itself is a foremost factor—that shape us as individuals and families, citizens and communities, and it is through our historians and scientists, journalists and essayists that we wrestle with how we have lived, how the present came to be, and what the future might bring.

Readers know that. They know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing some years ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a UCLA police officer if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books. 

Sometimes we really do forget how important books and reading are to our way of life. They are the means by which we transmit much of our culture, social beliefs, religion, technology, tradition..

And this article on literacy...
I've finished my first book for the RIP Challenge and will review it soon.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bridge of Sighs

Russo, Richard. Bridge of Sighs. This is an Advance Reader's Edition that I won over at Stefanie's, and the best novel I've read all year.

Louis C. Lynch (Lucy) is anticipating a trip to Italy with his wife Sarah. As he prepares for the trip, he begins a chronicle of his life, for some reason compelled to tell the story of his family, his childhood friend, and the sweetheart of his youth, Sarah. Lou sifts through his memories of his beloved father, the eternally optimistic milkman; his mother, shrewd and practical; his best friend, now a celebrated artist; and Sarah, who decided on the Lynch family as a unit. He examines their small town lives in detail, feeling that no matter how ordinary they seem, "attention must be paid" to them.

I loved this book. The writing is wonderful, mesmerizing; Russo so deftly defines character, place, and situation that I woke up one night wondering, "What did he put it that drawer?" as if the book were real life. This is the first time I'm aware of a book pervading my consciousness to the extent of entering my dreams, but there I was puzzling over clues and motivation. Up at 1:30 A.M., settled into my reading chair, shaking my head at my own behavior...

Fiction. Alfred A. Knopf. 2007. 527 pages.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mixcellaneous Mix

I've updated my 2007 list of books with the August entries. Two books didn't get a review. Mademoiselle Victorine never involved me with either the characters or the story. Far-fetched? The only thing that interested me was the inclusion of Baudelaire as a character. The Millionth Circle was a new agey work that essentially said, over 87 double-spaced, centered pages, what could have been said in a paragraph...and was and was and was, over and over again. Nevertheless, August saw some real winners in both fiction and nonfiction. A very good month overall.

As soon as I finish Bridge of Sighs, I'll be delving into the R.I.P and Unread Authors challenges with gusto!

I've already mentioned the Cardathon Challenge when I discussed Challenges on Tuesday. The only thing I'm sure of is that I'll begin with Ender's Game (it has been years and years since I read it) and proceed from there working through as many Ender books as possible. Homebody is on my current list for the R.I.P. Challenge, and Chris recommended Treasure Box. Card will be making frequent appearances next year.

I finished and framed the bee balm, but have not started on the cone flowers or the crane yet. Will get another mat for the bee balm, Debbi suggested green, and I think that is a good choice and Mac agreed.

A garden visitor. click to enlarge