Friday, July 30, 2010

Spotlight Series Review: How to Escape From a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique

It is the night of Easter Sunday. I've already been to chapel and received God on my tongue. I sit in my cell with the lights off. Everyone's light is off. I wait for the man with the cross to begin his walk. He's been doing it once a year for the whole twelve years I've been in here. Carnival is coming in a few weeks. The queens have already had their pageants. The steel bands are practicing every night--until late in the morning. But this man. He will come, I believe. He always comes. I wait for him. And I think about why he is doing his penance. And I think about why I am doing mine. [opening paragraph of "Kill the Rabbits"]

How to Escape From a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories by Tiphanie Yanique
Graywolf Press, 2010
Fiction; 184 pgs

There is beauty in words. Beauty in a story. And beauty in the characters that fill those stories. Tiphanie Yanique captures all of that in this collection of stories and a novella, steeped in culture and life.

I had not intended to participate in this months Spotlight Series as my plate was already full. I could not help but glance through the Graywolf Press catalog though. My attention was particularly drawn to two books, both collections of stories. I couldn't resist. While I settled on one to review here today, I did buy a copy of the other as well to read at a later time. After having read How to Escape From a Leper Colony, I am even more glad of my decision to take part in the tour. Graywolf Press deserves more notice. I hope you will check out the other reviews of Graywolf Press books on tour this week!

The characters are the main thrust of each of Tiphanie Yanique's stories. And with many of them, the endings gave me pause. The stories may not be wrapped up with a neat little ribbon at the end, but they certainly offer one food for thought. Yanique's writing style is lyrical, and, while several of the stories are straight forward, with others she takes creative license. I was reminded of how much of an art writing can be. I found myself wanting to take my time with each story, lingering over the words and taking in the experience. For each story truly is its own experience.

There was not one story in the collection I did not like. In fact, I'd come across one story, decide it was a favorite and then claim the next was a favorite too. This happened over and over again.

One of my favorites was "Street Man", about a drug dealer who falls for a straight girl. He is so focused on his own life and his own perception of their relationship, keeping the street out of his relationship with her, that he misses the fact that she may have a life and ideas of her own. There is also the story about a young woman who is sent to live in a leper colony, isolated from the rest of the world. She befriends a young man whose entire world is the island, and they both long to be free. I was moved by "The Bridge Stories: A Short Collection" which is a series of stories seemingly independent of one another but interconnected at their core. Another of my favorites was the novella, "The International Shop of Coffins", covering moments in the lives of three very different characters. The story begins the same in each case, and yet each story is unique but equally sad.

The collection is made up of eight stories all together. The stories are about love, despair, regret and longing. They are about dreams, both lost and hoped for. They are set mostly in the U.S. Virgin Islands, touching on several different cultures and lifestyles. This is one of those books that would make a great book club selection, if the group is willing to take a chance on a collection of stories.

Rating: * (Very Good)

To see what other Graywolf Press books bloggers are reading for this Spotlight Series, check out the Spotlight Series blog.

Book Source: I bought the book myself for the tour.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Review: The Hypnotist by M.J. Rose

Time played tricks on him whenever he stood in front of the easel. Hypnotized by the rhythm of the brush on the canvas, by one color merging into another, the two shades creating a third, the third melting into a fourth, he was lulled into a single-minded consciousness focused only on the image emerging. Immersed in the act of painting, he forgot obligations, missed classes, didn't remember to eat or to drink or look at the clock. [opening of The Hypnotist]

The Hypnotist by M.J. Rose
Mira, 2010
Crime Fiction; 409 pgs

Synopsis from the author's website:
An FBI agent, tormented by a death he wasn't able to prevent, a crime he's never been able to solve and a love he's never forgotten, discovers that his true conflict resides not in his past, but in a…Past Life.

Haunted by a twenty-year old murder of a beautiful young painter, Lucian Glass keeps his demons at bay through his fascinating work as a Special Agent with the FBI's Art Crime Team. Currently investigating a crazed art collector who has begun destroying prized masterworks, Glass is thrust into a bizarre hostage negotiation that takes him undercover at the Phoenix Foundation—dedicated to the science of past life study—where, in order to maintain his cover, he agrees to submit to the treatment of a hypnotist.

Under hypnosis, Glass travels from ancient Greece to 19th century Persia, while the case takes him from New York to Paris and the movie capital of world. These journeys will change his very understanding of reality, lead him to question his own sanity and land him at the center of perhaps the most audacious art heist in history: the theft of a 1,500 year old sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I was first introduced to M.J. Rose's writing through her crime fiction series, featuring a sex therapist Dr. Morgan Snow. I enjoyed the series and so was excited when she came out with the Reincarnationist series, especially given the subject matter. Like so many books, however, the series went on my wish list, and I hadn't had the opportunity to read any of the books until now, beginning with the third book in the series, The Hypnotist. Although labeled a series, the Reincarnationist books (The Reincarnationist, The Memorist and The Hypnotist) can be read in any order. Their only connection seems to be the fact that they deal with past lives at their heart. The stories and the characters are independent of one another.

The above synopsis only covers a piece of what can be found in The Hypnotist. So much is going on that I would not recommend setting the book aside once you start for days a time before returning to it. You may lose a thread or forget an important detail. I had the luxury of reading most of this book in one sitting and found it captivating all the while. It was never dull and each thread of the story seemed carefully crafted to create a suspenseful and fascinating ride. As I read, I could hardly wait to see how everything would come together in the end.

The idea of past lives has long interested me, and so I was especially drawn to that aspect of the book. I haven't done nearly as much research into the subject as the author has, but my interest has been piqued. While the novel itself stretches believability, it does not do so in a way that interferes with the suspension of disbelief. I was hooked from the start and lost in the novel right through to the end. The characters were well developed, some more complex than others.

Art history has never been one of my strong suits, but I am fascinated by history itself and find the world of art theft intriguing. One issue the novel brought up that especially caught my interest was the trail of ownership a piece of art may leave, the complexities of it and just how difficult it could be to trace the art back to its origin. History is full of its own mysteries. It is no wonder I love it so.

Having been reading so many books about the Vietnam War recently, The Hypnotist was a nice change. I look forward to reading the rest of the books in the series.

Ratings: * (Very Good)

You can learn more about M.J. Rose and her books on the author's website. Be sure and check the TLC Book Tours website as well for other tour dates and links to reviews.

Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. Book for review provided by the publisher.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. [opening of Little Bee]

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 2008
Fiction; 271 pgs

The inside flap of the book does not offer much in the way of description about what to expect in this novel. The publisher wants it to be a surprise. If you are a regular blog reader, you have likely come across a number of reviews of this book that reveal a bit of the plot. I'd forgotten most of those when I picked up Little Bee to read, and so it was as if I was stepping into the book completely blind. I did, however, remember the mixed reviews. Several bloggers loved the book while others were less than impressed.

I do not think it is revealing too much to say Little Bee is the story of a Nigerian immigrant in England. After spending two years in a detention center, she makes her way to the home of the only people she knows in the country, a couple she met briefly on a beach in Nigeria. The story that unfolds is one of tragedy, about war and grief, shame, regret and courage. It also takes a hard look at immigration policy and the treatment of those seeking asylum. Wrapped in politics, Little Bee is more so a story about the people, about their struggles and life choices and how those choices can have a lasting and reverberating impact on their lives. Told from the perspective of both Little Bee, the sixteen-year old Nigerian girl, and Sarah, the editor/journalist, the story is revealed one layer at a time, traveling between past and present. It is in this way that the author proves he is a master of suspense. I never knew quite what to expect.

I read this book for an online book group discussion. Much was said about the various characters. Everyone loved four year old, Charlie, or Batman as he preferred to be called. He fought invisible bad guys valiantly. His story mirrored that of his parents and Little Bee's in a way, as they themselves had their own demons to fight. Only, his story was one of innocence and hope while his parents and Little Bee's was steeped in betrayal.

Sarah wasn't a very popular character, at times seeming selfish. I actually liked her even if I didn't always agree with her choices in life. She offered a valuable perspective to the story. She is a strong woman and yet vulnerable. Sarah is naive at times and seems to want to do what she feels is right. Like her husband, Andrew, and Little Bee, she is haunted by the past. She tries to put it behind her, only it's never quite out of sight.

Andrew is a character who can easily be criticized for the part he plays in the novel, but I think to do so is short sighted. He is perhaps one of the more outwardly tormented characters of the novel, wishing he had done more, blaming himself for being weak. There is so much I wish I could say here about his character, only I've probably already said more than I should. I will go so far as to say that I think the question of what we might have done on that beach that day if we'd been in Andrew and Sarah's place is not one as easily answered as we might like to think.

My least favorite character in the novel is Lawrence who only seemed out for himself. While I can understand his reservations to wanting to help Little Bee to some small degree, his reasoning paints him as a purely selfish man. There was nothing I liked about Lawrence, nothing I found redeeming in his character.

Of all the characters, it was Little Bee's story that stood out the most, her voice that was most unique and revealing. Little Bee spent her two years imprisoned, mastering the English language and learning about the society she so much wanted to be a part of. Through her eyes, we see the cultural differences that existed between the life she led in Nigeria and the one she is living in the United Kingdom. Despite her efforts to fit in, Little Bee is still seen as an outsider, an interloper, if you will. It was her story that touched me the most. She is intelligent and resourceful. Like the other characters, she is flawed, having made decisions she now regrets.

Little Bee is a powerful novel that tackles very serious issues. It is at times funny while at others it is painful. Chris Cleave does a good job of balancing the light and the serious. For days after finishing the novel, I found myself mulling over the novel's themes, thinking about the characters and wondering what ever became of them.

Ratings: * (Very Good)

For more information about the author and his books, visit his website.

Source: Pulled book off my TBR shelf. Purchased myself.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

(Nearly) Wordless Wednesday: Making Themselves At Home

Despite his guardians efforts to keep him off the new couch, Riley is determined to make it his own one way or the other.

The cats are taking over Anjin's desk.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Short Story Tuesday: The Headstrong Historian by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

"The Headstrong Historian" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2008)

Nwamgba had been determined to marry Obierika; they seemed the perfect match. Only, her family had concerns because his family was not known for their fertility. Obierika was an only child as was his father. Nwamgba was stubborn, however, and demanded that her family accept Obierika's family's offer of marriage. His family was a good family, after all. Generous and successful.

Nwamgba and Obierika suffer through many miscarriages before giving birth to their only son. Anikwenwa is a quick learner and a good child. Tragedy strikes when Obierika dies of suspicious circumstances, or so Nwamgba believes. She fears for the life of her son, as Obierika's two good for nothing cousins look on, their greed clear on their faces.

Word comes that white men are visiting villages, sometimes resorting to violence when the clans will not cooperate. There are the missionaries who preach about their god and establish a school, and then there are the bureaucrats who set up courthouses and deal out their own law and justice.

Wanting to protect her son, Nwamgba takes him to the Catholic mission so that he can learn English. She wants to empower him to fight against the cousins and protect what is his in the white man's court should the need arise. Anikwenwa does learn English and a lot more. He changes before his mother's eyes and, while she is proud, she is also saddened by how much of his family's tradition he now rejects.

In one simple and yet powerful story we see how one culture can wipe away another. The white men brought their beliefs and traditions to Nwamgba's village, wanting to "civilize" the natives, in essence trying to destroy a culture and way of life. History is full of such stories, and this one brings it home.

I was moved by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, when I read it years ago, and I was no less moved as I read her short story, "The Headstrong Historian". Nwamgba was a strong-willed woman who knew her own mind. No one, least of all she, could have known the direction her life would take once she made the decision to send her son to the white man's school. The story follows three generations of Nwamgba's family, and, while at once tragic and sad, there is also hope that comes in the end. A sad sort of hope, but a hope nonetheless, that not all will be forgotten.

You can find the story, "The Headstrong Historian", and read it for free on the New Yorker website.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Monday, July 19, 2010

From Book to Film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

After putting down the telephone the eighty-two-year-old birthday boy sat for a long time looking at the pretty but meaningless flower whose name he did not yet know. Then he looked up at the wall above his desk. There hung forty-three pressed flowers in their frames. Four rows of ten, and one at the bottom with four. In the top row one was missing from the ninth slot. Desert Snow would be number forty-four. [excerpt from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo]

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (Reg Keeland, Translator)
Vintage, 2009
Crime Fiction; 644 pgs

Synopsis from the publisher:
A murder mystery, family saga, love story, and a tale of financial intrigue wrapped into one satisfyingly complex and entertainingly atmospheric novel.

Harriet Vanger, scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families, disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pieced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.
One of the most talked about books of the last two years, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was on my list of must read books this year. When the book was making the rounds at my office, I decided to take time out to read it. I admit to being skeptical. All the hype and then reading a few dissenting opinions planted a seed of doubt in my mind. I should have known better. I love a good mystery thriller, and in the end I was pleasantly surprised. I went into the novel not really knowing what it was about, only having heard about the two main characters and the violent rape scene. The rape scene wasn't nearly as graphic as I had been led to believe, although, as with any scene like that, it's hard not to be impacted by it. The violence and the victimization were very disturbing to say the least.

As for Lisbeth and Mikael . . . You can count me among those who are quite taken with them. Stieg Larsson spends quite a bit of time developing his characters and it was impossible not to grow attached to them. Both are extremely flawed but have a strong sense of justice, even if of their own variety. Lisbeth is such a strong female character and yet also very vulnerable. She struck me as a woman I would not want to mess with and yet also as one I wished I could protect. It makes for an interesting dichotomy. Mikael was a bit more of a playboy but he was always diligent and aware.

I especially liked the depth of the mystery, the way it unfolded. Stieg Larsson had a penchant for detail and left hardly a stone unturned. It fit well with the attention to detail his characters gave their work. I found this novel to be intelligent, suspenseful and entertaining.

Of course, I couldn't leave it with just reading the book. I had to watch the movie too. I expected great things after hearing so many positive reviews, and I was not disappointed. Noomi Rapace was perfect in the role as Lisbeth. She looked just as I imagined her and played the character with such strength and vulnerability that I felt as if I was reading the book again. Michael Nyquist as journalist Mikael Blomkvist also did a good job.

The violent scenes in the movie were much more dramatic than I had imagined them in my head as I read the novel. I felt the same intense anger and heartache in both, however.

The book and movie are not exactly the same, although they run along a very similar course. There were some changes I was glad to see, while others I could have done without. Isn't that always the way though? More of Lisbeth's back story is revealed in the movie than it was in the book, although it didn't come as a surprise. I wonder if perhaps that bit of information is in the second book (which I haven't yet read). Regardless, the movie was very well done. The proper mood and tone were captured and the Swedish landscape was breathtaking.

I chose to watch the movie in subtitles, but for those who have a problem with reading script while watching a movie, there is also a dubbed version on the DVD. I admit to being a little leery of the American movie version that is in the planning stages. I am perfectly content with the Swedish version and am not sure I trust Hollywood to do the book justice.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original title: Men Who Hate Women) (Foreign, Mystery, Thriller - 2009; rated R; directed by Niels Arden Oplev; screenplay written by Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg; novel written by Stieg Larsson)

Rating for both book and movie:
* (Very Good +)

Source: Although I have my own copy of the book which I bought myself, the copy I read was actually borrowed from a coworker. The movie is one I purchased for my own viewing.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Salon: The Vietnam War (My Reading, Part 2)

I spent quite a bit of time this weekend lost in Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried. At times it is funny, while at others heartbreaking. I cannot help but think of my dad and the time he spent in Vietnam during the American war there. So many lives were lost. So many lives changed, as they are with any war. No one comes back from war without scars. Not even Paco.

This past week participants for the read-a-long of Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann were asked to read chapters 3 and 4. The novel takes us from Vietnam, where Paco was the sole survivor in an attack that wiped out his entire unit, to his recovery and eventual attempt to rejoin society back home in the U.S. Heinemann is a gifted storyteller as well as writer. While middle two chapters are not quite as raw as the first two, they still capture the mood and tone of what life must have been like for many soldiers who were trying to adjust to a "normal" life after the war.

1. Do you think Paco is ready to rejoin the living and will he easily re-enter “normal” life?

I think Paco is as ready as he can be given his circumstances. Despite the pain and medication he is on, he appears to do quite well for himself, at least in terms of going through the motions. He has his priorities set: finding a job and a place to sleep. It will not be easy for him, no doubt. He has a lot going against him. Not having a clear of idea of what is going on in his head, it is hard to know what psychological issues Paco may be dealing with and how he is working through those, if at all.

2. How do you think the lively atmosphere of Rita’s Tender Tap affects Paco?

The environment seemed to overwhelm him and so he made as quick a retreat as he could without seeming unfriendly. Having come from a war where life and death were paramount, stepping back into society where trivial issues are what seem to be important is not so easy to do. Paco most likely feels out of place, unsure of where he fits in anymore.

3. Do you think Heinemann made the right choice in narrator, or do you believe Paco should be telling his own story?

I think the author's use of an outside narrator offers the reader a necessary glimpse at what those Paco encounters are thinking. The reader is able to see just what obstacles Paco encountered on his journey and gets a feel for how society responded to someone like Paco: a soldier from an unpopular war, an outsider, and a person with a disability. Most people wanted him to be on his way so they could get back to their own lives.

4. Do you think the side stories about the medic who found Paco, the bus driver, and Mr. Elliot, etc., add to the narrative or take too much attention away from Paco, who seems to hide in the background during these asides?

I found the side stories interesting and informative. As I mentioned in my response the question #3, such narrative provides more insight into what Paco faced. What struck me about Mr. Elliot was his struggle with his own demons from war. It was a different war than the one Paco fought in, but seeing Paco, brought back those memories for Mr. Elliot and the reader is offered yet another impression of how war impacts individuals, whether from a solider or civilian perspective. In the diner owner, we discover a man who connects instantly with Paco, having been a soldier himself. He understands what Paco is going through and offers to help. Whereas the people in the barbershop saw Paco as an outsider, a man with a disability, would was more a burden than a help. They wanted nothing to do with him. All of the different perspectives offered in the book capture the variety of ways a soldier may have been treated upon his return home after war.

5. How do you feel about Paco at this point in the book?

I rather like Paco and have much empathy for what he is going through. I think, at this point, he is just going through the motions to survive and work through the pain he is suffering. The reader is more of an observer to the events happening to Paco, rather than being in his head. This has its advantages, as mentioned above, but also the disadvantage of not letting the reader know just where his head is through all of this. There are so many unanswered questions still about Paco and who he is exactly. I am curious to know if my impression of him will change as the final two chapters of the novel unfold.

Leaving Paco for the time being, I turned my attention to the final story in Nam Le's collection of short stories called The Boat.

Escape does not come easy. Vietnamese people fled Vietnam after the war, trying to get away from the communists. This is the story of Mai, Quyen and Quyen's six year old son, Truong. Sixteen year old Mai meets Quyen and Troung on the crowded boat, when Quyen takes Mai under her wing. Mai takes an instant liking to the young Truong, whose eyes are always distant.

Their escape is fraught with difficulties: a storm, failing engines and the heat above deck. There is little food and hardly any water. Sickness and death are all around them.

Nam Le's story, The Boat, is not an easy story to read. The characters' journey is described in raw terms. Relief comes in Mai's memories of her father and family, but only slightly. Their story too, is a sad one. Even in the midst of the suffering, I couldn't help but be reminded of the strength of the human spirit. This is a story that will haunt my dreams tonight, no doubt.

I had hoped to have Jason Aaron and Cameron Stewart's The Other Side read for today, but I was unable to get to it. It is a graphic novel that tells the tale of two soldiers during the American War in Vietnam, each on the opposite side. Look for that next Sunday.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review: 29: A Novel by Adena Halpern

I'm supposed to feel so blessed to be seventy-five years old. Hell, I tell people that myself, but that's mostly to make myself feel better. [pg 1]

29: A Novel by Adena Halpern
Touchstone, 2010
Fiction; 269 pgs

Sometimes I come across an unexpected gem of a book. In this case, it's a book I never would have given the time of day had the publisher not sent it to me for review. I hadn't requested it, so I could have easily passed it over for the next book. But in the moment I picked it up, it seemed like the right thing to do. And it was.

Adena Halpern's novel, 29, is funny and charming. It's the story of a 75 year old woman, Ellie Jerome, who wishes on her birthday to be young again for a day. She longs to live the life her granddaughter is living, to start over and make different choices than she had the first time around. When she wakes up the next day, she discovers her wish has come true. Suddenly, she is young again and she can't wait to live life to its fullest.

Wrapped up in a story about taking chances and having fun, this is also a novel about family, friendship, love and regrets. It is about growing old--the way we see ourselves and others. It is also about appreciating what one has, while at the same time, not being afraid to make changes. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with Ellie.

Ratings: * (Very Good)

For more information about the author and her books, visit her website.

Source: Received book from publisher for review.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Short Story Wednesday: The Third and Final Continent by Jhumpa Lahiri

"The Third and Final Continent"
from Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books, 1999)

This story really touched me. I even cried. A 36-year-old man leaves his home and family in Calcutta to strike out on his own. He travels to London where he earns his way until offered a respectable job at an American university. Before moving to the U.S., arrangements are made for him to marry a woman he does not know. While setting up residence in the U.S. and waiting for his wife's green card to come through, he rents a room from an elderly woman. While the two never really grow close, she makes an impression on him that will last him a lifetime.

Jhumpa Lahiri has again created characters who are very real and easy to relate to. She captures well the experience of an immigrant, the loneliness and the need for adjustment. I imagine it was the most difficult for Mala, the narrator's wife, who left everything she knew in India to come to the U.S. to be with a husband she barely knew.

The author is often very subtle in addressing certain aspects and feelings in the stories that make up Interpreter of Maladies, and yet I always come away with a clear impression of just what that might be.
Within days it became our routine. In the mornings when I left for the library Mrs. Croft was either hidden away in her bedroom, on the other side of the staircase, or she was sitting on the bench, oblivious to my presence, listening to the news or classical music on the radio. But each evening when I returned the same thing happened: she slapped the bench, ordered me to sit down, declared that there was a flag on the moon, and declared that it was splendid. I said it was splendid, too, and then we sat in silence. [pg 183]

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

There are some stories no one wants to hear. Some stories, one told, won't let you go so easily. I'm not talking about the tedious, the pointless, the disgusting: the bugs in your bag of flour; your hour on the phone with the insurance people; the unexplained blood in your urine. I'm talking about narratives of tragedy and pathos so painful, so compelling, that they seem to catch inside you on a tiny hook you didn't even know you'd hung. You wish for a way to pull the story back out; you grow resentful of the very breath that pushed those words in the air. Stories like this have become a specialty of mine. [opening paragraph]

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
Doubleday, 2010
Fiction; 320 pgs

Author Octavia Frost is on her way to deliver her latest manuscript to her editor when she catches a glimpse of a news story about her estranged son being arrested for murdering his girlfriend. Not sure what else to do, Octavia heads for San Francisco to be there for her son. The reception she receives is chilly, however. Milo doesn't want to see her. Just as she is thinking of returning home, she discovers a note in a sugar bowl that changes her mind. She's sure her son couldn't have committed the murder and maybe she can help prove he didn't.

Octavia's world evolves around her writing, and she often looks at life through the lens of a story unfolding. She has regrets about the past, especially about her relationship with her rock star son, Milo. When Milo was nine, his father and sister died tragically, leaving just him and Octavia. She and he are a lot of alike and constantly butted heads as he was growing up. She wasn't there for him as much as she would have liked, lost in her own grief and not quite sure how to handle his.

While there is a mystery aspect to the book, the main thrust of the story is of Octavia's reflection on her own life and of her relationship with her son. She is getting to know him again, as if for the first time. The author did a good job of capturing Octavia's thoughts and feelings. I wasn't sure what to think of Octavia for most of the book, but she showed a lot of growth as the novel progressed. By the end, I quite liked her.

It took me a while to get into the novel. Interspersed throughout the novel were excerpts of Octavia's latest writing project, a book called The Nobodies Album. Octavia has taken to rewriting the endings to all her novels and hopes to publish them in an anthology of sorts. Had she written those same stories today, how differently would they have ended? This was her opportunity to change the past, so to speak. I was less than impressed with the excerpts, however, and think that the novel would have come off fine without them, perhaps even better if only for the lack of distraction. The same connections the author made in the excerpts were made in the actual story as well. Although, I will say the excerpts got better towards the end.

There were several passages I wish now I had jotted down to share with you, phrases and ideas that caught my fancy. As a person who loves stories, I was drawn to Octavia's observations and take on life, especially in regards to her writing--how it affected her life and how her life affected her writing.

While I enjoyed The Nobodies Album in the end and came to care for all of the characters, I still felt a bit disappointed when all was said and done. I do think I'd like to give the author another try. She clearly has a way with words and is able to get inside the minds of her characters.

Rating: * (Good)

For more information about the author and her books, visit her website.

Source: Received book through BookBrowse First Impressions Program.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Monday at the Movies: Summer Movies

While the summer heat hasn't quite taken hold this season, my husband and I still seek refuge in the movie theater now and then, escaping reality for a couple of hours at a time. We've yet to see a movie that has blown us away, but we found something enjoyable in each one.

The Killers (Romantic Comedy, Action - 2010; rated PG-13; directed by Robert Luketic; written by Bob DeRosa & Ted Griffin) ~ An assassin (Ashton Kutcher) who gives up killing for love. Only, getting out of the business wasn't as easy as he expected. There is now a contract on his head and he and his new bride (Katherine Heigl) are forced to go on the run. The Killers had its funny moments; however, Katherine Heigl's character was a bit uneven. This movie felt like it was trying to hard to be another Grosse Pointe Blank. Do yourself a favor and rent the John Cusack movie if you are interested in a romantic comedy about an assassin.

Knight and Day (Romantic Comedy, Action - 2010; rated PG-13; directed by James Mangold; written by Patrick O'Neill) ~ Another on the lam movie about a secret agent (Tom Cruise) who draws an innocent woman (Cameron Diaz) into a web of espionage and gun fights. This was an enjoyable movie, even if a bit predictable. Tom Cruise as action hero has become his signature role and he convinced me yet again that I would rather have him protecting me in a pinch.

The A-Team (Action Adventure - 2010; rated: PG-13; directed by Joe Carnahan; written by Joe Carnahan, Brian Bloom & Skip Woods) ~ An updated version of the 1980's popular television show with the same title about four military fugitives convinced of crimes they didn't commit. The movie version hasn't gotten the best of reviews, but I loved it. It was funny, fresh, while at the same time playing homage to an old favorite TV show. I will be among the first in line to see the sequel if ever one is made.

The Karate Kid (Family Drama, Action - 2010; rated PG; directed by Harald Zwart; written by Christopher Murphey & Robert Mark Kamen) ~ I had reservations about a remake of an old favorite; but after reading several positive reviews, my husband and I decided to give this one a try. We were not disappointed. Jaden Smith is coming into his own and it's hard not to see his father in him. Jackie Chan's performance was understated as the maintenance man, and Kung-Fu instructor, which was perfect for the role. If you grew up watching The original Karate Kid movies, you will see much which is familiar. Don't let that stop you from catching this version though. It's well worth it.

What movies have you seen recently?

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Salon: The Vietnam War (My Reading, Part 1)

I met a woman the other day who shared her story with me. She was a young mother in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. She fled for her life, having no knowledge that she was carrying her second child at the time. She was scared, afraid for her life as well as that of her family. She made it to the United States, although how exactly, she sometimes wonders to this day. She brought with her both painful and happy memories. Hers is just one of many stories about Vietnam and the toll the war had on our lives.

It impacted me in a much less direct way. My father is a Vietnam Vet, having served time during the war. It changed him in ways I cannot imagine. His experiences will always be with him, and so, however indirectly, with me. It is that knowledge that I bring with me into every book I read that touches on the Vietnam War. The stories become more personal as a result. I can't help but think of my father during that time in his life.

It was with these thoughts that I opened Nam Le's The Boat, a collection of short stories, only a couple of which are directly related to Vietnam. I decided to read the first story in the book, "Love and Honor and pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," which is about a father and son who have barely spoken in three years. The son, Nam, is struggling to find inspiration for his current writing project, when he decides to write about his father's experiences during the Vietnam War. His father, who is visiting from out of town, is reluctant for the story to be written, but shares it with his son anyway. Author Nam Le's story is beautifully written and yet it does not blunt the horror of the son's father's story of the Americans arrival in Vietnam, of the murder and fear. But more so, this is a story about a father and son, about their relationship, and the son's desire to distance himself from his father while all the while to understand his father and to have his father understand and accept him.

I recently read an interview with the author in which he discusses his exploration of "'authenticity' in fiction." The story is autobiographical but is also fiction; but how much of it? The author purposefully leaves the reader to wonder and ponder whether it affects the reading experience.

This month I am participating in the read-a-long of Paco's Story by Larry Heinemann for the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Challenge. Each week, participants are reading two chapters of the book and answering a set of questions. This past week, we were assigned to read the first two chapters. I confess, it was hard to just stop there!

1. Who do you think the narrator is?

While this may seem like a simple question on the surface, when it comes to Paco's Story it appears to be a bit more complicated. The identity of the narrator is not exactly clear. The text seems to indicate that he is one of the Alpha Company soldiers who died that fateful day at Fire Base Harriette.

2. What does the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1 tell you about the narrator?

The war has touched the narrator as it did many of the soldiers who fought in it. He is hardened and embittered. He makes it clear up front that he isn't writing just another war story--no one wants to hear that, he says. From what I can tell so far, the novel seems like so much more than just that.

3. How do you think Paco’s survival impacted the medic’s world view? And how did that change the medic?

The medic from Bravo Company had been disillusioned long ago. Death is an inevitable part of war, and, all around him, it seemed as if death followed. His efforts to save the injured soldiers were for naught all too often. He came to expect that everyone he attempted to bandage up and heal would die. He expected no less of Paco. Facing the carnage of the Alpha Company was the last straw for the medic. And as he waited for the call that never came, the call that Paco had died, he realized just how fruitless his efforts were, how helpless he was, and how hopeless he felt. He lost all interest in pretending anymore that he could make a difference.

4. Is Paco's Story narrated in a way that is “too” honest?

Paco's Story is raw and real in a way that novels like this should be written. War is violent and harsh. There is nothing pleasant about it and to gloss it over would be to betray the experiences of so many who have fought, died and survived. I also think it is important for those of us who have not experienced similar events in our lives to know the unvarnished truth. Paco's Story strikes the right balance of honesty in the narration. This novel would not be as powerful or authentic as it is otherwise.

Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness is hosting a read-along for Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried this month. She plans to post her thoughts on the book on July 26th and encourages others to join in on the discussion.

I bought a copy of the book years ago for my father, hoping he would loan it to me after he read it. He loved it, but because of the physical distance between us, I never was able to borrow the book from him. As a result, I bought my own copy and it has sat unread on my shelf for quite some time. The Things They Carried was the first book I thought of adding to my reading list for the Vietnam War Challenge this year.

It seems fitting that I should choose to read this book right alongside Paco's Story. Paco had been a soldier in the Alpha Company, and the interconnected stories that make up The Things They Carried are about men in the Alpha Company. I will not be reviewing each of the stories in The Things They Carried separately; rather, I will follow Kim's example and post my overall thoughts on the book later this month.

Are you participating in any of these read-a-longs this month? Have you read these books? If so, what did you think?

Where has your reading taken you lately?

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Review: 31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan

She tried to summon her best composure but her expression changed like a cloud movement: flashes of red emerged in sudden streaks across her face, and tears began coursing along her cheeks. her countenance betrayed such anxiety that Connery eyed her closely. His instinct told him to remain still--emotional moments like these were often followed by a confession. [pg. 15]

31 Bond Street by Ellen Horan
Harper Collins, 2010
Crime Fiction; 352 pgs

When Dr. Harvey Burdell, a New York dentist, is found brutally murdered in his own home, behind locked doors, suspicion immediately falls on those in the household, particularly Emma Cunningham whose sudden production of a secret marriage certificate between her and the doctor two weeks before the murder raises eyebrows and puts her innocence in doubt. Emma is a woman who is desperate to hang onto the last vestige of her social status, both for her daughters' sake as well as her own. She is near broke and facing eviction when she first meets Dr. Burdell. Dr. Burdell seems like a gentleman through and through. Only, he isn't nearly as perfect as he seems. As the investigation into his murder unfolds, it becomes clear that Dr. Burdell had many secrets and just as many enemies.

With the media, public opinion, and the ambitious district attorney, Abraham Oakley Hall, already poised to hang Emma, Henry Clinton steps in to defend her. He puts his own career on the line to do so.

Ellen Horan's novel, 31 Bond Street, is lush with detail. The mystery is tightly woven, at times intense, and always interesting. The story went in several unexpected directions. I had my theories, but nothing was quite as simple as it seemed. The narrative follows events as they unfold from the moment the body is discovered and is interspersed with flashbacks to the months before the murder, offering insight into the characters lives and motivations. New York was a character of its own: the bustling streets, the spreading out of a city, the back alleys and the upper class neighborhoods. I felt as if I was right there in the middle of the events as they transpired.

I hadn't realized when I first began reading 31 Bond Street that it was based on a true crime that took place in 1875 New York. In a way, I'm glad I didn't know as I might have been tempted to run and look up the story before finishing the novel. While that isn't always a bad thing, I've found, this is one book I preferred to go into blind. I look forward to reading more by Ellen Horan in the future.

Ratings: * (Very Good)

You can learn more about Ellen Horan and her book on the author's website. Be sure and check the TLC Book Tours website as well for other tour dates and links to reviews.

Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. Book for review provided by the publisher.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.