sprite writes
broodings from the burrow

May 15, 2008

into the stacks 18
posted by soe 1:58 am

Sooner or later, someone is going to notice that I haven’t posted about books since the end of last year. (Or, conversely, no one will notice because no one cares. Unfortunately, I notice and I care, because I constantly refer back to my past book posts, so I just feel guilty with each day that passes without a book post.) So today, we’re just going to say, screw it and go with what we’ve got. This post will be ridiculously long because it covers the first four months of the year. So, feel free to skip it and come back tomorrow if you aren’t into the reading thing. I promise my feelings won’t be hurt.

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

From the jacket:“Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other — a journey to the pit stops off American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage. From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism.”

My take: Theoretically, I ought to have loved this book. It’s the type of genre that I love — non-fiction filtered through memoir/personal essay. It’s about three dead presidents, but not really. Really it’s about humorist/actress/writer Sarah Vowell’s take on three dead presidents. (As a side note, I think this style may appeal particularly to my generation. I don’t know why it is that we like our stories filtered, but I think we do. Maybe we just like it acknowledged that there’s always a storyteller whether they choose to remain silent and omniscient or whether they insert themselves into the narrative.)

The first problem may have been overselling of a product. I like Vowell and her humor and had heard good things about this book. Maybe I went in with higher expectations than one ought to when essentially you’re reading about the set-up to and fall-out from real-life murders.

The second was that although informative, the book is not really that funny. Death and murder and treason aren’t humorous topics. Vowell deals with them with dead-pan black humor, as is really the only recourse in that situation, but I just wanted levity instead. Levity would have been totally incongruous, so it’s, again, a possibility I wanted a different book.

And, finally, and this is an actual complaint about the book instead of my reaction to it. I never understood why it was that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was omitted from the story. He’s our most recently murdered leader with oodles of well- (and perhaps overly-) documented footage and a museum devoted to his death. Was it because some controversy remains over the killer? Was it because, having happened during the television era, people have a pretty firm impression of the event? Was it just too difficult to tie Robert Todd Lincoln to his story? (Read the book.) Whatever the reason, I would either have liked a chapter devoted to Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald or a clearly stated reason as to why one did not exist and was not germane.

My grumpiness aside, the research that Vowell put into the book was extensive and she visited many unusual places in her efforts to track down the stories of the men behind the deaths of three of our commanders in chief. The stories she told were interesting, but the book as a whole just didn’t capture my fancy.

Pages: 258

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

From the jacket:“Jane Austen’s last completed novel … is a delightful social satire of England’s landed gentry and a moving tale of lovers separated by class distinctions. After years apart, unmarried Anne Elliot … encounters the dashing naval officer others persuaded her to reject as he now courts the rash and younger Louisa Musgrove.”

My take: Karen and I agreed to read this book back in January as a preface to the airing of the Masterpiece Theatre/BBC production of the book. It was one of two Austen books I hadn’t read, and I wanted to read the original before seeing an interpretation.

I found Persuasion interesting as it seems to be the most narrative of Austen’s novels. There is not a lot of dialogue, so many of our impressions of Anne and her family come not from our own observations, but from that of the narrator. As my friend Amani noted in her marginalia (I was borrowing her copy), Anne seems to be more an object of action, rather than the subject of it — and I found that frustrating at times. It is, however, consistent with the character of a young woman who could allow herself to be convinced not to marry the love of her life.

Her two sisters, her widowed, ridiculous figure of a father, and her trusted, but outdated and classist godmother all seem to direct Anne’s actions through her teens and her early twenties. Even as she is proven to be the most level-headed and responsible character in the story time and time again (again, as verified by outside observers), she still refuses to stand up for herself and to find her own voice.

Anne does seem to awaken as the story progresses, with much of her dialogue coming in the last third of the novel. The climactic scene, however, finds us reverting back to a silent main character who has difficulty acting on her own behalf. True, it is her dialogue with another character which has brought about this result, but she finds herself powerless against circumstances to help enact it. An illuminating view, perhaps, of the constraints of women’s behavior during Austen’s time.

Pages: 225

Cat Getting out of a Bag and Other Observations: A Cat Book, by Jeffrey Brown

From the jacket Powell’s: “Celebrated comic artist and graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown’s collection of all-new drawings sweetly illustrates the joys of living with a cat. Featured in McSweeney’s and on NPR’s ‘This American Life,’ and praised by comic luminaries Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, Brown’s work has always paid tribute to felines as they curl up on couches and purr on the peripheries of his autobiographical stories. ‘Cat Getting Out of a Bag’ follows his cat Misty really, any cat as she goes about her everyday activities and adventures. In a series of drawings, Brown perfectly captures the universal charm of cats in a lovely book sure to please fans and cat lovers of any stripe.”

My take: My friend Sam sent this book to me for Christmas with the thought that it might make my Best of Books post for last year. I didn’t get to it before the end of 2007, but it is still in the running for this year.

The book, a series of illustrations on a variety of topics ranging from “The Cutest Sneeze in the World” to “Underfeet,” is an homage to all things cat. Brown hones in on all the things that make cats so very … catlike. He captures the crazed expression of a housecat seeing a bird, the embarrassed glance after an ungraceful jump (or fall), the endless pursuit of sun, pets, and treats. And he equally shares the delight of a purring kitten curled up on your lap and the utter frustration when that cat gets “the crazies” and turns into demon-spawn. This was a laugh-out-loud winner and a great gift for any cat lover.

Pages: 108

Twelfth Night, or What You Will, by William Shakespeare

From the jacket Powell’s: “Set in a topsy-turvy world like a holiday revel, this comedy devises a romantic plot around separated twins, misplaced passions, and mistaken identity. Juxtaposed to it is the satirical story of a self-deluded steward who dreams of becoming “Count Malvolio” only to receive his comeuppance at the hands of the merrymakers he wishes to suppress. The two plots combine to create a farce touched with melancholy, mixed throughout with seductively beautiful explorations on the themes of love and time, and the play ends, not with laughter, but with a clown’s sad song.”

My take: A Ravelry read-along for the holiday of the Epiphany, I was delighted to take on another Shakespeare comedy. As with many of his comedies, there is mistaken identity, this time two-pronged. Viola and Sebastien, twins, are separated at sea by a storm, each believing the other dead. Viola, wanting to mourn her brother’s death in peace, but alone in a strange land, decides to masquerade as a man, Cesario, and ally herself to the duke. The duke is in love with a countess, who also recently lost a brother and who has sequestered herself in her estate vowing to marry not a soul, and he sends Cesario to her to plead his case. She fancies Cesario and tells him to keep coming back, which he does, believing her to be relating her love for the duke, not for him. Confused yet? Just wait until Sebastian surfaces on the scene.

There is also a complementary storyline featuring the countess’ uncle, his friend, a maid, and the swaggering head steward, Malvolio, who is unkindly tricked into believing his mistress has feelings for him.

While the mistaken identities offer up a number of laughter-inducing moments, I’d suggest this holds more to the traditional definition of comedy in that it is merely lighter fare. As noted in the Powell’s summary, while you end the story with marriage, you also end it with a rather depressing soliloquy by the character of the Clown. I’d be happy to see this staged, but I doubt I’d choose to read it again.

Pages: 99 (plus 43 pages of preface)

Anne of Windy Poplars, by L.M. Montgomery

From the jacket Powell’s: “Anne Shirley left Redmond College behind to begin a new job and a new chapter of her life away from Green Gables. Now she faced a new challenge: dealing head-on with the proud Pringle family. But Anne found great allies in the two widows everyone called Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty, and in their irrepressible housekeeper, Rebecca Dew. Soon Anne would learn Summerside’s strangest secrets . . . secrets that would make winning the support of the prickly Pringles only the first of her delicious triumphs.”

My take: I love the names that Montgomery chooses for her characters: Rebecca Dew, Aunt Chatty, Valentine Courtaloe, Miss Minerva Tomgallon… I have to admit that the only real thing that I remembered about this book, aside from the basic Anne-leaves-home-to-teach plot line, is that Anne lives in a round tower room at Windy Poplars. And now, having re-read it this winter, I don’t remember many more details than that still. (Okay, I can now tell you that each of the three old ladies living in the house are keeping the same daily toiletry habit, but hiding it from the others for fear of being thought “silly.” I loved the humor of that.) I’m reassured to understand that the book was written much later and that it was a compilation of stories that Montgomery reworked into a novel format. It feels that way, actually, like Anne was added into stories peripherally in many instances to hold it together. More like Chronicles of Avonlea than like either of the novels that bookend it. But still, people, she lived in a round tower. How cool is that?

Pages: 258

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde

From the jacket: “Fourteen years after she pegged out at the 1988 SuperHoop, Thursday Next is grappling with a host of new problems in the BookWorld: a recalcitrant new apprentice, the death of Sherlock Holmes and the inexplicable departure of comedy from the once-hilarious Thomas Hardy novels. … Back in Swindon, the government is reporting a dangerously high stupidity surplus, the Stiltonista Cheese Mafia is causing trouble for Thursday and the literary detective scene isn’t what it used to be.”

My take: A Christmas present from Rudi, I had put off reading this latest Fforde novel for a long while. I didn’t want to start it until I had time to finish it, as Fforde novels demand that you race through them, stopping as few times as possible to make sure that literature and our beloved characters will survive to see another day.

This novel is no less ridiculous, intelligent, or fast-paced than any of previous works in the series. In fact, I’d argue that it’s probably better than The Well of Lost Plots and supports the idea that taking time off to work on other novels was a smart idea on Fforde’s part.

This story takes place substantially later than the rest of the series and much has happened since we left our heroine to some well-deserved bliss. She and Landon have had two more children (a positive), but the world no longer respects literature (a negative). Instead they have replaced their love of reading with a mindless contentment to watch reality television, contributing to an unsurprising amount of stupidity among society. This culminates in a joint decision between reality and BookWorld to recreate Pride and Prejudice as a reality book show where silly tasks will rewrite the familiar tale, allowing the Bennet girls to be married or voted out of the book.

Generally, I think you have to be willing to feel a bit stupid when reading Thursday Next novels. Because the premise of the series lies with the predominance of literature over nearly everything else and because characters from nearly any work from history is fair game to appear, I’d be hard-pressed to meet someone who got every reference Fforde makes. There are in-jokes to obscure eighteenth-century novels. And then there are in-jokes to the in-jokes.

The joy of Fforde’s work, though, is that you know he loves literature at least as much as you do, and you aspire to reach the point where none of the references go over your head. Where you, too, will be equally comfortable discussing Thomas Hardy, Thomas Wolfe, and Tom Clancy.

Pages: 363

The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett

From the jacket: “When her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely … and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically.”

My take: I liked the premise of this novella. What would be the effect on a powerful non-reader if, suddenly, they were infected by the reading bug? In this “fantasy,” it turns out that the Queen will send everyone around her into a flurry. She frustrates the Prime Minister by suggesting historical tomes that relate to current issues. She infuriates her chief of staff by allowing her preoccupation with her reading material to become apparent to those she is meeting with. Prince Philip is grumpy because she wants to read in the car. The public is panicked because she starts asking them what they’ve been reading.

My only complaint is that Bennett seemed not to know how to end the story satisfactorily, so he instead opts for the abrupt one-liner. You’re left thinking, “What?!” Very discombobulating.

Pages: 120

Anne’s House of Dreams, by L.M. Montgomery

From the jacket: “Anne’s own true love Gilbert was finally a doctor and now they no longer needed to live apart. They married quite simply and began life together in their own little dream house where Anne met new neighbors, made new friends, and solved new problems. But she was still the same Anne — spirited and full of surprises.”

My take: With this Anne book, we return to a more straight narrative with the crux of the story focusing on the first few years of Anne and Gilbert’s married life in a new town.

We are introduced to some new characters: Miss Cornelia, the town’s man-hating busybody who makes dear little clothes for unwanted babies; Leslie Moore, Anne’s closest neighbor, who lives a terrible, temperamental existence with her brain-damaged and estranged husband; and Captain Jim, the dear keeper of the light and the coiner of the phrase, “of the house of Joseph.”

We experience true joy and true agony with Anne in this novel and it definitely marks the point in the series where we take our heroine seriously as an adult. Sweetly sad.

Pages: 230

The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis

From the jacket: “Digory’s Uncle Andrew is a magician. But Digory and his friend Polly don’t know this until Polly puts on one of Andrew’s magic rings and disappears. When Digory follows her, their adventures take them to Narnia, on the very day it is created. Here’s the story of how Narnia first began.”

My take: Modern chroniclers of the series place this book first because it is chronologically first in the narrative. Lewis, however, wrote it sixth, and so it ought to remain, I feel. I liked the creation story and of learning how some animals were chosen to be Talking Beasts and of how evil, in the form of the White Witch, was accidentally introduced into the world by man (okay, boy).

I liked both Polly and Digory, who seemed like realistic lonely children who get into mischief that doesn’t seem implausible. And I loved the scene where the White Witch ends up back in London causing all sorts of trouble for Uncle Andrew and for the rest of the town. Oh, and I love how the Beasts can’t quite figure out what animal Uncle Andrew can possibly be and imprison him for his own safety. And the Cabby and his wife. I love them too.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I really liked a lot of this book. But I wouldn’t have wanted it to have been my first introduction into the Land of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a better book and deserves its beloved place as head of the series. For without it there, we don’t understand the importance of what is happening in this book. It’s all about context.

Pages: 186

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

From the jacket: Powell’s “This 1857 sequel to The Warden wryly chronicles the struggle for control of the English diocese of Barchester. The evangelical but not particularly competent new bishop is Dr. Proudie, who with his awful wife and oily curate, Slope, maneuver for power.”

My take: This was my DailyLit selection for last fall and this winter and I picked it mostly because I’d never read Trollope but recognized his name as being a Very Important Writer. I’m not sure I’d say he lived up to that title, but the novel was surprisingly funny and he demonstrated a keen eye for observation and characterization. I was also pleased to see that he didn’t fall into the easy trap that many of his gender and generation would have with regards to his female characters. Generally he made them well-rounded and gave them depth in terms of purpose and execution. Mrs. Proudie, for instance, is not intended to be liked, but I think you gain some sympathy toward her due to the limited constraints an ambitious woman had to work with at the time.

You also gain an appreciation for the role religion played in the middle of the 19th century and how that realm of power was starting to change. Politicians, in particular, were starting to flex their muscles and to appoint clergymen of name, fashion, or education to seats of power instead of allowing them to be passed on in traditional means. The press and the universities were also coming into their own as powerbrokers. It made for an interesting dynamic and one I’d be happy to explore further in Trollope’s other work.

Pages: DailyLit divides it up into 233 sections. Most copies at Powell’s exceed 525 pages, so let’s round it to that for ease of later calculations.

The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale

From the jacket: “She was born with her eyes closed and a word on her tongue, a word she could not taste. Her name was Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she spent the first years of her life listening to her aunt’s stories and learning the language of the birds, especially the swans. When she was older, she watched as a colt was born, and she heard the first word on his tongue, his name, Falada. From the Grimm’s fairy tale of the princess who became a goose girl before she could become queen, Shannon Hale has woven an incredible, original and magical tale of a girl who must find her own unusual talents before she can lead the people she has made her own.”


My take: I read this for the Once Upon a Time II challenge — and because I really wanted to read the first story in this series. Based on the Grimm fairy tale of the same name, Hale lifts the characters from the fairy tale and blows life into them, rounding them out to give them personalities and motives and realism.

Yes, Ani is a princess, whose mother arranges a diplomatic wedding for her, en route to her new home. Her maid-in-waiting organizes a coup with the help of some of the guards duty-bound to protect her and Ani flees into the night to seek protection from wherever she may. She is taken in by a stern but fair farm woman who heals her mind and body (not once, but twice) and helps her reach the city to which she was originally destined.

Ani, who conceals from everyone her ability to communicate with animals, is granted a job working in the king’s fields protecting his flocks of fowl. Working under the name Isi, she spends her time there making friends, avoiding her ex-maid (now masquerading as the Princess of Kildenree) and her henchmen who have caught wind of the fact that she isn’t dead after all, communing with a lad she believes to be one of the Prince’s guard, and generally trying to figure out how to protect her homeland from the war that is going to land squarely on its doorstep if things aren’t put aright. Will Ani/Isi be able gain sufficient courage and support to save the day?

The storytelling is as masterful as Grimm’s and the characterization is marvelous. You truly appreciate the characters and the complicated emotions they experience. Hale has not let me down yet (I didn’t realize that River Secrets was part of this series when I picked it up last year, and both it and The Princess Academy appeared on my Best Books of 2007 list.) I will be reading Enna Burning, the second in the current trilogy, later this summer, I suspect. And I urge anyone who enjoys a good fairy tale to pick this book up as soon as they can.

Pages: 383

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert

From the jacket: “In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want — husband, country home, successful career — but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she felt consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and of what she found in their place. Following a divorce and a crushing depression, Gilbert set out to examine three different aspects of her nature, set against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.”

My take: This book is one of those popular works that it suddenly seems like everyone is reading all at once. (Yes, I know it was an Oprah book, but this holds true even for people who have never watched a single episode of her show.) Somehow it spoke to a whole group of people all at the same time.

The premise is simple. The author is leading what many would consider to be the perfect life when she realizes she is insupportably miserable and that she has to get out. So she dissolves her marriage and escapes on a year-long journey around the world, vowing to explore three countries — Italy, India, and Indonesia — to their utmost. She eats her way across Italy (there is a marvelous description of her foray to Sicily to eat pizza that anyone who’s ever eaten New Haven pizza will appreciate) and begins to regain some semblance of herself. She gains insight when she heads to India to live at an ashram and practice yoga and meditation. And when she journeys to Bali, seeking balance, she finds that, as well as the possibility of a relationship.

I thought the book overhyped, but it was an okay read. I mean, sure, I’d like someone to pay me to travel for a year and to write about what I learn about myself during that time. I’m not sure what it says about our culture at the moment that it’s such a must-read, though. That we’re dissatisfied with what’s expected of us and what we expect of ourselves? That we feel adrift and wonder if others’ answers might also be our own? I find the questions that the book raises to be more interesting than the book itself. Which, I suppose, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Pages: 334 pages

The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

From the jacket: “Welcome to the magical underworld of Venice, Italy. Here, hidden canals and crumbling rooftops shelter runaways and children with incredible secrets…. After escaping from their cruel aunt and uncle, orphans Prosper and Bo meet a mysterious boy who calls himself the ‘Thief Lord.’ Clever and charming, the Thief Lord leads a band of street children who enjoy making mischief. But the Thief Lord also has a dark secret. And suddenly Prosper and Bo find themselves on a fantastical journey to a forgotten place. What they discover there will change the course of their destiny.”

My take: Karen gave me this book for my birthday and I promptly came home and started reading. Funke’s Inkheart appeared on my Best Books of 2006 list and I was eager to see how her earlier work stood up in comparison.

A month later and I’m still not sure of the answer.

Inkheart was a better book. I can say that without qualification. But the characters in The Thief Lord were so much more compelling than Meggy and Mo and even Dustfinger. I worry about Bo and Prosper and Scipio, as well as the other three street children (Riccio, Hornet, and Mosca) under the Thief Lord’s protection.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story starts out in a PI’s office, where a German couple enlists the Victor’s help in finding their orphaned younger nephew, who has run away with his older brother and is believed to be living somewhere in Venice. They want to adopt the younger child and bring him home with them, but believe the older one to be unhinged and uncute (and thus unwantable).

Victor sets off to find the children, little realizing that they’d already found a protector in the Thief Lord, a teen boy named Scipio, who specializes in breaking into wealthy homes and stealing items of value to support them.

The stories overlap as the children try to avoid being found, Victor tries to sort out the real stories, and the Thief Lord is commissioned to steal what that turns out to belong to a mysterious merry-go-round.

I had guessed Scipio’s story early on and was prepared to write the story off as being predictable when the merry-go-round entered the picture, bringing a magical realism element into the story, which felt oddly out of place and, yet, which allowed the story to go in a slightly different direction than it would have been able otherwise.

As I said earlier, I felt for the kids. In fact, I stressed for them and for their safety, long after I turned the final page. That’s the mark of someone who truly understands character and of a masterful storyteller.

Pages: 349

Aunt Dimity: Vampire Hunter, by Nancy Atherton

From the jacket Powell’s: “Lori Shepherd’s life in England couldn’t be more tranquil or more satisfying — except for one thing. Her five-year-old twins have started school, and Lori fears they’ll catch everything from the flu to fleas. What they do come home with, however, is worse: a report of a pale, cloaked figure with bloodstained lips lurking in the woods.”

My take: I read this book while I was up in Connecticut. Gramma had taken it out of the library and, upon hearing I’d read a few other books in the series, insisted I read it before she did. Luckily the Aunt Dimity books don’t take long because neither did I want to prevent Gramma from reading it, nor was it very good.

Honestly, most of the mystery in this book happens entirely as a result of Lori’s overactive imagination and because of this isn’t terribly compelling to the reader. I mean, sure, some of the subplot involving Kit, her horse-training friend, and his romance troubles are interesting, but they aren’t enough to keep you turning the pages. Generally, when an author has to work this hard to keep a long-running series going, I’d suggest she turn her attention to new work and characters.

Pages: 232

Books read January-April 2008: 14
Pages read January-April 2008: 3,713

Category: books. There is/are 1 Comment.

I’ve been waiting to see what you’ve been reading for a while now.

Having finished all six books in Erin Hunter’s original “Warriors” series, I feel confident recommending the series to you. The writing is inconsistent when you get to book three, as the ladies behind the pseudonym switch for the first time, but by the end of the series they have blended into a single voice.

Having finished Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series, I think as expected that this story would be appreciated more perhaps by Karen or Rudi than by you. He claims that it is different from his usual writings, and to a small exent that is true, but I think it’s still infested with gross, scary, and violent passages that aren’t your cup of tea. I enjoyed it, but am not among those who would list it as the best written work of all time. You can definitely watch King’s writing style improve over the decades he spent working on this series. The Gunslinger, loved by many, hated by probably the same number, is hard to read. The story doesn’t really get started in the first book. Eventually, though, the people who get drawn into Roland’s quest for the tower become people you can care about. Book seven had me in tears in a number of places.

I can’t believe you held yourself away from Fforde for any amount of time at all. I wouldn’t be able to do it. Shame about “The Great Samuel Pepsy Fiasco” and Jenny both.

Did you know there was a movie made of The Thief Lord? I haven’t seen it yet, but I have wondered how it compares to the book. What do you think?

Currently reading “Battle for the Labyrinth” by Rick Riordan. I don’t want to give anything away, so all I’ll say is so far it’s holding up to the standards of previous books in the series.

Comment by Grey Kitten 05.15.08 @ 5:15 pm