I now know why I never encountered Jean Stafford's short stories in high school and college - they are not compelling, interesting or memorable, and they conclude abruptly leaving me wondering what the point of the story was. They are dark stories, thick with words requiring a dictionary and no dialog. She seems stuck on tuberculosis - characters either have it, act like they have it, look like they have it or know someone who has it. I wish I could be more positive, but this was a long slog of a read - I finished all of the stories only because I hoped the next one would be better.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Pages: 550
Rating: 5/5

Full/Original post can be found Here.

The Book Thief is the story of a young girl, Liesel, in Nazi Germany told through Death’s narration. Yes, Death personified. Death becomes interested in Liesel’s story when he comes to pick up her brother after he dies; Death, against his better judgment, goes to the funeral and sees little Liesel picking up a book from the snow—her first act of book thievery. Shortly after Liesel’s brother dies, her mother moves her to a foster home on Himmel Street where her world is quickly turned upside down. Her world and everyone else’s. (While I don’t think I can possibly cut this short, I will not give spoilers).

Liesel’s new living situation is not easy. Her new Mama is slightly abusive and walks all over her and her new Papa. Papa, though, takes Liesel under his wing as he comforts her during her nightmares and teaches her to read her stolen book. Liesel also finds sanctuary when chumming around with her new friend Rudy as well as in the mayor’s wife’s library where she retreats after she delivers and picks up the laundry for Mama.

But everything changes when one day a strange man shows up at the house looking for Liesel’s Papa. Max is a Jew. He has left his family, gone into hiding, and is barely surviving. Papa has made a promise to help Max, so it is agreed that Max can live in the basement. At first Liesel is a little frightened of Max, but soon they grow to be good friends—especially when Liesel realizes that Max also has nightmares. But, keeping a Jew in the basement is dangerous. Just as giving bread to Jews as they march to the concentration camp, as Papa does, is dangerous. Everything in Nazi Germany has its consequences.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver
Lois Lowry

This post is long overdue by about five or so months. I was too busy last year to come up with something resembling a post about this after I finished reading it. Let's hope I remember my feelings now that I'm finally posting. Hahaha!

This is a widely read book. It's sometime into the future and a seemingly perfect community is presented to us where everyone has a distinct place in the society, everyone living equally so to speak. Cliches like "Keeping up with the Joneses" don't apply because hey, in this future nobody seems to be above everyone else and it's perfectly normal to be that way.

Twelve-year old Jonas was given the important task of being the Receiver of Memories, a job that only the adults have heard of and none of the younger ones are familiar with. It is only much later when he realized why he was selected for such job.

The present Receiver of Memories, also called The Giver, is already old and having the same eyes as Jonas. Jonas was startled to find out that the seemingly perfect community is not what it looks like. The everyday normality of community life is shattered in the eyes of Jonas when the Giver passed on to him the memories of life lived previously - of colors and shapes, of snow and summer, of pain and love - and the truth about the community even. After learning much from the Giver, Jonas plotted his escape from the community. But escaping the community is an unpardonable crime.

This much is obvious, those who have read The Giver will come out of the experience shaken. It is that powerful. Lowry juxtaposes an unfeeling future to a painful past. A future that is so afraid of diversity it is willing to sacrifice what makes us human so we could live perfectly normal good lives. And there is something wrong with having a perfectly normal good life. Free will is taken out of the community and only controlled by a chosen few, those behind the scenes who believed that it is better to live a gray, dull life that is uneventful than risk pain. The pain that caused wars, the pain that kills. And with that you also take out the joys and laughters. Because you can't simply take away pain without taking away the pleasures. So no laughter and tears. No feelings. Real, human feelings at least.

And yet I think there are people out there who would rather have the seemingly perfect community in this book. I mean who wouldn't want not to keep up with the Joneses, right? But it's also human nature to want what we don't have. Or to be different for that matter. Oh well, that's just one aspect of discourse. There are many more topics for further conversations about this book which I think should be read by everyone.

A future world without music is not for me. Or that without colors. I may live a dull, uneventful life but I'd rather have the option to feel than live in that future community. That's just me. What about you?

Arms and The man by George Bernard Shaw---Gautami's 11th book

Crossposted from my blog. I read it in December and forgot to post it here.

Title: Arms and the Man
Author: George Bernard Shaw
ISBN-10: 0140450351
ISBN-13: 978-0140450354
Publisher: Penguin/80 pages

George Bernard Shaw takes the title for this play from the opening life of Vergil's epic poem Aeneid, which begins Of arms and the man I sing. Vergil glorified war and the heroic feats of Aeneas on the battlefield. However, Shaw attacks the romantic notion of war by presenting a more realistic approach.

The action takes place in Bulgaria in 1885 against a backdrop of war between Bulgarian forces and Serbian and Austrian coalition army. Raina Petkoff is the young and beautiful daughter of the Bulgarian Major Petkoff who is engaged to Major Serguis Saranoff. Serguis is out in the battles. An enemy soldier, Captain Bluntschli, takes refuge in her room and this is what makes the whole drama happen. Next morning she and her mother Catherine see him off but consequences of sheltering an enemy soldier are not to be waved off so easily. Once the war is over, he comes back, forcing each of the primary characters to re-evaluate their values and their relationships

Raina's "hero" Serguis comes back from the war with the aura of heroism, gallantry and victory along with her father, Major Petkoff. The various dimensions of human nature are poignantly depicted, the character’s masks are exposed, and each one of them is stripped down into imperfect and susceptible individuals. Serguis turns out to be a flirt and far from a contented happy model of a soldier; Major Petkoff is discerned to be a man who cannot see beyond the battlefield.

There is a vivid usage of humour and comedy to convey the futility and harm of old-fashioned social analysis. The theme is effectively that of war and love---and by extension marriage---and a combination of both. The play is replete with brilliant dialogue, flashing wit, buoyant humour and bitter sarcasms which reach their acme in this statement of Captain Bluntschli to Serguis, "I'm a professional soldier: I fight when I have to, and am very glad to get out of it when I haven't to. You're only an amateur; you think fighting's an amusement". First published in 1894, Arms and the Man is also remarkable for its explicit treatment of sexuality, which was either denied or shyly elucidated, in early Victorian literature.

Even after 100+ years, this has a contemporary feel to it and is as relevant as it was then. War cannot be anything but futile and there is no heroism in it for those who resort to it.

True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Pages: 368
First Published: 2000
Rating: 4.5/5

First Sentence:

I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.

Comments: The life story of Ned Kelly, Australian Bushranger and Outlaw, as told through his fictional diaries. Wow, this was an amazing book. From page two I was hooked on the story and the life of this man. I found myself absolutely intrigued by him and since I started the book I have been reading about him online as well. Since the story is told through Ned's point of view we come to feel for him and root for him, perhaps as the Australian people themselves did at the time. This was a wonderful book, you really can't ask for more in a novel.

The one negative comment I have is about the lack of punctuation. I don't feel it added any authenticity to the story at all but instead showed the author's own arrogance. The lack of sentence structure made this a very slow read. My reading speed decreased dramatically. I would often have to read a 'sentence' 2 or three times to understand and this particularly happened when people were speaking as the lack of quotations in the book leaves the reader unsure of who is speaking at many times. However, this should not be a deterrent to reading the book. As I read the last page I closed the book and spoke aloud to the empty room, "Wow, that was good." This book will be certainly be a contender for my best book of the year.

And this makes twelve books I've read for the challenge. So this will be my last post here. Come visit me at my blog.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy--Gautami's 10th book

Cross posted from my blog..

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
ISBN: 9780330448628
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 307
Rating: 5/5

I won The Road from Melody in the BAFAB week in a book drawing. This book was a coveted one. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for 2007 for this book. After reading it, I thought rightly so. Not all award-winning books are readable. This one is. Once I started it, I could not put it down.

It is a story, if we can call it that, about a father and a son who remain nameless throughout the narration. Both are walking through America, which has been ravaged by fire. They are walking towards south to the coasts. On their way to it, there is nothing but ashes, burnt trees, and soulless houses. They have each other and a pistol for a company. They pass through dead towns, looted houses, finding corpses on their way. They are afraid to meet other fellow human beings. Men who kill for food, for any kind of food.

The Man all the while tries to save the boy. Love and despair go hand in hand. Without the boy, he would have been dead long ago. Survival is the key. He does all he can to save himself and his son. However, he also prepares the boy to survive in case he is no longer there. The interactions between the father and the son is very interesting. We do not see dialogues, only narration. The Man instils moral values in the boy even in great adversity. At certain places, we see that he is not disappointed. His son has risen above the father.
The sparseness of languages enhances the harshness of the situation. This is what makes it chilling, scary and very gripping. If we do not take care of our Earth, this might become a reality. A forest burning is not a new phenomenon. The same reaching out cities and destroying can become a fact. What is shocking is that it can become a reality. The nameless people could be us…

Language used can be called poetry in prose. One pauses at certain places to enjoy the sheer beauty of words. One feels sad. However, there is hope too at the end, a salvation of some kind. This book should be read by all. Those who do not care for the Earth and those who truly love it.
Set in New Crobuzon which is inhabited by humans, remade and a host of alien creatures including kephrin (insect people), cactacae (cactus people), garuda (bird people) and vodyanoi (water people) among others. The remade are usually fusions of humans or aliens and metal parts carried out as punnishments many times. For example one woman has been convicted for killing her baby and her punnishment is to serve 10 years in prison as well as having her babies arms remade on to her face as a constant reminder of what she did.

Isaac der Grimnebulin is a human scientist operating on the fringe of mainstream discoveries compounded by having a kephri girlfriend called Lin who is an artist. Both get drawn down different paths, Isaac investigating flight for a broken and outcast garuda, Yagharek, and Lin doing a sculpture for crime lord Motley. Isaac begins to study all creatures who fly or larvae who have the potential to fly, including a brightly coloured grub that unbeknownst to him will turn into a terrifying slake-moth with no known predator who sucks out peoples dreams. Lin is being drawn further and further into Motley's criminal world which you know can only end badly for her.

A dark mixture of fantasy, science fiction and horror with constructs who gain sentinence and giant spiders called weavers. It is a pretty long book and the first half was very slow paced introducing you to life in New Crobuzon, the different races and the different characters. The second half was much more action based with the hunt for the slake-moths taking over the main plotline with Isaac and his gang being hunted by the government militia as well as Motley's thugs. I am looking forward to seeing what the next book in the series is like.

March - Geraldine Brooks

Title: March
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Country: USA
Year: 2005
Rating: 5 of 5
Pages: 280

First sentence: This is what I write to her: The clouds tonight embossed the sky.

I always hesitate to pick up books that are based on characters from classics, especially a classic as beloved as Lousia May Alcott's Little Women. March, by Geraldine Brooks, tells the previously untold story of the absent father. Fortunately for readers, it does not disappoint.

In this beautifully written novel, we get to experience life from Mr. March's perspective. Told largely through a series of flashbacks after he enlists as a Chaplain for the Union Army, we hear about March's childhood, his life as a young peddler in the pre-Civil War South, how he makes his fortune, and how he loses it. We learn about his dreams, hopes, failures, hopeless idealism, and indiscretions. The writing is exquisite, and sounds like an authentic voice from the past.

Brooks' detailed research of the Civil War era is evident, and I learned about aspects of the war that I had not previously known about, such as what happened to runaway slaves that crossed the federal lines during the war. Referred to as contraband, they worked on plantations taken over by Northerners for a small wage.

Like Alcott, Geraldine Brooks draws largely from Bronson Alcott's life for inspiration. Yet, this is a novel that easily stands on its own. Lovers of Little Women may not like the freedom that Brooks took with the characters, which were portrayed as an ideal family. Through this novel, they are a bit more realistic, and seen in a different light. It is a book about the harsh realities of life; she does not cast Mr. March in the role of a hero.
I promised her that I would write something every day, and I find myself turning to this obligation when my mind is most troubled. For it is as if she were here with me for a moment, her calming hand resting lightly upon my shoulder. Yet I am thankful she is not here, to see what I must see, to know what I am come to know. And with this thought I exculpate my censorship: I never promised I would write the truth. (p.4)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Holley’s Review #7 of 12
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1961 Pulitzer Prize
1999 YALSA Outstanding Books for the College Bound

I set out to love this book. After all, the author is a native Alabamian like myself and the story is set in Alabama as well. I heard the untold accolades of hundreds of people ringing in my ears as I began. I did like this book, but I didn’t love it. I’ll forever be glad I read it but it will not figure in to the core collection of rereads that buy and hoard in a china cabinet in my living room.

The (fictional) southern town of Maycomb, Alabama could have come standard with an overlying whistled tune and a red haired boy going fishing. Ms. Lee did an outstanding job in conveying what the rural town life of 1930’s Alabama must have been like. I found some people I loved in Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, and Dill while the bad guys, the Ewell family, were indeed very bad.

The first part of the book detailing the children’s early life, summer activities and educational difficulties dragged on for me. I just was not able to get into their lives and enjoy the storyline. The book only picked up for me once Tom Robinson physically entered the Finchs’ lives when the mob from Meridian came to make terrible mischief. From that point on, especially the trial scene, I was hooked in and devoured the rest of the book. The other, more slow-moving parts were just such a big part of the book that I cannot, in good conscience, say that I loved it. I also could not get used to treatment of and language concerning the African Americans in the book. I knew what it was about, knew the words were there, and tried to prepare myself for them before I ever picked it up but it was still a shock every time one of the characters (especially the children) spoke so hatefully, unintentionally or not. How could Ms. Lee have ever portrayed the circumstances and people without those mannerisms? I don’t think it could have been done any other way but that doesn’t stop me from being uncomfortable with it.

Isn’t it odd how you perceive of yourself as a mature, sophisticated reader and still something will come along that shocks you? I had the same problem with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye except I didn’t finish that book. I never found anything to connect with in the story. I guess it is a testimony to these stories that they still have the capacity to shock so long past their original publications.

Happy Reading!
Source: USA Today

Photo by Nathan Strange

LONDON (AP) — Scottish writer and standup comedian A.L. Kennedy has won Britain's Costa Book of the Year Award for her novel Day, about a World War II veteran whose work as an extra on a war film forces him to confront his past.

Kennedy, 42, will receive $50,000 for her novel, which the chair of the judging panel, author Joanna Trollope, called "perfectly, beautifully written."

"(It's) very witty, very lyrical, it's quite dark," Trollope said this week. "Her style is arresting. There's a shadow of James Joyce in it."

Candidates for the award included Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin, an account of the Soviet dictator's formative years; former teacher and postal worker Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost ; Jean Sprackland's poetry collection, Tilt ; and Ann Kelley's children's book, The Bower Bird.

Kennedy has published four previous novels and several short-story collections and performs regularly as a comic.

The Inheritance of Loss - Man Booker Prize 2006

I finally finished The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. I was so looking forward to reading this book, as I had heard nothing but good things about it. I even asked a woman on BART if she were enjoying, as she was reading it while on the way into the city, and she said that she was engrossed, and couldn't pull herself away. I started this book almost a month ago, and I'm sad to say that I had a really difficult time getting into it. It's sad, because the book is beautifully written. It's the congruent story of a retired judge in Northern India, his granddaughter, his cook, and the cook's son, who has left to find his fortune in New York. All of this during the Kalimpong uprising in the mid 1980s. From Widipedia, about Kalimpong, which gives a bit of background to the story:
Kalimpong is a hill town nestled in the Shiwalik Hills (or Lower Himalaya) in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Between 1986 and 1988, the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland and Kamtapur based on ethnic lines grew strong. Riots between the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), led by C K Pradhan, and the West Bengal government reached a standoff after a forty-day strike. The town was virtually under a siege, leading the state government to call in the Indian army to maintain law and order. This led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a body that was given semi-autonomous powers to govern the district. Though Kalimpong is now peaceful, the issue of a separate state still lingers. In July 2004, the generally tranquil town was catapulted into national and international headlines after Maninder Pal Singh Kohli, a murderer wanted by Scotland Yard, was traced and found to be residing in Kalimpong.

The Inheritance of Loss shifts between the third world of this town and its surrounding area and the first world of New York, where Biju, the son of the cook, has illegally immigrated to try for a better life. But there he finds mostly humiliation, hard work, and very little pay. The book concentrates on the pain of exile and the arrows still slung and festering from the colonialist era.
He could not talk to his father; there was nothing left between them but emergency sentences, clipped telegram lines shouted out as if in the midst of a war. They were no longer relevant to each other's lives except for the hope that they would be relevant. He stood with his head still in the phone booth studded with bits of stiff chewing gum and the usual FuckShitCockDickPussyLoveWar, swastikas, and hearts shot with arrows mingling in a dense graffiti garden, too sugary too angry too perverse-the sick sweet rotting mulch of the human heart.

If he continued his life in New York, he might never see his pitaji again. It happened all the time; ten years passed, fifteen, the telegram arrived, or the phone call, the parent was gone and the child was too late. Or they returned and found they'd missed the entire last quarter of a lifetime, their parents like photograph negatives. And there were worse tragedies. After the initial excitement was over, it often became obvious that the love was gone; for affection was only a habit after all, and people, they forget, or they become accustomed to its absence. They returned and found just the facade; it had been eaten from inside, like Cho Oyu being gouged by termites from within.

So, why couldn't I get sucked into this story? Why was it that the TV, the internet, cooking, and even cleaning pulled me away from the story? I'm not sure. I found much of the writing to be hauntingly beautiful, but the story ultimately unsatisfying. When I finished it the other night, I'm sorry to say that I was relieved, and ready to move on to my next book.

The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006.
In the Heart of the Sea
by Nathaniel Philbrick
278 pages
Like the Donner Party, the men of the Essex could have avoided disaster, but this does not diminish the extent of the men's sufferings, or their bravery andextraordinary discipline.

I'm not a fan of non-fiction generally. It takes me twice as long to read it than fiction and it is usually boring to boot. At least that is what I used to say. I am slowly being drawn to it as I come across well written, interesting books, like this one. It still took me twice as long to read it but it was certainly not boring.

In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the whaleship Essex, the tale that was the inspiration for Moby Dick. The Essex was a Nantucket whaleship that was attacked by a whale. After it sank, the crew of 20 men lived in three small whaleboats, slowly starving to death, then sustaining themselves on the bodies of their dying shipmates. They were 93 days at sea before the 8 surviving crew members were rescued.

Read the rest of my ample review here.

Laura's Review - March

Geraldine Brooks
273 pages

"Then what, pray, is the point?" His voice was a dry, soft rattle, like a breeze through a bough of dead leaves.
"The point is the effort. That you, believing what you believed -- what you sincerely believed, including the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' -- acted upon it. To believe, to act, and to have events confound you--I grant you, that is hard to bear. But to believe, and not to act ... That is what would have been reprehensible." (p. 258)

Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women, describes a year in the life of a mother and her daughters, while her husband is away serving in the Union Army. The father is absent for most of the book. In March, Geraldine Brooks brings the father's character to life and tells the story of that year from his point of view. Mr. March is a clergyman, so while he does not experience combat directly, he ministers to the wounded and dying. Initially, after a harrowing battle scene, he finds himself on a plantation that he had first encountered as a young itinerant peddler. Old relationships are rekindled, and he is reassigned to another regiment, and transported to a Southern estate under Union occupation. The slaves on this estate were under Union protection, and Mr. March was to provide them with the basics of an education. The novel's pace picks up at this point, and becomes considerably more violent as the horrors of war are revealed. March eventually lands in hospital, is visited by his wife Marmee, and returns home for Christmas just as he does in Little Women. In March we gain much more intimate knowledge of how the war scarred him, both physically and mentally, and how it affected his relationship with Marmee.

I was hooked on this story from page 1. Scenes from the American Civil War were interspersed with narrative describing how Mr. March came to be married to Marmee, their participation in the Underground Railroad, and his motivation for joining the Union army. He wrote letters from the front but, reluctant to burden his family with his daily horrors, he masked the truth. Marmee, on the other hand. felt lonely and resentful: "I am not alone in this. I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces." (p. 211) Their reunion was touched with both sadness and hope.

In letting her imagination run around the edges of Little Women, Brooks has written a memorable novel. Highly recommended. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami--Gautami's 9th Book

Cross posted from my blog

Title: Kafka on the Shore

Author: Haruki Murakami
ISBN-10: 1-400-7927-6
Publisher: Vintage International/2005
Pages: 467
Rating: 5/5

One can call it metaphysical fantasy fiction, with dream and logic going hand in hand. Where dreams starts or logic ends or vice versa do not have clear-cut demarcations. Where the inner us meets with the outer us are not separate either.

Kafka Tamura runs away from home on his fifteenth birthday to look out for his long lost mother and sister. Moreover, to escape an oedipal curse by his father. Another parallel story about Nakata, an old man of sixty plus years, a simpleton who had lost his ability to read and write due to some war affliction follows the main one. Most people take him to be dumb. He has been abandoned by his family and lives on Govt subsidy.

On this journey, Kafka meets many interesting characters like Sakura, Oshima and Miss Saeki. Similarly, Nataka too meets Hoshino, a truck driver who is drawn to this simpleton and quits his job to be with him. Nataka has strange compulsions he does not understand. He knows that his path is taking him somewhere towards a boy he has never met. In this metaphorical tale, cats can talk to Nataka, fishes and leeches rain on his whim. Spirits can travel beyond time and space to make love or kill.

Kafka is a self-sufficient boy. He can survive under any circumstances. He adapts easily. However, he has to find himself. How does he do it? What is his relationship with Miss Saeki? How does Oshima affect him? What does he finally find? Why is he lured towards a painting of boy in a beach? What is the entrance stone referred to in the lyrics, Kafka on the Shore?

Oshima, Miss Saeki and Nakata are all different from the normal and just as fascinating. Hoshino is a normal young man. Still he is drawn to Nakata and sticks to him. Thus, he discovers himself on the way. This novel asks many questions, takes us into different directions. In a way, it tells us to find the answers in the all the signs, symbols and metaphors. We learn about world philosophy, great writers and beautiful quotations. Haruki has a very good knowledge about art, music and world literature..

So Big - Wendy's Review

"How big is my baby?" Selina would demand, senselessly. "How big is my man?" The child would momentarily cease to poke plump fingers into the rich black loam. He would smile a gummy though slightly weary smile and stretch wide his arms. She, too, would open her tired arms wide, wide. Then they would say in a duet, his mouth a puckered pink petal, hers quivering with tenderness and a certain amusement, "So-o-o-o big!" with the voice soaring on the prolonged vowel and dropping suddenly with the second word. - From So Big, page 2 -

Edna Ferber's Pulitzer Prize winning novel - So Big - is a superbly crafted novel and one I could not put down for long.

When Selina Peake's father is murdered, the teenager is faced with fleeing from the bustling streets of Chicago to Vermont to live with her stuffy aunts; or to strike out on her own to seek a life of adventure. She chooses a life of her own which takes her into the insulated farm country south of Chicago to live with Dutch farmer, his wife and three children. There she discovers the simplicity of farm life while teaching the young children of the community. Selina is brilliantly portrayed - a delicately boned, strong willed woman with sparkling eyes who sees beauty in everything - including the purple and green cabbages which provide sustenance for the hard-working farmers and their families. Even after marrying the solid and reliable Pervus DeLong and finding herself working long and difficult days as a farmer's wife, Selina never loses her vision of beauty.

There was born in Selina at this time a feeling for the land that she was never to lose. Perhaps the child within her had something to do with this. She was aware of a feeling of kinship with the earth; an illusion of splendour, or fulfillment. Sometimes, in a moment's respite from her work about the house, she would stand in the kitchen doorway, her flushed face turned toward the fields. Wave on wave of green, wave on wave, until the waves melted into each other and became a verdant sea. - From So Big, page 84 -

Ferber's novel is not just about Selina's voyage through life - her struggles and dreams, challenges and triumphs - but it encompasses a larger theme...namely that of living a life of beauty and joy vs. a life of material success. Selina's enduring spirit and vision of life never fails her throughout the story. One of the most memorable scenes for me was when Selina is widowed and facing the failure of her farm. She does what a woman of her community had never done - she drives a team of horses to market on the streets of Chicago.

"Never in my life did I hear of such a thing!" Selina turned the horses' heads toward the city. "You'd be surprised, Jan, to know of all the things you're going to hear of some day that you've never heard of before." - From So Big, page 115 -

Selina's son, Dirk (aka: Sobig) represents the flip side to the life she has chosen. By all definitions, he becomes successful - holding down a high paying job and living among the wealthy. But, Ferber carefully and succinctly shows the reader why this kind of success does not necessarily lead to happiness.

Ferber's novel has rich characterizations and a strong sense of place. Exquisitely crafted and lovingly plotted, it is story that is worthy of the Pulitzer. I will be reading more of this amazing author's work in the future.

Highly recommended; rated 5/5.
The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, a human envoy to a far-off planed that he names Winter. Genly is in Winter as a representative of the Ekumen, an association whose aim is to promote communication and trade between worlds – not just commercial trade, but trade of ideas, philosophies, experiences, beliefs, cultures. Before Genly’s arrival, the inhabitants of Winter, the Gethenians, were not aware of the existence of other inhabited worlds. Genly’s mission is to convince them that he is trustworthy, and that it would be in their best interest to join the Ekumen. This is not an easy task, because most won’t even believe that he is an alien.

Winter is an austere planet, with constant sub-artic weather. However, that is not the strangest thing about it. What Genly finds strangest is the fact that the Gethenians are androgynes. They have a sexual cycle that lasts approximately 26 days. For 24 of those, they are genderless and asexual. In the remaining two days, they enter kemmer, and can become either male or female. There is no way no predict which they will become, nor do they find it relevant. No Gethenian has a predominant tendency to become male or female. And the same person can mother and father a child, and often does both during their lifetime.

Ursula Le Guin uses this premise to explore issues like gender and its role in society, power, ambition, fear and politics, and more individual issues like sexuality, intimacy and trust.

I will start by saying that I feel very ambivalently towards this book. This is not the first time I tried to read it – the first time was a couple of years ago, and I just couldn’t get into it, so I put it down. I thought it was perhaps a matter of timing. However, this time I struggled once more. But I persisted.

I do not mean by this that I think that The Left Hand of Darkness is a bad book. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, and I can see why. I can see its merits, and I understand why it’s a landmark in science fiction. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it. It’s hard to have such mixed feelings, especially about a book by an author I practically worship. I guess the best I can do is try to explain how this book made me feel, and why.

Even though I am a big fan of fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, I have a little trouble entering sci-fi worlds. It’s not that I can’t do it – I love books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and TV series like Stargate and Babylon 5. It’s just that it takes an extra effort – I am not transported into a sci-fi world as easily as into a fantasy one. I can’t explain why. It’s certainly not a matter of scepticism, of being unable to suspend my disbelief. Aliens, after all, are much more likely than ogres or elves. I grew up obsessed with the X-Files and scanning the skies for flying saucers regularly. And plus, my enjoyment of a story has never depended on how close its relationship with reality is. So this resistance is odd, I know, but it’s how it’s always been for me.

So that, and the fact that I am unfamiliar with Ursula Le Guin’s Hamish universe, could have been part of the problem. But there’s more. The story begins as a report from Genly to the Ekumen. Part of it is written like that, with other chapters from the point of view of Estraven, the Gethenian Genly gets closer to. There are also short interludes with myths and traditional tales from Winter (and in the first half of the book, these were my favourite bits).

My problem, at first, was that the book was written as a report and it actually read like one, rather than like a story. There was this sense of alienness, of distance from the story that I couldn’t shake off. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. What’s interesting here is that this reflects exactly how Genly feels about Winter in the first half of the book. He cannot get over the Gethenians’s lack of gender definition. I think the strangeness I felt was possibly part of what the book was trying to achieve. It’s funny, because I don’t really think of myself as someone to whom gender matters all that much. And yet… the strangeness was there. This book made me think. Even if I don’t believe in the existence of male or female personality types or characteristics, even if I don’t think I look at or classify people in terms of their gender, to what extent can I actually ignore those categories? They are, after all, deeply ingrained in my mind.

As the story advances, the tone becomes less strange, more intimate, quieter and more reflective. There was a part describing a long journey across the ice that I really enjoyed. And again, that is exactly when Genly begins to surpass the strangeness he feels, which once more makes me think that this is part of what Ursula Le Guin was trying to achieve. When Genly began to feel at home among the Gethenians, I too felt at home in the story.

And yet… this book made me uncomfortable, and I can’t quite pinpoint why. It challenged me. There were passages I loved, passages that show Ursula Le Guin at her very best:
When you meet a Gethenians you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role dependent on your expectation of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give.
How does one hate one country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain ploughland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?
I can see this book growing on me as it sinks further in. I can see myself looking back at it with more and more fondness as time goes by. I really liked the ending, for example – it was hopeful and sad, full of gain and loss. I think this is a book that will stay with me. But if you were to ask me right now how much I enjoyed it, I still wouldn’t know what to say. However, if the question were if I’m glad to have read it, the answer would be a definite yes.

This is an excerpt from my review which can be read in its entirety here.

"Spin" starts with three children, twins Jason and Diane Lawton and Jason's best friend Tyler Dupree. One night during a party at the Lawton house the kids look into the night sky and see all the stars wink out of existence.

Little by little as we watch the trio grow up, we also learn that some intelligent alien race has enclosed Earth in a protective shield (called The Spin) that slows down time. For every hour that passes on Earth, a hundred thousand years pass in the rest of the universe.

So, of course, every hour brings our Sun closer to supernova and the people of the Earth, predictably, freak out. Some committing suicide, or turning criminal or embracing fringe religions.

This was an excellent science fiction book that was less about science and more about the implications when people don't understand it.

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Larry Niven

Louis Wu is old, 200 years old in fact, but this is the future so it doesn't really matter. What matters is that Louis Wu is also bored as hell and itching for an adventure.

In comes Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer. In the Known Space universe of Larry Niven, the Puppeteers have the most advanced technology there is. And Nessus is looking for travel companions for a mission he is not quite ready to reveal but sure leaves Louis Wu and the rest of the recruits interested.

The other recruits? A Kzin species named Speaker to the Animals. Described as ferocious, he joined the mission because he was intrigued. And the payment to them all - technology for a spacecraft that is far too advanced than what is known to humans and the other alien inhabitants of planet Earth - is enough bait for him in hopes of helping the Kzins in somehow defeating the human race sometime.

Then there's Teela Brown, another human. With no flight training to speak of and with hardly any experience at all in space travel save that she has been to Mars or probably partied on the moon (I'm trying to remember her background, I don't want to flip through the book because it's packed somewhere in this house with other books I'm planning to send home as I'm lacking space on my shelves already).

All four set off towards Ringworld, a ring-shaped structure that encircles a star. A structure that is highly advanced and built to hold inhabitants in its vast inner surface. I don't think I'm explaining it well, I need to review my science knowledge. Hahaha!

Imagine a large ring then and set it on a dark, dark surface and call that space. Place a little sun at the center. Imagine the ring's inner flat surface to contain the air that we breath, the seas that we swim in, lands that are both fertile and deserted. And that the ring's system holds all things in place. Then imagine it orbiting, revolving around that little sun. It's a self-surviving system, a created universe. It's an ideal structure for a universe where Earth and other planets faces the possibility of overpopulation.

I was so into the book that it didn't really matter if I wasn't able to recall my early science formula of mass, gravity, inertia and so forth. Hahaha!

It's not just a book of descriptions though. The story of the four in itself is enthralling. Of course I see Ringworld through their eyes but that's not just what the book is about. The four main characters have their own stories to tell and that's part of the book's strength. As the tale unfolds we learn of the wars between the Kzins and the humans, of why Teela Brown was actually recruited, and what does Nessus get from this mission at all?

Interspersed with this is one of my favorite parts in reading a science fiction book - the technology, obviously! This was written in 1970 and yet Larry Niven already imagined a world where teleportation, among other things, is quite normal with transfer booths! And I could actually see and feel the Earth of the future in Louis Wu's eyes.

And yet despite that the book never lacked in feeling. Niven understands the worn-out traveler Louis, of a world that is getting smaller everyday and a planet that somehow is losing its identity and all in a matter of a couple of paragraphs into the book even prior to Wu's recruitment. Niven shows the same care for the other characters, making me glimpse at their lives, their thoughts all throughout the book and making me root for them all the more!

The last paragraph teases us into a sequel or something to that effect. The mission to Ringworld could end there in the first book. But as in all missions where a major discovery is found, there are and will be questions and further probe. And I finished the book August of last year wanting to know more about Ringworld and its engineers. Maybe sometime in the future.

Update from Equiano

In December I started routinely listening to an audio book while ironing (I confess, I iron my sheets and pillow cases, and as there was a steady stream of guests, that meant plenty of consistent listening time!). I'm in two minds as to whether I can really count it as "reading," but as it was unabridged, I'm allowing it. My first dabble with audiobooks has been A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA by William Boyd (read by Timothy Spall). This won a Whitbread for best first novel in 1981 and a Somerset Maugham the following year. I hated it.

Morgan Leafy, our "hero" is a cad, and so is just about everyone else. The only strong black African character, Adekunle, is a corrupt bully, and so it goes on... There's lots of bed-hopping, blackmail and office jealousy in the corridors of the British High Commission in Kinjanja. I suppose one can argue that it is a satire, sending up the mighty Commonwealth and its celebrated influence in Africa. And I suppose it does do all that. But, even for ironing, I was hoping for something a little meatier than a book most marked by the almost total non-presence of any real African character. Of course the argument would be that that is precisely the point - for those in colonial administration, the locals were an irrelevance. I know that, I just feel we've moved past that now. And perhaps that's it - that this is a book of its time? Perhaps it is cleverer than I am giving Boyd credit for, and I am just not in the mood. I still don't like it, and don't think it is prize-winning material. But Timothy Spall, as reader, was superb.

This has been cross-posted, with some minor adjustments, on my blog http://equianos.blogspot.com/2008/01/in-december-i-started-routinely.html

Atonement - Ian McEwan

Title: Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Pages: 351
Rating: 4.5/5

I had heard so many great things about this book in the blogosphere and then in looking forward to the movie, I was really wanting to read this book. I had a vague idea of what the premise was, but only little pieces. As I read through the first section of the book, I was pulled through each page with anticipation of what was going to happen. I was hooked to McEwan's beautiful and smooth prose and his subtle use of suspense.

Atonement is the story of a young girl, Briony, who is on the brink of young-adulthood, but still has so much to learn about life. She witnesses a number of events that revolve around her sister and Robbie during a summer afternoon and makes several assumptions that lead to Robbie's implication of a crime. That's all I knew going into the book, so I'll leave it at that.

The rest of the post is here on my blog.

Source: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6522362.html?desc=topstory

Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Laura Amy Schlitz, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village

Geraldine McCaughrean, The White Darkness

raidergirl3 update

Two more to start the year:

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E.L. Konisburg
1968 Newbery Winner

Cute little story of being brave enough to run away, and smart enough to be careful and go to a museum, disciplined enough to learn while there, and resourceful enough to solve a mystery.
My full review is here at my blog.

The Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro
1989 Booker Winner

With beautiful writing, Ishiguro captures the character of the proper British butler. Stevens recounts his life of service in Darlington Hall, with no self awareness, complete professionalism. It's a character study of a man, told by him, all the more telling by what he doesn't say. It was an excellent, quiet read.

My full review is here at my blog.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This is a book for the A to Z challenge as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner so I'm using it for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. I've read so much about this one on various blogs that I had to give it a read.

It is the story of three women in three different time periods; Virginia Woolf as she's writing Mrs. Dalloway (which is a book I highly recommend), Clarissa Vaughan as she's planning a party for a friend dying of AIDS, and Laura Brown, a suburban 1950s housewife. Cunningham interweaves the three stories in alternating chapters. I read Mrs. Kimble for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. It is also the story of three women yet their lives are intertwined with a shared husband, and they do interact in the book. The women in this book live in different times and places. Yet, Cunningham is able to make them seem remarkable similar.

Strengths of The Hours: The fact that he was able to make me care about these three very different women in only 200 pages is amazing. He basically told the story of one momentous day in each of their lives. For more of my review, visit my blog.

NBCC Finalists for Fiction

Source: http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/


Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games, HarperCollins
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, Riverhead
Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men, Dial Press
Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravediggers Daughter, HarperCollins
Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher, S. & S.

Update form raidergirl3

Since July 1, I've read the following award winning books or Nobel winning authors:

2006 Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures -Vincent Lam (The Giller Prize)

2005 We Need to Talk About Kevin - Shriver (Orange Prize)

1981 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole (Pulitzer)
2007 The Road - Cormac McCarthy (Pulitzer)
1999 The Hours - Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer)

1985 The Bone People - Keri Hulme (Booker)
1989 The Remains of the Day - Kazou Ishiguro (Booker)
1997 The God of Small Things - Arundi Roy (Booker Prize)
2000 The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood (Booker)

2006 Other Colors - Orhan Pamuk (Nobel Prize winner)

1968 From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler - EL Konisburg (Newbery)
1990 Number the Stars - Lois Lowry (Newbery)
2004 The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo (Newbery)

1986 Enders Game - Orson Scott Card (Hugo, Nebula)

I still have three more from my original list, and I'm sure to read some more Bookers before July.

1993 A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J Gaines (National Book Critics Award)
1997 The Chatham School Affair - Thomas H Cook (Edgar Award)
2002 Atonement - Ian McEwan (National Book Critics' Circle Award)
It seems we are midway through the time for this challenge and it's time to update my progress.
I've finished 8 of the 12 books on my list, and loved most of them. I even got my book of the year from this list. I have four to go and may make a substitution. I'm almost done with The Hours which qualifies as a Pulitzer Prize winner. I will probably substitute it for The Road because that one seems to be getting buried on the TBR pile.

So here's the finished list:

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize, 2003)
2. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Man Booker Prize, 2002)
3. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (Newbery, 2004)
4. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh (PEN/Hemingway, 2003)
5. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Book Sense Adult Fiction Winner, 2000)
6. City of Bones by Michael Connelly (Anthony Award, 2003)
7. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Pulitzer Prize, 1995)
8. California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker (Edgar Award, 2005)

Here's the TBR list:

1. Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (Newbery, 2006)
2. Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Newbery, 2007)
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Pulitzer Prize, 2007)
Possible substitution of The Hours by Michael Cunningham
4. March by Geraldine Brooks (Pulitzer Prize, 2006)

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
127 pages
First Sentence:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had
goneeighty-four days now without taking a fish.

This is the fairly mellow tale of an old fisherman who is trying to do what he was born to do: fish. Without a catch in 84 days, he is now being called "salao, which is the worst form of unlucky." But as he sets off on his 85th day, he is determined that it will be a lucky day. He is sure he will be catching a large fish this time.

This book moves at a leisurely pace in a stream-of-conscienceness way. The old man, being alone, thinks to himself and occasionally talks to himself too. The reader witnesses the old man's mental struggles with loving his fish while he also knows he must kill it. The agonies he goes through to catch the fish and then to protect it for the long trip home feel real.

It is about dreams fulfilled but at a cost. It is about a man's struggle with adversity. I am afraid that the simplicity of the story is hiding a much larger picture than I was able to grasp. It didn't win the Pulitzer Prise in 1953 because of its plot alone. It has a genuine quality about it. You believe this is the story of a real fisherman in the Gulf Stream. Largely uneducated, simple, loves fishing and the sea, content with his lot in life. I think the best description for it is pleasantly simple.

Petunia's Progress

These are all the award winners I read from June to December 2007.

Adam of the Road (Newbery '43)

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (Newbery '56)

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor(National Book '72)

The Bronze Bow (Newbery '62)

The Age of Innocence(Pulitzer '21)

To Kill a Mockingbird(Pulitzer '61)

Shen of the Sea (Newbery '26)

Beowulf (Costa/Whitbread '99)
We're halfway through already?! Oh my goodness! This has been so much fun, I'm reading some wonderful books.

So far, I've read 7 of 12 (yea, I'm on track!)

  1. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison - National Book Award 1953 (completed 7/9/2007 - review)
  2. The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty - Pulitzer 1973 (completed 8/10/2007 - review)
  3. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - Pulitzer 2007 (completed 9/2/2007 - review)
  4. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck - Nobel Prize author, 1962 (completed 10/6/2007 - review)
  5. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri - Pulitzer 2000 (completed 10/11/2007 - review)
  6. The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney - Costa/Whitbread 2006 (completed 11/9/2007 - review)
  7. The Giver, by Lois Lowry - Newbery 1994 (completed 12/15/2007 - review)

I enjoyed all of these, but I rated Interpreter of Maladies as one of my top 5 books for 2007. So far it's my favorite of this challenge. Still to come:

  1. March, by Geraldine Brooks - Pulitzer 2006
  2. The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch - Booker 1978
  3. The Bone People, by Keri Hulme - Booker 1985
  4. The Gathering, by Anne Enright - Booker 2007
  5. TBD - I'm thinking I'll read the 2008 Pulitzer winner, as long as it's announced before the challenge ends!

Lizzy's Midpoint Progress

18 so far for me. I am loving this challenge! Reading some great books and reducing the TBR - marvellous!

1) Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell (Pulitzer 1937)
2) Sacred Hunger - Barry Unsworth (Booker Prize 1990)
3) The Lizard Cage - Karen Connelly (Orange First Novel Award 2006)
4) The Boy and The Sea - Kirsty Gunn (Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year 2007)
5) Consolation - Michael Redhill (Toronto Book Award 2007)
6) Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones (Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2007)
7) The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef Penney (Costa Debut Novel and Book of the Year 2006)
8) Joseph Knight - James Robertson (Saltire Book Award 2003)
9) The Trick Is To Keep Breathing - Janice Galloway (Whitbread First Novel Award 1989)
10) Foreign Parts - Janice Galloway (McVitie's Prize Scottish Writer of the Year 1994)
11)A Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam - Chris Ewan (Long Barns Book's First Novel Prize 2006)
12) The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt - Wilhelm Genazino (Georg-Buchner Prize 2004)
13) Restless - William Boyd (Costa Novel 2006)
14) The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne - Brian Moore (Author's Club Award for First Novel 1955)
15) Set In Stone - Linda Newbery (Costa Children's Novel 2006)
16) The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell (Good Housekeeping Book of the Year 2007)
18) What Was Lost - Catherine O'Flynn (Costa Debut Novel 2007)
17) The Bower Bird - Ann Kelley (Costa Children's Novel 2007)

P.S I read this year's Costa Novel of the Year winner before the challenge began. But in case you're wondering what it's like:

Day - A L Kennedy

3M's Halftime Report

I encourage everyone who wishes to publish their midpoint progress to do so. Please use the label 'midpoint progress' when posting.

I completed the following books in the first half of the challenge:

1. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Booker 2000) FINISHED
2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Booker 1997) FINISHED
3. The Sea by John Banville (Booker 2005) FINISHED
4. A Death in the Family by James Agee (Pulitzer 1958) FINISHED
5. The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Newbery 2007) FINISHED
6. The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (Newbery 1950) FINISHED
7. The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Pulitzer, IMPAC, NBCC) FINISHED
8. The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer) FINISHED
9. The White Stag by Kate Seredy (Newbery 1938) FINISHED
10. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer) FINISHED
11. Lisey's Story by Stephen King (Bram Stoker 2007) FINISHED
12. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Orange 2007) FINISHED
13. Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (Newbery) FINISHED
14. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (Newbery) FINISHED
15. Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather by Gao Xingjian (Nobel Laureate) FINISHED
16. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (Pulitzer) FINISHED
17. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (Pulitzer) FINISHED
18. Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (Nobel laureate) FINISHED
19. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (Prix Renaudot) FINISHED

6th book - A Dark-Adapted Eye

Winner of the Edgar Award, 1987

This was an interesting mystery as family secrets are revealed a bit at a time. At first, the slowness of the narrative annoyed me, but overtime I began to appreciate the way Faith learned about her family's past along with the reader.

More book information here.

Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, 2001

I have to admit I was nervous about approaching this book again. I had started reading it years ago, but didn't get far. This time, I kept going, and I'm glad I did. Perdido Street Station is a intensely descriptive book filled with so much detail about New Crobuzon and its inhabitants. Woven throughout is the story of Isaac and his quest to help Yagharek fly and what that quest ultimately leads to. It'll be a while before the images of this book leave me and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, The Scar.

More book information here.

I'll Second That ...

I see that Petunia has read Atonement, by Ian McEwan, as her most recent Challenge book, and found the writing to be wonderful. I'll second that, as I kept reading for the pleasure of the language. My thoughts are posted here.

Atonement, NBCCA 2002

The line on the bottom of the front cover says "A beautiful and majestic fictional panorama." And it's true. This may be one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. Which is not to say pleasant. The subject matter, adult themes and the violence of war, are certainly difficult to get through at times. But they are all a necessary part of the journey.

You can read the rest of my review here.

Newbery 1999, Holes

By Louis Sachar © 1998
Published by Scholastic, Inc.
1999 Newbery Medal winner

Holes is the story of young Stanley Yelnats and a generations-old family curse. As the story opens, things look grim for Stanley. Convicted of a crime he did not commit, Stanley is sentenced to serve time at Camp Green Lake, a camp for bad boys.

“Stanley was not a bad kid. He was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. He’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“It was all because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!

“He smiled. It was a family joke. Whenever anything went wrong, they always blamed Stanley’s no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather…”

Camp Green Lake didn’t sound so bad. After all, Stanley had never been to camp before. But Stanley soon finds that, “there is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” Instead, there are endless stretches of desert, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and deadly yellow-spotted lizards. The Warden and camp staff are dangerous characters, as well, who oversee the boys, day in and day out, as they dig holes, each exactly five feet deep and five feet wide. The boys have no idea why they’re digging these holes. They’re told that digging holes builds character and turns bad boys into good boys. But before his time at Camp Green Lake is through, Stanley will uncover the real truth about the Warden, Camp Green Lake – and the Yelnats family curse.

Holes, by Louis Sachar, is definitely my favorite Newbery pick so far. It’s a smart, funny page-turner, has wonderful characters, a story line with lots of ups and downs, and a karmic happy ending. A great read!

Based on the true story of Grace Marks who was the most infamous woman in Canada in the 1840's. Her and James McDermott were accused of murdering their male employer Mr Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper cum mistress Nancy Montgomery who was pregnant at the time. McDermott was said to have killed Mr Kinnear with a shotgun after earlier in the day the two of them strangled Nancy. Possible reasons were that McDermott was in love with Grace and Grace was in love with Mr Kinnear.

The tale picks up with Grace in jail sometime after McDermott has been hanged for his crimes. Grace was due to be hanged as well, but the sentence was changed to life due to the efforts of her lawyer Kenneth MacKenzie. It is told alternatively through Grace herself and Dr Simon Jordan who specialises in mental issues (Grace spent some time in an asylum but it was unclear whether she was truely insane or faking it). Dr Jordan is a young man trying to open his own asylum and adopts Grace as his new project that will hopefully give him the exposure he requires to get funding. The interest in her is that it was never proven just what her involvement was in the murder of Nancy and Mr Kinnear, she claims to have had a blackout and not remember anything for a couple of hours during the time Nancy was killed.

I absolutely loved this book. Grace was such an interesting character, you were never sure how much of what she was telling Dr Jordan was the truth. Atwood gives the impression that she was guilty, but it is never said outright. There are some interesting side characters like Dr Jordan's landlady and his mother who towards the end manages to get her own way, she is a very formidable opponent! I also spent a lot of time wondering whether Grace's friend Mary Witney was ever real or was Grace's original name and who the "J" from the apple core divination was that Grace would marry. Highly recommended to all Atwood, fiction and crime fans.

"Thomas the Rhymer" by Ellen Kushner

Ellen Kushner’s novel Thomas the Rhymer is a retelling of the old Scottish ballad of the same name – the story of a Harper who, after kissing the Queen of Elfland (and in some versions, more), is spirited away to Faerie where he lives as her lover/slave for seven years. After that time, he returns to the world of men with two cruel gifts: the gift of foresight, and “the tongue that never lies” – the complete inability to tell lies.

This novel won both the Mythopoeic and the World Fantasy Awards. When I picked it up, the very first thing I saw were the extremely enthusiastic blurbs by people like Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Terri Windling, Charles de Lint and Orson Scott Card, all writers for whom I have the greatest respect. Needless to say, my expectations were very high. And I’m saying this so that you understand how much it means to say that I was not disappointed at all.

Ellen Kushner approaches this familiar story from an original angle. The book is divided in four parts, each with a different first person narrator: Gavin, Thomas, Meg and Elspeth. Gavin and Meg are an old couple who lives in the countryside of a mythical old Scotland – the Scotland of tales and ballads. The story opens with Gavin describing how a Harper, Thomas, asks them for shelter one stormy night. He turns out to be ill, and Meg nurses him back to health. As time goes by, the childless couple becomes very fond of the young man, who begins to visit them regularly. He seems to develop feelings for a local girl, Elspeth, and these also seem to be reciprocated – except that the young man and woman’s loveplay is in the form of constant arguments.

As the years go by, Thomas comes and goes. He visits the courts of powerful men and harps for them, and when he needs a place to rest, or to hide from trouble, he returns to Meg and Gavin’s. Until one day, in the middle of one of his visits, he goes for a walk on the hills alone and doesn’t come back. His possessions, and, most importantly, his harp, are left behind. Meg, Gavin and Elspeth never see him again – not for seven years, anyway.

As you must have gathered, each of these four narrators tells us a piece of the story. Gavin takes it until Thomas’ disappearance; Thomas describes his years in Elfland; Meg narrates Thomas’ surprising return; and Elspeth’s story takes place many years later, when Thomas is an old man. Together, these four narratives form a complete, rich and multilayered whole. Along with the different perspectives, the different narrators bring different moods and emotional tonalities to the story, which complement each other perfectly. Gavin’s tone is matter-of-factly, and his tale is intriguing. Thomas’ story is a deeply sensual one, and a meditation on longing and despair. Meg’s story is tender, and Elspeth’s is both sorrowful and resigned.

As Neil Gaiman put it, this is “an elegant and beautiful book that manages both to create firmly real, breathing people, and to evoke the magic of faerie." Indeed, one of the book’s greatest strengths is the perfect combination of the eerie and the very human – often in the same moment.

This is a novel about Faerie, but it’s also a novel about the world of men. It’s a story about the cost and weight of the truth, about the importance of stories, of ballads, of music and of art, and about longing and passion and love and regret. Tom’s acute humanity is made all the clearer by the otherness of Elfland. There he learns things about himself that he never dared suspect – things that are truth of humanity as a whole.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, the novel is also superbly written, and full of passages I’m dying to share, such as:
But the question had been asked; the hole had been opened in the fabric of things, and there is something about a hole, a tear, a rent in anything that is irksome to people of character. One wants to fill it, to mend it, to close it. I have heard Elves say that humans' greatest strength and weakness both is their curiosity, which leads them to invention. Elves are not very good liars; they're not even very good storytellers, as we account storytelling: most of it is not invention, for with the rich stuff of Elfland in their hands, they've no need to invent.
One of my favourite moments in the novel is a brilliant scene in which Tam Lim, another Scottish ballad about a young man and the Queen of Elfland, is sung and played in Thomas’s hall. But of course, explaining the full significance of the scene without giving away the whole plot (which goes beyond the plot of the ballad) would be difficult.

I highly recommend this novel to fans of books like Stardust, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Lud-In-The-Mist. And also to fans of timeless stories, and good, unputdownable and memorable books.

Reviews of this book run the gamut from fantastic to awful. I think the reason why is because this is a story that operates on multiple levels.

First, and most obvious, it's a rags to riches story about a nondescript young man whose hard work, despite lack of education, vision and willingness to take a risk results in magnificent architectural feats - the American Dream, so to speak. The operative word, however, is Dream. Those readers caught up in the economics story will find the ending unsatisfying because Martin is a dreamer, not necessarily a Rockefeller, Carnegie or Gates.

The story as a dream is also effective - there is symbolism, interpretation, wild ideas that don't always make sense (including the sleepy wife Caroline).

In a minor way, it's also a walk through historic, pre-subway New York, and the descriptions of the city as it would have been at that time are fun to imagine.

It's an unusual, unique story that doesn't necessarily fit the classic novel style. Read it with no preconceived notions.

QuiltGranny Progress and 2008 goals

I read these books in 2007
2007 - The Road (McCarthy)
2006 - March (Brooks)
2005 - Gilead (Robinson)
2004 - The Known World (Jones)
2003 - Middlesex (Eugenides)
2002 - Empire Falls (Russo)

I read these books the year they were published:
1994 - The Shipping News (Proulx)
1993 - A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Butler)
1992 - A Thousand Acres (Smiley)
1989 - Breathing Lessons (Tyler)
1988 - Beloved (Morrison)
1986 - Lonesome Dove (McMurtry)
1983 - The Color Purple (Walker)
1981 - A Confederacy of Dunces (Toole)
1972 - Angle of Repose (Stegner)
I read these books in college in the 1960's (and will probably re-read some of them)
1961 - To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
1953 - The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
1952 - The Caine Mutiny (Wouk)
1948 - Tales of the South Pacific (Michener)
1947 - All the King’s Men (Warren)
1945 - Bell for Adano (Hersey)
1940 - The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
1939 - The Yearling (Rawlings)
1937 - Gone with the Wind (Mitchell)
1932 - The Good Earth (Buck)
1921 - The Age of Innocence (Wharton)

2008 Goals
1999 - The Hours (Cunningham)
1998 - American Pastoral (Roth)
1997 - Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (Millhauser)
1995 - The Stone Diaries (Shields)
1969 - House Made of Dawn (Momaday)
1965 - The Keepers Of the House (Grau)
1956 - Andersonville (Kantor)
1928 - The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder)
1919 - The Magnificent Ambersons (Tarkington)

Title:- The Satanic Verses
Genre:- Fiction
Subgenre:- Novel
Author:- Salman Rushdie
Publisher:- Viking Press
ISBN Number:- 0-312-27082-8
Price:- £5.99

The Blurb

No book in modern times has matched the uproar sparked by Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which earned its author a fatwa from Iran's Ayatollahs decreeing his death. Furore aside, it is a marvellously erudite study of good and evil, a feast of language served up by a writer at the height of his powers and a rollicking comic fable. The book begins with two Indians, Gibreel Farishta, who has been for fifteen years the biggest star in the history of the Indian movies, and Saladin Chamcha, a Bombay expatriate returning from his first visit to his homeland in fifteen years, plummeting from the sky after the explosion of their jetliner, and proceeds through a series of metamorphoses, dreams and revelations. When the jumbo jet blows apart above the English Channel, Gibreel and Saladin are the two who survive and are washed to an English beach. However, it soon becomes clear that curious changes have come over them and that they have been chosen as protagonists in the eternal struggle between God and the Devil.

Rushdie's astonishing powers of invention are at their best in this Booker Prize shortlist and Whitbread Prize winner. Salman Rushdie is the author of Midnight's Children, winner of the 1981 Booker Prize, and Shame.

The Review

The Satanic Verses is a novel which falls in the genre of Magical Realism (a beautiful paradox of our modern times), of which we see much in Gabriel García Márquez's works.

It tells the story of the enchanting Gibreel Farishta who rises from being a pauper in Bombay to a popular filmstar playing Hindu deities in Bollywood mythologicals. The humor in the novel commences when Gibreel refuses to make love to his female admirers with the elephant snout on, which he has used as a prop for playing Lord Ganesha in a movie and which his fans have come to fancy. He complains that an acting career in Bombay is quite less of acting and much more of frantic travel between studios trying to keep schedules.

It also tells the story of the misplaced Saladin Chamcha, who develops an English accent so refined and immaculate that he lends his voice to British radio shows. He shuns his father who loathes books and had sent him away from Bombay to study in Britain. He returns after a long period of absence only to find that the city of his childhood has changed in a quintessential measure.

On his return trip to UK, Saladin Chamcha meets Gibreel Farishta who has absconded in order to meet his flame Annie Cone, the Mount Everest conquerer whom he courted in Bombay. The plane gets hijacked and all but the two protagonists of the novel - Chamcha and Farishta - are dead. The two are washed ashore on the waves of the English Channel, only to find that there has been a major change of roles. Gibreel thereafter suffers hallucinations of being an archangel, while Saladin is transformed into a chimera representing the devil.

Saladin miraculously recovers from the transmogrification and plots his revenge against Gibreel for refusing recognition and help when Saladin was led into custody by policemen. Like Iago, he plots the murder of Annie Cone at the hands of the suspicious and jealous Gibreel Farishta himself. In the climax, Gibreel shoots himself when he realizes what a mistake he has committed.

The novel also runs the course of three mini-plots: The first comprises the tale of Mahound's revelations from Archangel Gibreel, Hind - Mahound's fiercest opponent and Baal - the irreverent poet. The second speaks of the Imam and his gang of terrorists. And the third and most beautiful story is that of Ayesha, the girl who leads poor villagers on a Haj pilgrimage after convincing them that if God willed it, the waters of the Arabian Sea would part to make way for them.

The novel has ample instances of Rushdie-style humor and sarcasm. The narrative though broken into four parallel threads of narration is held together in a very cohesive manner. Rushdie's implicit commentary on the racism prevalent in UK is commendable and should have been the focus of attention, rather than the much publicized and denounced fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against him. However, the novel is not as erudite as it could have been. It is in no way grand or profound, and does not seek to reveal something that the reader is unaware of. Definitely not one of Rushdie's better novels.

The book was banned in many countries including Iran and India, for propagating the theory of The Satanic Verses - those verses of the Holy Quran which were revealed to the Prophet by the Satan and which he later retracted as being part of the Holy Book of the Moslems. It was fortunate that Salman Rushdie survived the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, since the Japanese translator Igarashi was murdered, and the Italian translator Capriolo suffered serious physical injuries due to being stabbed.