Saturday, March 31, 2007

March Reading Update

For March, I took it a bit easier than February and read only a total of 10 books instead of 12. One thing that I had not really expected as a result of this push to read 100 is that I might not enjoy the books as much as I would if I were just reading just to read. About mid-month I became concerned that I was not going to hit 25 books by the end of the month and really started steaming through the books I was involved in (as usual about 4 at any given time). It left me with some discontentment about the quality of reading, particularly as when I was going at a more leisurely pace, I was enjoying some really great books. Still, I got through 10 at any rate, and am on track for where I think I should be (25 books every three months), so at least my goal is in sight.

So, what did I read? (WARNING WARNING WARNING: The below reviews contain SPOILERS. Paritcularly for Baggage and The Namesake.)

1, 2, and 3. The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Ok, now granted these are "children's books" in the sense that they're written for young readers, but the shortest one of them was over 300 pages long. The books have been so much fun to read, and so interesting. I have enjoyed visiting Wikipedia to see pictures of the Ingalls family and I must say, I have a renewed respect for the pioneering type. I've enjoyed a lot of pioneering women type books (IE 1000 White Women) but these make it easier to understand for little pea brains like me what exactly went into the mechanics of living life on the prairie with no "modern conveniences". In The Long Winter, the Ingalls family is forced to move into the town near their claim during a winter that is brutal. There are nonstop blizzards every three or four days from October till April, and the family runs out of firewood and coal to heat their little storefront. They sleep every night huddled together under quilts and spend their days grinding their remaining wheat into flour with the help of a coffee mill, while huddled around the kitchen stove to keep warm. Pa and Laura run back and forth to the stables through a tunnel they've made in the snow to grab straw, which they twist into "kindling" that they try to burn. Unbelievably, their straits are that dire. Finally Almonzo Wilder and Cap Garland take a dangerous 12 mile trek to a claim outside of town where they hear the farmer is hoaring a supply of grain to plant in the springtime. They talk him into giving it up and save the townspeople from starvation. In Farmer Boy, we follow Almonzo as he grows up on a farm in Malone, NY (my father is taking me to visit the farm this summer as a little historical field trip). Almonzo and his siblings have a very different life as farmers than Laura and her family trying to eek out an existence on the plains. I enjoyed it not only because I grew up in that area, but also because in discussing it with my dad, he said that the book reminded him of himself and his siblings as they were growing up. That put a nice human face on it. As for Little Town on the Prairie, it is the story of the year following The Long Winter, as the Ingalls family sends daughter Mary off to the Iowa College for the Blind and Laura prepares to become a schoolteacher and is beginning to be wooed by Almonzo. Nellie Oleson rears her ugly head as well. I find great amusement in Laura's precociousness and it's sad that she's growing up and starting to have to act like a lady. I picked up a cheap copy of the full color collector's edition of this particular book, and the drawings of Pa Ingalls look almost dead on what Charles Ingalls looked like in real life--two eyes and a whole lotta beard. Great stuff. So as I move along, I'll probably pick up the remaining couple of books I've yet to read and enjoy them. I have enjoyed reading these books right before bed, as they put me in a nice place before going to sleep. Fewer nightmares, definitely.

4. The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel. This book follows the story of young Livvy Dunne, who at 24 has been written off as a spinster while her two younger and prettier sisters marry military officers during WWII. When it is discoverd that Livvy has been, well, knocked up by a military officer who left to join the war, a family friend who is a minister arranges a marriage to a far off farmer, away from her family and friends, and far away from her dreams of pursuing a career in archeology. Lonely and not connecting with her new husband, she befriends two young Japanese-American girls who work on the farm as part of their jobs in the nearby internment camp. The girls involve Livvy in a scheme that could land her in a heap of trouble, and Livvy must come to terms with her life as it is and make peace with it. I loved this book. It was a real page turner. The basic criticism of the book is that the plot is improbable in terms of what Livvy and the Japanese girls do, and that it wraps up rather neatly and quickly at the end, both of which are true. But for me, that didn't detract one minute from the book. I enjoyed the story of a woman who takes on her circumstances by doing what is dictated by those around her, and how she must either run from those decisions screaming or make peace with how she finds her life. I felt a definite kinship and sympathy towards Livvy and truly enjoyed reading about her life and life during the time period. The writing was also quite fluid and easy to read.

5. The Dive from Clausen's Pier by Ann Packer. Carrie Bell feels the pull of a new life awaiting her outside her Wisconsin hometown. Her relationship with her fiance Mike is boring her, and she wants to see the world and learn who she is. She goes out with Mike on Memorial Day, and he dives headfirst into a shallow lake and is immediately paralyzed. Can Carrie stay? No. But with pressure from all sides, her mother, Mike's parents, their friends in Madison, Carrie feels terrible about deciding to leave and not return home. Still, she moves to NYC with an old acquaitance from high school with whom she strikes up a new relationship and while there, she meets Kilroy, a man from whom she cannot turn away. But unexpectedly, despite her happiness in NY and a new career looming, she finds herself being pulled back to Madison. The book leaves you in genuine suspense as to whether Carrie will abandon Mike for a new life or will she turn her back on her own needs and settle down to do the "right thing". And who is it the "right thing" for?

This was one of those books that I looked at and thought, "I really should read that" and didn't read it because I thought that way. I hate books that I should read. I hate the pressure of the world's expectations weighing on me as I read a book that it seems everyone else in the world likes. Now, in general, there's a reason why everyone tends to like those books, and it's that they're genuinely good books. This book was no exception. And usually I have a HUGE quibble with people who write about NYC. (see below) But even in this book, the usual pretentiousness of a writer writing about NY disappeared into one great story. I couldn't put the book down. It was great. I was genuinely conflicted as to what Carrie should do. And I was pleased, overall, with the way it came out in the end. I wish I could write as well.

6. Final Analysis: The Untold Story of the Susan Polk Murder Case by Catherine Crier. This was Michael's and my book choice of the month. The story of Susan Polk, whose husband Felix was founded stabbed to death in their California home, centers around the couple's relationship, their family life, Felix's murder, and Susan's conviction for said murder. Susan and Felix met when Susan was a teenager and underwent psychiatric care with Felix, who was 20+ years her senior. Apparently during their therapy sessions, Felix would put Susan under hypnosis and sexually assault her. Somehow, she wound up marrying him, bearing 3 sons, and then, continuing to struggle with her mental health issues, went off the deep end and murdered him after years of alleged emotional and physical abuse. She decides to represent herself at trial and is convicted. (There is little doubt in my mind based on this book that she would have been cleared by reason of insanity had that been her defense and she would have allowed a competent lawyer to represent her)

This book stretched on for miles, included a lot of useless facts (ie what Susan wore to court every day, how she styled her hair, etc). Towards the end, Michael and I just wanted to be done with it and skipped over a chapter or two to reach the end. And I don't think we missed a damned thing. Awful. Singularly awful. Although it was entertaining to read, "Susan stabbed her husband in the chest and abdomen" out loud. hehe Catherine Crier, host of a show on CourTV, needs to take a few true crime writing lessons from John Grisham or someone. We just finally gave up. "Uncle!"

7. Baggage by Emily Barr. Lina Pritchett's life is centered around hiding her new pregnancy from her husband's family until they are ready to tell, her son Red, and her mother-in-law Margot, as well as her career as a teacher in a tiny town on the Australian Outback. One of her former students has run off with her best friend's husband, the big scandal in town. At a wedding for the two, Lina is started to run into Sophie, a backpacker from England who is sure she knows Lina as her old pal Daisy from ballet school back in Devon. Ten years earlier, Daisy was accused of a terrible crime and committed suicide in the midst of the ensuing media melee. Or did she?

This was a really great women's suspense type of book. Written in such a way that you know that Lina is Daisy and that she was not entirely guilty (one of those shades of gray type of deals), the suspense centers around her getting caught, and what will happen to the life she's so carefully protected for the last ten years. Can a person be rehabilitated, and is forgiveness possible? I loved that it wasn't grisly, that it was very human, and exposed the frailties we're all vulnerable to as thoughtless careless youths (granted, we aren't all mildly responsible for poisoning four of our best friends). How Daisy deals with being discovered and how it affects the people around her makes for compelling reading.

8. The Motorboat Boys on the Saint Lawrence by Louis Arundel. We have a great little used bookstore in Fredericksburg and in the basement they have shelves of classic children's series. Apparently Motorboat Boys is one of those series that was big back in the early part of the 20th century, and I had to pick this one up, as it takes place on the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands, where I used to often visit growing up when my dad worked customs on the Canadian Border.

Motorboat Boys was written around 1912, and centers around 6 friends (Buster, Jimmy, Jack, Josh, George, and Herb) who all like to travel on 3 little motorboats through the great waterways of the USA. Travel is certainly a loose term in this case, as their travels on the St. Lawrence seems to center on them anchoring off a small island in the 1000 Islands and sitting there for a week. Eventually they get some strange looks from a couple of passing boats, and discover they've hit upon an island used for smuggling. This happens approximately 7/8 of the way through the book--the first 200 pages have to do with Buster being fat and all his friends calling him Fatty. Seriously, poor little Buster takes it on the chin.

Ultimately a rather tedious little tome to get through, the most excitement being when the boys hook some big fish. Even the boys admit in the book that their trip has been rather dull and they decide to continue motoring into the Great Lakes to head home. It was an entertaining read in the sense of the language that has changed so much in 100 years. It was a cute book and nice to have on the shelf as a curiosity, but I'm not inclined to run out and buy the series.

9. The Lost Boy by Dave Pelzer. The beauty of swapping books on line is that I don't have to pay for books I've been interested in reading but not interested enough in to go purchase or get from the library. This was one of those books. I read A Child Called It ages ago, which details the horrifying abuse Dave Pelzer suffered at the hands of his mother. The Lost Boy is the follow up to that book, in which Dave details his struggles to find a home in the foster care system. Dave's first taste of freedom from fear, hunger, cold, and hurt send him on a headlong path to crazy-little-boy-dom as he just goes off the wall for a while. He switches families a good amount, as he gets into serious trouble while trying to learn how to behave in a world he doesn't understand. Eventually he finds a place where the people understand him and are willing to work with him to help him become a healthy and productive teenager.

I have thought often of becoming a foster parent, although I know it's a difficult journey to follow, and reading this makes me question my own patience even more. It's sad to know there are children out there like Dave was, who need a good home and a place to feel safe as their own families either cannot or will not care from them appropriately. I am currently an on-line mentor to two such youth and it's nice to know that I am doing my part to try and give them a little guidance. (If you think you'd like to become an online "vMentor" to a youth aging out of foster care, please visit and click on vMentor today.) I enjoyed reading The Lost Boy and learning what it took for Dave and his family to get his act together and help him clean up after years of unbelievable abuse.

10. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. This is this month's book club selection, so again I can't say too much about it (we're meeting on Monday) other than I HATE THE WAY PEOPLE WRITE ABOUT NEW YORK CITY. Not everyone in New York is wealthy or artsy or bohemian. There are plenty of average, every day people just living in the city, working, taking care of families, going to school, and/or getting it done. Why do 99% of the books about NY have some crazy songstress who works as a waitress when not launching her own fashion line with her own signature hair color? Or an uptight stockbroker who goes to the Hamptons on weekends to unwind with his mistress while his wife and three children are at home in Manhattan on their 54th floor penthouse?

Ok, Ok, I'm calming down, neither of those people show up in The Namesake, but they very well could have. And it really pisses me off.

It also really pissed me off that a) Gogol spent his young life running away from marrying a fellow Bengali, then finds one he actually loves, marries her and then it's like a flip is switched the minute the honeymoon ends and they hate each other and get divorced; and b) that he is called "conflicted" when all he's trying to do is figure out who he is when out from under the shadow of his domineering parents. Oh, and there was nothing particularly comic about it, despite what the back cover might have you believe.

Still, I thought it was a great book, and I truly enjoyed it. I never would have read it on my own, as I'm also fussy about "ethnic" books for some strange reason, even though I loved, loved, loved the Kite Runner. I just tend to read white bread America books more than any others. Maybe I need to start broadening my horizons.

So that's it for this month. I would have had one more, except that I forgot to bring home the book I was reading last weekend and it's been on my desk at work all week. I was almost done with it too. I had every intention of returning to the office and picking it up, but sadly the car troubles and a few super needy clients had me running this week. So I will review Blue Water by A. Manette Ansay next month. My "to read" shelf is growing in leaps and bounds thanks to the swapping sites, and so I'm busy, busy, busy and have plenty to read for the next few months. This month should be interesting, as I have a full week lost at our statewide meeting, and then of course our trip to Las Vegas (I've been informed only tourists call it Vegas, so I'm trying to call it Las Vegas so I sound like a local), so I may not get much done in April. We'll have to see!!

To Recap:

The Great: The Dive from Clausen's Pier, Baggage, The Magic of Ordinary Days

The Good: All 3 Little House books, the Lost Boy, The Namesake

The OK: Motorboat Boys

The Awful: Final Analysis


March: 10 books, 3196 pages

Year To Date: 28 books, 8609 pages

0 pearl(s) of wisdom: