Monday, April 30, 2007

April Reading Rundown

As I expected, April was a very slow month for me, bookwise. I've been a little bit tired lately and haven't felt like reading a whole lot, so slowed down and only read eight books, down from a high of 12. This is the first month I've thought, "Well, I might not read 100 books this year", but I also felt OK with that assessment. What with my vacation and the statewide meeting this month, I lost a week and a half of reading time, so I suppose 8 is nothing to cough at. I also wasn't reading any Little House books this month, which may have led to my downfall :-)

I also had plans to read the books that people had given me as gifts, but unfortunately I only read 1 of those and still have several to get to. Maybe in May!

Again, these may contain spoilers, so if you don't want to know what happens in a particular book, I recommend skipping to the next title. (Particularly for Such a Pretty Girl and Blue Water and The Cross Country Quilters.)

1. The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. Book club selection of the month. I wound up switching to this book from The Eyre Affair (sorry, Lesley!) when I received it in the mail and discovered that the author lives in Washington DC. I read the book in 2 days and fell in love with it and contacted Ms. Parkhurst on her website to ask her if she'd be willing to speak to the book club about the book. Not only is she willing to do so, but she's willing to come to the meeting, which is amazing. The Dogs of Babel is a NY Times Notable book and won a number of awards when it came out. It tells the tale of Paul, a professor whose wife plummets to her death from a tree in the backyard. The sole witness to this event is their dog, Lorelei, and Paul in his grief becomes convinced that if he can only teach Lorelei to speak, he will learn the truth about Lexy's death (was it an accident? suicide? murder?).

The book was absolutely gripping and while the description may sound a bit silly, I started to think about what I would do if the person who gave me my life back and taught me to live again suddenly died and I was desperate to find out why and how. I really felt Paul's anguish and as I learned more and more about the eclectic and mercurial Lexi, I too wanted to know what happened and why. We are meeting with Carolyn Parkhurst next week and I'm tremendously excited to speak with her and talk with the club about the book. I'm getting positive feedback from members as well.

2. Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley. This was a Christmas gift from my sister, and I had it on my "to be read" shelf since then. However, meeting Christopher Buckley in person spurred me to read this one, and I must say, it was really, really enjoyable.

A shadowy arm of the US Government decides that the best way to ensure Middle East peace is to liberate the women of the kingdom of Matar, the most enlightened of the Middle East states, particularly in comparison with its neighbor, Wasabia. They enlist disgruntled State Department employee Florence Farfaletti and ask her to launch an Arab TV station catering directly to women. Allowed to pick her own crack team to launch the station, Florence enlists the help of a CIA assassin, a snappy PR man (one of the minions from Thank you for Smoking), and a bureaucratic friend who happens to be gay. The four embark on their mission with the aid of the Sheika Leila, who gets "permission" from her husband to launch the station, which he finds an attractive proposition as he can spend more time with his harem and less with his wife.

This was one great book. It started out quite hilarious and become a bit more serious towards the end as the fatwa against the staff of the station heated up and people's lives are in danger. However, it was a wildly enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. It kind of makes you wonder, "Would that really work?"

3. Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess. This is a young adult book about Meredith, a fifteen year old whose father is in prison for sexually abusing her and other children in the neighborhood. When her father is locked up, Meredith is promised that she has 9 years of safety coming to her, time to grow up and get out on her own. However, in their wisdom, the parole board decides to let her father out for good behavior after only three years and the book opens on the day he is to come home.

Meredith's mother is willfully oblivious to the damage this man has caused to her only daughter, as well as to Meredith's best friend Andy, who was also abused by him and who lives across their condo complex. Meredith's father returns home and makes her mother promises about starting fresh and having another baby while trying to pick up where he left off with Meredith.

The book takes place in a very short period of time, less than a week, as Meredith decides she has to do something about her father's lack of reform in prison. It is a quick read, I read it in a couple of hours.

Due to the subject matter, this was incredibly challenging to read, despite its brevity. I wanted to love Meredith, though it was difficult, which I thought was a beautiful part of Wiess's writing--most abused kids don't allow themselves to be loved. I was actually scared when her father returned to the condo, and I wanted to smack her mother silly. So the writing was definitely fantastic. A "cannot put down" book to be sure. Get a copy if you can and read it!

4. Blue Water by A. Manette Ansay. I absolutely love A. Manette Ansay, she is definitely one of my favorite writers. I adored Sister and Vinegar Hill and to a lesser extent I enjoyed Midnight Champagne. I was unaware that she had written Blue Water, so I was excited when I ran across it unexpectedly on and even more thrilled when it was available on

Blue Water is the tale of Meg and Rex Van Dorn, an ordinary couple living in an ordinary Wisconsin town. One day, Meg is driving their son Evan, age 6, to school and her car is rammed by Cindy Ann, her best friend from high school. Evan, Meg and Rex's miracle baby, is killed instantly. Cindy Ann and her three daughters walk away without a scratch. It is later shown that Cindy Ann was drunk at the time of the accident and has had a serious drinking problem due to abuse suffered as a child at the hands of her step father.

Unable to cope with the sight of Cindy Ann, and the fact that her own brother Toby is marrying Cindy Ann's sister, Meg decides to leave Wisconsin and she and her husband rent out their house and take up residence on a boat, sailing to escape the pain of their son's death. Rex and Meg can't agree upon what to do, whether they should launch a civil suit against Cindy Ann, who refuses to quit drinking and narrowly avoids jail time, or whether to let the whole thing drop, as Meg feels guilt over not helping her friend more during the years of torment in high school. Adding to the complicated feelings is Toby's impending wedding and his desire for his sister to be present and supportive of his new life.

This book was definitely very good, if perhaps a bit over-the-top with the complicated relationships. I found it a bit hard to swallow that Toby would completely ignore his sister's feelings and go ahead and marry a woman so close the source of his nephew's demise, and I didn't feel that Toby and Meg's brother-sister relationship, which was almost more of a father-daughter relationship, would have survived that. Meg wound up making the most sacrifices to ensure peace in the family and ultimately, I found it incomprehensible that she would wind up caring for the woman who killed her son. Still, I liked the book on the level of Midnight Champagne and was glad to have read it.

5. The Ha Ha by Dave King. I have been waiting and waiting to get my hands on a copy of The Ha Ha and was fortunate enough to get it on and even more fortunate to get a pristine hardcover copy. I read the description to Michael as we were looking for a new book to read after the spectactular failure of Final Analysis (see March reading review for that one) and we decided to read this one together.

The Ha Ha tells the story of Howard Kapostash, a Vietnam veteran who left the war with a devastating head wound which impaired his ability to speak and read. He is awakened one night by his best friend and on-again-off-again flame, Sylvia, whose sister is forcing her into rehab for a cocaine habit. Sylvia wants Howard to care for her 9 year old son, Ryan, while she cleans up. The arrival of Ryan in Howard's household throws the entire home into disarray. Howard lives in the house his parents owned with 3 roommates, Laurel (an Asian American beauty from Texas) and two idiots he calls Nit and Nat, who work as housepainters by day and smoke a lot of pot by night. Howard works as a groundskeeper at a nearby convent where there is a hill he calls "The Ha Ha" and which he loves to ride to the top of on his lawn mower, as he feels an exhiliration from cresting the hill.

Ryan is a stabilizing effect on the household, bringing the four disparate roommates together in a way that none of them could have predicted--the icy Laurel who announces she has enough to do without a child underfoot falls in love with Ryan, and Nit and Nat become more stable and participate more in the household as opposed to just crashing there when they need to sleep. What happens when Sylvia leaves rehab is insane and striking and real and awful.

Michael and I loved this book. We stayed up at night in Vegas after our days were through, just trying to find out what would happen to Howard and Ryan, taking bets on the women, and enjoying the ride. The book IS a bit racy--Howard likes sex in an almost base way, and the book is also peppered with "f bombs" which made for some interesting reading in places like the airport. And in the interest of full disclosure, we recommended the book to my mom and she called the other day to ask when the book would start to "have a point" so this may not be everyone's cup of tea. We really liked it though! Good for men and women, unlike some of the girlier books I've read recently.

6. The Cross Country Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini. Judy keeps buying them, I keep reading them. And every time I pick one of the Elm Creek Quilt books up, I think, "Damn this is kind of elementary" and then wind up thinking, "Damn, this one was better than the last."

This is the third in the series, and the third I've read, and my favorite one thus far. Five women meet at Elm Creek Quilt Camp and become quick friends. They decide to reunite in one year's time and in that time, they have to complete a block for a quilt after solving an issue confronting them in their life. Vinnie wants to see her grandson married. Megan wants to see a breakthrough with her young son who is hurting after his parents' acrimonious divorce and his father's refusal to acknowledge him any more. Donna wants to help her brilliant oldest daughter avoid a marriage she and her family are convinced is a huge mistake. Juilia must learn to quilt to save her fading career as an actress in Hollywood. And Grace is facing down a terrifying illness.

The first half of the book sets up the women's meeting and the issues each of them faces, while the latter half deals with the resolution and subsequent trip back to Elm Creek Quilt Camp to complete their quilt. I loved this book. Now, I freely admit, it all wrapped up quite tidily and neatly at the end (for instance, Julia is an actress and one of the women's children is a theater major--see any possibilities there for assistance?). And every time I read them, I think, "Oh no, this is totally predictable" and when the totally predictable ending comes, I'm so freaking happy that everything works out well in the end, that I almost hate myself for it. But I guess that the happy ending counts for something, and as long as Jennifer Chiaverinni doles them out, I'll take them. Not many authors will I say that about.

7. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. I first read about this book on Lesley's blog and I was intrigued because of the subject matter. Young Mattie Gokey is a maid at the Adirondack Mountains' Glenmore Hotel and is thrust into the center of a mystery when one of the guests is found drowned in the lake. The deceased, Grace Brown, has given Mattie a bundle of letters to destroy, and Mattie has never gotten around to doing so. As she begins to read the letters, she learns the truth about Grace and her lover, Chester Gillette.

Mattie also struggles in her own life, her desire to leave the North Woods and become a student and a writer pulling her in one direction, while the needs of her own family pull her in the other. She is further pulled by her friend Weaver, a boy her age who wants to become a lawyer and is encouraging Mattie to follow him to New York City, and Royal Loomis, who wants to marry Mattie and buy a farm.

Having grown up in the Adirondacks, this really appealed to me. And while reading the book, I was excited to read a lot of towns (Old Forge, Croghan, Inlet, Port Leyden) that I knew from growing up. In her acknowledgements, the author even mentions Cranberry Lake, where our library was located when I was growing up. So I absolutely loved the book for that reason--it made me nostalgic for home. And while it probably was not the author's intention, a lot of the names she used in the story were the names of people who are still living in the Adirondacks. For instance, there is a family in the book called the Hubbards, and I want to school with the Hubbards. Other coincidental names such as that lent it an additional air of authenticity. Additionally, I was well aware of the Grace Brown murder, an actual case which was made famous by Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. It's always been a case with which I had an interest, and probably which introduced me to the world of true crime, a somewhat morbid interest I have to this day.

But I also really loved Mattie. I identified with her, a girl trying to decide whether to do what is best for herself or her family. To follow her own passions, which no one around her save her best friend and her teacher, indulge in or understand, or to stay home where she is needed and forgo her adventures in New York City. The book was more than a backwoods story about a bunch of hicks who don't know their asses from their elbows. You felt for these people, from Mattie's Pa trying to raise a bunch of girls without their mother, to dirt poor Emmie, to Weaver and his mother, to the employees of the hotel. A great book, I really enjoyed it, and as Mattie loves to play a word game with Weaver in which she looks up a new word every day, I learned some new words to expand my vocabulary. And I loved that Mattie made up her own words as well. Limicolous or terricipation, anyone?

8. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. Ann Patchett is probably best well known for having written Bel Canto which I am best known for not having read. But I was browsing in Borders one day and happened upon Patron Saint and was finally moved to purchase a book after several months of not having bought any really. The story centers around St. Elizabeth's, a home for unwed mothers in Kentucky in the 1960's. One night, a woman named Rose enters the home, unwilling to share her secrets, stating that her husband has died and she will give her baby up for adoption. However, St. Elizabeth's is perched on the site of a dried up spring that produced miraculous healings, and when Rose's time to deliver approaches, she finds that she cannot go through with her plans to give away her baby and leave.

The book is peppered with a cast of interesting characters, including the nuns who run the home, Rose herself, Son the caretaker, and the other expectant mothers who come in and out of the home. It was a compelling read, not only to discover how Rose's past will rectify itself, but also how her years of story telling affect the life her daughter ultimately will lead. Rose is not, to me, a particularly sympathetic character, but I did find her compelling. The book ended a bit abruptly for my tastes, but definitely no neat happy ending on this one, which made up for the quilting book. I read this one at a more leisurely pace than some of the others, and I enjoyed it a lot. Solid chick lit, so if you're into that, give it a try.

So that's it for April, short and sweet. I like to list the books I'll be reading next month, as I never usually get around to half of them, but I'll be taking a crack at A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, Naked by David Sedaris, and Gods in Alabama by Joshilynn Jackson.

The Great: Such a Pretty Girl, A Northern Light, The Ha Ha, Florence of Arabia, The Dogs of Babel

The Good: Blue Water, The Patron Saint of Liars, The Cross Country Quilters

The OK: (none)

The Awful: (none)

Totals for April:

Books Read: 8
Pages Read: 2471

Totals for 2007:

Books Read: 36
Pages Read: 11,080

1 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Lesley said...

I skimmed a couple of these since I plan to read them myself but just wanted to say I'm so glad you enjoyed A Northern Light as much as I did. Mattie is such a great character - I recommended this book to my teenage niece and she loved it, too.