84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Penguin Books

84, CHARING CROSS ROAD

Helene Hanff wrote letters all her life, but in addition she studied playwriting at the Theatre Guild, wrote for “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “Ellery Queen” and was the first woman president of the Lenox Hill Democratic Club. She wrote many books for children as well as articles for The New Yorker and Harper’s magazines. The author of Q’s Legacy (Penguin), her most recent book was Letter from New York: BBC Woman’s Hour Broadcasts. Ms. Hanff died in April of 1997.

-from 84, Charing Cross Road

The first part of that very first sentence I read of this charming little book captured my heart: Helene Hanff wrote letters all her life. I’ve long been fascinated by the lives of people told through their correspondence. We know many things about the men and women of history because of their correspondence. I often bemoan to my best friend Pam that if I am ever a celebrated authoress there will be no “paper trail” of letters betwixt me and my most intimate… merely inane text messages, whiney Livejournal posts from my late teenage years, and the sometimes interesting but most often boring emails spread across the five or six email address I’ve had over the past 10 years. And while this is all digitally accessible it’s not quite as charming as the hastily typewritten letters sent to Frank Doel.

For me this book was like discovering a secret club. I heard about the book years ago, but it wasn’t until a fated day that I happened to have NPR playing in Rigby whilst driving to work and I heard Diane Rehm discussing with her guests the book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society that I was reminded I wanted to read 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD. Diane drew a connection between the two books and I immediately pulled up my account for Hillsborough County Public Libraries and requested these two books be held for me.

And then I decided to finish Anna Karenina. All the while 84 sat on my reading table… just staring at me sadly. Luckily, it had TGLaPPS to keep it company. They waited for at least a week while I whined about ever having heard of Russian Literature and thinking it was a good idea to read it to all and sundry. Finally, Anna threw herself under that terrible train, Count Vronsky became a certifiable zombie, and Constantin Levin (thanks to a lightning storm) discovered he loved his wife and son and believed in God. And I was set free from that monstrous collection of tedium. The very night that I finished AK and hit the goal of 25,000 words for NaNo I curled up in bed with Helene and Frank and flew through their 97 pages of banter in about an hour.

Continue reading “84, Charing Cross Road”

medieval crime solving

Someday I will tell you the story about how I’ve been to 4 DMV’s in the last two weeks. Someday, when it’s been relegated to merely anecdotal and not just a spur in my side over getting a front row seat to the inefficiencies of our local bureaucratic government I will pass along the humour of the lessons learned about the privilege of driving. For now, just know that I am finally free and clear to put some miles on my car. And I am prepared to do just that (whilst adhering to the speed limit the whole way). I am, to quote a song, ON THE ROAD AGAIN….

But back to what I’ve been reading.

The Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

This is another book suggestion that came to me from my friend Jenna. She actually handed me this along with another book one day as I was visiting her house and just said, “Read these.” No ifs, ands, or buts about it. The two books had to hang out in my car for a couple of weeks until I emptied out my reading queue and conquered the beast of Anna. 

The Mistress of the Art of Death was actually the first book in my final 15 of 2011. And she was quite the mistress. I haven’t read a novel like this since high school really. I read a lot of historical fiction then. Particularly the Cheney Duvall, M.D. series by Gilbert Morris. I’m a little embarrassed by how I so devoured all of the Gilbert Morris books at my school’s library. Mr. Morris struck my fancy because of the time periods he chose to write about, but each of his novels followed the same basic plot, over and over, and over again. I read the Cheney Duvall series and the Winslow family series up until about the 1920s I think. Then I moved on to Francine Rivers… a much better literary choice.

But Cheney Duvall and The Mistress, or Adelia, had quite a lot in common. They were both fictional pioneers in the field of medicine being the only women doctors in their novels. But then the similarities sort of stop. Adelia is from medieval Italy, more agnostic in her beliefs than anything else, championing for the Jews and religious freedom in a world that was quickly drawing very black and white lines between Catholic and Not, and rather than practicing medicine on living patients she works more as a coroner.

The novel is interesting. I haven’t read anything forensic in awhile, so it was strange for me to follow the clue building. That sort of stuff holds my attention very well in movies and television shows… but in books I just sort of get bored and want to get back to the people. However, I did find Adelia’s approach to determining the time of death quite humorous (I believe one of the detectives on CSI used a similar method).

The medieval time period also tickled me… particularly since the novel takes place in the few weeks following the murder of Thomas a Becket. (I got to see where he was murdered last time I visited England and I had a brief passion for all things Canterbury Tales, even A Knight’s Tale.)

So, bidden by King Henry II, Adelia, her bodyguard and another Jew from Italy travel to England to solve a series of murders. The victims are all children under the age of 10 or so and the Jews of the fictional town Cambridgeshire are being held captive in the local castle (for their safety).

The people of the village, the rival monastery and nunnery, and the awe inspiring knights returning from conquest in Outremer swirl around the edges of the plot. And all the while Adelia tries to put together the motive for the highly aggressive murders.

Though Henry II is only on a few pages I think I enjoyed his stomping around moreso than anything else in the novel. The political tenterhooks were also quite fascinating to me. A professor I had last year always talked about how England always bucked the power of the Roman Catholic church… that it never really felt right under their dominion. Ms. Franklin definitely captured that feeling in Mistress.

The time period is so particularly fascinating because the lines between Science and Magic, witchcraft and knowledge, progress and delusion were so indecipherable for many of the people… they were afraid of everything, developing superstitions at the drop of a hat… and yet, intelligence, clear-mindedness, and cunning thrived and grew despite the high cost.

This book kicks off a series. I’m not so sure I have the patience for series right now in my life. I sort of like the one and done aspect of most novels. Though I could see myself revisiting Adelia if I get a hankering for medieval Britain. Or maybe I’d just visit Heath Ledger and Paul Bettany again… I’m seriously surprised we haven’t completely worn that DVD out yet.

the tale of a spear wielder

The Spearwielder's Tale by R.A. Salvatore

(In this review I explain some major plot points… so if you don’t want to be spoiled turn away, otherwise proceed with caution, one does not merely walk into a review of a fantasy novel.)

 

The day I started this book I tweeted

the tweeter machine

Please excuse that glaring grammar/spelling mistake. But I was right. It was uniquely enjoyable. It’s been quite some time since I’ve read some straight fantasy with giants and elves and leprechauns and all of that. Fantasy, as a genre, was heavily influential in my early years of reading. We’ve already talked about the influence C.S. Lewis was on me as a reader. And I went through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in high school around the time the movies were coming out. And of course the Harry Potter series. But I consider that a little more on the magical realism side. This Spearwielder’s Tale (which I manage to spell incorrectly every time) was straight fantasy. One of those ripped from the real world into Faerie types of things.

I liked some of the “reveals” that resulted from the main character, Gary, being taken into Faerie. In the first book he’s taken there as a disillusioned recent college grad merely because he fits the specific size of a legendary suit of armor. A scheming leprechaun and an elf on his life quest convince Gary that he has to tag along and the land of Faerie is very much real. Lovers of Tolkien will enjoy that throughout the first book Mickey McMickey (the leprechaun) reads Gary’s copy of The Hobbit, even translating it into his own language. (This artifact given back to him at the end of the first book helps him realize that he hasn’t actually gone crazy).

The Elf (Kelsey), Mickey McMickey, and Gary add a dwarf and a giant to their gang (somewhat begrudgingly) and best not only a conniving witch bent on interrupting their quest but also stand down a very tricky dragon (who can walk around in human form). And they do it all by walking everywhere. No horses. Gary ends up banishing the witch to her castle for 100 years and accidentally freeing the dragon from his castle (though he’d been banished by the elf defeating him in swordplay). This upsets the balance of power in Faerie and creates the plot for the second book.

Five years later in the real world, and only a couple of weeks in Faerie, Gary is brought back to replace a dagger he accidently stole from the dragon. Again Mickey McMickey has an ulterior motive. His pot of gold is situated in the dragon’s pile of wealth, too, and he needs it back.

The witch is still banished, but she convinces Gary to let her out early. He agrees to reduce her banishment from 100 years to 3 months, mainly so she’ll stay out of their hair while they try to handle the dragon. And she does. Also some gnomes show up in this book and they build crazy contraptions. The situation progressively gets worse and worse and Gary ends up having to kill the dragon (in dragon form) with the aid of the spear (which can talk to him) and a contraption built by the dwarf and gnome. I don’t know if I skipped over the specifics somehow but I don’t think how they did it was ever actually explained. Oh yeah, and there are a ton of horses in this one with some kind of fear inducing bells attached to them.

In the second book Salvatore throws out his nod to Fleetwood Mac implying that members of the band had crossed over into Faerie when Gary starts singing one of their songs and Mickey makes a comment about that bard knowing of what he sings. Gary is overwhelmingly excited by the possibility that his favorite author and members of his favorite band have made their way into Faerie for some reason or another. (Mickey had earlier confirmed that Tolkien had to have seen a dragon in real life because he described them perfectly, but he was a little off on the trolls).

The third book was my least favorite. But there were some slightly interesting things that happened. Gary, recently married and having lost his father is desperate to get back into Faerie. So he traipses all over England and Scotland in an effort to find another passage into Faerie. His wife sort of believes the stories he’s told her about his adventures in Faerie but is annoyed all the same at Gary’s strange persistence. Mickey finally relents and allows Gary and his wife to come back to Faerie, mainly because they are in such dire straits. All of Faerie is at war… the men vs. the magical creatures (elves, dwarves, and gnomes). So Gary jumps in and starts his work. The witch is still banished in her castle for this book, but her machinations have crept out. Apparently sometime during his reign the witch had replaced the King with some very strange mountain creature called the Wild Hairy Haggis.

Gary, Kelsey, Mickey, Gary’s wife, and the prince go on a quest to find the real king as the rest of Faerie squares off for war lead by the impostor king. It all ends with Gary fighting a demon in the witch’s castle. And more than a few men die. So thanks to Gary, Kelsey, and Mickey Faerie is set to experience a long time of peace. The king offers to set Gary up as a Duke to watch over a section of his kingdom and be given some reward for all his efforts in Faerie and though Gary and his wife seriously consider it they decide to go back to the real world.

Mickey’s final piece of advice to Gary is that Faerie will always be in his mind. On the plane from England back to the States Gary realizes that he can’t tell people about Faerie an expect to be taken seriously… he’d just end up in some tabloid. He comes to the conclusion that he’ll write a novel and like Tolkien did for him maybe his story will prepare some future hero for the realities of Faerie.

 

I did enjoy the books, though I’ll admit I skipped over a lot of the fighting scenes. They’re just not really my thing. And I was completely annoyed by the overuse of the word “maw”. I realize that it’s sort of a catch-22 to use a thesaurus in this case. Because these are the kinds of options you’re given:

thesaurus for maw

So yeah, not very enticing options. But goodness I was so over reading the word “maw” that when I recently saw it in another book I almost reflexively chucked it across the room.

I’d say that if you enjoy fantasy and some sillier moments in fiction than this set of novels would be great for you to peruse. And Salvatore is apparently a prolific fantasy/sci-fi writer. So, if that’s your thing I’m sure you’ll find something that tickles your fancy.

These were books 2-4 in my last 15 of 2011 if you’re keeping track.

milestones not millstones

My mother often comments that she doesn’t know how (or why) I force myself through books that I don’t enjoy reading.I have a lot of answers, but the last week of December it really boiled down to accomplishing a personal goal. When I realized 75 books in a year was within my grasp I went for it. And I’m proud to announce that I reached my goal (you could imagine me sitting on the couch, reading until the moments right before the ball dropped if you want. I won’t confirm or deny.) But here it is all officially statistic looking.

Goodreads Book Stats

As you can see I’m a very stingy giver of stars (haha). It’s like I’m afraid that if I say that I didn’t like a book the author will posthumously curse me and steal my ability to imagine or something.

Anyway, I was talking to Pam the other day about the types of books I read this year. I spent a lot of time in types of Literature and Fiction that I never thought I’d read. A good chunk of that 75 falls into the Graphic Novel category (thanks to my friend Sarah, whom I need to return them to). There was a fair representation from Young Adult Literature and some modern Literature. I even managed to squeeze in a few of the obligatory classics (though I will approach my next Dead Russian novel with much more patience).

I ended the year with The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis. I sort of unintentionally created a trilogy of non-fiction about Hell. I read Love Wins by Rob Bell, Erasing Hell by Francis Chan, and then of course The Problem of Pain. My mind is still churning through all of this theological thought. And I have not resolved everything I’ve learned from the three books. But I’m okay with that. I want to be a life long learner.

I read several other books with startling similarities. More than a few had multiple narrators. A couple were about New York City, a couple were about Florida (though opposite ends). All of the non-fiction I read this year was either about popular music or Hell, that one is probably the most fun fact.

My ideas about reading in 2012 are still pretty nebulous. I will be reading The Brothers Karamazov and A Game of Thrones as part of that challenge. I’m not sure how many books I’ll accomplish this year. I’d like for it to be  more than 75, but I don’t know how many more. I think it would be fairly feasible for me to read (start to finish) two books a week. So 104 should be reasonable. And this year I may make more of an effort to consider e-books.

Jenna got me a gift card to Inkwood Books (and a year’s membership) that I’m so excited about. And my mom bought The History of Love and The Elegance of the Hedgehog for me for Christmas. I’m so happy to own those now and make pencil marks all throughout them. Those two, along with The Rules of Civility were probably the most inspiring books to me as a writer this year.

My friend Laura tweeted yesterday that she was going to attempt 75 books this year. I’m so excited for her and can’t wait to read some books along with her. And my mom and aunt have started a mini book club for themselves. It’s exciting for me to see so many readers around.

Did you make a resolution to read or write more? My advice: get some community around you. It’s always a little bit more fun when you can share the experience with someone.

And here’s the part where I want to thank you guys that have been reading a long with me through 2011. This is what my year in blogging looked like as far as views:

view summary via WordPress

October was a fantastic month for views. And these past few months have been a lot of fun for me. I promise many more anecdotes, short stories/poems, and book reviews are in store for you in 2012 (as well as some book-to-movie discussions). Thanks for sticking with me. Your first book review of 2012 will be up at 11 am tomorrow. Until then, Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

Also known as possibly the saddest book I read in 2011. Or #5 in my last 15.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

In the frantic last days of November I wandered into Inkwood Books and told one of the clerks that I needed a new book. I told her I was making an attempt to read 75 books and I wanted something a little different from what I’d already read that year. She, being a good bookstore worker, asked me about the books I’d read. I ran through the highlight reel: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Rules of Civility, The Book Thief (we had a brief discussion of Markus Zusak) The History of Love and I told her some of my favourite authors. It took a few minutes and I had my hands full of several vaguely interesting books until the moment when she realized “different” had been my key word. So she picked up The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and told me the basic premise:

“It’s based on a news story,” she said, “and sort of semi-autobiographical.”

“Okay,” I said.

“The story is about a bi-racial little girl whose mother throws herself and her children off the roof of a building and the little girl survives. It deals with her developing her identity after moving to her grandmother’s.”

“I’ll take it,” I said.

It’s parts coming-of-age, social/racial commentary, and orphan story. Having read Dickens’ David Copperfield earlier this year my mind immediately wants to make connections to the similar orphan story… the wandering nature of the child. It’s a story told in sections as the main character grows up and very, very slowly comes to terms with the hurt in her life.

Rachel, the main character, is given more than her fair share of tragedy at a very young age and continually during her years developing into a teenager. And the woman at Inkwood was right, the semi-autobiography is there. The reader is shown glimpses of a world between races through the eyes of a confused and hurt child and an insecure teenager. I found this particularly interesting. As children grow up they attempt to construct worldviews to explain the behavior around them. Rachel for the first time at 10 or 11 years old is introduced to the world of racism (having lived overseas before). It overwhelms her mother’s attempts to protect and is rooted in her grandmother’s behaviors. Rachel finds brief solace with her aunt, but spends much of the book trying to figure out where she fits in. She barely longs for the days before the fall because even that time she didn’t really understand.

A boy, also from Chicago, who holds a key to Rachel’s understanding of her life, makes his way from Chicago to Portland in order to tell Rachel what he knows. I found myself really interested in his part of the narrative. As well as Rachel’s mother’s diaries discovered by her friend Laronne.

The interweb is full of reviews of the book that are much better than mine. Like this one. But I have to say I was pleased with it. And even more so pleased with the service I received at Inkwood. I’d encourage you to read it, but be aware that it will take some guts. It’s not always a pleasant story, but it was definitely one worth telling.

Exclamation Points!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I first heard of Karen Russell in my Fiction I class last semester. Actually, we read one of her short stories selected for the Best American Short Stories 2010 anthology. It was something like “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach”. I was one of the few in the class who liked it (or maybe actually did the assigned reading before class… either way…) but even in liking it I felt like reading her words spent time I could never get back and not necessarily in a good way.

Our professor talked about Karen Russell and this book that had only just released very briefly in class that day. And I remember my friend Michael commenting that he wanted to read Swamplandia! but didn’t realize that it was the same author. I think some of his enthusiasm deflated a bit that day.

Here’s the thing: Karen Russell writes some absolutely, thrillingly, heart-achingly beautiful sentences and descriptions. Her stories have just enough eerie weirdness that they keep you hooked. Her universe looks and behaves just like ours, until suddenly, it doesn’t anymore. And we, the readers, are left scrambling, trying to figure out when she pulled the rug out from underneath our feet. When, Karen, did you decide that this world you’ve created no longer behaves like the one I know and understand?

In your reeling recovery you are forced to decide how you feel about the rules suddenly changing, at least in appearance. Russell writes about such bizarre circumstances I guess it’s obvious to some that there will be strange things afoot in her stories. But each time I’m overwhelmingly flabbergasted.

I’m most conflicted about this novel. More so than any other book I read in 2011. For one thing Karen’s excitement about writing practically leaps off the page and slaps you with a fish (and that’s kind of refreshing). Her word choice and prose are FASCINATING. And like I said heart-achingly beautiful. One scene in particular replaces the mindless destruction of a Hurricane with that of a curious giant monster merely peeling a roof back to sniff what was cooking inside a house. I mean the woman generates some really cool stuff.

Yet, in the midst of this quirky family of alligator wrestlers Karen’s enthusiasm and bizarre story get lost in the swamp along with her readers. There were moments in this book that I absolutely adored. I felt like I needed to be listening to Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga the whole time I was reading. And more times than not I wanted to throw the book against a wall. There in the midst of this carefully crafted story Karen switched around narrators on us, but not until halfway into the story! And don’t even get me started on the exclamation points!

And here the “if you don’t have anything good to say don’t say anything at all” rule is slapping me over the head with a fish. So, I’ll cut it off here. I guess my best advice is for you to read it for yourself so you can develop your own opinion. But I don’t endorse it with my usual fervor. Try it out with Bright Eyes though… that might have been the missing ingredient.