Nature & Books belong to the eyes that see them.
December 27, 2009
Torch by Cheryl Strayed
2005 Mariner Books
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
"Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!” That’s the advice Teresa Rae Wood gives the listeners of her popular local radio show, Modern Pioneers, and she has taken it to heart in her own life. She fled a bad marriage, escaping to Midden, Minnesota (pop. 408), where she fell in love with a carpenter who became a loving stepfather to her children, Claire and Joshua. Now Claire is away at college, Joshua is laboring through his senior year of high school, and Teresa and Bruce are working to make ends meet. Despite their struggles, their love for each other binds them as a family. Then they receive the devastating news that Teresa has cancer and at thirty-eight may have less than one year to live. Those she will leave behind face something previously unimaginable -- a future without her.
In Torch, the award-winning writer Cheryl Strayed creates from one family's shattering experience a novel infused with tenderness, compassion, and beauty.
In her debut novel, Strayed's depiction of death and grief are brutally honest and painfully real. I was a bit surprised by some of the actions by Bruce, Claire and Joshua after Teresa's death, but I've learned over the years that there is no logical pattern to one's grief. It really is true that we all grieve in our own fashion and there is no right or wrong way to find passage through the pain and loss of a loved one.
This is not your typical mother/wife/best friend-dies-of-cancer-sob-story (a la Beaches or Terms of Endearment). Torch is a sad book, yet it's neither manipulative nor sentimental. The writing is beautiful and Strayed was able to hold my interest in spite of my irritation with several turn of events and poor choices made by all three main characters. I was satisfied with the final outcome, and while I probably won't re-read the novel, I can't say I wouldn't recommend it. I'm just not sure to whom.
While perusing the reviews on Amazon, I came upon a particularly lovely review. It was only after reading the post that I noticed the reviewer's name -- one of my favorite authors!
To be honest, I almost didn't read this novel because I thought it would be too sad to bear. As it turns out, I was half-right: it was too sad, it was breathtakingly sad, but I could not bear to stop reading it. On its face, the plot is simple: a husband, son, and a daughter stumble, brokenhearted, toward the moment of Teresa Rae Wood's death and then spin, brokenhearted, away from that moment, out into their separate lives and separate griefs. But there is nothing simple about Strayed's achievement, which is to render moot concepts like plot. The amazing truth is that, while I read this book, I never for a single second thought to myself, "This is a story. These are characters." I thought instead, from the first page, "This is a world. These are people." And they are people I needed to stick by through every brutal second of Teresa Rae Wood's dying and all the brutal, beautiful, dislocated, intensely intimate days and months that follow her dying. In their frank efforts to survive awful loss, Bruce, Claire, and Josh cling to some people, push others away, behave badly, nobly, selfishly, gorgeously, and they don't so much emerge from grief, as they manage to forge lives in which grief can coexist with hope and continuing. I'm so glad I read this book. (Marisa de los Santos)
Nice endorsement from an author who has also written about death and grief.
About the Author
CHERYL STRAYED's award-winning stories and essays have appeared in more than a dozen magazines, including the New York Times Magazine, Allure, Elle, and Nerve. Widely anthologized, her creative nonfiction has been selected twice for The Best American Essays, and Joyce Carol Oates singled her out for the opening piece in The Best New American Voices 2003. In its review of the anthology Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food, Publishers Weekly highlighted her tale of learning to make the perfect pudding for a tapioca-loving man. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed has worked as a political organizer for women's advocacy groups and was an outreach worker at a sexual violence center in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA from the Syracuse University Graduate Creative Writing Program.
Then She Found Me
Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman
1990 Washington Square Press
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
April Epner teaches high school Latin, wears flannel jumpers, and is used to having her evenings free. Bernice Graverman brandishes designer labels, favors toad-sized earrings, and hosts her own tacky TV talk show: Bernice G! For thirty-six years Bernice has followed the life of the daughter she gave up for adoption. Now she's ready to be a mom. And she's hurtling straight for April's quiet little life....
When I saw the cover art on a new edition of this novel, I noticed it had been made into a movie, starring Bette Midler (Bernice) and Helen Hunt (April), with supporting roles going to Colin Firth and Matthew Broderick. Anxious to read the book before renting the dvd, I went home and found the copy I had picked up several years ago (probably after reading The Inn at Lake Devine). I should've have just rented the movie. The book was mediocre at best. Bernice's character was extremely annoying and the storyline dull and unmemorable. It's been almost a full month since I finished the book and I have only a vague recollection of what it was all about. This is definitely one to either borrow from the library or skip all together. However, I'm a big fan of Hunt and Firth and I still plan to see the film. How bad could it be?
December 26, 2009
Oh, The Weather Outside Was Frightful...
And, yes, they're ugly, but they keep my feet warm and dry.
I had just returned from walking Annie-Dog and was too worn out to walk all over the neighborhood with my camera.
And, of course, she doesn't like it when I bring it along.
I tell you, that dog is really weird about cameras.
And gas ovens.
And coffee bean grinders.
December 22, 2009
I'll Be Home For Christmas...
"Snowfall will start out light across the western Plains, northern Plains, and upper Midwest early Wednesday. Later Wednesday afternoon and Wednesday night the storm will gain considerable strength and ample moisture will be pulled in from the Gulf.
Increasing winds later Wednesday and Wednesday night could create blizzard conditions from southwest Kansas into western and central Nebraska. Considerable blowing and drifting snow will likely make roads and interstates impassable.
Freezing rain and sleet are likely across central Kansas, southeastern Nebraska, Iowa, and part of northern Illinois Wednesday. Some ice and sleet accumulation is likely, especially across Nebraska and Kansas. By later afternoon, freezing rain should change to rain in southern Iowa and parts of northern Illinois.
On Thursday the storm continues to pummel the Plains with blizzard conditions and heavy snow, the Mississippi Valley with heavy snow and blizzard conditions north and rain and possibly severe thunderstorms south, and an icy mix of sleet and snow in the middle.
Snow will continue across the Upper Midwest on Friday, along with strong winds."
Instead of this:
Song of the Sea
We have this to look forward to:
Let's look on the bright side, shall we?
The fridge is stocked.
I don't have to decide which books to pack.
I don't have to stress out about which bathing suit fits.
We don't have to pay premium prices on our rental car.
I can actually get our Christmas cards written before the end of the year (although, I was planning to write my letters while sitting on the beach, listening to the gentle sound of the waves lapping against the shore. Sigh.)
I don't have to have a panic attack about the reliability of the de-icing machines at Eppley Airfield in Omaha.
I don't have to worry about our pipes freezing while we're gone.
I do, however, have to listen to my brother give me all kinds of grief about the gorgeous weather in San Diego.
Annie, on the other hand, was hoping to be left home alone!
December 20, 2009
Holly's Inbox by Holly Denham
Fiction - Epistolary
2009 Sourcebooks Casablanca
Finished on 11/29/09
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)
Received book from author
Dear Holly, Are you sure you know what you're getting into...?
It's Holly Denham's first day as a receptionist at a busy corporate bank, and frankly, it's obvious she can't quite keep up.
Take a peek at her email and you'll see why: what with her crazy friends, dysfunctional family, and gossipy go-workers, Holly's inbox is a daily source of drama. Laughter, friendship, and romantic interludes keep her going, until one day, Holly's secret past begins to catch up with her...
Written entirely in emails, this compulsively readable UK smash hit will keep you laughing and turning the pages all the way to its surprising and deeply satisfying ending.
I began reading Holly's Inbox back in October during Dewey's 24 Hour Read-A-Thon. I thought it would be the perfect book to dive into between Joe Hill's short stories and Jeanne Laskas' memoir. As it turned out, I found myself getting a little antsy and bored with this brain-candy of a read. I went back to it a few days later and read it on and off during November. I love epistolary works and found the emails easy to follow, but the story got a bit tiresome and I found I needed to take a break and read something a little meatier. I enjoy the occasional chicklit novel, but maybe 665 pages is overkill. As others have mentioned, the s*xual content became an annoyance and distraction and I feel the book could have been just as entertaining without some of the coarse s*xual references.
Joy, Bookfool, and Bermudaonion have all written glowing reviews of this book. I hope you'll pop over to their blogs and see what they have to say about Holly's Inbox. I'm obviously in the minority and feel badly since the author, Bill Surie, was so kind to send me a copy of his book.
About the Author
Holly Denham is the pen name for Bill Surie the owner of a placement service for receptionists and secretaries in London. He started the Holly's Inbox website as a place to serialize his first novel. The website became an overnight sensation and his second novel is now in the works.
December 18, 2009
This is all I want for Christmas. I've sold at least a dozen copies at work this past week. I think I should get one, too, don't you? I promise I'll share recipes on my food blog. No, really. It's still an active blog. Sort of. ;)
December 14, 2009
20th Century Ghosts
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Fiction - Horror (short stories)
2007 William Morrow
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
Imogene is young, beautiful, kisses like a movie star, and knows everything about every film ever made. She’s also dead, the legendary ghost of the Rosebud theater, and one afternoon in 1945, a boy named Alec Sheldon will have an unforgettable encounter with her... in the dark...
Arthur Roth is a lonely kid with a head full of big ideas and a gift for getting his ass kicked. It’s hard to make friends when you’re the only inflatable boy in town...
Francis is unhappy. Francis is picked on. Francis doesn’t have a life, a hope, a chance. Francis was human once, but that’s behind him now. Francis is an eight-foot tall locust, and all of Calliphora, Nevada will shudder to hear him sing...
John Finney is in trouble. The kidnapper locked him in a basement, a place stained with the blood of half a dozen other murdered children. With him, in his subterranean cell, is an antique phone, long since disconnected... but it rings at night, anyway, with calls from the dead...
Eric is a twentysomething burnout, who just lost a girlfriend and a job. Once, though, he was the Red Bolt, and with his home-made cape he could fly. Now the cape is back in his hands, and Eric’s future is looking up... and up...
Nolan Lerner is guilty. His past is a thing choked with secrets, blood – and sunflowers. Only Nolan can tell the story of what really happened one summer in 1977, when his younger brother, an idiot savant named Morris, built a vast cardboard fort, with secret doors inside, doors leading into other worlds...
Like Morris Lerner’s impossible cardboard fortress, 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS is big enough to get lost in, a maze filled with exits into a vast country of the surreal. Showcasing an assortment of dazzling ideas, GHOSTS is irresistible, addictive fun.
I haven't read many short story collections (Alice Munro and Eudora Welty are the only two authors who come to mind), but I've always said I don't care for short stories. Those that I've read all seem to blend together and are quickly forgotten. I also dislike the feeling of finally getting to know the characters and their situations, only to have the story end abruptly. But Joe Hill has converted me, at least as far as his short fiction is concerned. I loved everything about 20th Century Ghosts! I savored each and every story over the course of 6 weeks (perhaps that's the key!) and found myself thinking about the characters and plots long after closing the book. I especially liked that the stories weren't all super scary and that some were a bit reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, without freaking me out so much that I had to sleep with a light on.
Until I became a blogger, I never used to read book reviews. I still don't read published reviews in newspapers or magazines, but obviously as a blogger, I do read reviews by my peers. "A masterful storyteller" has become the ubiquitous descriptor for authors of broad abilities. I am guilty of littering my reviews with this cliche myself. And yet, Joe Hill truly is a master of his craft. Much like a camp counselor sitting around a campfire with a bunch of scared little kids, he sets the scene, establishes the characters and ever so slowly and gently leads his audience down a path full of twists and turns and dark shadows, never losing them along the way, and often times pushing them faster and faster toward their ultimate destination and climax. No detail is wasted. No line of dialogue unnecessary. Each sentence a polished gem.
I think the basis for my enjoyment of this collection was that each story was so utterly unique. There were some that were creepy and surreal and others that were very subtle--even tender and sweet. I can glance through the table of contents and remember each and every story. I can remember which ones made my heart race and which made me shudder. This is one of those books I'll enjoy picking up again in years to come, if only to re-read one or two stories at a time. And now that I've come to realize that this is a genre I do enjoy, I'll have to give Hill's father's short story collections a chance. I hear he's also pretty talented. ;) Any recommendations?
Further praise from a fellow blogger:
Bookfool writes: 20th Century Ghosts is an anthology of short stories and they are wildly disparate--some literary, some magical, two with ghosts, at least one so scary I had to set the book down for a few days. While there were a few that left me with the feeling, "What was the point of that?", the vast majority were engrossing and it was the moments of truth, the powerfully straightforward language, the absolute believability of his characters and the stunning creativity that set Hill's writing apart. There is seldom a feeling of stepping outside the pages--that "Oops, he lost me," moment when the reader realizes s/he has lost the ability to suspend disbelief. In fact, I kept having to remind myself, "It's not real; it's just fiction." That is a pretty strong recommendation, in and of itself.
I can hardly wait to get my paws on Joe Hill's up-and-coming new release, Horns, due out on February 16th. From what I've read, it's even better than his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Oh, boy!
December 13, 2009
Book Give-Away Winner!
Yikes! I almost forgot about the book give-away I was hosting. I was going to announce the winner on my daughter's birthday (December 10th), but the time got away from me. So, instead, I'll announce it on my birthday... today!
And the lucky winner of Erin Noteboom's The Mongoose Diaries is....
DEBBIE of readerbuzz!
I'll be in touch to get your snail-mail address, Debbie. Hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. Thanks for joining in on the fun.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
2009 Delacorte Press
Finished on 11/29/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Recipient of the Debut Dagger Award from Canada’s Crime Writers’ Association (2007)
In his wickedly brilliant first novel, Debut Dagger Award winner Alan Bradley introduces one of the most singular and engaging heroines in recent fiction: eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. It is the summer of 1950—and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”
To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story—of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder—but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse….
An enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a masterfully told tale of deceptions—and a rich literary delight.
I loved this mystery! I only wish I had reviewed it as soon as I finished. The more time passes, the less interested I become about writing reviews. And this past month has been especially good with regards to the quantity of books I've read. I was sick with a nasty cold for a couple of weeks and missed quite a bit of work during the first week. And now I'm behind and have five reviews to write! Yikes! But I digress.
As I said, I loved this book. The mystery kept me guessing. The humor had me laughing out loud. Flavia is a marvelous character and I can't wait for the next installment in this new series. I've marked several pages, here and there, and will use those passages to pad this review. ;)
On sibling rivalry:
It was all Ophelia's fault. She was, after all, seventeen, and therefore expected to possess at least a modicum of the maturity she should come into as an adult. That she should gang up with Daphne, who was thirteen, simply wasn't fair. Their combined ages totaled thirty years. Thirty years!—against my eleven. It was not only unsporting, it was downright rotten. And it simply screamed out for revenge.
On the joys of stereotypes:
Having pointed out the body, I watched in fascination as Sergeant Woolmer unpacked and mounted his camera on a wooden tripod, his fingers, fat as sausages, making surprisingly gentle microscopic adjustments to the little silver controls. As he took several covering exposures of the garden, lavishing particular attention on the cucumber patch, Sergeant Graves was opening a worn leather case in which were bottles ranged neatly row on row, and in which I glimpsed a packet of glassine envelopes.
I stepped forward eagerly, almost salivating, for a closer look.
"I wonder, Flavia," Inspector Hewitt said, stepping gingerly into the cucumbers, "if you might ask someone to organize some tea?"
He must have seen the look on my face.
"We've had rather an early start this morning. Do you think you could manage to rustle something up?"
So that was it. As at a birth, so at a death. Without so much as a kiss-me-quick-and-mind-the-marmalade, the only female in sight is enlisted to trot off and see that the water is boiled. Rustle something up, indeed! What did he take me for, some kind of cowboy?
On libraries and the love of books:
I gave the door a shake, and then a good pounding. I cupped my hands to the glass and peered inside, but except for a beam of sunlight falling through motes of dust before coming to rest upon shelves of novels there was nothing to be seen.
"Miss Pickery!" I called, but there was no answer.
"Oh, scissors! I said again. I should have to put off my researches until another time. As I stood outside in Cow Lane, it occurred to me that Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
No... eight days a week.
It's rare that I find myself at a loss for words for a book I enjoyed so immensely. Rather than bumble around trying to come up with an original thought, please allow me to share the following:
Praise from the Debut Dagger Award Judges of the UK Crime Writers’ Association:
"Really adored the voice of the characters in this- especially Flavia, the spirited main protagonist- and the sense of place is beautifully described, particularly when telling the history of the house and its inhabitants. The family unit, comprising of the taciturn, introspective Colonel and his three daughters is well written, humorous and the sibling relationships very realistic. The author should be praised for creating a work that has nostalgic interest as well as a murder mystery, in places this almost reads like an Enid Blyton novel for adults!"
"I adored this! Our heroine is refreshingly youthful, funny and sharp and the author creates such a strong sense of time and place. Flavia’s eccentric family are delightful and I love seeing them interact within their crazy home. There are also interesting depths to the plot — the stamp collecting, the chemistry experiments, and the acknowledgement of past events and how they have affected these characters. The author’s tone is very tongue-in-cheek and offers something quite different in this genre, and the story is cleverly structured and beautifully written. This doesn’t read like a first novel. Assuming the mystery itself will be as enticing and smoothly handled as the opening, I can see Flavia solving crimes into adulthood. Great title too!"
"The most original of the bunch, I think, with a deliciously deceptive opening which really sets the tone of macabre fun. Flavia is a wonderful creation, along with the rest of her eccentric family, and makes for a highly engaging sleuth. Think the Mitfords, as imagined by Dorothy L Sayers. The plot, with its intriguing philatelic elements, is nicely ingenious and delivers a very good end, with a fun twist. Would make very good Sunday night telly, I think."
Wise beyond her years and more than a bit precocious, Flavia has quickly become one of my favorite characters. Anyone who names her bicycle "Gladys" ranks high on my list! I can hardly wait to read the second in the series, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, which is due out on March 9th.
Further praise from fellow bloggers:
Dovegreyreader writes: ...it's ace, absolutely top drawer, funny verging on hilarious as eleven-year old detective Flavia de Luce unravels the mystery of the body found in her father's cucumber patch...
Fiesty and hilarious, Flavia waltzes precociously but not annoyingly so through the adult world with intelligent and logical panache, her risk assessments are those to be expected of an eleven-year old so Flavia boldly strides or cycles forth (on a bike called Gladys) where her instinct leads....
The first-person narrative is exquisite, page after page had me laughing at the sheer brilliance of the setting and the dialogue and Flavia's unique turn of phrase whilst also thinking what a nightmare she would have been to parent, the variety of child we describe as eleven going on eighteen, no wonder her father stays in his study examining his stamp collection.
But the voice is unique and original and unlike anything else I've read for a long time and I gather each in the series will focus on a lost aspect of English life which will suit all us nostalging types perfectly. This first offering a great foundation on which to grow the next and a perfectly lovely gorgeous read over several grey chilly Winter afternoons.
Stephanie says: Flavia is a really fun character. With plenty of sass, humor and intelligence she is easy to like and a joy to read about.
Lesa writes: I loved Flavia, her intensity and her grit. At times, she was precocious. At other times, when fighting with her sisters, she was an eleven-year-old who turned from "Flavia the Invisible into Flavia the Holy Terror." And, she was just as ingenious and heroic as any amateur sleuth.
Those readers eager for an original heroine, and a complex, at times, amusing, mystery, will appreciate The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I wouldn't be afraid to give this to readers who loved Harry Potter. There's something about Flavia that reminds me of the lonely Harry. Yes, it's marketed as an adult mystery, but there is no reason other young people won't enjoy reading about Flavia.
This is one of those wonderful books that made me wish for more time in the day. I so wanted to start all over from the beginning and read it again as soon as I finished the last page. I'll have to keep it in mind for a book club recommendation, as that always gives me an excuse for a re-read.
Note to my mom: I know this is just the sort of book you would love and I think I know you well enough to know that you'll want to order a copy for yourself. Two words -- please wait. :)
December 12, 2009
Album du Jour
Usually, after listening to the same dozen Christmas cds over and over again at work (we have a required playlist to choose from), I have no desire to hear them ever again. Or at least not for a year or two. But this new album is one I am happy to hear several times a day. I absolutely love it and find myself snapping my fingers as I hear one of my favorite tracks (The Christmas Can-Can, Donde Esta Santa Claus, Hey Santa, Santa Claus Is Back In Town, and Who Spiked the Eggnog?). Need a fun stocking stuffer or hostess gift? This is sure to win smiles by all! Now I'm off to buy Holiday Spirits....
December 7, 2009
Only one new book this week, but it's one I've been excited about ever since reading Bellezza's review. Thanks, Mom! I can't wait to start it!
Mailbox Monday is the place for bloggers to share the books that arrived in their homes last week. For more Mailbox Monday posts, visit Marcia at The Printed Page.
Click on the title for more information.
December 3, 2009
Earlier this week, I received the loveliest email from Ashley, with Wolsak and Wynn Publishers in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada). Apparently, they found my blog through my review of Erin Noteboom's Mongoose Diaries and liked my blog so much that they've decided to highlight it on their website! How cool is that?!
In addition to this flattering honor, they've offered to send me a copy of Erin's book so I may offer it in a giveaway. I won't make you jump through any cute hoops or limit it to U.S. deliveries. Just leave me a comment with your email address and I'll draw a winner next week. Let's say, December 10th, since that's my daughter's birthday and this book is primarily about motherhood.
Good luck and a big thanks to Wolsak and Wynn for their generosity!
December 1, 2009
Album du Jour
Have I really been listening to this album for 20 years? My husband would say it's been at least an eternity. But then he doesn't really care much for George Winston. He says it sounds like someone's tuning a piano for hours on end. What does he know? ;) I think it's gorgeous, meditative music and it never fails to put me in the holiday spirit.
I'd be hard pressed to choose a favorite track, but since my daughter was born in December (almost 26 years ago!), and I listened to Pachabel Canon in D major at the end of every "Mommy & Me" prenatal exercise class, I'd have to say Track # 9 is right up there. But then so is the beautiful Joy (known also as Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring), which my brother used to play on the piano when we were kids. And then, of course, there's The Holly and The Ivy. Simply lovely. Makes me wish I knew how to play the piano.
I notice the 20th Anniversary Edition has two extra tracks (A Christmas Song and Sleep Baby Mine). Hmmm, might be time to invest in an updated album. I'm sure my husband wouldn't mind. This one's getting a bit worn out.
My good friend Nan listens to this every year on the 1st of December. I wonder if she has the new edition? I also wonder if she was listening at the same time as I. I'll bet her husband doesn't roll his eyes when he walks in the room while it's playing. ;)