Saturday, June 26, 2010

Third Time's the Charm?

Finally finished the third Howl's Moving Castle! and only a day after it was due :) (after nine weeks out, mind you) - this was quite an endeavor in the end... well actually it wasn't.  Children's books are just pretty easy reading, not least when they come around after the last book I read (see here and here).  And the other two books were pretty good (see here and here).  This one was... well just not quite up to par.  It could have been just my mood, or the contrast with Suite Francaise... but I think it was just lacking in a lot of what made the other two good.
First of all, it was about a much younger set - or at least they seemed much younger.  No romance, and no pretense of any romance either.  And the story didn't have that same tongue in cheek feeling the other two almost had.  And you know how I said the other two had this kind of adult humor? Well this one... not so much.  I mean it was cute, but it was a utterly a children's book.   A good, well written, creative one, but strictly for children (that's a review I read for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which I find pretty apt).  The one interesting element was that it was actually pretty dark - featured a monster that implanted its eggs into humans, which killed them when the human-monster offspring were born... and those human monster offspring were then evil for generations... pretty dark stuff...and with a lot of potential unintentional metaphors too :)
But basically, yeah, not much to say about it.  Fun enough, but not required reading :)

Verdict: 2.5/5
Food: strictly children's treat... fruit roll up comes to mind (can you believe huvi has belittled my food rating system? i know, i couldn't either :))

Friday, June 25, 2010

Disturbing Themes Clad in the Smoothest of Silky Tones

I actually almost finished Suite Francaise on Sunday (long car rides can be useful :)) but then I abandoned it to other occupations so I just finished it today.  The second part of the book was quite different from the first.  I felt like the first was just trying to portray what the invasion of Paris and surrender of the French felt like, without trying to make much of a point besides (other than that there are a lot of disgusting people in the world).  The second was different.  First of all, it concentrated on many fewer characters.  It's about the occupation of a French village by German soldiers, and there are a few different villagers profiled, but it's mainly the story of one French upper middle class woman and the German officer who is billeted by her.  In the end, there's not really much of a story there either, but theme of the relationship is also, I think, the main point of the part of the book.  And it is NOT one I agree with.

Well the idea of a relationship between one of the occupied and one of the occupiers pretty much says it all - and in this way it is a continuation of the first part - people are all the same.  But here, instead of people are all bad, the point is the Germans aren't so bad.  They are polite and genteel, and they love and hope and all that just like everyone else.  To which I say, you're right, the Germans *are* just like the French.  But all that means is that the French are evil too.  I know that's a strong word... and I don't really believe that all people are evil... but the fact is, the reasons the French never did what the Germans did has nothing to do with innate good nature and everything to do with laziness, incompetence, and lack of motivation.  Of course, as in every nation, there are good people and bad people, but on the whole, the French do not show in a good light when it  comes to anti-Semitism.  I suppose this brings up the question of the doer vs. the observer, and if they are equally cupable.  My personal answer to this one is no, but that doesn't mean the observer isn't culpable at all.

I suppose I'm getting a little off topic... but that's what happens when I read books about the Nazis that go out of their way to portray them sympathetically - and she does a good job too - for a second, I actually felt bad at the end of the book when the Germans headed out to die in Russia - but then she kept going on about it and whatever twinge I felt was lost in a yeah, we get - b"h these people died by the millions in the unforgiving Russian winter because that's what really defeated Germany in the end.

But Irene Nemirovsky never lived to see that - and that's really what's amazing about this book - she wrote it as it was happening.  When she wrote of the people speaking of the war's end, it's not like she was looking back years later and knowing that in a few years it would be over and life would be, if not the same, at least better.  She really did not know who would win the war and how long it would last.  She wrote as it was happening.  It's strange to think of, especially when it mentions how the French feel about being defeated by the Germans... of course, the French were defeated by the Germans, but in the end, the US and England managed to reverse that... and the French memory is short enough that all they remember is de Gaul and the partisans (well maybe that's not true... but I certainly had forgotten that French was really not an Ally for most of the war because they were an occupied power).

And again I'm off track!  Well I guess that's the strength of this book - it definitely a make-you-thinker - especially when I know I'm going to be posting about it :)  Even if I don't think she's the greatest studier of human nature or makes particularly realistic characters, she does such a good job it feels like they are anyway.  And since I've never been a stickler for realism, feeling is what matters.

So what's the verdict? well for the writing, both books get 5/5, easy (really a 6/5).  For historical interest, I'd say 4/5 for the first book, maybe 3/5 for the second (in that case it's not really the history that's interesting so much as the country itself).  But as for the story? Well the first has no story at all and the second has one I'm 1) uninterested in and 2) put off by.  But the story isn't what anyone would read this for... so I'm willing to be kind and disregard the total lack of one.  But I cannot disregard my complete disagreement with Ms. Nemirovsky (I like that, don't you? :)) about the essential humanity of German soldiers.  That being said, I'll give the first one a qualified 4/5 (qualified by the fact that this book is no  fun whatsoever to read and there is absolutely no story but that's just not why you'd read it) and the second... 2/5 - just for the writing though.

Food gets complicated too - for the first part, I had been thinking of sushi - it's a little more sophisticated than my usual fare (don't laugh, I'm a huge fan of sugar free jello and diet sunkist :)) and people love it... but the truth is, I really don't get what's so great about it.  I mean it's *fine* but it is just *not*  a treat to me.  On the other hand, it's pretty low fat :) (not for me though, b/c of the rice) but it makes you feel fresh and healthy as opposed to totally glutted.  Actually I think that's a great food for the first book - you read it for the crisp and refreshing writing, for the sense of history - but you do NOT read it for the thrills, or the chills, or the lump in the your throat, or the little thump your heart gives :)

But the second... well I don't think it even has the virtues of sushi... it was interesting, but in the end it was just wrong - leaves you feeling like what's the point? so for that... I need a food that is not typical, something you might want to try, but something that in the end just leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth... hard to think of something b/c i'm so hungry right now i think a/t would be good - maybe brussel sprouts though, I do *not* like those (or I didn't like them the one time I tried them anyway) - and if I recall, not a pleasant aftertaste... not entirely satisfied with that, but I guess it'll have to do :)

Was that long enough to sate your hunger from the almost week long drought? :)

(btw, the picture is of Irene Nemirovsky b/c I already have one of the book)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hey, Cool Note...

I've reached a milestone - if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will find a link to "older posts" - because they are not all on one page anymore! not baaaad :) (of course, this might be because it's a new month, but I prefer to think it's because I have enough posts (this will be the 36th, if I'm not mistaken :)) So thanks to all who made it possible (uh... that would be me, I suppose, at this juncture :))

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Glorious Portrayal of a Rather Unglorious Moment

I'm halfway through Suite Francaise, but given that it's long (well longer than my usual recent fare at least) and the book is really two totally separate stories, I figured it's okay for me to post a halfway through review - so here it is :))

Suite Francaise has been strongly recommended to me by the highest sources (that would be the Sp's :)) so I naturally had to read it, though it took me I think 3 times getting it out from the library to actually get into it.  Since it's a book about wartime France, I wasn't expecting a barrel of laughs at all - I know the chief attraction here is the writing, and it is well written.  But come on, there are plenty of well written books - I mean, Tolstoy anyone? so I assumed this book had something more to recommend it.

But halfway through, I'm not sure what that is.  It's an *extremely* powerfully written portrayal of the war in France (the first part, Storm in June, is about the fall of France to the Germans and the public's flight from Paris) but do I need to read more war books? Especially when they are written by a self hating Jew about a group of people who did not do more than they should have either to resist the Germans or to save their country's Jews.  I asked Batya what the attraction was and she said it was interesting - well it is that.  I always say that travel is my favorite genre... but still, war books! and a war book with no real story, whose purpose is really just to give the reader an idea of the panic of the time.  It does do that - I started reading it on the bus on the way from NY and there was traffic and I totally felt for all those people in a standstill in packed cars on the road from Paris.

And the characters! Never mind unsympathetic, these characters are mostly deliberately cruel or disgusting - I think that's part of the point of the book, showcasing how war brings out the worst in people, but with all that, they are still people (still French people too :)) Well yay for them - but when I know what was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time, forgive me if I have less than zero interest. And anyway, I don't know if French people are that despicable, but I know the people I know aren't that bad.

So it was powerful, but I just don't know why I'd particularly want to read it - other than to bring the average tone of my reading material up significantly :)

Will report back to you with a review of the second half and verdict whenever I finish

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Better, Worse, or Neither?

Haven't posted a non-book review post in a while and I thought of a somewhat book related topic last night... well it's actually more blog related, but close enough :) Anyway, I was reading through all my posts (yes I do love myself that much :)) and I noticed that recently, I've been giving everything a 3.5/5.  Well that makes sense, because I don't tend to read books I don't love, but unfortunately there are only so many 4s and 5s in the world.  But then I noticed that I gave The Harvey Girls a 3/5 - that's a 3/5 to The Harvey Girls and a 3.5/5 to Tears of Pearl and Robin Lee Hatcher's book! Not that either of those books wasn't good in its own way... but Harvey Girls was *at least* as good. 

I think I must have given it a slightly lower mark because it did not reach expectations, unlike Tears of Pearl, which exceeded them, and Wagered Heart, which met them handily.  So that raises the question, what do these ratings measure? I mean, ideally, I would want them to measure how much I enjoy a book... but that's not easy to answer.  First of all, that could completely depend on my mood - and it *definitely* depends on how much I'm anticipating it, what other people have told me about it, etc.  I think that's actually the number one thing I've learned from this blog (see, it's educational :)) - that expectations are a HUGE part of reading.   I seem to start almost every review with an intro of why I'm reading the book which is basically what I expect from it.  That's partly because it's a good intro, but it's also because that actually affects my review. 

So maybe it's the right thing to do, rating based on expectations... the thing is, I can't really help it.  I try to make my reviews and ratings as spontaneous as possible (I will admit to having thought about what I'm going to write before I write it (I've already started composing my Suite Francaise review, and I'm about 1/4 of the way through that :)) but I especially for the verdict section, I like to wait until the review's written before deciding.) So it all tends to be pretty spontaneous.

That brings up the question - is it worth something? well maybe something - in a way, it's a summary of the review - so I'd say you'll get a lot more out of the review.  Out of context, even the food verdicts aren't that accurate (I mean Nips vs. string beans... actually that's a really good way of comparing those two books - never mind, the food thing is totally brilliant :)) but the numbers are at least not to be relied on absolutely.  Basically, < is not transitive in book ratings :) (me showing off my computer science knowledge :))

But who cares? it's still fun!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Adventure, With an Unexpected Side of Humor

Had a busy weekend, but I managed to finished the book I've been starting all this week - the sequel to Howl's Moving Castle (reviewed here), Castle in the Air.  I was told (by Tvzi) that this one was not as good as the first, somewhat because it didn't contain much at all of Howl.  Well that was true... but I actually enjoyed the book quite a lot.

Howl's Moving Castle owes a lot to the classic fairy tale; Castle in the Air draws from Arabian Nights, and reminded me strongly of Aladdin (which is of course the only version of Arabian Nights that I know at all :))  Interestingly enough, at first the kind of proto-Muslim world of the book was bothering me simply because that corner of the globe is not exactly my favorite, but I got over that as soon as I managed to get into the book (I read like two pages every day this week).  And then the book got pretty good - it's obviously a total children's book, but the humor is surprisingly adult.  The characters are comically pugnacious or silly or logical and there's an almost farcical edge at times.  Definitely my sense of humor I think - just kind of straight faced ridiculousness.

And the story moved along pretty quickly, not surprisingly as it was a children's book.  There wasn't really any romance in this one, but I wasn't expecting any so that was fine.  The characters were.... likeable enough I guess, though there was no one really awesome and the main character was kind of a weakling intellectually and physically - but that was part of the comic nature of the story, I think.  And I liked how Sophie and Howl, as well as Lettie and Calcifer were brought in - thought it was cute (and I'm not even going to tell you how, because that would be spoiling :))

So it was pretty fun, easy to read... if you're going to read children's books, Dianna Wynne Jones is a good option :)

Verdict: 5/5 for children's book, 3.5/5 in general (I mean come on, it's a children's book :))

Food: well I'd say straight up candy... but there is that humor poking through... so it's kind of candy with a more sophisticated twist... I'm trying to think of a candy like that though... the truth is, I'm not really one for sophisticated candy at all though :) maybe I'll go with Nips - I always LOVED them when Aunt S. used to have them all the time and I love them still :) (okay I still love a lot of candy but... :))

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Contest! (but don't enter it, I want to win - just kidding, just kidding :))

Well Lauren Willig is having a contest for a free copy of her next book, Mischief of the Mistletoe - to enter, just post your favorite fictional hero - how much easier can it get? :) (points for anyone who can guess my favorite... it's kind of the obvious one, kind of not :))
But anyway, apparently, there's another drawing for posting about the contest on your website... I'm posting! I don't know if it counts, since no one actually reads this (other than my darling sis and abg, and neither of them reads Lauren Willig (their loss!)) but... you  never know :)

                                              Oh, here's the link

Funny PS - I've been reading other entries and someone actually mentioned The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman! I cannot get over how everyone like the same books :) (I read this one like three times when I was younger).  But her other books were the kind of historical that's more drama and mystery than I can handle... or at least they looked that way to me, so I'm not putting them on my books to read list (not until I see them mentioned in a few more places at least :))

Sunday, June 6, 2010

(One of) My Favorite Cookie Cutters

Having read a book for which I had a hard time even finding labels, I turned toward one that was so formulaic I'd be shocked if I it deviated from expectations.  That would be Robin Lee Hatcher's Wagered Heart.  She writes Christian romances about cowboys in Montana and religious young ladies.  But she's not bad at all.  And like I always say, in most chic lit, you need a subplot.  But in Christian romance, the religion is the subplot.  So as long as you can ignore the constant references to G-d, you basically get solid fun all along.  A lot of the times they are so badly written, I can't sit through them in any case.  But Robin Lee Hatcher is usually pretty decent.

This one was exactly like all her others, and more so.  When it started out I was like, wait a second, they seem like each other right away, where's the story? Then it turned in to a marriage of convenience variation, then her parents died so it turned into a triumph over adversity, and then the evil scheming other cowboy came into the forefront and it started reminding me very strong of The Harvey Girls.  But throughout, it was basically just "I love him but he doesn't love me" and vice versa.  And what more could I want? :) Okay, in all seriousness, I would definitely a enjoy a more substantial and less dragged out book more, but that's not what I read these for.  And whatever else you can say about it, this book delivers on expectations.

So verdict: for an Christian romance, 4.5/5.  In general... 3.5/5 - I seem to be getting more picky in my old age :)

As for food... well it was as good as it could be for what it was... so I'm going to go with bakery cake - it's definitely good, and I wouldn't say no to it, and I enjoy it, and it's a treat- but it just can't compare to the best of home made stuff - I don't refer to exceptions of course, just the general case :)

Sophistication Worn So Lightly It Doesn't Fall Flat

For almost every book about which I've posted so far, I've had, at the very least, expectations of how much I would enjoy it (and of course, for several I knew almost *exactly* what to expect, because I'm a creature of habit :)) But this Shabbos's priority reading, given that it's due on Monday (after nine weeks out) was Peter Mayle's A Vintage Caper.  I thought this was the author's second novel, but apparently it's only his second novel that I've read - but whatever.  I read his novels because I'm a fan (not a huge fan, but a fan) of his travel books, about life in the Frence pronvince of Provence - obviously a rosy eyed and whitewashed if not fairy tale view of French country life, but fun all the more so :) (and Huvi does get credit for introducing me to the series if she's reading this :))

But I read those books years ago, and I read his first novel a while ago, and don't remember at all well.  So if I was expecting anything at all, it was a slightly pretentious book, given that the book was about wine and France by a total Francophile.  And while I do love reading about all things French, I wouldn't say I'm an unquestioning Francophile myself... too much other stuff going on that I know ruins that whole romantic image.  But mostly, I really just wasn't too much looking forward to the book one way or another and my only real assumption was that it would be about France.

Well it was about France, and the French, and it definitely had all that pretension about fine food, fine wine, and uncouth Americans but surprising... it was *not* pretentious.  It wasn't even really a mystery - more of a light con novel.  You know the genre... or maybe not - I actually can't think off hand of any con books I've read, though there must be some, but it's Ocean's Eleven, The Sting and that type of thing.  And I like smart con men books! and of course, I like light books - there was obviously some tension, but actually, nothing ever went wrong - it all just flowed along, interspersed with *a lot* of description of French food and some of French hotels - to which I am not necessarily averse, when sprinkled in judiciously.  Well they were that judiciously sprinkled, so it was slighly distracting, but not enough to ruin the book.

And deliciously enough, there was decent romance going on! First I thought it was all one of those male point of view books written by men which are just not fun to read, but Sam's relationship with Elena was pretty cute and had a nice ending to round off the finish - while it was not the main point of the book.  And the final note was a perfect ending for this type of thing - one of those little "it's not over yet" con things.

So a good book - and less pretentious than I expected, so I can't complain :)
Verdict: 3.5/5 (well it's not my *favorite genre)
Food: It was, as I said, somewhat out of my comfort zone, but surprisingly good, even if there were some bits not exactly to my liking... I'll go with a milchigs restaurant salad - there's always some vegetable or cheese I don't like in there, but there's also something good like grilled eggplant (or I wouldn't order it :)) and as long as the vegetables are fresh, it's good!

Oh, the only thing was, the whole thing felt a little dated... like there *are* no con men anymore, and that whole Hollywood lifestyle just doesn't hold any attraction (well to me anyway...) and as for France - if it was *ever* that way, it sure ain't now... but what do I know? and I think he does acknowledge the book is more a fantasy than a realistic depiction of anything... but I'm just proud of myself for picking up on this so I'm putting it in :)