Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Redemption, Definitely Somewhat Of A Redemption

After hearing this next title, will your reaction be, Rochel, are you a glutton for punishment? I don't think so, though reading yet another Jill Mansell might seem to imply that.  This was the one I mentioned (did you catch it? :)) as being in between the eerily (okay, let's not go that far :)) similar plotted ones I read before.  I'm going to finish this really fast to get in to May, so bottom line was it had different plot line! and a better plot line! Made me remember why I enjoy these books at all - they are silly, very silly, but you know, there's a decent romance somewhere at the center.  In the end, the storyline morphed into something more similar to the other two - does she have a hang up about it or something? - but I can't say I didn't enjoy most of the book :)

Verdict: 2.9/5

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Taking Humor In the Spirit It's Intended

He just never stops, so I can't either... Alexander McCall Smith has published yet another book.  This one, the third Corduroy mansions, has only been published in England so far (as is typical of that series and 44 Scotland St), but I was able to obtain a copy, thanks of course to my dear cousin Sarah Sp.  For the curious, here's my review of the second one, also published from Chapman Lake (oh yes, I'm here in CL for Memorial Day :)) I have to say, it was almost funny to reading the review from last year.  First of all, I think my blogging style has definitely changed, though I guess not hugely tangibly.  The interesting thing was that I spent that whole complaining how the ridiculousness of it all was driving me crazy until I realized the whole thing was a joke.

The funny thing about that is that, with this book, I also noticed the ridiculous characterization and improbable plot twists immediately... but this time, I was immediately aware that they were meant in a wholly humorous bent, with not one corner of the eye on their believability index (interesting turn of phrase, though I don't think entirely successful :))... can I say thanks to my post of last year for that cognizance of tone? Why not? :)  I mean, first and foremost, there's the gentleman in canine form, Freddy de la Hay.  There's the complete and utter antipathy of Berthea Snark, psychoanalyst, towards her own son, a more vile human being than most.  There's the tale of Hugh, kidnapped by Columbians to salsa dance on their cruise ship... yeah, you get the point.  But it's all funny.  Lightly told, highly engaging, and ever so humorous.  And not only that, I have definitely started to care about at least one - well actually two - characters, FdlH and his owner William.  Everyone else I can pretty much take or leave, but mostly they're worth taking.

I felt like this book ended less abruptly than some of the others, Sarah Sp. thinks he may not have written it as a serial, which would explain it.  It definitely had some unfinished storylines, but it wasn't like, what? you can't just leave it like that, for the most part.  And a huge plus, I really didn't notice any political, or moral, or philosophic statements I disagreed with getting in the way.  Another product of not writing a serial? Or did AMS just get tired of it all already? Or maybe I just wasn't watching for it... either way, nothing arose to cloud my enjoyment of this delightfully charming romp through England.

Verdict: 3.75/5

Is Chic Lit That Hard to Write?

Take a look at the last three entries - non-fiction, classic, non-fiction.  Not surprising that I felt myself ready for something slightly lighter... the particular something available was yet another Jill Mansell, so that's what I picked up next on that Shabbos afternoon two weeks ago, after finishing not one, but two books previously.  I don't know whether the high caliber literature I had become used to ;) made me more sensitive than usual to the book's defects but...

Well we all know what those defects are.  Jill Mansell doesn't exactly write for the ages.  Her characters are often overblown, some of them are always completely uninteresting to me, her writing can just make you wince... but for all that, there are times when she's good, solid, chic lit.  This was not one of those times.  You know how I'm complained how the last one I read failed the chic lit litmus by not centering on the romantic tension of the two characters? How we knew right away they liked each other, it was just annoying dithering that kept them apart? Guess what? She did it again! I mean seriously, the same plot.  Girl likes guy, but he's a bit of a player so she's afraid to get involved, despite the fact that it's obvious he like her too! I mean really, two in a row? To be fair, it wasn't actually two in a row.  I skipped over one because this one was new and couldn't be renewed, and the other one could be.  But I literally had ZERO patience for this book.  I think the most exciting part was when there was a fire, which would normally just provoke an eyeroll at the overdramatic plot lines and then a light skimming (not that it didn't do that anyway, just that I felt actually a little more intrigued by that twist than most of the book).  It didn't really ever get better,  I basically just plowed my way through to the inevitable, ridiculous sappy ending.

Verdict: 2/5

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Love Books About Book Lovers

Delving even further into minor English classics of the mid-twentieth century, 84 Charing Cross Road was another long standing item on my BTRL (Books to Read List, naturellement :)) Again, don't know where I first heard it mentioned, but when I found out it was a non-fiction epistolary style memoir, and that the two people don't even meet in the end (spoiler? sorry :)) I was less than eager to put it at the top.  But I've heard it praised a few times, so I put it on hold.  I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a teeny-weeny 100 page or so paperback, and even more pleasantly surprised when I picked it up on the plane to Mountain View a month ago.  I was kind of reading it to put myself to sleep but I found myself caught up in the writing almost immediately.  Since it was really interrupted reading (in middle of Mark Twain), I didn't pick it up again until a while later, two Shabbosim ago when I was home in Queens.

To begin with, there was definitely an overdeveloped sense of anticipation, since I had found the book so unexpectedly enjoyable.  It was to be expected then, that there would be a sense of not living up to expectations.  I guess that manifested itself in my reaction to the writer, Helen Hanff's, breezy sense of humor.  It's cute and funny, but... maybe a little too blithe? I'm not really complaining, the truth is, how can you complain about a real person? This wasn't someone writing an epistolary novel, this was actual letters from an American... well I suppose spinster would be the easiest way to describe a single woman in the 50's, but she not very spinsterish at all.  She's a writer for television, one with definite intellectual tastes, but one who seems to take life very much in stride and live to enjoy.  On the other hand, there's her correspondent, FPD (can't remember his full name right now) who comes off as English to the core - always polite, very friendly and helpful, but neat and reserved too (yes, we get all that from his letters :)) If it was fiction, it would be the most cliche'd fiction you could find, only redeemable by the couple getting together in the end, but of course :)

But it's not fiction.  FPD is married, and (sadly enough, spoiler alert) dies before Helen can get to England to meet him and his family.  And nothing much happens to Helen either in the twenty years they correspond (unless it does happen and she doesn't tell him of course :)) It seems like there are some letters left out, so there was definitely some effort and grouping the remaining ones into a narrative.  In the end, I suppose it's a pretty sad narrative, not much of a resolution beyond the publication of the letters - but it doesn't feel sad.  Helen and Frank seem to thoroughly enjoy each other, transatlantic though their relationship might be. And I enjoyed them too, I always enjoy people who love books :) Though wow, these books, I have never heard of *any* of them! Except Pride and Prejudice - yes, Helen loves P&P.  And now you know why I love the book :) Okay not really, but I always love it the way everyone loves Jane Austen - Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm) waxed enthusiastic at one point as well.  In any case, it's surprising how close you can feel to someone after reading their personal letters all about the books they love :) Or at least how much you can enjoy a light, fluffy, collection of them.

Verdict: 4/5

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Comfortable, Elegant, and All That Is Good In Life

You know I like to start out with my recommendation source... I have to say, I finally have one I can't really easily identify :) Cold Comfort Farm has been on my list of "Books to Read" for years, under the category "English countryside types."  Now, I don't know why I originally put it on my list (Lauren Willig? :)) but Stella Gibbons is only English countryside in the most literal sense.  Recently, I read the Wikipedia summary of the book (or maybe it was just of the author) and discovered that, in fact, Cold Comfort Farm is a humorous take on English society books of the '30s.  So we're talking not only funny, which actually English countryside typically is, but completely filled with levity (I wanted to say levitous, but I just couldn't :)).  And better, we're talking high society, babe ;) not those boring working class stiffs tat typically inherit rural literature :)  Once I realized this, I put the book rather up on my todo list, and got on line at the library to wait my turn.

Cold Comfort was a surprise delight from the start.  The main character, Flora, is not only a perfectly lovely society girl of nineteen, pretty, popular, and educated (if not rich :)) she's adorable, smart, and utterly capable.  She reminds of what Emma thinks she is (a rather astute observation if I do say so myself :)) - she likes to organize everyone's lives, and she's actually good at it.  She's also totally irrepressible, writing to each of her relatives for an invitation to mooch off them until such time as she sees fit to move on (to get married, perhaps? :)) And she gets welcomes from each of them too.  But she chooses to go stay with her disturbingly strange cousins at Cold Comfort Farm, and proceeds to amuse herself with fixing up their wretched lives.

Now here's where the book could have gotten really boring, or worse, tense.  But instead, Flora remains totally in control of her absolutely bizarre relatives' various hang-ups and shenanigans.  And I'm telling you, they are bizarre.  But since the whole book is very clearly a joke, I could just relax and enjoy the joke of these larger-than-life, and for the most part, cruder than life, characters and their little neuroses.  Flora keeps everyone well in hand, and takes good care of disposing of every one to his or her greater happiness.  And she keeps herself pretty happy and very well liked while doing it.  At one point I noticed that not only were the characters simply out of this world outrageous, the setting, which takes place in the "near future" (which I interpreted to mean maybe within in a year of publication date 1932) actually takes place in some futuristic version of the 50's.  But it's funny, because far from greatly advanced, the book feels like a throwback to the last days of good English society - but why would I complain, that's exactly the society I like best :)

So Flora keeps herself, and us, entertained by meddling in all her silly cousins' lives, to their great benefit.  I'm sure you're asking by now, what about Flora? Well Flora's nice little love interest is introduced right at the beginning of the book.  There's not much suspense, since as far as I could tell, they liked each other immediately, and not much interaction, as Flora was far away in Susssex and only communicated with her Charles through letters we never see.  But you know she's going to be okay, not left alone at the end.  Since I didn't really expect the book to be a romance, I didn't mind the mostly lack of pathos threaded through Flora's own story.  But then, in the last chapter of the book, an extra bonus treat - she managed to finish up with a spectacular last chapter of a romance.  Despite my assumption that Flora's and Charles's romance was a foregone conclusion, there was apparently some suspense left between the two. And it made for some beautiful storytelling wrapping that suspense right up :) So not only thoroughly enjoyable, but a nice little tip at the end :)

Verdict: 4.5/5

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Book About Memory That Sticks In Your Head

Guess what? A totally new and different source of reading material! A few months ago, I decided to watch clips from the Colbert Report (I think someone I went out with mentioned the show so I got in the mood) and the interviewee was Joshua Foer, a journalist who won the US memory championships after a year of training.  Being a journalist, he wrote a chronicle of that year, and, for whatever reason, I decided it would be fun to read that chronicle.  The premise was that this was something that anyone could do, that the best memorizers in the world don't actually have special memories.  Of course, I am very interested in good memories, so I definitely wanted to hear about how good the best were :)  That being said, I was definitely somewhat hesitant about reading a first person account by some amateur...  But, you know, he was on the Colbert Report :) (not really, I've never read anything  I heard about on that show before).  And there were like 200 holds on it, so I figured it was probably decent.

So when I finally got ahold of it,  I read about the first 10 pages on the way to work.   Some lady on the subway saw it and ask me how I liked it, and I was totally positive - after 10 pages - of a non-fiction book! So definitely an easy start.  He writes really easily, very conversationally.  And he grabs you right away - certainly the journalist in him :) The beginning is kind of this grandiose intro to the whole idea of the sport of memory and the its methods, but Foer (I'm going to be very professional :)) knows that we find it skeptical.  Everytime I say, yeah but... but what's the point? but is that really what makes it work? he asks the same question.  Sometimes he doesn't really answer it, but it's nice to know he's listening :) I mean there are definitely times he waxes a little too rhapsodic on the subject, or tries to shoehorn the entire universe and a new philosophy in to what is pretty much a neat trick.  But in general, he keeps it pretty real.

So it probably would have been a decent read even if it was all about his year as a memory acolyte.  But most of the book consists of tangents about either the history of memory, known great minds, or (mostly) the psychology of memory.  The last of these is something I of course find intersesting, and something about which I know surprisingly little.  The only book I can think of that really discussed how memory worked in any detail was Godel Escher Bach, and that was written like 30 years ago! A lot of what Foer talked about was either new to me or only known in vague terms.  And more than interesting, I actually found it relevant.  It's almost funny how many times since I've read the book I've thought about the way I memorize things or the way my mind works or something else that puts me in mind of the book.  I've definitely referenced it at least twice in conversation.  Slightly embarassing, because I don't even know if you could call this book pop psychology, it's written by a *journalist* but well, it's not like psychology is really science anyway :) And he did do his research.  So we get light sprinkles of all the most engaging sciency stuff wrapped up in an easy-on-the-eyes first person narrative.  A lot of fun AND educational :)

Verdict: 4.5/5 (For what it is of course, not like I'm going to read this 30 times more)

Friday, May 13, 2011

So Much Potential...

There's a book I read sometime last year, can't remember exactly when, but it must have been before April since it's not in the blog :) Anyway, the book in question was Julia Stuart's The Matchmaker of Perigord, about a little provincial French town.  It was my kind of French town - kind of light and funny, irreverant - a fictional version of Peter Mayle's Provence books.  The book, since it was essentially a book about the town, was like that too, of course.  So anyway, comic travel book, about France no less.  Sounds good, so I read it.  And it was fine, pretty much what I expected, not at all a waste of time.  So when I saw Julia Stuart's new book, The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, on the shelves of the Mid-Manhattan library (yes, we're talking about that time back how many months ago when I went and browsed the shelves - up top for 10 times renewal :)) I didn't hesitate to take it out.  The first thing I noticed when I bothered to look at the jacket was that this book is not about France at all, but about the far more whimsical, and just as foreign in its own way, Tower of London.  Specifically, about the life of a Beefeater in the Tower of London.

Actually, I think this setting has a whole lot more promise than the French countryside.  My love for all things English remains intact and the Beefeater compound has a great mix of historic potential and absurd situational comedy (do I sound like I know what I'm talking about because I totally made that up).  It's definitely less educational, because less real, but oh so fun.  As for being real, I really should have read this with my computer (of course it got read on shabbos and the train so that didn't happen) because I just kept wondering what was real and what was totally fabricated.  Most of it was, I'm pretty sure - but even if only little bits were real, how cool to live in the Tower of London.  And not only that, but even more fun in a way, the Beefeater's wife work in the London Underground Lost Property Office.  Now I am *very sure* that her occupation is entirely made up, the lost property office is nothing but a repository of random junk, but whose dream isn't someone turning up all those years later with the long-lost old friend?  It's like a mystery with no tension :)  So all in all, there's a lot to be said in favor.

What's the catch? I'm not the only one who's tickled pink by this whole scenario.  And, not content to stop while she's ahead, the author can't go like two paragraphs without inserting a twee or profound yet sprightly tale of whimsy.  And mostly of them are completely gratuitous.  Totally unlikely stories about people we don't care about that are ridiculous rather than meaningful.  After a while, they really started annoying me.  Not only was the story not moving, but I felt like I was reacting exactly opposite the moving way I was supposed to.  About three-quarters of the way on, it starts moving a bit but unfortunately not to anywhere much.  The thread throughout the book is that they are torn about by the death of their son, which apparently the Beefeater thinks he caused.  At the end we find out why - and it wasn't even a decent reason! It's because - get this - he *yelled* at him the night before! I mean really? Why try for profound meaning when you have to use *the death of child* and *still* can't write something good and heartwringing?! So basically, even the cute part of the story was overdone to the point where I just wished it would all go away, and then, the story just disappointed in the end.  Oh well...

Verdict: 2.5/5

Sunday, May 1, 2011

There is a Time and a Place, and This is Not It

Yet another selection drawn from suggestions on Austenprose - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson.  This one, at least as far as I could tell, has nothing to do with Jane Austen.  It's just an old-time English manners and people getting married tale, at least of a sort - contemporary but almost feels like a throwback.  Anyway, it's apparently fairly popular, there were quite a number of holds ahead of me.  And it took me two times getting it out till I got up to it, not that that's an indication of anything more than that my reading list is severely backed up.  Anyway, I did finally get to it over the last days, and then neglected to review it till now (I guess it's less than a week, not really so bad).  I have to say, this has not been a riveting intro, and for that I am sorry.  Moving on...

The book jacket describes Major Pettigrew as this extraordinary and very lovable character.  I suppose he was lovable, but I tend to like most main characters in the books I read.  As for extraordinary? For the most part, he seemed the very prototype of an English gentleman.  Maybe extraordinary in the sense that I don't know how many proper English gentlemen there are left.  But, really, he could have walked out of the pages of Agatha Christie.  And while he was lovable, a lot of that was in contrast to the many rather loathsome members of the supporting cast.  But not loathsome in the sense that I joined him and the author in their righteous indignation.  More like loathsome in the sense that, okay, sure you made this character hateful so he's hateful.  My point is, you can't really get up on your high horse about proper behavior when the improper examples seem so manufactured.

But that's a minor point.  I think for me to judge this book, the most important thing is for me to know what I'm judging.  This task is not trivial, since I think the book itself wasn't quite sure.  Parts of it were quite light, ensuring me that I could take its ups and down with a grain of salt and just enjoy the character interaction.  But the more I read, the more I realized this book was meant, if not as a serious tome, than at least novel with serious themes.  So leaving aside that I have little interest in reading novels about religious prejudice in England, how was the book in this context? Meh... I mean Major Pettigrew's and Mrs. Ali's story was sweet, but I thought at times a little... forced I guess. Towards the end, there was a runaway escape from her domineering brother and then an attempted murder AND suicide.  It's like, wow, have I wandered into The Kite Runner? (Not that I've ever read that, but presumably that where such antics about oppressive Muslim culture belong).  Well I guess I'm not being fair - the point is, these things do exist even in England, which is sad, but which we all know.  And I don't think that a book about an English gentleman is the place where you expect to encounter these cases.

And what about the more traditional English themes of family and neighbors? Like I said, the Major's ungrateful and rather vulgar son Roger is certainly not a sympathetic character.  But he's also not a particularly realistic one.  How did two such wonderful people as the Major and his late wife end up with a son whose manners and whose character is, in a word, execrable? Umm, maybe because in fiction anything goes?  But it certainly doesn't wring my heartstrings any when I see no connection to something that I can ever see happening - imo, kids are mostly like their parents.  And if the parents see no need to teach their children the right way to behave, then they aren't very good people themselves.  The neighbors too, while mostly insensitive and often rude, seem like they would be the exception in the normal English country village, not the rule.

Themes of diversity and racism can always strike a nerve, especially as I know there is plenty of anti-Semitism alive and well in English country villages.  But I just felt like I got ripped off with this book - I mean it was reviewed on Austenprose! And while the Major and Mrs. Ali's romance was the thread that kept the book going, in the end, it seemed almost secondary to its racially and ethnically charged backdrop.   Important as these issues may be, no one thinks they're any fun.

Verdict: 2.5/5