Sunday, December 8, 2013

Farewell and one last challenge to check out

As many of you know, since I've started working, I haven't had the time to read or write like my pre-employment days. This is not a complaint, since I am thoroughly enjoying being back in the workforce. But alas, it is time to take down my blogger shingle. However, I want to leave you with one last challenge - read more "chunksters" in 2014. If you are looking for an official challenge, check this one out. (My Goodreads friend, Janice, is the queen of challenge-creation.) Now, I am going to leave you with a Top Ten of my favorite chunksters (books that are 500 pages or more) and why they are special to me.

  1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke - Clarke is an excellent modern writer of fantasy that is fun and creative. Her originality and storytelling ability put her at the top of the class.
  2. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas - It was difficult decision between this humorous classic and my number one choice. It could just as easily be number one. The chivalrous D'Artganan, his cohorts and their insane adventures, what else needs to be said?
  3. East of Eden by John Steinbeck - I love this book, I love this book, I love this book....
  4. Moby Dick by Herman Melville - This book reads like part non-fiction about the turn-of-the-century whaling industry and classic fiction about Captain Ahab and his obsession with the white whale.
  5. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - The story of an independent-minded widow, the two tailors and student to which she rents. This book sheds light on the class problems of the times.
  6. Fanny Stevenson by Alexandra Lapierre - A biography of Robert Louis Stevenson's wife. An interesting means of learning more about the famous writer, but Fanny was an unique individual in her own right and could certainly hold her own where living an entertaining life goes.
  7. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner - A beautifully written tale of early California, Colorado and a little Mexico thrown in. Great characters and settings.
  8. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - One of the most unique narrators...death. A story set in WWII.
  9. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese - Twins. Ethiopia. Medicine. A good book for reading around the world.
  10. Wild Swans by Jung Chang - This memoir of three generations of women gets the blame for my reading-about-China obsession.

Honorable mention: The Fatal Shore, Tree of Man, Slaves in the Family, The Forgotten Garden, Thornbirds and A Suitable Boy.

Adios, everyone and Happy Reading in 2014. Don't forget to throw in a couple of those chunksters sitting on your shelf! Stop by and talk me on Goodreads.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What's new this year? November Edition

Once a month, I take a look at some of the published-in-2013 books that I have read. Today's look will be at one of my favorite non-fiction books I read this year, The Astronaut's Wives Club, an insightful novel, The Good House and last but certainly not least, a book I just read and loved, Mrs. Poe. Each book offers something different, Ann Leary's The Good House is contemporary fiction at its best. It is special to me because I am not generally a big fan of contemporary fiction but this story hooked me. Mrs. Poe garners lots of love from me for its look at a segment of Edgar Alan Poe's life. Although, I'm not a huge fan of Poe, reading The Raven in this book was the first time I had done so, I love reading about famous authors in fictional formats and this story is nicely done. The Astronaut's Wives Club was one of three non-fiction books I read this year, that I thought were exceptional. This time around, all the books I'm reviewing were winners!

Lily Koppell with her book
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

Ever wonder what it would be like to stand in the shoes of an astronaut's wife? If you grew up in the 60s and 70s, I can almost guarantee that you did! Well, you have your opportunity with The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story.

The book wends its way through the years of lift-offs, landings and explosions with an emphasis on the wives' friendship and support of one another. The book's main focus is the Mercury 7 wives since they began it all. "Mother" Marge Slayton is attributed with beginning the Astronaut Wives Club when her husband, Deke, was grounded for a congenital health ailment and was made head astronaut, a position that included monitoring and keeping the other astronauts organized. Marge saw a similar need with the wives, as well as an opportunity to offer a listening ear to the other women. Being the caring person she was, the chance to mother the other ladies fell naturally to her.

Through the years, cheating husbands, widows, colorful personalities among both the astronauts and their wives, the first divorce, the women's liberation movement and political mayhem, the book offers a window into the lives of people who were more often than not treated like the rock stars of their time.

What I didn't like was that there was no chart of which astronauts belonged to which missions. I also often forgot who was married to whom since only first names were frequently used. I was able to sort out the Mercury 7 wives since most of the book centered on them and there was a nice picture of all of them together that included their names. I wish there were a similar picture for all the other wives. I would also have included pictures of each woman with her husband. The lack of relevant pictures annoyed me as did, the fact that some women had no pictures included at all. Perhaps, this is due to them not wanting their picture in the book, but for the reader, it would certainly have been easier to relate to each wife's story.

3.5 stars rounded to 4.0 stars

The Good House by Ann Leary
Ann Leary relates the story of Hildy Good, Realtor, Divorcee and new grandmother with ease and skill. The skill comes in with her ability to give the reader a little tidbit each chapter in the form of a small revelation about Hildy. For example, chapter one will leave the reader thinking Hildy is an honest, almost perfect lady. But each subsequent chapter, the reader finds out Hildy's life isn't so ideal and she has problems with a capital P!

I learned a lot about what it's like for a recovering alcoholic. Leary did an excellent job of presenting the self-deception an alcoholic has. She also revealed the flaws in the Al-anon method of recovery. Even though the story was entertaining, it was also educational in this regard.

This is chick-lit that I believe many of my friends would enjoy.

3.5 stars rounded to 4.0 stars

Mrs. PoeMrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the latest contributions to what is becoming one of my favorite fiction sub-genres, the telling of tales from the viewpoint of a spouse or person closely connected to a famous person. The choice of Frances Osgood to be the narrator proved to be excellent. Fanny offers a unique look at Edgar Alan Poe as she was a fan of his, a poetess and therefore, a contemporary of his, his married lover and a member of the preferred society of the time. She also shared his pain in many regards including an unhappy marriage and financial woes. I enjoyed this book immensely, but hesitate to give it more than 3.5 stars for a couple of reasons.

First of all, while I appreciate that this is a work of fiction, I found the frequent use of other historical characters of the time as participants in literary social functions or just as strollers down the street as unlikely. For example, Herman Melville is supposed to have attended one such literary gathering. I find this highly improbable as Melville achieved little fame during his lifetime other than for his Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life which was short-lived. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale never became the classic that it is today until well after his death. Melville was a dour character, not much liked by those who knew him. The only literary personage who befriended him was Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is unlikely that any member of good literary society in New York would invite Melville to such a gathering. The book continues with mentions of passing on the street, Roosevelts, Astors and other famous persons, as well as rubbing shoulders with other historical figures at the evening conversaciones. I understand the author's desire to include these figures to show the time period and give a sense of what was going at that time, but it was like putting a couple of tablespoons of sugar in one's ice tea when a couple of teaspoons would have done fine.

Secondly, a little closer proofreading was needed. For example, during one scene a mention was made of a certain maid having gone on a trip, then a couple of paragraphs later she is mentioned as being present although no time has passed since the first mention of her not being there. This doesn't impact the story in any way, but is annoying in regards to the continuity.

Thirdly, my next observation is more a question than a complaint. Is the Mrs. Poe of the title referring to Fanny or Virginia Poe, Edgar's wife? It makes more sense that it refers to the former except she never was "Mrs. Poe." The only connection I can make there is that her editor while encouraging her to pursue writing dark stories like E.A.P. alluded that she could become the "Mrs. Poe" of that genre. Even though Virginia Poe played a large role in this story, it wasn't "about" her but about Fanny and Edgar, primarily Fanny. So, if you read this book and think you have the answer to why it is titled Mrs. Poe, I would love to hear your thoughts.

What I really like about the book is Cullen's commitment to keeping as many facts about both Fanny and Poe's accurate. She says in the Afterword that she attempted to keep the framework of their lives intact and only fill in the blanks with her fictional account. I think she succeeded. I do recommend this book to my fiction-loving friends. It is entertaining, easy to read and historically educational.

View all my reviews

Happy Thanksgiving to my USA readers. I will be taking next week off to get some Christmas shopping done and catch up with stuff around the house. Have a great week all and see you in two weeks.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On to Australia - Part 3

Its time to check in with the Land Down Under again as I committed to reading many books from the-place-I-want-to-visit-most-in-the-world. Pony-tailed Tim Winton proved to be an interesting guy worthy of his own blog, so having read his award-winning, highly acclaimed Cloudstreet,  here goes.

A pony-tailed Tim Winton

Can't help but like a guy who sponsors an award for primary and secondary school writers as does Tim Winton. You can read more about it here. The fact that (according to Wikipedia) all his books are still in print and have been printed in 18 different languages can't help but impress either. Personally, after reading
Cloudstreet, I'm caught in this in-between category of fandom, not hugely impressed with the story, but still able to see why he gets the accolades. I don't think I could improve upon the review I did for GoodReads, so here it is:

"A different kind of book, this Cloudstreet. Its one of those books where one can identify with those who give it high praise as well as those who didn't care for it. I didn't find the storyline particularly compelling nor any of the characters. However, the book grew on me. I started trying to decide if I even wanted to continue reading it, decided I did, and ended up really liking the ending. I felt it to be a somewhat depressing book most of the way, until, surprisingly, the ending!

What I liked:

*The book is written in short sections from each of the characters viewpoints. They can be as short as a paragraph or as long as several pages. This method of portraying each character's thoughts reminded me of ... clouds. Just a wisp of a thought here, or dark, brooding stormy clouds in some cases - very appropriate for the book.

*I loved the total Aussie-ness of the writing. Words like chiacked, chuffed, yairs, sozzled and bangcrack add that dash of Aussie flavor to the writing.

*The growth of the characters. I think Winton does an exceptional job of creating believable characters. I loved watching Rose Pickles and Quick Lamb mature. I never would have dreamed that either would become the people they were at the end of the book, but Winton brings them along gradually and credibly.

Here is a sample of writing that has no significance to the story and therefore is not a spoiler. I chose it so potential readers can see Winton's unique descriptiveness, creative use of language.

The high ceiling reaches into a cobwebby dimness with weak streaks of light blunting themselves against one another from opposite sides of the church. It's almost grand, but a good compromise, he thinks, between pooftery High Church and shoebox Baptist.

What I didn't care for:
*I don't like the switching around of tenses. I never "got" why it was even necessary or if it was even consistent with certain characters.

*I didn't understand the necessity of the Beryl character. Was she really even needed in the story?

So, while impressed with Winton's creative writing ability, characterization, overall, I'm not blown away by the book, but am very glad I stuck with it and finished it. Its a good book for Around-the-World readers who want to be immersed in Aussie-ness, however, I foresee a lot of readers not sticking it out due to the length and the fact that it isn't exactly action-packed."

After perusing some of Winton's other books, I am a little intrigued with the idea of reading The Riders. Dirt Music doesn't really strike a chord with me, but I find it interesting that it actually has its own music compilation CD entitled, Dirt Music- Music for a Novel. Unique. Nice.  Another somewhat unique aspect of Winton's writing is that he has had success writing for both adults and children. Not too many writers can pull that off as they usually find a niche and stick with it. Winton's works have also been adapted to the stage, big screen and even done as radio dramatizations. 

 Tim Winton's Awards and Acclaim

A little wishful thinking on my part....

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Revisiting Radio Dramas

Recently, while hubby was recuperating from some surgery, I came home to find that he had downloaded an old radio drama called A Date with Judy. This was a new one to me, but a delightful visit to the radio drama archives. When we got home this past Friday, there was a package waiting for us of Lum and Abner broadcasts. Neither of us had listened to this show before, so we are enjoying getting acquainted together with this store-keeping duo and their Jot It Down store and library. (Listen to Lum and Abner here.) In tribute to Judy, Lum and Abner, this week's blog is a tip of the hat to old radio dramas.

In the episode of A Date with Judy, Judy wants a new dress that her date, Oogie, hasn't seen her in to wear to the upcoming school dance. She tries every plead and manipulation she can think of to convince her father that she desperately needs a particular dress she has seen in the window of a department store. Frankly, it was refreshing to listen to a story about a teen whose biggest problem in life was to wheedle a new dress out of a parent!

Of course, when radio drama is mentioned, most people instantly think of The Lone Ranger or of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly and perhaps, the Great Gildersleeve. (Speaking of which, does anyone know where to buy all of the episodes of The Great Gildersleeve?) Anyone familiar with radio dramas recognizes The Great Gildersleeve Chuckle. If you don't, it's time you listened to an episode so you know what you are missing!
Leroy and "Gildy"
You can do so here.

The Great Gildersleeve was the first spin-off of a radio show. Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve was a nemesis of Fibber McGee on the popular Fibber McGee and Molly show. In his own show, he is rearing his orphaned niece and nephew, Marjorie and Leroy. For a synopsis of the show and some interesting trivia, click here.

Harold Peary, the voice of "Gildy" also went on to play the part on several Great Gildersleeve movies which can be pre-viewed here.

While doing a quick research of old radio dramas, the first and probably most famous drama ever produced was Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds. You can listen here.

Orson Welles
For those of you not familiar with the drama, the first two-thirds of the broadcast was a series of news bulletins about an alien attack on earth which caused panic among many listeners who believed the reports were authentic. The broadcast was based on a novel published by H. G. Wells in 1898. There was a large public outcry against the broadcast due to its deception, but since negative publicity can often make someone's career as easily as positive publicity can, Orson Welles fame was ensured.

A movie was made about the terror that ensued throughout America from listeners of the broadcast. You can read the Wikipedia article here. 

Although radio dramas are pretty much extinct on American radio, they still thrive in other part of the world, Great Britain, for instance. The BBC currently has two ongoing radio soap operas, The Archers and Silver Street. Radio New Zealand has an award-winning soap opera, You Me Now, that is currently popular.

For anyone interested in re-visiting old-time radio dramas, here is a list and links to some of the best-loved ones.

Name of ShowStartFinishLinkSynopsis
Abbott & Costello19421949 ArchivesComic routines
Amos and Andy19281960 ArchivesAmos & Andy own Fresh Air Taxi Co, named because their cab has no roof! Friend and huckster, Kingfish's exploits add flavor to the show.
Burns and Allen19361950 ArchivesSitcom format that includes songs from the Sportsman Quartet aka "The Swantet".
Ellery Queen19391948ArchivesMysteries based on the Ellery Queen books.
Fibber McGee & Molly19351959ArchivesBased on Fibber and his wife, Molly's comedy including several running gags including fibber McGee's Closet.
The Lone Ranger19331954ArchivesA masked Texas Ranger gallops around righting wrongs.
The Whistler19421955Archives"I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night…"

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Are you up for a challenge?

3 Reading Challenges that Look Fun!

1. Pyramid Reading
An example for 2014 Pyramid reading

This is how it works in a nutshell:

Tier 1: Read 1 book in a chosen category
Tier 2: Read 2 books in another category of choice
Tier 3: Read 3 books in yet another category

Continue in this manner, increasing each tier by adding one book  in unique categories until reaching tier 14. See the example above to see how one of my friends has created her challenge.

2. B*I*N*G*O
BINGO in Progress

Check out the link above to see how this challenge is completed. The options are unlimited and promises to be a fun reading game whether accomplished alone or as a group activity. I think a card could be designed quite easily by using Excel and copying and pasting clip art.

3. Alphabet Challenge

Example in progress

This challenge is definitely for  more committed readers. It is great way to read-around-the-world as well as fit in books that have been sitting on the shelf for years, to read favorite genres, series, etc. An example of a challenge that is close to completion is linked above. Basically, the challenge consists of reading alphabetically several different ways: Author first name, Author last name, by country name....However, a person could come up with their own categories of alphabetized reading.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Reading is fun!

With the technology explosion, ways for readers to connect and find reading material that they love at a touch of the finger has become easy. This week I am going to share  links to some fun places.

1.  10 social networks for readers
This article was written a couple of years ago, so the links to Nook Friends and inReads do not work, but all the rest do. I  had no idea there were so many quality places for readers to gather!

2.  Literature games

Play games based on classic or popular books such as the Harry Potter series, Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, etc.

3. Reading activities

Lit2Go  posts stories online, has audio versions available and "student activities" which involve quizzes or writing activities based on their posted stories from classical literature.

4.   Discussion - debate forum

Not everyone cares to join a social book network, so forums such as a the one above are a nice choice for those who don't want  tracking cookies clogging up their computer.

5. Quizzes!

This site has quizzes about popular books, authors, a reading personality quiz as well a test to test your reading speed. Surprisingly, in spite of only containing 5 questions, the reading personality quiz pegged me perfectly. Try it yourself and tell me what you think.



Sunday, October 20, 2013

White Week!!

With Halloween just around the corner and the fact that one of my favorite Goodreads groups, All About Books, began a read-along centered around Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby Dick the weird, eeriness of the famous "white chapter" seemed appropriate for the topic of this week's blog. Check out some of these quotations from the white chapter and tell me if they aren't discussion-worthy in lieu of the approaching holiday. Maybe someone should costume his/herself as Herman Melville!!

Melville finds white to have an elusive quality. After citing connections to white in royal standards, the Romans' white stone representing joy, Native Americans white belt of wampum, the Persians fire worshipers treasuring a great white flame, milk-white steeds, sacrifice of the sacred White Dog, sacred vestures, Christian symbolism of the Great White Throne and the 24 Elders, white as wool; he states, ...yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. Melville then cites the polar bear, white shark as containing That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark. 

Polar bears frightened Melville
Melville proceeds to list the White Squall of the Southern Seas as Nature's crowning attribute of the terrible.

white squall

The White Squall precedes mention of the desperate White Hoods of Ghent murdering their bailiff in the market-place. Read more about this maliciousness here. One has to wonder if these bad boys influenced the choice of white hoods for the revolting Ku Klux Klan!

Whiteness continues to torture Melville as he goes on to say things like:

...from the pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms...

...all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog... man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul...

Now Melville begins to analyze. Can we, then, by the citation of some of those instances wherein this thing of whiteness-though for the time either wholly or in great part stripped of all direct associations calculated to impart to it aught fearful, but, nevertheless, is found to exert over us the same sorcery, however modified;-can we thus hope to light upon some chance clue to conduct us to the hidden cause we seek? He offers some imaginative impressions:

White Friar or White Nun
white Tower of London
White Tower of London
White Mountains of New Hampshire ...whence, in particular moods, comes that gigantic ghostliness over the soul at the bare mention of the name...
White Mountains
White Sea  ...exert such a spectralness over the fancy...
"the tall pale man" of the Hartz forests, whose changeless pallor unrustlingly glides through the green of the groves...
Lima is the strangest, saddest city thous can'st see for having taken the white veil; and there is higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. (Here is a laudable explanation.)

Are you shivering yet? Let me interject now, that while it is entertaining to laugh at Melville's depiction of white as being unsettling to him, I have the utmost respect for his ability to write well, to write descriptively. Moby Dick is one of, if not my favorite classic. As was mentioned in the All About Books discussion, I don't know of a book where one can finish it and feel like one has read a non-fiction book, novel and philosophical discussion all in one. It certainly deserves the title of American Masterpiece. That being said, back to the creepy fun...

The mariner, when drawing nigh the coasts of foreign lands, if by night he hear the roar of breakers,
Still giving Melville the willies!
starts to vigilance, and feels just enough of trepidation to sharpen all his faculties; but under precisely similar circumstances, let him be called from his hammock to view his ship sailing through a midnight sea of milky  whiteness-as if from encircling headlands shoals of combed white bears were swimming around him,
(Nightmares about polar bears are never far away for Melville, are they?) then he feels a silent, superstitious dread; the shrouded phantom of the whitened waters is horrible to him as a real ghost; in vain the lead assures him he is still off soundings; heart and helm they both go down; he never rests till blue water is under him again. Yet where is the mariner who will tell thee, "Sir, it was not so much the fear of striking hidden rocks, as the fear of that hideous whiteness that so stirred me?"

Thus after much mulling over whiteness, Melville becomes philosophical making statements such as Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright. He goes on to say that the incantation of this whiteness hasn't been solved. He questions whether the essence of whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows-a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?

If it weren't for Melville's penchant to philosophize, with a little effort, he could have given Edgar Allan Poe a run for his money with his eerie descriptiveness.