Sunday, November 30, 2008

November roundup

In short, November was a great reading month for me.

Books read: 5
I finished reading five books, tying up a loose end from the summer: Stephen King’s The Mist, Sara Roahen’s Gumbo Tales (smart, funny, well written), Raffaella Barker’s Summertime, Alexander McCall Smith’s Friends, Chocolate, Lovers (fantastic characters, including Edinburgh), and Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances (stunning debut).

Books abandoned: 3
After giving it the fifty-page test, I abandoned Anglo Files, Sarah Lyall’s examination of the British. I love reading popular nonfiction about England—I’ve got Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the Thames on my TBR list—because they help me feel connected to London, but Anglo Files fell flat.

Also, a couple audiobooks—Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules—had to be returned to the library before I finished listening to them. The latter is the bigger disappointment as it’s a thriller and I fear I’ve lost some clues.

Books purchased: 5
I continue to purchase books apace without having an income to back it up, which, I’m afraid, truly qualifies me as an addict. Here are my treasures:

~ Shakespeare Wrote for Money (Nick Hornby)
I find The Believer insufferable so I don’t buy it—or read it. Otherwise I would have known that Nick Hornby had written his final column. I loved Hornby’s column, in which he details the books he bought and the books he read that month. He makes me laugh out loud. Thank goodness my friend Caryl forwarded the announcement for the third installment of Hornby’s collected columns, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, or I would have missed it altogether. I started reading it immediately.

~ Down the Nile: Alone in a Fishermen’s Skiff (Rosemary Mahoney)
Found browsing the latest arrivals at Sixth Chamber. Mahoney writes great travel memoir. Years ago I enjoyed Singular Pilgrim.

~ Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq (Rory Stewart)
Last year, I lost myself in Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between and added Prince of the Marshes to my TBR list. I also found this browsing at Sixth Chamber, a secondhand store where publisher’s reps and reviewers unload their comp copies, which means I always find newer releases.

~ Monsters of Templeton (Lauren Groff)
Recently release in paperback. Here’s an anecdote that falls squarely in the Like I Need an Excuse category: After an outing at Common Good Books, where we exercised great discipline and bought nothing, husband and I compared notes about which books interested us. We have wildly different tastes in books so I took it as a sign that we both noticed Monsters of Templeton. A sign that I should return to the store and purchase the book as soon as possible. And so I did.

~ Love Sucks (Christopher Moore)
What can I say? I listened to The Stupidest Angel around this time last year and thought it was clever and funny. When I found Love Sucks on a 50 cents cart at Sixth Chamber, in very good condition, it was hard to say no, even though this will become an instant shelf-sitter.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


In all the excited anticipation of the National Book Award announcements yesterday, I plum overlooked Margaret Atwood’s birthday, which was Tuesday, November 18. Belated Happy Birthday!

Here’s the Writer's Almanac tribute:
It's the birthday of novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, (books by this author) born in Ottawa, Ontario (1939). Her father was an entomologist who spent every year from April to November studying insects at a forestry research station in Northern Quebec. Atwood said, "At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown." She had no access to television or movies, and few children to play with. So she spent her time exploring the woods and reading.

Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, came out in 1969. It's about a woman who finds that she can no longer eat after her boyfriend proposes marriage. Atwood is best known for her novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), about an imaginary America where religious fanatics have taken over the government. The book became an international best-seller.

The first Margaret Atwood book I ever read was The Handmaid’s Tale. And it changed me. Memory fails me: I’m not sure if I read it in college or shortly thereafter—a fact that is surprising to me considering how this book and author became such a defining part of my budding feminism. I could easily spend the rest of the day, and well into the next, digging through journals, consulting with my friend Caryl (who, I am certain, is responsible for recommending Atwood), until I pinpointed the exact moment when I made contact. Suffice it to say, Atwood is a crucial part of my reading history, not just for her novels’ themes but also for her confident style.

After Handmaid’s Tale, I gorged on a rapid succession of novels and story collections, including Cat’s Eye, Bluebeard's Egg, Wilderness Tips, and Robber’s Bride, to name a few, and I have engaged in countless conversations about Atwood’s brilliance with anyone who would listen. A few years ago, Caryl and I saw Margaret Atwood speak and read through the Talking Volumes program, and she was amazing, her powerful intellect and poise radiating off the stage.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Atwood. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I abandoned The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake feels intimidating. But, there are plenty of early works I haven’t cracked yet, and, even though it's not on my annual reading list, I feel a re-read of Handmaid’s Tale coming on...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

National Book Award winners announced

Just a few moments ago, Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country was awarded the National Book Award for fiction. Typically, I would have learned this information tomorrow morning but in our present, brilliant technological age, this news was transmitted via Twitter, appearing instantaneously on the National Book Award's website.

Other winners include Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello in the Nonfiction category, Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied for Young People's Literature, and Mark Doty's Fire to Fire for Poetry.

Matthiessen's Everglades trilogy has been on my TBR list since Killing Mr. Watson was published in the 1991, and I harbor a fantasy of reading each volume separately, then tackling the one volume Shadow Country. Oh, a girl can dream, can't she?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

currently reading

~ Summertime by Raffaella Barker
In this sequel to Hens Dancing, author Raffaella Barker continues Venetia Summers’ story, picking up the fairytale ending wherein our heroine gets the guy. Now Venetia’s boyfriend David is away in the Brazilian rain forest for work. The long distance challenges their relationship as does Venetia’s technophobia (i.e., impossible for her to email him) and bad phone connections. The wedge is driven further with the appearance of a new bachelor neighbor. Can't you see where this is going? Hijinks ensue. Not just with the neighbor either—Venetia has three very active children, including a four-year-old spitfire, simply referred to as The Beauty. There’s the ex-husband, his wife, and their twins; Venetia’s wild brother, newly settled down with a wife; and their eccentric mother, prone to drinks at any time of the day.

Here's one of my favorite passages because of the way it sums up Venetia's little family. She has taken her children—Felix, Giles, and The Beauty—"camping" (they're staying in a rustic cabin on a remote island):
We have become savages in less than forty-eight hours. The Beauty has gone back to nature in a big way and refuses to wear any clothes, just a pebble with a hole in it on a piece of string round her neck and a tea towel on her head. She has not used a knife and fork since we arrived here, which save on washing up but adds to her cavewoman demeanor. I think she has also forgotten how to speak, as all I have heard for a day now is high-pitched squawking as she emulates the gulls, or roars of rage at Felix, who keeps trying to remove her tea-towel hat. He and Giles are halway through the standard summer holidays malaise. This is the same every time, no matter where we are or with whom, and involves a week of whining "I'm bored" and "I hate you" at everyone in their path. There is usually a bit of fighting too, and The Beauty, who likes to be part of everything, has taken to pulling their hair if they sit down anywhere near her. Torpor is a big part of the daily routine, so being here and not having to wash is great, while not being able to watch television is truly ghastly.
I read Hens Dancing over the summer and found it very entertaining. Barker presents a fresh voice in the chick lit genre—one British blurb compared the story to Bridget Jones "cooled out" and grown up. Both of the novels were written as a journal, which I like even though the narrative thread is sporadic. As a result, it takes a lot to hold my attention so I’m still reading Summertime months after I started it. It's so easy to set down the book after a few journal entries and not feel very compelled to pick it up again. With fewer than thirty pages remaining, the end is in sight. I think we’re meant to root for Venetia and David as a couple, even though David isn’t much in the picture, and Venetia seems to get on well enough without him in her life. I suspect—but have no evidence—that we’ll have a happy ending.

~ Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith
Last night, I devoured the first forty pages of Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, the follow-up to The Sunday Philosophy Club. In no time at all, I have refamiliarized myself with Isabel Dalhousie, the star of this character-driven, Edinburgh-set detective series by Alexander McCall Smith. As a philosopher and the editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics, Isabel has the luxury of devoting vast swaths of her day to moral dilemmas. Not so much a mystery, but possessing an occasional drama, this series offers a welcomed coziness as we head into crueler fall days.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Through November, I am participating in a forum-sponsored "spooky reading" challenge, tackling mysteries, horror, or any other suspenseful book. The challenge is pretty flexible. One of the titles I selected was Stephen King's novella The Mist. I was lucky to find this stand-alone, movie tie-in edition because the story collection, Skeleton Crew, in which the novella was originally published, is rarely available at my library's branch.

I read for the first time twenty years ago, on one of the long rides from my parents' home to college. For a long time, I thought I remembered the plot, but thirty pages into the story, I realized that none of the details seemed familiar. Turns out I really only carried with me the setting and atmosphere. Creepy enough.

Last week, in the days leading up to Halloween, I started my re-read. The story starts innocuously enough by introducing the main characters (David), his wife (Steph) and son (Bill), and his neighbor (Norton). The story is set in Maine, the coastal part of which is notoriously foggy. When a major thunderstorm hits David and Steph's home, knocking out powerlines and downing trees, David and Norton, along with Bill, head to town for supplies. David, Steph, and Norton have all noticed that the attendant fog is denser than usual—something about it is "not quite right."

At the Federal grocery store, all talk turns to the weather. From the large windows that front the store, the characters can't even see cars in the parking lot. When customers leave the store, they disappear into the thick mist. And then the customers who are still in the store begin to hear the screams from those who have unwittingly walked into the deadly parking lot. The survivors, of which Dave estimates there are about seventy, barricade themselves in the Federal and hunker down for the duration. Much drama ensues—darkness falls, monsters emerge, numerous battles are waged with monsters, blood is shed, alliances form, allusions to witchcraft are made, theories are formed about where the monsters came from, and daring escape is hatched. The end.

At first, I found the characters annoyingly stereotypical (macho men, codependent young women, and cranky seniors). Building the suspense is the one thing King did so well in this novel. Perhaps that statement is a big Duh since he's built his reputation on the suspense. Oh, and his monsters, many of which are predicated on superstition or on the unknown, are pretty scary. My husband was out of town when I read it. As I turned off lights before going to bed, I found the house disconcertingly dark. When the monsters struck, every sound in my house had me cowering in a corner.

Those things considered, I was thankful to have committed myself to a short King novel—have you seen the size of The Stand? Overall, I wasn't as impressed as I have been with other things I have read by King. Undoubtedly, I was less well-read and more impressionable when I gorged myself on King as a teenager. But I do think King has a genius way with short fiction—Different Seasons, three stories from which were filmed to great acclaim (e.g., "Shawshank Redemption") comes to mind. And the audio version of Night Shift, with stories read by Matthew Broderick, kept me company on the endless drives across Nebraska during my rep days. I had high expectations for more of the same in The Mist. However, this novella felt like a synopsis for a screenplay. It neither as concise as other King short fiction I have read, nor as well-developed as a full-length novel.

It was entertaining and a worthwhile read for the fun of spooking myself silly around Halloween. Also, I will probably never view foggy days in quite the same way. For a while.