Sunday, March 1, 2009

HIGHLIGHTS FROM 2003

HIGH MAINTENANCE Jennifer Belle: I have now read this one twice and loved it both times, especially after going to New York City (June 2003) and eating dinner at the main character's (and surely the author's) favorite restaurant in Greenwich Village -- The Olive Tree on MacDougal Street, pictured above! The street and the restaurant were exactly as she described, and our waitress informed us that Belle is often there in the afternoons working away on her laptop. Too bad I didn't catch a glimpse of her and get an autograph -- maybe next time!

A FALSE SENSE OF WELL BEING Jeanne Braselton: Good but not great; however, the title itself is truly inspired!

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE: From my perpetual reading list. I'm glad to have given this novel a try at last; however, nothing beats his short story "The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother." I finally started ONE HUNDRED YEARS out of sheer guilt for never having read it in college, despite having carried it around with me for what seems like a Hundred Years (ha!). I read the first 100 pages and the final 100, skipping out a couple hundred in the middle. I think I got the idea. It's like the expanded version of the kids' book HOLES (Louis Sacher), complete with curse, ruined generations, ultimate resolution. We all (me, Gerry, Ben, Sam) enjoyed HOLES a few years ago but haven't seen the movie version yet.

OVER SEA, UNDER STONE Susan Cooper: very highly praised by CHINABERRY (Book Catalogue for Kids). But I found it to be a disappointingly average rendition of all the other fantasy quest books that there are to choose from.

BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS Dai Sijie: very charming and clever, full of little surprises; a touching and ironic look at the so-called cultural revolution.

FALLING ANGELS Tracy Chevalier: a lot of good ideas and obviously tons of research, but what a soap opera! And again I was left the same feeling I had after PEARL EARRING that somehow the book should have been better than it was . . . maybe in this case, better organized.

SECRET LIFE OF BEES Sue Monk Kidd: excellent story of Bee Keeping and the Virgin Mary. I laughed and cried all the way through. I thought it just got better and better. I shared so many of Lily's thoughts and her realization that you have to look into your heart and be your own saviour, your own redeemer -- and you have to keep on doing it repeatedly, not just as a one-time gesture. If only you could just once and for all axe out all the bad old memories and hurtful negative thoughts; but, no! It's such a struggle having to force all of the old useless and inappropriate baggage back into perspective time and time again. Sigh. Definitely worth re-reading. (But don't bother with her nonfiction: DANCE OF THE DISSIDENT DAUGHTER, a few eye – opening moments but mostly behind the times.)

THE LEMON JELLY CAKE Madeline Babcock Smith: short & sweet & All-American; a good one to read on Memorial Day or Independence Day! I thoroughly enjoyed the old-timey setting and all the food descriptions, though I was a bit scandalized by the hints of adultery! I guess just because they were the "good” ol day's doesn't mean they were steeped in innocence . . . that's just a post-modern fantasy that it comforts us to believe in.

FRIENDSHIP CAKE, for awhile there, I mistakenly merged this title with LEMON JELLY CAKE -- but, no, they are two different novels! After reading one, I felt I just had to read the other!

GOLD COAST Nelson De Mille: macho thriller -- not usually my type, but Gerry recommended this one. It's a 1990's Mafia look at the world of the GREAT GATSBY and all the decaying mansions on Long Island that are being replaced by contemporary subdivisions. I enjoyed all the GATSBY parallels and the descriptions of the big old houses, and the social commentary on rich vs poor.

HOW TO BE GOOD Nick Hornsby: Charmless, humorless novel with incredibly unlikable characters who are very self-involved despite their so-called "good works" (for the wife Katie, being a national health family doctor; for the husband David, having a spiritual conversion and giving away his family's worldly goods). They are both almost completely negligent of their children's needs and unbelievably immature; and even worse is David's so-called spiritual healer named "Good News," if you can believe that! Difficult to imagine characters any more obnoxious than these. A far cry from ABOUT A BOY (which was tres charmant!).

PATRON SAINT OF LIARS Ann Patchett: Just wish I'd read BEL CANTO first. These characters are so dead - pan, I don't feel much inspired to read anything else by her.

JUNO & JULIET Julian Gough: took me right back to all those seminars in Irish Lit!

THE MAMMY Brendan O'Carroll: what a touching story. Gerry read all three volumes of the trilogy and so did his dad. I'm still hoping to pick up 2 & 3, at my leisure one day. The movie version, entitled AGNES BROWNE, starring Anjelica Houston, is wonderful, as is the soundtrack CD -- perfect for the car.

POLLY Mrs. L.T. Meade & MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH Alice Hegan Rice: Two vintage classics that made their way into my life for the first time.

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Misc. by genre from 2003, 2004 & 2005

KIDS' FICTION, includng many recommendations from my nephew Daniel, who is an expert in this genre); these were all new for me -- no re-reads!

TIME CAT Lloyd Alexander: flying cat teaches world history -- cute!

DON'T YOU DARE READ THIS, MRS. DUNPHREY Margaret Peterson Haddix: Kind of a GO ASK ALICE for Junior High readers but without the tragic substance abuse.

GO ASK ALICE: Okay, this one was a re - read, but I'm including it here in this section of the list to go along with DON'T YOU DARE. Ben was reading it for the second time, so I took an afternoon to re-read for the first time in a million ages. It was as sad and scary as ever but seemed less like a "real diary" than I remember and more like cautionary advice from a worried adult author.

LITTLE WOMEN NEXT DOOR Sheila Solomon Klass: historical fiction RE the Alcott Family.

THEN THERE WERE FIVE & SPIDER WEB FOR TWO: A MELENDY MAZE Elizabeth Enright: these novels follow up THE SATURDAYS & THE FOUR STORY MISTAKE, big childhood favorites of mine, which I read aloud to the boys back in Philly. We all love them, but Sam is the one who forged ahead to finish the quartet and inspire me to read them as well.

THIMBLE SUMMER Elizabeth Enright: her prize winning title (I had never read before) but not as good, if you ask me, as the MELENDY series.

GONE AWAY LAKE & RETURN TO GONE AWAY: more resourceful kids and big house renovation. Fun.

CARRIE'S WAR Nina Bawden, a British evacuee story of a displaced brother and sister; contains a mysterious Jane Eyre kind of subplot.

RACHAEL FIELD'S HITTY: HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS, condensed by Rosemary Wells & beautifully illustrated by Susan Jeffers. The circle of life -- doll continually lost, continually adopted by new, loving owner. In a similar vein, see THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE Kate DiCamillo

MOLLY'S MIRACLE Linell Nash Smith: this one was a re-read, but I include it here with the vintage titles. I fell in love with this book (about time travel and a miniature Eohippus who comes to live in the 20th C) when I was in the 4th grade and have been trying to track down a copy ever since. Finally succeeded with the help of amazon used books. Turns out the author is the daughter of Ogden Nash. Who knew?

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Re - Reads

NANNY DIARIES Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus
PLEASE TRY TO SPEAK AS WE DO Marjorie Leet Ford

For some reason, felt compelled to re- read PLEASE TRY TO SPEAK. It seemed quite different this time, after reading NANNY DIARIES (twice) and PERFECT ARRANGEMENT, yet another nanny novel (once). Melissa (PLEASE TRY) is like Nanny -- but way moreso -- in her utter fascination with and idolization of Mr. H - E. Please! How good can he be, in relation to his wife's wickedness? Also, I can see that despite Mrs. H - E's hatefulness, Melissa really wants to be liked by her . . . just as Nanny wants Mrs. X. to "choose her." Somehow I had remembered PLEASE TRY as being better written than I found it the second time around. I distinctly recall comparing it to NANNY DIARIES and saying that PLEASE TRY was the better written of the two . . . but this time I'm finding them both to be of a similarly average quality. In fact, I think I'd say that even more than NANNY DIARIES, PLEASE TRY feels like the author's rough draft . . . with various memorable (to her, anyway) events and comments pulled out of journals and letters from her year abroad and meshed -- not at all seamlessly -- into the semblance of a novel. Maybe I'm just being hard on Marjorie Leet Ford as a way of torturing myself with my own long - harbored fear that if I wrote a novel, this is what it would seem like. Have yet to re-read PERFECT ARRANGEMENT but have a funny feeling that Suzanne Bern is the most accomplished writer of these three.

I'm wondering if Leet Ford has been a linguist or special language teacher, considering her in-depth focus on Claire's speaking issues . . . the various shapes of the lips, tongue, etc. required for pronounciation? Also, I keep thinking of the PERFECT ARRANGEMENT nanny (Randy?) and her obsession with being the ONLY ONE who could get through to the little autistic boy (Jacob) . . . similar to Melissa's certainty that she's the best thing that has ever happened to Claire. In PLEASE TRY, I had forgotten about old Nanny and what a piece of work she is.

GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE Susan Vreeland
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING Tracy Chevalier

Two things inspired me to re-read these titles: first was visiting the Metropolitan Museum and also the Frick Collection (where I had never been before) to view eight different Vermeers (5 at the Metropolitan, 3 at the Frick) and bow down in homage. Although I didn't feel that PEARL EARRING & HYACINTH BLUE were the greatest books ever written, they did lead me to a much greater appreciation of these paintings than I would have had otherwise. I will say that upon first reading, I was impatient with HYACINTH BLUE because it turned out to be a series of related stories, whereas I had been expecting a novel proper; but the second time through I was much better able to appreciate the singular loveliness of each story as well as the way in which they weave into each other.

Second was watching the movie version of both novels. (HYACINTH BLUE was re-titled BRUSH WITH FATE, starring Glenn Close, who directed / produced or whatever and gave herself the part of the opening narrator, who, in the book is a man.) Remember Scarlett Johansson starred in GIRL WITH PEARL EARRING, also going to star in NANNY DIARIES!

MAMMA MAKES UP HER MIND & SLEEPING AT THE STARLIGHT MOTEL Bailey White: wacky travel essays and off – beat observations, easy to pick up and put down whenever time allows for a wry moment.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: I'm so glad that I re - read the book last spring when Ben was reading it. I had forgotten . . . or maybe had never realized . . . just how excellent it is. Can you believe . . . it was Harper Lee's first and only novel? Sigh. I also read THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER around the same time that I first read MOCKINGBIRD (1974 - 75) and maybe once again in college, but it would be good for me to read it again now (and get Gerry and Ben to read it).

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History: American, British, European, World

SIXPENCE HOUSE
BANVARD'S FOLLY
NOT EVEN WRONG
THE TROUBLE WITH TOM

all by Paul Collins: These will stretch your mind. When it comes to historical research, Collins runs neck in neck with Bryson!

WASHINGTON SCHLEPPED HERE: WALKING IN THE NATION'S CAPITAL by Christopher Buckley: perfect for airplane reading if you're on your way to Wash DC, or perhaps as a follow - up to your trip. I read it in just a couple days and learned a lot of U.S. history, even though Buckley couldn't resist bragging about being a Republican (after all, he is the son of the late Wm F Buckley, Jr.), plus the occasional sexist innuendo that I could have done without.

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