31 July 2009

July Book Report

Not a bad month, book-wise. I found a lot of things I wanted to read during a couple of library visits, which I like when I have not actually decided whether or not I want to "commit" to actually buying the book! I actually had one book (The Historian) that took a long time to get through, because it was involved in time period, plot, history - well, just about everything!

But here, if you are interested are my thoughts on the books I read in July.

Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery. Last year, I joined an online group reading the Anne of Green Gables series. I read Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, and loved them both, but didn't get to the third volume until now.

In this volume, Anne Shirley (the heroine) is a college student at Redmond College in Nova Scotia. Some of her friends from home are also attending school there, so she is not totally on her own. The book covers the years of her schooling there, and as in the other books, has her thinking her always dramatic thoughts, feeling everything very deeply, and making some new friends. The tales of her returning home to visit Marilla and the others are bittersweet, since you know that her childhood days and experiences there are not truly over, but new adventures await her. She and her childhood pal Gilbert Blythe (also at Redmond) have some misunderstandings, which are fortunately resolved by the end of the book.

One of my favorite things in this book is the part when, during a visit to a schoolmate, Anne returns to her birthplace, and finds the house where she was born. The woman living there currently remembers her parents, and gives Anne some letters of theirs that she found when she moved into the house. She also tells Anne where her parents are buried, so Anne has the opportunity to visit their graves. She remarks to her friends after these events that she is no longer an orphan, since she has found her parents, and now has some of them with her. The story is told in such a touching but happy way, that you feel very happy for Anne.

My favorite of this series of three books is the first, when we first meet Anne, and find out about her personality and mishaps when she first arrives at Green Gables. But the second book and this one keep the character true, and provides the chance for the reader to feel like Anne is a real person, not some fictional character who will forever be a child.

The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. I had been wanting to read this book for a while, and snapped it up during my last visit to the library.

The story deals with the family of Towner (Sophya) Whitney, who can all read the future by study patterns in lace. Towner returns to her home town of Salem, Massachusetts, to grieve when her great aunt Eva is found dead. The story is complex, and is told from differing perspectives, so that you are not sure who to believe. Especially since the first lines in Chapter 3 are: "My name is Towner Whitney. No, that's not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time."

There is a lot going on in this story, with each character that is introduced actually playing a real part. There are flashbacks and dream sequences, all written in a fairly straightforward, but still mysterious fashion.

I liked this book, even if sometimes I wanted things to move a little faster. But the author takes her time, and in the end I thought it was worth it.

More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin. I truly love Laurie Colwin, and was personally devastated when she died in 1992. I've read all of her books, and though this one is not a work of fiction, it is every bit as wonderful as the others.

The book is a series of essays Colwin wrote for different publications about food and cooking. It's a combination of stories, recipes, and life lessons, all told in her incomparable style. She writes like someone who is your best friend, and maybe doesn't live nearby anymore. It's like she is telling you what's been happening with her and her family since you last talked.

The recipes that I have tried are all really good, and for the most part, very simple.

I so wish she was still around to write more. But what she left is definitely better than nothing!

Murder Melts in Your Mouth, by Nancy Martin. This was a great book to read for pure entertainment! I was not familiar with this mystery series, but I saw this book at the library, saw that it took place in and around Philadelphia, and decided to try it.

The main character, Nora Blackbird, and her sisters Libby and Emma, come from a well-to-do family. Their parents, however, have bilked friends out of a lot of money, and are on the run from the Feds.

In this installment, a major philanthropist is found dead in front of his office building after jumping or having been pushed. The office is one that belongs to Nora's lifelong friend, Lexie, and Nora begins to investigate to see if she can clear Lexie's name.

I won't go further into the plot, but this book was really pretty amusing, with lots of over the top characters, and a few plot twists that kept it going. I will definitely look for others in this series.

No Place Like Home: A Novel, by Mary Higgins Clark. Another Mary Higgins Clark book, and another enjoyable read! This is the story of Celia Nolan, born Liza Barton. As a child, Liza accidentally killed her mother when her stepfather was threatening them both. However, even though Liza was found not guilty, everyone in the community felt she had done it on purpose, and they have nicknamed the family home "Little Lizzie's Place," referencing Lizzie Borden.

Years later, as an adult who was adopted by relatives and going by the name Celia Nolan, she finds that her [relatively:] new husband has bought her a new house for her BD - but it turns out to be the old family home! From the first day they move in, strange and unpleasant things begin to happen, and Liza begins to suspect that someone knows her true identity.

The story moves along pretty well, and once again there are plenty of characters that you suspect right from the beginning. Towards the end, I thought I had an idea of the "villain" but couldn't figure out how it would have worked. So even though my guess was partially correct, I would never have gotten to the details in my theorizing!

The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel, by Maureen Lindley. I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those books that everyone else will rave about, and I simply thought was OK ...

Which is not to say it wasn't interesting. This is the story of Princess Eastern Jewel, whose father was of the Qing Dynasty in China, and whose mother was one of the father's concubines. The book begins in Peking, in 1914, when 8-year-old Eastern Jewel is caught spying on her father and a servant girl having what is politely referred to as a "liaison." She is banished from the family, and from China, and sent to live in Japan with a powerful family. They change her name to Yoshiko Kawashima, and though she is not really treated as part of the family, she is included in most of their lives.

As she becomes older, she completely falls in love with her adopted country, and begins to consider herself Japanese. Her adoptive father arranges for her to marry a Mongol prince, against her will. After a brief marriage, she escapes and the rest of the book recounts her adventures for the next 40 years or so.

There is a lot of talk about sex and sexual activities in this book. Eastern Jewel/Yoshiko is obsessed with sex from a young age, and sees every male she comes into contact with as a potential sexual conquest. She makes very few true friends, and of all of her sexual partners, feels anything serious for only two of them. She uses sex as her tool to gain power, and for the most part, she gets what she wants.

She serves as a spy in China for Japan in 1931. Her first assignment is to spy on her cousin, the deposed emperor Pu Yi (of "The Last Emperor" fame). From there, she becomes more and more enmeshed in the Japanese spy system. Then in 1945, when the U.S. bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki, her world starts to unravel. She is arrested by the soldiers of Chiang Kai-Shek and sent to prison in Peking. In 1947 she is found guilty of spying on China for Japan, and is sentenced to death, which occurs in March 1948, when she is beheaded.

The entire time I was reading this book, I couldn't decide how I felt about Eastern Jewel/Yoshiko. She didn't appeal to me at all, and seemed completely amoral most of the time. She had expectations that people should treat her well, yet did not feel the need to reciprocate. I found her exploits to be pretty amazing, and the descriptions of life in China and Japan were very engrossing.

This book is based on an actual person, Princess Eastern Jewel, but is a fictionalized account of her life. It's a page turner for the most part, but I doubt much of it will stay with me.

Under This Unbroken Sky, by Shandi Mitchell. I had an Advance Readers' Copy of this title, so thought I'd give it a try. The basic story happens in the 1930s. A family who has emigrated from the Ukraine and are homesteading in Alberta, on the Canadian prairie, see their father who has been imprisoned return home. During his absence, his wife has done a good job of holding the family together, but they are terribly poor, as are his sister and her family who live nearby. The sister's husband is a drunk, abusive, troublemaker who has periodically disappeared for months at a time.

This was a hard book for me to read. Not because it wasn't well-written, but because of the extreme hardship that daily life was for the characters. Every time they seemed to make some progress, something got in the way. I have no way of knowing this of course, but I am guessing that it is a fairly accurate description of life for non-English homesteading immigrants.

I thought the book was very well done, as most of the characters seemed real, and the descriptions of place and events made you feel like you were actually observing everything from a place where you couldn't be seen.

I think this book was a good one, but if you are not a fan of stories where struggles are not tied up neatly at the end, I would suggest that you don't read this. The ending is as messy, vague, and frustrating as real life can be.

Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter, by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. I know I'm probably in the minority here, but this book just didn't do it for me, like it has [apparently:] for a lot of other knitters. I didn't even finish it, to be perfectly honest.

It wasn't awful, and some things did make me laugh or smile, so I'm not saying it is a total waste of time. It's just that I find a lot of other knitters' blogs to be more interesting, and a lot funnier than this book. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's blog itself is often better than this book. I know it's the first one she did, so maybe if I had read it when it first was published, I would have appreciated it more.

I will likely take a look at least one of her other books, just for the sake of comparison. But honestly, I have no desire to finish this.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. Well, before I even started reading this book, I got unsolicited opinions from everyone who knew I had it on my "to read" list! Then once I started reading it, I realized that no one I spoke to included it in any "gray" area of reading - they either really liked it, or really hated it.

I spent the last two weeks of this month working my way through it, and I am one of those who liked it. Yes, it was long, and there were times when I did keep reading, but I had no real idea of what was actually happening. But it kept me engaged enough to finish it, and I'm glad. If nothing else, because it re-convinced me that someday I would love to visit Istanbul and Budapest. But also because I don't have a lot of knowledge or background about vampires and their legends. For instance, I had no idea that Dracula was a real person! This book provided me with a lot of information about that, while also filling me in on a lot of history that was more or less skipped over in my schooling.

The story is about a group of people interested in the legends and actions of Dracula. It is quite convoluted, and I would not be able to give you any kind of coherent summary of the plot, so I suggest reading that elsewhere, such as on Amazon.

The book interweaves time periods and characters, and the primary characters all have interesting relationships not just to each other, but to history itself. For the most part, I was able to keep up, but a few times, I got lost in an awful lot of minute detail that didn't seem necessary.

One thing that struck me was that I kept hearing about the book, and how "creepy" it was, or how it gave some people nightmares, because of the vampire stories, etc. I was slightly worried about that aspect, since I am a chicken at heart, and scary things scare me most at night. For whatever reason, though it was terribly creepy and frightening when I was reading it, none of that stuck with me once I would put the book down. (Maybe because I spent most of my time reading it in an abandoned prison?)

I can't really say whether or not I would recommend it to friends or family. It does seem to be a book that causes strong feelings, though, so be aware if you decide to read it - you'll hear everyone's opinions about it, sooner or later!

Two Sweaters for My Father, by Perri Klass. I received a signed copy of this book from a friend a couple of years ago, and only started to really read it now. I was familiar with Perri Klass, having read some of her essays in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, as well as pieces published in some of the more consumer-oriented medical journals. But until I saw this book, I had no idea she was a knitter!

The essays are all enjoyable reads, and short enough that you can read several at one sitting. She talks about knitting as a way to stay awake during med school classes, or while waiting for patients to come back from tests, etc. There are also stories of things she knitted for family and friends, and the feelings that she experienced (not always noble) as a result.

The thing I liked most was that the pieces are written as if she is talking to you - there does not seem to be any special agenda behind them, or any look-how-great-I-am feeling. They are just stories about knitting, and one person's experience.

One of my favorite things was in a story about how knitting has suddenly become "hip" and how Hollywood actresses have made it a desirable way to spend time. In one of her "Letters from America," which were published in Rowan magazine in 2003 and 2004, she writes:

"And maybe more than anything else, I love the idea that someone might see me knitting - in a crowded airport lounge, on a bus, in a doctor's waiting room - and wonder whether I am in fact a famous movie star (or perhaps the whole point of being a famous movie star is taht you are never in a crowded airport lounge, on a bus, or in a doctor's waiting room)."

Isn't that the truth!

Anyway, if you enjoy knitting, I think you would enjoy this collection. The writing is intelligent but friendly, knowledgeable but never preachy, and I think it is worth sitting down for a while with a cup of tea and reading at least one or two of the essays.

Since a lot of these were books borrowed from the library, one or two may be ones that The Tim is interested in reading, and there were some others that I have already given away, I have only one of these books to pass along at the moment, The Yarn Harlot. Leave a comment by the end of the day on Wednesday, August 5 if you are interested.


Maureen said...

That is one full list of books! You've been a busy reader.

Lots of interesting ones in there I'd like to look for in the (air conditioned) library up the street.

Tracy said...

I've always loved the books of L.M. Montgomery... Anne of Green Gables was a childhood favorite if mine...and still is! Lots of great reading here...many to add to my reading list. I hope to post my own book report next week...I'm just behind on writing it up...LOL! Happy weekend, Bridget :o)

Lorette said...

Nice reviews! I love the Anne series, though I haven't read them in years. The Historian is one that is on my "to read" list. I have it in an audio book version, but I've found that I don't enjoy long complex books in that format, so will probably hit the library for it.

Oh, and you can leave me out of the book give-away, I already have that one.

Anonymous said...

I had wondered about "The Lace Reader" --- couldn't quite see how looking at pieces of lace would make for a speedy read. . .

Carrie K said...

Mary Higgins Clark actually scares me. I read something of her years and years ago and couldn't read another. Yes, I'm a wimp.

I think I'd agree w/you about The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel so thank you for the review.

Channon said...

I had bad dreams for ages after The Historian... I'm a wimp too!

Lynn said...

I agree with the Harlot's books. The only one I really liked was Knitting Rules. However I LOVE her blog and I do want to get her calendar.

Chris said...

I liked The Historian. You are not surprised. :)

I already have the YH book, so no need to enter me.

Marie said...

It's always interesting to me to read about what you've been reading. You read a lot more than I do. The Historian sounds engrossing, but I don't think I want to read anything that long and involved. Keep reading!

knitseashore said...

I'm envious of all of your reading time!

Thank you for your review on the Perri Klass book. I'd seen it before in the bookstores but never gave it any real consideration. After reading your review, I'll try to find a copy. I'm finding lately that I enjoy essays more and more.

No need to add me to the YH contest. I do have that book, and may yet offer it on Book Mooch for trade. I liked it, but wouldn't read it again.

Lorraine said...

Bridget- Did I ever tell you about the time I went to PEI, and all the tourists were going crazy, pointing at "Anne's House"- when I slowly realized they though she actually existed!

And btw- you're NOT in a minority!;-)