03 May 2009

April Book Report, Part 1

Well, I figured out how to get the text to cut and paste from Microsoft Word into Blogger, though I've never had to do it this way in the past. However, since it worked - and I don't have to re-type things - all is well.

One of the best things about my current job, is that when if it's not busy during the weekdays, and you are not stationed at two of the initial contact spots for visitors, you are allowed to read! (Yes, it would be nice if we could knit too, but I'll take what I can get ...) There were a couple of weeks at the beginning of April that were pretty chilly, and unendingly rainy, so it was a good month for reading! I finished twelve books, and rather than have an extremely long post, I decided to do Part 1 and Part 2.

So without further ado, I give you my April Book Report, Part 1:

Knitting Bones, by Monica Ferris. This is one of the series of needlecraft mysteries featuring Betsy Devonshire, the owner of Crewel World, in Excelsior, Minnesota. I received this particular title a few years ago for Christmas, and forgot I even had it.

In this installment, Betsy is asked to investigate the disappearance of a local businessman who was last seen at a national needleworkers’ convention, accepting a large check resulting from a fundraising idea by the Embroiderers’ Guild of America. However, Betsy has suffered a broken leg, so her store manager must follow her instructions/directions to try and track down the solution.

These books are not necessarily all that involved or even necessarily realistic. I will admit to liking them for their descriptions of the town of Excelsior, and for some of the “extra” characters introduced in each story. In this particular book, Betsy is also allowing her apartment to be used temporarily to house a wild crow who is being rehabilitated, and moved to another location. This amused me, for whatever reason.

In any event, it’s a nice way to spend a few hours of reading, when you are in the mood for something that is neither too involved nor too serious.

Educating Alice : the Adventures of a Curious Woman, by Alice Steinbach. I received this book from a friend who read it and thought I would enjoy it. I really did! Alice Steinbach worked for approximately twenty years as a reporter for a Baltimore newspaper, and as part of that job, traveled all over the world. Though she enjoyed the work, she found herself at a point in her life where she longed to be more on her own, not tied to a specific job, but still able to write. So she resigned/retired from her reporter’s job, and set out “to travel around the world as an informal student, taking lessons in such things as French cooking in Paris, Border Collie training in Scotland, traditional Japanese Arts in Kyoto, and the architecture and art of Havana.” She freely admits to venturing into these fields not to become a professional, but to “add little bits of knowledge here and there to what I was born not knowing.”

The best part of this book is the author’s voice, and her willingness to admit that she struggles – and sometime just completely does not comprehend – some of the things she has chosen to do. The writing is conversational, with the typical asides and segues that occur when friends are talking. I enjoyed her descriptions of places and people that she met along the way, as well as finding out about the topics she chose to study. If you enjoy reading about other people’s travels, I think you would enjoy this book quite a bit.

Ex Libris : Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman. There are few things I enjoy as much as coming across someone who not only loves reading as much as I do, but also words and language. This is a collection essays by Fadiman, detailing her childhood in a family of readers and language fanatics, her obsession with proofreading anything she comes across (it’s apparently a family trait), the “marriage” of hers and her husband’s libraries, and passing on her love of books, reading, and words to her children. Though only 162 pages, everyone one was enjoyable.

Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym. This is the second Pym book I have read (the first was Excellent Women), and I liked this one much more than the other. Jane is a country minister’s wife, who met Prudence, who is younger and single, when she was her tutor at Oxford. Prudence is adjusting to life in a new village where her husband has taken the pulpit. She is completely flummoxed as to how one makes her way among the people she finds are her neighbors. She also worries about Prudence, who works as a “research assistant” (Pym’s quotes) for a doctor in London, who, at the beginning of the book, is Prudence’s latest lover (according to Prudence).

What I enjoyed most about this book was the internal observations and thoughts of the characters. Jane’s struggles to fit in with the church members is comical and sad at the same time. She also appears to be scattered sometimes, and on those occasions the reader can feel both her sensibilities as well as the reactions of those around her. Prudence and her many love affairs, as well as her feelings about the people around her, give you a glimpse into the life of a young single woman who seems as interested in having fun as settling down.

In one chapter, we are meeting a man whose wife recently died, who is now playing the role of abandoned widower, when in fact, he had one affair after the other while his wife was alive. This passage amused me in particular, talking about how Constance (the wife) would often invite the mistresses to visit:

“She had even invited his loves to the house for week-ends, and two women sitting together under the walnut tree, having long talks about him, or so he had always imagined, had been a familiar sight when he happened to be looking out of an upper window. In reality, they may have been talking of other things – life in general, cooking, or knitting, for the loves always brought knitting or tapestry work with them as if to show Constance how nice they really were.”

If you enjoy social commentary as part of a fictional character, I think you would really enjoy this book.

Different Seasons, by Stephen King. First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a fan of Stephen King. I watched a dramatization of one of his stories as a TV miniseries, and was truly irritated by the end that I had lost those hours out of my life for no good reason! True, I enjoyed the movie “The Shining,” but in general, I’m not a big horror story fan, and Stephen King himself annoys me for reasons that make sense only to me …

I made the mistake of mentioning this one day at my new job, and one of my co-workers brought in Different Seasons for me to read the next day. She insisted that I read it, saying it was not the “typical” King fare, and would give me an idea of just what a great writer he was. I decided to give it a try, so that a) I could say I gave him another chance, and b) to see if maybe I would find another author whose work I enjoy most of the time.

This book consists of four novellas: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption; Apt Pupil; Fall from Innocence; and, The Breathing Method. Out of the four, I have to say my favorite was the first one. I have not seen the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” (though it is now in my Netflix queue), so I really didn’t know the story. But I found it to be well-written and interesting, and the fact that it took place in a prison made it even more interesting to me, given my current job as a tour guide in an historic prison.

Apt Pupil is also well-written, but it is truly one of the most disturbing things I have ever read, period. Though I wanted to read it through, it made me uncomfortable the whole time, and once I finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for almost a week. It’s the story of a relationship that develops between a smart, curious young boy from a well-to-do family, and the neighbor that the young boy has discovered used to be an officer in the Nazi prison camps. I won’t say much more, except to say that it is very dark and very troubling.

Fall from Innocence is the story that forms the basis of the movie, “Stand by Me,” and though the movie was fine, I felt lukewarm overall about the movie and the story. Maybe just because the coming-of-age stories of young boys don’t appeal to me all that much.

The Breathing Method just plain irritated me. The story of a mysterious “gentleman’s club” where stories are told by the members seemed like it was just trying too hard. And the particular story that is the subject of the title was so over-the-top, I wanted to personally call Stephen King and tell him how I felt.

In conclusion, did I give him another chance? Yes. Did I find another author whose work I enjoy most of the time? Nope. I will grant you that some of the writing was impressive and the stories could be absorbing, but King will have to rely those other than myself for his livelihood.

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, by Harriet Scott Chessman. I remember reading a review of this book when it was first published a few years ago, and thinking that I really wanted to read it. Then I promptly forgot all about it. So when I was at the local branch of the public library trolling for titles and saw it, I happily grabbed it from the shelf.

A work of historical fiction, Chessman has created a small, intimate look at a three-year period in the life of artist Mary Cassatt (called “May” by her family) and her parents and older sister, Lydia. During the time, they are living in France, and Lydia has been diagnosed with Bright’s Disease. The relationship between May and Lydia is a close, sisterly one, as well as one between an artist and her favorite model.

The book is divided into five parts, each one relating to one of Cassatt’s paintings featuring Lydia as the primary subject/model. The story is from Lydia’s perspective and is at times happy, sad, passionate, and frustrated. She knows that her disease has no cure and will likely kill her, but her family – at least in the beginning of the book – goes out of their way to ignore this fact. By the end, Lydia shows us how she has discovered that May realizes the end is near, and what she is doing to make sure the world never really loses her.

I found this book really enjoyable, which is I’m sure partly because I am a fan of Mary Cassatt. But more than that, Lydia’s story made Mary seem like a real person, and likewise, the relationship between the two of them reminded me that people in paintings are/were not static figures from the imagination of the artist. They were real people who walked, talked, ate, drank, etc., and are captured at a moment in time, or in the created surroundings of the artist.

It was also interesting to hear the characters talk casually about artists such as Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Edouard Manet. Like the people in their paintings, I often forget that the painters were real flesh and blood as well.


Chris said...

The Monica Ferris books are fun for their descriptions of Minnesota! She does a good job with Excelsior.

Marie said...

Educating Alice sounds like a book I'd like to read. Thanks for the suggestion.

Lynn said...

I enjoy the Monica Ferris books, they are a nice easy enjoyable read!

Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

What a cool perk that you can read when it's not busy! I'm not familiar with any of these books ~ your taste in reading is usually very different than mine. I'm not thrilled with my current book but it's well written and just when I think I'll toss it aside there will be an amazing passage that really takes we away, so I plod on.

Brigitte said...

OK. Now, there's one thing we don't have in common - I LOVE Stephen King. *sigh*

Yes, his books can be disturbing, but he really does a great job at stuffing a good dose of human nature into his horror. No matter the topic, I always come away thinking not of the monster that lurks in the evil old house, but of what I would find myself doing if I were in a situation where I'd have to "fight...or flight".

Anyhoo. Being a bit too cerebral for both 8am, and Stephen King. :D

Quilting Mama said...

Oh I wish I could read what I want at work! Alas "they" wouldn't be pleased or entertained.

Shawshank is the only Stephen King I have read and enjoyed. Love the movie too.

Thanks for the additions to my reading list, especially the Mary Cassett book.

Lorraine said...

Bridget- I am a King fan as well, but I admit to not liking some of it. Bear in mind, The Shining was very unlike the book- and it was remade for TV, which was excellent. Alot of the films are not true to the book.

And The Breathing Method, grossed me out- I read Different Seasons when it came out.

Carrie K said...

Jane & Prudence sounds interesting. I'm not a huge King fan but he does have his moments. He OWES me for using my name. Srsly. Harumph.

The Monica Ferris books are cute. Too bad they decided to start issuing them in various sizes and covers because I got lost as to which one was next.

Anne Fadiman has the best essays.