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15 December 2012

'The Hobbit' by J.R.R. Tolkien

"My kind of hero"

What great fun this book is.  'The Hobbit' has a fantastic sense of adventure.  Some of it is tongue in cheek and obviously amused the author.  Lucky it amused the reader too.  Much has been written about this book and I have avoided reading most of it.  I so like it, just as it is.  I think Tolkien would prefer people to appreciate his hobbits and their friends based on their own merits and not judged by what came 30 years later.  As sequels go, 'The Lord of the Rings' is not only separated by time (as we usually view it) but by 30 years of study.  And not just any student, but an Oxford scholar.  Most of us do not want to think that a man may well mature, learn and grow a life time's worth in only 30 years.  'The Hobbit' is written by a man who had, still, a young man's sense of adventure and young children at home to admire it, even if they did not go far physically.  A dragon at the Bottom of the Garden can be just as scary as the dragon of the Lonely Mountain.

What I especially like about this tale of adventure is that humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits all have good and bad qualities, sometimes in equal measure.  No square jawed, noble hero to guide and protect here.  It is the actions of the characters that define good or bad... the lessons learnt.  This being a tale of dragon and treasure, greed is an important theme.  The elves themselves are not above greed.  Bilbo, our unlikely hero (burglar), is a little wiser than even he would acknowledge about himself.  What I mean is that he does not long linger on bad deeds or dark thoughts.  I can see here the inner strength that Gandalf so admires.  I feel that hobbits have an inner cup that tells them how much is their true measure out in the world.  Bilbo seems to understand what his share is in this world and not just in treasure.  He listens to this inner voice and ultimately avoids the temptation of dragon treasure.

It is not a bad thing to make mistakes, to have suspicions or even to be greedy.  It is not evil to fall into sin.  It is evil to stay there.  Bilbo Baggins picks himself out of these moments and lifts his companions out as well.  My kind of hero.

J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 9780345339683

08 December 2012

To Fiction or Not to Fiction

"If the eyes are the windows to the soul then fiction helps us interpret what we see there"

 I have several friends who work.  They take the time to read in their free time, though not exclusively. Some of these friends love to read fiction. What I don't understand and my friends either, is why they have had to defend their choice of books. In other words, they have been told that fiction is a waste of time, it is escapist and does not contribute to mind, society or family. That's an interesting point of view and I am not making it up.  In one case it was a colleague/friend and in another it was a close relative. My friends read for professional purposes; so they do not neglect one for the other, nevertheless, they have been told  that reading fiction is wasteful and jejune. Moreover there is the implied slight to house wives that they have the time to read fiction, but not working women.  As if housewives sat all day doing their nails, but that essay is for another blog.  So how to reply to the Non-Fiction Union?

I read fiction and non fiction. I read almost every genre except for romance because the writing is often too predictable. To me the magic of fiction is that fiction gives the opportunity to take all these non fiction theories, ideas or studies to their logical and sometimes crazy conclusions. That goes for all non fiction topics; law, every branch of science, politics, history, archaeology, etc...

Have you read 'Brave New World', 'Fahrenheit 451', '1984', 'Never Let me Go'? All fiction about the future. Terrifying and some of the stuff in those books has already become true. But fiction does not have to be depressing either. Fiction teaches us about ourselves by mirroring our inner selves. Non-fiction can describe action, reaction and consequences. Non-fiction can try to interpret from observation, situations like a war or a legal process but non-fiction cannot venture inside the heart. Fiction puts soul back into science.

A book like 'The Secret Garden' about children and for children is lovely in that it shows children in vulnerable positions.  To overcome this vulnerability it validates children's strength, independence... power. The book talks to children about fears that they experience even if these fears are not part of their individual realities. The fear of abandonment, death, rejection, illness and otherness are addressed. A child may live in a comfortable home with loving parents and still have these fears. People who champion non fiction forget that most of our lives are in fact lived inside our own heads. Perhaps I could go the way of philosophy and argue that the lives we think we lead are fiction.  Good fictional literature addresses  these fears in a safe, cathartic environment, or not, depends on the point of the book... I mean 'The Silence of the Lambs' is fantastic but not the kind of fear I had ever entertained.

Fiction also entertains. Entertainment is important for our mental and physical health.  In the end of ends, one person who does not enjoy reading fiction does not negate the value of fiction for others. I do not enjoy golf. I have tried it and came away with many intense headaches. Gazing into the blinding distance in the sun for several hours is not my kind of activity, but others are welcome to enjoy it. Many husbands who do not read, do play golf for many hours each weekend, instead of spending time with their loving wives...

If the eyes are the windows to the soul then fiction helps us interpret what we see there. Charles Dickens changed the attitudes of an entire society about poverty and children in particular. He did not like what he saw in the eyes of the workhouse children.  His works of fiction reshaped attitudes and planted the seeds of social conscience that grew along side the industrial revolution and expanded in the 20th and 21st centuries. Religion did not accomplish this and scientific books recording the plight of the poor, of which there were many in the same years, did not accomplish this either. Imagination and creativity spoke to the hearts and minds of people.

Before there were enough literate people to give books the direct power they now have there were oral stories. Many of these were indeed fiction. Someone made them up to explain, defend or entertain and then passed them on to a new generation to retell. The human mind developed the ability to exists in different worlds (some call it imaginary) even if these different worlds were in the next valley over. Some of these modern worlds include the office, the supermarket, the nursery and the in law's home. Other worlds include Middle Earth and Pemberly, or heaven save me, the world of 'Never Let Me Go', so close to our own I can almost touch it and it is not a pleasant experience. To exist in different worlds is to expand the mind. Non fiction does this as well, but not in the same direction and not to the same depth. Non fiction draws a picture, fiction gives it color, depth and emotion.  

04 December 2012

'The Father Christmas Letters' by J.R.R. Tolkien

" To write your letter to Santa is important, but to receive a reply..."

I received this lovely book several years ago as a Christmas gift.  I was in my Tolkien mania and BPR would buy me any Tolkien stories he could find.  Yes, he is a sweetheart...not allowed to called him Honey, though.  The book includes most of the letters received by the Tolkien children over 20 years.  Tolkien had four children, three boys and a girl.  He obviously loved them very much.  Sweeter proof cannot be found than these letters from Father Christmas.

Tolkien wrote in various scripts and even invented languages, for which he is famous, to his children in the name of Father Christmas.  I can almost see the excitement in their home.  To write your letter to Santa is important, but to receive a reply, is better than most gifts.  The letters are humorously decorated with pictures that depict the adventures in the letters.  It is a lovely detail, as Father Christmas notes in one of his letters, not all of the children in the house could read yet.

My children were still young enough to enjoy being read to back then and that Christmas I read them this short collection of letters.  We still pick up the book around this time of year, place it on the coffee table and page through it with something festive to drink.  Polar Bear is still the favorite character, what a master of mayhem.  Father Christmas sometimes sounds a little too wise and Polar Bear keeps him young, I suspect.  The letters include the topics that Tolkien enjoyed, calligraphy, invented languages as well as story telling with elves, goblins and snowmen.  They are intimate at the same time.  He wrote them for special children.  The love shines through.

J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 9780261102552

01 December 2012

'Sea of Ghosts' By Alan Campbell

Fantasy books entertain me.  I enjoy them, deep or shallow.  I am often satisfied when there is a new twist to magic or an addition to dragon lore.  This book, though, holds several surprises.  The poisonous, ever rising seas and the nature of its poison is fascinating.  It mirrors our own dirty rising seas but this fantasy ocean has the good grace of being polluted by none humans.  The mystery and the tragedy of the drowned still haunts me.  The drowned (as the creatures who exist in the poisonous seas are called) become a character, a force in themselves and have the potential to be the danger or the salvation no one sees coming.  Campbell's world is unique and interesting.  All his details fit neatly together and it is obvious that his back story is well thought out in order to give his book depth.

The story is complex, but told in such a way that I want to stop and enjoy the scenery.  I want to know more about every detail.  There are magical books I want to explore, sources of strange magic, enslaved addicted dragons, different races, cruel telepathic women (this theme is the exception to the joys of this book, it is getting old) and obviously soldiers in vain, wasteful wars where our hero learns his martial skills.  The main protagonist, Thomas Granger, is refreshing in being ugly and pragmatic with firm principals. Thomas Granger is a balanced man in a cruel, corrupt world.  He is not moral per se; he will steal if that is what he needs to do.  By balanced I mean a man who's strengths and weaknesses are not always on hand to the reader or to himself.  Nevertheless, he is on the look out for his own weaknesses and hopeful in his search for strengths; such a man is Thomas Granger.  He is a great deal of fun to read.

The end of the book was satisfying and a cliff hanger at the same time.  This is important since the full title of the book includes the words 'The Gravedigger Chronicles'; so this is book one. I am tired of picking up trilogies and chronicles that a good editor could have turned into one or two good books.  Campbell made a compromise.  I am glad and will try to find the next book.  I like Thomas.

Alan Campbell
ISBN: 9780330508780

25 November 2012

Rereading and My Library

I now have over 1000 books, which is not bad, if I consider the financial limitations of the first few years of young marriage and parenthood.  I look forward to acquiring several thousands more.  Amongst them are some I have not read.  I look at them fondly because I know I will someday.  As for the rest, I often reread books.  I can go back to happy places, exciting, dangerous, ancient or imaginary places.  Every time these stories are familiar and new.  I can visit brilliant conversations and enjoy the scenery all over again.

The second and third readings are especially delicious because I notice details that were not obvious the first time.  To read a book ten years later is to read a new book.  I am cursed with the memory of endings, unlike BPR, but my view point and experiences in the mean time add fresh twists to the understanding of the book.  There are the books that I reread once a year, these include 'The Lord of the Rings', 'The Book of Tea', 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Please Don't Eat the Daisies'.  Why I go back I do not know, maybe it is seasonal, or maybe it is because we all have friends and like good friends, we want to see them again.

Sometimes, I read a book again around the time I want to share it with my children.  I did this with Sherlock Holmes before giving the book to my son.  My daughter is reading 'Life of Pi'.  She saw the previews of the film and thought it looked cool.  I gave her the book and this morning she opined that Pi is an idiot.  Last week Pi was clever on account of what he did with his name.  I hope to read the book again once she is done with it.  My children like it when I say "Oh, I read that at your age."  They open up; Ask questions that would be awkward with "I" or "me" in them... Last night, on a long drive home, my daughter and I had a serious conversation about 'The Outsiders' which, I too, had to read in seventh grade.

Familiar books are soothing when I am stressed.  Books are often the cure to a horrible day with a cup of tea.  Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Okakura, Isabel Allende, Fannie Flagg, J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, Jean Kerr... I could keep going. I reread all the time while reading new books.  'The City and the City' by China Mieville has been calling recently,  I think it is time to visit that strange place again.

None of this would be possible without my books at home.  Libraries have opening and closing times as well as other patrons.  There is a limit to how many books I can lift in one go or even check out in one go.  Though I must write that those difficult years mentioned before were made bearable by a lovely local library one passage away. I can underline cool bits and stick book markers in different places.  I can enjoy them over and over again.  Some would argue that a tablet is better for my purpose but on a tablet I do not own the book.  I pay for the privilege to read X book on their tablet.  This is a privilege they can take away and per the very small print, they are not obliged to tell me why.  Should my tablet fall in the bath tub, it is apparently, my problem and I have to procure a new one or lose the books,  should the software change radically as happens faster and faster these days, or the new and improved tablet make mine obsolete then I have to go shopping again.  Tablet makers are in the market to sell tablets, not books.  If 'Pride and Prejudice' falls in my bath then all I need is a blow dryer.  The only tablet plus I can think of is that it makes reading easier for my mother when her eyes get tired in the evening; she can opt for bigger letters.

There is the satisfaction of owning books.  I can pick one up on a sleepless night, read my favorite chapter and put it back, no need to check if the batteries are charged.  Books add warmth to a home.  I always notice when there aren't any and I somehow feel suspicious of the inhabitants of said home.  "We have no time to read."  "My wife doesn't like to read."  She does like it when they both watch tv together, if he reads, he is "ignoring" her.  A house without books feels like a hotel room to me... no personality.  Several persons of my acquaintance are not allowed to keep books at home.  If one book comes in another must go out.  It is pointed out that libraries are to keep books.  I have noted that the enforcers of these rules are not readers themselves and only tolerate the time their partners read, if at all. I never had this discussion with BPR.  When he met me, I was surrounded by books.  I could not afford to ship them to Europe, where we eventually settled 17 years ago so I set about buying books to make a home.

Yes, there is time to cook or garden or read or whatever you love to do with and without your family.  If you happen to have a garden at hand or an excellent kitchen, that is all to the good, so why not books at hand to reread?  Books remind me that I never stop learning, even from the same book.  Books leak (the Librarian at Unseen University would agree) knowledge and perspective and often change my life in magical ways because of it.

22 November 2012

'A Blink of the Screen' by Terry Pratchett

I did not know what to expect when I bought this book.  I had not read Pratchett short stories before.  Fortunately, I was surprised and entertained in new ways.  His personal comments before every story showed his vulnerability as an author.  It seems he is never satisfied, which is well and good. I like a writer who wants to improve himself but he is still sending stories out into the world with a very English "hope for the best but expect the worst" attitude.  No cockiness anywhere.

The start was perfect.  An unadulterated story by a 13 year old Terry.  His first story published.  My daughter perked her ears up at this and laughed right through it.  I smiled and thanked the universe that adults in his world encouraged him.  From then on the stories were new and familiar all at the same time.

"The Glastonbury Tales", a poem about picking up hitchhikers to Glastonbury was funny, and dare I write the word?... cute.  At least that is how his naive passengers seemed to me.  As for the bewildered, patient, atheist driver, well his generosity and patience speaks for itself. Granny Weatherwax is one of my favorite Discworld characters.  I haven't seen her in a while so it was a relief to read of her troubles at the top of the non-existent ranking of witches.  But, one of my favorite stories was "The Hollywood Chickens".  Fantastic imagination, who else can get into the mind of a chicken? Or wants to?  Once I figured out what the chickens were in fact, up to, I realized that you cannot go against your nature.

I recommend this book to those poor souls who have resisted Pratchett thus far but want to briefly see what all the fuss is about.  Anyone who likes Pratchett probably already has this book.

Terry Pratchett
ISBN: 9780385618984

18 November 2012

'The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack' by Mark Hodder

"Exciting, clever, fun, fast paced and inventive"

Weird this.  BPR found this book and thought I would like it.  I started it and then stopped.  I was distracted by other books.  I think.  I picked it up again a week ago and did not put it down.  It was exciting, clever, fun, fast paced and inventive.  A good, entertaining read.  Why then did I put it down?

I think I have mentioned before that Melville was one of the most boring authors I was obliged to read in university.  I did not want to know the provenance of every item a protagonist picked up.  Flash forward a few years later and I need to read in peace (i.e. an escape), because of a (finally) napping baby but I have nothing to read.  'Moby Dick' is on the shelf.  Inward groan, but I pick it up.  I laugh and laugh.  The whole scene at the sailors inn and the decision to sleep or not to sleep with the harpooner is one of my favorite literary scenes.  I was so impressed with the book that after I finished it I researched sperm whales as well as modern fishing and whaling.  Super cool, I understood the book, finally captured a sense of Captain Ahab as he is envisioned by his author and I laughed.  Great book, naturally a classic... so why did I not like it before?

One of my theories is that books come to me when I am ready to read them.  By ready I mean mood, experience, timing... you know, life.  Some books are life changing.  'The Book of Tea' by Okakura comes to mind.  Other books are humorous if you get the joke, Terry Pratchett needed a couple of attempts before it clicked.  'The Strange Affair of Spring-heeled Jack' has a great deal of action as well as a complicated plot in an unfamiliar/should be familiar setting.  Two issues come to mind when I think about last week.  First, it was a quiet week.  I had the time to concentrate and stretch out on the sofa.  Second, because it was such a quiet week I needed some excitement, if only vicarious.  Otherwise, my life outlook has not changed so much in the six months since BPR gave me the book.  What I mean is that Melville and Pratchett and several others were reintroduced to me after I had had some life altering experiences.  Okakura was a life altering experience.

Other readers of my acquaintace shrug their shoulders and say "I was not in the mood" or more often, "the book didn't grab me".  I disagree.  It is not the wrong book, it is the wrong person (or state of mind) for that book.  Books, well written books, are always ready for an audience.  Well written books can be reread.  It is often the audience that is not ready for a book.  This theory has compelled me to pick up books that I have put down, sometimes years later.  I am often very glad I did.  Mark Hodder has done a wonderful job.  I look forward to meeting him again.

Mark Hodder
ISBN: 9781906727208

14 November 2012

'Ash' by James Herbert

"War criminals, nazis, a pedophile bishop, terrorist priest, aristocratic murderer, aggressive lesbian nurse, massive spiders, murderous cats, paid assassins, illegitimate children, legitimate shameful children, etc, etc..."

I have never read anything by Herbert.  It turns out he's written many "chiller" books.  I chose 'Ash' because Halloween was all around us and this looked appropriate.  It had a haunted castle, mysterious organization, handsome tortured hero named David Ash. It's a good name.  The beginning, the set up, as it were, is promising.  A dying castrated, bloody, levitated body is always a good start.  A hired medium that dies of fright is good too.  Then I hit a problem, or several problems and these problems make me laugh; as any Hogwarts alumni will tell you, laughter is the cure and the shield to fear.

The problem is that once the first monster appears, they keep appearing.  No chance to ponder with horror the levitated, bloody old man surrounded by black orbs.  That is at least supernatural.  The castle's legitimate inhabitants are monsters from our nightmares too.  There are war criminals (named and notorious), nazis, a pedophile bishop, terrorist priest, aristocratic murderer, aggressive lesbian nurse, massive spiders, murderous cats, two paid assassins, illegitimate children, legitimate shameful children, etc, etc...  Eventually, the supernatural manifestations are a relief.  All the monsters and nuts living in one castle in Scotland with genteel dinners and walks on the lawn, well, all I do is laugh.

I think the author wants me to believe that like attracts like and that is why so many monsters live amongst monsters.  But, my gut tells me that Herbert (perhaps unconsciously) thinks the inhabitants deserve the haunted castle, which is why I (the reader) do not care much what happens to any of them.  Perhaps if the hauntings of the castle feature more and the inhabitants less or the residents are more sympathetic, then I would be afraid for them.  Chilly, it is not, but it is entertaining if not in the way the author intended.  David Ash, tortured soul that he is, does his best to bring some reason to the bizarre circumstances and the narration.  I like him and I am curious about what he can accomplish if he is allowed to do his job.

I have to get someone's opinion who has read more Herbert in order to compare because I am not impressed.  I like many of the ideas in the book, only it is too many ideas in one book.

So who does scare me?  Stephen King scares me.  John Ajvide Lindqvist so scares me. Go on try them...

James Herbert
ISBN 9780230706959

11 November 2012

'Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History' by Alice T. Friedman

"Some of the 20th century's most popular and influential architects were not far seeing when it came to women as clients"

Too many independent books stores are closing these days.  I picked up this book in a lovely shop in the center of town.  About 3 years ago they were in trouble because they could not compete with Amazon.  They stayed afloat with old books, second hand books.  They closed because they cannot compete with ebay.  I do like to browse and these stores carry books beyond the usual commercialized best sellers.  Without this book store I would not have run into this gem.  The title alone was interesting, the book itself and the houses are impressive.

The book is a "social and architectural history" with a concrete twist.  All the houses described in the book were commissioned by women or by families where the women played an unusual role.  The 20th century brought many changes to how women viewed themselves, spent their own money and chose to live.  It is a natural extension of a new identity that the houses women commissioned would have several breaks from the way men built homes.  Women use their homes as men would use a conference room.  To women the community begins with the family, but does not end there and these homes often reflect the larger role women wish to play.

Some of the 20th century's most popular and influential architects were not far seeing when it came to women as clients.  I was at times shocked by how Frank Lloyd Wright treated a client by misrepresenting her character to bolster his own reputation at a point in his career that no longer needed it.  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was even nastier.  He created a famous glass house for a female client that put her on show.  There was by design no privacy or even the option to invite a guest because he assumed a single woman would have no guests.  Yes, it was a glass box but what Friedman does is contrast this glass house to another famous glass house of the time that solved the issues of privacy and the right to intimacy (the owner and architect, Philip Johnson, was gay).

All is not moaning about men though.  The house that Robert Venturi built for his mother is unique and intellectual, yet sensitive to his mother's wishes and habits.  My personal favorite is the Constance Perkins house built by Richard Neutra.  He built this house on a tight budget.  What he delivered is the result of listening to an intelligent client.  The house is perfectly suited to her life socially and privately.
The essays are intelligent and well researched with exhaustive bibliographies.  I learnt too much to describe here.  Different houses are discussed along with their social context and of course female inhabitants.  The essays are not overly long and now that I have read all of them once I can go back to individual houses and reread.

Alice T. Friedman
ISBN: 9780810939899

10 November 2012

A Family Amongst Books

I feel privileged to live in a home where everyone likes to read.  My husband and both my children usually have a book going that is not tied to school or work.  There are books in every room in the house and next to every bed.  And all this within sight of Mac, iPad, and iPhones.  I am a sceptic of people who assert that modern technology discourages people from reading attentively and for pleasure... Good, I have all that out of my system...

My personal irritation is book choice and recommendations.  It is rare that any of us read the same books.  The exceptions being His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and Harry Dresden... Strange but true.  You see with everything else we differ.  Maximum one other person will pick up the same book.  BPR (Beloved Proof Reader) can occasionally be bullied into taking a book with him but won't finish it.  My son will a. ignore me; b. read and groan about it; c. distract me by pointing out a different book he is reading already.  My daughter is much more straight forward, she ignores me and reads what she pleases.

Curse them!

I want to share, talk, gush about books.  My view of ideal family life is to sit around the dinner table harmoniously talking about books... cue my son... "Mom, you're such a nerd".  Book or reading clubs are out of the question.  Reading choices are not my own, or heaven help me, picked by Oprah.  Then we have to discuss.  Some people enjoy the direction and format of the discussion.  Others point out that they get to read books they would not have otherwise read.  I do not like polite book dissections.  I studied English Lit. and have become allergic to reading circles.  As for reading choices, I pride myself on reading pretty much anything and everything.  There is no such a thing as a topic or genre that I would not have read.  There is merely opportunity, mood and money.

So here I am begging my family to read a book I have enjoyed.  My results are mixed:

Neil Gaiman - success
Jasper Fforde - fail
Terry Pratchett - both
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - success
Jane Austen - fail

I could keep going and I do, much to the irritation of my son who feels compelled to at least reply.  This is how he found himself reading 'Kafka on the Shore' by Murakami this past Summer.  My daughter continues to ignore me...  But all is not as pathetic as it seems.

You see there is magic in discussing books with family members, especially if our tastes are so different.  There is no need for formal statements, logic or even politeness.  They already know how smart or stupid I am and can grasp any idea in flight rather than me having to explain myself in detail with impressive vocabulary.  Whether they like the idea or not is an entirely different matter.  The discussions are honest with no need to be politically correct.  There is passion and frustration and love and maybe a good bottle of wine and loads of treats.  Maybe it is a good thing these family talks don't happen often, we'd all be exhausted.  Nevertheless, books or films shared let me learn about unknown sides of my family.  We invent a family language together.  Inside jokes are created and key words or terms can bring smiles to all our faces weeks later.  Yes, I wish it happened more often, but I am grateful it happens at all.

06 October 2012

'The Dirty Streets of Heaven' by Tad Williams

Exciting, full of action and humor ... and trouble

I've come to that point in my life; everything I read reminds me of something else.  This is not a bad thing when it reminds me of something good.  Bobby Dollar reminds me of Harry Dresden.  Both these characters have the amazing ability to spot trouble and immediately make it worse.  This quality they share has nothing to do with super powerful beings in books; it is a quality inherent in being males, which is probably why it is so easy to suspend my disbelief.  Please bear with me on this...

I have a relative who tried to fix the plumbing in the kitchen by sawing through a pipe. His idea was that he would cut out the leaky portion and try to glue the two smooth portions together.  His wife went to have a quiet coffee in the living room, secure in the knowledge that she was going out for dinner, probably for a few nights.  He knew ahead of time that his approach was not likely to work.  He felt that action, any action, was better than paying a plumber first.  Another male of my acquaintance often tries to put furniture together or install software without reading the instructions (incomplete information).  He insists that logic will get him through and his favorite complaint is "this doesn't make sense!"

So you see where I am headed with this?  Take a powerful being (but not the biggest fish in the pond) and give him a super problem, missing souls instead of a leaky pipe, and set him lose in the kitchen or city of your choice.  The whole approach is so consistently masculine and, yes, endearing.  I flinch every time Bobby decides to put his foot in it.  The most desirable partner for such a man is obviously a she-devil, as are all wives one way or another from a man's point of view.

The story was exciting, full of action and humor.  The universe Tad creates stays consistent which is important with so much action and unknowns.  I kept reading all day... I was laughed at by a friend when she terrified me in my car (waiting for kid X to come out of sport Y).  I did not put the book down until I was done.  Alright Tad, I am persuaded to hunt some of your other books down until I get to hear more of this fun angel.

Tad Williams
ISBN: 9781444738551

03 October 2012

'Dodger' by Terry Pratchett

 'Dodger' put me in a 'Nation' state of mind

Once upon a time, Discworld novels were humorous jewels I read on an annual basis.  For a while I read them on a quarterly basis when I realized I was so far behind.  I caught up...  These are the books that B.P.R. (Beloved Proof Reader) resigned himself to purchasing on hardback, freshly pressed, as I would not wait for paperbacks.  Then one day I received 'Nation' and it was wonderful, even with an obvious lack of space turtles and patient elephants.  'Dodger' put me in a 'Nation' state of mind.

Anyone who has read previous blogs knows that I applaud Terry's enthusiastic treatment of muck.  He doesn't tire of this disgusting topic and neither do I.  As I reflect on my reading preferences I realize I can and do tire of gore.  Those kinds of books make an appearance well separated by other books and topics.  Muck, richards, sludge, slime, urine (horse, don't ask) and sewage are so much more entertaining with the right author.  'Dodger' sets out to entertain and, I suspect, remind us of how far we have come and how far we have to go in our big cities.

Something else comes to mind...  You know gentlemen of a certain age "pass gas" without realizing or do so because they are now old men and can do as they please.  Well, I wonder if some of Terry's current interests are not the literary equivalent of this attitude.  He is indeed an experienced writer of a certain age, rich and can now write what he pleases....

The story itself is fun and full of icky thoughts.  And I don't mean the obvious ones when you are in a sewer but more along the lines of the difference between 'truth' and 'facts'.  I liked the idea of Charles Dickens as an intelligent, observant, slightly dangerous character pointing out the strengths of people's beliefs as opposed to facts.  Dodger, the hero, knows what he likes, knows how to survive and like a true "geezer" knows how to pick his friends... which brings me to Sol.  Sol or Solomon Cohen is my favorite character.  I was happy to see a character that balances or addresses prejudices put forward by a certain famous book quite close to our current object.  Sol is a gentle, grateful, educated, cautious and thoughtful man.  He also has a sense of humor and a smelly dog.  Every book needs a smelly dog.

The bad guys I will not discuss in detail because they seem to represent concepts rather than pure individual, unique badness.  There are, of course, the usual suspects, unsavory, violent and cruel but these guys were tools used by others.  Society itself, vested interests, war mongering, social snobbery, poverty, lack of education, politics and the status quo were the real bad guys. It is probably easier to give someone a nasty scar, a silky cat and lots of missiles then to point the finger at your own governments for the unfairness of a short, dirty life.  'Dodger' points the solution towards individuals and not to believe everything you read ... I wonder if he is trying to tell us something?

Terry Pratchett 
ISBN: 9780385619271 

26 September 2012

'Down Under' by Bill Bryson I need to visit Australia

I am suspicious of those quotes on book jackets... you know the ones, "riveting", "engaging","best one yet".  I can only think of one occasion when the quote and the name by the quote encouraged me to buy a book.  But never mind that, as to this particular book, the quote said "funny as ever".  I hoped so.  I read the book because it was there.  By there I mean covered in dust under my husband's nightstand.  My son had brought the book from school, certain chapters were required reading (astonished? I was).  The rest of us had not touched it and so it lay.  I vacuumed and dusted and thought "ok, a travel book, why not?"  I don't read travel books unless I'm certain I am going somewhere.  Travel books are not entertaining, I find them slightly pathetic without an actual destination.

Bill Bryson is fortunately in a league of his own.  He travels.  He does not take careful, anal notes.  Instead, he experiences, blunders, learns, discovers and finally makes readers like me laugh out loud in public places.  His dry humor gives the aridity of Australia a good run for its money.  Bill put me in mind of Terry Pratchett's 'Lost Continent' (which is not about Australia).  Any moment I expected to find Death (Terry's DEATH) propping up a dusty bar in the outback Bill was exploring.  There are so many painful, unexpected, horrible ways to die inAustralia and Bill Bryson made me laugh about most of them; Death had to have been around trying to get the joke.

Bill's observations on local idiosyncrasies, politics and cricket give me glimpses of English speaking aliens.  My theory is that given their isolation and red dirt/dust/sand perhaps they are homesick colonizers from Mars.  The result of all this laughing is that now I need to visit Australia.  I need to rent a car with very good climate control.  And I need to try the beer ( yes, I know I live in Germany and beer here is the BEER but Australian beer sounded so good in Bill's book).  I need to vista Uluru and Perth and a crocodile park.  I will carry 'Down Under' with me like a treasure to bury in some desolate beach, provided the local inhabitant of a seashell doesn't kill me first.

Bill Bryson
ISBN: 9780552997034

15 September 2012

'The Prague Cemetery' by Umberto Eco translated by Richard Dixon

I always mean to buy a book by Umberto Eco.  It's been years since I read one of his books. I always seem to pick up something else.  Umberto Eco is everywhere so I keep thinking I'll come back for it.  On this occasion, I was in an unfamiliar part of town waiting for my daughter.  Around the corner I discovered a book store, rather like a parched wanderer discovering an oasis.  Hurrah!  They even had a book shelf full of books in English and not all of them were "best sellers" i.e. romance and crime.  I looked and looked.  You see my ability to read long novels in German is limited; I'm just too slow, slower than in Spanish even.  Not to say that I shouldn't read in German, but I am not always in the mood to commit.  Sorry, enough about book shops, I just get so excited in the environment of book stores. Even in memory...

I bought Mr. Eco with Mr. Dixon and got to work at an ice cream parlor (eating and reading).  How exciting to read a work so well researched.  In fact it is all research.  But, I'll get back to that later.  Umberto ('cause I feel I know him) can pick up a bunch of strings, apparently tangle them, do his magic and show me a woven cloth.  Then, on top of that and most unfairly, I think other writers will agree, he is also excellent at ambiance, setting.  I love stories that not only describe a dirty soul, but the dirt on people's shoes as well without taking my attention away from the story.  Those muddy shoes are a punctuation, an accent if you will, to the action.  19th century European cities were dirty places.  Lack of sanitation, lack of sewage pipes under the whole city, slums and horse "manure" made these localities odorous and filthy.

I should add in passing that 21st century cities are not always much better.  Where I live we still have to avoid horse manure on the side walks.  Years ago I saw St. Paul's Cathedral for the first time.  It was covered in what appeared to be soot.  Moreover, I had popped into London via the Underground (Piccadilly from Heathrow, change at Holborn to the Central line, two stops to St. Paul's) so my first smell of London was at the same moment I came up from the tube. It smelled of third world cities, diesel.  On a positive note, St. Paul's has since been cleaned and London buses have cleaner engines.

Back to Piemonte and Paris... Sometimes, no, most of the time it is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories, especially if they are all-encompassing and thousands of years old.  The bigger they are the more laughable but now I am worried.  Back to that "research" statement.  When I say it is all research, I mean that there is only one thing or person made up in the whole book.  Everything else happened.  Now we call it history.  But back then, they were called conspiracies.  In addition, we learnt history in such a segregated manner that even in our books we did not connect dots.  We studied a war, a revolution, a general but very rarely how these wars, revolutions and generals affected each other across borders and time.  50 years is not so long between Napoleon and Garibaldi.  Ok.  So lesson learnt?  But which of the many conspiracy theories that I can find within seconds are worth believing?  Clearly too much literature is giving me paranoia, but as the saying goes "Just because you are paranoid, does not mean they are not out to get you".

Umberto Eco
ISBN: 9781846554919

09 September 2012

Learning to read on Twitter

I have recently joined the mixed ranks of Twitter.  Mixed because there are so many kinds of people on it with different interests and so many kinds of companies trying to sell you something.  My favorite so far has been a tweet about how you can increase your audience on your blogs and twitter; for a mere 89.95 euros they will send you a whole article with fail safe tips.  The following tweet gave you ten tips for free.  I tried to link my two blogs to Twitter (Ex Libris Miriam and Atypical Miriam) and from there received many (who to follow on Twitter) suggestions based on book loving people.  It excites me and discourages me how many people review books, comment on books, sell their own books and generally disagree about books.

Honestly, I thought that I might be a unique though small voice out there...instead I am so small I may as well not exist.  As for my voice well I guess I am being extremely subjective and hope that someone agrees with me; God knows many disagree with me. Uniqueness lies in the eye of the beholder.  So many people are apparently "unpublished writers who do not suck" that I am beginning to agree with the old adage "inside every person there is a book".

Mind you, I have only been exploring the world of books.  God knows how many topics there are under discussion without the obvious "hungry" tweet with the usual photograph of dinner.  One night I lost at Scrabble, nothing unusual or shameful in it, but I was nonetheless feeling slow and ignorant.  I brightened up over a single malt scotch that BPR and I had bought to try out.  I did some twitting to the effect of "I"m soothing my pride with a single malt scotch...  Suddenly I was bombarded with twitter follow suggestions for whiskey lovers.  I do follow one now.  It was with great hope that I did several tweets about chocolate, you know craving, flavor and even a company I like (La Maison du Chocolat) and I received not one single suggestion for who to follow on twitter. Are the scotch drinkers more vocal than chocolate lovers?  Are they more tech savvy?  Are the twitter intrusive search engines not taking me seriously?  Weird and suspicious...

Twitter has amazed me and bored me by turns.  There are so truly witty and funny people out there who can convey their passions and wit in 140 characters or less, Stephen Fry comes to mind, but there are also some truly boring, lonely people as well who have nothing better to say than "bored", "hungry".  Then I go to the trends sections find the top ten trends include #DoYouRemember, #gofurther, #whatever and so on and so forth.  If people turn their twitter obsession and their time towards curing cancer and colonizing Mars, I would be able to book my tickets for next Summer in a cancer free world for my children.  World peace on the other hand is not going to happen on Twitter; too many people disgree with each other and read things that only confirm their own beliefs, moreover every single government agency with a computer in the basement is monitoring Twitter.  If they were ignoring it before the Arab Spring, they are not now.

Then, of course, there are the multiple types of slangs and abbreviations that people use to fit their thoughts into 140 characters.  These are also mixed with the slangs and abbreviations that are used by different sub-cultures and age groups as well as clubs, and special interest groups.  I currently receive tweets in three different languages and I alternate between feelings of confusion, paranoia and frustration.  Occasionally I get it and feel I'm in until I read the next retweet (RT) from my 21 year old sister.  I read out loud, sounding out the words trying different accents (Spanish writing in English or English writing in Spanish or Pocho) until I make sense of what is written... or not.  So far all this has been an education but here is the rub... at my age and given my limited time, is the slang used by my sisters' DJ friends worth learning?  I mean some comments are funny but I feel like my capacity to retain is limited or do I need to learn more about whiskies, new age writers and philosopher/comedians?

'The Language of Flowers' by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Say it with flowers

This book followed me around in hardback and then paperback for a long time.  Finally, at a bookseller's in France, I had no choice.  I bought it and read it with a chilled rosé.  The basic premise is that of the coming of age of an orphaned child passed around the social foster system in the States.  It was sad and enlightening; apparently the author based this part of her story on too much cruel reality.  The language of flowers that the protagonist learns and then reinvents gives her sadness and loneliness added depth, intelligence and hope.  When people no longer believe the words that come out of her mouth or the emotions she professes to feel, she still has a way to communicate, if only with herself.  I liked the ideas, the sadness, the hope and the redemption.

By the way, while reading this book I was surrounded by bougainvilleas and mimosas which mean "passion" and "sensitivity" respectively.  A colorful frame to a long awaited vacation.  And how romantic the notion of "saying it with flowers."  In the age of Twitter and emails, a thoughtful, meaningful bouquet is the ultimate sign of commitment and devotion.  Lawyers have made the written word absolute in communication but our original form of sharing ideas was speech.  Created from flesh and breath, it was set free to the air.  It is an ephemeral way  of inventing, sharing and loving.   Flowers can be a happy in-between; they last longer than spoken words but not as long as a letter or emails.  You can always change your mind.  An email is forever as many politicians and journalists have discovered.

Flowers are always welcomed at my home. If I understand your message then it is all to the good and if I cannot then I appreciate the gesture anyway.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh 
ISBN: 9780330532013  

31 August 2012

'The Thief' by Fuminori Nakamura translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

This book read like stream of consciousness Japanese style.... 

And like stream of consciousness there is no real beginning and no real end.  As I closed the book, I felt like it was an introduction to a much longer book; maybe a combination of 'The Brothers Karamazov' and 'The Count of Monte Christo'.  I mean, the book is that good but also quite short.

I cared about the protagonist and found tragedy in his story and pathos as well.  He had warnings and opportunities to turn back from seeking an old friend but decides to continue.  One of the nastiest characters I have come across, ever, speaks to our protagonist of fate or Fate.  He does so rather with glee, as he considers himself master of fate.  He divides the world into people with power who can control fate and "slaves" who's life is already written out.  But I am not convinced that fate is necessarily the culprit of the protagonist's situation.  The speech by the antagonist is too neat and too cynical (if there is such a thing as too cynical).  It makes fate "the usual suspect"; I think it is a red herring.

A man makes decisions, as a result good or bad things happen to himself and others.  Fate precludes choices... the choice is predetermined and so it is not a choice at all.  The protagonist from the beginning claims to have made certain choices that brought him to where he is.  Another man claims to manipulate those choices, so he says he controls fate.  But all he holds is the power over life and death... and that is not the same thing at all.  Death is the only fate because we all die, so in that sense it is just a matter of time.  How a life is lived cannot be completely predetermined, regardless of what a powerful antagonist thinks.   The argument for a predetermined life is the boast of a powerful, bored man.  I think he wants to convince the protagonist that fate brought him to where he is.  Maybe he wants the protagonist to give up his will and truly give in to fate as defined by the antagonist.  The protagonist did not think of himself as a victim or carried along by fate. Even in the end he continues to make choices and fight.

On a less serious note, I have learnt more about pickpockets than I care to know.  For example, I did not know there is an ideal length to the fingers on your hands for this 'art'.  Moreover, given that pros work in teams, I am now much more paranoid than I used to be in airports and train stations.  Oh, one more thing, from now on I keep a look out for ambidextrous people i.e. one of my relatives and (ironically) a Japanese friend I use to have...

Nevertheless, for such a short book, quite a bit is discussed.  I feel like there is more, much more to know.  I hope Fuminori Nakamura keeps up the good work because I am eager for more.

Satoko Izumo
ISBN: 9781780339139

27 August 2012

'I Still Dream About You' by Fannie Flagg

Too many years ago, I saw a lovely movie titled 'Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe'.  The book was promoted around the same time and so I read it.  Through the years since, I have continued to read Fannie Flagg.  Recently, I hadn't seen anything new though and was getting worried.  Then I spot it while book hunting for a friend.  'I Still Dream About You' is a sweet story about a life worth living and of course, tied to this question, a dream worth pursuing?

Fannie Flagg loves the American South.  All the contradictions, genteel traditions and violence are somehow combined to create a warm and welcoming book.  I  feel I have been acquainted with long lost Alabama relatives.  Her characters become family with all the intimacy and mystery that 'family' implies.  Intimacy, I think, is self explanatory but I will try to explain what I mean by mystery.

When someone is close to me, I become aware of motivations, desires and denials that are alien to me.  In essence, I feel privileged to be shown a new part of a person I love, but as I eagerly look I become aware of other doors left closed. Not because my loved ones are selfish but because that is the nature of humans.  How many of us have acted in ways that are inexplicable even to ourselves?  Loved something or someone without, seemingly, an act of will?  As Woody Allen said "I'm astounded by people who want to 'know' the universe when it's hard enough to find your way around Chinatown."  Well, as a metaphor I feel it works equally well for my own mind and the minds of others.

Ok, I could keep going but I hope you get the idea.  Fannie Flagg is excellent at letting me feel welcome in a home; I get to know new friends and then begin to sense the true mystery that is every individual for good or bad.  I like the sense of depth and roundness this mystery gives her characters.  The fact that a a sense of humor runs right through the middle of it is especially satisfactory.  The better I get to know her characters the more I laugh and the more interesting they become.

'I Still Dream About You' is full of these real people that inspire, confuse, grow and conquer (their own regrets).

Fanny Flag
ISBN: 9781400065936

08 August 2012

'The Woman Who Died a Lot' by Jasper Fforde

So many puns, twists, jokes, allusions and witty moments I smile or laugh my way through

This is book 7 in the Thursday Next series.  The books take place in a very alternative universe, specifically an alternative England.  There are so many puns, twists, jokes, allusions and witty moments I smile or laugh my way through every book.  This one is no exception.

I was privileged to meet Jasper Fforde once upon a time while he was on tour promoting his latest book.  The poor man was in a room full of Germans, who happened to read in English.  A large, pedantic man (nerd) had the idea to ask why Jasper wrote stories based on English literature or (heaven forbid) English nursery rhymes?  He felt it would be easier to understand the books if he used something more universal; I can only assume he meant Goethe.  Anyway, Jasper managed to answer with grace to the general tune of 'you work with what you know'.  Honestly, I can't imagine any writer with (finally) a good idea (or so she hopes) who scraps it because she can't imagine how it will translate into German or Japanese.

Somewhere, somehow one must have a point of reference.  Some writers do a great deal of research and write beautifully about serial killers.  The Thursday Next novels tell of crimes against English literature.  The literary police force to which Thusday belongs protect us from fake endings and counterfeit Shakespeare, you have to read the books to understand.  And to understand you have to have some basic knowledge of English lit.  Having said that, it has been years since I read someone who could make me look as Miss Havisham with new eyes.

I close 'The Woman Who Dies a Lot' and look at my dusty bookcase with glee (usually I look at it with affection).  I also happen to appreciate the cheese in my fridge, but you have to read the series to understand.  These books cheer me up and refresh my English course books.  I hope Jasper keeps going.  Please, please Jasper, The Nursery Crime series could use another visit.

Jasper Fforde
 ISBN: 9780340963111

05 August 2012

'The Devotion of Suspect X' by Keigo Higashino translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander

Anything I want to say about this book will give something away.

So what to do?  Well, you see, I must write about this book.

In the beginning...

We were on vacation somewhere hot that also had copious amounts of great cheap rosé available.  Naturally, my instinct is to sip wine, read and move as little as possible due to the heat and I hope due to a good book. I had run out of books to read so I went to the local book sellers and inspected the English/German/Spanish shelf.  My husband was also looking for a book. As I chose 'The Language of Flowers', I spotted another book from a Japanese author.  I read the back cover and thought "cool, a book for BPR."  Beloved Proof Reader agreed and off we went.  To make a long story short, I finished my book quickly and attacked his.

I expected the sort of suspenseful "who done it" that is normal for hot holiday reading.  This book is different and definitely not normal.  I usually can discern the formula of a suspense/thriller quickly.  I get bored or frustrated by chapter 3... that is, I know who will die, I know who done it, and I know who will sleep with whom.  'The Devotion of Suspect X' is so not predictable (to me).  I don't want to even begin to gush for fear of giving everything away.  I loved the way hints are dropped. The reader is not treated like an idiot but somehow a predictable story starts to gently twist and soon you don't know which way you are facing.  It is all done calmly, no explosions, no chases through dark alleys, nothing that would make you jump.  But, there is plenty to keep you chewing your lip, twisting your hair and holding on to that glass of wine those seconds too long because actually swallowing would be distracting.

The Devotion kept me devoted.  It lingered once I had finished it.  I kept away from BPR while he read so I would not ask such things as "Did you notice .....?"  Please go out and find this book before they make it into a film.  Read it and pass it on but from a distance because you don't want to let something slip.

Alexander O. Smith
ISBN: 9781408703250

18 July 2012

'The Long Earth' by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

How fair would it be to have a special ability that gives me unimaginable freedom?

The whole concept left me feeling uncomfortable.  It is difficult to describe.  It is like the feeling you get when you know you have forgotten something important.  Where do I fit?  How fair would it be to have a special ability that gives me unimaginable freedom?  How much should a government or private company try to control curiosity and the urge for freedom that most of us have in spite of wanting security.  Have we grown too big or too populous to function as a society?

There are people who love themselves or worse yet, their own dreams, more than their own children.  These people exist side by side with people who love their children more than their own lives.
I'd like to believe I love my children and that their wellbeing comes before my dreams... at least until they graduate.  But am I sure?  What if the lure, the temptation was literally the size of a universe?  That special talent by the way is also shared by others naturally.  Some people can learn to develop this ability and then there are those who cannot do it at all; in fact it makes them ill.  Where is the fairness?  Should I compensate the 'have nots'?  After all, I was born with it and it is no more my fault I have this ability, than it is someone else's who doesn't have it at all.

This book left me with so many questions and a lot to think and reflect on.  In fact I am impressed with just how much I have wrestled mentally in the last few days.

What would I do?  What will I do?

Most of the questions in the book are given no answers.  Good.  I like to think for myself.  Characters act in certain ways, as their nature allows and often do not think too much or too deeply.  It is a rather sad but realistic view of most of humanity.  If any, the general suggestion is 'help when you can and be honest'.  But theses concepts are so slippery in spite of their simplicity.  Moreover, the questions are not asked directly.  I kept passing judgement on the characters and then suddenly started second guessing myself.  What would I do?  Am I sure?

The story is excellent, captivating and well thought out.  It is healthy to think deeply now and again (or as deeply as I can, in any case).  How could it be otherwise?  I asked myself so many cool questions.  I'll probably go hunting for Stephen Baxter to see what he is about on his own.

Terry Pratchett 
ISBN: 9780857520098 

'The Devil Wears Prada' by Lauren Weisberger

Fashion fun; A great read for so called "chic-lit"

Like many other women, I have watched the film (several times thanks to the dvd).  It is a fun girl's evening-in movie that my daughter and I enjoy.  So I didn't bother to read the book for a long time.  A couple of weeks ago, though, I read that Laura Weisberger is writing a sequel.  I like the movie so I thought, "give the book a try and then you'll be able to enjoy the sequel."  Naturally, the book is fashion fun,  All the fat/thin conversations (obsessions), boss from hell situations and general thoughts of the protagonist are there in even greater detail.

The book gives me a more subtle approach to the fashion conversion of Andy.  I also saw a clearer picture of why her  romantic relationship broke down.  The film presented the problems as issues of time, availability and priorities, which are of course important in a relationship.  But, he seemed to do more sulking than thinking.  It is not the challenges that destroy a couple but how you approach those challenges as a couple.  In the book it felt to me that the reason he broke up with Andy was not that she made good or bad decisions but that they were different from what he would have done.  He did not sulk, but he did judge.  Andy finally "does the right thing", as he defines it, but under her own hilarious terms; independent of all those people trying to pressure her.

In the book I read a good look inside Andy's head.  The new relationships she builds and the people she meets both "high" and "low" teach her to think... not just react.  This is an important point because her mother and father can be overbearing and so can the angelic boyfriend.  She does the right thing for different reasons than her boyfriend or parents.  Andy did indeed learn by working at 'Runway'.  She grew up.  So, yes, she changed perhaps she out grew her parents and boyfriend.  The fact that the trauma of working for Miranda Priestly gave her inspiration for writing was an added bonus.  What I mean is, that I know people who travel to foreign places or work amazing jobs without introspection, curiosity or intelligence.  Andy grows because she brings all three together.  She faces her own nasty parts (not necessarily Miranda's) and decides for herself what to keep and what to throw out.  And yes, just in passing, there are also people in my acquaintance that can bring all three together, though none, I think, had a boss like Miranda Priestly.  All in all, a great read for so called "chic-lit"  I can't wait for the sequel.

Lauren Weisberger 
ISBN: 9780007156108 

01 July 2012

'Fifty Shades of Grey' 'Fifty Shades Darker' by E L James

The perfect Summer read; light, easy on the brain and so naughty

I could write about 'The Secret Garden', one of my favorite Summer books, which I just finished rereading.  I could write about 'Mistress of the House: Great Ladies and Grand Houses 1670-1830', which is empowering as well as instructive and entertaining; I've also been reading it this week.  But, truth be told, what I must admit to reading, because they're so often on my mind, are the first two books of the trilogy by E L James.

They are indeed the perfect Summer read; light, easy on the brain and so naughty.  And if your curiosity and stamina leans that way, also very instructive.  I have gifted this trilogy twice this Summer.  I have not managed to read the third book myself because someone close to me ( I won't mention names in order to protect the not so innocent) got to it first.  But what followed the reading of these books were some interesting conversations, questions and dare I say it, ... flirting requests.  My own thoughts and comments I will not elaborate further because in truth you should read the books yourself and have some thoughts of your own; with luck also some action.  In fact give it to your significant other and promise a prize if he or she completes it.  And yes, there will be a test.

The thing about erotic (for lack of a better word) literature, at least for women, is that they are not instruction manuals but a source of inspiration.  Pornography, by definition, is so explicit it takes away all kinds of imagination.  I consider this book erotic, some may consider this book more.  How do I draw the line? I use a rule I read in 'Afrodita' by Isabel Allende...

"Erotic is when you use a feather, pornography is when you use a chicken."  Or something like that.

What this book, in spite of its clichéd premise, does so well is to entertain both sexes.  There is enough description of the lady in suggestive or explicit positions to satisfy most men.  For the ladies, on the other hand, there are descriptions that excite our other senses.  The protagonist is constantly describing the wonderful smell of her lover or the way his skin feels.  I can personally relate.  I cut off relationships when young because my nose simply said no.  As for what skin feels like, or the rough chin of an unshaved man, well, you see where I am headed.

In short, I was interested and kept interested by my own senses.  The book made me curious about how to explore my own relationship further.  Then, earlier this week, I picked up an old issue of 'Time' magazine in my gynecologist's waiting room.  It had an article about these three books and their legion of fans.  It seems I am not the only long married woman who wished to 'proactively' explore her sex life after reading these books.  The article said that the author herself refuses to discuss her own sex life (good for her, why should she?) and is rather shocked at how explicit women who come to book signings can be.  Ok, so I get to meet my literary hero and I start gushing about all my new found joy... my issue is, do I want to have all the strangers waiting in line behind me listening in and perhaps nodding vigorously as I speak?  Worse yet, making some suggestions?  Em... no.  Not really.  It struck me as funny as I was at the gyno's office anyway.

Not to change the topic too much but I've been thinking of something else.  The writer is British and she lives somewhere around London, or so we are told on the jacket.  So, isn't it strange that she set her book in America?  The land of the free? Presumably? or freer than the British?  It puts me in mind of the film 'Love, Actually'.  In the extras of the dvd the writer/director talks about one of  the characters who has been silently in love with a co-worker for three years.  This, (British) writer decided that no sane woman could stick to unrequited love with an Englishman for three years.  So they got a gorgeous foreigner to be the object of love and desire.  The director told this story and laughed.  Now I wonder if E L James thought of Richard Branson, even for just an unconscious moment, and promptly moved her rich hunk to America.

Anyway, go read the book, enjoy yourself and do go shopping to some of those tasteful, discreet shops that have popped up on the internet.

E L James
ISBN: 9780099579939

14 June 2012

Terry Pratchett presents "Miss Felicity Beedle's The World of Poo" a Discworld Delight for Readers of All Ages


There are entirely too many funny moments in this book for it's length.  Poo is certainly an unappreciated topic.  As a kid I used to read stories and wonder why no one used the toilet.  Especially those "run through the woods hunted by bad guys for days" books.  I mean, they must GO eventually and so must the bad guys, presumably.  I always felt that as you are squatting and thinking about the nearest suspicious leaf, it would be the ideal moment for an ambush.  Or the good guys could ambush the bad guys's tracker! etc.  Never happened though.

In this book everybody goes, except the grandmother, of course.  She only recommends the constant cleaning of hands.  Along the way some wonderful information is shared with the reader.  Pratchett and Miss Beedle manage to educate the reader in the most furtive way possible and given the topic this is a feat.  That one piece of information on a page that I am certain must be made up, when researched and backed up by footnotes, turns out to be based entirely on facts.  Life is weird and poo is weirder or at least our treatment of it.  I love it.

I looked about for a boy of the appropriate age to gift this jewel to and found him.  I can't wait to be able to discuss this book with someone who can read it in the right spirit. Maybe I'll suggest he read it in the bathroom.  It might be inspiring.  God knows reading in the w.c. is one of my favorite hobbies.  Though I should leave books and magazines in the hall to entertain and distract anyone that may be waiting... and waiting..

Scatological humor is rare in this day of sophistication and subtlety.  Not to be confused with eschatological humor which refers to the apocalypse... though in my family the dangerous combination of peaches and beer is notorious for having produced such a smell and deluge in the loo that eschatological jokes came to mind i.e. it is precisely what the end of the world would smell like.

Terry Pratchett 
ISBN: 9780857521217

31 May 2012

'The Annotated Brothers Grimm' edited with a preface and notes by Maria Tatar - 'The Last Unicorn' by Peter S. Beagle

Never too old for fairy tales!

As a child I did not read fairy tales.  My mother read them out loud instead.  We were living in a strange country and knew no one.  We spent a great deal of time with our mother.  In retrospect it seems strange that with all the children's literature available in my mother's native tongue, she chose to read us stories of Germanic origin.  The castles, knights, princesses even the stars, sun and moon represented different things in our culture.  They represented conquest and perhaps a bit of envy but I did not know that then.

The stories themselves were the food of my fantasy life (though I must include Japanese animation, but that's beside the point..)  They seemed to open the doors and windows into other worlds.  A fairy tale never really ends.  To me a fairy tale is about beginnings... to grow up, to marry, to discover your own courage, brains, cunning or even luck are all tools you find to build a future, not an end in themselves.

Thinking about the stories my mother read always left me feeling insecure, now I would call it a whiff of Disney.  How shocked I was to read a much bloodier version of Cinderella (probably French) with those cut off toes and heels.  Snow White was another surprise.  She was truly battered by the time she reached the cottage and the witch queen's demise was horrifying.  Nevertheless, I would have appreciated stories that did not leave me so suspicious, you know, smelling Disney colored roses.  It turns out that the final version the brothers Grimm published was quite satisfying.  I recommend the annotations as a real hook to grown ups.  More over, my kids love it when I can add a little fact or disgusting detail to stories they think they know.  It makes them feel that all those questions answered with the notorious "when you are older" are actually being answered.  An annotated version of anything is invaluable in this respect.  This annotated version also tries to balance the great sex divide in fairy tales which might engage boys more.

'The Last Unicorn' is a 20th century fairy tale that feels as old and immortal as he unicorns themselves.  I saw a movie version at least 30 years ago.  I was fascinated by the failure of humans even when in love.  I was also fascinated by how they all pinned their hopes on a creature with its own mind and worries.  I found the book a few years back and was enchanted all over again.  This is a beautiful fairy tale indeed without all the difficult bits cut out.

Tales like these encourage us because they do not lie about our weaknesses, failure or stupidity.  The heroes often need help, guides and signs (usually all of the them several times over).  But these are not post-apocalyptic stories about societies in ruins instead they are about the potential of weak and often stupid individuals who manage to build a happily ever after.

ISBN: 9780393088861
ISBN: 9780451450524

06 May 2012

I Recommend You Read This!!!

I am the sort of reader that does not believe in reading as a solitary activity. Quite the opposite. If I am reading something good I like to talk about it, but this is very hard if the other person has not read the book as well. I will read out loud the good bits to anyone near me.  Beloved Proof Reader heard half of 'Cat's Cradle' and most of 'Moby Dick' this way.  It is one thing to say,"this book is about a lonely, suicidal werewolf" and quite another to discuss the guilt, blood, sharp details, motivations of the protagonist or descriptions of London in the moonlight.

I should point out that if I do not like what I am reading, I am even louder.  The 'Twilight' series were so terrible I asked another adult to read book 1 in case I was being overly sensitive.  It turns out these books are just badly written.  My point is that I will complain long and loud about bad books.  I hate to be robbed of money and time.  Bad writing is not a matter of taste.  I may not like 'The Scarlett Letter' but the book is beautifully written.  A good story idea can be ruined by bad writing.

Beloved Proof Reader hates being told anything important in a book; he thinks I give too much away.  To be fair, he often notices different things than I do, so he finds it annoying to read a book with someone else's preconceptions.  But, if I don't mention an essential theme how do I get him to read the book so as to discuss the essential theme?  By the way, have any of you read 'Catch 22'? great book.  Well you get it, I have my very own reader's catch 22.

Some of my nearest and dearest sought to deflect my literary lectures by convincing me to keep a blog.  Fools!  MUAHAHAHA!!!  I have two broad topics with which I bore my friends: books and food.  My poor victims are often very polite and promise most sincerely to read my new favorite writer at the first available opportunity.  Liars... which is understandable, after all, it counts as a "white lie" i.e. prevents violence to my person ('cause I am driving her/them crazy) and I shut up.  I also have well read friends who will patiently listen, even look at the book I am vigorously swinging under their nose and finally say "Oh, I read this."  Liars.  It is a very disconcerting experience for me.  How dare they read something sooner than me?  But, I shut up and move on to a different topic (or book), which is probably what they had in mind.  

I must add though, that it is always more fun to give than to receive, especially book recommendations. So what happens if someone traps me between a wall and a good book?  Good question.  My reaction depends on the source.  If the source is one of my well-read friends, then I trust their opinion.  If it is someone who thought "Twilight" was good, then she is not trustworthy.  Recommendations or reviews on Amazon are often a matter of luck.  'The Economist' and 'The Wall Street Journal' are great sources of book reviews, especially when I want to read non-fiction.

In defense of my booky conversations, I argue that it is healthier to discuss the suicidal tendencies of a werewolf than the vitriolic tendencies of a real couple who's marriage is currently falling apart.  I may come off as an awful bore but at least I won't come off as just plain awful.  There is something exciting about opening a papery object and stepping into another world.  It is easy, cheap, good against dementia and provides me with something pleasant to talk about.  Let's face it, we do too much complaining and worrying.  When I accost a friend with 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog', I want to share beauty and joy.  I do hope you understand because it is perfectly obvious to most of my friends that this blog has only made things worse.