Bookish or Nookish?

Image from Lemuria Bookstore Blog

When the e-reader began to gain popularity, I was firmly staked in the “paper books are the only real books!” camp. As I wrote in a previous post, the crinkly pages of an old book are therapeutic to me, and the crispness of a freshly made book is delightful, as well. Just let me step foot in a used bookstore and I’m nearly transported to my own version of heaven. How could holding an electronic device compare? I was sure I voiced this deeply felt opinion to those closest to me. Didn’t I?

You can imagine my surprise when my husband presented me with a Nook on an ordinary summer day (not my birthday, or anniversary, just a dry summer day). Maybe he felt guilty that we were moving our family out of our house and temporarily into his parents’ house (which, by the way, was 25 minutes from the closest library and 45 minutes from a decent library) when our youngest was six weeks old. Or maybe (likely) he just loves me and thought I would enjoy an e-reader. I love books and his field is technology, so really, how could he resist? But here’s the thought that popped into my mind: “Holy cow, my husband doesn’t really know me.” Oh, but I was wrong.

I started figuring out the Nook. I downloaded my first book, which I think was either Book of A Thousand Days (enjoyable YA summer read) or The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (not at all my piece of cake).  And I had to admit, the ease of getting a book from the library’s downloadable website without loading up my 2-year-old and infant in the car and actually going to the library was a definite plus. I love going to the library and taking my children with me has been a regular outing of ours since they were infants, but there are days when you just know taking a baby to the library isn’t a good idea. You know, the squallish days. Also, I tend to read big books like Little Dorrit and Les Miserables, so it’s no small thing that holding an e-reader while nursing a baby is way easier than actually holding Dickens. No, not the man, the volume. Speaking of Dickens, the best part of an e-reader, the one that really sealed my fate as an e-reader owner, was that I could download A Tale of Two CitiesWives and  Daughters, or any number of classics from Project Gutenberg and always have them at my fingertips wherever I am. Plus, I can just look stuff up when I’m curious about it without ever actually putting the book down. Oh yes, I’m sold. I have the Kindle app on my iPhone and I use my Nook for about 30-40% of my reading.

Here are some books I’ve enjoyed on my Nook recently.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I don’t read very much French literature beyond Victor Hugo and (Gustave Flaubert in college), but I must say, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has made  me wonder what other French authors I’m missing out on. Muriel Barbery’s writing is stunning. Her characters are intriguing and likable if you keep reading past the prickly beginning. There are so many metaphors and images and symbols to ponder–it’s a rich book. It’s a bit short on the gripping plot side, so if that’s what you read for, this book may not be for you. Also, the parts narrated by the child character, while some of my favorite, were a bit of a stretch. It’s hard to write from a child’s perspective when you aren’t a child anymore and you aren’t writing for children. But if you love literature mixed with philosophy and beautiful wordsmithery, pick this book up. Or download it. Whatever.

Digging to AmericaDigging to America was my first Anne Tyler book. I have since read two others. It amazes me how her books can be so simple on the surface but ask so many deep questions. This one actually seemed to have a happier tone than the other two I’ve read. I have often thought about adoption and how I feel about it (mostly gung-ho), and this book is a searching comparison of two adopting families and the hard parts and good parts of international adoption. Even if adoption isn’t something you think about often, it is a great read, because, well, it’s Anne Tyler. I don’t see eye to eye with her when it comes to theology in some of her books, but I do enjoy her talent as a writer.

The Book ThiefAnd there’s The Book Thief. My husband read this one, as well, and we both were impressed with the unique narration and syntax. The words were just words, but they were arranged and chosen so carefully. This was the first in a long line of World War II novels set in Germany that I read in the last year. It set me on the trail of finding out what Germans endured during the war. Before this book, I’d read mostly French and English viewpoints. Also, I’d be interested to know what an atheist thinks about the narrator of the book, the Angel of Death. It was strange to me that the angel was the narrator but God was not often mentioned.

I still prefer paper books, but my husband proved he knows me better than I know myself when he gave me an e-reader. Words are words and I am truly an American word lover. If I can access them more easily and quickly on an e-reader, I’m going to do so. However, when I decide to buy a book, I pick the paper every time. =)

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

When I see a book win a bunch of awards and garner lots of attention, I say, “hmm…I guess I’d better read that one.” Sometimes that works out great and I’m left thinking, “wow, they were right…that was a really awesome book.” But, if I’m honest, most of the time, it doesn’t work out great for me. After I read a new and critically acclaimed book, I’m usually glad I read it on an intellectual level, but something about the book doesn’t sit well with me. It’s like, in recent decades, critics only praise books that leave the reader feeling unsettled or disturbed. That’s what happened when I read Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winner Empire Falls, and that’s what happened last night when I finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I can tell it’s a brilliant novel, just like Empire Falls was, but judging it on a “would I recommend it to a friend” level, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Did I like it? Did I hate it? Would I have read it if I had really known what it was about? To try it describe it or give a brief summary that accurately portrays the novel as a whole is impossible (which is the mark of a masterpiece, I think). And, whether I actually like the book or not, it is a critically acclaimed, well-written, startlingly honest book. And I don’t mean startlingly honest in a be-as-crude-as-you-want, uncensored kind of way, but in the honest realizations the main character makes throughout that she is willing to stare in the face.

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeThe book is set in the late 1980s and is narrated by  June Elbus, a fourteen-year-old girl who considers herself totally average on every level, except for the fact that her best friend is her extraordinary Uncle Finn. He is her godfather, as well, and  the only person June thinks can see beyond her average persona and who cares enough to show her how to be extraordinary. Well that sounds innocent enough, but it’s quite problematic, mainly because Uncle Finn is diagnosed with AIDS. I’m in my twenties, so I don’t really remember anything about the panic and fear surrounding AIDS when it was first recognized. I watched a documentary about it in history class in college, but that’s about all I know. So that’s what I thought this book would be like: a more personal representation about what it was like to live with that fear and panic and all the unknowns except for that one, unavoidable fact: if you had AIDS, you were going to die. Of course, that is what the book is about on one level, but then again, it’s not. It’s about forbidden love in a time when almost everything is permissible, and about how one’s thoughts can shock oneself but that doesn’t make them go away,  and it’s about sisters who love each other fiercely but can’t seem to get back to where they were when they were each other’s best friends (note: I have sisters, and there were parts of this book that just made me want to bawl). I probably haven’t even scratched the surface of all the themes. The book is also heavy in imagery and symbolism and parts of it have a medieval feel, believe it or not, which is definitely intentional. So much of the fear the characters in the book have of the unknown AIDS seems medieval to me, almost thirty years later.

I have a new understanding of that era and the people involved, so on that level, I’m glad I read Tell the Wolves I’m Home. The disturbing parts were in the thoughts that Jane had about her uncle, and the descriptions of her uncle’s magnetism, and also in the absolute hopelessness of it all. Here’s an example from the middle of the book:

“It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half the size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother and it was likely you wouldn’t become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of being a scientist. Like that. On and through the years until you were stuck. You’d become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you’d have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.”

June’s hopelessness about the meaning of life and the purpose of everything and why she should even live is her defining trait, in my mind.  And, on a side note, I had a hard time believing a fourteen-year-old was thinking like that. Half the time I was reading, I felt like I was listening to a fourteen-year-old talk, but the other half, I was listening to a fifty-year-old, disillusioned soul. I’m not really sure when June is supposed to be narrating this…if she’s a fourteen-year-old narrator or if she’s looking back from a long time ahead…but I do know that there is no hope in this book. When it comes to a book about AIDS, I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. AIDS was bewildering, it was condemning, it was and is a huge stigma. This book challenged me to think through what I believe and how that fits with what began in the 1980s and what is still happening today. I think, if you let it, it will do the same for you.

And if you’re wondering what I believe, I’m not like June. She claimed there is not a God because AIDS was proof that God could not exist. But I do believe in God. I believe in God who “so loved the world.” I don’t have all the answers, but I have that much. So I guess that’s why Tell the Wolves I’m Home left me feeling so sad. It’s well written, it’s beautiful, and it is for sure thought provoking and challenging, but without a meaning or purpose for life, the story is incomplete. Many, many books are like that–I’m not at all saying every good book should point you to true significance in this world. But this particular book that was so centered on the question “what is the point of all this?” and “why is there all this suffering?” felt empty without an answer, any answer, for readers to contemplate and think on as they mull over the book. There was a hole in the heart of the book to me.

Maybe that’s just me? Maybe June did find an answer she could live with in your reading of the book? If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

A Few Great Mid-century Midwestern Books

Most of the posts I’ve written so far have focused on recently released literature (well, at least released in the last five years).  While I like to read new releases and be one of the first to discover great books, most of the books I really love have been around for 50-100 years. Or more. Just that smell of old pages between hardback covers makes me smile deep down inside.  Last fall, I read two great books written in the mid-1900s and set in the mid-west: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

photo Heat Lightning follows the journey of Amy Norton, a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, as she travels from her home in New York to visit her family and hometown in the midwest.  She is basically having a mid-life crisis.  Her kids are old enough to be independent (during the book, they’re at summer camp) and her husband has been distant and is camping while she travels. At the beginning of the book, you meet the Westovers, Amy’s family, who live in the small town where Amy grew up. I felt like I knew them as soon as they were introduced. Helen Hull did character descriptions and development so well.  Forgive me for throwing Downton Abbey into this post that really has nothing to do with Downton Abbey, but if you’re a fan of that show, Madame Westover will remind you of Dowager Countess. She is the book’s best character. As the plot moves forward, the Westovers and their endearing characters and family relationships becoming the heart of the book.  However, a careful reader can see Amy’s spirit returning as she figures her past and present out at the same time.

Rachel of the Book Snob blog wrote that Heat Lightning “certainly should be a classic of ordinary American life.” Now, take into consideration that she is British. =) But I enjoy her book reviews and share some of her book tastes, which is why I decided I had to read Heat Lightning. The only publisher currently releasing it is Persephone, but I got mine used on Amazon.   There are several themes, all well developed, but all very subtle. You could miss them completely if you’re just reading the book for its plot, which is, frankly, not exactly gripping (and that’s fine by me).  One theme pointed out in the Persephone edition’s preface by Patricia McClelland Miller is “how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?” I don’t know if I noticed that theme as much as I noticed the theme of reconciling your childhood home with the home you set out to make with your husband and children.  However, I can think back on the number of couples introduced throughout the book and the life transitions each couple was navigating, and I think I’d like to re-read the book and focus on how Hull presents the husband-wife relationship. All in all, the book is both realistic and favorable when presenting marriage relationships. It kind of reminded me of Ilyrian Spring by Ann Bridge.

The theme that permeates almost all midwestern literature is that of town versus country. The characters are firmly planted in the farmland or rural town where they are born, but dream of something that they think must be greater (the city). Or they’ve been to the city but realize it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and there’s a part of them that will never be at home unless they’re in the rural setting they came from. The town vs. country debate is a part of Heat Lightning, but it is more central to the plot in Winter Wheat. 

Winter WheatEllen Webb is a girl on the cusp of something totally new and great to her: college in a big city. That is, if the winter wheat crop is good. She has lived on a wheat farm in Montana her whole life with her East Coast father and Russian mother. Her parents met in World War II and they don’t seem to have much in common from Ellen’s perspective. Their relationship is the crux of the book. Ellen tries to reconcile her identity and the direction of her life through her parents’ relationship. She wants to discover that her parents truly love one another, but the more Ellen learns, the more discouraged she feels about love in general and the love that created her. Also, Ellen has a hard time figuring out where she really comes from. She longs to understand and appreciate her roots, but she only knows Montana. I enjoyed following Ellen’s perspective as it went through different seasons of being completely attached to detached to her home and her family. She loves them, she hates them, she wants to understand them, she wants to get away from them.  Along with the importance of figuring out where you’re really from,  the responsibility of a girl to make her own way in the world in the post-war culture is a very prominent idea. Mildred Walker gave Ellen Webb a strong voice and character. Even when Ellen is troubled and directionless, I just knew she would fight her way through to be strong and ready to reach for a life she wants to live. The tone of the book was kind of lonely, as there are so few characters that really play into the plot or have much dialogue. I’ve never been to Montana, but I think the loneliness of the story and the setting are key to the book’s themes.

I enjoyed both of these books, but I liked Heat Lightning the best out of the two. Hull’s thoughtful, tender writing is beautiful and I can’t wait to find another one of her books.

The Magic of Ordinary DaysAnd if you’re not into “older” books but think a novel set in the midwest in the 1930s or 40s sounds like just the kind of book you want to read, check out Ann Howard Creel’s The Magic of Ordinary Days. Written in 2001 and made into a Hallmark movie in 2005, I think it’s a beautiful book. It also explores themes like the loneliness and simplicity of mid-western farming and the importance of relationships that are built and tried by hardships and how they hold up or break down. I have already read it twice and will probably read it again someday.

Happy reading!

Coastal Reads

I don’t travel a whole lot (much less than I would like), but when I do, I love to have a book with me that’s set in the place I am visiting.  When I was in London several years ago, I was reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.  The feel of stepping into a place that has been set in a famous book and has been there for over a hundred years is surreal.  More often, though, my reading happens when I’m not traveling, but firmly set at home.  That’s why I love a book that describes a place so well, I can imagine being there.  There are some places I am dying to go see because I’ve read books about them.  In the past few months, I’ve read a couple of books set on two coasts that are now calling my name.

The Violets of MarchThe first coastal call came from The Violets of March by Sarah Jio.  Set on Bainbridge Island in Washington’s Pugent Sound, it’s one of those books that sucks you right into the setting.  I enjoyed how Jio described the area so vividly without going on and on about it.  She has the rare gift of weaving the setting into the plot seamlessly.  How many times have you read a book and gotten sick of all the descriptions?  I wouldn’t worry about that if you’re thinking of reading this book.   The plot started out a little shaky:  a 30-something woman dealing with a washed up marriage is living in New York but is forced to go back to her roots.  Sweet Home Alabama, anyone?  Thankfully, the plot is much more exciting than the kind of book that deals only with past emotions.  Yes, there’s some emotional baggage the main character, Emily, is working through, but there’s also a mystery to unravel.   And I love a well written mystery. I’m of the opinion they’re pretty rare.  Sometimes the tone reminds me of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, though it’s not quite so dark.   I’d recommend The Violets of March to just about anyone.

 

The next coastal book I read brought me back home to the East Coast.  Moon Over Edisto by Beth Webb Hart is about a woman who Moon Over Edistolives in New York City, is about to get married, and has to return to her hometown, Edisto, to take care of her family in a crisis.  Wait…am I getting these two books confused?  Because, hello Sweet Home Alabama again.  No, they’re different books, but I’m now realizing the starting premises of these books are fairly similar. However, Moon Over Edisto doesn’t turn into a mystery to be solved, but a story of how to forgive and the freedom and healing forgiveness brings.   The setting is very intertwined with the plot, as two main characters are artists.  A lot of the scenery is built on the description of what artworks these two characters are creating.   I wish I owned the real paintings and not just descriptions of their art, because it sounds beautiful.  Though I’ve lived in South Carolina my whole life and visit the coast often, I’ve never been to Edisto.  I know, it’s sad.  After reading this book, I realize even more it’s a problem that must be remedied soon.

 

I can’t embrace travel literature–I need a good plot and intriguing characters to keep me reading–but I think mental travel is one of reading’s greatest qualities.  And even if you’re not looking for a book to take you to a new place, these two books are pretty good light reads apart from their settings.  I’d love to hear what you think if you decide to pick one up!

Book Messes and Real Life

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For some reason, book messes don’t bother me as much as other kinds of messes…

But life has certainly been messy around my place lately.  My progress on the books I’ve been reading lately has been slow.  One of my favorite authors, Ann Voskamp, often writes, “Life is not an emergency.”  As much as I appreciate and need that perspective, sometimes, life does feel urgent.  Sometimes your whole family gets a stomach bug; or you really do have to get those errands done before two birthdays and two anniversaries occur in one week; or your husband has to travel for work and it’s all on you, mama; or your first nephew arrives and (happily) other things get put on hold for a few days.

That’s been the month of May for us, so the book messes are some of the nicest messes that have been going on around here. I’ll spare you photos of the other ones.

Even in the frantic days, however, I have to read something.  A lot of times I find I turn to my old favorites; they’re kind of like comfort food for a bookworm.  When I’m having a hard time on the family and home front, reading the later books in the Anne of Green Gables series cheers me up.  (On a side note, if you’re one of those people who says, “Oh, I read Anne of Green Gables but I didn’t know it was a series,” I am jealous of you because there are EIGHT books in that series and they are wonderful. I have read them to mental shreds.  But I still love them).  If I can’t seem to think anything but negative thoughts, I re-read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp or I Capture the Castle (because it’s just fun and strangely uplifting) or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  When I’m sick of life in the fast lane, I read Austen or Gaskell (usually Wives and Daughters) And if I feel like my brain is mired in the mundane, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis or some other fantasy fiction is just what I need.

Those are just a few of my comfort books that come to mind.  I have to mention the Bible because I’m always reading that, and it is comfort and beyond.  What about you? Do you have books you turn to when your mind is troubled? I’d love to hear about them.

Don’t Let The Dress Impress

I’ve been in a bit of a book slump lately.  It’s my own fault, because what can you expect when you pick up book after book with a cover featuring a woman in an elaborate, flowing, and frilly dress. Seriously, what was I thinking?

Here are some book busts for you:

The Typewriter Girl Edenbrooke The Time in Between

I don’t have much to say about any of these books except you really shouldn’t bother with them.  I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters of The Typewriter Girl. It was boring. That’s all. I blame Goodreads for putting these books on my recommended reading list. =)

The Dressmaker  But I did enjoy The Dressmaker. It’s a light (very light) read, but it includes some intriguing history around The Titanic and the political aftermath.  The Dressmaker made me curious about what happened after the catastrophe.  Most of the characters are well done and the plot moves along at a nice pace.  The whole “independent woman” theme can get boring (how many times can readers enjoy a book about a woman going from nothing to success?), but the integrity of Tess, the main character, and the contrasts between characters throughout the book make it more than just entertaining.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it thought provoking. Don’t pick this book up and expect to find anything profound, but if you are absolutely set on reading historical fiction with a dress on the cover, I’d recommend this one.

I’ve heard good things about The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, but look at the cover:

The Shoemaker's Wife

No, I can’t bring myself to pick that one up right now.  Maybe someday.

Right now, I’m enjoying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  How is it that I have never read this book?  It’s wonderful.

The Plum Tree vs. Those Who Save Us

In the past few months, I’ve read several novels set in Europe during World War II. The two that stick in my mind the most are Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blume and The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. The plot lines of these books are fairly similar, and both books have forever changed how I think about Germany during World War II. But the books are actually very different.  I am glad that one is forever ingrained in my memory and I wish I could forget the other. 

Both of these books are coming of age stories. The main character of each book is a German, teenage girl who is in love with a Jewish man. In The Plum Tree, Christine is smitten with her boss’s son Isaac. Anna, in Those Who Save Us, falls in love with a Jewish doctor. Both girls vow in their hearts to never love another, and both women suffer for their decision. I appreciated how both books give readers an idea of what it was like to be a German citizen during the Third Reich’s reign. Though The Plum Tree gave a broader picture of life in war torn Germany, both authors used  their novels to put readers in the shoes of those people who were innocent of war crimes but still considered the enemy. Through reading these books, I set aside some preconceived ideas about Germans in this time period that I didn’t realize I had allowed to form in my head.

But that’s where the similarities end. The narrative structure of Those Who Save Us didn’t appeal to me much. The structure is popular right now in historical literature and hinges on a character in the present day unearthing the past. The very popular book Sarah’s Key is written in that way.  I didn’t think it worked well in Those Who Save Us.  Possibly because neither Anna nor her daughter are very personable characters from the first time we meet them, and they don’t improve much upon further acquaintance. They can’t seem to overcome their hearts’ losses. Anna, especially, lets her circumstances consume her.  This book is grim, cover to cover. It is ultimately a story of a woman surviving and keeping her daughter safe at great cost to her very soul.   I hope I’m not judging Anna’s character too harshly.  Most of the time I was reading, I was upset with her passiveness. Another reason I didn’t enjoy this book was the many gruesome details. You’re probably thinking, “Hellooo, it’s a war narrative for grownups!”  And I get that.  But if you choose books based one how “clean” they are (which I do take into consideration), you probably will not like this one. I’ll admit to skipping over the scenes between two of the main characters after about a third of the book. I understand the author wanted her readers to fully grasp the horror of Anna’s war years, but the details were too much for me. I finished the book because I felt it had some important themes in it that most Americans never consider. And I know this is an area of personal preference–many people like this book, after all–but consider yourself warned. In the end, I was grateful to this book for its perspective, but I wished there was another way to achieve it.

Then I read The Plum Tree. Oh, how I wish I had read this one first! I think this book is magnificent. There was no disjointed feel to the narration; I was completely enthralled.  When I put the book down, I found myself listening for bombers.  The plot was fast paced but the descriptions of the setting were still detailed and beautiful.  I loved Christine and wanted her story to end well.  Her merit is not her willingness to suffer in order to survive, but her spirited desire to endure and thrive.  Yes, she is changed by the war, but she becomes somebody I would want to know.  I gained perspective not only on life for a German woman in WWII, but on what life became for a family and a community.  Though sometimes heart wrenching, this book was inspiring.  At the end of Those Who Save Us, I was sad for the characters.  When I finished The Plum Tree, I was both sad and glad for Christine and her family.

Holocaust era stories are haunting and I sometimes wonder why I and so many others are drawn to them.  It must be because we desire to understand how this atrocity happened and we hope to see good and some kind of triumph come out of even what could be the world’s largest tragedy.  At least that’s my philosophy.  What’s your philosophy on Holocaust/WWII literature? Do you have a favorite book set in that time period? I’d love to hear your thoughts.