Monday, October 29, 2012

"Persuasion" by Jane Austen

The first time I read Persuasion, I liked it better than the other three Austen books I'd read at that time.  That was more than a decade ago, and this is the first time I've reread it.  The question I now face is:  why did I like it better than Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma?  It could be because I first read Persuasion while I was on my big Horatio Hornblower kick, and this book is full of naval officers.  It could be because this was the first Austen book I read after going to college, and I was just more ready for this level of writing.  It could even be because it's considerably shorter than the other three I'd read.

I think, in the end, that the reason I liked it best is that I identify more with this book's heroine, Anne Elliot, more than any of the others'.  I'm not as witty or bold as Elizabeth Bennett.  I'm not as unfailingly honorable as Elinor Dashwood (though I do see a lot of myself in her as well).  I'm not as inquisitive or self-fascinated (I hope) as Emma Woodhouse.  Like Anne Elliot, in my opinion, I am quiet, reserved, and loyal.  And that's probably why I still like this book a great deal, though now I think I might like Pride and Prejudice equally as well.

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Anne Elliott meets up with the man she was once engaged to, Captain Frederick Wentworth.  Eight years previous, she had been persuaded to break off their engagement, and had regretted that ever since.  Neither of them had ever fallen in love again, and this book charts the rekindling of their romance as they slowly ascertain each others' feelings and whether things could ever again be as they once were.

I do wish that this book lasted a little longer, as the very end seems a bit rushed.  The discussion between Capt. Wentworth and Anne is described, not written out as dialog, and I've always wondered if Jane Austen meant to flesh that part out more, but then was unable to.  Persuasion was published posthumously, so you never know.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 1, 2012.)

"Pirate King" by Laurie R. King

Pirate King is the latest in a series of mysteries set in the early 20th century and starring a detective named Mary Russell and her husband. You may have heard of her husband — his name is Sherlock Holmes.
I’ve been a Holmes fan since I was thirteen, and I’ve read a lot of “non-canon” stories about him (written by someone other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but none of them have presented the famous detective in all his complex allurement like these books by Laurie R. King. But unlike those other stories, these books don’t center on Sherlock Holmes — they center on his wife, Mary Russell. And before you throw arguments at me about Holmes being a lifelong bachelor, or a misogynist, or about Irene Adler being the only woman for him, let me assure you that these books deal with all those issues. Quite convincingly.
But anyway, I’d better tell you what this particular book is about instead of nattering on about the series as a whole. Pirate King finds Mary Russell going undercover as an assistant for a silent film production of a movie that shares the book’s title. Scotland Yard thinks someone in the film company is selling guns and drugs, and they want Russell to find out who. Things sail merrily along until the entire film crew gets kidnapped by pirates.
While Sherlock Holmes in absent from the first half of the book, he makes a welcome addition eventually. This is a bit of a departure from the usual tone of the series, being rather lighter than some of the more recent books, but it still has plenty of suspense and plot twists to keep a reader guessing. It’s also chock full of the period and location details Ms. King excels at, as well as lots of wonderful descriptions of making silent movies and traveling aboard a sailing ship.
If you’ve never read any of this series, but love either Sherlock Holmes or just mysteries set in the not-too-distant past, I highly recommend these books. Start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and see what you think. Ms. King also has written a series about a modern-day detective, and several stand-alone novels, but I vastly prefer this series. In fact, it’s my favorite series by a living author!

The next Russell/Holmes adventure is due out later in 2012.  Woo!

(Originally posted on Novel Book Ratingson Jun 15, 2012.)

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

Last summer, I bought a journal with Jane Austen quotes sprinkled throughout it.  It put me in such a mood to re-read Austen's novels that I went and bought a box set of all her completed novels.  In paperback, but they're trade paperbacks, not pocket ones, so good enough.  And then I never managed to start reading them.  But when I read P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley this year, I knew The Time Had Come to start my journey through Austenland.

I began with Pride and Prejudice.  Seemed logical, since I wanted to compare it to James' mystery.  I'd only read it once before, I think while I was in college and in love with the movie You've Got Mail, which references it.  I wasn't a big fan, and for years my favorite Austen novel had been Persuasion.  When I was in college, I watched the British version of P&P starring Colin Firth, and I did like the Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen version pretty well, as I mentioned here and here a few years ago.  But I didn't particularly love the story.

What was wrong with me?

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Elizabeth Bennet spends most of the book disliking Mr. Darcy because she finds him proud and cold.  Mr. Darcy spends most of the book trying to convince himself he shouldn't love Lizzy because her family is unsuitable.

What can I say about this book that hasn't already been said a hundred times, and said better than I ever can?  Not much.  I'm amazed by Austen's ability to make ordinary people so compelling.  I so admire her grasp of how details and small events build up to bring about important changes in hearts, minds, and lives.  And I'm intrigued by her ability to allow a book's events unfold slowly and yet keep me enthralled.

Also, I'm totally in love with Mr. Darcy now.  Just FYI.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jun 14, 2012.)

"Vanishing Act" by Thomas Perry

I completely loved Thomas Perry's story in A Study in Sherlock, so I decided to try out his books.  The first one I've read is Vanishing Act, the first in a series about a Native American named Jane Whitefield. Jane is a guide, but not the kind that takes you hunting for big game or leads you on a tour through a historic site. She guides people who are looking to leave their current self behind and become someone new.

The plot centers around an ex-cop named John Felker, who has been accused of embezzling and set up to take the fall for some unknown scheme. Jane helps him escape his pursuers and assume a new identity, just like she’s done for many other unfortunate people, from victims of abuse to targets of Mob violence. This time around, she also forms a relationship with the person she guides, something she has never done before.
But once Jane returns home, things begin to unravel. Felker was not at all who he seemed, and he has twisted Jane’s help to his own purposes, killing people she cares about in the process. Jane transforms from Guide to Hunter, stalking Felker into the wilderness to extract vengeance for his treachery and murders.
I found Vanishing Act to be a satisfying read on many levels. The characters are complex and believable, and I loved how Jane’s Native American heritage played an integral part of the story. I’ve long been fascinated by the culture and history of American Indians, and my favorite parts of this book were the places where Jane was most connected to her Seneca roots. I hope to read the next book in this series soon.
If you enjoy reading mysteries or thrillers because you like to see justice served, wrongs righted, and good triumphing over evil, you won’t be disappointed. But because Jane is not a law enforcement professional, the story does raise some questions about vigilante justice and revenge that I wish the author would have addressed.
(Originally posted on Novel Book Ratings on May 23, 2012.)

"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P. D. James

I had such hopes for this book.  I've read a couple things by P.D. James before, and they were thoroughly enjoyable.  Her nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction, is a lovely history of the genre, and introduced me to several authors I now like quite a lot.  I also really liked her mystery An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.  Since I'm an Austen fan, I was hoping this smash-up of Pride and Prejudice and mysteries would be great fun.  And at first, I was not disappointed.

Death Comes to Pemberley begins promisingly with a prologue about the Bennets of Longbourn, recounting in a thoroughly amusing style the events of the original book, then going on to recount what happened once Lizzy and Darcy (and Jane and Bingley) married.  I laughed aloud with delight several times during the prologue.  It's quite amusing and well worth reading.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book isn't.  It's not amusing and has two glaring flaws that kept me from enjoying it much.  Such a disappointment!

The plot involves the murder of Mr. Wickham's particular friend and fellow soldier, Denny.  I won't go into details in case you decide to read this yourself (and I'm not saying you shouldn't -- this isn't a bad book, I just didn't care for it myself).  No one witnesses the murder, but Wickham is suspected of it, and Darcy is left in the unhappy position of trying to defend this man he loathes from getting hanged for murder and disgracing the whole family. 

So far, that doesn't sound bad, right?  And it's not.  It's just not particularly good, either, thanks to the two flaws I mentioned.  First, we have to read the description of Darcy and his friends finding Wickham crouching over Denny's body too many times.  Twice would have been plenty -- once when it occurred, and then once when they had to recount the experience to the authorities.  Instead, they also discuss it amongst themselves, describe it several other times, and then tell it all over again at the trail.  By the time we got to the trial, I was so thoroughly tired of reading about it, I skipped quite a few paragraphs. 

The second flaw is that the main characters, Darcy in particular, play far too passive a role.  Clues fall into their hands instead of being discovered or deduced.  The identity of the actual murderer is revealed in a letter. A solution of what to do with Wickham and Lydia so they go away and stop bothering everyone is presented by a stranger.  In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Lizzy are not passive!  They are both actively trying to dislike each other as much as possible, until they discover they can't dislike each other, and then they actively go about trying to get together. 

The best I can say for this book is that it prompted me to pull out Pride and Prejudice and reread it.  More about that soon...

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on May 11, 2012.)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway

I've been a fan of Ernest Hemingway's writing for a decade now -- I actually first decided to read something by him because I went through a phase where I loved the movie City of Angels (1998).  Nicolas Cage's character recommends Hemingway to Meg Ryan's character because of how well he writes about food, and leaves A Moveable Feast on her nightstand.  The library didn't have that book, but they had The Sun Also Rises, and I picked that one because of the quote from Ecclesiastes at the beginning.  Ecclesiastes just happens to be one of my favorite books of the Bible, you see.  Anyway, I liked Hemingway's economical writing, and over the years, I've read all his short stories and several of his other novels.  But I'd never read For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is my brother's favorite Hemingway book (mine so far is A Moveable Feast).  So I decided it was high time to read it.

So I read it.  But I didn't like it much.  (Sorry, bro!)  In fact, I'd have to say it is my second-least-favorite Hemingway work.  (My least favorite is the unfinished Garden of Eden.)

It was just so bleak!  Unmitigatedly bleak.  There's an old joke I read in a Reader's Digest years ago about how different famous authors would answer the question of "Why did the chicken cross the road?"  I don't remember any of them anymore except the one for Hemingway, which was:  "To die.  In the rain.  Alone."  And I always kind of laughed about that, because for me, most of Hemingway isn't all that depressing.  Sure, a lot of his stories end sadly, in a sort of inevitable way, but none of the other things I've read by him have pounded Sadness!  Despair!  Pointless Death!  into the ground like this does.

If you have no idea what it's about, here's a quick recap:  An American volunteer named Robert Jordan, a volunteer in the Spanish republican army during the Spanish Civil War, gets sent to join this guerrilla band and blow up a bridge with their help.  He falls in love with a young girl named Maria, who was orphaned and raped by the opposing forces earlier in the war.  All the characters spend the whole time talking about how doomed the mission is and how they're all going to die.  And then most of them do die.  And not in a glorious, cathartic, serves-some-greater-purpose way like all the characters in Hamlet dying at the end.  Just in a bleak, pointless, inevitable-yet-preventable way.

Obviously, the point is that war is pointless and bleak and horrid.  I get that.  I just don't like the book.  Like I said the other day, I have to want to be friends with at least one character in a book (or movie, or TV show) to like it, and I didn't really want to be friends with anyone in this book.  I liked Pilar okay, the other female character, but not that much either.  So I spend the last half of the book thinking, "Oh, man, will this ever end?  I'm so tired of reading this!"  Because it was Hemingway, I did at least enjoy the writing, but not enough to make me like the book.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Apr. 13, 2012.)

"Bloodlines" and "Goodnight, Irene" by Jan Burke

As I mentioned earlier, reading A Study in Sherlock inspired me to try out some new mystery authors.  I started with Jan Burke.  Our local library has several of her books, but not the first one in her series about Irene Kelly, so I just grabbed the one with the most interesting title.  It was Bloodlines.

Bloodlines is the sort of sprawling, nuanced, intricately rambling treat I don't usually find when I read mysteries.  By the time I was fifty pages into it, I was firm friends with the two main characters of the first section, young Connor O'Connor and his mentor, newspaperman Jack Corrigan.  I need to blog about how important it is for me to become friends with characters sometime, but for now I'll just assure you that it's important.  And the faster I make friends, the better I generally like the book.  I love this book.  It takes place over five different decades, and about halfway through I realized it was kind of tying together several events in other books in the series.  Characters I grew to love would abruptly die off-page.  I grew to love other characters in their places.  The giant, seemingly rambly narrative came into focus, then charged ahead full-steam suddenly, then tied up in a most satisfactory -- but deliciously unexpected -- way.  Complete love! 

It concerned a bunch of characters who died and disappeared in the 1950s in a way that made me think of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels.  Also, there's a kidnapping.  And then nothing whatsoever happens with the case for decades, until someone unexpectedly unearths some new clues....  By the end, I was a confirmed Jan Burke fan and hungry for more.

So I got Goodnight, Irene, the first book in this series.  And it was quite good too, with a lovely love story and a complicated plot.  I didn't love it as much as Bloodlines, but that's okay, because it was a much earlier novel, and now I know that they improve as they go along, rather than unimproving or staying the same.  In this one, Irene Kelly's best friend gets blown up, and she helps solve the murder while doing some nice journalistic work as well.  Did I mention Irene Kelly is a newspaper reporter too?  Anyway, a perfectly good mystery, if not as delightful as Bloodlines.  Can't wait to read more!

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Apr. 11, 2012.)

"A Study in Sherlock" ed. by Laurie R. King and Leslie Klinger

I got this book for Christmas and read it over the course of a couple weeks, limiting myself to a story every day or two to make it last longer.  I'm choosing it as the subject of my first review here because, although I finished reading it almost three months ago, it's directly informed my reading selections since then, which I'll be blogging about too, so I figured starting with the source would be a good idea.

I've been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I was ten or eleven, when I found a giant, hardcover copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles at the library and devoured it over the weekend.  I can still remember the illustration on its cover, a giant black dog rushing toward the viewer, indistinct people in the background giving chase.  I've been a fan of Laurie R. King and her Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell mysteries since around 2005, when I first read her brilliant The Beekeeper's Apprentice.  I had the pleasure of attending a reading she did in Connecticut a few years ago, even getting to meet her and ask her to sign a couple books.  So when I learned about this new book from her Facebook page, I was eager to read it.  And I haven't been disappointed!  All the stories were enjoyable, but I liked five of them particularly well, and these are they:

"The Men with the Twisted Lips" by S. J. Rozan.  This story has a collection of Oriental black market businessmen colluding to arrange for Sherlock Holmes to have all the clues he needs to solve the mystery told in the canonical story "The Man with the Twisted Lip."  It's full of vivid details and clever arrangements of little plot details to make the whole story work with the original.

"The Case of Death and Honey" by Neil Gaiman.  This one's a bit dark and very literary. by which I mean it's not particularly a mystery, but more of a character study.  Holmes pops up in a remote Chinese mountain range to practice some highly unusual beekeeping, with startling results.

"The Adventure of the Concert Pianist" by Margaret Maron.  This story follows Dr. Watson as he returns to Baker Street during the period after the Reichenbach Falls incident, when everyone assumes Holmes is dead. Watson helps their erstwhile housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, solve a mystery concerning one of her relatives.  The very end makes me grin and say, "Awwww!" when I think of it.

"The Imitator" by Jan Burke.  This one has a bunch of post-WWI eccentrics using Holmes' methods to solve a kidnapping.  Lots of fun!

"The Startling Events in the Electrified City" by Thomas Perry.  Totally my favorite story in this book.  It posits that the assassination of President McKinley was in fact a most elaborate hoax concocted by the President himself and carried out with the help of Holmes and Watson.  I loved this story and have read it twice.  In my occasionally humble opinion, this story is worth the price of the whole book all by itself.

Reading this collection has inspired me to try out some new authors, and I'll be reviewing things by them soon, as I've read 4 or 5 books since this one, a couple of them by authors I've mentioned here.  And I'm on the hunt for more!

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Apr. 2, 2012.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two More Books: Another Comparison

I'm at it again, comparing two very dissimilar books that I read almost right after each other. This time, it's Mansfield Park by Jane Austen and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin. This time, the two books begin with a similar situation: a young girl from a large family being sent to live with her wealthier relations. I know this was a pretty common occurrence once upon a time -- one of Jane Austen's own brothers was adopted by relatives. So it's not as if Wiggin borrowed a literary device from Austen. But I did read these two books nearly back-to-back, and the similarity struck me.

The title character of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is an irrepressible, joy-filled girl. She's basically the prototype for L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and the other spunky heroines who followed. She goes to live with two maiden aunts and grows up under their care into a spirited young woman. She makes friends with almost everyone, softens an aunt's hard heart, and generally brings sunshine into every life she touches. It's a sweet story.

The protagonist of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, is the opposite. She's shy. Retiring. Passive. She hides her feelings, suppresses her desires, and is so delicate of feeling, she can't even bring herself to explain to her uncle precisely why she has rejected a marriage proposal. I'm afraid that, accustomed as I am to spunky heroines, I wanted more than once to reach through the pages, give Fanny a good shaking, and tell her to be a more active participant in her own life for once! This is also a sweet story, but definitely not my favorite Austen.

The last chapter of Mansfield Park feels rushed, as if Austen either was sick of the characters and wanted to be finished with the book, or else was under a deadline and spent too much time describing dinner parties and evening strolls earlier to wrap things up properly. In writer's parlance, the last chapter is almost entirely 'telling' the story, not 'showing' it to the readers.

So. Two books, published nearly a century apart. Similar, yet different. Would I recommend them both? Yes. Did I like them both? Let's just say I liked Sunnybrook Farm well enough to keep my copy, but I'm donating Mansfield Park to the library.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Sep. 4, 2010.)

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I know I did a book review already this week. I planned to post a recipe for blueberry muffins next, but I can't. Because this book with the absurd -- and absurdly long -- title has captured me and I don't want to ever get free of it. And when I love a book this much, I have to share it with whomever I can.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written almost entirely as a series of letters and telegrams from and to a woman writer in post-WWII London, Juliet Ashton. She learns about an extraordinary, eclectic group of readers living on the island of Guernsey who turned to books to help them get through the German occupation of their home. Juliet decides to write an article, then a book about these people, goes to Guernsey to meet them, and then... then it gets reeeeeally good.

I read this book in less than three days, and immediately began to re-read it because I love it so much and want to spend more time in the company of these characters. I bought my own copy yesterday. I honestly can't recall the last book I read twice in a row (other than picture books to Daniel, lol) -- maybe Jane Eyre? If so, that was more than a decade ago.

This book is crammed with delightful people (and yes, a few who aren't, since every story needs an antagonist or two), delicious writing, and a palpable love for books. These people are as enthusiastic about books as I am, and I think that is what makes me so very fond of them. Sure, the setting helps, as I love learning about the 1940s, but really it's the characters that I don't want to leave. Plus, this book makes me laugh aloud, even on the second reading, and I love books that delight me so much I can't help laughing aloud.

Here is an excellent site about this book, including an excerpt from the book if you want a taste of it without seeking it out at your library or local bookseller. My dear friend DocB recommended this book to me, and I can never thank her enough.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Aug. 13, 2010.)

Two Books: A Comparison

I recently read Death Qualified by Kate Wilhelm and Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd. They're rather different books, but they both have a mystery at the heart of them, yet aren't exactly mysteries. And my expectations of -- and reactions to -- these two books was quite different. So I thought I'd compare them here.

+++WARNING!+++ There's spoilage ahead, so if you've been meaning to read either of these and don't want to be spoiled, don't read this post!

Death Qualified is about Barbara Holloway, a former defense lawyer who gets sucked into defending a woman who's up on charges of murdering her absentee husband. It's got some sci-fi/fantasy elements to it -- no aliens or unicorns, just an alternate way of interacting with the universe that I will not attempt to explain here. But by and large, it works like a mystery/courtroom drama, trying to establish the client's innocence, figure out who did kill the husband, etc.

Ordinary Thunderstorms also involves a murder. Adam Kincaid, an American scientist in London to apply for a job, accidentally walks in on the freshly-committed murder of a stranger he'd bumped into earlier that day. Suddenly he's wanted for murder, on the run, hiding out with London's homeless. Eventually, he rebuilds a life for himself, and the real murderer gets brought to justice.

So, two books, both involving a murder. Neither one is a conventional mystery. And neither one ever reveals the whole plot behind the murder, brings the culprits to justice, or clears the wrongly accused. They're very similar in their open-ended endings.

And yet, I did not like Death Qualified when I'd finished it. I felt let down, unfulfilled. I wanted my good guys to triumph and my bad guys to pay, darn it all! And although Ordinary Thunderstorms had a similar lack of resolution of similar issues, I liked it.


I think it's because, somehow, Death sets itself up as a mystery/courtroom drama with a bit of a supernatural twist. And then it fails to fulfill the rules about solutions or crimes that those kinds of books generally adhere to. Thunderstorms, on the other hand, sets itself up as a literary novel with a mystery as a catalyst but not the central theme of the story. And so I didn't mind not getting a tidy wrap-up at the end because I wasn't expecting one.

Silly expectations.

However, both books are quite well-written, so I do recommend them both.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Aug. 9, 2010.)

"The Pawn" by Steven James

I actually read this almost three weeks ago, but haven't managed to blog about it until now. Thank the Lord the rest of my summer looks calm and empty!

Anyway, my mom recommended Steven James' books to me when I was at home in NC last month. We were watching an old ep of Bones together, and I told her she should read Kathy Reichs' books that inspired the series. I said one of the things I liked best about her books is that they take place partly in North Carolina, my adopted home state. Mom said. "Oh, you should read the Patrick Bowers books by Steven James! The first one takes place here too!" So when I got back to CT, I got the first one, The Pawn, out of the library.

Ironically, I had warned her that Reichs' mysteries can get rather gruesome and spooky, and I wasn't sure if they'd bother her because of that. Turns out, I needn't have worried, because The Pawn was more gory and creepy than any of the four books I've read by Reichs. A goodly chunk of it is written from the point of view of a sadistic killer, and it creeped me out so much, I had to read it in just three days because I wanted to get it over and solved and behind me as fast as possible.

The Pawn is about FBI Criminologist Patrick Bowers tracking down a serial killer in the mountains around Asheville, NC. Bowers is recently widowed and alienated from his teen stepdaughter, and his personal life gets tangled up in his work and vice versa. Overall, the book is taut and suspenseful.

I think this is James' first mystery thriller, and as a debut in the genre, it's pretty good. The only thing I didn't like, besides it being a little creepier than I care for, was that I kept seeing the author in the book. By that I mean there were things that made me go, "Oh, he's setting up the workplace conflict here," or, "Here's the obligatory Special Ability that will come in handy at the book's climax." As the book went along, it had fewer obvious Mystery Components, and there were quite a few twists I didn't expect, so I'm betting the other books in the series (it totals four so far) are smoother and bear fewer authorial fingerprints.

Anyway, I liked James' style, so if I can get more of his books from the library, I probably will read more. So yes, if you like suspenseful mystery thrillers, you'll probably dig this book.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Jul. 5, 2010.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway

"Papa" Hemingway writing
 I didn't start reading Hemingway until I was in college, which was probably good, as I don't think I was ready for him any earlier than that. I really liked the movie City of Angels (1998), in which Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast played a crucial role, so one summer I looked for the book at the local library. They didn't have it, so I got The Sun Also Rises instead. I remember I chose that one because the title comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, my favorite book in the Old Testament.

Ever since, I've been a Hemingway fan. Over the last decade, I've been slowly working my way through his works. It's been a while since I've read any of his novels, so when the book I was hoping to read wasn't in at the library a couple weeks ago, I picked up A Farewell to Arms. I started reading it a couple days after we came home from the birth center, and like most Hemingway, it was a quick read. (I only get a few minutes a day to read right now, so anything I finish in less than a month feels quick these days.)

Hemingway in uniform
A Farewell to Arms, as you may know, was inspired by Hemingway's own experiences during WWI. If you've ever seen the movie In Love and War (1996), you know something about them. Like Hemingway, the protagonist in Farewell is an American driving an ambulance in Italy. Like Hemingway, he gets wounded and falls in love with a nurse while recuperating. Unlike Hemingway, he deserts from the Italian army and runs away with the nurse.

Much has been written, said, and argued about Hemingway's "iceberg theory" of writing -- he tried to record the outward motions of his characters and let most of the emotions ride below the surface, unwritten yet tangible. It's a style that I dig, but not everyone does. Still, if you've never read him and would like to, Farewell is a good place to start, as it's more accessible than The Old Man and the Sea, more engaging than The Sun Also Rises, but not as long as For Whom the Bell Tolls.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Mar. 11, 2010.)

"Ina May's Guide to Childbirth" by Ina May Gaskin

My friend Julie recommended Ina May's Guide to Childbirth to me when I was pregnant with my first baby. Reading it prepared me for giving birth more than anything else I read or watched or was told during my entire first pregnancy. Naturally, I turned to it again while pregnant with by next baby to refresh my memory. If you or someone you know is pregnant right now, even if you're/they're not considering a midwife-assisted birth, I strongly recommend this book as an excellent preparatory tool.

Ina May Gaskin is widely recognized as the nation's premier midwife. She's attended more than 1,200 births, so I think you'll agree she knows what she's writing about here. In this book, she guides the reader through the birthing process with a friendly, knowledgeable style.

The first 120 pages are filled with birth stories told by many, many mothers from all walks of life and spanning decades. Some of them gave birth in a hospital and had a later child with a midwife, while others turned to midwives right away. I especially found this first section to be helpful because it illustrates how different every birth is, and how following your body's signals and doing what it seems to need can lead to a quicker, easier birth.

The rest of the book is a guide to pregnancy and birth, from advice on how to choose a practitioner that's right for you, to a step-by-step explanation of the stages of childbirth, to a discussion of modern midwifery.

While this is definitely a pro-midwifery book, it does not take the stance that all hospitals are bad places to give birth. Not all mothers are suited to natural childbirth, and at-risk pregnancies are generally better off at a hospital with emergency medical intervention at hand if needed. But for someone like me who wants to have natural births, a midwife-assisted birth is definitely a sound option.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Mar. 3, 2010.)

"The White Queen" by Philippa Gregory

You may remember me listing this book in my sidebar a couple months ago as the book I was currently reading. When I checked it out from the library that time, it was so new it was still a "7 Days" book that wasn't renewable. I don't have a huge amount of time to read right now, and I wasn't able to finish reading it before it was due. I finally got it again after a few months, and finished it this week.

I love historical fiction. Actually, I just love history. I love learning about how people lived long ago, seeing how different, and yet how similar, they were to people today. Along with mysteries, historical fiction is probably my favorite genre.

But I did not love The White Queen by Philippa Gregory.

I didn't hate it either. This book was well-researched and well-written, no question about that. And the main character, Elizabeth Woodville (wife of England's King Edward IV), is a complex, believable heroine. The dialog was great, and the description was well balanced -- I could envision the world inside the book, but I wasn't overwhelmed with minutiae.

But after a while, I honestly got bored by all the court intrigue and political finagling, the endless alliances and double-crosses. I kept wanting everyone to just settle down and live peaceably for a chapter or two. It didn't help that half the female characters were named Elizabeth, and most of the men were named Edward, Richard, or George. That got a bit confusing at times, trying to keep everyone straight, like the reverse problem from Russian novels where every character has six different names and nicknames. None of this was the author's fault -- Gregory was dealing with real people and real events. They just weren't the kinds that interest me deeply.

So if you like historical fiction about royalty, chock-full of court intrigue and the machinations of power-hungry people, you'll like this book. If that's not your thing, then you -- like me -- may end up wishing for it to end a hundred or so pages before it does.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Feb. 20, 2010.)

"By Myself" by Lauren Bacall

I've been a fan of Lauren Bacall since the first time I saw her in a movie, which was To Have and Have Not (1944). I saw it in high school, when I was probably seventeen or eighteen -- only a year or two younger than Bacall was when she made that film. I've seen her in nine or ten other films since then, and my admiration has grown with each viewing. Her characters are cool, sophisticated... and yet, they always have a sweet vulnerability that keeps me from getting annoyed by her.

So when I found her autobiography, By Myself, at a used bookstore, I couldn't resist it. And I'm happy to report that it has enhanced my admiration of her, not tarnished it. The book traces her life from growing up in a single-parent family in New York City during the 1930s through her fantastic burst on the Hollywood scene, her marriage to Humphrey Bogart, and her life post-Bogie as she struggled through other relationships, raised her three children, and made a place for herself on Broadway.

Bogart and Bacall in "To Have and Have Not"
This is a poignant, honest book, with a measure of soul-searching that I'm not accustomed to in autobiographies. As she says toward the end of it, "When I plunge I do plunge; halfway is not my way." (pg. 358). Throughout this book, she shows how throwing herself wholeheartedly into everything, be it a film or stage role or a personal relationship, has both its advantages and disadvantages.

My only disappointment with this book is that it ends before Bacall makes The Shootist (1976) with John Wayne -- I would love to have heard her thoughts on an older, ailing Duke, as she had some kind things to say about him when she discussed making Blood Alley with him in the '50s. But Bacall has written two more autobiographies, and I'm sure she covers the making of The Shootist in one of them.

If you're a fan of Bacall's, or simply of classic Hollywood, this book is an enjoyable read that feels like a chat with a friend over a cup of coffee or two. Thoroughly engaging, even in the sad parts.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Jan. 11, 2010.)