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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book Review: "Drood" by Dan Simmons

“Drood” chronicles the last five years of Charles Dickens’ life as told from the first person perspective of Dickens’ friend and some-time collaborator, fellow author Wilkie Collins. It is a story of the creative process, of the limits of friendship and sympathy, of addictive behavior, and destructive tendencies of envy. Simmons has taken on a momentous undertaking – reconciling the abundance of history from Dickens’ time, and describing it through the lens of psychological horror.

The book is long, at times it plods. I frequently wished it were a couple hundred pages shorter. In fairness to Simmons, this book shouldn’t be read strictly as a fast-paced novel of suspense. Taking advantage of the popularity of Simmons’ previous book, “The Terror”, I found the marketing of this newer work to be misleading. This book is less about Dickens than Collins. It is less about the mysterious and horrible figure of Drood, than of the inner workings of Collins’ own demented mind.

It is a curious thing that Simmons chose to tell the story the way in which he does. As narrator, the laudanum-addicted Collins is inherently an untrustworthy voice. Consequently, his narrative has inexplicable elements that can unnerve the reader. But clearly this is a deliberate effort on Simmons’ part and it is effective if, at times, frustrating.

Admittedly, I did not like “Drood” as much as I’d hoped I would; “The Terror” was one of my favorite books of 2007. I had hoped for a similar if not superior reading experience. Nevertheless, Simmons has done an extraordinary thing maintaining Collins’ unlikeable voice throughout the entirety of the book, and from the little cross-referencing I did of both Dickens’ and Collins’ biographies, Simmons’ adherence to the historical sequence of events and facts from the authors’ pasts, is surprisingly tight. It is also most clever how Simmons borrows elements from both Collins’ and Dickens’ work during those final five years, 1865 to 1870, especially “The Moonstone” and the unfinished “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

“Drood” should be read, but not in a vacuum. Read also short histories of Collins and Dickens. Read “The Moonstone”(by Collins) and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (by Dickens). Make a game of it.

“Drood” is a good book if for no other reason than it inspired in me a much greater and interest and appreciation for the life and work of Charles Dickens.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Year in Reading

1. "The Year of Living Biblically" by A.J. Jacobs
2. "Born Standing Up" by Steve Martin
3. "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving
4. "Two for the Dough" by Janet Evanovich
5. "Talking Hands" by Margalit Fox
6. "Empress of Asia" by Adam Lewis Schroeder
7. "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznik
8. "Disappearance: A Map" by Sheila Nickerson
9. "Heart-Shaped Box" by Joe Hill
10. "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan

11. "The Chess Machine" by Robert Lohr
12. "The Dead Fathers Club" by Matt Haig
13. "Danny Gospel" by David Athey
14. "Take This Bread" by Sara Miles
15. "The Translator" by Daoud Hari
16. "Patrick" by Stephen Lawhead

17. "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks
18. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" by Jeff Kinney
19. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules" by Jeff Kinney
20. "Nine Parts of Desire" by Geraldine Brooks
21. "Wrack and Ruin" by Don Lee
22. "The Other Boleyn Girl" by Philippa Gregory
23. "I, Elizabeth" by Rosalind Miles

24. “Lying Awake” by Mark Salzman
25. “The Enchantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie
26. “The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse” by Robert Rankin
27. “Imagine Me and You” by Billy Mernit
28. “Time and Again” by Jack Finney
29. “Lunch Money” by Andrew Clements
30. “Dervishes” by Beth Helms
31. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
32. “Belong to Me” by Marisa de los Santos

33. “Bridge of Birds” by Barry Hughart
34. “Duma Key” by Stephen King
35. “America America” by Ethan Canin
36. “Avalon High” by Meg Cabot
37. “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer
38. “Jim the Boy” by Tony Earley

39. “Bonk” by Mary Roach
40. “Enchantment” by Orson Scott Card
41. “A Great and Terrible Beauty” by Libba Bray
42. “The Outcast” by Sadie Jones
43. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Kevin” by Kevin Keck
44. “New Moon” by Stephenie Meyer
45. “Rebel Angels” by Libba Bray
46. “Biblioholism” by Tom Raabe
47. “Dreamers of the Day” by Mary Doria Russell
48. “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks
49. “Sabriel” by Garth Nix
50. “Eclipse” by Stephenie Meyer

51. “Mister Sandman” by Barbara Gowdy
52. “Jim and Casper Go to Church” by Jim Henderson
53. “P.S. I Love You” by Cecelia Ahern
54. “The Sweet Far Thing” by Libba Bray
55. “Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Phillips
56. “Rules” by Cynthia Lord
57. “Whales on Stilts” by M. T. Anderson
58. “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer
59. “The Lambs of London” by Peter Ackroyd
60. “The Toyminator” by Robert Rankin
61. “The Monster of Florence” by Douglas Preston

62. “The Third Angel” by Alice Hoffman
63. “The Blue Star” by Tony Earley
64. “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff
65. “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” by Heather Lende
66. “Cool It” by Bjorn Lomborg
67. “Books: A Memoir” by Larry McMurtry
68. “Lavinia” by Ursula K. LeGuin
69. “The Gargoyle” by Andrew Davidson
70. “The Man Who Loved China” by Simon Winchester

71. “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
72. “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga
73. “Breaking Dawn” by Stephenie Meyer
74. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson
75. “Watchmen” by Alan Moore
76. “Any Given Doomsday” by Lori Handeland

77. “The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry
78. “The Brief History of the Dead” by Kevin Brockmeier
79. “Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonathan Lethem
80. “The Antipope” by Robert Rankin
81. “Looking for Alaska” by John Green
82. “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett
83. “The Witches of Eastwick” by John Updike

84. “The Color of Magic” by Terry Pratchett
85. “March” by Geraldine Brooks
86. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
87. “An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green
88. “The Giver” by Lois Lowry
89. “The Last Sin Eater” by Francine Rivers
90. “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink
91. “Here’s the Story” by Maureen McCormick
92. “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing” by M. T. Anderson
93. “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka
94. “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken
95. “The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky” by Ken Dornstein
96. “The Case of the Linoleum Lederhosen” by M. T. Anderson
97. “Feed” by M. T. Anderson
98. “Paper Towns” by John Green

99. “The Jewel of Median” by Sherry Jones
100. “The Suburban Christian” by Albert Y. Hsu
101. “Thirsty” by M. T. Anderson
102. “The Small Woman” by Alan Burgess
103. “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld
104. “I Once Was Lost” by Don Everts
105. “The Brentford Triangle” by Robert Rankin
106. “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” by Alan Garner
107. “Doubting” by Alister McGrath
108. “Garden Spells” by Sarah Addison Allen
109. “The Sugar Queen” by Sarah Addison Allen
110. “The Buried Book” by David Damrosch

It was a good year for reading. Inspired by the discussion thread I joined early in the year on LibraryThing.com (The 2008 75-Book Challenge), I pushed myself to meet goal. “Cheating” a bit, I read a great many more books for youth (shorter than most adult novels) than I ever had before (since I was last a youth myself, that is). Happily, I discovered some great youth lit authors. In particular I am impressed with M. T. Anderson and John Green, and also greatly enjoyed Libba Bray’s trilogy.

Ten of the books I read were advanced readers’ copies, sent free from publishers in exchange for internet-posted reviews. One of those books ended up being my favorite book of the year: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” which actually became a best-seller and was even well-enough received to be sold at Costco (a literary accolade that not even Pulitzer and Man Booker winners can necessarily boast).

I started two humorous series by British authors: the well-known Disc World series by Terry Pratchett, and the lesser known (in the US, anyway) Brentford series by Robert Rankin.

There was only one re-read for the year: John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” which I enjoyed even more the second time around, and remains my favorite book of all time.

I read my first ever graphic novel this year: the acclaimed “Watchmen” by Alan Moore, which also rates in the year’s top five.

My least-favorite book of the year was (surprising even to myself for the irony of the thing): “Books: A Memoir” by Larry McMurtry.

There were very brief email exchanges between myself and five of the authors I read this year, all of whom were very generous with their time and comments, especially when responding to critiques from me. Sherry Jones, Marisa de los Santos, and David Athey wrote books that were sent to me as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. They were kind enough to respond to my reviews. Al Hsu was kind enough to respond to an inquiry from me regarding his nonfiction book, and sent some much-appreciated supplementary material. Kevin Keck read my disappointed review of his book on this blog, and graciously responded. After our brief exchange, I found myself liking his book a whole lot more.

According my calculations, I added 1,860 books to my personal library in 2008. This doesn’t include children’s picture books, but does include everything else from Junie B. Jones to “Mein Kampf”. This is the equivalent to purchasing 156 books per month, or 36 per week, or 5 per day. I purchased 17 times the number of books read. I've no idea how much money I spent accomplishing this, but its fair to say the vast majority were purchased second-hand.

My faves of the year in order of preference (not including my one re-read)(they almost couldn’t be more different):

1. “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer
2. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
3. “Looking for Alaska” by John Green
4. “Watchmen” by Alan Moore
5. (A three-way tie) “The Year of Living Biblically” by A. J. Jacobs, “Nine Parts of Desire” by Geraldine Brooks, and “Time and Again” by Jack Finney

Happy reading in 2009!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Book Review: The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones

Earlier this year, in an attempt to learn more about Islam, I spent some time trying to find a fictionalized account of Muhammad’s life. At the time, I felt this would be a starting point for learning more about the foundations of Islam. Though my search was certainly not exhaustive, it was purposeful, but in the end I didn’t find any historical fiction about early Islam. I remembered thinking this seemed odd; a completely unmet literary niche. But since I had no plans to write such a book myself, I settled instead for a couple of nonfiction books by Karen Armstrong, which were highly recommended as primers about Muhammad and Islam.

By the time Sherry Jones’ book “The Jewel of Medina” became an LT ER option, I’d forgotten about my earlier quest to find historical Islamic fiction. Consequently, I neglected to realize that “The Jewel of Medina” is actually something of an extraordinary undertaking. It wasn’t until I was well over half way through the book that I learned about its controversial publication.

“The Jewel of Medina” tells the story of A’isha, who was married to Muhammad at a very young age (nine?). Her story explores the unique perspective of not only being a child bride, but also of being one of many wives. A’isha’s life occurs during a significant historical crossroads; she was witness to the birth of one of the world’s great religions, and all the bumps that attended that birth. It is also a story about love and friendship, communication and trust. It illustrates A’isha’s journey towards finding peace with oneself and one’s lot in life. While Muhammad is certainly a central character, this is a book about women, and its plotline is driven by their actions and feelings.

From a strictly literary standpoint, the book is mediocre. It is a moderately engaging story; neither difficult book to put down or difficult to pick up. Jones spends most of her time drawing the female characters and fleshing them out (specifically from A’isha’s perspective; the book is written in the first person). There is little room given to the sights, smells, and atmosphere of being in 7th Century Middle East. Consequently, that place to which the reader longs to step into is disappointingly blank. Little of the imagery lingers; there is little sensory stimulation. This was disappointment for me, because the aspect of historical fiction I most enjoy is to be transported to another place and time.

Authors are supposed to write what they know, and though Jones is certainly a woman and writes about women’s issues, she isn’t Muslim. Jones’ characters seem to be drawn heavily from a 20th Century perspective. There is a chasm of character-intuition that is self-defeating. This is a book more about feminism, 7th Century-style, and less about Islam itself.

Furthermore, I kept encountering the fatal flaw of a lot of historical fiction: how much of the story can be trusted as factual? For me, and a lot of my reading friends, this is a significant question. When this question comes between me and my ability to absorb the story, there is a problem. Especially when the story in unfamiliar territory. Jones’ novel is relationally-driven, rather than driven by historical fact.

For a story about the origins of one of history’s most influential and significant religions, the book is notably void of spirituality. This may be part of the inherent problem with writing about another person’s faith. The lack of Muhammad’s poetic revelations is notable. Everyone in the story seems to be paying lip service to “al-Lah”, but there seems to be no real “showing it” examples of the characters being molded and shaped by God. There is no sense of any character – Muhammad included – having a genuine encounter with God.

On the plus side, what Jones does right is to make her characters fully human. Despite their historical importance, they make mistakes; they are driven by lust, greed, and selfishness. In this sense, they are real and accessible. Even if it is from a 20th Century Western feminist perspective, there were times when I had to pause reading the book and imagine myself in a similar culture and time.

Is it possible for a non-Muslim, Western woman to tell this story? This question nagged at me from the get-go. And clearly, this seems to underlay many of my comments. Certainly, it is a story that should be written, as should many other stories about Islam. And if Muslim men and women won’t do it, who then is left?

Turning the question around, could a book about Jesus Christ written by an atheist be relevant? As a Christian, my answer to that question is: yes. If only to understand how someone outside of my belief system views its foundation and founder, yes, such a book would be very valuable. (And many such books – both respectful and scathing - have been written.) It is also likely there would be parts that would seem to “misunderstand” my faith, and perhaps even be offensive. But in a pluralistic society it is a hopeful sign when people of different worldviews and cultural contexts deeply try to respectfully understand and honor each other.

This is certainly what Sherry Jones has tried to do. No, she’s didn’t get everything right, but who of us ever does? It’s a place to start. If you enjoy Philippa Gregory’s books, and if you liked Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” I suspect you might enjoy “The Jewel of Medina.”

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Sunday, November 16, 2008


Note to self: Read every book ever written by author M. T. Anderson. Stop at nothing. Stoop to borrowing library books if necessary. Should the goal become fuzzy, remember: The man is a literary genius.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Moon Faeries: A Poem by Sabrina, Age 8

Moon Faeries

(A Poem by Sabrina, Age 8)

Each moon has dark and light.
Each dewdrop twinkles like the stars
Making laughter turn into silence.
As the silence has a sound,
The sound echoes through someone’s ears;
The moon faeries.

One dewdrop like a tsunami.
‘Tis a nocturnal creature;
Thou lovable.
And through the night their singing is like a lullaby,
Gentle and sweet
Making time end through a lullaby.
Sweet and fair, partying with goblins and elves,
Finding themselves eating the crisp and juicy fruit.

Humans could not bear to only hear stories
Of parties every night,
Wanting to dance with the faeries
Eat with the elves
And chat the most lively chats looking at the humming rats.

Now would you run at this sight?
Most people find themselves in bed
Tangled in thread.
Was it a dream?
Still, the beam of laughter echoes through his ears.


Well, I never thought it could happen to me. It was always something that “happened to other people”. But here it is: I’ve gone low carb.

I can’t believe it. I’m not hungry anymore. I can only eat smallish portions. I don’t get low blood sugar. The extra weight is starting to drop off. I don’t crave “white food” anymore. I have energy and I’m feeling pretty good emotionally, and my typically hellacious PMS was ignorable. Is this how it feels to be NORMAL?

For example, lunch today was a lentil and spinach salad with some feta, cucumbers, onion and a tiny bit of low cal dressing. I made a huge portion because it’s mostly vegetables and lots of fiber, and I figured after nothing but a protein drink for breakfast, and then my workout, I would have a hearty appetite. Alas, a few bites in, and I am stuffed.

This is so weird.

Yes, I’m still drinking some “carbs” after 4pm (can’t give THAT up), but it doesn’t seem to matter. This is truly amazing.

I’ll tell ya. Going to the gym (daily) is (starting) to change my life.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book Review: "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow

Several years ago, I worked at an art gallery here in Anchorage. Though I loved the art, I wasn’t much good at selling it. More often than not, I just chatted up the customers, who were from all over the world.

One night, four elderly people wandered in. They told me they were from a tiny island off the coast of southern England called “Guernsey”. I’d never heard of it, so they proudly explained it was the only part of British soil that had been occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The island was occupied for a long five years; an experience to which they had all been witnesses. At that moment, Guernsey was marked in my mind.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow’s new book, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is an opportunity to travel back in time to 1946 Guernsey.

Beginning early 1946 in London, Juliet Ashton, a British writer, and former war journalist, is emerging from the ashes of the war to rebuild her life and her identity. She has lost her home and all her possessions, most regrettably her book collection. Out of the blue, she responds to correspondence started by a resident of Guernsey, who has managed to obtain a second-hand book once owned by Juliet, in which she had long ago written her name and address. Through this initial contact, Juliet meets an entire community, and the course of her life is redirected.

Easily reminiscent of Helene Hanff’s epistolary classic, “84 Charing Cross Road”, the novel is written in the epistolary style. Shaffer and Barrow skillfully use this medium to successfully establish their characters and a solid storyline.

Charming, funny, sweet, and thoughtful, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” is a story that women might find more appealing than men. Yet, it is unflinching in its wartime recollections. The deprivations and devastation of the time are imaginatively and convincingly conveyed.

At its core, this is a book about the love of reading, and the magic of books.

I highly, highly recommend “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”. Buy this book new and send a royalty in the direction of these lovely writers.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

June 2008 Reading List

June was a great month for reading. I read twelve books, five of which were from the library. These days, since it costs more to keep my gas tank full, I'm trying to check out more library books. This means I have to read more and faster to get through them and still be able to read some of what I own.

The asterisks following each entry indicates on a 5-point scale how I liked it.

1. "Bonk" by Mary Roach (***)
2. "Enchantment" by Orson Scott Card (**)
3. "A Great and Terrible Beauty" by Libba Bray (****)
4. "The Outcast" by Sadie Jones (****)
5. "Are You There God, It's Me. Kevin." by Kevin Keck (*)
6. "New Moon" by Stephenie Meyer (**)
7. "Rebel Angels" by Libba Bray (****)
8. "Biblioholism" by Tom Raabe (*****)
9. "Dreamers of the Day" by Mary Doria Russell (****)
10. "Year of Wonders" by Geraldine Brooks (***)
11. "Sabriel" by Garth Nix (***)
12. "Eclipse" by Stephenie Meyer (***)

I'm six books into July so far. I've been reading a couple short youth books to get my numbers up. I didn't much reading done on vacation.

The weather in Anchorage is unusually cool for this time in July - by about 10 degrees. It's also wetter than usual. More like August weather. I'm triply glad I got a dose of heat and sun while in Seattle.

Book Review: "Mister Sandman" by Barbara Gowdy

“’The truth is only aversion.’” – Sonja Canary

In this beautifully written novel, the reader is introduced to each member of the Canary family. Early on it becomes clear that a great deal of how this unconventional family functions is through deceit. At first, it seems like this is a family doomed to destruction and angst. Afterall, the truth can only be buried so long. And, don’t most contemporary novels featuring highly dysfunctional families end sadly?

Happily, in “Mister Sandman”, what ultimately shines through each character’s obvious flaws is a genuine love, protection and devotion to each other that is endearing and comical. Joan, the family’s ethereal and mute youngest member, becomes the sounding board to whom the rest of the family divulges their secrets. She is a silent observer, a gravitational force that pulls the family inward and keeps it together. Later, she is also the catalyst for moving everyone together towards greater honesty with themselves and each other.

In Nancy Pearl’s “BookLust”, “Mister Sandman” is recommended as a “Coming Out” novel. Gowdy’s story is indeed frankly sexual. But whatever a reader’s comfort level with honest sexuality, I have seldom read a book with stronger characterizations, whose every sentence – nee, every word – is purposeful, thoughtful, and necessary to the story.

Though this is a family inherently averse to truth, it is their duplicity that gives them authentic dimensionality. While their dishonesty is never overtly approved of, neither is it the means to the Canary’s destruction.

“Mister Sandman” reminds me of John Irving’s early books minus the angst. I definitely want to read more of Gowdy’s books. I recently purchased “The White Bone”, a story told from the perspective of an elephant. With such far-reaching literary abilities, Gowdy deserves to become better-known in the United States.

“Mister Sandman” was an absolute pleasure to read. Despite such a vastly odd cast of characters and strange family mix, this is an uplifting story of a family whose devotion to each other rises above everything else.

“They could be a family spending a day at the beach together. If they were on a beach. If it was day.”

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