Friday, August 31, 2007

Not Just Another Teen Movie

This last week I finished two books that I really enjoyed, but they also reminded me of how happy I am not to be a teenager. The worlds of Jessica Darling and Philip Noble are continents and genres apart, but yet they meshed well. That's a good thing since I was bopping back and forth between them.

The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig reads like the love child of Hamlet and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The story is a reworking of Hamlet only the Danish prince is eleven-year-old Philip Noble, who lives in Newark-on-Trent (which incidently is the town where the author grew up). The novel is written entirely from Philip's point of view and in his hurried, slightly scattered, punctuation-free voice. Philip first sees his dead father in the family pub. Philip's father reveals many things to him--that he was killed by Philip's uncle (the car accident was no accident), that there is actually a club for fathers who have been murdered, and that if Philip doesn't exact revenge on his uncle by his father's birthday, his dad will be consigned to "The Horrors" (a sort of ghost hell). How Philip deals with this while at the same time living the stressful adolescent life of a middle-schooler (bullies, girls, etc) makes for a intriguing tale. I loved the echoes of Hamlet, which I then wanted to re-read to look for echoes of The Dead Father's Club, but I liked how Haig wasn't constrained by the original.

By the way, Matt Haig's website is fun. There's a humorous (though I don't know if it's supposed to be) tour of Newark-on-Trent led by Haig and some sort of literary reporter. The questions about the town are uttered in such a tone of impassioned seriousness, that I couldn't watch it without snickering.

Switching gears from Newark-on-Trent to Pineville, New Jersey . . . which is the setting of Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty. I believe the novel is classified in many libraries as Young Adult (and I'm a big fan of the YA genre) but I think that this novel is for anybody who experienced angst and embarrassment and alienation in high school (so pretty much everybody, yeah?). Jessica Darling, our hero, is smart, sarcastic, a track star, and having a really bad sophmore year. Her best friend, Hope, has recently moved away, and Jessica is realizing how alone she really is--her other friends don't really feel like her friends, her mother is fixated on her older, blonder sister's upcoming nuptials, and her dad seems only able to talk to her about running. She has a wicked crush on a senior, who doesn't know she exists (because she's never actually spoken to him.)

It's the usual teen angst, but funneled through a really strong point of view--Jessica's. I suspect this is the type of book that would get banned at the high school level because it talks most realistically about teen sex, drug use, etc. but that is part of it's power I think. There is a touch of the romance/chick lit genre in the story, but I don't think that's a bad thing. It just means one of the plots focuses on a developing relationship, and I have no problem with my main characters getting some action.

I would say Jessica Darling is a tribute to Molly Ringwald's character in Sixteen Candles. At one point, Jessica even references the John Hughes oeuvre (yes, had to check the spelling of that in the dictionary). If you always wondered what happened to that character after the movie ended (when she realized that hunky gymnast was a bit boring), this is the perfect book for you.

The book does end a bit suddenly for me, but the good news is that McCafferty has already finished Charmed Thirds so I don't have to say goodbye to Jessica Darling yet.

I highly recommend spending time with both these characters--their voices are still echoing in my head.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Black Hills Reading

Just back from our adventure to the Black Hills. As J. told me earlier in the summer, we had a blast. Tons and tons to do - we merely scratched the surface. Now that we have done a few of the requisite "touristy" things, we'd like to go back and spend more time doing the outdoorsy stuff. We even, much to our surprise, think we might (might) consider camping. EGAD!

The garden aspect of this trip was fabulous. Prairie plants galore!! After I've had time to go through the pictures, I'll do a bit of prairie writing. Unfortunately, it has been extremely dry this summer, so the prairies weren't quite as colorful as usual. But I still learned a ton.

We arrived home last night having driving through storms near St. Peter that had the night before washed out roads near where were staying by Custer State Park, and a few hours after we drove through them, killed people near Winona, MN. Needless to say, we are grateful to be home. It was not a fun drive.

However, books. I did not have as much time to read or listen to books as I had thought. We were busy! I did get to finish a book I had read previously - the third title in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, Pardonable Lies. I had forgotten most of the details. Rereading a book can be a good thing - you get to enjoy it all over again. This series does not have quite the grab for me as the Mary Russell books, but they are enjoyable. The writing is fine, not fabulous, and the mysteries somehow always end up being intertwined. Amazing coincidences are commonplace. Now, this doesn't seem to be a resounding endorsement, but I have found the characters likable and spending time in fictional post-WWI England has been educational.

(If I had stayed in teaching, I wanted to develop a course to teach history through fiction. Well written historical fiction can be a great teaching tool -- some people, including me, learn history much better through stories, rather than chronological texts. This is a basis for the field of "public history" - and I expect I could work up a freestanding blog entry on this subject alone. )

Thursday, August 16, 2007

School's in Session

It had to happen. The summer ended for me this Monday when I was called back to the college where I work for "Orientation Week." Classes start next week (which I am excited about), but this week I have gotten to sit through meeting after meeting. It's not that the information I'm learning isn't interesting or useful, but after so many hours spent SITTING in room after room, I have the brain power of a turnip (or maybe a squash!)

Still . . . I'm reading and in a rather "sluttish" way, to quote my friend, Nell. I'm halfway through The Bourne Supremacy and also halfway through The Good, the Bad, and the Undead. As if that weren't enough, I've been coquettishly eyeing The Dead Father's Club--a book I picked up from my local library (and that I have 14 Days, well 8 days now . . . to read). I have to say that this work thing is really getting in the way of my reading. Sigh.

Anyway, I'm enjoying The Bourne Supremacy partly because it is so different from the Doug Liman/Paul Greengrass film versions. There is no way they could film this novel (or the one before it) so they just took the basic premise and built a new filmic text around it. Robert Ludlum writes in such a detailed/dense way that I often finding myself having to slow down. Though I loved Franke Potente's (sp?) Marie in the movie, she's even better in the book . . . and I'm hoping she lives longer. :(

I am also enjoying the second book in Kim Harrison's series about an alternate universe version of greater Cincinnati populated with witches, vampires, and other supernatural creatures. It's just fun. I devoured the first one, Dead Witch Walking, and am happy to see that there are many more in the series waiting for me. It's got that "Buffy" sense of horror, romance, and lots of humor.

I have not had a moment this week to go out and take some snaps of my garden in all its overgrown craziness. It's pretty much a vegetable jungle at this point and will serve as a nice contrast to S's lovely flower bed.

Happy reading all!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gardens, finally

I've been meaning to do a quick garden post, since we intended to blog a bit about gardens, as well as books.

I recently hired the daughter of a colleague of mine to come and do some garden work. She's a junior in college. And I made her work outside in the 90+ degree weather! I am so grateful - she dug beds for me that I've been wanting to dig for 5 years!

We also dug a new rain garden. I'm obsessed with rain gardens. We don't have any water problems, but I think they are nifty. The point of them is to have a low bowl shaped area where the rain collects. The plants and low area help absorb the water, preventing too much runoff into storm sewers, parking lots, or houses.

I dug one last year, but we expanded it. Now I have the fun part of deciding which plants to plant. Unlike most of my gardens, I'm actually going to plan out the rain garden. Certain plants like to be in the low area (swamp milkweed and cardnial flower, both of which are barely visible in the background of this picture.) Others prefer to be on the edge, such as blazing star, lupine or little bluestem.

This is a picture of the newly dug area. The Japenese lilac is in the "dry" edge. I'll be filling in the wood chipped area this fall. More pictures then!

Laurie R. King VBC

I believe I mentioned Laurie R. King in a recent post, and today have come across a mention of a Virtual Book Club for her titles. Pretty nifty. I've been on a listserv for the Mary Russell series for a couple of years, and it has been very entertaining. I have enjoyed reading the posts and analysis from readers all over the world, and have also really enjoyed getting recommendations of other books to read.

Looks like there is a new Laurie King book coming out this year, titled, Touchstone. (link is to her blog about the book....) It is not a Mary Russell or Kate Martinelli book, however. Oh well. I am hopeful - it sounds interesting. I admit I have not enjoyed a couple of her stand alone titles - Folly, A Darker Place. I did really enjoy Califia's Daughter's , though.

I will be absent from this blog for a few days -- we are heading to the Black Hills. I just hope it's not 100 degrees all week! I have picked up Holes by Louis Sachar, and The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to take along as audio books for our trip. Should be fun!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Kid Lit

From time to time, you may find me discussing kid's books. Now, most of these books I read to the kidlets. And, once in awhile, I really, really like the book!

Take the one I'm reading right now to the 7-year old... "Joe Sherlock, Kid Detective: Case 000003." I love Sherlock Holmes pastiches - even more than I like the Canon. The best, of course, is the Mary Russell series by Laurie King. (I'm sure J and I would welcome a discussion of these books at some point....) But, I must admit, this Joe Sherlock is entertaining.

Yes, it's written to entertain the 7-year old. Some crude body humor; 2-3 grade sentence structure; etc., but what a fun way to make it entertain the parents, too! This kid is a detective, loves Sherlock Holmes. His last name just happens to be Sherlock, and he goes by Sherlock. He happens to live in Baskerville, on Baker Street, and his arch nemisis is a girl named Irene Adler. I'm sure I'm missing more, because I am in no way an expert on the Canon (I told you- I prefer the pastiches!!)

However, I am going to use this to try to read a few of the stories to the 7-year old. I think he'd find a few of them entertaining..... any suggestions from any Holmes fans out there?

How Do You Know When to Stop Reading?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot since I finished Chris Bohjalian’s The Double Bind. He’s the guy who wrote the book, Midwives, which I haven’t read but which people keep recommending to my sister (because she’s in the process of becoming a midwife.) I had put the book on my “to read” list after it was featured as a Powell’s Bookstore Daily Dose. The description was intriguing—a homeless man’s photos suck a young social worker into a more complicated mystery—involving identity and reality.

However, as I started to read, the book left me curiously cold. I never really connected with the main character—not because she wasn’t likable and interesting but because the author never really put me in her head in any useful way. I felt like I was reading a cliff notes version of the actual story. I almost stopped reading a number of times—especially because I have a tantalizing pile of books “to be read” sitting on my shelf. However, I must have a deep-seated need not to be seen as a “quitter” because I kept slogging away.

When I finished the novel, I wondered why I had bothered. I won’t give any plot points away, but I literally wanted to throw the book against the wall. (However, it was a library book so I refrained.) The basic plot of the book has so much potential as a literary (literate) thriller but the execution was . . . bah!! In the hands of writers like Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, or Harlen Coben, this story could have worked and worked well. If you’re going to write a “thriller,” you have to work to make it suspenseful and complexly structured (dare I say, “thrilling”) and “point of view” is important. Bohjalian gives us multiple viewpoints but they don’t enhance the story much (and they end up making the reader feel cheated . . . or at least this reader.)

My advice is to skip this book and go read Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know or Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane.

So, what makes you all stop reading? Or, do you slog through no matter how dismal or unenjoyable a book is? Is that the literary equivalent of eating something because it’s supposed to be good for you? I don’t know. Sometimes I start reading a book but lose interest only to pick the book up later and really enjoy it. This is different, though. How bad does a book have to get for you to stop?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Cabin Break

Took a little respite for a cabin trip. We went with two high school friends and their families. 8 kids between 4 - 10; 6 adults. A great time was had by all. But very little Harry Potter discussion! The two friends are both teachers - one 2nd grade, the other is middle school. Neither of them have read more than Sorcerer's Stone. So, not much discussion. I think they thought I was a bit nutty being so obsessed.... their loss!

To address some of J.'s points.... I concur that I liked the epilogue. It somehow put the whole story in a good place. It was so dark in spots, that I think I needed to know that good won out over evil. And come on, aren't we all a bit curious about what everyone ended up doing later? Good thing J.K. Rowling suggests in her interviews that she may do a Harry Potter encyclopedia!

I admit, I was curious about who raised Teddy Lupin. No, I didn't really HAVE to know, but I am curious. Interesting tidbits in the interview with J.K. about why Tonks and Lupin died....

I love the concept of a "Scooby gang!" It is a very fitting analogy for life, too. I often find that reconnecting with my Scooby Gang is highly beneficial for my happiness. This weekend, for example. One of the moms, K, I've known since 3rd grade. Mind you, we did not like each other much for some of that year, but quickly became friends. We've known C. since 10th grade when she beat us at cross country, but we got even by making her go out for the ski team.

Back to Deathly Hallows. I saw a letter to the editor from someone who hadn't read the books, as J. said, because of their evil anti-Christian witchcraft stance. As a non-Christian, I actually found this book following that angle - Harry is killed for the good of the world, then is risen? Hmmmm... sounds familiar.

My 10-year old just started listening to Deathly Hallows. Jim Dale is wonderful! I'll let you know how she reacts to the book. I am not letting my 7-year old read/listen to it yet. He's still on GOF, and I think I'll leave him there for awhile.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Writer's Block

Yesterday morning, I sat down at my computer, fully expecting to write a post about the final installment of Harry Potter, but I couldn’t. I kept going back to the TV and flipping between coverage of the 35W bridge collapse on the Today Show and CNN. Ironically, I had heard the news the night before on BBC Radio while driving home from the gym. When I got home, I turned on the TV and, shades of September 11th, ended up watching CNN coverage until about 11 pm. Though I no longer live in the Twin Cities, many of my friends do—including S. I fired off a bunch of emails of the “Is everyone all right?” variety, but in the morning, I still hadn’t heard back from many folks. So, I found it impossible to think about Harry in any concrete or organized way.

It’s a day later and I just read S’s post. Most of my friends have checked in and said they were all right and so I’m breathing a bit easier. I definitely agree with S’s sentiment about appreciate what you have . . . NOW. It was in this idea that I came back to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.


Overall, I thought JK did a good job of wrapping things up, keeping some things nicely complicated, but also emphasizing themes that have been in the books from the very beginning. I didn’t mind the epilogue because I thought it struck a successful balance of giving us a glimpse of the future for many characters but not telling us too much. Do we really need to know Hermione’s job title? I don’t. Do we need to know who raised Teddy Lupin? I don’t. I guess I like some things left to the imagination.

For all those who have refused to read the Harry Potter books because of their “Satanic” nature, they are missing a series that strongly emphasizes “family values,” both the importance of family and friendship. Perhaps I have been primed to see these elements because of time spent in the Buffyverse (gotta love that term!). Like Buffy, Harry successfully defeats Voldemort not just because of his own individual qualities, but because of his relationships with others, Ron and Hermione in particular. They are his “Scooby gang.” He is so much more with them (and with Luna and Neville and so on) than without them.

This book, combined with recent events, reminds me of the importance of my own Scooby Gang, no matter how separated we are now by distance. I wrote a long overdue email to a friend in the Twin Cities this morning because I realized we hadn’t talked in while, and I wanted to reconnect. It’s so easy to let relationships go when life gets in the way, but I’ll take a cue from Harry and try not to let that happen.

Hmm. What would Buffy do? What would Harry do? Not bad.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

A Day of Perspective

A posting off our intended topics, but one that should bring us all to pause and appreciate all that we have.

The Twin Cities has been dealing with something "that doesn't happen here." But it did. The collapse of the 35W bridge over the Mississippi has profoundly shaken my world. Fortunately, no one that I know personally was hurt, but I do know people who were near the bridge, and so many people I know use that bridge frequently. We used the bridge regularly - it was the route of choice for trips to downtown Minneapolis and choir rehearsals; Children's Theater/MIA adventures; and the "Over the River" trips to both grandparent homes. The bridge had a beautiful view of downtown Minneapolis. I'd quiz the kids - what building is that? They loved to pick out the new Guthrie, Mill City Museum and the Stone Arch Bridge. And now the bridge is gone. And I could have easily been on the bridge.

Stop and take a few minutes to appreciate all you have.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mischief Managed!

It's done. I finished it. No more new Harry! Ever!!!

So, let the discussions begin!

I agree with J. I was highly satisfied with the resolution. I went through my share of kleenexes on the way there, and admit that I had to stop from time to time throughout the book as I found it very intense. I should've known better than to finish it at night right before going to sleep -- it took quite awhile to stop processing it and just fall asleep. Ahh...but knowing the resolution was reassuring.

Did you know that the "continuity editor" of the HP series at Scholastic is a Carleton grad? Significantly younger than us, but you can read her blog - it's quite interesting. SPOILER ALERT, however, if you chose to take that link. Scroll to the July 26 posting - great links to interviews with Ms. Rowling, where she tells all!! And, I see, there is potential for MORE Harry to come!!

I find I'm not quite ready to discuss. Isn't that odd? J - would you like to start?