Monday, November 22, 2010

Book #50 "Wishin' and Hopin" by Wally Lamb

Summery: It's 1964 and ten-year-old Felix is sure of a few things: the birds and the bees are puzzling, television is magical, and this is one Christmas he'll never forget.
LBJ and Lady Bird are in the White House, Meet the Beatles is on everyone's turntable, and Felix Funicello (distant cousin of the iconic Annette!) is doing his best to navigate fifth grade—easier said than done when scary movies still give you nightmares and you bear a striking resemblance to a certain adorable cartoon boy.
Back in his beloved fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut, with a new cast of endearing characters, Wally Lamb takes his readers straight into the halls of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School—where Mother Filomina's word is law and goody-two-shoes Rosalie Twerski is sure to be minding everyone's business. But grammar and arithmetic move to the back burner this holiday season with the sudden arrivals of substitute teacher Madame Frechette, straight from QuÉbec, and feisty Russian student Zhenya Kabakova. While Felix learns the meaning of French kissing, cultural misunderstanding, and tableaux vivants, Wishin' and Hopin' barrels toward one outrageous Christmas.
From the Funicello family's bus-station lunch counter to the elementary school playground (with an uproarious stop at the Pillsbury Bake-Off), Wishin' and Hopin' is a vivid slice of 1960s life, a wise and witty holiday tale that celebrates where we've been—and how far we've come. – Library Things

I first read Wally Lamb when She’s Come Undone was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. This is when I was still reading Oprah’s picks. I don’t read her picks anymore but that’s a story for a different day. I really liked She’s Come Undone I thought he did a good job a capturing a woman’s voice. I liked I Know This Much is True as well but I never got around to reading The Hour I First Believed, I’m not sure why. So, I was excited when I won Wishin’ and Hopin’ from Book Club Girl this month.

I really enjoyed Wishin’ and Hopin’. It’s totally different from the other Wally Lamb books I’ve read. It’s a short, sweet, lightly funny Christmas tale. But it’s more of a story of parochial school in the late 1960s. Felix is a charming young man with a loving family and good, if a little wild, friends. Having never been to parochial school I don’t know how accurate the story is but I am going to guess it’s not too far off the mark.

While not laugh out loud funny I found it amusing and very sweet. I really liked Felix and the relationship with his family. They were real-his sisters took good care of him, loved him and still teased him the way any self-respecting older sisters would. After reading many books where the families are dysfunctional this was a refreshing little story where the family loved and supported each other.

This in not an overly Christmas Chirstmas story which was nice since I was reading it before Thanksgiving. Starting with the driving out of poor Sister Dymphna-a laugh out loud funny scene for me-we follow Felix and his friends through the Halloween, Felix’s mother’s brush with fame at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, Felix’s own thrilling TV appearance on the Ranger Andy show, and culminating in the Christmas Program and the 5th grade’s “tableauz vivants”. Charming is the word I think best describes this book. I was thoroughly charmed by Felix and his adventures. I really enjoyed the Epilogue following where the characters are today. It definitely added to the charm of the book

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book #49 "Work Song" by Ivan Doig

Summery: An award-winning and beloved novelist of the American West spins the further adventures of a favorite character, in one of his richest historical settings yet.

"If America was a melting pot, Butte would be its boiling point," observes Morrie Morgan, the itinerant teacher, walking encyclopedia, and inveterate charmer last seen leaving a one-room schoolhouse in Marias Coulee, the stage he stole in Ivan Doig's 2006 The Whistling Season. A decade later, Morrie is back in Montana, as the beguiling narrator of Work Song.

Lured like so many others by "the richest hill on earth," Morrie steps off the train in Butte, copper-mining capital of the world, in its jittery heyday of 1919. But while riches elude Morrie, once again a colorful cast of local characters-and their dramas-seek him out: a look-alike, sound-alike pair of retired Welsh miners; a streak-of-lightning waif so skinny that he is dubbed Russian Famine; a pair of mining company goons; a comely landlady propitiously named Grace; and an eccentric boss at the public library, his whispered nickname a source of inexplicable terror. When Morrie crosses paths with a lively former student, now engaged to a fiery young union leader, he is caught up in the mounting clash between the iron-fisted mining company, radical "outside agitators," and the beleaguered miners. And as tensions above ground and below reach the explosion point, Morrie finds a unique way to give a voice to those who truly need one. -- Penguin

I first met Morrie Morgan in Doig's Whistling Season and I remembered him well when I started to read Work Song. I know several members of my book club had a hard time getting into the story and I think my remembering Morrie helped me enjoy it from the start. You don't have to have read the first book to follow this story. Actually, I think Doig does a really good job working the important story lines from the previous book. I think some authors have a very hard time working in past stories, especially if you're read the earlier stories, it came seem very clunky and forced. That's not the case here.

I love almost any book that expounds on the glory of books and boy does this story. A big portion takes place in the fictional Butte Public Library (if it really existed I would be on the first train to Butte to move in). Morrie's boss at the library, Sandi Sandison or the Earl of Hell as he's know around town, has a collection of classic literature to make bibliophile drool. An ex-rancher, with his own shady past, he was one of the characters I just loved. He braved frost bite just to get something to read. How could I not love him?

Morrie finds a way to get himself mixed up in the fight between the miner's union and the copper mine and winds up on the wrong side of two company goons while leading the drive to find the perfect song to become the union anthem. What I liked about this book, which is what I liked about Whistling Season, is the words. Doig has a way of putting words together I find magical. It's so lyrical I myself captivated by the language. I hadn't finished it by the day of my book club but couldn't bring myself to rush through it because I didn't want to miss a word.

Whistling Season and Work Song are the only two of Doig's books I've read. Most of his others take place in Montana and seem to have western themes. Old West literature is not a type of fiction I read but I enjoyed two so much I'll have to give the others a try. Even if I don't love the stories I'm sure I love the words.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Book #48 "Emily of Deep Valley" by Maud Hart Lovelace

I missed out on Betsy -Tacy when I was young but thoroughly made up for it when my daughter was little. I read the adventures of Betsy, Tacy, Tib, and all their friends and family. I can’t count the times I would be the one to say “Let’s read Betsy-Tacy tonight”. Luckily for me she was always game. But somehow we never advanced to the books when Betsy was older and we completely missed the other Deep Valley books. Boy, were we missing something good.

Thanks to Book Club Girl a grievous error has been remedied. I won a copy of Emily of Deep Valley in prep for Book Club Girl’s Blog Talk Radio interview with Mitali Perkins (who wrote the forward to the reissue of Emily of Deep Valley) and Melissa Wiley (who wrote the forward to Carney’s House Party/Winona’s Pony Cart). The interview was on Monday (I thought it was today sorry for the late notice) and you can listen to it at Book Club Girls Blog.

All I can say is “Thank you, ladies”! I didn’t know what I was missing and I was missing something wonderful. I have mentioned before I’m not a big reader of Young Adult novels but I do have a love of the old school YA. I can read any of the Anne of Green Gables or Little House books any time. And now the Deep Valley books join my old friends.

Emily is a girl after my own heart. The disappointments she feels I remember well. When Mitali Perkins writes in her forward “Yes, Emily has many likable character traits, but unlike Betsy, she isn’t best friend material at all. Why not, you may be wondering? Well, because Emily is me.” I know exactly what Mitali means because Emily is me, too. I understand so much of what Emily felt, of what she longed for. Even now, more years than I care to count after being Emily’s age, I still remember the feelings of not quite fitting in and trying to find her place in the world.

And on top of all that, it’s a wonderful story. I’ve already order the next Deep Valley book, which has Carney’s House Party and Winona’s Pony Cart and I expect to love them just as much. I don’t think I’m wrong in suggesting that you all go out and get these books for the little girls in your life and heck, pick up a copy for yourself. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Book #47 "Russian WInter" by Daphne Kalotay

Summery: When she decides to auction her remarkable jewelry collection, Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead, the former ballerina finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her homeland and of the events, both glorious and heartbreaking, that changed the course of her life half a century ago.

It was in Russia that she discovered the magic of the theater; that she fell in love with the poet Viktor Elsin; that she and her dearest companions—Gersh, a brilliant composer, and the exquisite Vera, Nina’s closest friend—became victims of Stalinist aggression. And it was in Russia that a terrible discovery incited a deadly act of betrayal—and an ingenious escape that led Nina to the West and eventually to Boston.

Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at a Boston auction house, and Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that a unique set of jewels may hold the key to his own ambiguous past. Together these unlikely partners begin to unravel a mystery surrounding a love letter, a poem, and a necklace of unknown provenance, setting in motion a series of revelations that will have life-altering consequences for them all.

Interweaving past and present, Moscow and New England, the backstage tumult of the dance world and the transformative power of art, Daphne Kalotay’s luminous first novel—a literary page-turner of the highest order—captures the uncertainty and terror of individuals powerless to withstand the forces of history, while affirming that even in times of great strife, the human spirit reaches for beauty and grace, forgiveness and transcendence. - Harper Collins

I was really fascinated by this look into a place and time I didn’t know a lot about. Life for an artist in Stalinist Russia was one of privilege and fear. The knowledge that no one was ever safe and there was nothing to be done about it was really striking. The day Nina auditions for a place in the Bolshoi Ballet academy her best Vera’s parents are “taken away”. Vera goes to live with her grandmother and Nina goes on to become a lead dancer in the Bolshoi. Years later, after Nina has met, fell in love, and married the poet Viktor, Vera returns and she and Nina renew their friendship. Kalotay gives the reader a real sense of what it must have been like to live under the pressure of Stalin’s rule. When the story of Nina and Viktor, Vera and the troubled composer Gersh, and Gersh’s wife, government official Zoya comes to it’s conclusion I understood how destructive the regime was to these relationships.

What I enjoyed most was Kalotay didn’t just tell the story of Nina and her life in and after Russia. She also did a marvelous job telling the story of Drew and how she came to be working with Nina. I loved that Drew’s grandparents story was told so well, it was one of my favorite parts of the book. Then there’s Grigori’s story and how he’s connected to Nina. While not a complete surprise I did like how it all wrapped up. The connections between all of the character past and present worked well. And when Nina comes to understand the true events of the past I was really much more moved than I thought I would be.

Russian Winter supplied me with three weeks of Wondrous Word Wednesday words (there’s one more for tomorrow) with all it’s Russian words, ballet, and jewelry terms. There was some fascinating information about Baltic Amber and a lot of behind the scene detail of the ballet I found very interesting.

Daphne Kalotay's first book is a collection of stories named Calamity and Other Stories that I had never heard of but I was very well reviewed. After reading Russian Winter I really want to read more of her work.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book #46 "The Postmistress" by Sarah Blake

From its beautiful cover to its lovely but heartbreaking ending The Postmistress gave me so much. I listened to the audiobook version in a two-day period. What is the audiobook version of “I couldn’t put it down”? I guess I couldn’t stop listening. I had to know what would happen next.

After a bit of confusion at the very beginning trying to keep the characters straight I was swept right in. It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to a book and I think it threw me on how to follow along. I found myself having to rewind to remember who we were talking about and what was going on. But, about half way through the first chapter I was completely involved and totally enthralled.

The three women at the heart of this story were so believable, well written, and honest. I was thrilled when Postmaster Iris found love, was anxious waiting for word from Emma’s husband, and angry along with Frankie trying to get the voices of those most hurt by the war heard.

I have an affinity for the time period that this book is set. I love the music, the movies, and the fashion. The pace of living seemed much more my style. Mind you I wouldn’t want to live without my internet, tv, or other luxuries of this age but I do love to read, watch, and listen back in time.

I’m sure several people have already read this but I don’t want to give too much away. But I will say this, this book put me through the wringer. It’s heartbreaking on so many levels, yet there still is hope. Sometimes I think there’s nothing new that can be written about WWII. All the stories have been told, then something comes along and hits me. There will always be more stories to be told. As Frankie records the voices, really just the names and places, of these people running for their lives it reminded me of just how many people suffered through this horrible time. It’s easy to lose the individual in the vast numbers.

Frankie’s story is a huge part of this book but just as important are the stories of Emma and Iris. The doctor’s wife and the Postmaster (not postmistress). I loved Iris, she was a very New England type of woman. Practical and sensible, making a pivotal decision she makes in the course of her job all the more poignant. Iris becomes an important part of Emma’s life. Her connection to her husband far away. Emma really touched my heart (it helped that Emma is my daughter’s name) she was wounded yet brave, trying to become part of her husband’s life and town. Finally make the family she so longed for but had lost before.

I have to say a word about Orlagh Cassidy, who read the book. Like I said before it has been a while since I have listened to a book so it took me a bit to get into this. I a first I thought her reading was a bit off. Then like lightning it just caught fire. Her take on each of the three women was spot on and she had me so wrapped up in the story I hated to turn it off. I actually looked up her audiobook resume and found there were several books on it I would like to read. Including the Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee which has been on my list for a bit, so I think I’m off to order it so I can hear Ms. Cassidy again.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book #45 "Red Hook Road" by Aleyet Waldman

Summary: As lyrical as a sonata, Ayelet Waldman’s follow-up novel to Love and Other Impossible Pursuits explores the aftermath of a family tragedy.

Set on the coast of Maine over the course of four summers, Red Hook Road tells the story of two families, the Tetherlys and the Copakens, and of the ways in which their lives are unraveled and stitched together by misfortune, by good intentions and failure, and by love and calamity.

A marriage collapses under the strain of a daughter’s death; two bereaved siblings find comfort in one another; and an adopted young girl breathes new life into her family with her prodigious talent for the violin. As she writes with obvious affection for these unforgettable characters, Ayelet Waldman skillfully interweaves life’s finer pleasures—music and literature—with the more mundane joys of living. Within these resonant pages, a vase filled with wildflowers or a cold beer on a hot summer day serve as constant reminders that it’s often the little things that make life so precious. – Random House

The devastating premise of this book intrigued me. What happens to families when the young bride and groom are killed on their wedding day? How are you related when you’ve been in-laws for an hour? The story deals with the aftermath of a horrible car accident and how each family member comes to terms with their loss.

I’ve read all of Aleyet Waldman’s Mommy Track mysteries and I really enjoyed them. I went into this book wanting to love and sadly I just didn’t. I liked it well enough but it just didn’t catch me. I felt like I was missing something. I’m sure there are going to be plenty of people who love this book unfortunately I found myself pushing to finish it and find out what happened, which I did want.

Jane and Iris, the mothers-in-law were well written but I felt there was something missing about them for me. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It drives me crazy when I can’t explain why I didn’t like a book better. I’m not sure what wasn’t there for me or what I needed to like it better. Ugh, it’s just so frustrating.

I did like the way Iris and Daniel’s (parents of the bride) marriage was handled. It seemed a realistic reaction to the death of a child. And though I didn’t always like Iris, I could understand some of the things she did and felt. I thought Jane (mother of the groom), a seemingly cold person was fleshed out a little better.

The secondary story of the flower girl finding her talent for music with the world-famous violinist grandfather of the bride was a bit of a miss for me. Again, I don’t know why it didn’t work for me, maybe it was just a little contrived.

This is a hard one for me because I really wanted to love this book and I did like it. Maybe my expectations were too high and I was expecting something else. I have a feeling more people are going to love it and wondering what the heck is wrong with me.

Book #44 "I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President" by Josh Lieb

Normally I don’t read much contemporary young adult literature. Honestly, I can’t remember any I’ve read in the last couple of years. I read some along with my daughter when she was young but stopped as she got older. I couldn’t bring myself to read the “Twilight” series because the brooding vampire thing doesn’t really do it for me. The last brooding vampire I read about was Lestat and I lost interest in him after “The Vampire Lestat”. I would have read along with my son but he went from “Captain Underpants” to Issac Asimov. Until last week.

Looking for a new book for him to read I saw “I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President” by Josh Lieb. I could no more pass up that title than I could pass up free breadsticks and trust me, my friends, there’s no way I would pass up either. If the title alone didn’t attract me there was a great story to boot.

Now, my family can tell you I have an infinite ability to suspend disbelief. Really, I’ll pretty much buy anything for a good story. So, I didn’t have a problem with an eighth grade genius being the second richest person in the world with a secret lair the covered almost the entire underside of the city of Omaha and secret minions who keep him protected from the bullies in not only the world but in the halls of Gale Sayers Middle School. The problem I had when I started to read this was the over the top style it was “written” in. I could really see the writing, at first. But, then I had to rejigger my thinking. It’s suppose to be over the top. How could it not? We’re talking about a boy running for eighth grade president to secretly hires an elite campaign strategist to help him rig the election, he has a special stall in the boys bathroom where the toilet dispenses milk duds and popcorn. I got it, over the top is what Lieb was going for. It’s sly and irreverent, it’s funny and snarky, and it actually has somethings to say about politics, parenting, and what being an evil genius really means.

Lieb was an Executive Producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and also worked on The Simpsons which definitely shows in his style. It’s smart and funny. Think Dexter’s Laboratory (do people remember that cartoon?) with less accent and more treats. Better still, there’s a happy ending even though Oliver is now only the fourth richest person in the world.