Saturday, January 28, 2012

The One in Which I Feel Like Pip

Currently Reading: Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford
First things first... no matter how I "review" the following book, it is still worth a read. It was engrossing, engaging, and took precedence over almost everything else for the two days it took me to read it. That being said, it wasn't a very great book. Confused? Let me explain...

I am sure you know the feeling- the one where you finally read a book you have always wanted to read and then you are disappointed because it was not what you imagined it to be. It's like the literary equivalent of
Great Expectations. While I am often left with feelings of satisfaction and pleasure after reading, this time I felt like Pip after learning that his benefactor was not Miss Havisham. Sometimes it's not that the book is bad... sometimes it just doesn't deliver. This was the case, for me, with Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. It certainly sounded intriguing and had floated around on my "Read Soon Because It Seems to Be Cropping Up Everywhere" list for quite some time, so when I saw it for two dollars at a Madison bookstore, I had to grab it. (Disclaimer: I only buy books I have never read before unless it is being sold for under five dollars. This book was an excellent example why.) It wasn't just the bargain price that attracted me. Like a magnet to metal, I am usually always drawn to historical novels of any type, so I was excited to sink my teeth into it.
At first, it seemed promising. The chapters in the novel alternate between two storylines- one of a Jewish girl named Sarah who has been captured with her parents during the historical Vel d’Hiv Jewish roundups in Paris, France in July 1942 and the other of a present-day journalist doing research on those roundups sixty years later. Shifting back and forth from one time period to the other, the plot accelerates at a rapid pace, drawing the reader into the fates of both characters. Yet about halfway through the book, disappointment sets in. The storyline from Sarah’s perspective abruptly ends and the journalist’s story takes center stage. This was de Rosnay’s greatest mistake. While we learn more about Sarah through the journalist’s research, the gripping drama of the events of July 1942 and Sarah’s personal struggle to survive does not have the same potent power when viewed through the perspective of a journalist sixty years later. By putting too much focus on the marital difficulties and personal woes of the journalist, de Rosnay diminishes much of the drama and poignancy of Sarah’s story. This also succeeds in slowing down the plot of the novel. In addition, the biggest climax, which built rapidly at the beginning, occurred in the middle of the novel, while the final "plot twists" flopped and petered out. By the end of the book, I really did not have much interest in the story anymore. The ending wasn't necessarily bad- but by that point, the book had lost any oomph that it had started with.
However, I would still recommend the book, if only for the chance to learn about a little-known historical event as well as the repercussions of that event throughout history. One of the best things about the novel was its discussion of how the roundups have largely disappeared from France’s collective memory. We live in an age when remembering and keeping our history alive is a vital act for the future of our country and our world. Exploring how such tragedies can be ignored and forgotten is a warning and a wakeup call to all readers. That is the strongest part of Sarah’s Key, but does not succeed in redeeming the novel as a whole. If you enjoy historical novels, especially about WWII or the Holocaust, I believe you would enjoy this book. It is definitely worth a look, although maybe not a re-reading.
Happy Wednesday! I'll be back on Friday with a little bit of poetry. :)

Immortal Words

Currently Reading: Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford (It is heavenly to read about Ireland again.)

Whew.. it feels wonderful to be blogging again. Even though it's time consuming and sometimes I can't think of what to write, the act of sitting at my desk in my pajamas, typing on my laptop while my husband tries to get the cat to stop clawing the couch is so satisfying. I always feel scholarly when I sit down to write my blog- I imagine myself back at school, cranking out history papers. Or I let my imagination wander as I create something out of nothing- I am Hermione Granger finishing an essay in the Gryffindor common room; Emily Dickinson, pacing her room in Amherst as words drop into her mind; or a monk in a scriptorium in medieval Ireland, reverently copying Scripture verses onto vellum. Ever since language was created, man (and woman) has had the need... no, the urge... to write. Like art and music, it is a great universal constant, regardless of time and place, language and culture. We breathe words and language every day- how natural that we should want to add our own words to the mix. I find it amazing how much power words have. First of all, they are immortal- one of the only things that survives when we do not. I am reminded of this every day at work when I read articles and letters by people whose bodies now rest in the earth. As I read their words... words they created... they continue to exist for a little while. It's beautiful really... and it's part of the reason I love what I do. I can learn so much from others' perspectives- from Rilke, Barbara Kingsolver, or even a letter to the editor from 1922.

I have always found that the best writers tend to be readers. Sure, it's helpful to know the definition of an adverb. Conjugating sentences can even be kind of fun (don't judge me). But learning about plot development and sentence structure and word choice in English class does nothing to create a good writer. Reading is the best way to learn how to write, just as watching someone demonstrate a skill is the best way to learn. (Try learning how to crochet from a book. It's hard.) I could preach until dawn about how reading broadens our minds, exposes us to new things, feeds our imagination, teaches us, challenges our deepest beliefs and prejudices. But there's something else that reading does. It allows us to articulate our emotions and our deepest thoughts in writing. Not all of us can publish books. Not many of us could make writing into a career. But when we write, we feed our soul for a little while. We contribute something to the world. We prove, through our own words, that we exist and we matter and we need to be heard. Because we read, we not only know how to express ourselves, but we also have a desire to.

I've discovered in the past two weeks how desperately I love writing this blog. And I will try fervently not to go this long again without sitting down to my keyboard. I have so much to write about the books I read lately, especially Sarah's Key and Lolita, as well as thoughts on libraries and the digital age that are still brewing within me. I'll be back soon. Here are some pictures that show a little glimpse of life lately....

Hobbes helping Nathan play our new Hogwarts Lego game.

Horses watching me as I drive to work. Don't worry, I stopped the car for the shot. :)

Barns are so photogenic.

Hobbes says "Good night."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Geometrically Progressive

Currently Reading: America's Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds by Marilyn Yalom

I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in two days. It was that good.


After David Copperfield, I needed a quick, light read and this fit the bill perfectly. It had received glowing reviews from my sister-in-law, aunt,and coworker, so I knew I would enjoy it. To be quite honest though, I feel it is a book best read outside in the summertime, when the leaves are whispering and one can run through the grass, not during the cold dead of winter; maybe I'll just have to pick it up again in several months when the time feels right!

The book is, overall, about the saving grace of books and reading. Each character, living through traumatic and challenging times during the German Occupation in WWII, found books that spoke to them and helped them cope, even survive. It was fascinating to read how farmers and fisherman leaned on Oscar Wilde, Charles Lamb, and Seneca during food shortage, evacuations, and terror. I have always believed in the inherent power of books to change us, to change the world. This book exemplified my most fervent beliefs. We read for pleasure and enjoyment, it is true. Yet the effect books can have on us goes beyond mere entertainment. Books have the power to build us up, depress us, change the world, destroy it. They inspire us to change our lives, our perspectives, and even to lead us down new paths with new interests. They challenge us to get outside our comfort zones and address truths we didn't even know existed. I will forever be passionate about books, for they lead to everything else.

Since I am short on time today, I merely want to leave you with some of the book's most profound quotes that state, in a deeply elegant way, the power and lure of books in our lives.

"Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true."

"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books." (Hehe)

And the best for last: "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive- all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."

I hope you get time to lose yourself in a book this weekend. And I'm curious to know: how have books changed you? Happy reading!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Homesick for Books

Currently Reading: Nothing. Really. (But not for long. Give me about one hour... I have two waiting on my desk.) :)

It is true. I am currently not reading anything, unless you count my Mary Jane's Farm magazine, which has already gotten me excited about growing some vegetables on the balcony this spring.. even though it is only the beginning of January and I have some waiting to do. Sigh.
There are several reasons why I have not started a new book lately: someone checked out the book at the library I wanted, I had to wait for a book I ordered through Inter-Library Loan, but most of all: I am homesick.

Homesick for David Copperfield. I finished it about three days ago and although I loved it (or perhaps because I loved it so), it lingers with me still. At work on Thursday, while shelving books, I thought about a certain scene in the novel and smiled, thinking of going home to read more. That's when it hit me: I finished it. It was over. There was nothing more of it. I literally almost cried while shelving orange dots in the Children's Spanish section on a Thursday afternoon because of the stark realization that 741 pages had not been enough and I wanted more.

Several weeks ago, during an impromptu little meeting with some other literary-minded individuals, someone stated the mark of a good book is that "when it is over, you are left with a sense of emptiness." I was struck by this comment, because through all of my literary wanderings, I have always found this to be true. The best books- the ones I reread and cherish the most- are the ones that have left me with the dull ache of leaving home and missing the ones I love when I have finished them.


I have experienced this before- I'm sure you all have. There is a certain book that, as you read it, becomes different from others you have read. You get so wrapped up into the plot, the characters, the scenery, that you start to feel as though it is real and you are a part of it. You stop merely reading- you start living within the page. You ignore everything else around you while you are reading, while your thoughts remain on nothing else when you are not. This heightened form of reading is beautiful and unique; it is the reason why I read. Yet it always ends with a feeling of emptiness, a sense of letdown as you close the book and return it to the shelf, for your journey is over and you must say farewell to the characters you have observed and spoken with.

Thus am I left with a feeling of homesickness for Yarmouth, Mr. Peggotty's boat, Mr. Wickfield's house, and all of the fascinating characters I have had the privilege of knowing this past month. It is with a heavy sigh I return the book to the library, although I have no doubt I will visit it occasionally as I walk through the stacks. Nor am I the only one who sets David Copperfield aside with a heavy heart. In the preface to David Copperfield, Mr. Dickens wrote "It would concern the reader little, perhaps, to know how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-years' imaginative task; or how an Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world, when a crowd of the creatures of his brain are going from him for ever." Don't you love that sentence? In these words, one feels his own triumph mingling with reluctance and regret. How much harder it must be for the writer than the reader to let go of a book; I do not envy him that feeling. (How I wish there was a recording of his voice- I imagine it deep, melodic, and exquisitely rapturous. A man who writes like that could have no other voice, in my opinion.)

Yet unlike real trips or meetings and partings, those in the book world are always able to be relived. I can return to a myriad of places and revisit literary friends throughout my entire life. No doubt I will cross the threshold into David Copperfield again. And I have many other social calls to make in the literary world, with new introductions as well as joyful reunions. While the homesickness does leave eventually, the impact of a good book never does. For that, I am forever grateful.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Year of Books

Happy New Year's! What a busy and rewarding week of celebrations and family memories I have had. I am bummed that the holiday season is now officially over, but it was even better than I had hoped. And now I am ready to move forward with a brand new 2012.

I anticipate the celebration of New Year's because it provides me with the perfect opportunity to reflect on the year past: the goals I accomplished, the experiences I lived through, the lessons I learned, and the memories I have. It allows me to look back on who I have become and the person I want to be.

It also gives me the chance to look back on the books I explored throughout the year- the ones I fell in love with, those I reread with eagerness, or the ones that disappointed me. Many of the "book blogs" I read analyze their past book lists by quantity, gender of author, genre, page numbers, and diversity. None of this is important to me, for I don't read to prove a point or receive pats on the back. I read purely for enjoyment and knowledge. Looking back on my book year gives me a feeling of accomplishment, but more importantly, it reminds me of the many places I traveled and the various perspectives, lessons, and challenges each book presented. So without further ado, here's my reading list of 2011. They are listed in order and my favorites are posted in bold.

Wolfskin ~Juliet Marillier
Complete Sherlock Homes, Vol. II ~Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Juliet~Anne Fortier
Wildwood Dancing~Juliet Marillier
Tilli's Story ~Tilli Schulze and Lorna Collier
The Tale of Despereaux ~Kate DiCamillo
The Sleuth Book for Genealogists ~Emily Anne Croom
A Discovery of Witches ~Deborah Harkness
Cybele's Secret ~Juliet Marillier
The King's Speech ~Mark Logue
The Rule of Four ~Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomas
The Weird Sisters ~Eleanor Brown
Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show ~Frank Delaney
The Red Garden ~Alice Hoffman
Blackbird House ~Alice Hoffman
On the Banks of Plum Creek ~Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Cades Cove Story ~A. Randolph Shields
Foxmask ~Juliet Marillier
The Peach Keeper ~Sarah Addison Allen
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth ~John Muir
Sense and Sensibility ~Jane Austen
Caleb's Crossing ~Geraldine Brooks
The Matchmaker of Kenmare ~Frank Delaney
Sisterhood Everlasting ~Ann Brashares
The Secret of Lost Things ~Sheridan Hay
The Devil in the White City ~Erik Larsen
Shakespeare: The World As Stage ~Bill Bryson
Family ~Ian Frazier
The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascos, Palace Coups ~Ron Rosenbaum
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ~J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ~J.K. Rowling
Cleopatra ~Stacy Schiff
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ~J.K. Rowling
The Burning of Bridget Cleary ~Angela Bourke
Daughters of the Witching Hill ~Mary Sharratt
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane ~Katherine Howe
The Memory Keeper's Daughter ~Kim Edwards
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ~J.K. Rowling
The Witch's Daughter ~Paula Brackston
The Dovekeepers ~Alice Hoffman
The Orphan Sister ~Gwendolen Gross
The Reader ~Bernhard Schlink
Boone County Then & Now
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
~J.K. Rowling
Sarah's Key ~Tatiana de Rosnay
Still Reading:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ~J.K. Rowling
David Copperfield ~Charles Dickens

A good reading year, I think. My reading resolution for 2012 is to reread some old favorites (this year, I tended to read books I had never previously read) and delve into more non-fiction. I look forward to reading some more classics, indulging in some more books on Ireland (especially before the big trip), and finding more books by some of my favorite authors.

The dawn of a new year is the epitome of my favorite word: potential. A whole year lies before me, fraught with potential personal discoveries, special moments, new books, hearty laughs, delicious cups of tea, unanticipated experiences, satisfying work, problems to bear, and new reading experiences. I look forward to it all. Happy 2012!

Keep On Reading...

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