Monday, September 26, 2016

Night

Night by Elie Wiesel (1958)

I read this for the first time in high school, and after that I read a ton of Holocaust literature for years until I felt like I had overdosed on it. Since then I have sort of avoided World War II books, with a few noted exceptions. But after Wiesel's death a few months ago, this book was recommended for the Community Read committee and made it to the shortlist.

In case you haven't read it, Wiesel tells the story of his family's capture by the Germans in Hungary and their subsequent journey by train and marching to a couple of different concentration camps. He and his father were moved from place to place, not fed or even given water sometimes, and saw many people killed at the hands of the Nazis. His story is filled with human cruelty, but also some kindness and hope.

It's a very short book, but it's relentlessly brutal. It's made worse because the story ends pretty much the moment Wiesel is liberated. In the beginning he alludes to his mother and sisters being split off to go with the women as the last time he sees her or his littlest sister. But what of his other sisters? He doesn't mention them at all. I know the story is just supposed to be this one experience, but it felt incomplete without this information. I wanted something about the aftermath of this experience, even just a few pages.

His writing style is simple, but with the sort of profound moments that come when one is faced with death at every turn. Only fifteen when he was captured, Wiesel lost his faith in God and humanity pretty quickly. He records a pivotal moment when he remained silent as someone struck his father, recognizing that even the day before he would have fought the attacker. He also noted at one point how he was no longer affected by all the people he saw die every day.

But I also saw hope and strength in some passages: "We had transcended everything--death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth."

The way that some of them just kept going when other succumbed to the cold or hunger or brutality made me wonder which group I'd be in if I were in that situation. Hopefully I will never find out.

Reading this now - as hate and prejudice seem poised to take over here in the US - seems somehow appropriate, and a good reminder of how easily hatred can take over. Comparing Trump to Hitler used to seem rather heavy-handed but the more I hear from our current day hatemonger the more I wonder how different he really is. Especially chilling in Night were the passages at the beginning about how unconcerned many people were, and how they refused to listen to someone who had actually seen what was going on. Even Wiesel's own father downplayed the seriousness of the situation when the Jews were told they had to wear yellow stars. "So what? It's not lethal..." Neither is deporting all Muslims from the US. But that's how it starts, doesn't it?

So it is timely, though I think it is always timely to talk about bigotry. But is it the best choice for a Community Read? It's certainly not the worst choice, and obviously has important themes and could generate valuable conversations. However, I think most people read it in high school and in the town where I work it's definitely on the summer reading lists. I know high school is quite a while ago for many of us, but I do like to pick something that everyone hasn't already read.

Still, I'm glad I took the opportunity to revisit this short volume, which I read entirely in one sitting. I do recommend it if you haven't read it before as it's an important work about a time in history that I hope we never repeat.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Forever


In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

Reading Tiger Eyes recently naturally made me think about other books by Judy Blume. I was particularly thinking about the ones geared towards teenagers, since those are the books we read for my book club. The teen book by Judy Blume that I probably read the most in high school was Forever.

If you've never read this coming-of-age classic, or it was too long ago to remember, let me refresh you. Forever is about first love, and the first time sexual experiences, of Katherine, Michael, and Ralph. Ralph being Michael's penis.

Ralph is what we all remember about this book, amirite? I also remember something about red hair and freckles, but was that Michael or Ralph specifically? I probably won't re-read to find out. No, this is one best left to the past, because god knows it took me long enough to get over the trauma of Ralph. No teenage girl of my generation could see a penis without thinking "Ralph," I'm pretty sure, and that is just not what you want to think when you see a penis.

Anyhow, I think there's more to the story but I'll be damned if I can remember what it was. I think Katherine and Michael break up, and it's no wonder. You can't stay with a guy who treats his penis like a whole separate being and gives it not only a name, but a stupid one. (Stupid for a penis, that is. No offense to anyone named Ralph. I mean, we also had Ralph Macchio during this period, so.)

And lest you get the wrong idea from this post, I loved this book back in the day. JUDY BLUME 4EVA.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow for being an unrepentant aristocrat. He's moved from the large luxurious suite where he's been living to a small attic space. While Russia experiences the most tumultuous changes it has known, his world is confined to the inside of this one building. Still, his life - and this novel - are full of vibrant characters and a rich, deep inner life.

A Gentleman in Moscow was my most anticipated novel this fall, and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. It wasn't a quick read; in fact, it took me an entire week to read, but not because it was difficult in any way. On the contrary, it was delicious, and I didn't pick it up if I was tired or distracted because I didn't want to miss one morsel of beautiful language or one profound insight.

Towles uses exquisitely crafted language that befits the character of Rostov and his story. He is an educated man who appreciates the finer things in life, but who doesn't lose sight of what is important. His high standards extend to character and personality. Though he is a formal gentleman, Rostov is also quite fanciful. When his new young friend Nina approaches him to ask what happened to the mustaches which decorated his face just the day before, he replied "Like swallows, they traveled elsewhere for the summer." He is an educated, philosophical man who is open to new ideas and always learning, especially during his confinement when his inner life must make up for what he lacks from the outside world. He had very good friends inside the hotel, and a young girl he meets early in his confinement changes his life forever. Despite being imprisoned, his experiences opened a world to him that he likely never would have experienced had he been free.

Rostov never expressed a real desire to leave the hotel, or chagrin at his imprisonment. I got the impression that he didn't actually want to be a part of this new Russia, preferring instead to stay inside the grand hotel from another time. (Which is somewhat understandable because I've stayed at the Metropol, and I could totally live there.) Which is not to say that the outside world didn't affect him or the hotel. There were shortages of ingredients for food at the restaurants, rooms were taken over for government work, and on one memorable occasion all the labels were removed from the wines in the vast cellar to make them all indistinguishable in a misguided attempt at communizing even the beverages.

But back to the language. It's difficult to pick out passages to share because the greatest attention was given to crafting every sentence in the book, and many of the best bits need to be in their contexts to really shine. But it would be a shame not to give you a taste, so here's a paragraph describing Rostov's insomnia and late-night worries:

"Like in a reel in which the dancers form two rows, so that one of their number can come skipping brightly down the aisle, a concern of the Count's would present itself for his consideration, bow with a flourish, and then take its place at the end of the line so that the next concern could come dancing to the fore."

Isn't that beautiful? His insights also extend to the larger world, as illustrated in this observation about Soviet Russia's iconic lines:

"To a foreigner, it must have seemed that Russia had become the land of ten thousand lines. For there were lines at the tram stops, lines before the grocer, lines at the agencies of labor, education, and housing. But in point of fact, there were not ten thousand lines, or even ten. There was one all-encompassing line, which wound around the country and back through time. This had been Lenin's greatest innovation: a line that, like the Proletariat itself, was universal and infinite."

It's been a long time since I took such pleasure in the language of a book, and this was the perfect marriage of language and story. A Gentleman in Moscow is surely my favorite book of 2016. I only wish I had read it as part of a book group so I can discuss it with other people. There is so much to talk about, and I'm already enjoying re-reading my favorite passages. I loved everything about this book, all of it, every word.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Top Twelve Favorite Audiobooks


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is an All About Audio freebie. I love audiobooks so much that I couldn't quite narrow it to ten, so here are my twelve favorites! In March, I did a list of my favorite teen audiobooks, so there's some overlap but definitely check out that list for more suggestions.

1. His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, narrated by Philip Pullman and a full cast
This was pre-blog, and one of my first audiobook experiences. I've also read the whole series in print, but I keep thinking of re-listening. Ever since my coworker named her daughter after the main character, it has become even more prominently on my mind. Perhaps after I finish the Harry Potter series...

2. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, narrated by
The review I linked the title to is my second reading, which was in print. My first review is here, and though I don't even mention the audiobook narrator, her voice has really stuck with me and I always hear her in my head when I think of this book.

3. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
If you've been reading my blog for a while, you are probably familiar with the name Rebecca Lowman as she is my most favorite audiobook narrator. I'd listen to her read an instruction manual, a shopping list, or a James Patterson novel (ok, maybe not that last one.) Rainbow Rowell writes books that are almost magically wonderful, so the combination of the two is pretty much perfect.

4. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy
Again, a perfect marriage of author and narrator. Lee has only written two novels so far (her other is the more recent The Expatriates) but she has completely won me over and I'll read everything she ever writes for the rest of my life. Orlagh Cassidy is another favorite narrator, and if you want to hear more of her, I highly recommend Before I Go To Sleep or The Bees. (If you don't want to listen to more of her, you are wrong.)

5. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, narrated by Noah Galvin
I loved this book so much. I have a soft spot for stories about angry, misunderstood teen boys. (See also: Reality Boy.) The beauty of Galvin's narration is that not only does he sound like an actual teenager, he also sounds more like he's telling the story than reading it. I hope to listen to more from him.

6. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean
To be honest, I had completely forgotten the other three narrators until I looked back at my blog post about this book. I just remember Rebecca Lowman as Libby Day. I should probably mention that for some reason I've always pictured Rebecca Lowman as a dark-haired Charlize Theron (despite the fact that I know what she actually looks like) so the fact that Theron was cast in the movie version of Dark Places felt inevitable to me. Also, isn't Gillian Flynn due for another novel?

7. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, narrated by the author
This satirical, feminist novel is pretty brilliant, but the narration really took it to another level. I think Bray was channeling Sarah Palin (or Tina Fey as Sarah Palin) in parts.

8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, narrated by Kate Rudd
I've listened to this book, read the print version, and watched the movie but it is Rudd's voice that I always hear in my head.

9. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
This is a beautiful story anyhow, but Ballerini's lilting Italian accent makes it truly transportive.

10. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, narrated by Barbara Rosenblat
One of my earliest audiobooks, I've listened to this (and the follow-up Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) numerous times. It's hilarious every time and always cheers me up.

11. The Good House by Ann Leary, narrated by Mary Beth Hurt
For some reason when I began this book I expected the main character to be younger (around the age of Leary herself, I guess) so I was caught off guard by the narrator who sounded to be in her sixties. But I got over it quickly when I realized how perfect she was to read this story about a sixty-something woman with a drinking problem.

12. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, narrated by Rebecca Lowman
Again with Rebecca Lowman, but there is good reason why she appears on this list three times. I highly recommend this atmospheric novel set in the 1930s, and when you're done go grab his new one, A Gentleman In Moscow.

There are so many great audiobooks out there it's hard to pick favorites, but these are the standout titles I thought of right away. And I keep thinking of more great audiobooks as I compose this but I'll refrain from throwing more on the list.

What are your favorite audiobooks? Do you have a favorite narrator?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999), narrated by Jim Dale


Just before his third year at Hogwarts begins, Harry learns that a dangerous killer has escaped Azkaban Prison. This changes a lot at school where security is increased in the form of creepy soul-sucking Dementors guarding the school and frightening the students. But it starts to seem like even they aren't enough to keep danger at bay.

This year's Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher is Remus Lupin, who Harry and his friends first meet about the Hogwarts Express. Looking completely disheveled, he doesn't impress them at first but soon proves to be their most competent and likable Dark Arts teacher to date. Also in this book we meet Professor Trelawney, a loopy lady who teaches Divination and almost immediately makes a dark prediction for Harry. Most importantly, this is the book in which Sirius Black, Harry's godfather, appears.

There is SO MUCH to love in this book! There is fun stuff like trips to Hogsmeade, and the Marauder's Map which helps Harry go there since he doesn't have permission. Professor Trelawney's class is rather silly and the first time Hermione has disliked a teacher and a class. She is so wonderfully skeptical, and it makes me love her even more. Hermione has a ton of classes this year, some of which are scheduled at the same time and Harry and Ron spend a decent portion of the story trying to figure out how she's doing it. There are also themes of injustice surrounding Buckbeak the hippogriff who allegedly injured Draco Malfoy (but unfortunately didn't kill him,) and the story of the Sirius Black's imprisonment.

This was very enjoyable all the way through, and I'm excited to keep going in the series. I'm also concerned though, because next up is Goblet of Fire and the audio is TWENTY hours long. That is crazypants. I've never listened to one that long and because I'm borrowing these from the library I'm not sure if I'll be able to finish it. I'll just have to plan carefully!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tiger Eyes

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (1981)

The story opens soon after Davey's father is shot in a holdup at his 7-11. She and her little brother Jason go with their mother to Los Alamos, New Mexico to stay with family while they try to recover. Aunt Bitsy and Uncle Walter are nice enough people, but they're pretty strict. Davey's mother is kind of useless, barely even talking to anyone. Davey decides to explore the local canyons and there she meets a guy named Wolf who is going through something similar, and is only now that Davey begins to understand how to deal with her loss.

I last read this book sometime in the 1980s and at the time it was probably my least favorite of Blume's teen books (meaning I probably only read a few times, rather than many times.) The story didn't really stick with me like the others; I only remembered that it took place in the Southwest. Maybe my taste has changed since I was teenager, because I really liked this story a lot! It's all about how much Davey's family's life changed after her father was killed, and I wonder if I would have liked this more as a teenager had I read it after my father died rather than before.

Davey feels uprooted when they move to Los Alamos away from her friends and boyfriend. She doesn't know how long they'll be there, or what their lives will be like when they return to Atlantic City. She just wants someone in her family to talk to her about her father and what happened, but they won't.

The adults in this book were so incredibly frustrating, as adults can be when you're not one. The family were in New Mexico for at least a few months when Davey finally asked her mother if they'd be home by Christmas. Her mother, who barely talked to Davey AT ALL the entire time they were there, said something like "Oh, I thought you realized - we'll be here for the whole school year." Of course Davey didn't "realize" that. How would she know if her mother didn't talk to her? And Davey's aunt and uncle were also kind of incorrigible. They were nice people, really, but they were SO obsessed with safety that they didn't want to let Davey do anything fun whatsoever, plus they had some negative opinions of Davey's father which did not help Davey's relationship with them. All the while, Davey's mother just kept going along with them as though she could no longer think for herself.

But there were some good things in Los Alamos too. Davey made a new friend Jane (who actually turned out to have some pretty big problems, but was still a good friend to Davey), and Wolf, the guy she met while hiking in the canyon (against the wishes of the overprotective adults.) Davey also got a volunteer job as a candy striper at a local hospital where she befriend a patient named Mr. Ortiz who was dying of cancer. All of these things helped Davey come to grips with the tragedy she had lived through.

I felt so bad for Davey, having to figure everything out for herself because the adults around her (and her little brother) wouldn't even talk about her father. But she was so great, getting out there and meeting friends and doing volunteer work. There's so much more going on in this book than I remembered, and it's so much better than I expected based on my vague childhood memories. I'm so glad I read it again!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels





Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Books of a genre of our choosing. There aren't many genres in which I read enough to be able to pick 10 favorites, but I do read a lot of historical fiction. It was hard to narrow down to 10, and I'm afraid that I'm forgetting something important, but here goes:

1. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
This story about a young lesbian in Victorian England is just dripping with historical detail and lush language. I know everybody's favorite Sarah Waters book is supposed to be Fingersmith, and I liked Fingersmith a lot, but I remember really really loving this one. I want to read it again sometime.

2. My Notorious Life by Kate Manning
Also Victorian-era (which is my favorite!) I loved this story of a woman who reinvents herself and becomes a midwife who provides birth control and abortions. Definitively feminist slant and wonderful historical detail.

3. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
I was skeptical about reading a lengthy novel about the building of a cathedral, but it is SO MUCH more than that. I was completely engrossed in the lives of the many characters in this sweeping novel set in the 1100s.

4. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This may be the only historical novel I've read set in the 1960s, but Adichie brought that period in Nigeria vividly to life. Everything she's written is fantastic, but this one was my first and the only one I'd consider historical.

5. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Seventeenth-century Amsterdam is fascinating, and I was SO excited to read this novel about a young woman being married off to an older stranger who gives her a miniature replica of their house to decorate as a hobby. Many intriguing mysteries and secrets are woven among the period details to make this novel difficult to put down.

6. The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly
Speaking of books that are hard to put down, this one (and the two sequels) got passed all around my family for a while several years ago. Set in Victorian London, the protagonist is an independent, headstrong woman (my favorite kind!) and I loved everything about the story and characters.

7. Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
This epic begins in the late 1800s when a 7-year-old girl is taken from her family to live in a leper colony. The novel spans her whole life, which is not only fascinating, but longer and happier than you'd think.

8. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
Set in Hong Kong, the story moves between two timelines; one in the 1940s and the other in the 1950s. It focuses on events surrounding the World War II occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese, and the relationships between several British and Chinese people. Lee's writing is just beautiful, and I also highly recommend her recent contemporary novel, The Expatriates.

9. The Luxe by Anna Godbersen
This teen series set in Manhattan beginning in 1899 was a ton of fun! Full of scandal and intrigue, the chapters all begin with snippets from society pages or etiquette manuals, adding lots of period detail. Of course, what reeled me in in the first place were the gorgeous dresses on the covers!

10. City of Thieves by David Benioff
I'm a sucker for anything set in Russia. This life-or-death adventure story about two young men during the Siege of Leningrad captures just the sort of dark humor common in many Russian novels.

What's interesting about this list is that these aren't necessarily my 5-star reads. I usually rate my books on Goodreads soon after reading them, but often the ones I give the highest ratings to don't stick with me, or vice versa. But when I sat down to think about books to put on this list, these are the ones I thought of right away.

What are your favorite historical novels?