Stocking Reading Pt. 1: Confessions of a Shopaholic & To Kill a Mockingbird

In recent years, my family has had a tradition of themed stockings.

A few years ago we used cable channels. My stocking was the Travel Channel. I got a travel pillow, for example.

Last year, my mother came up with this insanity of Harry Potter spells. Each stocking had a number of spells, and you bought things pertinent to those spells. For example, if the spell was Alohomora, you might get a key or a lock. Some of the stockings overlapped, so it was really more complicated than it was worth.

This year we picked our favorite books. I picked John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things. It is one of my favorite books, and it's the one that I figured everyone in my family could read without being bored out of their minds (I speak specifically of my father, here.) My mother picked Scarlett, a sequel to Gone With the Wind. My sister picked Confessions of a Shopaholic and my father picked To Kill a Mockingbird.

I had never read any of these other books (including Gone With the Wind...also I don't think I've ever actually sat through that movie...ever. at all. I think I've seen maybe half of it consecutively. That's it.)

I figured Confessions of a Shopaholic would be easiest, so that's where I started. I had seen the movie with my mother and sister - it was cute...we had a good time...Hugh Dancy was pretty, but it wasn't what I would necessarily call my cup of tea. My sister has read all of the Shopaholic book series and is for all intents and purposes in love with it. She and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but having now read the first of this series, I can appreciate her love for it. It didn't make me want to pick up any more of them, but I did get sucked in. I think I finished it in like a day and a half. But when I say sucked in, I don't only mean that it was a page-turner. I mean it got into my head.

I started Christmas shopping after I finished this book, and I kept going back to little things - the main character (Rebecca)'s insane excuses, her little quirks and ploys and mantras. For example, she goes into a store to buy a small gift and walks out with bags full of stuff for myself, including stationary because "everyone needs stationary, right?". I've never been that kind of shopper. But right after this book, I was. I walked into Papyrus and, after I walked out, I called my sister because I'd had a total Rebecca Bloomwood moment. I'd walked in thinking I would browse, maybe get a small gift or two. I'd already purchased my holiday cards (I won't tell you where, since just thinking about all the christmas cards at Papyrus make me weep a little) for pretty cheap, so I wasn't card shopping.

By the time I walked out, I'd purchased a gift for one person and a bag for it, a gift for another person and a bag for that, a candle for me, stationary cards for me, tissue paper for the bags...$70. Everyone needs stationary, right? I did the same thing at two other stores over the course of the next week and a half. In the end, the stuff that I bought myself is beautiful, but I probably could have used some of that for, say, these stocking gifts I'm going to have to get. *sigh*

My father's not much of a reader. He works very hard to provide for his family, he always has, and so I can't discredit him for not being a reader. But I'll confess when he picked To Kill a Mockingbird I was a little confused. I had never read the book (somehow it got skipped in my education...I'm not sure whose fault it was, but I'm assuming it was the Orange County Public Schools system's). But what I understood was that it was not....not an adult book necessarily. I had also never actually seen the film. I know, I know. Iconic book, iconic movie, how have I avoided it all for 26 years? With talent, my friends, a talent for ignorance. Or just with the help of OCPS. Anyway.

First of all I should point out - my father is an attorney. Not a criminal lawyer like Atticus, but with the same stoic drive...more animated, maybe, but very similar. Halfway through the book it occurred to me that maybe my father had, consciously or not, modeled himself after Atticus. And that was kind of a startling moment for me. By the end of the book, I was weepy. I was angry that, in a way, this book had been kept from me. Maybe it was a censorship issue. But then I also think - maybe - I wasn't quite ready for it until now.


Monday Mailbox #28

Back in September I won a copy of 

Vintage Baseball, by James R. Tootle 

...through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program. Two days ago, I finally got it in the mail. 
And it's the only book I got this week. 

But I did go into Papyrus to do some shopping and ended up buying myself
some gorgeous stationary cards which, I found out at the register, 
were on sale for half-price. YES.

And I purchased (though not at Papyrus) this year's holiday cards. 
That's got to count for something, right? 

On a side note: I promise I've got some 
book posts coming up, it's just that I've 
been doing reading for Christmas stockings, 
and those books aren't really....to be reviewed. 
I've finished 2 of them, so I'll have one post 
about them (together) and then once I pick up 
Gone With the Wind and Scarlet...then there'll 
be another post. 


Review: The Death of King Arthur - The Immortal Legend by Sir Thomas Malory, A retelling by Peter Ackroyd

The Death of King Arthur
a retelling by Peter Ackroyd
November 14, 2011
Everyone probably knows some version of the story of King Arthur. Whether you've gotten it from the hands of Monty Python, Richard Gere, T. H. White, Disney's The Sword in the Stone, Wagner, Keira Knightley, Richard Harris, Tennyson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, or Jamie Campbell Bower, you probably know the basics, the key characters and events. Like Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone, or his love for Guinevere, or Guinevere and Lancelot's love for one another, or Arthur's death...or maybe you're only familiar with the Tristan and Isolde bits. Merlin's usually in there somewhere with a cast of similarly magical persons.

All of this goes back to a collection of stories gathered and written down by Sir Thomas Malory, a Knight of the Realm in Fifteenth Century England who composed parts of the work while imprisoned in Newgate for various reasons. The original stories were of both French and English origin, from the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, and they, with some of Malory's own original stories, make up the posthumously-published tome known as Le Morte d'Arthur

With The Death of King Arthur, Peter Ackroyd has taken on Malory's immense and sometimes-rambling work and not only condensed it to make it more approachable, but transformed the language itself into something more modern. A "modern idiom," he calls it. I have no doubt that a modern reader will likely find Ackroyd's interpretation a little more congenial and comprehendible than Malory's repetitive and often confusing narrative. The text is certainly more direct in this form. As for "modern idiom" I find it less successful. 

This mess a movie is SUCH a guilty pleasure of mine. Oh hai, Alexis Denisof!
Instead of the sort of romantic (albeit repetitious)  aspect of the original Malory, Ackroyd's text (while sufficient, and probably appealing to a younger audience who might have trouble figuring out the Middle English) is somewhat stark. When I turned to the first page of text, titled "Merlin," my eyes zoomed to about three-quarters of the way down the page to the line "She knew well enough that he wanted to violate her." Yeesh. That's, I think, an example of one of his less successful moments. 

However, the organization of the book (and the incredible amount of work that must have gone into this!!) is commendable and obviously without ulterior motive - Ackroyd merely abridges the text, he does not apply scathingly modern interpretations, concepts or situations. He's simply given us Malory with a slightly fresher coat of paint. 

Tuesday Ten: Top Ten Unread Books on my Bookshelf

Top Ten Tuesday is brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish.

I used to believe in never having an unread book on my shelves. When I had fewer shelves, that was easy. But now...oy. My mother likes to say that, before she lost weight, she had no idea that ice cream could go bad in the freezer. She couldn't fathom the thought because when we bought ice cream, we ate it right away and there were never any leftovers. Well, now that my reading has become more of a practice than a mere hobby, I have leftovers. I have enough unread books to last me through half of next year...but I'll be getting more before then so...these are some books I've been meaning to read for ages, and which I hope will someday be dusted off and read. Try not to laugh. Some of these are kind of ridiculous.

1. Underworld, by Don DeLillo - This is a TOME. I like DeLillo, but apparently I don't like him enough to lug this anywhere and read it.

2. The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy - I'm kind of waiting until I own the other books in this series to read this one...not that I'm actively seeking those books out, though. Whoops.

3. The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy - You know...I've seen the movie, one of the movies...the one with Ciarán Hinds. And the thing of it is... I know I'm not going to like that character. It's kind of an awful character. So I don't want to pick up the book.

4. Sally Hemmings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud - I don't remember now where the hell I found this strange-looking romance novel...maybe it was one of those things my neighbors left out on the communal bench, I'm not sure. It's clear from its lack of shelf wear and its straight spine that it's never actually been read. Perhaps the old white guy in a locket, resting on a much darker chest put some people off. Who the hell knows. But it's a 1979 printing, and any book printed almost thirty-three years ago that hasn't actually been cracked open, MUST be hiding something either great or hilariously awful. But for now, it remains as it is.

5. The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories, by Nathaniel Hawthorne - I don't understand it. I love Hawthorne. I can't figure out why I've never picked this one up.

6. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, by Jan T. Gross - Obviously non-fiction. I took this one from my sister. Eventually she might get it back.

7. The Habsburg Monarchy, 1490-1848, by Paula Sutter Fichtner - also stolen from my sister. I think she told me her professor wrote this one. Either this one or the one I read on Hungary. I can't remember. As boring as the title may sound, I'm actually into this kind of thing. I just haven't picked this one up.

8. War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, by Doris L. Bergen - If I'm going to read any history of the Holocaust, best it be a concise one. Also stolen from my sister. Also not yet read.

9. Differences in the Dark: American Movies and English Theatre, by Michael T. Gilmore - Mom bought this for me for Christmas last year. Unfortunately, I just haven't gotten to it. But it seems really interesting!

10. The War on Words: Slavery, Race and Free Speech in American Literature, by Michael T. Gilmore - I actually started this one back in January because I was so keen to read it. But after a month, I hadn't gotten very far. I had made the mistake of trying to read it before bed. You should never try to read non-fiction before bed. It just made me sleepy. I'll try again soon. I hope.


Monday Mailbox #27

Monday Mailbox is hosted this week by the original Monday Mailbox blog. 

Okay, so it's been a couple of weeks. I hadn't gotten anything in a while. I've been putting off looking into books for the spring because a) some January books came my way unsolicited in the last MM, and now I've got another one...also I've been busy playing catch-up with my reading. It sucks. I hate having to play catch-up. It makes me unpleasant. And that, in turn, can be reflected in my response to what I'm reading. Oy. Anyway, here we go: one book this week, another January 2012 book (yay for having plenty of time to get around to it!)

The Western Lit Survival Kit 
An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, 
from Homer to Faulkner
by Sandra Newman

I received this from Gotham Books through the LibraryThing.com Early Reviewers Program. As I mentioned, it comes out this January. I haven't flipped through it yet, but I did take a gander at the Table of Contents, and I think it has the potential to be pretty funny. For example:

Chapter 2. Ancient Rome: When the World Was Ruled by Italians
Chapter 5. William "Look At Me, I Get My Own Chapter" Shakespeare
Chapter 6. Here Come the Puritans: Parade, Meet Rain
Chapter 9. The Romantics: The Author as (the Author's) Hero
Chapter 11. Nice Realism: The Novel Novel
Chapter 12. Unwelcome Realism: The French and Russians Team Up to Depress Mankind

It's tongue-in-cheek and I like it. 
*Throws it on the pile.*
*Glances at pile*
*Cries a little*


Review: Guerrilla Leader: T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, by James J. Schneider

Author James J. Schneider makes one point very clear before his reader even begins his book about the man most people know as "Lawrence of Arabia": while he's done ample research on his subject, he has "dispensed with the normal scholarly apparatus of lengthy footnotes, disputations, tables, and the like for the sake of readability." He goes on to say in essence that he wants to tell the story, not bog it down with excess baggage. The result is a history without annotation, an entirely partial view of the Arab war that ran parallel to World War I, and a study in hero worship to the nth degree.

For anyone who's never seen the 1962 film based on these events (and I haven't) T. E. Lawrence was sort of like John Dunbar (if you haven't seen "Lawrence of Arabia" I have to assume that you have seen "Dances with Wolves") in that he immersed himself into a foreign world and made their cause his own. The author doesn't make this comparison, I do. Schneider relies heavily on Lawrence's own writings (journals, his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, etc.) for both characterization and narrative. He acknowledges in the preface that Lawrence's writing can be "overwrought, obscure, and self-serving" and then goes on to use it as factual, reliable research anyway. And while I can appreciate the attempt to make this history (one that most people probably know very little about as history classes tend to focus more on the European participation in the World Wars than on their African and Asian Allies--for the record, the Arab Revolt was supported by Britain and France in an effort to combat the Turkish, who were allied with Germany) more "readable"it also makes it one-sided, biased and somewhat exhausting.

There's one chapter, fairly early on, wherein Lawrence is laid up with dysentery or some other illness. He takes this time to ponder the war and develops this amazing theory to apply to guerrilla warfare. The effect of reading this passage is the understanding that Lawrence is somehow brave and full of so much character and understanding of this foreign land and we must worship him. And unfortunately that's the tone of the whole book. At a time when, with Arab Spring and everything that is now happening in that corner of the world, we could really benefit from understanding the history and the implications that come with challenging that history, Schneider fails to really step up and give the reader anything more than a loose battle timeline wrapped in Lawrence's "self-serving" narrative. In my opinion, this book is unnecessary. If you want to read Lawrence's writings, read his writings. And if you want a history of the Arab revolt, find a history book. This is not it.


Review: The Woman Who Heard Color, by Kelly Jones

Art detective Lauren O'Farrell is on a mission. She's seeking art believed lost in the second World War with the goal of returning pieces to their rightful owners. While gathering research, she comes across the name Hanna Fleishmann -- a woman who purportedly collaborated with the Nazis to rid Germany of "degenerate" art. Obsessed with her discovery and eager to see it through to a recovery, Lauren digs deeper and eventually locates a woman whom she believes to be Hanna's surviving, though elderly, daughter Isabella. What she's looking for, and what she hopes to get from Isabella, doesn't compare to what she ends up finding.

As Isabella relays to Lauren what she knows of her mother's life, the reader is treated to a much more detailed experience--a rich, vibrant and beautiful story that touches all of the senses. If you think about it, the film "Titanic" is very similar -- Bill Paxton's character is looking for the diamond, he discovers that the elderly Rose has information about it, we kind of get glimpses into what she's telling him, but the real treat is in her memories, where we learn she's not necessarily sharing, or able to share, everything...but the viewer gets to see it all.

Hanna Fleishmann, born Hanna Schmidt, was a young Barvarian girl who found work with her sister in the home of an art dealer in Munich. Though a humble beginning, she becomes the key figure -- the champion, really -- of modern art in Nazi Germany. Hanna is a synesthete--her brain confuses the stimuli of one sense with the effect of another; specifically, she hears music when she sees color, and she sees color when she hears music. It is this condition, this gift really, that endears her to her employers and ensures her future happiness, a contentment that sees her through her education, her marriage, and the birth of her children. But after a whirlwind of terrible misfortune, and after numerous attempts to join her children sent ahead to America, Hanna is hired by the Third Reich to catalogue an entire warehouse of "degenerate" art, taken by Hitler from museums, private collections, and homes. Knowing that the future is bleak for most of these pieces, she convinces the government to sell many of them off to other countries as a way of getting money for the purchase of classical German art (the kind approved of by the Führer). Meanwhile, she scrambles and manages to hide some other pieces away, keeping secret records, and saving even more of the art for posterity.

Historical fiction can be tricky. On the one hand, you want the author to provide you with a realistic rendering of a particular time period. But what you can often end up with is an abuse of cameos. If Adolf Hitler had appeared once in this novel, particularly toward the end of Hanna's time in Germany, that would have been appropriate. But he's in the story at least three separate times. The first is a foundation scene that, given the later bits, seems to be innocuous. The second is gratuitous (he eats a lot of potatoes). The third is the only one that really makes sense--a speaking engagement at which Hanna, as a special guest of the Führer, is present. His presence seems a little over the top. But I opine that Jones makes up for this by allowing Hanna's tale to be so moving. Her story is reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement in that the reader doesn't really understand how much was kept secret, doesn't understand what our protagonist's burden really was--what she took with her to the grave--until the end. As a work of Holocaust fiction it's somewhat benign, but as a story about art and love, it's beautiful.


Tuesday Ten (Late): Top Ten Books I Had VERY Strong Emotions About

This is last week's Top Ten Tuesday, brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish
The topic for this week: Top Ten Books I Had VERY Strong Emotions About. It took me forever to actually complete this post. I started some days ago, but just as I was about to post it I fell into a ditch where I made friends with Po the Possum and his best friend Mo the Mole. Since then, I've been living as a woodland creature, singing and dancing, foraging for food, not knowing how to make fire, and nearly becoming road kill. Finally I came to the deep and emotional conclusion that enough was enough. I left my friends and finally came back to hit the Publish button. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. 

1. The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas
Really it was the whole Musketeer series, but it was at the end of this final book that I thought I was going to never stop crying. I tear up just thinking about how hard finishing this series made me weep. 

2. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles 

I've read it several times, and I've had the same basic reaction every time - inconsolable despair. 

3. Atonement, by Ian McEwan

If you saw this movie and cried, there's a good chance the book made you cry like, ten times more. I was there. Since then, I bought the movie on DVD but I don't think I've ever actually watched it. I think I'm afraid to see it again.

4. Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson

This was a happy set of emotions. The book is beautiful...really, the whole series is beautiful (but maybe leave out the fourth book). 

5. Martin the Warrior, by Brian Jacques

There's one bit towards the end that hit me hard... I don't know if I "got" it the first time I read it, but I know that when I picked it up again years later, I was kind of distraught. 

6. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

Changed my life. 

7. Possession, by A.S. Byatt

I was a mess. So much more so with the book than with the movie. And I love the movie.

8. Persuasion, by Jane Austen

I've read this book more times than I've read any other book. I know it cover-to-cover, and yet it strikes a chord every time I read it. 

9. The Princetta, by Anne-Laure Bondoux

This time the emotion was mostly anger. While I was just as upset as Atonement or even Martin the Warrior made me, this one made me feel a little bitter. I love this book, but the ending makes me seriously angry. 

10. The Woman Who Heard Color, by Kelly Jones

I don't want to give too much away...I did JUST finish this book, and the review won't be up until tomorrow. But this book...I think I cried through the entire second half of it. It was so moving and so emotionally wrecking... I literally found myself curled up in a ball on my bed weeping about it. What a gorgeous story. 


Review: Pumpkin Roll, by Josi S. Kilpac

Continuing the trend of Jessica Fletcher-like mysteries, I bring you Pumpkin Roll by Josi S. Kilpac, the sixth novel in the Sadie Hoffmiller series – a series whose novels are each singularly and increasingly mouth watering. The first of these was Lemon Tart, followed by English Trifle, Devil’s Food Cake, Key Lime Pie and Blackberry Crumble. After Pumpkin Roll comes Banana Split (2012) which, I should point out, takes place in Hawaii.

If you’re a food addict, this is not the series for you. Sure, the titles are enticing, but then every other chapter or so has recipes for things like Broccoli in Brown Butter, Cinnamon Twists and Whoopie Pies. Sugar addicts beware.

Pumpkin Roll follows accidental investigator Sadie Hoffmiller through the events of yet another mystery (from what I could gather in the exposition, Sadie stumbled upon this line of work when a neighbor of hers was found murdered). This one doesn’t feature a murder, but it’s certainly got the Halloween spirit. (Tee hee. Spirit.)

Sadie has come to Jamaica Plains (a suburb of Boston) to help her boyfriend Pete Cunningham babysit his three grandsons while their parents scout out a new home in Texas. Being so near Boston, there’s kind of an assumption of the historical and creepy, but it’s not until Sadie gets her first glimpse of their neighbor Mrs. Wapple—“The Witch of Browden Street”—that things begin to get weird – doors mysteriously unlocking, the lights going out, strange voices, faces at the window, etc. But when Mrs. Wapple is attacked and hospitalized, and the supernatural activity continues, Sadie and Pete have to wonder – is there really something paranormal at work?

The writing is decent and the plot development is relatively solid (while I appreciated the resolution, there were still some plot holes that drove me slightly nuts), and I should mention I’ve read the first chapter of Banana Split (in the back of Pumpkin Roll) and it’s obvious that Kilpac’s strength is in her dramatic set-up.

But there are definitely some missed opportunities. There’s comic gold just waiting to be dug up here. For instance, the end of Chapter Nineteen: there’s Sadie – she’s covered in paint from when she discovered the injured Mrs. Wapple, and the police want her to come in. Pete turns to her and says “If you start feeling like they’re painting you into a corner, stop answering their questions.” ………..Crickets. No acknowledgement of what could be a great moment of levity. Or how about the end of Chapter Thirty-three: Detective Lucille (last name, not first) shows up, walks through the door, turns to Sadie and says “I think you’ve got some explaining to do.” Shorten “explaining” to “ ‘splainin” and you’ve got yet another missed opportunity.

In a book with so much sweetness, a little salt could go a long way.