Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in Review

Another good year for reading books. Thank goodness for audio books, or I would never find the time to go through the five books per month that I continue to average. OK, nine of them were kids books, but I always include those in my numbers. My favorite genre continues to be historical fiction, though looks like I only read seven of those this year. Thirteen of the books were non-fiction, a good thing, as my goal was to read more non-fiction. The most powerful one of those was Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and I also continue to follow Thomas Friedman with his latest - That Used to be Us. I am happy to say I only read four Nora Roberts or J.D. Robb books this year, and a couple of Baldacci ones. Among my favorite authors, Geraldine Brooks came out with Caleb's Crossing, Ann Patchett with State of Wonder, and Susan Vreeland with Clara and Mr. Tiffany. All of them made my best of the year list, but only Clara was on my best of the best list. I also returned to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, but she no longer spoke to me as she once did. I discovered local author Bonnie Jo Campbell and Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, and want to read more from both of them. I was on a Paris kick after visiting the city recently, plus I was helping a friend do research on Paris of the 30's, so I read about five books about Paris.  One of my other goals was to read more classics, non-contemporary books. Well, I read Walpole's Hieroglyphic Tales from 1785, an Edgar Rice Burroughs SF book from 1917, Hemingway's Sun Also Rises from 1926, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from 1943. Otherwise 17 books were from this year, 26 from 2000-10, 10 from the 1990's and one 1978. Looks like none were from the BBC 100 list, but there is always next year.

American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell (2009)

I bought this National Book Award book at a book signing by local author Bonnie Jo Campbell.  After I read her Once Upon a River and wrote it up in this blog, I received a comment from her thanking me for my review. I replied and found she was doing a book signing a few weeks later.

It is hard to comment on a book of short storie, as I might react to each one differently. Though these stories are not tied together, they could be, as they all reflect that part of rural Michigan that works hard, loves, hates, but finds it hard to prosper or to maintain healthy relationships.

"Family Reunion is the story that becomes the starting point for Once Upon a River. "Winter Life" is about two couples, where all four people probably married the wrong person. "Bringing Belle Home" was heart-wrenching story of two people - each with his own addiction, loving each other, but unable to make it work. "Storm Warning" starts with a boating accident. "Fuel for the Millennium" reminds me of the survivalists I have met, and "Boar Taint" tells of a woman who has studied agriculture in Ann Arbor, but finds it hard to make her ideas work on a real farm. Many of the stories ended in quiet despair, though a few, like the last one did end on a hopeful note.

I keep wondering how Bonnie Jo can describe these characters so well, what kind of world she lives in, but then I remember being drawn to people like she describes when I was living in rural Southeastern Ohio. Strider comes to mind as one I got to know quite well, and whose life could easily make a story in this book. Maybe I should write up their stories some time.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

What a wonderful holiday treat full of human tenacity, striving for something better. This book was on the employee favorites shelf at the audio book store. I had heard the title, so I looked it up in my blog and found that I had answered a reference question about it and it was in the list of books read by the women's group in Lorna Landvik's Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons. I understand that there is a revival in the popularity of this book, as it is being read by book clubs and in high schools. Well deserved.

This is mostly Francie Nolan's story - we see her growing up in Brooklyn from being 10 in 1912 to  being 17 with plenty of back stories of her family and other folks in the neighborhood. Her grandparents were immigrants and illiterate, but understood the power of an education. Their oldest daughter never learned to read, as they were not aware that schools were available for free. The other two daughters were sent to grade school. When Francie was born, her mother Katie asked her mother what to do about raising a child, and her mother answered to read one page from the Bible to the child every day, and one page from Shakespeare. When Francie's younger brother Neely reluctantly went to high school, he had heard Julius Caesar so many times, that it was a breeze for him. Francie read lots of books from the library, even if the librarian never looked up at her. I guess librarians weren't always service oriented. She educated herself, found herself a better school, helped the family by gathering junk and reselling it, and taking a job, when she would rather have gone to high school. It was interesting to watch her slowly leave the family fold and start socializing. Her mother Katie is an amazing character, as is her father Johnny - a singer with too much of a taste for alcohol, but very fairly treated.

The book is so rich with details of the social, economic, educational, political life of Brooklyn in the early 1900's. Obviously this comes from personal experience, as the author was born just five years before her heroine, and from the short biography I read, has intertwined her own life with Francie's. I know there is something special about Brooklyn - my cousin's daughter is a recent immigrant and lives in Astoria - another close knit Brooklyn community north of Williamsburg depicted in this book. I had friends from Brooklyn as I grew up, and a lot of Latvian events happened in Brooklyn in my early childhood, before people started dispersing further into the suburbs. I was confirmed in Brooklyn at the church the Latvians rented for years from the Swedes.

The stories were touching, so much the story of all immigrants to the U.S.  On Christmas Eve I read to my guests the story of Francie and Neely trying for one of the throw away Christmas trees. It would be great to continue this tradition of finding a great passage about Christmas, from books I have been reading, to read at Christmas time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (2011)

OK, I've found the book to give my goddaughter for Christmas. I just went to see the movie Hugo, which reminded me how wonderful the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret was. The movie was great too, but the story it is based on had to be phenomenal to begin with, full of history, plus I had forgotten that it was set in Paris (this year's theme.)

Wonderstruck is again half text and half illustrations - Ben's story is told mostly in text and Rose's story is all in images until their stories meet. Technically it is more illustrations as it takes more pages of illustrations to tell the story, so it will be 2-4 pages of text, then 6-10 pages of illustrations - these charcoal drawings, often moody, but so expressive, from various angles, zooming in on a detail like a movie might do. It all adds up to another wonderful hefty book at 637 pages, but can be read quickly.

Ben has lost his mother and lives with his relatives on Gunflint Lake in Minnesota in 1977. He is deaf in one ear and likes to collect things. One stormy night he goes to his old house and starts looking for his past, maybe some clue to the identity of his father.

Rose is a young deaf girl in Hoboken, NJ of 1927. She keeps a scrapbook of her mother, a famous actress that has left them. Rose is lonely, wants to run away, and likes to build models of New York City's tall buildings that she can see from her window.

Obviously these two stories will get intertwined in some way, but I don't want to spoil the adventure for the next reader. I will just mention just a few things that struck a cord with me.
  • I like places like Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota, on the border with Canada. There actually is a Gunflint Lodge and I put that in a place for notes on good travel suggestions. 
  • I remember collecting things, especially from nature. My cousin had a whole tiny room full of them, and I started up again when I had a son to raise. I have now confined my nature collection mostly to one small case in the TV room.
  • Selznick is obviously interested in the history of cinema - we get another glimpse, this time the move from silent to talkie movies
  • I love museums, but nowadays it is mostly art and historical. I was more fascinated with natural history museums in childhood. I know we went to the American Museum of Natural History in NYC when I was a kid, maybe even as a field trip from school. I have always loved dioramas - I fantasized about making them myself.
  • I liked that Ben's mom was a librarian and that another character runs a bookstore.
  • I was at the 1964 World's Fair, but don't seem to remember the Panorama of NYC - it still exists and another thing I can put on my list of things to see when I travel.
  • I liked being reminded about the deaf world. I am somewhat aware, having a deaf family friend when I was little and working with deaf a bit in my State Hospital job in Ohio many years ago. Just have not run into Deaf culture lately. Liked how Selznick had researched it.
  • I am always amazed when a fiction book has references - I wish more did, as I know authors have to do research to come up with the settings and historical background. Selznick has a lengthy acknowledgments section that explains his research process, and then a solid list of references.
Now just have to wait for this to come out as a movie too.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin (2010)

I like period novels and this was set in the 1890's in the world of the rich in Newport, RI and New York and in England - in London and a country estate. I was not thrilled to be reading about the fictional richest heiress in the U.S. of her time, but Cora Cash, the lead character was spunky and endearing, even if spoiled. It was an interesting concept, that Cora's mother felt she needed to buy her daughter "class," by marrying her off to a titled duke in England. And the duke was happy to marry a rich heiress to infuse his estate with much needed cash. There were moments when this book felt a bit like a regency romance, but one of those would end with the wedding. This book showed the realities of living together and getting to know each other, each other's past histories, which make life complicated.

The book was also richer with period detail - maybe not quite as detailed as Philippa Gregory's books about England, but it had enough about the clothing, architecture, travel, social structure, servants' world. There was a moment when I imagined the author as a girl playing dress-up with her dolls, as she described all these luxurious gowns worn by Cora. I keep wondering how they packed, stored and transported these massive gowns. The complexities of entertaining royalty were shown, and I believe exist to this day.

The characters were not one dimensional. Cora is well educated and surprisingly strong after living under the tyranny of her mother. Maybe that is why she can usually take care of her husband's double duchess mother. Her husband Ivo,  Duke of Wareham, is complex, moody, though seems to really be in love with Cora, but with a past that haunts him. The two mothers were stereotypically nasty. Cora and Ivo both have past romances that play their roles. Bertha was Cora's maid that she brings with her from the U.S. and is her only familiar from home. I like the subplot about Bertha and her life.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Boy of a Thousand Faces by Brian Selznick (2000)

The movie Hugo has come out, so it is time I read more of Brian Selznick's books. This was a short one about a boy who loves old monster movies and likes to dress up, make-up his face into a monster and then take pictures of himself. And then a monster shows up in town...  Wonderfully illustrated, as was The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

From the book I learned about Lon Chaney, a movie star that played the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera and more. I also vaguely remember that there was a series of postage stamps with this actor as well as other movie monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein.