Friday, March 30, 2012

Bloggiesta Ole!

It's that time again - the time when book bloggers more or less say to our non-blogger readers "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" as we tinker with our blogs to make them better and more useful for our readers.

Bloggiesta started this morning and lasts through Sunday so you're going to be seeing a lot of Pedro this weekend: plan, edit, develop, review, organize. There will be mini-challenges as bloggers educate each other and we all work hard to learn something new that will improve our blogs. I'll be doing some learning and working to update some areas of my blog this weekend but mostly I'm going to be working to organize things. Here are my plans:

* clean up my labels   - done with this as much as I'm planning on doing (or not-looks like this will be ongoing)
* create a comprehensive list by title of all of the books I've reviewed here - in progress
* get caught up on my feed reader and clean it up
* learn to use Google tools to organize my review books better
* clean up my email
* create new header
* check out at least five of the mini-challenges and try to join in some of the Twitter conversations

1. The Bluestocking Society's Five Ways To Spiff Up Your Blog Challenge
2. Fiction State of Mind's Events Challenge
3. Melony's Musings Five Tips To Write Book Reviews Faster
4. Katie's Book Blog Twitter & You (finally feeding my post directly to Twitter!)
5. Beth Fish Reads:  Labels and Tags (oh, sure I found this one after I spent hrs on my tags & gave up on them--now back to it!

This is certainly less ambitious than the list I usually put together but I've absolutely got to get my taxes done this weekend and those pesky FAFSA applications completed (for those of you without college students, these are the apps for loans and they take even longer to complete than my taxes do!). Plus we'll be celebrating Easter with my side of the family Saturday so my time is limited. I'll likely stretch Bloggiesta out for the coming week as far as completing my personal projects!

***On a whim, because I thought it sounded like a lot more fun than cleaning up my tags, I decided to redesign the blog and FINALLY create a header that is more personal. I'm pretty happy with the result but dang, people, that was NOT fun!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Elegy for Eddie: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear

Elegy for Eddie: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear
Published: March 27, 2012 by HarperCollins Publishing
Source: this copy courtesy of the publisher for TLC Book Tours

In this ninth book in the Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie and her team are hired by a group of costmongers (fruit and vegetable street venders) to investigate the suspicious death of Eddie Pettit. Maise grew up in the same neighbor hood as Eddie and knew him to be a kind, gentle, if somewhat slow person who was what we would now call a horse whisperer. The police refuse to investigate what appears to be merely an accident but these men Maisie has known all of her life are convinced that Eddie's death was no accident. As Maisie and her team begin to investigate, they quickly discover that there is much more to this case than simply the death of a common man. Set in 1933, Winspear brings the behind the scenes build up to the coming Second World War right into Maisie's life as her probing leads her to question a friend and brings the press and a certain Mr. Winston Churchill into the fray.

As with The Mapping of Love and Death, Elegy for Eddie is as much about Maisie as a person as it is about her as an investigator. In this book, Maisie, who appears to have a propensity for introspection, begins to question the motives behind her acts of kindness, her feelings about her new wealth and, above all, her feelings for Viscount James Compton.

Both of the Maisie Dobbs books I've read this month, could very easily be books about Maisie and her circle of friends that happen to have a mystery included as mystery stories that happen to rely heavily on the characters involved. For me, this is both a great asset to the books and a deterrent. Any time you write a series with recurring characters you have to make a choice - will the reader absolutely need to start at the beginning if they want to know what's going on with the characters or will you figure out a way to get new readers up to speed in each book. Winspear has made the latter choice, a choice I very much appreciated when I read The Mapping of Love and Death but here I did find it to be a bit in my way as I read. Still, easy enough to skim over those bits and get on with the lives of Billy, Sandra, Priscilla, James, Frankie, and, Maisie as they move forward with their lives, loves, and difficulties.

For other opinions about this book, check out Word Lily's review, Ryan's review at Wordsmithsonia, and Leeswammes' review. Thanks to TLC Book Tours for letting me help celebrate "March is Maisie Month!"

Whatever You Love by Louis Doughty

Whatever You Love ... can be taken away: A Novel by Louis Doughty
Published March 2012 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: my copy was provided by the publisher for participation in a TLC Books Tour
"One thing I feared, and it befell,
and what I dreaded came to me.
No peace had I, nor calm, nor rest:
but torment came."  - The Book of Job 3:25
Laura Needham opens her door to find two police officers on her front porch bringing her the worst news that a parent can hear - her nine-year-old daughter has been killed. For Laura, who has been grappling the past couple of years with the disintegration of her marriage, this loss brings on unimaginable grief and anger. As the days following her daughter's death stretch into weeks and then months, Laura spirals further and further out of control. Her rage toward the driver who accidentally killed her daughter drives Laura to discover just how far she will go to revenge the loss of her daughter.
"Most of the time, the knowledge of Betty's absence is a complicated pain, a mixture of anger and confusion and disbelief, but every now and then, there is a moment like this-pain as unalloyed as a sliver of glass, a moment when I cannot believe that I do not die of it as surely as I would die if someone thrust a very thin knife through my chest and out the other side."
There is so much more to the story than just the death of nine-year-old Betty. Laura has grown up without her father (who died when she was an infant), she has spent most of her life nursing her mother (because of Parkinson's disease) and the betrayal of her husband (who has left her for another woman).

Doughty spends much of the book on the relationship between Laura and her ex-husband, David. I was so invested in Laura's grief that, as much as the story of Laura and David fascinated me (it was a relationship that was at once childish and obsessive), I was a little put off by it interrupting the very real pain of Betty's death. Then half way through the book, Doughty hit me with this: right up until the day the police showed up at her door, Laura was able to survive the divorce because she knew that she would always have Betty. When Betty "went away," Laura lost that anchor. And a light bulb went on over my head. That is exactly how I would feel in the same situation. Much has I am almost certain that I would feel the same combination of numbness, pain and rage that Laura felt.

I am just knocked out by the effect that Doughty's writing had on me. When I sat down to write this review, there were so many post-it notes sticking out of my book, I didn't know where to begin.
"...there are things we know in our brains and things we know in our bones. I've learned to trust the bones. Eventually, the bones sat down at the kitchen table and pulled the bag containing my newly heeled shoes and my mail toward me, delicately, as if it was a box of chocolates I had been saving as a treat."
Whatever You Love is, cliche as it may be, one of those books that I could not put down. Until 300 pages into the book and then I, literally, dropped the book. I could not, still cannot, believe where Doughty went with the story. I said that word that my mom doesn't like me to say - which wasn't entirely my fault because Doughty had just used it as well. We had definitely reached a point in the story that I could not imagine being my reaction to what was happening. When I finally picked the book back up, though, I found myself racing through the last 70 pages, now completely unaware of where Doughty might be heading with the story. And you know what? I liked that just as much I loved the way Whatever You Love had made me feel completely connected to Laura.

Not for the faint of heart, but I would definitely recommend Whatever You Love for book clubs.  For other opinions about the book, check out the full tour at TLC Book Tours. To learn more about Louise Doughty's other books and writings, check out her website.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Guest Post - Rainbow Rowell, Author of "Attachments"

Please join me today in welcoming to Lit and Life Rainbow Rowell, author of Attachments, which comes out in paperback this today. My review of Attachments can be found here; I found it to be a lot of fun with unexpected depth. Penguin Group has kindly offered a copy of the book to one lucky winner. Please leave a comment telling me about something funny that's happened to you at work, by Sunday, April 1 (U.S. residents only). It's not a surprise that the book is fun - Rainbow is a lot of fun! Here's what she has to say about developing her characters for this book:

"When I started writing Attachments, I felt it was a story about friendship. Specifically the way email has changed women’s friendships.

When I was a kid, my mom would have marathon phone calls with her best friends. It’s how they stayed caught up with each other’s lives.

But email changed that, especially for women who work outside the home. When I need to update my friends on my life, I turn to my keyboard.

So I imagined writing this book that captured a digital friendship. Beth and Jennifer’s relationship really lives in their inboxes. Most of their joking, hanging out – even comforting each other – happens screen to screen.

I wrote all of their email conversations first, always knowing that there would be a third character in their story – Lincoln, the IT guy whose job it is to monitor their company’s email.

But I didn’t give him much thought. He was just “the guy who’s going to fall in love with Beth.” Once I’d written the Beth/Jennifer parts, I went back to the beginning of the book to write Lincoln . . .

That’s when I realized that I was writing a book about a guy.

Though Beth and Jennifer are important, Lincoln is the main character of Attachments. Everything happens from his point of view. I wrote Beth and Jennifer through their fingertips, but I had to write Lincoln from inside his head.

Which was really scary.

I don’t know what it’s like inside of a 28-year-old guy’s head. Just thinking about it made me set my manuscript aside for a few months. I thought that my narration would sound like a woman who was trying to sound like a man. Like writing in drag.

I did get over that eventually. I just thought of all the male authors I knew who wrote great women characters. “Lincoln is a man,” I told myself. “Not a unicorn. You can do this.”

Once I started writing Lincoln, his point of view felt completely natural to me. I felt so comfortable in his head that the entire story shifted around him – it became his book…his story.

Though Attachments is still a book about friendship – it’s more about purpose.

All three of the characters, but especially Lincoln, has reached that point in their late 20s where they realize that they can’t just wait for life to deliver the things that they want: Love. A family. Fulfilling work. Lincoln has been waiting for these things to fall on his head, but he’s never put himself out there far enough to get hit.

Attachments, through Lincoln’s eyes, became a book about vulnerability – about getting in life’s way to make sure that it doesn’t pass you by."

Thanks, Rainbow! I can't wait to get my hands on the next book, Eleanor and Park!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Salon - March 25

As I'm typing this up (at a ridiculously late hour on Saturday night or ridiculously early hour on Sunday morning, whichever way you prefer to think of it), I'm smelling my breakfast cooking in the crockpot. One of the things I've discovered about blogging is that I'm learning about all kinds of things other than books from the bloggers I follow. When Trish, from Love, Laughter and A Touch of Insanity, was enacting Operation Use My Crockpot, she tried and shared a recipe for steel cut oatmeal. I've been wanting to try steel cut oats since first reading about them in Peter Geye's Safe From The Sea and Trish finally gave me the push I needed. The recipe I'm using has apples, raisins and cinnamon and smells fantastic!

I was looking through my calendar today (or, again, yesterday, depending on your point of view) and see that I'm starting to dig myself a hole with review books again. I had been doing such a great job of saying "no" and making a dent in my commitments. But dang, there have just been so many great books available lately. You may have noticed that this has not stopped me from signing up for another challenge and even upping the number of books I'm going to try to read for the Historical Fiction challenge. For those of you who are musical fans, I feel a bit like Ado Annie..."I'm just a girl who cain't say no" (except not in that easy virtue kind of way!).

I've got a couple of reviews coming up this week, which means I need to go to bed so I can have the energy to finish the books in time. I'll be finishing up for review Jacqueline Winspear's Elegy For Eddie, the latest Maisie Dobbs book, for later this week and Wednesday I'll be reviewing Louise Doughty's Whatever You Love. Of course, I'm still working away on Bleak House so Friday will be an update for that. What are you reading this week?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Once Upon A Time VI

Ever since I began blogging, I've been intrigued by the RIP Challenge, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings, in the fall. I have no idea how I've missed that Carl also has been hosting a spring challenge called Once Upon A Time. This is a challenge custom made for me - there are four genres of books that are included in the challenge: fairy tale, folklore, fantasy and mythology. Given the number of books I've committed to for review in the coming months, I'm hesitant to jump into this challenge. But since I can also make it work with other challenges I'm participating in, I'm going to push myself a bit a join at the Quest the Second level which means that I'll be reading one book from each category between now and June 19th.


There is also a Short Story Quest and Quest on Screen and I'm planning to participate in both of those as well.

As you know, I'll have no trouble picking out books for the fairy tale and mythology genres and I think I've already chosen my folklore book but I need your help with the fantasy book. What would you suggest?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bleak House Read-a-Long Week 4

Once again, this week I found myself begin grateful that I'm working on this one as part of a group, with a sense of obligation to keep reading so that I can join the discussion. During the same period I was trying to wade through this week's chapters, I was also
reading The Sun Also Rises. Boy, did Dickens give me an appreciation for Hemingway's succinct style!

What I Liked This Week: 
Some of the characters are starting to overlap stories. The household Jarndyce chanced to meet up with Lady Dedlock, a new character brings up a tie to Esther that Guppy learns about, and a mysterious "servant," who is clearly a lady (methinks Lady Dedlock) asks Jo to show her the haunts of Nemo, a character we have only met in death.

What I Didn't Like This Week:
Really, Dickens? More new characters?  At least this time there appears to be a reason for introducing them but did we really need so much buildup of them? My husband read this book as part of a college English literature course. I can't imagine trying to keep track of all of these characters and be able to ascribe a purpose for their inclusion even as you are trying to race through the book to get it read in the short period of time you have to read a book in school.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Originally published in 1926
Source: my husband's college copy

The Sun Also Rises is the story of Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn and an assortment of other expatriates as they travel from their wild lives in Paris to the bullfights of Pamploma, Spain in the 1920's. Although the story is primarily about the interaction of these people, it is also an homage to Hemingway's passions.

The overview on the Barnes & Nobel calls The Sun Also Rises poignant, a word that I initially took issue with in reference to this book. My idea of the definition of "poignant" tended to be "profoundly moving, touching." I know this book is considered a masterpiece - any source you look at will tell you as much. But I definitely did not find it profoundly moving nor touching. Poignant, however, can also be defined as "neat, skillful and to the point," "piercing, incisive," and "keenly distressing to the mind." By any of those definitions, The Sun Also Rises is indeed poignant.

"Neat, skillful and to the point"
Hemingway may be the ultimate in "to the point" authors. When writing dialogue, he has almost entirely done away with the "he said, she cried, John extolled" pieces. The reader must pay attention in order to know who is saying what.

Whereas writers up to the time of the Lost Generation tended to be overly descriptive, Hemingway is very careful about when he uses description. I haven't much of a clue what any of the characters in this book look like, unless other characters have pointed out something about their features. Hemingway clearly preferred to let the reader form an image of his characters based almost entirely on their actions. He seemed to be of a different mind frame when it came to his passions - the streets of Paris, the countryside of Spain, fishing and bullfighting are all vividly portrayed (although certainly not in any way that might be considered flowery). 

"Piercing, incisive"
While Hemingway may leave the reader to wonder about his characters appearance, he leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever about their motivations, their biases, not their feelings, not even at his own expense.
"You're an expatriate. You've lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes."
"Keenly distressing to the mind"
I'm not sure if when Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises the things that I found to be keenly distressing to the mind were then felt to be keenly distressing to the mind. Black people are repeatedly referred to by the N word, gay men are referred to as "faggots" and there is no end to belittling Robert Cohn because of his begin Jewish. Was this par for the course at the time the book was written? Does this merely reflect Hemingway's feelings? Or did Hemingway include these things just be provocative? None of this even touches on the passages about the running of the bulls and the bullfighting scenes.

It's been thirty years since I read anything by Hemingway. The Old Man and The Sea really should not be taught to high school students - they don't have the life experience to understand it and it may just scare them off of Hemingway forever! Did I enjoy this one any more? Well, yes and no. Honestly, I found it to be dry and, frankly, boring at times. But there is so much to think about in the book. It made for a excellent book club choice because of the story and the way it changed the way authors write. As much as I love Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and the like, thank you, thank you to Ernest Hemingway and the authors of his generation for teaching writers that sometimes less really is more.

Monday, March 19, 2012

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In The Garden of Beasts; Love, Terror, and An American Family In Hitler's Germany by Erik Larson
Published May 2011 by Crown Publishing Group
Source: this one was a gift from me to my hubby

I've been trying to write my review of this one for two weeks. But, as I so often do when I'm reading nonfiction, I took a mountain of notes. It's been hard to winnow the details down to what you need to know to understand the story of William E. Dodd's tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. In In The Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson uses Dodd's time in Germany as a way to highlight activity in Germany leading up to the second World War and failure on the part of the American government to grasp what was happening in time to do anything about it.

Dodd was an unlikely choice for such an important position. A college professor, whose life's ambition was to write the definitive trilogy about the American South, Dodd preferred time on his small farm to any thing else. He did have a deep interest in politics and actively pursued a diplomatic post, but hoped for one with very little actual work. Germany was not on his list of choices, although it was a country he had fallen in love with forty years earlier when he studied there. When Franklin Roosevelt, unable to find anyone else to take the ambassadorship in Germany, approached Dodd about the post, Dodd reluctantly agreed.

He was right to be reluctant. His attempts to live within his salary,  his early view of his ambassadorial role as more of an observer and reporter (Dodd hoped he could exert a "moderating influence" over Hitler's government through reason and example), and the belief of the American people that the U.S. should maintain an isolationist stance all made Dodd's job more difficult.

Rudolf Diels

Dodd's daughter, Martha, added to his troubles. Martha had long been interested in being part of the intellectual set; in the U.S. she counted among her friends Thornton Wild, Carl Sandberg and Thomas Wolf. Her interactions with this same type of set in Berlin, however, raised eyebrows, particularly since many of those people were suspected communists. But it was her easy virtue that really made State Department and Nazi Party officials alike take notice. Among her conquests, Martha counted German officers, Gestapo leader Rudolf Diels (a man who was known as the "Prince of Darkness" and didn't mind it), and Boris Winogradov, officially an attache to the Soviet embassy but in reality a spy. At one point, it was even suggested to Martha that it would be a good political move to seduce Adolf Hitler and she agreed. Nothing, however, came of that.

While there were some who sounded the alarm early on (U.S. Consulate, George Messersmith warned that "something fundamental had changed in Germany" when Hitler became Chancellor), Dodd and his family originally arrived in Germany believing only the best. The U.S. Government preferred to believe only the best as well. Roosevelt's first and foremost concern in the early 1930's was the economy and the hope that Germany might one day repay the massive debt left by the first World War made him loathe to rock the boat. Roosevelt was also reluctant to act on behalf of the German Jews because of his concerns about a backlash from the American public. Even the American Jewish population was divided on how to react.

While the world turned a blind eye, the Nazi party instituted a program, "Coordination,"  to bring citizens, government ministries, universities and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes. A central element was the insertion into law of "Aryan clause" which effectively banned Jews from government jobs. Hitler and his cohorts also amped up the production of arms and Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and from a long-running disarmament conference in Geneva. In the spring of 1934, Hitler finally made his move to fully secure his power and to wipe out those opposed to him. By this time, Dodd was strongly warning the U.S. in regard to Hitler's true ambitions and the danger of continued isolationism. His reward? The U.S. government accepted his resignation after the German government turned him out. As ill-equipped and ill-suited as he was to the job, it's impossible not to think what might have happened if anyone had respected Dodd enough to listen to him.

As many German government buildings and other embassies were, the American Embassy was located across the street from the Tiergarten in Berlin, a name which literally translates to "animal garden" or "garden of beasts," hence the reason Larson chose the title of his book.

Trish of Love, Laughter & A Touch of Insanity and I read this one together. She actually listened to it while I had the book in my hands. This is a surprisingly difficult book to keep track of the players in and Trish found it harder than I did which also made it more difficult for her to become invested in the story. I know we both feel that we learned a lot and that Larson did a fine job of giving Dodd a fair shake. But both of us also felt like this one was a lot of work to read and that, as narrow as the topic already was, Larson might have fared better having chosen a tighter focus. Certainly Martha had the more interesting story line and her life would make a fascinating book in and of itself. But William Dodd was clearly meant to be the linchpin of the story and Trish and I concur that he tended to get lost, poor man.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Salon - March 18

Goodness, what a glorious week it's been here - in the seventies every day which is just unheard of for this early in March. It's made me sweep through the house, rolling up rugs, packing away blankets, clearing off surfaces. It feels so good!

Thoroughly enjoying watching the NCAA Basketball Tournaments - mens' and womens'. I don't watch a lot of basketball during the regular season but I do love to watch it this time of the year. It helps to have a race in the horse this year; my husband went to Creighton University so we enjoyed watching them Friday. It does really cut into my reading time, though!

This week I'm bound and determined to have my review of In The Garden of Beasts finished and posted. I have no idea why that one's giving me such fits. I'll also have a review of The Sun Also Rises which the Omaha Bookworms chose for this years classics read. We'll be discussing it on Tuesday; I'm looking forward to hearing what the other ladies thought of it.

This weekend I finally started The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. Having heard so much about them and having seen the movies, I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to finally seeing what all of the fuss is about or wondering if I even need to bother. As I finish each book, though, Mini-him has asked that I pass the books along; it will be fun to discuss them with him as he gets through each one. I'm so thrilled that my boys are both big readers and we get to talk books with each other. They certainly have their own interests when it comes to books but we often overlap in the books we're interested in, which is fun.

What are you reading this week?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Bleakhouse Read-a-long Week 3

In my edition of Bleakhouse, we are now 182 pages in and Dickens is still introducing us to new characters and characters who seemed to play a part not worth noting are suddenly reappearing. One, Mr.Woodcourt, has now appeared three times but he only finally merits a name the third time we meet him. It makes me wonder who else I might have overlooked early on.

What I Liked This Week:

This description of a new-to-us character, Mr. Turveydrop:
"He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear...He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world, but a model of Deportment."
Which was all this ridiculous man was about. He has spent every minute of everyday since he married and of his widowhood relying on his wife and son to earn enough money to allow him to pretend to be aristocracy. I do so love Dickens' characters!

What I Didn't Like:

Mr. Guppy. Granted, as characters go, he is definitely memorable but he is so freakin' creepy! He's quite possibly the original literary stalker. Our poor little heroine is quite beside herself.

Also, nearly a quarter of the way in, I'm getting anxious for some of the many parts of this story to start coming together while I can still remember all of them! We've had quite a number of characters that appear quite prominently in one chapter then disappear all together. I'm sure I must be patient; I have a notion we're going to read at least this much more before anything starts to become clear. I'm thoroughly enjoying the discussion of this novel with Wallace and the rest of the members of the readalong at Unputdownables.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Classics Club

Hosted by Jillian of A Room of One's Own, The Classics Club offers a chance for those who love to read classics from all centuries challenge themselves, set some goals and find a group of people of a like mind. I've loved reading the classics since I was a teenager (a very long time ago) but there are so many books and authors I have yet to discover. There are also a lot of those classics I would love to read again. This club is going to give me the incentive to do both of those things.

Members of the club will make a list of at least 50 classics they plan to read then set their own length of time to complete reading the books. My list is actually 60 titles because I've included some short stories and some children's books so I thought I should push myself beyond the required 50. My goal is to read through the list in five years with a start date of March 15, 2012 through March 15, 2017. I'll be honest, a little part of me does wonder if I'll even still be blogging in five years...if anyone will still be blogging in five years, in which case there won't be anyone to hold me accountable. I'm shooting to average one classic a month. Here is my list:

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe
Frankenstein by Mary W. Shelley
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
My Antonia by Willa Cather
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Adam Bede by George Eliot
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Persuasion by Jane Austen
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Candide by Voltaire
Miss Bishop by Bess Street Aldrich
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Daisy Miller by Henry James
Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac
The Mill On The Floss by George Eliot
The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Cranford by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
A Room With A View by E. M. Forster

Children's  and Young Adult Books:
Daddy Longlegs by Jean Webster
Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Margaret Atwater
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin
The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
Where The Redfern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawls
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson Burnett
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgeson Burnett
Little Men  by Louisa May Alcott
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

Short Stories:
Rocking-Horse Winner by D. H. Lawrence
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe
The Jumping Frog of Calavaras County by Mark Twain
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Henry IV by William Shakespeare
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays by Oscar Wilde

Modern Classics:
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
The Sound & The Fury by William Faulkner
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Catcher In The Rye by John Salinger
All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Possession by A. S. Byatt
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In addition to reading these books, I'm going to try to watch as many of the adaptations as I can find! I'll be starting off with The Sun Also Rises, my book club happens to be reading this one for March.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Mapping of Love and Death: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear

The Mapping of Love and Death: A Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear
Published February 2011 by HarperCollins Publishing
Source: the copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Well, this is embarrassing! As you may have noticed from the icon on my sidebar, March is Maisie Month and in honor of that bloggers on the tour for the latest Maisie Dobbs novel, Elegy for Eddie, aren't reading just that novel but one or more of the previous eight Maisie novels. I committed to two, the new one and the seventh, The Mapping of Love and Death. And then I promptly wrote down the wrong dates for the reviews of each book. So this weekend I was happily reading Elegy for Eddie in preparation for my review of it today. Oops - for some reason late yesterday I finally actually looked at the tour information and realized I had read the books out of order. I promptly switched books and I'm about half way through The Mapping of Love and Death this morning. I'll be finishing the book today and will have my full review up this evening.

**My Review**

In The Mapping of Love and Death, private investigator Maisie Dobbs has been hired to investigate a mystery involving an American cartographer killed during World War I. Wealthy son of British ex-patriot Edward Clifton, Michael Clifton has only just bought some land in California with the certainty that oil will be found there when Britain announces war with Germany. Feeling a duty to his father's homeland, Michael immediately leaves for England leaving behind the truth behind his land purchase.

Sixteen years after he went missing, his body has been discovered, along with some letters from a woman who his parents would like Maisie to find.But there is more to the story that even his mother isn't aware of; Michael's father is convinced that Michael was murdered. When Maisie's clients are brutally assaulted in their hotel room, Maisie's investigation takes on a much greater sense of urgency.

Jacqueline Winspear fills her Maisie Dobbs books with a wonderful supporting cast including her devoted father, her beloved mentor, her employee, Billy, and her best friend Priscilla. Clearly these characters have developed throughout the series but Winspear does a fine job of giving the reader enough information to get up to speed with the relationships but doesn't burden readers with background that could take away from the story line.

I'm sure these mysteries fall into the "cozy" mystery genre but I feel like there is more depth to the Maisie books that I typically find in so-called cozy mysteries. These characters carry a lot of very palpable pain. But Winspear doesn't let her stories get bogged down in that pain or the mystery, bringing plenty of humor to the books as well. I was also impressed with the way Winspear managed to keep the investigative portion of the book moving forward while retaining the real life stories of the characters. There is also much to be learned about the time period, and in this case cartography, without getting weighed down in her research.

I'm sorry to have started so late in the series. I'll definitely pick up the next book but I'm not sure I can go back to the beginning knowing so much already about what will happen to the characters. I will, however, be looking forward to the tenth book!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Salon - March 11

I'm always torn when daylight savings time starts - I hate losing that hour of sleep the first night and I hate waking up again when it's still dark. But, dang, I'm really looking forward to those long evenings.

Yesterday really announced itself as spring here - highs in the upper 70's, mild breezes, sunshine. It was time to put away the snowman collection and start the spring cleaning. That always means that I'm pulling up rugs, tucking away blankets, and generally trying to make our spaces more airy. That always means I'm going to be rearranging the things on the bookshelves on either side of our fireplace. Remarkably, every time I do that, I'm surprised to find, amongst our collection of old books, some of the classics that I'd like to read some day.

It was a great coincidence that I happened to turn up some of these classics yesterday because only Friday I'd begun contemplating signing up for The Classics Club (hosted by Jillian of A Room Of One's Own). It's a big commitment (at least 50 books) but you get to set up your own time frame for completing the challenge (up to 5 years). Amongst your choices you can include short stories, novellas and children's books so that does make reaching that number much easier. I started poking around my house the other night and realized that I can reach that number without buying one book because we have so many classics I'd love to reread.

I also quietly snuck in the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge. I'm doing this one at the "un-challenge" level, which means that I can choose to read as many or as few of Cather's books with the group as I want. I'm planning on reading a couple of them, My Antonia and A Lost Lady. I so enjoyed O, Pioneers! last fall and it's time for this Nebraskan to brush up on her Nebraska writers. It won't really add anything to my reading commitments since both books will work for The Classics Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge.

I'm very much enjoying the Bleak House readalong, although I lost track this past week of where I was supposed to finish off reading and read several chapters more than I should have. I'm twelve chapters in, though, and Dickens is still introducing new characters and story lines. It's a lot to keep track of so I'm glad to have the rest of the group to point up things I may have missed along the way.

This week I'm finally getting to my mystery reading, starting off with a review this week of the latest Maisie Dobbs mystery, Elegy for Eddie. I've got another of Jacqueline Winspears' books to read this month in celebration of Maisie Dobbs as well. I'm going to finally get to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, pick up some Harlan Coben, maybe some more Stephanie Plum...who knows where my mystery reading will take me in the next couple of weeks!

What are you reading this week? Do your reading patterns change when the weather changes?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dinner With Lisa by R. L. Prendergast

Dinner With Lisa by R. L. Prendergast
Published October 2011 by Dekko Publishing
Source: this copy courtesy of the publisher and Premier Virtual Author Book Tours

After the death of his wife, Joseph Gaston boards a train with his four children and heads across Canada to Philibuster, Alberta where he hopes to make a better life for his family during the Great Depression. Joseph has a letter promising a job, a few dollars and a brother and sister-in-law who have offered to help.

Things get off to a rocky start when Joseph angers the chief of police by helping a hobo hopping off the train in Philibuster and then reports for his new job only to be told the position has already been filled. While his boys seem to flourish and his daughters become deeply attached to his sister-in-law, Joseph has a much harder time of it. The pressure of providing food and shelter for his family while maintaining his integrity, staying clear of the chief of police, and come to terms with his growing feelings for a Beth Hoogaboom, a woman who doesn't entirely fit in herself, weighs heavily on Joseph until one night he finally snaps.

Prendergast can certainly write - his description of a Black Blizzard is terrifying, I was certain I could navigate Philibuster's streets and recognize the landmarks clearly, and his portrayal of the life of the men and women left destitute and hopeless was heartbreaking. I cheered for Joseph and his family, I adored Beth Hoogaboom, I laughed at the antics of Joseph's brother, Henri and his friend, Raven.

Prendergast has clearly done his research and Dinner With Lisa makes the reader draw parallels between the time period the book covers and the present day.
"As foreigners in a country where anyone not of British descent was deemed second-class, most Italian men could only find jobs in the most strenuous and poorest paying work situations."
I couldn't help but think of the lives of Mexican immigrants as I read this. And here, in what I think may be an actual piece of radio transcript, the reader can't help but think of the current world crisis:
"...this world crisis would be brought to a swift conclusion if the world's leaders had the courage to say to their countries, "We have lived beyond our means too long, and must have the boldness to pursue such actions as might prove painful in the short term but will be to everyone's benefit in the long."
I like a book that makes me think and you can clearly see that this one did. For the most part, Prendergast managed to do make these statements without coming off as preachy.

I'm was torn on what I wanted to say about this one. So torn that I've actually been scouring the internet to see what others thought of it - something I never do once I've started a book and before I'm done with my own review. In my searching, I found a site with an author's note detailing Prendergast's inspirations for writing this book and it became clear to me why I was having problems with this book. After his last book, Prendergast thought he was done with writing, but the stories his parents and aunts and uncles had told about growing up were stuck in his head, begging for an outlet. His great-uncle's stories about World War I, his father's stories about life on a dairy farm and his mother's stories about a neighborhood corner store all found their way into Dinner With Lisa. The problem with writing a novel this way is that it can be difficult to pull all of those tales together into a cohesive story. In Dinner With Lisa I felt like Prendergast has simply tried to do too much, there were too many distractions. As he tried to flesh out secondary characters with full backgrounds, Prendergast kept pulling me away from the Gaston family and the struggle of the common man during this terrible time and those were the stories I really wanted to read, the stories I really wanted to get caught up in.

Thanks to Teddy and Premier Virtual Author Blog Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions of this book and to learn more about  Prendergast's work, check out Premier's website.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Friends Like Us by Lauren Fox

Friends Like Us by Lauren Fox
Published February 2012 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: I received this copy from the publisher

"It was love at first sight, and also sort of like looking in the mirror on a really, really good day. I saw that Jane was just like me but better.."

When Jane and Willa first met in college, they were first and foremost struck by their similarity in appearance. But what quickly made them the best of friends was the way they made each other laugh and they way they instinctively understood and complimented each other. Now several years out of college, the pair have become roommates, struggling along on part-time work, but thoroughly happy with their lives.

When Willa reluctantly attends a high school reunion, she is stunned to find her first best friend, Ben, there. Just like Jane and Willa, Ben and Willa had been inseparable for through high school, their very own nerd club. A year after graduation, though, Ben disappeared from Willa's life for reasons she never understood. Not until the night of the reunion when Ben finally tells Willa that he had been in love with her for years. It doesn't take long for the two to realize there is no spark between them. When Ben stops by the apartment the next day, though, there is an immediate spark between Ben and Jane.

The blooming romance means that Willa now gets to spend her time with her two best friends, something that initially delights her. The more serious the relationship between Jane and Ben gets, the harder it is for Willa to be happy for them. She begins to feel like the third wheel and the reality that Ben and Jane will one day begin a life that doesn't include her terrifies Willa.

When I was offered this book for review, I figured it would  be a nice light read, the kind I use as the sorbet of reading to cleanse my palate between meatier choices. There are plenty of chick lit elements to this book: a friendship between young women, a new love with a problem, and plenty of humor. But Friends Like Us has an unexpected depth. When Willa sees another trio of friends out bowling, she wonders:
"What separates us from them? We all think we're snowflakes, but we're Tinker Toys, held together by our interchangeable parts."
Willa grew with parents whose constant fighting left a deep scar on Willa and her brother, Seth.
"The truth about two people who don't like each other much is that their fights can be small, gnawing things. I know something about this. I know that this is how people destroy each other, in ugly increments, slivers of their lives falling away until, all at once, they topple."
The fighting and inevitable divorce left Willa unable to define herself and Seth unable to sustain a relationship and the two unable to even depend on each other. As Willa is trying to make sense of her place in the trio she helped create, she is also caught up with trying to patch Seth up after his latest breakup. Will it also allow the two of them to create the bond they never had?

While I wanted to shake some sense into Willa almost nonstop, I couldn't help but feel sorry of her as well. Without a family to rely on and without a circle of friends to fill the void, Willa was bound to make some bad choices, choices that were certainly very believable. Although I felt that Fox could have dialed back on the humor a bit, most of the characters actions and reactions, in fact, felt real.

In the first chapter, Fox tells the reader something about what will become of the friendship between Willa and Jane. But I was completely wrong in guessing how they came to that point; any time a writer can surprise me, I'm a happy reader. And Fox doesn't wrap the story up with a tidy bow at the end of the book; you know how much I love when authors leave the reader thinking. So, as annoying as I sometimes found Willa (and Ben for that matter), I feel like, in Friends Like Us, Fox has given the reader a book well worth reading.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sunday Salon - March 4

Happy sunny Sunday! Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I've been battling a case of the blues for about a week; I haven't had much gumption for I've been reading a lot. That's the silver lining to the cloud, I guess.

Last year, in an effort to work through some of the many mysteries and thrillers that my parents have passed along, I designated March as my month to read mysteries. I've been planning on doing that again this year and was excited when Trish (Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity) asked if I was participating in "March Mystery Madness" with Reading Thru The Night. I wasn't, but I am now!

I joined in with a discussion today with BookBelle and Suko about Friends Like Us. Author Lauren Fox is also involved in the conversation. When I was offered this book, I was expecting a nice fluffy book to clear my brain for the heavier reads I had planned. There was some fluff here, to be sure; I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of depth in the book as well. My review of this book will be posted this week.

It's been an excellent week for reading here at Lit and Life. I finished two books and got my 6 chapters read of Bleak House. A couple of weeks ago, before I remembered that I needed to read Friends Like Us for a discussion and when I still thought I could balance three books at a time, I started R. L. Prendergast's Dinner With Lisa. This week I'll finish that up so I can post my review on Friday. Then I'm finally going to be reading my first Maisie Dobbs mystery which I'll be reviewing next week. What are you reading this week?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Bleak House Readalong - Week One

I swear I did read the rules for this readalong and at some point it must have occurred to me that, at the rate we were reading, this thing was going to drag on for a long time. Still I was surprised last night when I went back to the original post to make sure I had read enough for this week's discussion. We will be discussing this Bleak House until the end of May. May. Which means that there is a very good chance that a) in all of those weeks, I'm likely to miss a couple of discussions and be kicked off the island, and/or b) I will flat run out of time to read or discuss the book in May with a graduation to plan and prepare for. But I'm hell bent to actually finish reading Bleak House this time so I'm going to stick it out.

Leo Tolstoy and George Orwell were said to be fans of Charles Dickens because of his comedy, realism and social commentary. Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf, on the other, not such big fans. They thought his work was sentimental and implausible. For my money, Dickens' work is actually all of those things and the blending of them may just explain why his work has stood the test of time. I think English teachers have loved them for years as well because they make a great torture device for students - Dickens never met a word he didn't like and the more, the better.
"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog dropping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck."
And there you have the very reason why my copy of Bleak House is 770 pages long. Is it necessary to use that many words to tell the reader that " it was really foggy all around?" Probably not. But this time, knowing I only had to read 75 pages, I really read every one of those words and I swear by the time I got through that paragraph, I half expected to see fog rising up from under my bed. For a book that is centered around a court case that has dragged on and on for years, it even makes perfectly good sense that descriptions of the case, the court and the plaintiffs would stretch out endlessly as well.

Things I liked in Week One:

1. Words - Dickens gives me words I don't usually get a chance to read, such as "amanuensis" which is a person performing a task by hand, either manual labor or transcribing someones words. I can't pronounce it but I love to read it!

2. Character Names - Mr. Tangle, for one of the participants in the case; Mr. Krook (well, you can just imagine what we'll learn about him down the road); Mr. Skimpole, a character who is forever needing money from his friends and Esther, our  leading lady. Now Esther may sound a little dull given the other names in the book but consider the Book of Esther from the Bible. Our Esther, like the Bible Esther, is an orphan, raised by a family member (although our Esther is not aware of that fact initially). Makes me wonder what other parallels the Esthers might have.

3. Social criticisms - we're only 75 pages in and already Dickens has made his position clear on the British court system and well-meaning people who neglect their own families as they try to save the world. He's also taken jabs at the wealthy and the judgmental.

Things I didn't like in Week One:

1. Words - Yes there are too many of them. I don't care how good the writing is or how wonderful a picture it paints, sometimes my eyes just start to glaze over.

It's not too late to join the readalong! If you'd like to join us, or are just interested in learning what comes up in our discussions about Bleak House, jump on over to Wallace's Unputdownables.