Wednesday, March 31, 2010

My First Stop for Filling in the Gaps: The Lost Symbol

I've been pretending to start reading the first of my Fill in the Gaps books any day now.

Oh, I've read some good books lately, and those perusing my recent reviews have read about them.  However, none have been on my Fill in the Gaps list. And, frankly, that's a problem: how in the world can I get them all read in time?  I'm in trouble!

Until now.

Of the 100 books on my list, none have jumped off the shelves and into my hands — until....

Drum roll, please:

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown.

Bless the library for having a copy on the shelves when I dropped off my other books a few days ago.  (I've been scanning the bargain tables, but so far, alas, no symbol — and with as quickly as I devour his books, I need 'em discounted, like cheap junk food for a sugar high.)

I've already set aside a little time this weekend to get lost in the book.  I've enjoyed his other novels, so I suspect his magic will still hold.  (And Katie, I promise I'm also reading The Terror!)

What are you reading?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Review: The Swan Thieves

Elizabeth Kostova always has something interesting lurking in her books.

They always begin very straightforward with an engaging premise: a girl encounters her father's letters, a psychiatrist has a silent, violent patient referred to him.  It's a nice hook, one you think you can see coming.

However, Kostova veers off the tried-and-true path into an undiscovered country.  After reading The Historian, I knew I'd follow her anywhere — and yet I was skeptical when I discovered the premise of The Swan Thieves.  Blame it on my inability to draw or paint, or maybe my intimidation of Art History (note the initial caps) — but I was not sure if it was my cup of tea.

What was I thinking? It was Elizabeth Kostova.  'Nuff said.

In her second novel, Kostova introduces us to Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist and painter who has a sad, silent patient referred to him. The psychiatric patient, Robert, was arrested for trying to knife a painting at the National Gallery of Art.  During his stay at Goldengrove, a private hospital, Robert is quiet and obsessively paints a gorgeous, richly appointed, haunting woman and every day reads a packet of letters written in French.  The letter are among the keys to the man's salvation.  What do they mean?  And who is the woman he can't stop painting?

Robert's first day at Goldengrove is his most helpful and lucid to the good doctor.  The patient gives Dr. Marlow permission to speak to "anyone" in his life.  There aren't many: Robert is divorced from his wife and was not employed or otherwise occupied during his short time in D.C.  How can Dr. Marlow collect enough information to unravel the mystery that is his new, now-silent, patient?

Kostova's strength here is her characters.  I was not sure at first if I liked the solitary, quiet and very desperate Marlow.  He seemed lonely and pathetic, frankly.  Older, alone and not realizing he ached from the life he had not led, he was a hard character to appreciate in the beginning.  However, when he was with others, his genius and heart shone through and banished the old fuss-budget he appeared to be.

Robert becomes an intriguing character as his story, past and present, unfolded.  It was lovely, revealing both of the storyteller and the subject.  (It also made me wonder how my life would be told by the people who surround me, each holding a small segment, a tiny window into what is called "my" life.)

Woven through Robert's tale was another intriguing story told through letters: a woman in love, a painter, a life in Paris during a time where life and love was very restrictive, where people knew their place, where talent still couldn't hide.  I loved the woman of letters, too.

I have to admit, I was a little impatient with the story at first, wanting it to unfold more quickly than it did.  It wasn't until Marlow took a turn I didn't expect that the story took off, at least for me.  It was amazing and fun to discover there are depths to characters I think I know so well.

I still don't understand what makes an Impressionist an Impressionist.  I can't imagine the life of a painter, let alone any visual artist.  However, the book was amazing, intriguing, surprising and exciting, where a lovely story was tied in a bow of a completely unexpected ending.  I recommend it and I hope you will read it.

(pictured: Elizabeth Kostova at Borders Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia, which this blogger attended • with thanks to BordersDC) (Now go buy a book at Borders!)

Monday, March 22, 2010

TMI in a Book Review

When I saw the Washington Post had published a review of Black Hills, too, I wanted to compare it to my review, just for fun.

I find most reviewers reveal way too much about the storyline of a movie, book or television show, but since I had read the book, I wasn't too worried that the reviewer would sully the review with spoilers, at least for me.

What I didn't expect was a spoiler for another Simmons book on my reading list.

The Post's reviewer quickly included comparisons to Simmons' other recent novels, including The Terror, which is next in my lineup of readables.  Did I really need to have the book mini-reviewed here?  And with spoilers?

I get that there may be similarities between the books, so compare them.  Heck, I did the same thing with Drood in my review.

However, please don't reveal the entire story, including the finale, as a casual side note to the Real Review.

I'm a bit of a purist.  After reading the Post's review of the latest Indiana Jones movie, I didn't need to go to the theater.  (Thanks, Post.)  As a result, I don't read Post movie reviews.  I think I'll have to eschew the paper's book reviews as well.  And that disappoints me because I'm such a fan of the Post.  Oh, well.  Live and learn.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Black Hills

I always begin a novel by Dan Simmons with great expectations and an open mind.  He never goes where I expect him to go with a story, and the resulting adventure always is worthy.  Black Hills was no exception.

This complex novel begins with 10-year-old Sioux boy Paha Sapa counting coup among the dead at Little Big Horn.  That in itself is a paradigm shift: wasichu, or non-Indians, consider it a defeat — but for the young boy, it is a victory.  This is the first of many perception shifts readers will experience with this young boy as his life progresses.

This book begins with a bang, as the young boy touches a dying, long-haired blonde man, and winds up with the ghost/spirit of "Long Hair" in his mind, babbling incoherently (from the perspective of a boy who doesn't speak the ghost's language).  Coupled with his new-found ability to view the future and perceive the past of a person by merely touching the other person's hand, the young boy has many talents that set him apart from his fellow Natural Free Human Beings, as they call themselves.

Paha Sapa is on the cusp of his life, and his people are at the cusp of their existence.  The year the story begins is 1865, and the story is peppered throughout with Sioux words and phrases.  (I have to admit, I didn't know how to pronounce them and didn't even try.)  Some was educational, like the assignment of names, the name of some months ("Moon of the Brown Leaves") and how nouns were often literal descriptions (such as small-vision-backward-touching, his description of Paha Sapa's talent).  Other times, it was more ponderous, as though Simmons wanted to make sure readers were aware of just how much research went into the book.  Thankfully, only occasional words in Sioux were used, though at times even that got ponderous — using the language can serve as an anchor or a distraction.

Paha Sapa is not the only narrator in this novel.  General George Armstrong Custer, is the "Long Hair" whose spirit occupies the boy's mind with what he hears as incoherent ramblings — at least, until Paha Sapa learns English when he is a little older.  Custer's ramblings are very personal remembrances of the intimacies between himself and his wife.  Very personal.  If I was Paha Sapa, I'd be scarred for life.  (I kind of am, anyway.)

The story weaves from Little Big Horn to the Black Hills to the World's Fair in Chicago to the reservation/agency to New York City, from Paha Sapa to Billy Slovak to Billy Slow Horse, from 1876 to 1923, from 1917 to 1893 to 1936.  The reader gets subtle but important clues that are easy to follow to know where and who and why, and the shifts become second nature to the reader.

Aside from the pervert Custer, the characters we meet through Paha Sapa are memorable: Rain, the daughter of a Midwestern preacher; Robert, a young boy whose life is intertwined with the man who reveals his true name to only a few; Guzton Borglum, the personality and artist behind Mount Rushmore; Limps-a-Lot, the elderly Sioux who raises Paha Sapa; Crazy Horse, who should never ask for the very thing he doesn't need; Bill Cody, whose relationship proves more complex than the story at first suggests.

The most memorable is Paha Sapa, who tells the tale and whose life we witness.  We share his inner and public lives, both rich and memorable.  As the clues build, I wanted to know more immediately, but had to wait patiently for the master storyteller to reveal in time the magic of the story and characters.  There are some lovely moments, some painful ones, and more than a few amazing unexpected developments that make this book so memorable that I spent days just flipping through it, landing on yet one more "really good part" I wanted to experience again.

Readers also experience the "end" of the Wild West, with the corralling of the Natural Free Human Beings (and others), the "sport" of killing majestic buffalo and leaving their bodies on the prairie, the quashing of the spirit of an intensely independent people (and an interesting perspective of the hierarchy of the plains), the prejudice against that which is "other" and how the spirit endures (whether wasichu or Natural Free Human Being).

Like all of Simmons' books I have read to date, this hefty tome is worth the investment of time and energy, and the story will stay with the reader for a long time afterward. I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Top 10 Infamous Fake Memoirs

Top 10 Infamous Fake Memoirs

from Listverse:
A memoir can hardly be expected to contain the whole truth. Memories are faulty and the authors, of course, are presenting their own personal view of themselves. But faulty memories, omission, and slight exaggeration are far different than completely warping the truth or creating an entirely imaginary life. Whatever their motivation, many people have published false memoirs and many more people have unknowingly and ardently supported them. When the memoir is revealed as false, a surprisingly common reaction is to appeal to the emotional truth of the story. It’s about how we feel in our guts, not what reality dictates. I submit that such ideas are dangerous and should be strongly opposed. The truth is important, and it should not be sacrificed for romantic notions rooted in irrationalism. We read and create true stories of triumph and tragedy all of the time, but if we have the urge to dramatize real events we can: it’s called fiction.

This list contains 10 books in chronological order, beginning in 1928 to the present.  A couple of titles you should recognize from recent news articles. (Note: I own one of these, and until recently owned a second one.  Guess which ones!)

Click here to read the list.
(Posted using ShareThis)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Grammarians, Celebrate National Grammar Day March 4!

I officially love Martha Brockenbrough.

The founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and author of Things That Make Us [sic] created National Grammar Day in 2008.  National Grammar Day is March 4.

Now, that's a holiday I can fully support.  You know this to be true, those of you who have lived through my discussions (that's what I'm calling them) regarding extraneous commas, Random capitalization, split infinitives and sentences ending in prepositions — not to mention noun-verb agreement, proper hyphenation and, for the love of all that's holy, the proper use of ordinal and cardinal numbers, especially in dates.

My love of grammar is so notorious that a friend recognized my handwriting on a sign in a women's restroom in my hometown.  "You scratched out that apostrophe, didn't you?" Vicky asked.  Yes, I did.  And I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I am totally unapologetic about my adherence to grammar rules, and I will speak in a way that sounds archaic to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.  Call me crazy and old-fashioned, but if you can make at least three different meanings from the sentence "What is this thing called love" — well, then you understand why grammar is important.

Grammar rules are as important as driving regulations.  When one earns a driver's license, s/he agrees to follow certain rules (stop at a red light or stop sign, use a blinker to signal a turn, etc.).  Only by agreeing to follow the same rules can we even begin to guess what the other driver might do in a certain situation.

The same goes for grammar.  How in the world can you effectively communicate without agreeing to some ground rules?  Initial caps is a start, followed by the proper arrangement of words and correct punctuation. (Spelling counts, but that's a topic for another blog.)

Don't get me wrong: I make mistakes.  (We won't go into the whole apostrophe with an acronym controversy.)  However, I try to follow the rules so everyone knows what the driver is doing and can act accordingly.  Wait, that's the other one — but the end is similar. In the end, if you follow the rules, no one gets hurt.

So, visit the National Grammar Day Web site and enjoy the March Forth song — then march forth to spread proper grammar among your friends and family.  I'll be there with you.  It will be fun, I promise.  Okay, if it's not fun, at least it will be an adventure.  Are you in?