Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Comfort in Books

For the first time in nearly two decades, I am not surrounded by books.

Well, let me clarify: I am not inundated by books stacked around me in every room in the house.

That doesn't mean I don't have books in the house.  And it's not even my house!

Last summer, Carole helped me "de-clutter" my library so the amount of books I had actually fit within the bookshelves. (I know, where is the fun in that?)  Rest assured, it was for a good cause: the house was on the market, and professionals recommended implementing the "d" word.

What that meant was the boxing of about 20 boxes of books.  Give or take, that is; I didn't count.  I just closed my eyes and received the books Carole handed me.  We weeded out the ones I wasn't reading at the moment, added the ones I was unlikely to re-read in the immediate future, and made the remaining ones look like they were meant to be there.  Carole arranged the ones that remained with attractive, bookish knickknacks from her own shelves, rescued some from mine, and displayed them in a lovely fashion.

It was that room that sold the house.

Oh, don't misunderstand me: the new kitchen floor wasn't a washout and the couch set off the living room.  However, it was the love on those shelves that made someone think about how they would love that house, too — and, apparently, see beyond the cat scratching posts flanking the front door.

However, now... Now I have half a box of books in a cube in Alicia's guest room.

Well, that's how it started.  Then I found Summer of Night by Dan Simmons tucked, unread, on her bedroom shelves, and that was promptly plopped on the air purifier. 

Then I was lured into the library book sale and found myself the new owner of a stack of books, including new-to-David Dean Koontz and, for me,  American Wife (which had good reviews and I had meant to read when it first came out).  And a few more titles that looked delicious... With hardback novels priced at a dollar and the money funding library programs, who was I to deny the Friends of the Library a few shekels in exchange for books?

Alicia made a Marge Simpson sound when she saw them stacked on the shoe holder that evening.  "Okay, but no more books!" she declared, the only sane person in the house.  David and I nodded.  We could comply.

That is, until the latest Borders coupon was too much to resist.  I had managed to walk out of the store without A Discovery of Witches enough times to make me feel pious, and the box of books we took to Alicia's house was still buried.  I could see the end of At Home looming on the horizon: what was I to do?  I was too excited to not tell Alicia.  She just shook her head.

Then I dropped off some items at the local thrift store with low prices and a decent selection of books.  I told myself that one book was going to the Lunchroom Lending Library at work, one was for David and the other two... well, I'd give them away when I finished them.  Really.

I showed Alicia the first one, for David, which appeared work-related.  "Eat This, Not That? I've seen that at the bookstores," she said.  Then she saw the others.  "And where are these going?" she asked.

"One is going to work," I responded weakly.

She sighed.  I was officially incorrigible.  (Which was not news to either of us.)

I am sated — for now.  I have plotted them carefully: first, I finish Summer of Night.  That will take me a few days.  After that, I will follow up that with the new-to-me Penny Vincenzi in the box we brought with us, then dive right into Witches. 

At least, that's the plan.  I've had a few more titles suggested to me, and I've unfrozen my library reservation list, so I might have a few new titles from which to choose.

What other titles can you suggest to lure me off the straight-and-narrow?  Tempt me with your suggestions!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Lincoln's Dreams

Days before Abraham Lincoln died, he dreamed he heard people crying in the White House. He asked a soldier what was the matter.  "The President has been killed," he said, and Lincoln saw a casket — and the resident had a black cloth across her/his face.

Days later, Lincoln himself was in a coffin in the White House, with a black cloth across his face.  Was it a premonition of his own assassination?  Connie Willis addresses that question — and more about dreams and the American Civil War — in her Nebula Award-winning novel, Lincoln's Dreams.

The question arises while a popular historical novelist is writing a book about Lincoln's dreams.  The novelist had just finished a book about brothers who fought in the Civil War,  and he turned his attention to his latest fascination: Lincoln's dreams and where Lincoln's son, Tad, was buried.  Actually, he set his assistant's attention to those questions.  Jeff (the aforementioned assistant) was dashing about Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania, gathering information for a last-minute assault on his "finished" novel.

Until he met Annie, Richard's patient and girlfriend.  She tells Jeff about her dreams — which, to the trained ear, are eerily similar to the wartime experiences of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  Is she dreaming the experiences of Lee, who notoriously went without sleep for days during his wartime campaigns?  Is he sending her information?  What does it have to do with Lincoln, his enemy?

Annie is the patient of Jeff's college roommate, a psychologist who runs a sleep institute, whom the novelist had contacted for information on Lincoln's dreams.  Annie accompanied him for that meeting, and Jeff's world is never the same.

I am a huge fan of Connie Willis' writing, and there was plenty I liked — information about dreaming, the Civil War, Lincoln and Lee, the glimpse into the writer's world.  However, this book didn't quite work for me.  I never understood exactly what was happening, and always felt a little lost.  What clues were Annie and Jeff giving me that I just couldn't catch?  What created the immediate connection that everyone seemed to have to this dreaming woman?

I liked the information about dreaming, the Civil War, Lincoln and Lee.  I liked the glimpse into the writer's world (galleys, reviews, printers, etc.).  However, I have liked some of her other books better.  I might try a few of her other novels to see if it's simply my expectations rather than her.  I'll let you know.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: The Last Dragonslayer

Jasper Fforde creates new worlds in a rather matter-of-fact way.  His England either has color castes, living literature, cloned dodos or dragons on the best real estate.  In The Last Dragonslayer, it is the latter.

Jennifer Strange is in a bit of a pickle.  Her claravoyant has predicted that she will kill the last dragon in the kingdom.  It's unlikely that the impoverished orphan, indentured to Kazam by the Blessed Lady of the Lobster, will do more than keep their doors open for as long as the magic lasts.  Only with a strange surge, a new assistant, a persistent king, this young woman with fiercely loyal Quarkbeast may have no choice.

The Welsh writer will not disappoint with his first young adult novel. Readers outside the UK may have to rely on their British sources for their copies (thanks, Jo!), or purchase a copy from someone on the Internet.  (I haven't found it in U.S. bookstores.) Maybe some gentle nudging (no bricks!) will encourage Houton Mifflin to publish the book on this side of the pond, as was reported by the author in December 2010.

Readers should download the app right away — well, if you're a UK customer... Does anyone else notice a trend?  No Fforde, no peace!  Well, let's see how the movement matures.  In the meantime, find a copy and enjoy a little Fforde.

Jennifer is a rare creature, embattled but not embittered, trusting just enough to know only few are trustworthy.  She does as she is told, but does the right thing, no matter what she is told. Her world is one to be recognized only through a refracting lens: some of it looks familiar, but just enough hearkens to another time and place.

Find out how young Jennifer takes control of her life and the future of her country, and how everyone fares.  It's one of Fforde's best reads yet.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: The Witness House: Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa during the Nuremberg Trials

Imagine this premise: eyewitnesses reveal what happened in the villa where Nazis and their victims are housed together during the Nuremberg trials.

Would you want to know what happened, what they said to each other, how it felt to face each other, day after day?

Don't look for that kind of information in The Witness House.  Author Christiane Kohl manages to take an interesting premise and squeeze all of the life out of it.

This is the second book I have read that was originally written in German, and it fell equally flat. I hated The Reader, which so many other people enjoyed greatly.

Dozens of people stayed at Novalisstrasse, a boarding house on the outskirts of Nuremberg, in the years following the end of World War II.  The war trials began in 1945, and those who worked with the Third Reich were brought to court, hopefully to justice, by an international tribunal.  It was an interesting, brief glimpse into a country in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event that nearly destroyed it. 

It was shocking to read about who all the Americans housed together, under the care of Countess Ingeborg K├ílnoky, who is compared to Jean Harlow in appearances. How could any government, military or sane human being house the leader of the Gestapo with concentration camp survivors?  It was that question that initially drew me to the book.

However, the book read more like a "Who's Who" of the cool kids on the block than a fair view of all those who stayed under the inn's roof.  The book is as much about the countess and what held her interest as in the events themselves — and the countess was very interested in those who recently held power or influence in the Third Reich. One learned much about Hitler's personal photographer and the man whose name is synonymous with German air weaponry, but not as much about those who lived to bear witness to its unspeakable cruelty.

There is one fact that remains true: German documentation tells us more about those people than the disenfranchised, and this book is almost as much about the research that was conducted as the stories themselves.

In the end, I cannot recommend the book.  I would be curious if any readers found it more interesting than I, and I would very much like to know what held their interests.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review: The Best of Times

When indulging in a Penny Vincenzi novel, readers know they are in for a treat.

Each story, while unique in details, has a similar rhythm: first we meet people who are terribly rich and privileged as only a rich English person can be, but still remain hardworking and decent enough.  Then an unexpected, unspeakable tragedy occurs that changes everyone's lives, and readers get to wade slowly through the lives of perfectly nice people overwrought with worry and indecision.  Then there is resolution, always for the better (but not always how one would expect).

Readers are completely at home in Vincenzi's latest, The Best of Times.  The tragedy is a multi-car pileup on one of London's busiest highways during rush hour one Saturday afternoon.  Readers meet the people whose lives will be touched by this accident: a woman meeting the love of her life with whom she parted during World War II; a groom and his best man learning much about each other on the eve of a wedding; a husband ending an affair with a live-wire sexy woman; an up-and-coming actress thumbing a ride from a lorry driver; a farmer whose fields overlook the M4.

I cannot tell you what comes next.  Not only would it be cheating, but it would be impossible to do so.  There's a magic to Vincenzi's stories, where the unimaginable actually is imaginable, where even the reader deep in the midst of a story is overwhelmed by that which is unfolding on the pages of her thick novels.  It's never "just" anything, and the tapestry she weaves is full of unexpected rich, knobby texture that rests cool on the reader.

Characters are recognizable, but certainly not pat or hackneyed.  She offers lovely dichotomies where the least sympathetic person can be the most heroic (or not), where liars are saints for all the right/wrong reasons.  Someone's always indescribably rich, someone's always desperately poor, and there's always true love lurking in the shadows.  And there's at least one or two reasons to cry.

Do yourself a favor and pick up The Best of Times — or any of her other novels — and allow Penny Vincenzi to become your new guilty pleasure.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

One More Reasons to Go Print: Sharing

I have a few friends in a never-ending book swap.  Kathy and I leave books on each other's doorstep, and Carole and I trade huge armfuls when we visit.

I'm sure publishers and booksellers are aghast at such activity.  Loaning books?  Where's the profit in that?

I will tell you: it's in the magic of finding a new author, in reading a book I might otherwise not have picked up myself, in introducing another friend to another author.  The initial profit is low for the bookseller, but the long-term benefits are grand.

It's like borrowing a book at the library that turns into a sale: if I know I will love it, I will purchase my own copy so David and I both can read it at our leisure.  It's like picking up a paperback at the second-hand shop: more eyes garner more purchases of current, past and future titles.

Apparently Amazon recently figured out this whole scam for its e-books — and implemented a lending program amongst its Kindles.  Rules are strict and Amazon creates its own restrictions.  Like computer software, access to an e-book can be controlled by the very machine that makes it available.

Now, a book's life does not end when its pages are warped and its spine bloated from being dropped one too many times in the pool, or the 40-year-old paperback that loses its pages, one by one, on a windy day at Dewey Beach.

Instead, the "real" owner cuts off access, or removes it entirely, from your library without your permission. 1984 or Animal Farm, anyone?  No, really: Amazon erased these Orwell titles from Kindles in July 2009; read the New York Times article.

I watched a woman reading an e-book in great comfort today at the bagel shop, and I wondered what it would be like to have a large portion of my library digitized.  This isn't idle fancy: Carole and I will finish packing those very tomes this weekend, and I lost count of the total number of boxes — in part because a portion of my library already is in storage in anticipation of my upcoming move.

Would my life be substantially different if a slim machine held 3,600 titles for me?  Sure.

With a Kindle, I couldn't have a stack of books at Carole's house, awaiting their return to my library (after the move, of course).  I wouldn't step out of my door to see a lovely pastel-covered book on my "welcome" mat with Kathy's bookmark ready for my use.  David couldn't read Barney's Version after I'm done with it — and I couldn't be done with it in the first place because it's not available as an e-book.

My library would be sparse and poor, and my friends empty-handed, if we went "e" — so don't count me in any time soon.  I'll be the one with the swollen copy of Pride and Prejudice poolside.  I'll let you have it when I'm done.