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Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

May 15, 2010

I created this post just about a month ago, when I first finished reading this lovely novel. But for some reason, I never had too much too say about it. Perhaps I’ve read so many gushing reviews that I didn’t feel like I had much to add to the conversation. I do feel like I could talk for a bit about some particular things, but all of that required some spoiler-filled sentences, and I usually don’t like to do that here. However, since it seems like so many bloggers have read this one, I’m going to go ahead and write about the ending of the book. So if you haven’t read Brooklyn yet, please go read one of the million other excellent spoiler-free reviews!

I loved this novel–right up until the last 40 pages or so of the book, the part titled “Part Four,” but more likely remembered as the part of the book when Eilis returns to Ireland after the death of her older sister. One of the things I liked best about the book was watching Eilis (by the way, I seriously wonder how one is supposed to pronounce her name. I feel like I should know, having a Gaelic name myself, but unfortunately I have no idea) develop her self confidence as she spent time in America. It was so heartwarming to watch her grow up, take classes at night school, start to seriously date somebody, and finally feel comfortable talking with the other boarders. She really did become more independent and more confident as she was forced to make her way in America. But then, when she returns to Ireland, she seems to have entirely lost that confidence. Once again, I felt frustrated by her interactions with her family and friends. She lets so many people push her around. And when she started to become intimate with that boy, I was so angry! It felt as though she was doing that just because it was what was expected of her. I wish that she had the courage to use her newfound independence and confidence even while she was living in her old surroundings! In the end, I’m glad that she decided to return to her life in America, because she seemed so much more comfortable there, even if it did take her quite a while to adjust to it at first.

Of course, the very reason that I feel such intense happiness when Eilis changes for the good when she arrives in America (and such intense concern and frustration when she returns to her old self when she returns to Ireland) just demonstrates what amazing characters Toibin has created in this novel. A review on the back of my edition calls Eilis “one of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature”, and I wholeheartedly agree. Sometimes I feel like she was actually one of my friends that just moved away, to Long Island, and I have this catalog of memories of her. It’s weird. But wonderful. This is definitely in the top few books I’ve read so far this year.

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The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

May 5, 2010

Welcome, Classics Circuiters! The Dumas circuit is starting to wind down, so I know that many of you have already read a lot about Dumas and his books. I should start this review by admitting that I haven’t entirely finished The Count of Monte Cristo yet. I tried so hard to finish by today, but I’m only on about page 1000 of 1200. However, I would say that a thousand pages of reading material gives me something to talk about, even if I won’t know the ending for a few more days.

The Count of Monte Cristo, an introduction: Handsome, brave, but poor Edmond is beginning to live the American dream, albeit in early nineteenth century France. He’s got the beautiful fiance, the promotion, and the ailing father who has worked hard for his son to advance. But suddenly, in one fateful night, Edmond’s fortune shifts for the worse, at the hands of a few evil men.  Edmond then spends the rest of the story plotting and acting out his revenge against those who stole his life from him. A truly great set-up for an adventure story, with plenty of room for moral dilemmas!

Before I began this novel, I had already read the famous The Three Musketeers and the lesser known, short but fabulous novel The Black Tulip. I so thoroughly enjoyed them both that I was expecting to absolutely love Monte Cristo. And yet, when I first started this novel (almost a year ago during a long plane flight), I had a difficult time making it past the third-way point. I loved the first couple hundred pages, but unlike some of the previous reviewers, I really did not enjoy reading about Edmond’s time in prison. I set the book aside until last month, when the Classics Circuit chose Dumas for a spring tour. I was surprised at how quickly I could get back into the novel, and I fell in love with it all over again. I was able to seamlessly join in with Edmond’s crazy plotting, and loved reading about his ingenious attempts to trick people. Right now, I’m nearing the end of the novel, yet I’m as captivated as ever, mainly because at this point I’m actually rooting against Edmond, and I’m curious to see how Dumas solves the puzzle he sets up at the beginning: When do the well intended actions of a good-hearted person become too horrible to bear? It’s certainly an interesting question, and I hope that the ending of the book does the rest of it justice.

That being said, although I’m enjoying the novel, I can’t help but compare it to The Three Muskateers and The Black Tulip. I loved both of those novels, with very little hesitation. And I can’t stop thinking about what made them great that Count is lacking: a great sense of humor and strog(er) female characters. The Three Muskateers had me laughing on nearly every page. The Black Tulip has one of my favorite female characters ever in it. Count doesn’t really have any of these. (I know, there’s Mercedes, but she never really talks and when she does she is always so so weak. And Valentine has potential, but is never really as great as she could be. Made Villefort has the potential to be an awesome villainess, but I’m not through enough of the story to decide how I feel about her.) So even though I like the plot, and I’m enjoying the novel, as of right now, I don’t think that I could say that it’s one of my favorite Dumas novels. However, I would definitely still recommend it to people looking to read something with a great plot and interesting characters. I would just maybe recommend The Three Muskateers first.

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Teaser Thursday

April 15, 2010

That post title is entirely made up, but since I don’t have a great review planned, I thought that I’d share a fun passage from one of the books that I’m reading. Right now, I’m reading short stories from one of Joyce Carol Oates’s books called The Female of the Species. One of the things I love about Oates is how perfectly she captures the voices of the different characters in her work. Here’s a passage from the first story in the collection, “So Help Me God.” It’s a story about a woman who married young and is at home alone when she starts receiving curious phone calls. Here she reminisces about how she met her husband in high school.

Andrea had more household chores than I did and my bicycle was newer and faster than hers and I was the one who got restless and bored, so it was usually me on my bicycle, slow and dreamy and coasting when I could and not paying attention to cars and pickups that swung out to pass me. It was late August and boring-hot and I was wearing white shorts, a little green Gap t-shirt, flip-flops on my feet. I wasn’t so young as I looked. My ash-blond ponytail swept halfway down my back and my toenails were painted this bright sparkly green Daddy insisted I had to cover up, wear socks or actual shoes, at meal times.

I love this description, because it really does sound like something that would come straight out of the main character’s mouth. I haven’t finished the story yet (I’m about halfway through) but I know for sure that I won’t be reading it tonight, as I know too well how creepy Oates can be. I don’t want to be up wit nightmares all night!

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The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

April 7, 2010

A few weeks ago, during a cold and rainy weekend, I felt like I needed to get out of the house, go somewhere cozy, and start a good mystery. The only problem was that I didn’t have many modern mysteries sitting around the house unread. So I walked across the street to the local bookstore, and with Karen’s recommendations in mind, perused the mystery section  until I settled on Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur. I then walked over to a great cafe, ordered a warm sandwich and then basically didn’t put this book down until I finished it a day or so later.

Barbara Vine is one of the pen names of Ruth Rendell, who is considered one of the best modern mystery writers. Before The Minotaur, I hadn’t read anything by her (under either name), so I can’t compare how her Vine books compare with her others. I will say that although this book was published by “Vintage Crime,” I haven’t the slightest idea why this book would really be considered a mystery or even a crime novel. Yes, someone dies. No, that doesn’t make it a mystery. Why this book with a death in it is considered anything other than literary fiction is really the only mystery to me. There are so many “literary” books published every year that are not nearly as well written, have worse character development, and contain fewer psychological insights than this novel does. I would say that The Minotaur is a suspenseful piece of literature that happens to have a murder in it.

With that complaint out of the way, I’m sure that by now most of you can tell that I loved this book. The story centers around a Swedish nurse, Kerstin, who takes a job as a nurse at an old English country house in the 1960s. As time goes by, Kerstin begins to know the family–a mother, three daughters, and a son–and their eccentric ways and relationships. She also learns about the funny little town they live in and the people who live there. The interesting thing about this book is that there isn’t a single bit of coincidence or sleuthing–instead, it’s all about the psychology of what makes people act the way they do. The events of the plot occur not because someone has a crazy motive or because something unexpected happened, they occur because of the natural tensions that arise out of complex and convoluted personal relationships. For that reason, The Minotaur was unlike any other “mystery” book I’ve read, and now I understand why Vine/Rendell is considered a master of suspense. I can’t wait to pick up another one of her books!

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Returning

April 5, 2010

I know it’s been nearly a month since  my last post, but I just couldn’t help but start writing about books again. I don’t know why I was gone for so long–I had plenty of reading to talk about! I was just in a bit of a writing rut, actually. I couldn’t think of what to say about the books I had finished reading. Let’s just dive right in now, though. Instead of feeling overwhelmed about all the books that I finished, I’d rather just chat about what I’m reading right now. I’m so excited about each and every one of these books!

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: This book is everything I expected it to be and more. I am so thoroughly involved in the main character’s life that I find myself doing whacky things like missing train stops. In fact, sometimes I don’t pick up this book if I know that I only have a little while to read because I have such a difficult time putting it down. I like the writing style–it’s pretty straightforward and simple, but the tone and emotions described managed to grab you. I find myself so immersed in the story that I sort of forget the writing and the author. Definitely a winner.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: I’m so glad that I convinced myself to sign up to read this for the classics circuit! After reading the first fifth or so during a long plane flight this summer, I unintentionally let this book sit around without finishing it. I’m glad that I picked it up again! More to say about this next month when I write about it for the circuit.

Jane’s Fame by Claire Harman: I received this as a gift this weekend (yay!) and of course started reading it as soon as I had a chance. Wow, this really fits in with my year of Austen perfectly. It has a tiny bit of biography at the beginning, which is perfect. I still haven’t decided if I want to do a full blown biography read or not; this amount of info I think will be just fine for my purposes. So far, it seems seriously well researched with loads of footnotes, yet very conversational in tone.

Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum: This is as excellent as I thought it would be, even if it does make me think more than any of the other three books that I’m reading right now. I think this may be more of a long term read; perhaps I’ll try to read one chapter a week. I love Blum’s take on science, and how she’s not afraid to fault scientists when necessary without faulting science itself.

Sorry for the image-less post and for the rambling discussion without any in-depth serious reviews. I’m starting blogging slowly, I guess!

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The Watsons by Jane Austen

March 8, 2010

The Watsons is one of Jane Austen’s earliest writing attempts, but it remains a fragment. She abandoned the book after only 40 or 50 pages. Somewhat surprisingly, the story focuses on a character named Emma and her family. Emma has been living with an elderly aunt for most of her life, but returns to her family after her aunt remarries without leaving Emma any money. Thus Emma becomes enmeshed in what we recognize as a classic Austen drama: she and her family are poor and the responsibility of providing for themselves rests entirely on the sisters’ ability to marry rich men. I found myself liking this story very much, and was actually shocked when I reached the end. I was sad that it was over, because I found myself very interested in the fates of some of the characters. In her introduction, Terry Castle postualtes that Austen may have abandoned this story because it was too dark, and Austen preferred to critique society with a wittier, gentler tone. I found this theory very convincing, since The Watsons does seem like a pretty bleak beginning for a novel. I could imagine a happy ending for maybe one or two of the sisters, but it seemed virtually impossible that the entire Watson family could conceivably find happiness. And for lack of a better description, many of the characters in The Watsons are quite mean! While I found this fragment an interesting study in how Austen’s work changed as she wrote more, I don’t know if I’d recommend this for a casual Austen fan. The story is fun, but it’s obviously surpasses by Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

I actually completed The Watsons a few of weeks ago. After a one or two week break, I started Sense and Sensibility (in a wonderful new gorgeous Penguin edition!) and I’m determined to read it slowly. This has been hard to do though, as I’ve found that I don’t remember huge swaths of the plot of this book. Even though I saw the movie relatively recently, the book just seems like an entirely different story! I even forgot that there was a third sister! More to come about that soon.

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Lions at Lamb House by Edwin M. Yoder Jr

March 4, 2010

Well, it seems like I took a little break from the blog for a while. I blame it on the Olympics, and on sort of loosing my writing groove. But now I’m back, and the good news is that I have so much to write about! So much that I had to make a little list of everything so that I don’t forget. So let’s get right to it, then. First up, I have a rave review to share with you.

Lions at Lamb House is a lovely historical fiction book that imagines a meeting between two legendary great minds: Henry James and Sigmund Freud. When I first bought this book, I mistakenly thought that William James would be part of the party, but I was wrong. While the elder brother plays a small role, he doesn’t actually appear in the book. Even though I was at first disappointed about that, it soon ceased to matter because this book is so delightful in every respect.

The story is told in four parts. The book opens with Freud’s arrival in Rye, the town in England where Henry James was living. In the first section, we see how James and Freud interact and how the two eventually decide that Freud should psychoanalyze James. In the second section, which takes place 30 years later, during the Second World War, James’s former protege is corresponding with Freud’s daughter about the possible discovery of Freud’s secret notes on the James analysis. The third and fourth parts return to the meeting at Bly and the war, in that order. It’s really a rather ingenious way to tell the story, since it allows us to see how Freud thought about his time with James when reconsidering it much later in his life. Mixed through it all is a funny little love story between James’s protege and a young woman in Rye.

Although I loved this book, I must admit that I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. I think that readers would most enjoy this book if they were familiar with the works of both James and Freud. Also, I would recommend that potential readers feel comfortable with some of the basics of Freud’s early psychological work–and feel comfortable reading about people discussing these theories! It’s not as if the work is vulgar, by any stretch of the imagination, but it does discuss exactly what Freud talks about in his books. That being said, if you are a James and/or Freud fan, you will certainly love this book as much as I did.

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