Archive for September, 2009

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The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

September 30, 2009

monsterThis book was deeply frightening, but I loved every minute of it. And it was not just frightening for all of the murders–it also made me scared to death of the Italian justice system. The first half of this book explores the bizarre series of “Monster” murders that occurred in the area around Florence in the 1980s. This is the part that kept me awake at night, because the murders were gruesome and sad. However, as the murder investigation continues, the police and prosecutors go a little crazy. That’s when things stop being scary and start getting bizarre and almost humorous.

But, then, the book transitions into it’s second story, where it also explores the strange, and frankly, Kafkaesque justice system that an American journalist was recently forced to navigate during his (totally legal) research into the Monster murders. Having just returned home from Italy, it was shocking to think that such a friendly, fun-loving city could possibly have such a backwards legal system.

The plot of this book couldn’t get any better, and the writing definitely worked well, too. I felt like I really knew the three main characters of the story–Douglas, Mario, and their third friend, Count Niccolo Caponi. The count was my favorite. He didn’t have that large of a role, but everything he said was absolutely hilarious. I ended up loving him. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those who have a fondness for Italy or Florence. Just don’t read this book right before bedtime.

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Teaser Tuesdays

September 29, 2009

DroodTeaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Open the book to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
  • Please avoid spoilers!
  • From Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, p. 120:

    It was wonderful to see Mr. Grewgious sitting bolt upright with his hands on his knees, continuously chopping this discourse out of himself: much as a charity boy with a very good memory might get his catechism said: and evincing no correspondent reaction whatever, unless in a certain occasional little tingly perceptible at the end of his nose.

    Okay, so that’s only one sentence, but it’s Dickens, so I think it counts as two. It’s a great example of both his longwindedness and his fabulous characterization. I love Dickens.

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    Sunday Short Stories: Maria by Elizabeth Bowen

    September 28, 2009

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    I got so used to reading my short stories on Sunday nights before I went to the sleep that I forgot that I would need to read my weekly story earlier in the day if I intend to write about them on Sundays! So here’s a little write-up about the random story that I chose to read last night, Maria by Elizabeth Bowen. It’s in an old used book that I own called The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. It was published in 1981 and claims to be the first place that her complete stories are published. It also has some nice illustrations.

    Maria is an odd little story about a teenaged orphan girl who is sent to live with strangers when her aunt and uncle go on vacation. The family she stays with is strangely nice to her despite her rudeness, so Maria tries to find ways to get attention. The story follows Maria as she attempts some minor ways of bad behavior, but then ends rather abruptly when Maria nearly misses getting into a huge scrape. I found this story charming but vague and rather directionless. It does, however, have that fantastic prose that I love and that Elizabeth Bowen writes so well.

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    Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

    September 24, 2009

    oryxcrakeI read this book years ago, when it was first released in paperback in 2004. Since the new book The Year of the Flood takes place in the same dystopian universe, I thought that I would review the original book. I’m not a huge fan of re-reading books, but I thought that since I enjoyed this one so much the first time around, that it would be fun to rediscover that world. It turns out that I was wrong. I certainly enjoyed reading it for a second time, but I certainly did not like the book nearly as much. Usually, I can never remember exact details or plot sequences of any of the books I read after a couple of years. I have a notoriously poor memory, and I read so much that there’s no way that I could remember all of that information. Oryx and Crake, however, is one of the books whose characters and imagery have stuck with me for years. There is one image that I remember in particular: a fake “chicken on a stick,” a creature that was created from DNA engineering to have nothing but the most vital organs and about a dozen breasts. There are all sorts of other crazy images; this one just happened to be the one that I will always remember. I was surprised to discover how much of the ending I remembered as soon as I sat down with the book. I wish that I could experience reading this book for the first time again, because I remember being shocked and horrified by so much of the book. But this time, unfortunately, the shock was gone, and I felt like I was reading this as a sort of “chore” before I could get to the fun stuff–the new book that just came out! But for first time readers, I would  highly recommend this book. The story is so gripping, and the characters and images so memorable that you will feel like you never stopped reading it!

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    Teaser Tuesdays

    September 22, 2009

    oryxcrakeTeaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read.
  • Open the book to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
  • Please avoid spoilers!
  • From Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, p. 71 of the paperback edition.

    Crake turned up at HelthWyzer High in September or October, one of those months that used to be called autumn. It was a bright warm sunny day, otherwise undistinguished.

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    Sunday Stories: The Long and Painful Death by Claire Keegan

    September 20, 2009

    WalkBlueFields“The Long and Painful Death” is a short story near the end of the collection by Claire Keegan called Walk the Blue Fields. It is unfortunate that this is the first story that I’m writing about here, because I feel that it differs quite a bit from the other stories in the collection that I’ve read. However, I still enjoyed the narrative and the writing. I simply just don’t feel that it is a good representation of the stories in this book.

    In this story, a writer who is temporarily living in Heinrich Böll’s Irish house finds herself unable to write because of an intrusion by an unwanted visitor. In retaliation, the author later writes a story about the visitor dying a long and painful death.

    There were parts of this story that resonated with me, like the writer’s frustration that the impending visitor has filled her day with chores and anxiety that make writing impossible. I also enjoyed how Keegan explored the idea of revenge. The writer’s form of revenge is the best kind–it’s not destructive, and it helps her rediscover her ability to write. Compared to some of the other forms of revenge that we’ve seen in this book, especially the fire in “The Forester’s Daughter,” writing a cruel story seems harmless and maybe even productive.

    The only part of this story that irked me was that it appeared autobiographical. It almost felt as if the story were a journal entry that only required minor editing. I usually don’t mind an author using autobiographical information, but in this case, the discrepancy with the other stories just felt jarring. The setting of the other stories in this collection is in an ethereal, eternal Ireland. This story seems like it could have taken place anywhere, with any writer. Sure, it was an important plot point that the house was famous, but the story could easily have been picked up and plopped down in Robert Frost’s house and would have worked just as well. I suppose that in the other stories, I’ve felt that Ireland was one of the characters, and it this one, it was simply a backdrop.

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    Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

    September 19, 2009

    LaviniaLavinia is a thought-provoking re-imagining of the second half of Virgil’s Aeneid. It tells the story from the point of view of one of the epic’s most minor characters. Despite the fact that she is the subject of a war and one of the ancestors of the Roman kings, Lavinia gets precious little mention by Virgil. In the poem, she is described only partially, and speaks literally nothing. Le Guin takes Virgil’s setting and characters and breathes a new life into them, by showing the arrival of the Trojans from Lavinia’s point of view.

    I bonded instantly with the Lavinia that Le Guin creates. She is thoughtful, pious, and direct. Lavinia explains the true definition of piety:

    “By that word I meant responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe. My father had taught me the meaning of the word and the value of it.” (p. 22)

    It is no wonder that she has such a successful marriage with “pious Aeneas”–the two seem cut from the same cloth. Lavinia doesn’t just describe events; she has opinions about them. She doesn’t just realize that her mother is growing insane, she also thinks that her father, the king, is making a poor decision by ignoring it. Lavinia recognizes that the war-mongering Turnes is acting selfishly, and not for the good of the Latins, despite the fact that everyone else is insisting otherwise. Her opinions give a set of a fresh eyes to the events from the Aeneid that are so familiar.

    In addition to the fully rounded characterization of Lavinia, Le Guin’s portrayal of the daily religious rites of the Latins and her depiction of a ghostly Virgil both helped transport me to Bronze Age Italy. There are so many ancient texts that talk about sacrifices and altars and discussions with gods, but it wasn’t until I went with Lavinia as she made the sacrifices, scattered the herbs, and tended to the household gods that I fully understood how the ancient religious practices affected daily life. In the books that I’ve read from the time period, religion appears only as huge events–a god swooping in to lift a warrior away from an opponent, or a god appearing to confuse a queen with love. Le Guin focuses here on the everyday aspect of the Latins’ religion, and that made it seem much more immediate.

    Virgil does speak in this book, as a ghostly vision who appears to Lavinia. He describes his poem to her, causing a fair amount of “meta” discussion to take place. Lavinia knows that she’s just a character in a poem, which is odd because now here she is, also a character in a novel. (And, of course, people thought that she was real history for hundreds of years, and the kings of the Roman Empire claimed her as an actual ancestor.)  Not to mention the fact that the poem eventually propelled her to myth-dom. While some of these ideas are intriguing, I occasionally found them distracting from the substance of Lavinia and her story. In any case, I loved hearing Virgil as he ruminates on the choices he made while writing the Aeneid. At one point, he wonders why he didn’t focus more on Lavinia than Camilla, the female warrior:

    “‘O Lavinia,’ he said, ‘you are worth ten Camillas. And I never saw it.'” (p. 44)

    In Lavinia, Virgil actually plays the role of an oracle–helping Lavinia make choices just as the ancient oracles helped the epic heros make decisions about their future. This idea is not too original, of course, as Dante chose Virgil as his guide through the afterlifle, much like Lavinia uses Virgil as her guide. And, in fact, as Le Guin also uses Virgil’s story to guide her. Le Guin hints at this in her afterward, explaining,

    “But Vergil, as Dante knew, is a trustworthy man to follow. I followed him into his legendary Bronze Age. He never led me astray.” (p. 274)

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lavinia. On some level, it made me appreciate the Aeneid more than I had previously. It reminded me that the characters, the plot, and the lessons in the poem truly stand the test of time. Lavinia examines these parts of the poem from a unique angle, thus illuminating them in fascinating new ways.