Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fiction February Part I: Contest & A Theory of All Things

I miss my first reading love: fiction, short stories, novels. Lately, I have been consumed by so much non-fiction reading that I had forgotten what it was like to get absorbed in a good tale. I want to rediscover the novel and become enmeshed in a fictional world. I am dedicating the month of February to several works of fiction that have caught my eye over the past few weeks.

Fiction varies widely in interesting content for me, so I rarely pick up a novel without a strong recommendation, so I would love to hear your best fictional reads for the month of February. If you recommend a good work of fiction to me in February, I'll put your name in a drawing for a free book from EsmereldasBookthing.

Early Reviewers put me back on their mailing list this month with a peek at A Theory of all Things by Peggy Leon.

Ms Leon has spun a compelling tale of 5 siblings who have experienced great tragedy and relates how they continue to grow and thrive and heal in spite of many assaults on their family. Every chapter is from a different sibling's point of view with the bulk of the narrative in the head of eldest brother Mark who is a scientist.

Mark creates metaphors for everything in his life to physics and in particular the big bang theory (hence the title). The science metaphors are quite adept and beautifully wrought. I found myself reading and re-reading passages about quarks and entropy and the big bang theory so that I could fully appreciate the languge the author used to describe the Bennet family's craziness and Mark's insecurities.

Marks' sisters all get turns at telling thier part of the family saga which involves taking care of an aging parent who suffers from altzheimers, maternal abandonment, suicide, pregnancy, homelessness, and virginity.

The characters are lovable--people you would want to know; the plot, although parts are stretched a bit, is a page turner. I definitely cared what happened to these people and the writing gave me reason to sigh every page or two. In additional to beautifully rendered metaphors about science, art is given careful examination as each of the other characters sculpts or creates or photographs. Art and science became equal expressions of these siblings' souls.

I don't want to give too much away because the unfolding plot and twists and turns of each character as they come togther for a family reuion (or reckoning) is the best part of this gentle and good humored novel. I highly recommend this new book which will be published this month by The Permanent Press.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mennonite in a Litte Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

This book has been written up several times in the mainstream press. Several friends have mentioned it to me, and, given my proclivity for memoirs written by women of a certain age, this seemed right up my alley.

I did enjoy it a lot although it was not exactly what I expected. I envisioned Mennonites to be a lot like Amish. I thought Rhoda Jantzen was going home to bake her own bread, darn her own socks and drive a horse and buggy. In fact, the Amish broke away from the Mennonites because they were too darn liberal. A fact I found out in the interesting appendix at the end of the book where Ms Janzen answers a lot of questions about the Mennonite lifestyle that I thought would have been woven through the book.

Janzen writes a very funny, lively and smart book about her own 40 something life, newly divorced and coming home to her Mennonite roots. This reminded me a lot of a book I blogged about last week by a forty something mother who is experiencing a mid-life crisis.

I find this phenomena of we middle aged women looking at our sweet lives through these funny and often profound lenses to be empowering. By telling our own true stories in such a frank and funny way, maybe we will figure this whole thing out after all.

So I agree with the smart write-ups about this book, it is laugh out loud funny and very touching in all the right places. But it is a very personal inner search and not a comedy of errors about using an outhouse after years of modern plumbing. There is a long waiting list for this at the local library. If you are in town and would like to borrow my copy please let me know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert

We heard Elizabeth Gilbert speak at the IU Auditorium last fall. The audience was filled with middle aged white women like me who had fallen in love with her and her writing after reading her travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

She did not disappoint. She has a wonderful self-effacing wit and warm demeanor. She spoke eloquently about her writing and her romance. I leaned to my friend sitting next to me and said, "I feel like she is speaking directly to me." My friend replied, "No, she is speaking to me."

Of course, someone in the audience asked her what she was working on. How does someone top an international bestseller like One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia? She told us she was writing a book about marriage and commitment as she had recently become married to her true love after vowing never to be married again.

Eighteen months later, I walked into Borders and there she was piled high and wide in a bright orange cover: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.

I had heard Gilbert interviewed on NPR a few days before, and her sensibility as a writer sounded clear and charming. She confessed in the interview to having been completely finished with her book and ready to mail it off to her publisher when she got cold feet, realized it was not what she wanted to say, put the draft in a drawer and started over again. Doesn't this seem astounding?

I found Committed to be part memoir (a continuation of her love story with Felipe), part marriage manifesto, part feminist pronouncement and part self-help marriage manual. I loved every part of it. Gilbert's writing is clear and funny and convincing. It was what drew so many people to Eat, Pray, Love.

This really is a book for women, and it is a book about marriage through the ages and what marriage can mean for women. One part that took my breath away was her recounting of her Grandmother Maud's story. Equally as impressive was her own mother's story, and I got a little teary eyed at the end when she finally reunions with her lover after some weeks apart. As someone who endeavors to write myself, I feel like Gilbert makes the act of writing seem so easy and so profound.

Make no mistake, this is a very different story than the book that brought her so much attention, but the writing and the ideas and even the story are as captivating and worth your time as ever. I give this many stars.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon

"The roads are dark. The air smells of jasmine and moon. Parents become children and children become parents. The membrane between life and death stretches thinner every day, but still we are rich.”

--Melanie Gideon from the Slippery Year

I discovered this series of 12 essays on a year end Best of 2009 list. Ms. Gideon is my age and has an only son and writes of her mid-life crisis year with hilarity and sweetness. The stories and ruminations range from her frustrations with her hair to her husbands purchase of a van to her love of a beautiful king size pillow top bed. Most of the stories center on her love and insecurities around raising her only child, Ben.

Each essay had me both chuckling with recognition but also sighing with delight over a beautiful sentence or thought or turn of phrase. Ms. Gideon has a lovely poetic style. She manages to clamp her teeth into the truth of a modern marriage, so that I was nodding my head in agreement while I read, but she can twist the story back around so that it opens one up to new understandings and possibilities. These essays are the best combination of self effacing humor and great insight and understanding. I understand why it made a best of 2009 list.

Ms Gideon got her writing start penning fantasy novels. If anyone has read her other work I would love to hear about it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Lovers

Books are so alluring to me. I love my books, and like the author of this book and her main subjects, I can tell you where I was on the planet when I read a certain book on the shelf, what I was feeling, who gave it to me and what I was doing while I read it. My books are small treasures and when I glance at my shelf I can recall fondly the story and the characters and why I loved or hated it. When I move, more than half my load is boxes of books. And don't ever buy me an electronic book reading device. Don't even get me started on that...

So I understand the premise behind the Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett. I picked up this book because I can understand caring about books and wanting to acquire them. Ms. Bartlett has written a modern day crime novel where the thief, John Gilkey, steals rare books worth thousands of dollars (largely through credit card fraud) and his victims are unwitting booksellers and libraries. Ironically, law enforcement doesn't understand the value of these books, so the thief often gets away with his crime.

The detective who chases the criminal in this tale is a bookseller himself and he spends his time emailing and faxing and trying to alert people to the thief's m.o. Both men are interesting and the author paints fully drawn portraits of each, but the story behind Gilkey and his continual obsession with owning books and his refusal to see his deceptions as crime--even when he gets sent to prison multiple times--is the compelling and more fully wrought tale.

In fact, the tale of the detective bookseller, who is successful up to a point in catching the thief, kind of loses steam toward the end of the book when the author simply focuses on the thief. I missed book detective (bibliodick!) Ken Sanders at the end of the story.

I liked the way Ms. Bartlett builds graceful anticipation. It is slow tale, but you begin to love books and understand the collectors who she profiles on her journey to record the tale of the book thief. I did become engrossed in this crime tale of high class thievery. Many of the collectors, Gilkey included, are not even big readers. Collecting books is not about the stories contained inside, rather it has something more to do with the thrill of the hunt and the connection to history.

In spite of the compelling nature of the thief and the crime, the story felt a little loose and disjointed at the end. She left many unwoven threads. Where are all the books he has stolen? What became of her own rare book that was borrowed from a library and never returned? Shouldn't she alert libraries to the fact that he is walking off with their books?

Other than wanting a more cleaned up ending and more answers to my million questions--where are the books?!--I think it was an interesting and compelling read. I admire the author for sticking with the story through the years and writing this longitudinal account. Reader's who have a touch of bibliomania themselves should check this book out.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


The approach to style is by way of plainness,
simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."
--EB White

I picked up this fascinating history of one of the worlds most used and under-appreciated books just before the holidays when I saw it on librarything. Mark Garvey, the author of Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, has long been fascinated by an old volume of grammar and style advice assigned to virtually every high school english student in the country at one time. Was it assigned to you? Where is your copy?

I found mine on a bookshelf near my desk quite easily. I read it a long time ago and had forgotten about it. Garvey's history gave me the engrossing back story and the controversies surrounding Element's publication. I read it aloud to my husband on our drive home from a family visit. EB White is easily one of the best writers of the 20th century and this book about his (and Strunk's) small volume of essays and grammar advice brought back memories for us.

The author of this history includes thoughts and ideas from writers who read and re-read Elements of Style in order to understand craft and language. The other treat was a collection of EB White's witty letters sent in response to his critics and admirers. Through letters, we catch a glimpse of Mr. White's elegant self-effacing style.

I pulled out my copy of Strunk and White and marveled over the book for the first time. Grammar and style no longer seem like dull tools but rather beautiful music to accompany any writer on the path to better prose. My 12th grade English teacher Mrs. Rose would be impressed.

April 2009 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Elements in its current form. Pick up your old copy and peruse it. It doesn't get much more down to the marrow of writing than this slim volume. Incidentally, my 1979 edition is 92 pages including index. Current editions are up to 105 pages and have gotten rid of gendered language with which Mr. White may not have agreed. Strunk and White's Elements of Style has easily sold over 1,000,000 copies making it perhaps the bestselling textbook of all time.

Perhaps this will kick start your writing this year.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Four Points of View

Reading memoir can often be frustrating because one never hears the other side of the story. A child who is bitter about their upbringing and writes the horrors of their youth is telling one version of truth. A good memoir acknowledges good and bad and paints a dynamic picture of their story.

The Kids are All Right by four siblings is fascinating on many levels, but mostly because it endeavors to tell a sad and painful story through the lenses of each of the 4 children involved. Amanda, Dan, Diana and Liz Welch all now in their 30's and 40's each take turns telling parts of the story of the death of their father in a tragic car accident and then sadly, the death of their mother just three years later, leaving the 4 children ages 8-19 with no parents or caretakers.

One of them goes to college, one of them travels, one of them turns to drugs and gets bounced from home to home, the youngest gets taken in by a local family and is virtually cut off from her siblings. Reading these 4 stories, that navigate the tricky waters of memory between 4 children who have grown up, will give the reader a fine sense of the confusion and isolation and sadness they all experienced. The title gives away the ending, but you do still enjoy the story and tale it took to get there.

After you finish be sure to check out the website the kids have put together: which shows pictures and video of their young lives, and the special bonus for those who value point of view, they acknowledge all the players in this story and allow them to write their own side of the story on the website. The story of the four kids scattering to the wind and eventual reunion is essentially 4 reconstructed memories of children and teens. The authors welcome their family and friends to weigh in with their own version of the story. A few people who aren't so favorably spoken of take advantage of this opportunity. Any reader of this account should also check out these stories; they are part of the whole picture as well.

One interesting sub plot is that the children's mother was at one time a famous soap opera actress and many people who were part of her fan clubs write in to tell of the mother's acting days and the kindness and friendship she extended to her fans. I loved this detail. It reminds us how many people are really part of our story and how many points of view can paint a vivid picture.