The Bookworm's Library

A room without books is like a body without a soul -- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Chocolat by: Joanne Harris

Chocolat Book Cover Chocolat
Chocolat

Fiction
Black Swan
January, 2000
Softcover
328
Goodreads

Try me... Test me... Taste me...

When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud denounces her as a serious danger to his flock - especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial. War is declared as the priest denounces the newcomer's wares as the ultimate sin.

Suddenly Vianne's shop-cum-café means that there is somewhere for secrets to be whispered, grievances to be aired, dreams to be tested. But Vianne's plans for an Easter Chocolate Festival divide the whole community in a conflict that escalates into a 'Church not Chocolate' battle. As mouths water in anticipation, can the solemnity of the Church compare with the pagan passion of a chocolate éclair?

For the first time here is a novel in which chocolate enjoys its true importance. Rich, clever and mischievous, Chocolat is a literary feast for all senses.

Review:

There are two types of bibliophiles in the world — those that own books and those that borrow books from libraries.  One isn’t better than another (other than at moving time — when you have to find sufficient enough people to move all those books).  They will cross over at times — but their preferences remain pretty constant.  I am a book owner.  I just love a room filled with books — with a comfy chair in a corner — inviting one to grab the nearest adventure and launch into a great read.  So, when I happened to venture into my local library and saw this book, I simply couldn’t pass it up.  In the case of this book — it was the title.  In my universe, there is just no passing up anything that has the word chocolate in it — I don’t care what language it is in!  So, when I went into my local library and saw this sitting on a display table, I didn’t even think about it.  I grabbed it with no other consideration.  Frequently, when I do an impulse grab on my way in or out of libraries or bookstores, it is usually indicative of I will either love the book or hate it — but there is almost no in between ground.  In the case of this one — I loved it.  (For the most part).

While I am usually a character and setting person — for this book, it was the story that captivated me.  There was something magical, in a very subtle way that kept me engrossed from beginning to end.  I think it was the quality of the mystery that Harris was able to maintain, in relation to the characters’ motivations, as well as their interactions.   Vianne and her precocious daughter are simply enthralling due to the mystery that surrounds them.  There is obviously a back story that is always alluded to — which keeps the reader wanting to read more.  But it is Harris’ ability to use that sense of mystery in building the story that is the most magical part.  The small French village that gets caught up in a new comers world, while falling under her spell of inexplicable power to influence others in positive and beautiful ways.  This is a story that revolves around the power of one person to influence others — drawing on her own past suffering and pain, to help others rise above their own.  The story is a feel good read that expands the reader’s appreciation for the ability of people to make the world a better place.  

There is a portion of this book that deals with some degree of commentary on the role of religion — or rather the local church’s parsonage.  But it is not so much a religious/inspirational book, as it is an exploration of the ability of one person to change a whole community.  The church actually takes on the role of antagonist through the form of the pastor — Father Reynaud.  This is a character that in his own right, is struggling with a haunting past — which defines who he is and what kind of pastor he has become.  He is an exacting shepherd that demands a great deal from his congregation.  He is also a character that I truly loved to hate!  But it is interesting how Harris was able to actually make the antagonist not so much a sympathetic character, as a weak one that struggles with his own insecurities.  Shaped at the hands of a very exacting and demanding father, his boyhood is transferred to his congregation.  This, of course, opens the door to all the different types of personalities that are present in all churches — and how they come together to form a sometimes precarious community.  

Harris does an excellent job of balancing the constantly shifting sides of power and influence of this small community — while giving the reader an appreciation for small French village idiosyncrasies.  This is a careful balance that is challenging for not only the community — but the writer’s ability to realistically portray the various aspects that go into making up a community.  It reflects on how those aspects interact to strengthen, destabilize, undermine and enhance the entire story.  Through this balancing act — Harris demonstrates a real gift for writing.  She is truly gifted in her use of language, using it to create a world that the reader not only enjoys entering — but looks forward to revisiting on a regular basis.  

The Sleeping Dictionary by: Sujata Massey

The Sleeping Dictionary Book Cover The Sleeping Dictionary
Daughters of Bengal

Historical Fiction
Gallery Books
August, 2013
Softcover
528
Goodreads

YOU ASK FOR MY NAME, THE REAL ONE, AND I CANNOT TELL. IT IS NOT FOR LACK OF EFFORT.

In 1930, a great ocean wave blots out a Bengali village, leaving only one survivor, a young girl. As a maidservant in a British boarding school, Pom is renamed Sarah and discovers her gift for languages. Her private dreams almost die when she arrives in Kharagpur and is recruited into a secretive, decadent world. Eventually, she lands in Calcutta, renames herself Kamala, and creates a new life rich in books and friends. But although success and even love seem within reach, she remains trapped by what she is . . . and is not. As India struggles to throw off imperial rule, Kamala uses her hard-won skills for secrecy, languages, and reading the unspoken gestures of those around her to fight for her country's freedom and her own happiness.

Review:

Most readers can explain why they did or did not like a book.  And while on the surface those reasons may seem a little strange, or even random — those reasons will usually relate directly to the reader’s preferences, interests and general points of reference in their life.  This is a book that I really liked and was somewhat indifferent to at the same time.  Although, as far as a captivating read — it really worked, with only a few minor weaknesses that detracted to a certain degree.  The book was one that was both strong and weak at the same time; it has distinct challenges in the characterizations, while presenting a setting and story that is eloquent and beautiful.

Massey’s rendering of India in a particularly volatile time is amazingly well done.  As the Indian people struggle to force the British out of their country, the British struggle to maintain the status quo under the last dying embers of Imperialism.  There are several historical figures, such as Gandhi, that make appearances in this book; There is also a great deal of turmoil and discontent that marks every page of this book.  Massey has done an excellent job of creating a feel, particularly in a country where everything seems to be standing on the edge of a precipice.  She has managed to create the feeling of a world struggling to fight off imperial oppression, while at the same time establish stability in their own destabilized and divided culture.  The book challenges not only the right and wrong of British Imperialism — but it also looks at problematic issues such as the vast diversity of Indian religious beliefs, the caste system and social stratification in this nascent government, but ancient country.   

One area that Massey struggled with was in her character development.  Her characters are both strong and weak — depending on the character.  It is as if she focuses so much effort on developing the protagonist that she fails to give the same time and effort to the supporting character lineup.  And in a book that really has multiple antagonists — that can be a real drawback that detracts from the story.  Sarah is an amazing character, particularly in the insight and understanding we gain into the Indian culture and stratification due to a caste system — as seen through her eyes.  Coming from the lowest tier of the social castes — she is forced to move through a series of lives, personifications, opportunities — both lost and gained, and situations, in an attempt to establish herself as a person of significance within the culture.  But through the development of her character, the reader can come to appreciate the forced changes that occurred during the social destabilization of a politically compromised country.  

The historical context is what I found the most enthralling part of this book.  As British influence was in decline and the rapidly changing ideas on world governmental ideologies started to shift — many countries found themselves having to reforge the governments and cultures they had known for centuries.  This is particularly true in India because of the many different aspects of historical issues that created challenges to their validity.  The Indian system was a carefully balanced culture of varying religious beliefs, strong caste stratification, political unrest and the quiet discomfort so prevalent in the time between the fist and second world wars.  As the British control started to decline, the Indian government needed to readapt and reassess the governmental system, as it was known.  Massey is particularly adept at encompassing all of these issues in her writing and giving the reader an appreciation for how these elements all came together to produce dramatic political changes.

Some of the subject matter is much more adult in nature.  Sarah finds herself spending quite a bit of time as a prostitute — as a means of overcoming her orphan background.  (This is, in fact the source of the title.)  She has very reduced opportunities due to the lowest caste she belongs to, as well as being orphaned at a very young age.  But it is her struggles that add depth and dimension to the whole story.  She provides a counterpoint to the background history, in order for the history to become realistic, making it easier for the reader to identify with the context and setting.  Sarah is a very sympathetic character, although she spends the entire book in awkward and even precarious situations.  At times those situations can stretch the believability of the character — but this doesn’t detract from the story in any way.  

Generally, this is a book that was a great summer read.  It is both light and easy, as well as intense and engaging in turns.  The reader can identify with it, engaging on many different levels.  I certainly had my favorite characters — but the one complaint I had about the book is that the other characters were, in many aspects, easily forgotten.  It isn’t that they are cardboard cut outs necessarily — but they certainly don’t make a big enough impact to connect with the reader either.   For those that enjoy historical fiction — this would be a good opportunity.  But it isn’t the powerhouse of some of the historical fiction books I have read.

The Lost Sisterhood by: Anne Fortier

The Lost Sisterhood Book Cover The Lost Sisterhood

Mystery
Ballantine Books
March, 2014
E-Book
585
Goodreads

The Lost Sisterhood tells the story of Diana, a young and aspiring--but somewhat aimless--professor at Oxford. Her fascination with the history of the Amazons, the legendary warrior women of ancient Greece, is deeply connected with her own family's history; her grandmother in particular. When Diana is invited to consult on an archeological excavation, she quickly realizes that here, finally, may be the proof that the Amazons were real.

The Amazons' "true" story--and Diana's history--is threaded along with this modern day hunt. This historical back-story focuses on a group of women, and more specifically on two sisters, whose fight to survive takes us through ancient Athens and to Troy, where the novel reinvents our perspective on the famous Trojan War.

The Lost Sisterhood features another group of iconic, legendary characters, another grand adventure--you'll see in these pages that Fortier understands the kind of audience she has built with Juliet, but also she's delivering a fresh new story to keep that audience coming back for more.

Review:

OK — I admit it. I don’t always adhere to the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” There are a lot of reasons that a book will make it onto my “to read” list. The cover, the description, recommendations, book reviews and — as is the case with this one — because I have already read something of the author’s. I loved Fortier’s previous book, Juliet for a myriad of reason. So, when I saw this one, I just had to read it. It is also true that when you read books based on authors, some books will be better than others. This is one of those that didn’t quite live up to the first book and certainly didn’t live up to my expectations.

In her first book, Juliet, Fortier demonstrated a writing style of combining historical fiction with a contemporary story line.  In this work, Fortier takes on the speculated history of the Amazons, overlaid with an archaeological mystery.  The two meet at the junction of the discovery of an unexplained burial site of a woman in a well — with a very strange arm band wrapped around a skeletal arm.  Like her previous work — the supposition is that the events and people of the past have carried on into the present day.  But in this case — the whole thing just got weird.  For me — part of this problem could be that I have never been all that interested in Greek mythology.  Consequently, my knowledge of the Amazons is limited at best.  But Fortier’s development of this fanatical group of women is both overbearing and weak at the same time.  

Fortier does know her mythology — or at least did some background research — and presents it in such a way that the reader comes away interested in learning more about the historical background this book is premised on.  But the Amazonian women were developed into more of a religious, fanatical cult, than anything else.  The fact that Diana’s crazy grandmother asserts early in the book that Diana has a connection to this mystic group of women (before she disappears into who knows where), is a strange and somewhat tenuous connection.  It is just a little strange to see a struggling, non-tenured professor up and run off to who knows where to investigate the subject of her one true passion — while turning herself into a laughing stock all along the way, is just a little much.  Her impulsive venture into investigative archaeology is sets her up as a character that is flighty, unreliable and unbelievable from the beginning.  

As a character — Diana comes across more as the stereotypical damsel in distress, than an expert in her field of study.  I consistently felt like she knew less than everyone else around her when it came to the history she was called to assist with, supposedly to provide context and background to the archaeological dig.  She was out of place, out of time and out of sync with all the other characters –making it less believable and more fantastical than other books I have read.  Unlike her previous book — Fortier has created a protagonist that is supposedly an expert in her field.  She is someone that is suppose to be one of the foremost experts on the subject of the Amazons because she has been studying them since childhood.  But everyone in the story just seems to know more than she does.  

Much of this book has the feel and style of a cross between Indiana Jones and Dan Brown.  There is constantly someone in the background that is trying to kidnap, steal, or otherwise impede and research project and archaeology dig.  The near misses become increasingly more unbelievable with every event.  Every other character has an ulterior motive — and everyone can see that except for the protagonist.  It really made me want to shake her and tell her to wake up.  Like Dan Brown — the fanatical cult in the background is more creepy than anything.  Their motives — while transparent from fairly early in the book — are also a little unsettling in their mysterious attempts to impede investigative discovery — while still remaining hidden in the background.  Simply put — it was just too much.  

By the end of this one — I just felt like Fortier was being more patronizing than anything.  She decided she was going to live up to the expectations created from her first book.  But instead of creating something that was unique and new — she took the course of least resistance and followed what I hope is not developing into a formatted style of  constant repeats with different names and places.  

The Road by: Cormac McCarthy

The Road Book Cover The Road

Fiction
Knopf Books
September, 2006
Softcover
241
Goodreads

The searing, postapocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece.

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, "each the other's world entire," are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

Review:

I am in a distinct minority when it comes to this book.  But, at least for  me — this is a stellar example of a painful read!  Granted, part of it was the subject material.  Post-apocalyptic has never really been my first choice of reads.  I find them fatalistic (which, I guess, is the point) and at times even unbearable.  This book was certainly no exception.

I guess the first thing that really made me struggle with this one was the characterizations.  Yes, I understand McCarthy’s literary assertion that with the death of the world, comes the figurative death of the individual.  But, in this instance I think it went too far.  In a book where individuals are stripped of everything, including a name, it is really hard to form some kind of connection with them.  This, in turn makes it more than a struggle to engage with the whole story.  Every time I read “The Man” or “The Boy”, it made me want to put the book down and move on to something more enjoyable.  The characters were so stripped of identity that there was nothing memorable about them.  Simply put — they were shallow to the point of non-entities.  But strangely enough — this complete non-character approach did insure this one stays in my memory, even if it is only because of my degree of dislike about everything in the book.  

Unfortunately, this non-entity status undermined everything else about the story.  I just felt like there was no point.  It seemed like McCarthy was trying demonstrate the absolute depth of human depravity — with no redeeming value whatsoever.  Moral integrity, empathy, love, compassion — even interest in humanity as a whole — all gone.  The “protagonists” (and I use the term loosely), never seemed to be going anywhere.  There was no purpose for their continued existence, or reason for them to keep going.  I felt like the entire commentary was “a return to the sea — from whence we came”; but to what end, I have no idea. There is no rebirth, no vision of a potential future — even if it was a rebuilt shadow of what once was, no reason to go on living; the book had very little power and really no purpose to the whole story.

The graphic nature of the book is one of fatalistic moral depravity.  It was almost unbelievable that the entire conflict of the story was a father’s attempt to teach his son morality, while living in a world of no morals or social moors, is pointless.  Even “The Man’s” explanation of why killing is wrong (you can’t say a sin — there is no God; and you can’t say illegal — there is no law), when he has just killed a man, is almost farcical.  If “The Man” was really troubled about the killing — that may have been one thing.  But how is he suppose to teach “The Boy” that it is morally reprehensible to take a life, except in the most extreme situations of life and death, when that is the only kind of situation that exists — and “The Man”, himself, seems completely indifferent to the entire act?  What is left to teach “The Boy”, except that killing is nothing more than a means of survival, with no significant principle attached to it?

For most readers of apocalyptic literature, you are frequently familiar with the common theme of the struggle to maintain humanity, in the face of the world being reduced to no social boundaries, whatsoever.  There are no laws, no regulations, no expectations and no reason or purpose to consider your neighbor; in fact there is no reason for the individual to engage with others, for  any reason.  But, another common theme throughout this type of book, is the attempt of men to rebuild something that shores up that which is lost — in order to keep him from declining into a complete existence as just another animal.  McCarthy certainly got the moral and social disconnect in place.  But he fails to give society any reason to go on living.  It is simply the wilderness of the greatest predator of all; man is cut loose as animals, in a ruined world.

Overall — this is simply a book that I can’t recommend.  It is fatalistic, depressing and over the top oppressive.  There seems to really be no point to the book, and I came away feeling that it had been a colossal waste of time.   

The Lace Reader by: Brunonia Barry

The Lace Reader Book Cover The Lace Reader

Fiction
Flap Jacket Press
July, 2007
E-book
353
Goodreads

Look into the lace? When the eyes begin to fill with tears and the patience is long exhausted, there will appear a glimpse of something not quite seen... In this moment, an image will begin to form? in the space between what is real and what is only imagined. Can you read your future in a piece of lace? All of the Whitney women can. But the last time Towner read, it killed her sister and nearly robbed Towner of her own sanity. Vowing never to read lace again, her resolve is tested when faced with the mysterious, unsolvable disappearance of her beloved Great Aunt Eva, Salem's original Lace Reader. Told from opposing and often unreliable perspectives, the story engages the reader's own beliefs. Should we listen to Towner, who may be losing her mind for the second time? Or should we believe John Rafferty, a no nonsense New York detective, who ran away from the city to a simpler place only to find himself inextricably involved in a psychic tug of war with all three generations of Whitney women? Does either have the whole story? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the swirling pattern of the lace?

Review:

For readers, there is a moment when you open a book and simply fall headlong into a story that becomes so real, it evolves into a part of you.  The reader doesn’t just read the book –but lives it.  This happens for many different reasons.  Sometimes is it the writing style, others it is the setting or characters.  Frequently, it is a combination of several things.  But generally, it is a combination of things that come together to speak to the reader as a friend, confidant, lover and loved one.  This is true for Barry’s Lace Reader.  For me, it is Barry’s passion for Salem.  Her love of this unusual city is evident in every aspect of this book.  Salem takes on a life of its own, incorporating not only the tragic and horrifying history, but the present and even the future.  And it is a life and existence that encompasses not only the well known history of trials, injustice, religious obsession and madness — but also one that incorporates the foundation of American ideals.  Industry, trade, tradition, culture and family.  

This story, on its surface, is a simple recreation of the old Salem witch trials, set in modern day America.  All the elements are present and play their role in the well known history that haunts American nightmares.  Ultra religious, well meaning cults — under the auspice of religion; misunderstood women and men — all of whom find themselves branded witches for differences in their beliefs, lives or the people they choose not to get along with; the mystique of an encapsulated, small town community that struggles to rise above the petty factions that drive it; the haunted investigator — compelled to do his  duty, which is unclear due to the complexity of a rapidly escalating situation, — all of these a more can be found in just the surface story of Barry’s work.  Barry eloquently paints not only a  city that once was –but also a city that is and is becoming.  

Like the witch trials of the 1600′s —  this book has a great deal going on behind the story.  It asks the question of what was really going on behind the curtain, that led to the  tragedy of so long ago — and how does that history shape our constantly evolving world today?  Have we really risen above the horrors of history?  And if so — how can we prevent a repeat of the sins of the past?  Through the exploration of these questions, Barry demonstrates a real love of Salem, not just its infamous history, but also the city itself — the people, the location and the elegance of a small town American setting that defines the term “home.”  

While there is only a framework of the past centuries that make up this small town — it is real, modern issues that go into the fleshing out of this work.  Towner is well developed as a character.  Struggling with a severe cases of post traumatic stress disorder, she is an excellent example of an unreliable character.  Her shift through various degrees of emotional and mental instability, offset with moments of dramatically sharp clarity, create a sense of uncertainty in the reader.  There is an overwhelming sense of foreboding throughout the book that is almost tangible at times.  The reader is certain there is much that is being said — without actually being spoken of.  Barry manages to maintain this sense of intensity throughout the book and only develops the actual story in pieces, one insight at a time.  

All of the characters demonstrate varying degrees of unreliability.  Their personal histories are filled with pain, suffering and secrets — both real and supernatural.  But the story also explores the same themes in families as units. The history of Salem adds to the issues —  creating a story that suggests that the key to today and the potential for a future all rests with finding reconciliation with the past.  The quest for this reconciliation for all of the characters helps the reader to identify with all of the painful and challenging issues haunting not only the characters, but also the reader.  

This is a great book for literary study.  The writing is eloquent and very good at demonstrating what writing can do.  It is moving, troubling, haunting and most importantly powerful in  the story it tells and the characters that tell it.  

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by: Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary Book Cover The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Non-Fiction
Harper Perennial
July, 2005
Hardcover
288
Goodreads

The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

Review:

Although the majority of what I read is fiction — I really enjoy Non-Fiction, particularly history, as well.  Fiction is a great escapist past time.  It has no connection to the real world; it is somewhere I can go, where I can’t be found, to avoid disturbances.  However, like the well known saying goes — history is pretty much ALWAYS stranger than fiction.  This book is a shining example of the adage.  The best fictional plots can’t equal the story told in this historical account.  Winchester did an excellent job of not only selecting the topic for his book, but also demonstrates a mastery of both his knowledge of the material and a gift for writing that keeps the reader truly captivated.  

If you ever wonder what comes from a generation that has to rely on something other than instant gratification, television, video games and mindless — anti-social engagement with the world around them, the accounting of the events in this book are a great example.  Granted, it was the title that drew me in.  How can you possibly overlook a title entailing the Oxford dictionary, a well educated professor and a crazy person?  The title alone begs the question of what the three could possible have in common that would connect them — thereby opening the door to a read out of curiosity.  

One question this book explores is the struggles of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — before it was considered nothing more than shell shock or a shirking of military duties.  Dr. Minor is an example of how devastating PTSD can be for an individual.  From a successful medical career to an army surgeon in the Civil War — Dr. Minor was exposed to the horrors of war on a massive scale.  The trauma left him mentally disconnected from more than the world around him.  Causing a descent into depression, trauma and eventually murder, before being confined in an asylum in England, for the criminally insane.  

The book demonstrates a real sensitivity for the troubling times of the Civil War and those following.  With nothing but his books for solace and comfort — Dr. Minor discovers an advertisement for submissions, for entries into the newly started project of creating a Dictionary of the entire English language.  This one advertisement gives Dr. Minor a new purpose in life — and eventually helps him form a bond with Professor Murray — the man in charge of the compilation for entries for the dictionary.  The connection between these two men is profound and eventually leads to a friendship that will last the remainder of both of their lives.  

Winchester is sensitive in his exploration of not only the unusual friendship formed between these two well educated men — but he also explores a degree of mental illness and how it manifests in different connections and associations in life.  I found myself amazed at the intriguing story behind this dictionary that still exists and is used on a daily basis throughout the world.  Its lasting legacy a tribute to the two driven men.  Winchester revives the men and their history and makes it live.  

There are certainly some parts of this book that are beyond graphic.  Some of them are pretty disturbing, in the extreme.  (Particularly one incident late in the book, which is both horrifying and harrowing.)  But when you are dealing with a story revolving around an exceptionally bloody war, murder and a seriously disturbed, unstable mind — it is inevitable that there will be some pretty graphic history.  The reader just needs to be aware going in that Winchester doesn’t shy away from these topics — and may even present them in over the top detail.  

It is history like this that makes it so fascinating to read.  Winchester certainly has a gift for bringing the history into the real world and getting the reader so engrossed that at times it reads more like fiction than history.  This is a fascinating read, particularly for readers and lovers of the study of language.  The obscure, little known history is both interesting and engrossing and well worth the read.

The Great Gatsby by: F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby Book Cover The Great Gatsby

Fiction
Scribner
September, 2004 Original Publication, 1925
Softcover
180
Goodreads

In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write "somethingnew--something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned." That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald's finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author's generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald's--and his country's--most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning--" Gatsby's rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.

It's also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby's quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means--and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. "Her voice is full of money," Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel's more famous descriptions. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy's patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.

Review:

I can’t count how many times I have read this book over the course of my schooling.  My first time through, like most people, was in high school.  My last time was towards the end of my bachelors degree.  The story  is a great demonstration of how a reader’s response to a book evolves over time, shifting with each reading.  My responses ranged from wildly in love with the story through apathetic disinterest and even dislike.  In some cases I know exactly why I loved the book and sometimes it is more illusive — vague.  

Many of my responses in this book revolved around the characters –their depth and shallowness in turns.  I think the most intriguing aspect of the character development are the contrasts Fitzgerald develops.  Like all characters, they each evolve throughout the story — but their contrasting qualities remain constant.  Daisy and Gatsby are polar opposites.  Daisy manifests a degree of shallowness that both bugs the reader and enthralls them at the same time.  Gatsby does the same, but for different reasons.  His aloof, mysterious dealings and back story keep the reader wondering who is the real Gatsby.  

While this is a great example of characters that I love to hate —  and at this juncture of my relationship to this book, intense dislike of the characters is my general response — I can’t deny that their contrasting interactions build on each other.  The characters, particularly Gatsby and Daisy, actually develop the strength of the other, until they become real and believable.  It is this belivability that makes them tragic personifications in the extreme.  

The story is actually basic and at times simple.  Man falls in love with a woman he can’t have.  At  the same time the shallow woman, flighty and disingenuous, who is oblivious to everything but the satisfaction of her own personal desires, come together with fatal consequences.  With Daisy, everything is about appearances, with little consideration to how it will affect others.  For Gatsby — it is all about Daisy and there are no others of any consequence.  The simplicity of these themes makes for a powerful commentary on the state of the human condition.  The contrasting opposites of the story — the two “eggs” of the city, rich and poor — in both substance and character.

The contrast also extends to the morals of individuals.  The various degrees of moral depravity are an interesting and well developed theme of the story that give a reader a great deal to reflect on.  The reader finds themselves justifying one character over another because they perceive one morally redeeming, in contrast to another.  But the fact is all the characters have fatal moral character flaws.  One is no worse than another — but in a contrasting development, Fitzgerald is able to present the question of are some character flaws worse than others.  

These opposing factors of this book, all come together to make for an interesting read and study.  But as far as a story goes — as I stated in the beginning — it is an evolutionary process.  Depending on perspective, age and reason for reading — responses to the book will vary greatly.  It is well written, as any classic should be.  But the reasons for the power of the book have less to do with the writing and more the themes that shape this powerful, if controversial story.  

Juliet by: Anne Fortier

Juliet Book Cover Juliet

Romance
Ballantine Books
August, 2010
E-Book
447
Goodreads

Twenty-five-year-old Julie Jacobs is heartbroken over the death of her beloved Aunt Rose. But the shock goes even deeper when she learns that the woman who has been like a mother to her has left her entire estate to Julie’s twin sister. The only thing Julie receives is a key—one carried by her mother on the day she herself died—to a safety-deposit box in Siena, Italy.

This key sends Julie on a journey that will change her life forever—a journey into the troubled past of her ancestor Giulietta Tolomei. In 1340, still reeling from the slaughter of her parents, Giulietta was smuggled into Siena, where she met a young man named Romeo. Their ill-fated love turned medieval Siena upside-down and went on to inspire generations of poets and artists, the story reaching its pinnacle in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.

But six centuries have a way of catching up to the present, and Julie gradually begins to discover that here, in this ancient city, the past and present are hard to tell apart. The deeper she delves into the history of Romeo and Giulietta, and the closer she gets to the treasure they allegedly left behind, the greater the danger surrounding her—superstitions, ancient hostilities, and personal vendettas. As Julie crosses paths with the descendants of the families involved in the unforgettable blood feud, she begins to fear that the notorious curse—“A plague on both your houses!”—is still at work, and that she is destined to be its next target. Only someone like Romeo, it seems, could save her from this dreaded fate, but his story ended long ago. Or did it?

From Anne Fortier comes a sweeping, beautifully written novel of intrigue and identity, of love and legacy, as a young woman discovers that her own fate is irrevocably tied—for better or worse—to literature’s greatest star-crossed lovers.

Review:

There are some books that you read because they are highly recommended.  Sometimes you read them because they are on the best seller list.  I have been known to read books because of the cover, the description on the back and even because they were gifts.  Each of the books I read offer varying degrees of interest and make the reading experience unique.  This is a book that is well worth the journey and one that I love to make regularly. 

On one level, this is a simple revisiting of Shakespeare’s  Romeo and Juliet.  A modern version of the old story, to create new interest for modern readers; built on the framework of a timeless story.  The characters, the setting and even the feel of the story are all much more modern.   But it doesn’t change the depth or profound emotional impact of the original.  

What I found magical about this book, however, was the description of the setting and the alternate story line.  The take on this story actually overlays the traditional Romeo and Juliet with the purported true story behind Shakespeare’s masterpiece.  The alternate story line with a historical foundation is really a beautiful and strong addition to the book.  It makes it into something more than the reworked, overdone story that has been revisited in too many different formats.  

Fortier demonstrates a real passion for her creation of Siena, Italy.  I have always been a setting reader.  I love a well created and envisioned setting.  It really adds to a story and helps raise a simple book, up to the level of art.  Characters and plot are the aspects that most readers look at, when they are considering if they like a book or not.  Are the characters real, the dialog and the situations possible and believable?  These are the most common elements used for making up good stories.  However, setting is frequently overlooked for the influence it can have in a story.  In this book, Siena really manifests a strong presence throughout the story.  That influence is found in both the modern and historic timelines — which really adds depth to the creation of this amazing place.  More than once, I found myself believing I was actually there.

The setting is even more amazing for the historic influences that Fortier uses.  I  love her writing and how she relies so heavily on historic, physical real situations to set this retelling of Romeo and Juliet apart from all the others.  I particularly love how these descriptions work together, intertwining and weaving an interconnected dual story that sustains everything about this book.  

I also came to identify with her characters, as well.  At least the modern renditions. The historic presentations of Romeo and Juliet are pretty pat and move little beyond what is found in all the other versions of the story.  But Julie and Alejandro are really fun.  They provide the reader with a mystery, romance and adventure all rolled into one.  All of the characters bring elements of mystery, with strange happenings, shady men, connections to the Italian mafia and more.  

This is a book that I really enjoy.  It is an example of all the reasons I love to read.  No — it isn’t deep, intellectual and profound reading. But I really enjoy the escapist quality of this book.  Sometimes, as  reader, I simply need something that helps me step  outside of my everyday life and find somewhere “other” than the here and now. This is one of the books I go to, when I need this kind of therapy.  

The Magicians by: Lev Grossman

The Magicians Book Cover The Magicians
The Magicians

Fantasy
Viking
August, 2009
Hardcover
402
Goodreads

Quentin Coldwater is brillant but miserable. He's a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he's still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless. 

Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he though it would.

Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.

Review:

I  have heard this book referred to as the adult version of Harry Potter.  If that is so, then Grossman seriously missed the mark.  I have always struggled with series.  My attention tends to wander and I loose interest about half way through.  Especially when that series is longer than about three books.  So for a series to captivate my interest when it brings seven books to the scene — it is really a well done story.  Harry Potter managed to accomplish this feat.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing for The Magicians.  From beginning to end I felt like Grossman was simply trying to capitalize on the success of the Harry Potter series, without bringing anything of value to the table.  Simply put –the book goes on and on, with little to show for it, and no appreciable uniqueness at all.

The story really was poorly done.  Mainly because there didn’t seem to be one of any significant notice.  The setting, the situations, the scenarios — they all seemed to be a revisiting of Rowling’s creation, with a whole lot of adult content.  In fact — I felt like the adult content is all that Grossman used to try and set this one apart.  The drinking, the language, the obsessive nature, the sex (sexual abuse at that), somehow it got to be too much and all without purpose.  I felt that Grossman was trying to rely on shock value and crudity to build this story and demonstrated an absence of creativity, vision and even individuality.  

All of the characters seem to be built around character flaws and failings.  There is little of strength in any of them.  They portray teenagers — nascent magicians or not — as boozing alcoholics with little or no direction, guidance or supervision.  This, in fact, I found strange, since the entrance into the school of magic was apparently challenging and designed to identify budding magicians with strong character traits and above average skills and abilities in the magical arts.  Throughout the book, I found myself wishing it was over because all of the characters were unbelievable, and annoying to varying degrees.  

The plot was lacking altogether.  I was never sure where Grossman was going — or trying to go.  It seemed to get bogged down in each and every scene — while struggling to tie them all together into a story that actually had any purpose or point.  It simple seemed to wander aimlessly through various scenes and failed completely in capturing my interest enough to want to read any more in the series.   Overall — I thin Grossman failed in his attempt to develop a book of any profound insight.  Instead, he seemed to rely on the inventiveness and creativity of other authors, in both obvious and unsuccessful ways.

White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke by: Paul Clayton

White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Book Cover White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Historical Fiction
Booklocker
December, 2009
E-book
488
Goodreads

One of the most haunting mysteries in American history - The Lost Colony of Roanoke - comes roaring back to life in White Seed, with a compelling cast of characters. Among them: Maggie Hagger, indentured Irish serving girl, a victim of rape and intimidation, driven to desperate action against a tyrant when all around her have lost hope; Manteo, the Croatoan interpreter for the English, an inhabitant of two worlds, belonging to neither, who longs for love and acceptance and finally finds it in Maggie's arms; John White, ineffective Governor, painter and dreamer, drawn to the brink of insanity and back in his efforts to rescue his people; Captain Stafford, a brave, disciplined, but cruel soldier, with the seeds of class hatred imbedded in his soul years earlier' and Powhatan, the shrewd Tidewater warlord who wages a stealthy jihad against the colonists, waiting to ensure they have truly been abandoned before launching his final assault.

Review:

One review I read on this book described it as mediocre.  Now I understand why.  I wouldn’t say that I liked it or hated it.  Rather, I came away pretty indifferent to the whole thing.  For whatever reason, there just didn’t seem to be anything about it that drew me in and made me want to keep reading.  I have tried to figure out what it is that produced this response — as I do with every book I read, which evokes a similar reaction. But somehow, there just wasn’t anything in it to set it apart from other books.

Historical fiction is a challenging genre to write.  The author is compelled to stay within the confines of a history that is already known and there are no surprises in the plot.  Consequently, there is a greater need for description,  character development and that undefinable quality that makes the time and place live and rise above the bald facts presented in text books and historical records.  That is not to say this can’t be done — and done well.  I once heard it said that History is the saga of the victor –while the conquered fall into shady obscurity.  This simple fact is the reason that history, as we believe it to be, is constantly changing, with each new discovery that comes to light.  There are always two sides to the historical coin — and a good author will find ways to open the door to the possible, on what is, essentially, a one sided presentation of the historical record.  

That said, Clayton’s characters are well developed and have dimension.  But it was easy to figure out their motivations.  Clayton was up front about what drove his characters.  There wasn’t any real feeling of discovery — a process that in the real world we refer to as getting to know someone.  This journey is essential for any one individual — real or fictional.  Half the fun of getting to know someone is finding out “what makes them tick.”  In creating characters that had little left to discover — Clayton took the mystique and sense of enjoyment out of the book that comes with getting to know someone new.  

The story, itself, never really delved into the realm of the possible.  Yes — we know that the colony disappeared.  The reasons were probably myriad.  A series of errors, misjudgments and poor planning.  But this leaves a lot of room for Clayton to develop an intriguing story.  But he seemed satisfied to rely on the well known facts for story development.  His speculation into what really went on in those last days — the daily life that led up to the problems that ultimately resulted in tragedy — is lacking.  I felt like he was simply going through the  motions, without delving deeper into the story behind the historical facts.  

Another aspect that is imperative for historical fiction, is a great use of description. Where we already know the basic structure and image –it is essential to fill in that basic outline.  Clayton never really accomplished this.  The story is lacking in light and shadow. The perspective is generic and broad.  I think Clayton would have been better served to tell this story from one side– rather than all of them.

Ultimately — Clayton ran into trouble all the way around.  If it was his intention to write a history, he brought little new to the history books already  written.  I could have found as much in my old high school texts.  If it was his intention to write a fictional account of a historical event — he failed to bring life and dimension to the mono-colored historical record.

 

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