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I finished up listening to People of the Book just in time to avoid adding to my library fines.  I definitely enjoyed it – particularly listening to all the accents.  I love listening to accents, and this book had a great range.  To my inexpert ear, they were all passable.  Who knows, maybe they would grate on any Austrialian, Bosnian, Spanish, Italian, British, or German ear.  But to me, just fine and enjoyable.  It reminded me how much I enjoy listening to people speak other languages – one of the things I enjoyed about living in London and Italy (yes, London – walking down my street, I was just as likely to hear another language as English).

Anyway, here was my main beef with the book: I really really really wanted it to have been written by Mary Doria Russell.  Nothing against Geraldine Brooks (I really enjoyed Year of Wonders), but MDR would have made the story into something subtler and more amazing.  But I kind of wish I’d never thought of this, because it was distracting.

Meanwhile, I have 3 assignments due in the next 8 days, and then I’m FREE.  Free to have one quiet week and then jump into my internship.  But, no more feeling guilty about reading instead of doing homework!  No more nagging sense of un-done schoolwork 24 hours a day!  Complete freedom in my (limited) spare time!  Plenty of time to listen to audiobooks while driving to internship (and work, of course)!  Involvement in not one, but two summer reading programs!  Oh joy!

I’m still reading Anil’s Ghost – I have no idea where the story is going (if anywhere) but I’m enjoying the process.  I don’t always feel like picking it up, but as soon as I do, I’m sucked in.  It has an ethereal quality – sort of hazy and dreamy, but in a slightly gruesome way.  That doesn’t make any sense.  But it’s how I feel.  I’m also still listening to the third Bartimaeus book – Ptolemy’s Gate.  Goodness, I love Bartimaeus.  It’s the details, the snarky little remarks, the turns of phrase – the big picture of the story is a good, smart fantasy with complex (and sometimes despicable) characters, but the real life of the story is those details.  And listening to the story highlights it all fabulously.  I heart audiobooks.

I have a hard time giving up on books.  But I think I’m going to return Skeletons at the Feast to the library unfinished.  I generally like Chris Bohjalian’s books – or at least I find them interesting, because they always have such train-wrecks of plots.  This one fits the mold, in a sense, with plenty of characters going through life-changingly horrible events, but it’s his first historical fiction, set during WWII in Germany.  Now usually, I’m all about historical fiction, but with this one, all I can think is “been there, done that.”  Of course, I haven’t been there or done that, but I’ve read about it a million times, and seen movies, and I’m not feeling anything fresh from this story.

I haven’t actually encountered a story with these particular situations – a Prussian family fleeing the Russians, an escaped Jew, a Scottish POW – but they don’t feel new.  A Thread of Grace, now that felt new.  It felt worth slogging through the depressing bits and the horrors because the material was handled so skillfully, and the characters were fascinating, and it approached things from a fresh angle (to me, at least).  In Skeletons at the Feast, I want to be interested in this family – but I’m not.  Their story is based on events recorded in a real diary, and it sounds like a great story to tell, but it’s not working for me.

What did me in (I’d been having some doubts, but decided to give it another shot) was a scene of unrelieved squalor.  Uri, freshly escaped from the trains to the camps, has been taken in the for the night by an old woman with a “lipless, toothless maw.”  She stinks, is bent over from age, and can’t speak clearly.  While they’re waiting for dinner to cook, she “motioned for him to help himself to one of the limp, rotting stalks of what he thought may once have been celery in a chipped bowl on the table.”  Even the bowl is chipped.  I get it!  Things are bad!  Everything is bad!  Depressing!  War!  The evils of human nature!  Squalor!  Stop hitting me over the head with the frying pan already and get on with it.

Instead, I’m reading Anil’s Ghost, which was given to me many months ago and has languished unread.  It’s depressing, too – war, dead bodies, no one to trust.  But it’s good depressing, where the language is pulling me in and the main character is intriguing.  This is more like it.

If anyone wants to talk me into finishing Skeletons at the Feast, please do.  I can slog through if I know it’s worth it.

I really ought to be doing something unspeakable to an excel spreadsheet for my research class, but instead I’ve been going on a hold-placing spree at the library catalog and looking up reviews of books I may or may not ever commit to reading (Skeletons at the Feast – do I finish it or not?)

My shelves suddenly felt bare – only 5 unread library books, and all but one are thin and spindly – mere snacks in the world of reading.  I’ve been going through them like nobody’s business (considering all the other things I ought to be doing).

I was mildly disappointed by Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s latest – Princess Ben – but I still liked it.  Maybe I was disappointed in proportion to how much I loved Dairy Queen and The Off Season.  Or in proportion to how much I love other fairy-tale type stories in general.  At any rate, there are plenty of good things about it and I recommend it to fans of fairy-tale retellings (even though this isn’t one).

I practically gobbled down Suite Scarlett, Maureen Johnson’s latest.  It was a hilarious blend of over-the-top and realistic, but what was funny was usually not what happened, but the snappy little ways in which Johnson described things.  A great summer book.

Then I tried Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay.  I’m all over kids fantasy, but I usually don’t touch adult fantasy (see, it just sounds wrong) with a ten-foot pole.  However, I’d read glowing reviews at Chasing Ray and Bookshelves of Doom and it sounded good.  And, frankly, it sounded like YA.  I can do YA fantasy.  And yes, it really is YA at heart, concerned with a 15 year old growing up.  Sure, there are centuries-old conflicts, some druids, plenty of descriptions of Provence that make me ache for another trip, oracular pigs, a touch of romance, a healthy dash of history (oh, those Romans!) and a few fight scenes.  But really, it’s all about a teenager having the world as he knew it collapse, and knowing he’ll always have to think about everything differently after this.  Fantasy is just an extreme way of depicting the coming of age story.  So – published for adults, and a decent read for anyone interested in the history of the south of France or looking for a fantasy that won’t make your eyes roll too much, teens or adults.  If you want more plot description, go read the two reviews I linked to.  And Leila pointed this out, but I noticed it, too – there’s a real similarity in mood to the Dark is Rising sequence, and I would definitely recommend it to teens who liked that series but want something a bit older.

Ysabel also got me thinking about a trend in YA books.  I once heard a teen complain that there are too many YA novels where the main character only has one friend.  Perhaps they make another friend in the course of the story, perhaps not.  But I think this happens a lot to 1) highlight feelings of isolation and 2) because it’s easier to create one good friend character than the whole cast of characters we usually surround ourselves with – a bosom buddy, a few good friends, a bunch of acquaintances, etc.  You can’t introduce that many people in a 200-page book.  So a common antidote to the one-friend scenario seems to be removing the teen from his or her normal surroundings.  Have them travel, or have all the friends leave town for the summer.  Create a situation where it’s not loser-ish of them to only have one or two peers to interact with.  This happened in Princess Ben – she gets moved into the castle and loses touch with all her old friends because she has to write fake, stilted letters to them.  In Suite Scarlett, all her friends have left town for the summer.  In Ysabel, Ned is traveling with his father, but we hear about how his friends back home might react – he only has to deal with one peer, who is also isolated from her normal friends by being an exchange student.  Even in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, for crying out loud, the friends spend most of each book apart.

Now I’m trying to think of exceptions, where a group of friends are actually friends and spend the course of the book together, in their normal homes and situations.  Anyone?

  • I’m in a bullet point mood.
  • I got the summer internship I want, which will mean 1) no free time 2) lots of driving and 3) a what looks to be awesome experience at a bustling library with a whole gaggle of children’s and YA librarians.  I’m all excited to be chosen, but on the other hand, I’m the one giving them hours and hours of free labor.  Still, yay!
  • Go over to Kate’s blog, submit your take on a William Carlos Williams poem (you know you have one in you) and get some of her fab homemade goat milk soap!  Opportunity of a lifetime!  I can vouch for the soap.  And I want to see more takes on This is Just to Say.
  • I finished Dreamhunter, which I keep thinking of as the prequel to the Printz Honor Dreamquake.  In reality, Dreamquake is the sequel, and I’m the one who read them out of order.  Conclusion: reading the sequel first it totally possible, and rewarding, and really makes you use your brain.  Reading the first book first is for the weak, because it explains everything.  To my mind, the Printz committee was right on in 1) slapping a shiny sticker on that puppy and 2) slapping a shiny sticker on a sequel.  It’s hard to judge a book’s ability to stand alone when you’ve read all the preceding volumes (see, my love for King of Attolia) but it IS possible for a good sequel to stand alone, and I hope future awards committees keep that in mind.  Maybe the trick is just to avoid reading any series until the whole thing as been published, and then read it in reverse order?  Or not.  Thinking about that makes my head hurt.
  • I’m listening to People of the Book.  I like it.  I will be more articulate later.
  • We have new neighbors.  The nice people bought a house and moved away.  So we have the loud neighbors and the unknown neighbors.  Time will tell.
  • I just realized that my summer internship will probably lead to me possessing – and using – three different counties’ library cards.  A bit excessive, don’t you think?

I was starting to feel all “oh, poor me, I never get to read books anymore because I’m so busy,” but then last night I tallied it up and realized I’ve finished 9 books in May, which equals a book every-other-day.  Which is pretty much my standard for acceptable reading dosages.  And pretty remarkable considering I had two papers due yesterday.  And taking the papers into consideration, I managed to have a pretty good weekend.  Lis came for a quick-but-wonderful visit, and we tried the new Staccato Gelato in the neighborhood.  Kate and I used to mourn the absence of a gelato shop in this neck of the woods, and one has arrived just in time for the terribly hot weather.  It was perfect.  I also managed to fit in a trip to the farmer’s market, several books, and an afternoon spent sitting in the shade in the yard, with my laptop plugged in through a series of cords to enable the simultaneous torture of homework and pleasure of the fresh air and sunshine.

I read a few quick-and-delightful juv titles, which felt very in keeping with the summery weather.  I felt like I should write the titles on my reading log and pop into the library to get a prize out of the prize box.  Except 1) summer reading doesn’t start until June 1 and 2) I’m too old for summer reading.

The first was Hilary McKay’s Forever Rose, the sequel to Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose, and Caddy Ever After, by the ever-fab Hilary McKay.  I would love to see what her house looks like.  At any rate, it was the usual blend of some issues (poor Rose is feeling quite neglected and alone in the house, the dad is absent as usual and the mom has bronchitis and all her siblings are off and busy, her new teacher is hilariously terrible, and people are trying to get her to read but she doesn’t want to) and humor and characters with heart.

Then I picked up the sequel to Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, called The Penderwicks on Gardam Street.  It’s been a while since I read the first one, so I just have vague memories, but this one was thoroughly enjoyable and could stand on its own.  It runs a real range, from pre-school Batty and her adventures around the neighborhood, to 8th grade Rosalind who is learning Latin in an attempt to figure out what their botanist father is talking about.  The plot is quite predictable, but somehow that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of it.  It seems like it would make a good family read-aloud, and I would be curious to know actual results of such an experiment.  Would a middle school student think it too babyish?  Would an elementary-aged child miss too much of the humor and find it boring?  Is it really just a book for adults feeling nostalgic?  I have no idea.

Now I’m reading Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter – I read the sequel after it won a Printz Honor, and now I’m going back to see how much backstory I was really missing.  I still thought the sequel – Dreamquake – was great, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in the world of the books.  I also just noticed that Knox has handful of other books, which I might have to try later.  It gives me a delicious sense of the world of possibilities expanding – more books to read!  (As if I would ever run out.)

The prophesied hot weather is upon us.  I am prepared with my iced tea (Earl Grey, of course, with a bit of honey and mint) and my ham sandwiches and my cold chicken and my salad.  Actually, I’m out of salad.  And eggs.  And I could really use some tonic to enable my gin consumption.  Especially after what promises to be a hot day at work – hot warehouse, hot office where the AC has stopped working.  I could also really go for some baked chocolate goodness, but I ought to be working on these assignments due Sunday.  I’m still doing the preparatory reading, sloth that I am.  But I want to BAKE.  Oh, such is the struggle of life.  I’ve had two long days in a row and not enough time.  If I abandon my homework now, I’d have just enough time to get something in the oven before work…

I’m enjoying The Family Markowitz, although not quite as much as Kaaterskill Falls.  This is more in short story format, although all the stories are about the same family so it feels better than unrelated short stories.  I have problems with short stories, although in theory I love them.  They just don’t fill the same gap that a NOVEL does.  I’m a novel kind of person.  The story about the woman doing ethnographic research with the old ladies cracked me up, because the researcher was so biased, and unable to see her bias, which completely defeated the point of the research.  Yes, I’m taking a research class.  No, I’m not particularly interested in research.  Especially DOING it.  I don’t mind reading about someone else’s research and judging it.

Off to see if I have enough chocolate chips left for cookies, or if I ate too many of them as snacks.  I can read up on privacy while they bake, right?

Latest time-waster: reading 1-star reviews of books I love.  They’re so entertaining.

Still listening to: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Waiting to be listened to: lots of conclusions to children’s fantasy series – the last Bartimaeus, the last His Dark Materials, the last Dark is Rising.

Reading: Waiting for Normal and The Family Markowitz – dysfunction central – yay!

Food kicks: sliced ham, pumpkin-raisin bagels, buttermilk pancakes, pears

Amount of school-work I got done this morning: none

Number of people recently fired from my formerly 9-person workgroup: 4

How much this makes me love my other job – the library: SO MUCH MORE.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves.

October 14, 2008.

Okay, a few more words.  You may remember that I have a deep and abiding love for Volume I: The Pox Party.  Not only do I think it was one of the most finely written pieces of fiction (not just Ya fiction – fiction in general) to pass in front of my eyeballs, I adored the period language and the history and the character of Octavian himself.  I’ve been keeping my ears perked ever since I finished it for the second volume.  I want it in my hands now.  Or at least as soon as I’ve had a chance to reread the first one.

If you haven’t read The Pox Party yet, and like smart historical fiction and fab language, what are you waiting for?

I’ve been quiet lately, hmm?  Maybe because I’ve actually been doing a lot of school work (third quarter burn-out, how nice to see you again!) and reading one huge book and wallowing in my dairy products.*

The one huge book was Free Food For Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee, which I picked up because it looked interesting while I was processing it (I never actually browse the shelves at the library – the shelves are for ordinary people.  I do all my browsing with the ‘in processing’ books).  It was long, but fairly light and engrossing, and I was always interested in finding out what happened to the characters (even though a lot of things they did – particularly financial things – made me cringe).  But here’s the thing: the main character has a lot going on over the years the story covers (graduating from college and the next few years) and of course the side characters have a lot going on, too, because that’s life.  So it felt like Lee was trying to do the Dickens thing, with a huge cast of characters with bizarre little lives, the whole breadth of human experience, etc. etc.  But it didn’t quite work, and I’m not sure why.  Maybe because we never got to see quite enough of those characters – we get a taste of the sister, just enough to think “I want to know more about her life” and then we’re whisked back to Casey.  Same with her friend Ella.  We’d go off on these tangents, that really felt more like they could each be developed into their own story.  They didn’t quite fit together as a whole.

So, when the ending came around and there was no Dickensian wrap-up, because the characters all knew each other already, it didn’t quite work.  I’m not saying that a Dickensian cast of characters requires that kind of wrap-up, necessarily, but the more ambiguous “let’s imagine what might happen next instead of me telling you, okay?” ending didn’t quite match the story.  If the story had focused more on Casey, that ending would have felt more satisfying.

*I still can’t believe I can eat whatever I want.  I’ll think fondly of some food, or start to wonder what on earth I’ll eat for dinner, and then realize that I no longer need to eat like a vegan.  Hallelujah!

from xkcd

I think the same thing happened to me, only with baking.  And chocolate.  Oh, adulthood!

May 2008

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