Friday, August 31, 2007

Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Phew, just made it in the nick of time! This is my third and final Southern Challenge book.

Summary (from Publishers Weekly): "This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed.... This is my story, my giving of thanks." So begin the reflections of Hannah Coulter, the twice-widowed protagonist of this slim, incandescent novel in Berry's Port William series. In 1940, the precocious, innocent Hannah leaves her small Kentucky farming town to work as a secretary in nearby Hargrave, where she meets Virgil Feltner, seven years her senior, who gently courts her. They marry and have a daughter, but Virgil, "called to the army in 1942," dies in the Battle of the Bulge. Love follows mourning, as a kind but driven farmer, Nathan Coulter, returns from combat and woos Hannah. In delicate, shimmering prose, Berry tracks Hannah's loves and losses through the novel's first half; the narrative sharpens as Hannah recounts her children's lives ... as Hannah relates her children's fate to her own deeply rooted rural background, she weaves landscape and family and history together ("My mind... is close to being the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal and all creatures prosperous").

My thoughts: Not much really "happens" in this book, but it's a lovely, quiet, solid novel. Most of it reads like an actual memoir - Hannah's voice is incredibly real as she describes her life, I was very impressed. That's what the novel's about, life - joys, sorrows, love, hard work, family and friends. Hannah lived in a time that's just about gone now - where friends and extended family formed the "membership" of a town like Port William. Hannah sees life as a blessing, even the hard times, and she and her husband Nathan live by the notion that they will "live right on" no matter what happens. There were many wonderful quotes about life and love throughout the book, actually - I kept meaning to remember them all, but there got to be too many.

The family's farm and Port William are described in loving detail. I didn't get much of a feel for Kentucky itself (which is why I chose the book - I've recently become interested in that state) but Port William is a character in the book as much as any individual person.

There are some bits of humour, too. My favourite was at the end when a young developer thinks that Hannah is an poor old widow woman who doesn't know the value of her property and she sets him straight on that score.

Overall conclusion: Despite it feeling more "fictional" at the end (in a sweet way, though) and not really liking the part about the Battle of the Bulge (which seemed a bit tacked on), I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Hannah Coulter and her kin.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Review: Candy Girl

Candy Girl: a year in the life of an unlikely stripper by Diablo Cody
4 stars

Summary (from Publishers Weekly): Why, you might ask, would a healthy, college-educated young woman start stripping for a living, when she could work in a nice, clean office? Cody, now an arts editor for Minneapolis's alternative weekly, had spent her whole life (all 24 years) "choking on normalcy, decency and Jif sandwiches with the crusts amputated." When she moved from Chicago to Minnesota to live with the new boyfriend she'd found on the "World Wide Waste of Time," she took a job at an ad agency... but not much else. Attracted by a local bar's amateur stripping contest, Cody soon moved from stage stripping to lap dancing, from tableside to bedside customer service and, finally, peep-show sex. Removing her clothes and dry-humping strangers in sex clubs had become her way of escaping premature respectability. Quite inexplicably, her boyfriend was completely cool with her new occupation, even joining her on occasional sex jaunts. When the inevitable burnout set in, Cody switched to phone sex, until that, too, got old, and the 9-to-5 straight world beckoned. Cody's so alarmingly entertaining, readers will wish the book were longer, though they'll be glad it ends before anything really ugly happens.

My thoughts: "Alarmingly entertaining" is right - I did wish it were longer, although it definitely had enough ugly for me as it was.

This was my second Minnesotan book for our trip. Husband knew most of the strip clubs from bachelor parties and other male-bonding rituals of his youth - "As far as I'm concerned, every night is Amateur Night at the Skyway! *bleagh*" I loved the Minneapolis-ness of it, references to places I've been and seen (not the strip clubs! :) ) and to Minnesotans in general. One of the finer points of her boyfriend was "he cooked a relevatory Tator Tot hotdish."

This one's really interesting - very funny, a bit shocking, and there's even some sweetness in it thanks to her relationship with her now-husband Jonny and her step-daughter. Cody has a great comic turn of phrase - here's an example of one of the benefits of her job at the ad agency, it had excellent porn shui "Porn Shui: noun, refers to the art of positioning oneself in one's office or cubicle so that one can surf porn undetected."

I also liked her lists of the best and worst stripping songs. Husband correctly guessed the #4 best one:
" "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leppard. The Lep's shouted choruses and relentless programmed drums prove ideal for chicks who can really stomp. (Coincidence: I once saw a stripper who, like Rick Allen, had only one arm.)"

The #7 worst is "Any Eminem song about matricide, Quaaludes, or fatherhood." (As Husband pointed out, isn't that all of them?)

It was fascinating to learn how a self-described nerdy girl eventually found herself in a glass booth at a sex shop. And as a look behind the scenes at the strip clubs - the tedium, the weirdness, the variety of girls themselves, the struggle to sell drinks and dances and oneself. It was a bit odd to discover that, like me, she had nicknames for some of her "patrons" (including Boner Stabbone, which Husband tells me comes from Growing Pains.)

The quote below doesn't really sum it up, but I found it really funny, for some reason, and in a way it does seem to sum up the lack of glamour of the sex entertainment biz. Overheard on the 2-way radio at the sex store:

Clerk #1: "What's that movie called with the people having sex underwater?
Clerk #2: "Either Sex Underwater or Underwater Sex."
Clerk #1: "Roger that."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review: Welcome to the Great Mysterious

Welcome to the Great Mysterious by Lorna Landvik

Summary (from Publisher's Weekly): At age 48, self-absorbed Broadway diva Geneva Jordan is called upon by her twin sister, Ann, to come to . . .Deep Lake, Minn., and baby-sit Rich, Ann's 13-year-old son, afflicted with Down's Syndrome. Ann and her husband, Riley, desperately need a vacation, the first one since Rich's birth, so Geneva reluctantly agrees to leave her glamorous life in New York City to care for her nephew for a month. Geneva slips into the role of parental figure with a few minor snags, and she and Rich bond over a box of old toys, where Geneva uncovers a scrapbook she and Ann made as children. Titled The Great Mysterious, the book asks such existential questions as "What is true love?" and "What is the meaning of life?" to which each family member wrote an answer. This diversion motivates Geneva's metamorphosis. Reading the words of her grandmother and parents, she begins to feel the ache of having given up family for her career. Still reeling from a "double-hitter - heartbreak and menopause" (she had broken up with her Broadway co-star), Geneva forges a special friendship with James, Deep Lake's wise mailman. She does, however, return to New York, where she considers marriage proposals until tragedy strikes a dear friend, forcing her yet again to reevaluate what's important in life.

Why'd I pick it up? I'm working my way through her books - I loved Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons and have really enjoyed the others. Plus, she's from Minnesota and I always try to take Minnesotan books with me on our annual trip to visit Husband's family.

Favourite part: I loved the idea of the family's Great Mysterious book - it made me wish I had one in my family and it was such a lovely experience for everyone to share.

Overall: This was a great quick read - I got through over half of it just during our plane delay and was finished by the second day of our trip. As with the author's Patty Jane's House of Curl, I found it to be a touching portrait of the lives of 2 very different sisters. Unlike the wonderful Bon Bons and also Patty Jane's, it didn't have a whole lot of breadth and depth, but those ones took place over decades, this one is basically just about one year, with some flashbacks. There were a few predictable bits, but it was full of humour and heart. I loved that Geneva was a Broadway star and how she came to enjoy small-town Midwestern life, too.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I'm off...

.... on a much-needed vacation! See you in a week and a bit!

Questions for Bloggers

Stolen from Dewey. :)

What are you reading right now? The ones in the sidebar.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that? Screen Legends by Bruce Yaccato and then I'll FINALLY be finished the Alphabet Challenge!

What magazines do you have in your bathroom right now? A Cosmo from a couple of months ago and the freebie magazine from the movie theatre.

What’s the worst thing you were ever forced to read? Lord of the Flies in high school. I loathe it to this day.

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone? Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen.

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don’t they? Kind of a trick question for me, since I work in one. :) But the children's librarian from the library I went to as a kid still remembered me at a library event we were both at!

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason, people never think it sounds interesting, or maybe they read it and don’t like it at all? I can't really think of one other than the amazing Holes by Louis Sachar. I did a booktalk on it for middle-schoolers when I was fresh out of library school. But because it was a bit of a complicated plot and thicker than the Mary-Kate and Ashley/Goosebumps they were used to, none of them would take it out. Then a couple of years later it became a huge hit and teachers were reading it in schools, there was the movie, etc. If they'd only listened to me, they could've been ahead of the crowd!

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or TV? While you listen to music? While you’re on the computer? While you’re having sex? While you’re driving? Eat - sometimes, but usually magazines so I don't get the books dirty. Bathe - again, magazines. Movies/TV - no, I can't focus on both at the same time. Computer - only while I'm sitting waiting for The Sims to load. :-) Sex - no, I think my husband would be a bit offended. Driving - I don't drive, but I do read a lot while taking transit.

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits? I don't remember any specific examples, but I'm sure they did.

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down? Actually, this happened just the other day - The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. It's the sequel to her delightful Dairy Queen and, unlike many sequels, I found it just as delightful as the first!

Themed Reading Challenge

Arg, I've gone and gotten myself into another one! But it's not til next year and they're all on my TBR list, anyway. Thanks to
Wendy for thinking of it!

When I was putting my TBR list into LibraryThing, I noticed some trends, so this one was easy to pick for. Before I started finally watching Buffy and Angel on DVD, I probably wouldn't have considered myself a vampire fan, but apparently they've opened my mind, since I have 8 vamp books on the TBR list.

So, my theme is: Vampire fiction

1. Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore
2. Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz
3. Real Vampires Have Curves by Gerry Bartlett
4. Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Review: Home Sense

Home Sense: simple solutions to enhance where and how you live by Eduardo Xol

Hooray, I finally found an X author! I tried to read A Case of Two Cities: an Inspector Chen novel by Qiu Xiaolong, but I just couldn't get into it - it started with a totally juicy murder in a karaoke brothel, but it got bogged down (in my opinion) with too much about the hierarchy of the Communist Party.

This one wasn't nearly that tough a read and since I've just moved, I thought it might give me some decorating ideas - it's time to have a grown-up place without (too much!) Ikea furniture.

Mostly it has lots of pretty pictures of things I could never afford, but they were nice to look at and daydream about. Unfortunately, I found that a lot of the tips, such as things like (not a direct quote) "the pattern of the floor is subtle and therefore doesn't clash with the bold wallpaper" quite often didn't show in the pictures, as either the floor or the wallpaper wasn't shown. So that was a bit odd. And it could've done with one more proof-read to catch errors with apostrophes and homonyms (peak/peek, etc). A small thing, but there were quite a few.

But I like his overall philosophy of your home being a reflection of your own personality and that it should be welcoming.

Here are a few tips that I did glean from it (put here so I'll remember them in the months of organizing and decorating to come!):
  • use an area rug for an easy way to get a new look in a room or to create a conversation area
  • rotate your decorative objects so the room doesn't look stale
  • you can get under-mount sinks that collect less gross bacteria (definitely looking into that when it comes time to do the kitchen!)
  • placing chests of drawers inside closets gives you more space plus an extra flat surface
  • give in to the luxury of high thread count bedding - it's worth it!
  • the dining room is an often underutilized area for displaying collectibles and photos
  • use cute, interesting drawer pulls for an quick, cheap update
And overall, one's home should be a sanctuary! That means it's time to stop being so messy so that I feel relaxed and not stressed about mess when I get home. Not quite sure how I'm going to manage that, but it's my goal for my new home.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review: Fleshmarket Close

Fleshmarket Close by Ian Rankin

Nope, that's not the book cover. :) I read this one before going to Scotland last year and was nerdily delighted to be able to take a photo of the real Fleshmarket Close. It was very cool to be able to see the setting after reading so much about it.

Summary: An illegal immigrant is found murdered at Knoxland, an Edinburgh housing development - was it a racist attack or something else? Rebus is drawn into the case, but has other problems: his old police station has closed for business, and the powers that be would rather he retire than stick around. But Rebus is stubborn and in the course of his investigation he must visit an asylum seekers' detention centre, deal with the sleazy Edinburgh underworld, and maybe even fall in love... His colleague Siobhan, however, has problems of her own. A teenager (the sister of a girl from another case) has disappeared and Siobhan is drawn into helping the family, which will mean travelling into the web of a convicted rapist. Then there's the small matter of the two skeletons - a woman and an infant - found buried beneath a concrete cellar floor in Fleshmarket Close. The scene begins to look like an elaborate stunt - but for what purpose and who did it? And how does it tie into the murder at Knoxland?

Thoughts: I hadn't read any of the other Inspector Rebus novels, but had always wondered about them, so I chose Rankin for my R author. I found I was able to follow things without knowing the Rebus backstory, which was good. I found Rebus' character really interesting - intelligent, sardonic, and stubborn and an amazing detective. I also liked Siobhan - a tough young woman but very caring. The skeleton subplot was an interesting twist, although I found some of the immigration stuff pretty hard going. It was a pretty dense book, but I can see why Rankin is so popular and the series is so large.

My favourite part was when Rebus and his team had to comandeer a local library for interviews and he was puzzled by the poster of Captain Underpants on the wall and later one of the officers in charge (can't remember his rank) looks like him and so earns an unfortunate nickname.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The answer has always been 42

I was hoping to be a member of the Serenity crew, but this is almost as good. I'll take witty any day. :) (Although sometimes I'm more like Marvin!)

You scored as Heart of Gold (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), You are a light and humorous person. No one can help but to smile to your wit. Now if only the improbability drive would stop turning you into weird stuff.

Which sci-fi crew would you best fit in with? (pics)
created with

Friday, August 10, 2007

Review: The Little Prince

The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery

Summary: The narrator is a downed pilot in the Sahara Desert, trying to repair his wrecked plane. His efforts are interrupted one day by the apparition of the Little Prince who asks him to draw a sheep. Absurd as it seemed, he did, and so began their friendship. The Little Prince describes his journey from planet to planet, each tiny world populated by a single adult, as well as his journey across the desert where he discovers the secrets of what's important in life, as well as the power of love.

Favourite parts:
- The narrator's discussion of how he was discouraged from drawing when no adults could recognize his picture of a boa constrictor that had eaten an elephant - a very good example of how adults need more imagination and can't see things from a child's point of view.
- The drawings are very charming.
- The Little Prince's journey to the different planets, each populated by one adult representing an incomprehensible-to-a-child adult trait was a bit heavy-handed but good in a fable-type way. Particularly the ridiculous king who tries to make the Little Prince his judicial minister even though the only other thing on the planet is one rat or the Little Prince could be the judge of himself.

Overall: Honestly, this one just didn't do a lot for me. I feel kind of guilty about that, since it's such a treasured classic. But I'm just not that big on metaphors. I also get irked by children's books that aren't actually for children, as this one seems to be (although its age lets it off the hook a bit for that) - most of the themes would be way beyond a child's reach (they were beyond mine!), apart from the numerous times that adults are pointed out as being silly. I certainly agree with that!

This is going to be blasphemous, but I actually found the Little Prince himself to be rather annoying. He supposedly loved his flower, but he abandoned it quite cruelly. He was incredibly self-centered, although I suppose that the combination of being a child and having been the only person on one's planet would do that to you. I really didn't understand how he charmed the pilot so much, especially when he was in mortal danger and the Little Prince kept harassing him.

I don't know, I probably wasn't coming at it with enough depth or the wrong spirit. I appreciated the message of seeing what's truly important in life with your heart rather than your eyes and liked the observations and humour about grown-ups, but I didn't find it particularly magical and found it quite sad, overall.

What I learned about Soleil: In her blurb about the book she says "I still don't feel like a grownup and I have made some of the same observations he makes about them." So I've learned that we have that in common - I don't feel like a grownup, either! And more power to us, say I! :-)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Review: The Last Summer (of You and Me)

The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares

Summary: Boyish, spirited Riley and sweet, feminine Alice are sisters who have spent every summer at their beach house on Fire Island with their parents. Their neighbour, Paul, chooses to spend time in their old, falling-down house instead of his family's mansion because it's more of a home - his father is dead and his mother is mostly absent. A summer of secrets and changes threatens to tear the trio apart.

Favourite parts: I loved the way Brashares evoked the feeling of the beach house, such a beloved childhood place. Like Riley and Alice, my family has a mouldering beach place with 70's wood-effect wallpaper and spongy floors, where you can smell the sea and my dad goes through the riutal of closing it down every winter.

I was also taken by the way that Riley, Paul, and Alice described the beaches and named them for themselves:
"As children, they had dozens of names for the beach, like Eskimos naming snow, and they were ever finding need for more. A placid, white-sand and sparkly turquoise affair was a Tortola beach after an island in the Caribbean that Paul had been dragged to with his mother. They scorned such a beach. The Riley beach, also known as Fight beach, was when the little grains of sand whipped like glass against your skin and the surf was ragged and punishing. An Alice beach was truly rare, and it involved tide pools. "
I love the last line - I wish I had a truly rare beach!

Overall: I loved the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, so I was eager to read Brashares' first foray into adult books. I wasn't too disappointed, but my general feeling for a lot of the novel was a feeling of fuzziness - there's so much in the past that the reader doesn't know about - what kind of relationship Paul and Alice had, why he seemed to both love and hate her, why she loved him so much, why he disliked their father, even whether Riley was a man or a woman at the very beginning... Some of it becomes clearer as the book goes on, but the word "fuzzy" kept coming back to me. I even thought about giving up on it a it a few times.

I enjoyed Riley and Alice's sisterly bond and their relationship with their parents - while their parents weren't perfect and had their problems, it was nice to see a loving family. And the girls' relationship with Paul was interesting. They have so much history together - their whole lives - but they only spend 3 months of the year together. Island life is completely separate from life during the rest of the year.

Perhaps it's because of this, but the trio seem to be unable to grow up much. Paul can't finish his incomplete course to get into grad school. At 24, Riley seems to have never had a relationship with a person of either gender and appears to be content to be a lifeguard forever. And Alice, the one with all the potential, ends up getting sidetracked (albeit for a reason) into meaningless odd jobs. Paul and Alice's relationship, when it does finally happen (basically when she forces him to stop acting like a sullen brat around her), doesn't move past the passionate puppy love phase and fails at the first sign of a crisis. I found myself putting myself in Alice's place, having conversations with Paul in my head to try and save the relationship, but neither of them even try until the end of the book.

I'd probably still recommend it to Brashares fans and it's not a bad summer read, but it's a bittersweet book and I definitely prefer the Pants girls.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Review: The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

Summary: Scottish-American philosopher Isabel Dalhousie is a single, middle-aged, independently wealthy woman who edits the Review of Applied Ethics and presides over the club in the title (of which we don't actually see much). When she witnesses fund manager Mark Fraser fall from a balcony after a performance at the Edinburgh Concert Hall, she feels obligated to investigate the young man's death because she was the last person to see him alive. The more she thinks about Fraser's fall, the less accidental it seems and there are several suspects who might have pushed him - his shifty roommate, his colleague's scheming spouse and a disgruntled broker. Other characters include Isabel's beloved niece Cat who is constantly having man trouble and Grace, Isabel's housekeeper "who sizes up society's reprobates in two syllables or less."

Overall: Apparently it's Alexander McCall Smith week here in the reading room! I somehow ended up with 2 of his books on the Title list for the Alphabet Challenge. I actually read this one last year on our trip to Scotland as part of my plan to always try and travel with books from/about the places I'm going. As previously mentioned, I'd loved 44 Scotland Street, so I was looking forward to this new series. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed.

On the plus side, his ability to portray Edinburgh vividly is still in evidence, as Isabel walks through the city a lot and visits many distinct places. One of the plot points is a painting by the artist Elizabeth Blackadder - imagine my delight to discover that the friends we were staying with went to school with "Lizzie" and the she played field hockey! And I just learned that the Really Terrible Orchestra does exist and that McCall Smith plays the bassoon in it, which I think is quite lovely. So he won me over there.

But Isabel and the mystery did not. I really didn't like Isabel at all. I found her to be a busybody and it kept running through my mind that it's very easy to be a philosopher judging everyone else's ethics when you have no husband or children to care for, a full-time housekeeper for your lovely home, and no need to work for a living - her journal doesn't have much of a circulation, it's not enough to keep her from poking her nose into Cat's love life and everyone else's business. I also thought that she took advantage of Cat's still-smitten ex-boyfriend by dragging him along on her "investigations."

And as for the mystery element, well, I just didn't really care much who pushed Fraser and when it finally came to light, it wasn't particularly surprising or dramatic.

But I do enjoy McCall Smith's writing, so I think I'll have a go at The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and see if I like it any better.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Review: Espresso Tales

Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

Summary: The sequel to 44 Scotland Street, which continues to describe the ups and downs of the residents of that address. There's Pat, a college student who works in an art gallery. She rents a room from vain, pompous, recently fired Bruce, who now fancies himself a wine merchant. Bertie the unhappy, precocious 6 year-0ld and his parents - mild-mannered Stuart who leaves the parenting to his wife Irene (who wants her child to be gifted and gender-unbiased, hence Italian lessons and pink overalls). And Domenica - a widowed anthropologist who has lived in India and travelled the world. The book is made up of stories that the author wrote as a weekly column for the Scotsman newspaper.

Favourite quote: (Explanations: Pat has been invited to a nudist picnic in a posh part of town and is told to disrobe and, since she didn't bring her own, has been given a plastic bag in which to put her clothes. Jenners is a big. old department store, like the Harrod's of Edinburgh.)

"The sight of the plastic bag, stamped with the familiar Jenners sign, was a reassurance to Pat in these unfamiliar and challenging circumstances. There was something about the name Jenners that provided the comfort one needed in dubious situations. An occasion on which you were asked to take off your clothes and put them in a Jenners bag was inherently less threatening than an occasion in which one was asked to put them in any other bag."

I love this! I would never attend a nudist picnic, but I could completely understand Pat's feelings about the reassuring bag from a venerable institution.

Overall: I didn't like this one quite as much as 44 Scotland Street, which I found utterly charming several years ago, but it was still enjoyable. Having been to Edinburgh several times, I really like that McCall Smith knows it, loves it, and describes it and its people so well. I really enjoyed finding out what happened to some of the characters, particuarly the emancipation of Bertie and the comeuppance of Bruce. I really enjoy McCall Smith's writing style and for something written in little snippets, it's amazing how well it comes together and how well most of the characters are drawn.

But there was a whole arc of the memoirs of a lawyer called Ramsey Dunbarton that didn't seem connected to anything else. Part of the fun of the stories is that the characters are connected in some way, but unless I missed it, he wasn't connected to anyone. And his memoirs, which put his wife to sleep, were in danger of doing the same to me. I have a feeling that was the point, but they felt like filler, something that could be printed in the paper if the author didn't have a proper story ready that week. And there were a few of Domenica's ramblings (particularly the one about Cuba and a rather philosophical one near the end) that I could have done without.

But I definitely recommend 44 Scotland Street and, if you enjoy it as much as I did, you'll want to know what happens to the residents of the building.