Tuesday, January 26, 2010

XX? - THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Am I just not getting it? By the third chapter, I felt like I had spent a weekend at a family reunion, but it wasn't my own family. Strangers converged upon me like ants on spilled soda. Names engulfed my thoughts. A chronic feeling of "What the?" fell over me.

Try, try again? Or pitch across the room (again)?

4. 1776 - David McCullough

Did I want to revisit 8th grade history class? Didn't I know everything about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"?

Obviously not.

And many told me that I did not understand the true meanings behind the words, though I had memorized them to impress my high school government teacher. They were right. Reading 1776 is like quoting the Bible or the Torah, but not knowing the other stories about how Noah tried to make babies with his sons' wives. It is learning that you do not know as much as you think you do.

I have a problem with that, though I will often admit to it.

George Washington, portrayed as a faultless leader, didn't like the New England armies and bemoaned the lackluster performances of his soldiers. It wasn't difficult to agree; many of them turned tail and ran when the Hessians (what? I thought this war was between the United Colonies and England?) approached their battle lines.

Like many books about history, this one is meticulously researched. Unlike many books about history, it is written from the viewpoint of all involved, whether a wife of one of the "rebels," an English ship captain, or the "best friend" of George Washington. One woman, whose husband died during an attack on Fort Washington, took his place at the cannon. These are the stories that we need to share, read, and understand.

4.0 out of 5.0 Washington Martini.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

3. OF HUMAN BONDAGE - W. Somerset Maugham

I owe an apology to the readers of this blog. You have recommended this book for years, and I have ignored your advice. Thank Thor that I have agreed to read according to your whims this year because, if you keep sending me to places like those found in Of Human Bondage, I shall have a delightful year.

This "semi-autobiographical fiction" tome begins with the childhood of Philip Carey, an orphaned, sensitive lad whose clubfoot and reliance on the charity of distant relatives causes every chaff or whistle to feel like sandpaper against his fragile soul.

The reader watches Philip's ventures through life, from a student in Germany to art school in Paris, then back to London for medical school. Throughout it all, his views on love, politics, religion, and beauty meld and waver. It is as if watching yourself repeat high school through an ancient, bubbled window.

However, it is his love/hate relationship with Mildred that causes the most pain and passion in his life. Maeve Binchy, whose writing I adore, wrote it best when she stated that she wanted to send an anonymous letter to this character to warn him of Mildred's evil intentions. This character is the symbol of all: the hope and luster of youth, the despair of broken dreams, and the realization of the self.

Knowing that this book was published in 1915 makes the stories and messages even more astounding. The only subject that is not referred to is homosexuality, which I found surprising considering Maughan was "a raging homosexual," according to his biography by Ted Morgan. But to think of others reading about premarital sex, prostitution, strippers, or atheism must have been shocking at the time.

Perhaps because I could identify with his journey in religious thought or his ability to find beauty in the most common of situations (the charm of an impoverished couple who were delighted that he - a "gentleman" - shared dinner with them), I relished every word. Now, I wish there was a sequel. Tell me, dear Philip, what I will experience in the next decades of my life! You have plainly read my thoughts on the past two decades; please tell me more.

4.75 out of 5.0 Pusser's Pain Killers.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Books for Breakfast - Now with prizes and other vodka-laced mayhem

I have too many books.

There is no such thing? Bah, I say. I cannot see above my desk, and my shelves are packed tighter than Kirstie Alley in a bikini.

So, for fun and fabulous prizes, please join the new Facebook Books for Breakfast group:


...or look for Books for Breakfast under group names.

The first freebie will be posted next week, so sign up soon!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

2. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES - Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Jane Austen must have rolled over in her grave so many times that she is nothing but dust.

I'll admit that I was ashamed to read this book. As an admirer of Jane Austen, I thought that this book was a cruel attempt to solicit laughs and publication ("now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!"). However, it was recommended to me by several people, and since that is the 2010 goal, it was first on my list.

Yes, this book follows the original tale, but with many more 21st century twists. For example, at the end in the clever reader's discussion guide, it asks, "Does Mrs. Bennett have any redeeming qualities?" Tee-hee.

So, upon reading this, I found myself split in half:
English Professor: This is horrible! Poor Jane Austen.
Naughty Self: (while laughing out loud) This is how I pictured Mrs. Bennett in my head! "... I am sure my dinners are good enough for her, since she is an unmarried woman of seven-and-twenty, and as such should expect little more than a crust of bread washed down with a cup of loneliness."
English Professor: No one will read Austen now, and my students will quote from this book as if it were the original; however, more students will understand references to Mr. Darcy.
Naughty Self: Another "balls" joke. (more laughing out loud)

I suppose if I have to combine the two reactions, I believe in the "imitation is flattery" argument. If anyone dares touch To Kill a Mockingbird in such a way, I shall have to suffer the seven cuts of shame and use my blade to smite all involved.

2.85 out of 5.0 Zombies.

P.S. Natalie Portman purchased the rights to produce and star in the movie version. And I thought her colon was made of cement.

Friday, January 01, 2010

1. HELEN OF TROY - Margaret George

Jinx, don't read this until you have finished the book. I want another opinion.

Off topic: Margaret George lives five hours away from me. How do I know this? A friend of a friend told me, and she said that I should talk to Ms. George about researching historical figures for my own novel. A bit late, but very kind, nonetheless.

Though I am not sure if Ms. George would receive me. You see, while I admire her imaginative characters, drawing them from a word on a papyrus or the dried out pages of old parchment, her heroines sound exactly the same from book to book. Whether it is Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, or Mary of Scots, they are commanding, bitter, and bold. While we should expect this from leaders, I was disappointed to read the same character, once again.

However, the details of the Trojan War makes up for it. If you saw the movie, Troy, you know the characters, but the war actually lasted for almost a decade (or seven years, depending on the source). While the thrust of the war effort is to take back Helen, there are other reasons, as well. The Iliad and the Odyssey (another book on my "you should read" list) only tells of the fall of Achilles, I am told. This version shows the slow flush of anger as people are killed for Paris's love of Helen, and its effects on the royal family, as well as the couple.

Overall, I enjoyed reading about this woman who may never have existed, but whose fame has lasted for centuries.

3.75 out of 5.0 T-ROY Green Tea Vodkas.