Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 In Review (ha-haa) and What 2013 Holds

Merry Christmas, everybody! With the whirlwind of Christmas-related activities I'm taking a mini-break from reviewing and most likely won't even finish a book this week, so since this is my last post of 2012 I decided to share what my favorites are for this year and what I'm planning for next year.

Drumroll please! Here is my top five of 2012:

 Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell  Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins  Still Alice by Lisa Genova  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon  Quiet by Susan Cain

Now, onto the plan for 2013. Yes, there is a plan. There's even a spreadsheet (my friends keep giving me a hard time about those, but they're just so neat and handy I love them). First things first though: there will be a change in the schedule. As you know this year there was a review a week, on Sundays. Next year I've decided to read fewer books to give myself the time to do everything else in my life and not feel like a proverbial hamster in a wheel. Next year I'll be reviewing 2 books in three weeks and they're going to be meatier books.
Which brings me to the best part - the books. How did I come up with the list? Oh, it's a highly complex formula involving... Just kidding. I'm taking 5 books each from the NYT Best Seller list, NYT Children's Best Seller list, the list of books discussed on BBC World Book Club, 4 prize-winners from 2012, 10 titles we'll be reading in my book club and 5 spots are open for the inevitable times when nothing on the list, or shelf, will do. OCD is a curious thing, let me tell you. Anyway, here's the proposed reading list for your perusal, in alphabetical order. We'll see how many of these I will actually read. See you in the new year!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Angela's Ashes
Anna Karenina
The Cat's Table
Dead End in Norvelt
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Fault in Our Stars
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America
Gone Girl
The Grass is Singing
The Help
A House for Mr Biswas
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
The New York Trilogy
The Night Circus
The Round House

Olga's favorite books »

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Review: Thursday at Noon by William F. Brown

Cairo, 1962. Richard Thomson is already having a very bad day when someone leaves a corpse lying on his back steps. Its head had been lopped off like a ripe melon. Thomson is a burned out CIA Agent and the body belongs to Mahmoud Yussuf, a petty Cairo thief who tried to sell him photographs of a long-abandoned RAF base in the Egyptian desert. What the photos have to do with a dead Israeli Mossad agent, Nazi rocket scientists, the fanatical Moslem Brotherhood, and two missing Egyptian tank regiments could start the next Arab-Israeli War. Alone and on the run, no one believes Thomson’s answers - not the CIA, the US Ambassador, and most assuredly not Captain Hassan Saleh of the Homicide Bureau of the Cairo Police.

This is my second William Brown spy novel and I enjoyed it at least as much as Amongst My Enemies. Reading it was comforting, like stepping into a world I've visited before, and there are a few reasons for that.
Mr. Brown is in familiar territory in this novel: it is the years after WW2, the world is still recovering from the war and while everybody has been trying to forget about the Nazis they are still there and weaving their sinister plots. This time the action takes place in the Middle East, in Egypt to be precise, and the hero of the story, who seems to be Brown's "type" - a lone wolf with a painful past and the only one who sees the situation for what it is, is on his own in preventing a disaster.
This story is not exactly a mystery because from the very beginning it's clear who the bad guys are and what they are up to, although the full scope of their plans becomes increasingly clear as the book moves forward. Brown is very skilled at keeping up the pace by alternating the points of view of several major players, giving an insight into their characters and histories, and they are all very different and very interesting. In fact, the alternation of protagonists was my favorite thing about this book, it gave a fuller picture of what was going on and made the events and the characters seem more real. I particularly liked Captain Saleh, he is such a consummate professional and such a patriot, and he goes through the greatest transformation in this novel, greater even than Thomson.
While this book is not a philosophical treatise it does make one think about the fact that not all Middle Easterners are religious fanatics, not all of them are determined to wipe out everyone who isn't on the same page as them. In the light of the events of recent history that's a relevant subject to ponder, and considering that the book was first published in 1987 and is set in 1962 all the more thought-provoking. After all, novelists do get a lot of their material from the real world, even if everything about the story is fictional.
The only thing that I didn't enjoy about this book (and I really hate saying it, but it is what it is) is that my particular copy was in need of a thorough editor. This is a good book and I think it deserves to have a presentation that matches the content.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Favorite Sites: NPR Books

This year I've been paying more attention to what's going on in the book world and it's been really nice knowing what's going on, even a little bit. One of the websites I like to visit for some information and amusement is NPR Books. They have articles about and interviews with the latest movers and shakers, news, genres, curiosities, reviews and their own best-seller lists (don't know how they're generated but the fact remains).
NPR has a reputation for being pretty serious but I think that's because people don't give the NPRers a chance to show themselves from any other side. Take latest headlines, for instance: In 2012's Best Mysteries, Mean Girls Rule, or Romantic Reads From Shakespeare To Steampunk (Heavy On The Steam), or even 10 Books To Help You Recover From A Tense 2012. That's not exactly dry and humorless, wouldn't you agree? And it's NPR, so you know you'll learn something when you read one of their articles.
A commenter noted the other day that I should include things like pictures and videos to the blog to make it more lively and although I can't imagine changing it very much because "very much" makes me think of oversized sparkly rainbows dancing across the page and dizzying GIFs I have been thinking about adding a little bit more excitement. So here I was, trying to find the clip from Big Bang Theory where Bernadette talks about listening to NPR because that scene is hilarious and sadly couldn't. Plans foiled! Maybe next time.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky

Meeting an anonymous client late on a sizzling summer night is asking for trouble. But trouble is Chicago private eye V. I. Warshawski’s specialty. Her client says he’s the prominent banker John Thayer. Turns out he’s not. He says his son’s girlfriend, Anita Hill, is missing. Turns out that’s not her real name. V. I.’s search turns up someone soon enough—the real John Thayer’s son, and he’s dead. Who’s V. I.’s client? Why has she been set up and sent out on a wild-goose chase? By the time she’s got it figured, things are hotter — and deadlier — than Chicago in July. V. I.’s in a desperate race against time. At stake: a young woman’s life.

2012 marks the 30 year anniversary of the first publication of Sara Paretsky's debut novel and after listening to the BBC World Book Club program where she was the guest I decided to pick it up.
You can definitely see that Indemnity Only is a debut novel. There is the minute detail often present in authors' first works, from what exactly their characters wore to what they ate. There are inconsistencies in quantities of family heirlooms and thorough accounts of habits and routines. Things like this could do a book in if there is enough of them and not enough of what keeps the reader turning the pages and rooting for the protagonist. In Paretsky's case the balance was in her favor and she went on to write 14 more V.I. Warshawski novels.
So what was it that tipped the scales? For me it was the characters, the setting and that none of it got lost in those details. V.I., Vic to friends, is a badass with a soft underbelly. She knows martial arts, runs a 7.5 minute mile and isn't afraid to use her fists when the circumstances call for it, she'll help those in need with a complete disregard for her own safety or bottom line. She bristles when anyone questions her choice of profession or competence because she is a woman, but is realistic about her chances against a strong male opponent in single combat. In short V.I. Warshawski is a believable and relatable female character who is just as relevant today as she was 30 years ago, even if her environment is definitely outdated. She actually reminds me of Maria Bello's character in last year's Prime Suspect, I think Vic and Jane would get along.
Secondary characters easily hold their own, even though they don't have quite as much time on the page and more often than not we don't know what they're wearing. I can't decide if my favorite is Lotty of McGraw, a spitfire doctor unfazed by any surprise or a conflicted man comparing himself to King Midas. Or maybe it's Bobby Mallory, who keeps trying to protect his friend's daughter and nearly blows a gasket every time she won't let him.
Another thing to Paretsky's advantage is her ability to establish a sense of the world in which V.I. operates. The book is filled with social issues of the day - women's movement, tensions between the radically-inclined and the police, the divide between classes and the lack of acceptance of those who aren't of the same ancestry across all levels of society. With Vic being firmly working class and not particularly fond of the rich it would have been easy to make her just one of the not-too-priviledged and be done with it, but Paretsky makes her straddle the line in a way. Vic judges people by their actions, not their wealth or position, regardless of where they stand on social issues or how unpopular her opinion. It's clear of course that she is rooting for the little guy, just as Paretsky is, and it's no surprise that it's the working class characters who are the more sympathetic ones, but Warshawski isn't blindly prejudiced and justice and truth are her goals every step of the way. All this makes the story resonate more, makes it more personal, makes one think about how much the world has changed in the last 30 years and how much it hasn't.
I read some V.I. Warshawski novels when I was in high school and remember enjoying them enough to blow through a half-dozen paperbacks in a couple of weeks, but I don't remember particularly noticing the elements that impressed me most this time around. Maybe I should revisit Warshawski before too much time passes, watch her catch some bad guys and learn something about the past while I'm at it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Study Time in Westminster, Colorado

Hyland Hills Golf Course in Westminster is home to a little girl too busy reading to look around (I'm betting you know how that is). She is the work of Randolph Rose Collection Artists and is a gift of family and friends of Vickie Landgraf and Don Ciancio to the park.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

This book is a look at introversion and extraversion from a cultural point of view, an examination of what it means to be one in today's world, how we got here, and how to make our natural temperaments work for us as opposed to against us. It has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how introverts see themselves.

Whenever conversation lands on the subject of what kind of child I was my dad likes to tell the story of friends coming to ask me to go play with them and me declining in favor of reading a book. My grandmother says she could leave me to play with a cup of mixed beans and I would be happily occupied for an hour grouping them by color, shape, size or number of spots (this usually preceding or following accounts of my cousin turning the whole house upside down within minutes). I was a quiet child, as you can see, with clear signs of introversion from a young age. I never really grew out of it either, still hesitating to accept party invitations and perfectly content to spend my time in the company of one or two friends, or in quiet pursuits. When I first saw Big Bang Theory on TV I was so delighted, because although I'm not a Trekkie or a scientist in a lot of ways the guys on that show are my people. So it's no wonder that I would be compelled to seek out a book on introversion.
I am usually not a fan of nonfiction. These books tend to lose my interest relatively quickly and no matter how curious I am about the subject if the book isn't done in a style more populistic than academic I have to force myself to concentrate. So when I opened Quiet for the first time I braced myself for a laborious experience. Imagine my surprise and pleasure when Susan Cain started the book with an anecdote, signaling that it was going to be about people, not abstract concepts. Anecdotes like the one in the first chapter kept the book going for me, alternating stories about historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Dale Carnegie and Eleanor Roosevelt with stories about people Ms. Cain met in the course of her research. These stories provided the reprieve needed to keep the academic sections about studies and the science of it all from taking over, as well as an insight into the making of our high-energy environment.
One of the beauties of this book is the fact that it examines introversion and extraversion from a variety of angles, taking into account the significance of nature and nurture, societal norms and situational pressures, ability and desire to adapt and mimic traits necessary to succeed. It talks about introversion and extraversion at all stages of development, from childhood to old age, describing second-grader Isabel and the author's own grandfather as examples. It takes a look at how cultures affect temperaments of the majority, discussing differences between Asia and Europe and challenges people of both descents face. Best of all, it does all this in a language that is easy to understand.
It still took me a week to read Quiet because of the sheer amount and quality of the information. I would turn off my e-reader with thoughts and ideas clamoring for my attention, my mind trying to process everything I've just read at the same time. It's not a particularly exciting book, in the usual sense, but I was extremely excited to read it, sometimes for the validation it provided and sometimes for ideas on how to make it in a world where it literally pays to speak up, and loudly, without wearing myself out trying to be a polar opposite of who I am. I'm still excited about it and I think that everyone should read this book, regardless of temperament. After all, at least a third of us are introverts, and it's time we started really paying attention to and harnessing the power of quiet.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Strand Bookstore

My vacation has been over for more than two weeks now but New York is still on my mind, I keep thinking about the things I've seen and the places I've visited. It also seems to follow me - a book came in the mail from a fellow PaperBack Swap member and it was wrapped in a bag from the Strand Bookstore. Of course I couldn't resist visiting their website.
Strand looks like a magical place and the store's site only makes me want to visit it more. This family-run business sells new and used books, has a magnificent rare and first editions room, as well as world's largest art department. Browsing the site I was amazed by the similarities in the titles on various authors' lists in their Author's Bookshelf section and that this is the store where characters of some movies I enjoyed immensely went to look for new reads(check out the pictures in their Photos section).
I know I've only just come back, but I'm already thinking about what I would do in New York on my next visit. The Strand is on the list for sure.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod

When Hugh MacLeod was a struggling young copywriter, living in a YMCA, he started to doodle on the backs of business cards while sitting at a bar. Those cartoons eventually led to a popular blog - - and a reputation for pithy insight and humor, in both words and pictures. MacLeod has opinions on everything from marketing to the meaning of life, but one of his main subjects is creativity. How do new ideas emerge in a cynical, risk-averse world? Where does inspiration come from? What does it take to make a living as a creative person? Now his first book, Ignore Everyone, expands on his sharpest insights, wittiest cartoons, and most useful advice.

In a way I really enjoyed this book - there is a certain freshness in the unapologetic way the author talks about things that are generally common sense but may not be popular subjects to discuss with the creative crowd, such as that there will be hard times, or that relying on being "discovered" is foolish, or even that you may never make it big at all. He calls out those who waste their lives in meaningless bill-pay jobs while waiting for the big break in whatever their creative outlet is, and those who he dubs Watercoolies: the chronic complainers with stagnant careers.
There are anecdotes from MacLeod's life that illustrate the point of every chapter and there are his business card cartoons that either drive that point home, entertain, or give more food for thought. These make the already short book a fast and easy read that avoids being stuffy or preachy or even overly serious while talking about a subject that's very serious for a lot of people.
With all that said by the time I got to the 40th tip I felt that the book was much too long, that some of the tips were essentially the same and could have been combined without doing the book any harm. I even went through the chapter titles trying to remember which stories went with them and found that a few were interchangeable.
This is a decent read, especially if you want a fresh shot of motivation or to switch gears. It is also a great reminder that not every creative endeavor needs to rival the work of Beethoven, Da Vinci, Rowling or Jobs, it simply has to be yours.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Portrait of Edmond Maitre (The Reader) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Oil on canvas
22.23 cm x 28.89 cm (8.75 in. x 11.38 in.)
Currently in a private collection

Renoir is a master of impressionist style and his paintings are notable for their saturated color with people in intimate and candid compositions at the center of them. This painting is a fine example of that with Maitre portrayed casually reclining on the couch with a book in which he appears to be engrossed.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Griet, the young daughter of a tilemaker in seventeeth century Holland, obtains her first job, as a servant in Vermeer's household. Tracy Chevalier shows us, through Griet's eyes, the complicated family, the society of the small town of Delft, and life with an obsessive genius. Griet loves being drawn into his artistic life, and leaving her former drudgery, but the cost to her own survival may be high.

When Tracy Chevalier was a guest on BBC World Book Club she said that the longer she looked at the eponymous painting the more she wondered about the relationship between the subject and the artist, and what made the girl look so yearning and fearful at the same time. This book is an exploration of these questions and answers, and it packs a surprisingly hefty punch for such a slim novel. The surprise is of course a result of the 600+ page tomes we are so used to nowadays, and is a reminder that a book doesn't have to be heavy enough to pass for a weapon or a small boat anchor to hold a world vivid enough to make a reader want to explore it further and characters so complex and full of personality that they stay with you long after the book is finished.
In a lot of ways this novel is like a painting, with symmetry between various characters' relationships, juxtapositions of actions and traits, and repeating details that tie the story together. Just like in the painting Griet is at the center of the novel, with her small world reflected in the pearl earring she must wear to complete the work of art. She is an unusual teenager, by current standards, with her sober appraisal of people and situations, clever navigation of the Vermeer household and her being almost completely distanced from her own emotions and relying on reason more than feelings in her decision-making. Had it not been for their respective circumstances I think she would have made a good partner for Vermeer, despite their age difference, for while devoted to his art she does see the world outside of it. She would balance him out in a way that nobody in his family does.
There is quite a bit of allegory and symbolism in this novel, which also reminded me of works of art. While in New York last week I visited The Cloisters museum and the guide there explained every detail of a statue as a symbol of something relating to the patron to whom the statue belonged. I got a similar impression reading this book that a lot of what happened or existed in the story had a special meaning. Sometimes the allegory is subtle, sometimes it's obvious, but it works nonetheless.
There are as many conflicts in this novel as there are symbols and the main one, the one that drives the story, is rooted in Griet's internal struggle between a good protestant girl who takes pride in clean floors and starched caps and a passionate girl in love with colors and beauty. I think this is the discord Vermeer captured so well in his painting and I commend Chevalier for writing it so believably.
The language of the book and Griet's voice work very well with the subject and plot of the novel. There is restraint and spare prose which are easy to associate with protestant sensibilities, and there are also glimmers of the more liberal aesthetic that runs as an undercurrent in Griet's personality, hidden from everyone, just like her hair, but showing through in her eyes and actions.
I never really understood why Griet's role as assistant to and later model for Vermeer was to be kept secret from his wife. It is true that there was animosity, and the situation could be seen as different despite the fact that this was not the first time Catharina lent her clothes or her jewels for her husband's paintings, but had everybody not acted in an unusual fashion and had they been upfront with Catharina the drama could have been avoided. This novel wouldn't be what it is though either, so I suppose the drama was necessary.
I've been thinking about this book since I finished it, mulling over Griet's decisions throughout the novel, Vermeer's single-minded focus on his work at the expense of everything else, Maria Thin's place in it all and Griet's parents' contribution to the story. I wonder how close Chevalier's interpretation is to what really happened between the Vermeers and the girl with a pearl earring and whether had even one character been different the novel would have been as engaging as it is. The paperback copy of the book I read was on loan from a friend, so I will be purchasing a copy for my home library, because for me this one is a keeper.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Week On The Go In New York City

This week you may have noticed that there wasn't a regular Wednesday post or a Sunday review post. This highly unusual behavior is due to the fact that I went on vacation and hadn't done anything but sightsee. It was wonderful. There was so much to do and so much to see that I was on the go all day every day and returned to the hotel in the evening exhausted and full of impressions. Here are some of the highlights of the trip:

Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum
This is the original library that was part of the Morgan mansion and it was recently restored and made accessible to the public. Photographing of the exhibits was not allowed, even with no flash, so I had to be satisfied with taking pictures of the room. As you see it is amazing and the very informative audio commentary made up for the photography restrictions.

St. The Cloisters Museum of medieval art
Here the only restriction is that flash photography is not allowed and I took advantage of that taking pictures of the beautiful medieval tomes like this one. This is St. Augustine's City of God and it is my favorite of the collection, despite it not being the oldest one, because of the way it is illuminated. I thought it the most beautiful of them all.

New York Public Library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building branch
This is the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, where all the furnishings are original from the day when the library was first opened in 1911.

While visiting the library I saw the Charles Dickens The Key to Character exhibition and later during the guided tour the guide showed us Dickens' original desk, chair and lamp in one of the rooms closed to the public. Fortunately the room has glass doors so I can show you where Dickens worked. The object in question are in the very back corner, partially obstructed by the desk where modern scholars work.

In the Children's Department there is a case with the toys that inspired A.A. Milne in his creation of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. The bear was the toy he bought his son for the boy's first birthday and the collection grew from there.

And last but not least the best souvenir of all for a book nerd: the NYPL library card. It is valid for three months and even though I'm not in New York any more I can use it to check out their digital items. Can't wait to try it!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: A Simple Thing by Kathleen McCleary

When Susannah Delaney discovers her young son is being bullied and her adolescent daughter is spinning out of control, she moves them to remote, rustic Sounder Island to live for a year. A simple island existence--with no computers or electricity and only a one-room schoolhouse--is just what her over scheduled East Coast kids need to learn what's really important in life. But the move threatens her marriage to the man she's loved since childhood, and her very sense of self.
For Betty Pavalak, who moved to Sounder to save her own troubled marriage, the island has been a haven for fifty years. But Betty also knows the guilt of living with choices made long ago and actions that cannot be undone. "A Simple Thing" moves beyond friendship, children, and marriages to look deeply into what it means to love and forgive - yourself.

When I first picked up this book I wondered if it was going to be one of those character-driven novels where there is a lot of talking, very little actually going on, and by the end of which you're wondering what is it exactly you've just read. I am not too big of a fan of those. But "A Simple Thing" turned out to focus both on the characters and on plot. From the very first chapter it was obvious that Susannah is a woman who is not afraid to act, even if fear is what propels her. She, as well as her children, made things happen, and I liked that about them as much as I liked that Susannah recognized her mistakes and was willing to correct her course when necessary. She may seem flighty to some, but to me she is a woman figuring it out as she goes, and I feel that this makes her relatable for most people. Betty, the second protagonist, is her antipode in many ways, a solid, sure woman who makes plans and follows them, even if she realizes later on that she has made a mistake somewhere. The blurb on the back cover suggests that both Susannah and Betty undergo a transformation but I found this misleading. Suzannah is the one discovering herself and while Betty's story often mirrors that of the younger woman she has already recovered from the pain of her past and is now there to sympathize, listen, and provide a gentle nudge in the direction of healing.
A novel such as this one I think relies heavily on the author's ability to create a sense of a place, not just set the scene, but make you comfortable in the setting. McCleary does this very well and in a way that doesn't intrude on the characters or their journeys. By the time the book was over I felt as if I knew what it's like to live on Sounder, understood the rustic nature of the islanders' existence, and even loved the place for the simple comforts and the camaraderie. This even made me yearn for a place like that in a way, until it occurred to me that this sort of romanticized portrayal was very fitting for the perspective of a person who, like Susannah, is not really passing through but not staying either, and that given more opportunities Betty might've revealed more gripes than just having to take care of the chickens, who clearly don't hold a special place in her heart. After all, living in a tiny community for decades can't be bliss all the time, no matter how much hard work there is to keep people out of each other's business.
There are a few good messages woven into this novel, and one of my favorites is the one that talks about the necessity of nurturing oneself. We forget about that much too frequently and it really is a universal truth that applies to both men and women, although women are the ones who need reminders most frequently. Susannah getting in touch with her artistic side after a hiatus of many years was the turning point of the book for me, echoed by Betty's recollection of the time whine she remembered that she was more than just a woman who took care of everything and everyone. The parallels between these two women's lives were eery at times, and while they are very different people their stories somehow anchored each other, showing that no matter how different the people the same principles of recovery apply.
For the most part this was a very enjoyable book filled with interesting characters (Barefoot stole every scene he was in and Katie definitely made things interesting with her indomitable spirit) and sage advice on subjects such as guilt, responsibility, knowing when to hold on and when to let go, and it worked for me until almost the very end when a dramatic event seemed to be too over the top to fit in with the rest of the story while remaining its climax. That chapter was well-written but it was just too much for me, although it did help Susannah put a lot of things in perspective and move forward with her life. Throughout the book this was a relatively subtle story with the struggle mostly internal and turning it almost into an adventure story at the eleventh hour seemed incongruent.
A friend offered me an ARC of this book when she somehow got two copies and I'm glad that she did. It is a solid novel and I won't hesitate to pick up other novels by Kathleen McCleary should I happen upon them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Not so very long ago, Eragon—Shadeslayer, Dragon Rider—was nothing more than a poor farm boy, and his dragon, Saphira, only a blue stone in the forest. Now the fate of an entire civilization rests on their shoulders. Long months of training and battle have brought victories and hope, but they have also brought heartbreaking loss. And still, the real battle lies ahead: they must confront Galbatorix. When they do, they will have to be strong enough to defeat him. And if they cannot, no one can. There will be no second chances. The Rider and his dragon have come further than anyone dared to hope. But can they topple the evil king and restore justice to AlagaĆ«sia? And if so, at what cost?

Christopher Paolini and I go way back: Eragon was one of the books that in a way led me to starting this blog. When I finished it I wanted to talk about it, share my thoughts in a place that was mine and where my comments wouldn't get lost in the shuffle of thousands. So I posted my thoughts on my then-personal blog. Several months later I realized that what I really wanted to talk about was books, so after testing several platforms Bibliophile's Corner as we know it was born. Now, over two years later, I read the last installment in the story of Eragon and Saphira and their fight against the evil Galbratorix and I'm very impressed with Paolini who at such a young age created such an elaborate and sprawling story with excellent adventure, insightful commentary on the human condition, and characters who grew and evolved in the most satisfying way.
If there is a book or a series the Inheritance Cycle reminds me of it is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It is a bit simpler and scaled down but it has the same concept of a quest, an unlikely hero, lots of races and languages (can you even imagine creating a whole new language, let alone five?), armies marching through lands and a seemingly omnipotent villain. I'm not much of a fan of bloody battles and longish conversations about affairs of the state so there Paolini lost me just as successfully as Tolkien did. Fortunately there was enough to keep my interest in between and I particularly enjoyed the sections where Roran was the protagonist because it gave a different perspective of events as well as a view from a position of no magical powers and the struggle to keep up and hold one's own through sheer will, courage, determination, creativity and intellect.
Throughout the book Paolini revealed secrets and brought plot lines to conclusion, many of which began as early as the first volume, and I couldn't help but admire his plotting prowess. With Inheritance it becomes that much more obvious how much planning went into this series, and anybody who can do this as well as Paolini did is undeniably talented. Not all mysteries were revealed but there are plenty of hints to allow the reader to connect the dots and draw their own conclusions. I do wish however that we learned the true names of Eragon, Saphira and Arya - in the course of the book they discover and reveal them to each other but not to the reader. Then again, maybe it was intentional to avoid possibly disappointing the readers, it happens so often that the hype surrounding the affair is greater and more exciting than the affair itself.
When I think about what is my favorite part of this book I inevitably come back to the battle with Galbratorix. That chapter was so full of bare humanity despite all the magic, of intentions true and misguided, and alliances that seemed unlikely but nonetheless made perfect sense that it made for an excellent culmination of the struggle that's lasted through most of the series. It was very satisfying to see how things turned out despite the fact that it wasn't exactly a 'happily ever after' for everyone, and, fittingly, it was the strongest chapter of the book.
Now that the last book in the series is finished I have been thinking about the kind of person Paolini must be to have written a book and a series such as this. He is very young, not even 30 years old, and yet his books are full of the kind of thoughtful perceptiveness I would expect from an older person. His examinations of right and wrong and how one gets there as well as his insights into human nature are often startling in their simplicity and truthfulness, and I still have one of the quotes I copied from Eragon or Eldest hanging on my cork board. I'm glad to have given Eragon a chance way back when and I look forward to what Paolini will reveal next, and judging by the hints he's dropped in an interview for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association there's much more to come.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fun, Peanuts-style

Back in 2003 artist Tivoli Too unveiled his tribute to the Peanuts creator Charles Schulz at Landmark Plaza in Schulz native Saint Paul. For five summers after Schulz's death in 2000 artists all over Saint Paul designed and displayed individual renditions of Peanuts characters and over two million people from all fifty states flocked to this tribute. The proceeds from the past Peanut statue promotions have funded the Charles M. Schulz fund, established to create and maintain the bronze sculptures. Furthermore, the proceeds will fund scholarships for artists and cartoonists at the College of Visual Arts, the college Schulz attended and later served as an instructor.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: C'est la Vie by Suzy Gershman

Suzy had always fantasized about moving to Paris with her husband, but when he dies unexpectedly, she decides to fulfill their dream alone. Here she gives a deliciously conversational chronicle of her first year in Paris and of the dizzying delights and maddening frustrations of learning to be a Parisian.

This is one of the books I found through PaperBack Swap recommendations after reading Entre Nous and giddily requested it hoping for a similarly pleasant experience. It was tough going at first. By page 70 I was thoroughly annoyed with Ms. Gershman because at that point the book read more like a shopping instruction manual with endless mentions of Born to Shop and incessant dropping of names of famous people and brands that began bordering in pretentious. "Is this really who you are, Suzy?" I kept thinking. I get it, this is her life and her social circle, but had it not been for brief glimmers of hope in the form of short entries that actually talked about Paris and the French lifestyle and people unrelated to luxury merchandise and who's who of the Parisian "it" list I would have given up and moved on. I did stick with it though and was rewarded with longer chapters that gave me what I came to Ms. Gershman for - a glimpse of her experience living the French life.
As the book progressed and the chapters got longer and less healfhearted Ms. Gershman's personality began to come through and I began to see something in her that was more than a woman spending away her husband's life insurance money. I could see a practical woman having a hard time but determined to not fall apart, a woman rediscovering and reinventing herself, following her dream and doing it in a foreign country and in a foreign language at that. I liked her spunk and that she had standards and an unfailing sense of humor. I enjoyed her stories about holidays, cooking French deserts for the first time, making new friends and dealing with the internal conflict of nurturing herself and worrying about her son's reaction to her choices. These were real stories and I preferred them to the tales about buying overpriced designer sheets.
This isn't your typical book about starting over in France with the author struggling to make connections outside of the expatriate community or being unreservedly enamored with the French. Ms. Gershman arrived in Paris with a well-established network already in place, she had money, and her lack of fascination with Parisian style is obvious and refreshing. She is unabashedly American and is not trying to blend in. She speaks frankly and in detail about the charm of having an affair and her disenchantment with it, as well as medical issues and the difficulties of navigating the French bureaucratic systems. There is not a gossipy feel like in All You Need to be Impossibly French or the reserved distance like in Entre Nous. It is actually more like Almost French in that the authors see the good and the bad clearly and appreciate France for what it is. I wonder whether these two ladies know each other - they are both freelance journalists and they arrived in Paris at the same time (imagine my surprise when I realized this).
This is a fun book and had the first half been more like the second I would have enjoyed it much more. As it is I would recommend it to those who is moving to Paris or is entertaining the notion, those enjoy shopping, or those who want to see what it's like to live in France. I'm with the last group and some day soon will continue the vicarious adventure.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The New York Times Books Section

The reading list I'm planning for next year will mostly consist of books that are on the NYT Best Seller list this year and so I've been visiting the site quite a bit. Yes, I even have a spreadsheet where I track titles, but I digress. As I've been perusing the list I've also read some articles, become familiar with what's getting released, was thrilled to read a name or a title that I recognized (constantly playing catch-up can be a losing game), learned more about an author or a book I was vaguely interested in from a previous mention and added it to the list. It's a solid resource, as I'm sure many of you know, and there's always something of interest for a bookishly-oriented mind. It's not just reviews, interviews and lists though, there are interesting articles and opinion pieces that rotate so you always have a chance of reading them, such as the Reading and Guilty Pleasure, for example. I myself am constantly making an effort to add more challenging reads to my enormous reading list, and actually read them, and at the same time repeatedly succumb to various temptations (Jeannette Frost's Kat and Bones, anyone?), so this one was definitely something I could relate to. I have even been reading some book reviews in the hopes to absorb some wisdom, don't know if that's working though.
So yes, if you want some quality book-themed reading check out the NYT Books page, it's got excellent potential to occupy you for hours.