Monday, December 28, 2009

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

This is one of the books of 2009 that I so anticipated reading. I loved The Time Traveler's Wife (my review here), and I'd read good things about Niffenegger's second novel.

Happily, I was not disappointed. Her Fearful Symmetry is the story of two sets of twins, Elspeth and Edie (the first generation), and Julia and Valentina, the daughters. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her London apartment to her nieces, and then comes back to haunt them—affectionately. Sort of.

Along with the apartment come an assortment of inhabitants, including Elspeth's long-time partner, and a lot of secrets. While Julia and Valentina try to figure out their own identities and sort through secrets, their own relationship begins to fall apart.

Her Fearful Symmetry reminded me a lot of Diana Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale (my very short review here), with a satisfying inclusion of ghosts and cemeteries. The last few chapters of Her Fearful Symmetry fell a little flat for me, but I didn't care too much. Niffenegger is a fantastic storyteller. If the idea of time traveling put you off of The Time Traveler's Wife, I'd recommend starting with Her Fearful Symmetry. (And then—go back and read the former, please!)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Books as Gifts

I try to make sure that everyone in our family gets at least one book for Christmas. Most of our books come from used bookstores or the library, so buying new books is a luxury reserved mostly for Christmas and birthdays.

I gave Scavenger Hunt Adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Randy and the younger two kids. Randy has a goal of completing all 900 miles of trails in the Smokies, and this is a fun way to get the kids involved (although they are already enthusiastic hikers). Check out his blog for this week's hiking adventures.

For my 16-year-old, a collection of poems by Leonard Cohen. Cohen wrote Let Us Compare Mythologies over 50 years ago, when he was just 22. After seeing Cohen in concert a couple of months ago, Jesse is determined to complete his Cohen collection of music and poetry. (I know. I have a way cool kid.)

My 12-year-old daughter is always looking for something to read. Because we are a family of voracious readers, she has read through so many "girl" classics already and really leans toward contemporary fiction anyway. I picked up a bunch of books that are library doesn't have:

• Mary Ann Rodman: Yankee Girl
• Lisa Greenwald: My Life in Pink and Green (she's reading this one first)
• Erin Dionne: Models Don't Eat Chocolate Chip Cookies
• Frances O'Roark Dowell: The Secret Language of Girls

And for our youngest, who turned 9 on Christmas Day, I got the first three of Flat Stanley's Worldwide Adventures: The Mt. Rushmore Calamity, The Great Egyptian Grave Robbery, and The Japanese Ninja Surprise.

I didn't get any books for Christmas, but I do get to pick out my own with a gift card to a local bookstore. And I'll be going all by myself, without kids, so I can do some serious perusing.

What books were floating around your house on Christmas day?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book Review: Little Britches

I recently had the pleasure of reading this memoir by Ralph Moody aloud for the second time in the past 6 or 7 years, this time to my younger two kids. This is one of those books that makes me get all choked up as I read it aloud, and at times I had to pause, take a deep breath, and get a drink of water before I could continue. It's that sweet.

This is Ralph Moody's tribute to his father, starting in 1906 when 8-year-old Ralph and his family moved from New Hampshire to a ranch in Colorado. The life of the Moody family becomes a series of adventures and life lessons, from dying animals to the consequences of disobedience. Each chapter brings another story of life on the ranch, highlighting Ralph's progress from little boy to man and his father's gentle but extraordinarily effective parenting style.

Moody's writing style is clear and lyrical, and his dialogue is fantastic. Father's lessons are always meaningful but never, ever didactic. My kids didn't know they were getting life lessons as we read; they loved Father nearly as much as Ralph does.

My kids, ages 12 (girl) and 8 (boy), were mesmerized by this book. I was a little afraid when we began reading it that my daughter would find it to be too much of a "boy" book, but she loved it. They have both asked to read the second book in this series, Man of the Family. I've not read this one yet, but I may put aside our scheduled reading and delve into this one instead.

If you're looking for a fantastic read-aloud along the lines of Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn, you'll love Little Britches. The biggest problem, besides the crying, is that you'll probably want to step in a time-machine to a time period that was both much more simple and much, much harder.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: The Lacuna

Oh boy, where to start? Reviewing a book by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver is daunting when I'm not, well, madly in love with the book. I want to be able to say, "I was mesmerized! I couldn't put it down!"

But I can't say that about The Lacuna. Let me say right off the bat that I suspect that it's largely my fault as a reader. I simply don't have the depth of intellect necessary for this book right now. I trust Kingsolver enough to know that she is a master storyteller; therefore, I am not connecting as a reader.

So, the story: Harrison Shepherd, known as Soli in the first tw0-thirds of the book, is a Mexican-American—or is he an American-Mexican?—who, as a teenager/young man, words for both Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo and for Leo Trotsky in Mexico. So we have three big issues in one sentence: identity, art, and politics. Toss in McCarthyism, agoraphobia, yellow journalism, truth vs. perception, homosexuality, and a writer's internal struggle. And, I must add, each of these issues is examined in depth, not just mentioned and left behind.

It's a hefty, thought-provoking, enlightening book, about as far from a quick beach read as you can get. The book is told almost entirely through Shepherd's journal entries, a format which takes some adjustment and a whole lot of concentration. The first two-thirds moved slowly for me, even painfully at times. You'd be best served to read this in large chunks of time, rather than in 15-minute snippets. The last third of the book, when Shepherd comes to America, moved faster and was, for me, more coherent. I really, really liked the second part of the book. In fact, I sort of wanted to go back and read the whole first two-thirds after finishing the book.

But I'm not going to, at least not anytime soon. I feel like reading some Danielle Steele now. (Kidding!) If you read the book—and I do recommend it, after all, it's Barbara Kingsolver, for Pete's sake—my advice is to set aside some good, solid reading time and pay attention.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Three Books in Three Weeks?

I've been a s-l-o-w reader lately, and suddenly I am faced with the need to read, and quickly! I have three new books that are in high demand at our local library, which means they won't be able to be renewed: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver; Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger; and Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol.

I really only have about 50 pages left in The Lacuna, and I intend to do some serious lounging and reading on this rainy afternoon. I was afraid that I wouldn't have a terribly positive review of Kingsolver's most recent, but I've read the stage at last that I am anxious to pick it up and start reading. The book definitely isn't as riveting as The Poisonwood Bible or her earlier works, but I'll be able to happily recommend it.

I hope to get to Niffenegger's book by tomorrow and get that read this week. My biggest challenge will be staying awake for more than 15 minutes each night when I go to bed to read. I may have to start drinking coffee after dinner…

That leaves Dan Brown's new book. I anticipate that this will be a fast and easy read after being mentally challenged by Kingsolver and Niffenegger. Brown's all about plot for me; it's not about the careful turn of a phrase or the poetry of prose. And that can be a good thing every now and then.

The one new release I've got to get my hands on is John Irving's Late Night in Twisted River. Perhaps that will be my first book of the new year. And I must say, Irving would be a great way to start a new year of reading!