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TheNightCircus lgSome children are afraid of clowns, I was afraid of magicians.

For me, The Night Circus called up those dark, menacing aspects of magic. I thought I was in for a bit of whimsy—since the book was hyped as “the next Harry Potter”—but I found this book to be much darker than I expected.

From nearly the first page, I had a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, which I think speaks to Erin Morgenstern’s talents as a writer because that sense of limitation certainly plays into the plot. I don’t want to give away the storyline, because I found it clever and original.

When she wants to, Morgenstern can create wonder with her sentences: “The building is as grey as the pavement below and the sky above, appearing as impermanent as the clouds, as though it could vanish into the air without notice.” But she also has descriptions like, “the air itself is magical,” which jarred and disappointed me because I knew she could do better.

I enjoyed the allusions to Prospero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which like “Le Cirque des Rêves,” is set in an enchanted realm run by a sort of overlord, puppet master. (Shakespeare scholars, apologies for that simplification.) But, for me, this made for a bait-and-switch because The Tempest is ultimately a comedy.

I confess that I didn’t love this book, because it was so disquieting and put me on edge. (For similar reasons, I did not enjoy Gone Girl, so perhaps that’s not a good barometer.) Again, I’m creeped out by magicians. Many of the book bloggers I follow have gushed about this novel—it is truly beloved.

That, of course, is one of the best kinds of magic.

When You Don’t Like the “It” Book

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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Very Long EngagementI greatly enjoyed A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot, but for me it was a bit of a bait-and-switch book. It starts off very much like a suspense novel, with tension and mounting dread. I found myself completely riveted by the first chapter in which French soldiers are marching through one of the First World War’s infamous trenches.

“Watch out for the wire.”

Indeed, Japrisot is known for his crime writing and has been nicknamed the “Graham Greene of France.”

But then, the novel takes on a more quiet and reflective tone—somewhat the inverse of say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which begins with more reserved prose and moves to breathless action at Dunkirk.

I had a little trouble shifting gears with Japrisot. I flew through the opening scene, and then it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the rest of the book. This is not a subway read but is best enjoyed if you can spend some time sinking into it.

Overall, I found A Very Long Engagement to be rewarding, moving, and thought-provoking—somewhat reminiscent of a Marcel Pagnol novel in the sense that it offers a glimpse into this fleeting, evolving moment in France. The characters are trying to put their lives back together while dealing with grief, hardship, and the aftershocks of the Great War. This novel feels especially resonant as we head into the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict this July.

Now I am eager to see the film.

Now, I am eager to see the film.

A thread of mystery pulls us through the story, as the heroine Mathilde searches to find out what happened to her fiancé Manech, who has been reported “killed in the line of duty.” She goes on a scavenger hunt, sifting through a tangle of clues gleaned by word-of-mouth, letters from survivors, ads placed in newspapers, and the work of a private detective. I won’t offer any other plot details, except to say that the ending offered a satisfying resolution that was not predictable.

I went back to reread the first chapter and found that I had missed this lovely, layered transition from the trenches to Mathilde, which also somewhat encapsulates the essence of this book:

“There was still that wire, mended whenever it broke with whatever came to hand, a wire that snaked its way through all the trenches, through all the winters, now up at the top, now down at the bottom, across all the lines …

Mathilde has seized hold of it. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned.”

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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I just loved the cover!

I picked Arabian Nights & Days by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz to start off the Dewey’s Readathon in April, which fell on a drizzly, cheerless morning. As I love to travel to exotic and faraway places via books, I thought a trip to medieval Arabia would offer a nice antidote to such a rainy day.

Mahfouz wrote this as both a sequel and a tribute to the classic One Thousand and One Nights, and the book picks up the day after Shahrzad has told her last story. Though billed as novel, it’s really a collection of interwoven short stories that feature many of the same characters as the original fables. I do suggest reading them in order as there are a progression of subplots.

Though the stories are told as episodic vignettes, I found myself invested in the fates of the characters—particularly of the families of both Sannaan al-Gamali and Gamasa al-Bulti—as they continued to make cameos. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Shahrzad and her sister, Dunyazad, the only two female characters that are even remotely developed.

Despite the enchanting prose, the magical realism of his setting, and familiar characters like Aladdin and Sinbad, these stories feature somewhat dark and jarring plotlines. It felt a bit like the jolt one might get by turning to Grimm’s Fairy Tales after seeing the sugar-coated Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella (and Aladdin for that matter).

Except for one charming love story, Mahfouz uses his allegorical world to spotlight modern-day problems such as police corruption, dirty politics, unjust rulers, greedy power struggles, assassinations, and the misfortunes of the downtrodden. Genies here do not seem to grant wishes but rather wreak havoc on feckless humans, forcing them to do things against their will.

“We love what you love, but between us and people is a barrier of destinies,” explains the genie Singam.

I’m sure there are many layers and allusions that I missed because I am not versed in One Thousand and One Nights—so I would especially recommend this book to readers who have an appreciation for that classic. Still, I enjoyed being transported by Mahfouz’s alluring prose to the fragrant courtyard of the Café of Emirs, to eavesdrop on conversations and people-watch vicariously.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2014

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IT bookWhat happens when you don’t like the “it” book? For years, people have raved about Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin—it’s one of those cult books. I just read it for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge, and I’m stumped as to my response.

I prefer not to disparage any book, as I don’t want to deter readers who might love said tome. I myself have been burned by people warding me off great reads. Coincidentally, on Sunday, The New York Times Book Review asked: “Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?”

To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf, was on our high school syllabus, but my teacher resisted since she didn’t like it. She read a few passages aloud, but we never delved in. I just assumed it wasn’t a good book. (Perhaps not a good teacher?) What a surprise in college to discover the magic of Woolf’s “stream of consciousness.”

Likewise, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain languished on my shelf nearly five years because a few friends had panned it. That book wowed me and I think is one of the best American novels written—ever. Recently, I was the only member of book group to adore Julie Otsuka’s lovely novella The Buddha in the Attic, which I had almost skipped owing to email grumblings.

Clearly I am not a good indicator of popular culture, because I didn’t love Gone Girl or Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. I am dazzled by her writing ability, but I didn’t really care about the characters or the plot. I’m not sure why, because Graham Greene has repeatedly invested me in unlikeable characters and twisted plots—as did Aravind Adiga with The White Tiger, which I could not put down. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, was very readable, but I felt that it simplified some issues. Even books by a favorite author are not a safe bet. I love the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series but have not been able to make a similar connection with other books by Alexander McCall Smith.

However, these books are beloved by many readers. Thus, I don’t want to subject anyone to my own literary fickleness. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I’d argue that you can’t judge it secondhand either.

Winters Tale Mark-HalprinBack to Winter’s Tale: it moved slowly and felt rather inaccessible. When, in a moment of melodrama, the hero and heroine first kiss … I laughed. I am actually an inveterate shipper, so this was a red flag for me. I did love the horse, though.

Still, I don’t want to discourage readers (or offend the legion of Winter’s Tale fans). Plus, I’d hate for someone who might “get it” to miss out because of me.

So what to do when you don’t like the “it” book? Pass it along for someone else to try. A friend was eager to claim my hardcover of Winter’s Tale, and she really likes “it.”

“Do We Really Need Negative Reviews? from The New York Times Book Review

Fascinated and Haunted by The Buddha in the Attic

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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Halloween Bats Full MoonThis month, I have been gearing up for Halloween by reading books about Murder, Monsters & Mayhem, a spookfest from Jenn’s Bookshelves.

Here are some scary book suggestions for after the trick-or-treating. And don’t forget to give a book for #AllHallowsRead!

The First Books That Terrified Me

Join the Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Death in the City of Light by David King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Two Brilliant, Haunting Short Shorts

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read!

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OrangeCover“What was the first book to terrify you?” asks Jenn of Jenn’s Bookshelves.

For me, it was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

These two books first terrified me in a way that I hadn’t known reading could do. Neither is a typical horror story, but both of these books gave me nightmares… more

Read my guest post at Jenn’s Bookshelves!

 

What was the first book that terrified you?

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Ocean at the End of the Lane lgPhantasmagorical is how I would describe Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

That is not to say this is a book of pure fantasy. Gaiman grounds his story in the ordinary, as told from the viewpoint of a seven-year old, unnamed boy. His father burns the toast each morning, his sister annoys him, and his great excitement is the weekly arrival of the new SMASH! comic.

This story feels real even as it veers off into the fantastic. The monsters are both human (his father, the opal miner) and supernatural (Ursula Monkton), and the shadows that lurk are predatory. There’s also a clever and creepy-crawly twist on the space-time theory of wormholes. All of this becomes plausible via Gaiman’s dark magical realism.

However, it is the emotional pull that gives this book its heft. Gaiman really taps into the fears of childhood, whether it’s the need for a hall light at bedtime or the helplessness of being in the grip of a menacing adult. The reader feels how important a kitten, or a new friend, can be to an awkward, bookish boy.

The whole story is permeated with a sense of loss—the loss of childhood, the loss of familiar things, the loss of loved ones. We first meet the narrator as a middle-aged adult, returning to his boyhood home for a funeral. The house is gone, replaced by tract housing, and most of the area is beyond recognition.

This particularly resonated with me, as I too went back to my childhood home to find that all the places once sacred to us kids were gone. The forest, where we believed a witch lived; the apple grove, where we climbed trees; and the tiny fish pond—all scraped and replaced by new houses with manicured gardens.

Though most of the novel takes place when the narrator is seven, this is not a children’s book. There are some very mature and disturbing themes. The bathtub scene, in particular, really rattled me, and my one complaint is that Gaiman never fully resolves this. I think best for parents to read first.

Early on, the young hero tells us that he “liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories.” This seems to be exactly what Gaiman is aiming for with The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is a mythical, frightening, and mostly satisfying read.

This would be perfect pick for a gift for Neil Gaiman’s own #AllHallowsRead or as a scary read for the Halloween meme #Mx3 at Jenn’s Bookshelves.

Halloween Reads on Word Hits:

Join Us for a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Death in the City of Light by David King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read

Like Word Hits On Facebook

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Mx3 is a pre-Halloween celebration of books about Murder, Monsters & Mayhem!

death in the city of lightDavid King’s true account of a serial killer who roamed Occupied Paris during World War II served up an Mx3 triple play: murders, a monster, and mayhem. “The Monster of rue La Sueur” is what the French press dubbed Dr. Marcel Petiot, a well-respected and charismatic physician who led a macabre double life.

Petiot was convicted of murdering 26 people and suspected of killing nearly 60. The total body count could not be confirmed because most of the victims were chopped up and later found scattered around the city.

The doctor had set up a SAW-esque torture chamber, fitted with large hanging hooks and also a sophisticated Lumvisor viewer, so he could watch his victims suffer a slow, confused death. King offers an interesting look at the emerging field of forensics, as the police tried to identify Petiot’s victims from a mound of smoldering body parts.

The mayhem of wartime Paris worked to the killer’s advantage. Chillingly, he would lure desperate refugees to his lair by the dark of night, offering a safe passage out of France. At that time, people often disappeared at the hands of the SS, so few questions were asked when they did. French detectives initially held back on their investigation, believing that they had stumbled onto the work of the Gestapo. Petiot managed to elude authorities for months during the chaos of the German evacuation, the Allied Invasion, the Liberation of Paris, and the subsequent purge of the French police in which the detectives on his case were arrested for collaborating during the war.

King imbues Death in the City of Light with a smoky, atmospheric look at life in Occupied Paris: shrouded street lamps, air raid sirens, food shortages, a thriving underworld, and growing distrust among neighbors. As such, this book reminded me of Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City.

The patient, determined French Police Chief Georges-Victor Massau came off much like the lead in a detective novel. Turns out, Massau was a great friend of mystery writer Georges Simenon and was in fact the inspiration for Chief Inspector Maigret.

2013MX3My one beef, however, is that some of the most spine-tingling and conclusive revelations came in the Epilogue.

King dwells on the sensational trial, but relegates the harrowing, firsthand account of the only victim who escaped to the endnotes.

Halloween Reads on Word Hits:

Join Us for a Readalong of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Give a BOO-k for All Hallow’s Read

Like Word Hits On Facebook

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“While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if
compassion is a form of love.”
—Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

YMaF paperbackMann Gulch, Storm King Mountain, and now, Yarnell Hill. Oh, it was awful to learn about the loss of those 19 brave Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Arizona. It will be a while before investigators fully understand this tragedy, but the takeaway is that wild fires are erratic and unpredictable. So much so that even the most experienced and elite crews are risking their lives each time they head out to the fire line.

For those looking for some understanding, I highly recommend Young Men and Fire (YM&F), Norman Maclean’s brilliant, wonderfully written account of the Mann Gulch Fire which killed 13 men in 1949. Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It, did not live to see YM&F win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Not only is this a thoroughly researched and fascinating investigative report, but the book is also an eloquent, moving rumination of an aged man facing mortality:

“It was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

By odd coincidence, I was reading Young Men and Fire back in the summer of 1994, when 14 men and women were killed fighting a fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. As in Mann Gulch, these firefighters were confronted with flames that suddenly changed direction and began racing uphill towards them. Unlike people (especially those wearing bulky protective suits and carrying heavy gear), fire typically moves faster going uphill than downhill.

Maclean’s son John wrote about this second tragedy in Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. While it’s not the elegiac masterpiece of YM&F, John Maclean’s book is a compelling, page-turning read in the vein of A Perfect Storm. The younger Maclean shows how several seemingly minor human errors amassed together, leading the firefighting crew into an inescapable deathtrap. The snap of an American flag shifting into northwest wind (as noted by a National Weather Service forecaster) turns out to have ominous portent.

Usually I pass along books, but this hardcover I've kept.

Usually I pass along books,
but this hardcover I’ve kept.

Like those fires, early reports are that the Yarnell Hill fire took a 180-degree change in direction. Indeed the last photo taken by one of the Hotshots does not herald danger, but shows the men atop a ridgeline at a safe distance from the burn.

I’m ready for a reread of both books, as I try to come to terms with yet another group of promising, vibrant young people sacrificed in their prime. Thoughts and prayers of sympathy for their families and for the community of Prescott.

Meanwhile, I feel an immense gratitude and respect for those incredibly brave men and women, heroes, out trying to tame so many wildfires during this drought-ridden summer of record heat.

I think of Norman Maclean’s words, as I salute them:

“It is very important to a lot of people to make unmistakably clear to themselves and to the universe that they love the universe but are not intimidated by it and will not be shaken by it, no matter what it has in store.”

Young Men and Fire, University of Chicago Press

Young Men and Fire (Wikipedia)

The Mann Gulch Fire (Wikipedia)

Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, official site

The Storm King Mountain or South Canyon  Fire (Wikipedia)

Loss of 19 Firefighters in Arizona Blaze (CNN)

Last Photo Taken of/by Prescott Hotshots

How You Can Help the Families of the Fallen Prescott Firefighters

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top 10 books read so far 2013

Some of my Top 10–the others have been passed along.

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly book blogger’s meme organized by The Broke and The Bookish. This week this topic is the Top Ten Books Read So Far in 2013.

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Technically I read this late last year, but I just loved it! It’s even better than Wolf Hall. I had to give it a shout-out as I’ve been meaning to blog about Mantel.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (reread)
I have been rereading this in several iterations for the P&P Bicentenary Challenge. I was so excited to also discover a graphic novel version by Marvel.

Eventide, by Kent Haruf
Haruf returns to Holt, Colorado in his spare, inviting prose. This is a truly satisfying sequel to Plainsong, which I loved. I enjoyed but am not gushing over Benediction, his new book which takes place years later with a different cast.

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather (reread)
This achingly beautiful classic shows the hard life of early settlers in Nebraska. Cather paints a vivid and nostalgic picture of the last days of the red-grass prairies and that immense, untracked emptiness.

The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell
This is a twisty, pulpy, noir with a devious unreliable narrator. Rindell infuses her tale with the snazzy glamour of 1920’s New York: speakeasies, flappers, and lavish parties in the Hamptons.

Revolutionary Summer, by Joseph J Ellis
A fascinating and stirring read. Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
I have long been entranced by the poetic, magical realism spun by Erdrich. This book also pulls readers along with a thread of suspense. This is not my favorite by Erdrich, but a very good book nonetheless.

Sinners and the Sea, by Rebecca Kanner
Kanner has given us a sharply drawn work of literary fiction that is also an addictive read. Narrated by Noah’s unnamed wife, this is a bit like Noah’s Ark meets The Red Tent meets the Titanic-in-reverse.

A Storm of Swords, by G.R.R. Martin
I cannot recommend these books enough! Martin has me totally wrapped up in this magical, mysterious realm. Be warned though—this series is unputdownable book crack.

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella
Ah, another bubbly, chic-lit delight from Sophie Kinsella. This is one of her best and funniest, right up there with the first two Shopaholic books. Breezy, book candy. #BeachRead

Under the Dome, by Stephen King (almost done)
Ok, this makes 11, but I am surprised by how much I’m enjoying this! I haven’t read much King and was spurred to pick this up by the #DomeAlong group read. Suspense, psychological intrigue, and loaded with King’s trademark easter eggs.

What is the best book you have read so far this year? I’d really appreciate some book recommendations, please.

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