Saturday, February 28, 2009

Reading Log, February 2009

Ah, February, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...


Well, that didn't take long. Edwin Teale wrote something along the lines of..."February is at once both the shortest and the longest month." I understand exactly what he means, don't you? Surrounded by February, cold, ice, snow, more cold, more snow, and strings of long, gray days punctuated by still more snow and sub-freezing temperatures, what else is there to do anyway, except huddle indoors and read?

Since I've been blogging and keeping track of what I read, I've noticed that I always seem to get a lot of reading done in February, although most of what I read this month is pretty mundane and forgettable. Kind of like the rest of the month.

So, these are the titles with which I occupied myself during this month (which is, blessedly, over).

The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan

I don't have much to say about this. It wasn't the book I thought it was going to be (what are the odds of two authors publishing books called "Cloud Atlas" and "THE Cloud Atlas" in the same year??????) So, I still have to go read the book I originally meant to read, and this one wasn't terrible, but it's hard to judge it fairly when it wasn't what I was expecting.

The Calico Cat by Charles Miner Thompson (Librivox audiobook)

This was strange. The story is well told, but it made me so angry. I was disgusted with one of the characters, and even though all comes right in the end, I would never respect anyone who did what he did. The story is meant to take place in New England, near the Canadian border, so the reader from Athens, Georgia made the whole thing a little weird for me. (No offense to anyone with a Georgia accent, but it doesn't sound like New Englanders.)

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

This was a Hercule Poirot mystery. My girls have suddenly developed a penchant for Christie, so I checked this book out of the library for them. Naturally, I had to read it, too.

Death of a Sinner by Rodney Quest

This British mystery was published in 1971 and in many ways is very dated to that era. It was one of the strangest books I've read in a long time--just weird on so many levels, it's hard to explain. But I'll try...

Why I didn't like this book:

A. Told in first-person narrative by the amateur detective (a rich lawyer), and I really did not like him at all.
B.Unbelievably one-dimensional portrayal of the women in the book.
C. Full transcripts of political interviews, with the exact words of the speaker transcribed like this:

Speaker #1: :::Question asked by speaker:::
Speaker #2: :::Lengthy answer, full of politically and emotionally charged rhetoric:::
(This goes on for pages, and it is completely aside from the story line.)

D. The book is written from an aggressive right-wing perspective. I would consider myself very conservative, but this was offensive and very anti-religious.
E. Incredibly implausible plot/motive for murder that involves Latin. Does it get any weirder?

I won't be reading anything else by this author, and it was about this time that I began to get rather desperate for something excellent.

Corduroy Mansions
by Alexander McCall Smith (Audiobook)

This was a very enjoyable serialized novel and I was sorry to see it come to an end.

Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace (audio book at Librivox)

This is the sort of story that makes a good audio book--fast-paced, lots of suspense, and a good reader (although some of the accents were off). Rather implausible plot, I think, but fun to listen to just the same.

Mansfield Revisited by Joan Aiken

I love all of Jane Austen's books so much that I frequently read the made-up modern sequels. This was was fairly true to the characters and style of Jane Austen. Lots of Austen-esque moments reminiscent of different Austen books, too. Not Austen, of course. Who is? It was the kind of book that can be started and finished in an evening, which is funny when you consider that Mansfield Park is Austen's longest book.

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

This was the best book I read all month. I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be one of the best for the year. I'd have to read a great many wonderful books to supplant it.

First Meetings (in the Enderverse) by Orson Scott Card
This was a reread when I needed something light.

Police Operation
by H. Beam Piper
(another Librivox audio book)

I wasn't very kind about Death of a Sinner, but I'll try to be nicer about this. I want to damn it with faint praise. How about this? If you don't have anything else at all to do, and you need to kill a couple of hours, listening to this story might be better than listening to nothing at all. Unless, of course, Venusian night-hounds on the loose from an alternate para-time universe have always been your passion.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

This book deserves a post of its own, but since I'm doing this one, I haven't yet found the time. It was a very engrossing story, well-paced, and it was a pretty decent finish to the month of February.

I am currently reading six books--one non-fiction historical, one travel memoir, one biography, two novels, and a young adult book in Polish. It feels like a bit too much, but I hope that five of those books will appear on March's list as finished books. (I won't get the Polish one finished.) I finished 11 books in February. I don't really expect to keep up that pace, but in addition to the six I'm currently reading, I have another long-awaited title from Bookmooch that I want to read, and three more on their way to me now...


Oh yes, I must report on the progress I've made for my Worthwhile Reading Challenge. I could just say "not much," and that would cover it. I was going to finish The Ascent of Man by Bronowski, but I suspect my bookmark is pretty close to where it was at the end of January. I did read a little further in Szatan z siodmej klasy, my Polish book, but I'm still on chapter one, so it's not what you'd call phenomenal progress, either. I did notice, however, that I was reading a bit more smoothly or fluently, so I seem to be getting the hang of the author's manner of writing. Although written for young people, this is real literature, and it's more challenging to read than a magazine article

Saturday, February 21, 2009

City nature study...

I missed the bus this morning.

I was on my way to the grocery store, and delayed my departure too much, and arrived just too late, so that I had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. The temperatures are below freezing, there is snow and ice on the ground (and the bench at the bus stop), so decided to walk a bit to stay warm.

As I walked along the snow-packed sidewalk, something black floated in front of my face, falling from above. I glanced up and saw a crow sitting on a branch about 20 feet above me. Looking down, I saw that what had fallen was a bit of bark, and the sidewalk was littered with more of it.

While I watched, the crow peeled more bark from a dead branch, pecking at what he found. I suppose there were insects or worms of some kind. I watched him for at least ten minutes, a black bird in a blackened tree, against the stark white sky and whiter snow. A few fellow crows were in trees nearby, engaged in similar winter meal-foraging.

If I hadn't missed the bus, I'd have missed this, and never been the wiser.

I wonder if anyone else, walking in the hard-packed snow, will notice the little pile of bark on the sidewalk? And I wonder if they will wonder how it came to be there?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Now, this was something like!

I've had a run of bad luck with books lately. I've read a lot of second-rate or even revolting books, and there has been such a run of them that I was beginning to get desperate for something really excellent.

And this was it!

This book has all the elements that particularly draw me into a story--excellent characters, a non-linear timeline (the narrator in the present is telling a story that happened in the past, but there is current action as well). As with many of the books that I like, the basic plot could be summarized in two or three sentences. There is a plot, of course, but this is a character-driven story.

The prologue begins
My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or the story goes. And one Saturday evening she became so absorbed in her book that when she looked up, she found that it was half past midnight and she had spun for half an hour on the Sabbath day. Back then, that counted as a major sin.

Great-grandmother Morrison has long since passed away, but her intense passion for knowledge and education is still affecting her descendants. Katie and her brother Matt lay on their stomachs for hours, gazing into the pond, watching the tadpoles, water-bugs, turtles, and other pond life. They dream of studying and learning. Matt has the deep sense of wonder that gives life to such studies, and Katie absorbs his interests and passions, never guessing that they will eventually cause a gulf between her and her brother.

I just loved this story, full of imperfect people making mistakes, taking on life as it comes, making the best of bad situations, keeping promises, and taking care of each other the best that they can.

This was Mary Lawson's first book, published in 2002. I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open for other books she's written.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Corduroy Mansions

Alexander McCall Smith, author of a number of popular series (such as the Number 1 Ladies' Detective series), has been writing his "first online novel."

A few months ago, the Telegraph (a UK newspaper) began releasing, online, one new chapter per day. I found the concept intriguing. It reminded me of the way Charles Dickens wrote several of his novels: they were published chapter by chapter in the newspaper. This struck me as being very much the same thing, only for the 21st century. So, I decided to read along (actually, I chose to listen to the audio version, also released day by day), and the book will be finished this week, on Friday, the 13th of February.

As it happens, I have never read anything else by Alexander McCall Smith, but I enjoyed the early chapters enough to keep going. I actually felt that the book mirrored Dickens in a few other ways, as it highlighted current social issues, and presented a range of characters from very different walks of life.

For the past few weeks, I've been a little disturbed because there were loose ends and abandoned plot lines scattered in every direction. A couple of weeks ago, I thought, "How is he going to pull this all together and finish off in just two more weeks." The chapters are short! Now, today I listened to chapter 98 of the 100 planned chapters, and I am in a state of disbelief. However this finishes off, it isn't going to "end" in any way that I recognize as a normal ending. There is simply no possible way to close the gaps, or bring every thread to some kind of reasonable conclusion.

What is this all about? Is this the way Alexander McCall Smith usually ends his books? Or was the chapter-every-day demand too difficult to maintain at the same time as a coherent plot?

Otherwise, I have enjoyed the story. There is a great deal of understated humor, random musings on every subject under the sun, and interesting characters who end up doing outrageous things. Not all of the characters were well-developed, of course. I think some were introduced, but just didn't fit the flow of the story.

The book will be issued in normal book format sometime in 2009, and I don't know how much longer it will be available online. If you're interested, take a look soon.


Well, I have now finished the book, and no, it certainly did not end in a neat and tidy way. Alexander McCall Smith agrees,and has basically indicated his intentions of calling these first 100 chapters "Volume 1," and continuing the story.

I'm not entirely sure Corduroy Mansions, as it is, is really a novel at all. But it is fun, and if you don't mind never finding out exactly what happened when Hugh was kidnapped in Columbia or how the book Autobiography of a Yeti is received when (if?) it is published, jump right in and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors

I really like to read lit blogs. (This surprises no one, I am sure.)

When I read a review...or two...or three...about a book that sounds like something I'd like to read, too, I do one of several things. Sometimes I write the author and title on a piece of paper and try to remember to take the piece of paper to the library, if I think the foreign-language library might have it. I don't always remember the bits of paper, but the act of writing makes it more likely that I'll remember to check.

That's not really the most likely source for me to find a specific title, however--especially if the book is more recently published. The bulk of their collection was acquired from the 1960's to the 1980's, and the rest of the collection comes from random donations, not purchased titles.

Therefore, if I really want get hold of a book, I am more likely to put it on my wish list at Amazon or . If I want it so immediately that I'm willing to pay a premium price, I may look for it at and purchase it here in Poland. That doesn't happen often. I'm usually willing to wait.


Some time ago, in accordance with the habits described above, I read a review for a book entitled Cloud Atlas that sounded like something I might enjoy. I no longer remember who wrote the reviews that piqued my interest, or even how many reviews I might have read, but I added the book to my Bookmooch wishlist.

Not so very long ago, I received an email from Bookmooch letting me know that someone had the book available, and I requested and received it. I've added quite a few books to my "to be read" stack recently, so it was probably here for a few weeks before I picked it up and started reading it.

What I remember about Cloud Atlas was that is was a series of short stories that were connected; that the stories took place across a long span of time, and that it was somewhat post-Apocalyptic in nature.

I read the first few chapters...and the next few...and kept wondering when the story would move onto the future.


What are the odds, do you suppose, of two authors writing a book entitled Cloud Atlas? And publishing them in the same year?

Because the book I meant to read was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and the book I did read was The Cloud Atlas
by Liam Callanan.

They are not the same books. Isn't that strange? Is "cloud atlas" some kind of catch-phrase that means something and I've simply never heard of it? Or did these two authors come up with the same unusual title for their books, which coincidentally were both published in 2004?


I've updated my Bookmooch wishlist with the Cloud Atlas I originally wanted to read, and will continue to wait for it.

Maybe after I've had a little time to think about it, I'll write a proper post about The Cloud Atlas (you see there is a subtle difference?) and let you know what I thought of it. I did finish reading the book, so you know that's one point in its favor.

Has anyone read either of these two titles? What did you think?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this book, in 1988.

I got married in 1988 and had other things to think about.

I've bumped into Toni Morrison's name and books before, but have to confess that I really didn't know anything about her work, and this is the first of her books that I have read.

Beloved takes place in post-Civil War Ohio, close to the Kentucky border. There was a population of freed/former slaves in the area even before the war. In fact, some of the white neighbors were involved in rescue and escape efforts, as well as giving assistance in the form of housing and jobs to former slaves who were beginning their lives anew.

I honestly didn't know what I was getting into when I started this book. It includes the details of some of the physical atrocities committed by slave owners, but its larger scope is the psychological effect on men and women in slavery. In the main thread of the story, the Civil War is over and slavery has been abolished. None of the characters are currently slaves, and some of them (the children of former slaves) never have been. Nevertheless, the children of former slaves are still deeply affected by the psychological impact of slavery on their parents. It reminded me of the stories I've read of the children of Holocaust survivors. Their parents' experiences also left a mark on them.

The history and experience of slavery itself is conjured up only in memory, and many of its victims are long since dead, but their stories play a part in Beloved as well. How do young men and women, who have never known any life but slavery, who were not raised by their parents, who are kept ignorant of even rudimentary knowledge--how do they cope, mentally and psychologically, with life as they know it? And if they achieve freedom, how do they put their experience--the only experience they have--behind them and move forward?

The three main characters are Sethe (a former slave) and her daughter Denver (born during her escape), as well as Paul D., another former slave from the same household as Sethe. Although many years have gone by since slavery was a part of their daily existence, it still has a hold on their minds and hearts. I never felt that sanity was a close acquaintence of any of them.

They are all haunted by the "ghosts" of the past--memories too powerful and too terrible to leave them in peace.
"Sethe," he says, "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."

I won't forget this book in a hurry. It is less the story of human courage in the face of adversity than it is the story of human frailty in the midst of adversity. Just being willing to face tomorrow is sometimes all there is, and it has to be enough.