Friday, June 28, 2013

by Roald Dahl

Matilda is a precocious 5-year-old with a brilliant mind. Her parents are the worst sort of people and think reading is horrible. Luckily she has a kind teacher, Miss Honey, who sees the potential in her work. The school Matilda attends is run by the terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, one of the all-time best villains in children’s literature.  

I read this book so many times when I was little and I loved returning to it. I was an avid reader at a young age and I identified with Matilda. Obviously I wasn’t as advanced as her and my parents actually supported reading, but I still loved her story. I love almost everything Roald Dahl wrote, but this remains my favorite. Sure, the story is a bit far-fetched when it comes to Matilda’s intelligence and child custody laws, but who cares? It’s a children’s story and I love it.

BOTTOM LINE: An absolute childhood favorite that I adore. Perfect for that little reader in your life.

There’s a list of books that Matilda reads when she’s a little girl and I’ve always wanted to read everything on it. Here it is with the books I’ve read in bold.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Good Companions by J.B. Priestly
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Animal Farm by George Orwell

The Poisoner's Handbook

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Poisoner's Handbook
Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum

This nonfiction book covers a two decade period in history (1915-1936) when forensic knowledge increased dramatically. During this time the police realized that with the right information a killer could be convicted using only forensic evidence. Before that revelation most poisoning deaths went unpunished because there was no way to prove how the person had been killed.

One of the main players in this process was a toxicologist named Alexander Gettler. He’s often called the “Father of forensic toxicology” because of his work during this time. He was instrumental in the conviction of many killers and the exoneration of a few individuals who were wrongly convicted.

The book covers different poisons in each chapter including cyanide, radium and arsenic. Some deaths were intentional murders, others were caused by environmental sources, but with the increased knowledge what caused the deaths, the same situation could be avoided in the future.

I read this while re-reading The Great Gatsby and it was perfect timing. Both books are set during the Jazz Age and I loved learning more about what was happening in the real world during the time period.

A Few Fascinating Bits:

 -  Polonium was named after Poland, the country of Marie Curie who discovered it.

- The famous picture of a woman being electrocuted is of Ruth Snyder. She is the same woman whose crime (her husband’s murder) inspired the famous novels James M. Cain novels Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

- The government added ridiculous things to alcohol during prohibition to discourage drinking. The result was the blinding, paralyzing or death of so many people who drank it anyway.

BOTTOM LINE: This one has all my favorite elements in a nonfiction read. It was interesting, filled with interesting stories and examples, filled with anecdotes and well-researched historical facts, etc. I really enjoyed learning more about the development of forensic science.

Image of Alexander Gettler's laboratory from here

Wordless Wednesday: Paris and a Guest Post

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Eiffel Tower in Paris in honor of my guest post on 
A Moveable Feast at BookPairing today! 
Hope you'll stop by and help Nikki celebrate her awesome blog! 
More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Where'd You Go Bernadette?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Where'd you go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

Bernadette is a bit of a mystery when we meet her. She struggles with social interaction, but we don’t know why. She would do anything for her daughter Bea, including plan a trip to Antarctica despite her dislike of crowds. Her husband Elgin spends most of his time hard at work at Microsoft and doesn’t seem to notice that his wife is slowly spiraling farther away from her family. The book is really about one family’s struggle with success, failure and all of the hills and valleys in between.

Slowly the story of Bernadette’s life unfolds and her attitudes begin to make sense. As she struggles to hang on to her sanity in suburbia you find yourself rooting for her regardless of the situation. When Bernadette goes missing her daughter tries to piece together a trail of communication that might offer some clue to what happen. Letters, emails, newspaper articles, and more make up the bulk of the text. This format works so well, giving the reader multiple points of view and a wider picture of the whole plot.

Between Bernadette’s diatribes about Seattle and the dramatic whining of her neighbor Audrey, the book is so funny. The author wrote for Arrested Development so I had a feeling I’d love her sense of humor, but the characters deal with big issues and are complex enough to make you care deeply about what happens to them.

BOTTOM LINE: At times hilarious, at others heartbreaking the book is seriously good. It made me laugh out loud and still had enough depth to stick with me. A perfect summer read!

p.s. I LOVED the audio version, just wonderful.

Image from here

Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight

Friday, June 21, 2013

I can't remember the first time I saw Before Sunrise, but I remember loving it. I remember being carried away by the story of two individuals whose paths cross unexpectedly. I remember traveling through Europe on trains around that same time and so that made the whole movie more exciting. The movie introduces us to Jesse, an American, and Celine, a French girl. Both are in their early 20s and they meet randomly on a train headed to Vienna. They spend less than 24 hours walking around the city and talking. Sounds simple enough but there is something magical about their chemistry and dialogue.

Years later I saw Before Sunset when it came out. It’s nine years later in the characters’ lives and nine years later in real time as well. The two characters are now grownups dealing with the realities of life and yet they could still lose themselves in a single day together. I won’t give anything about the plot away, but it’s about as perfect as a sequel could possibly be.

Now another nine years has passed and we’ve received another segment in their story. Before Midnight is a completely different beast. Jesse and Celine are no longer wandering around with romantic versions of themselves. In the past two movies they spent less than a day together and so they could afford to share only glimpses of themselves. Now they’re together and have been for years. They’re raising children together, dealing with the realities of jobs and stress and fidelity. The mystery is gone and that makes for a very different movie.

There's more fighting but there is also more depth to their relationship. There are more conversation with other adults instead of just between the two main characters. There’s one scene I particularly loved. A group of eight adults is having dinner together and one thing they discuss is how romantic relationships have changed over the years. They discuss the shift in relationships that has happened with the progression of technology and shifts in gender roles. We see everything from a young couple newly in love to a widow grieving decades of life with her husband. It's beautifully done and the dialogue is fascinating. It is a conversation I wish I could have been part of.

For me that is the reason these movies have been so memorable. They give us opinions from different points of view. They cover a wide range of topics and Jesse and Celine wander about in a city and just talk. They show us what happens when people meet who don't necessarily share all the same beliefs. They are films that offer up a continuous and intelligent conversation. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that there have been three movies made in this series even though they make almost no money. They are gems in a sea of action flicks with little to no plot.

Rent Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and see Before Midnight while you can!

The Green Mile and the DomeAlong

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In addition to my review of The Green Mile, I'm joining in the DomeAlong fun hosted by Coffee and a Book Chick here. A bunch of us are reading Under the Dome through July 27 in anticipation of the upcoming television version of the book. 

The Green Mile
by Stephen King

There are books that put you into reading slumps and there are those that get you out of them. This is the latter. I couldn’t put it down, I didn’t want it to end and I was thinking about the characters long after I was done with it. There’s not much more you can ask from a book.
Our narrator Paul Edgecombe introduces us to the green mile and its 1932 residents. The “Green Mile” is a death row penitentiary, nicknamed for its long hallway paved with green linoleum. It’s full of the worst dredges of humanity and some of the kindest. Paul runs the mile with his fellow guards, keeping the prisoners in check and running an occasional execution via electric chair whenever someone’s time is up.

The convicts include William "Billy the Kid" Wharton, one of the most twisted individuals I’ve encountered in a novel. Then there’s Eduard Delacroix, who has made his mistakes, but now spends his time training his sweet pet mouse, Mr. Jingles, to do tricks. John Coffey is the other notable inmate. He’s a huge black man with a gentle spirit and an odd gift.

In addition to the criminals there are a handful of guards, only one of which truly instills fear in the reader. Percy Wetmore is the nephew of a high-up politician and has wormed his way into this job. I don’t think I’ve ever despised a character more than I did with Percy. He is a cruel coward. Paul is reflecting on this eventful year decades later and he sees Percy’s malice mirrored in Brad Dolan, an employee of the nursing home where he now lives. It’s such a powerful reminder that those kinds of people are everywhere, in all works of life. They thrive on manipulation and intimidation.

One interesting aspect of this novel is the format in which it was written. King decided to try writing a serialized novel. This is how many books were written during the 19th century (Dickens, Thackeray, etc.) and so King split the book into six sections. Each one was published as a paperback with a different title. He published one each month for six month in 1996. The only drawback to this method is that some elements feel repetitive when read as one consecutive novel. King reiterates some plot points as reminders of what happened in the last installment, but it’s not too distracting when taking in context of the original format.

BOTTOM LINE: If The Stand made me second guess my preconceived notions about King’s talent as a writer, this novel solidified him as a brilliant storyteller in my mind. I was so invested in the story and it broke my heart over and over again. I loved reading this and I highly recommend the audiobook version read by Frank Mueller.

**I’ll add that this is one of the few movies I’ve seen that really does the novel justice. Obviously some things had to be cut, but I think it does a wonderful job with the story.  

DomeAlong hosted here

Wordless Wednesday: Carousel

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Smithsonian Carousel in D.C.

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Top Ten Books At The Top Of My Summer TBR List

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

This week's Top Ten from The Broke and the Bookish asks for our Top Ten Books on our summer TBR list.

1) Under the Dome – I caved, reading peer pressure from my King-along readers.

2) Gone With the Wind – A re-read before a trip to Atlanta.

3) The March – Another good one to read before Atlanta.

4) Don Quixote – It’s been on my list for so long!

5) Amazing Grace – After hearing the author speak, this one has been high on my list.

6) The Ocean at the End of the Lane – It’s Gaiman, I must get my hands on it!!!

7) About a Boy – One of the only Nick Hornby novels I haven’t read and I heard there is a TV show version being release this fall.

8) The Harry Potter series – I’m planning to re-read it before our trip to HP World in September!

9) The Comedy of Errors – Another Shakespeare play for the Let’s Read Plays challenge

10) The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet – A graphic novel for fun.

Image from here

Dirtyville Rhapsodies

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dirtyville Rhapsodies
by Josh Green

This solid short story collection is packed with grim pictures of “normal” life. Each of the 18 stories clocks in between 10 and 15 pages, just long enough to give the reader a glimpse into the sordid lives of its characters. A cop on the brink of self-destruction, a desperate journalist, a junkie, a soldier, a honeymooning couple, Green catches each of them at their worst moment and then chronicles it for our amusement. The result is a powerful portrait of broken souls.

In “Missing Athena” we meet a grieving husband, trying to care for his son while longing for his wife. “Axis of Symmetry” paints a vicious picture of a jealous ex-husband. “The Abduction” breaks your heart. It’s hard to say exactly where this book hooks you, but it’s hard to put it down.

Each of the stories stands alone, but their subjects tend to have one common thread: unhappiness. Whether it’s a crumbling marriage or drug addiction, they’re all struggling with something. In Atlanta, the capital of the "Dirty South" people are just trying to make it through the day.

BOTTOM LINE: The beautiful writing and palpable descriptions make this a quick read and great collection.

“No one pays attention to calendars but there’s something in the Friday air you can taste, the sweet sugar of workaday liberation.”

Side Note: Men’s Health just listed the book as one of the top 11 best reads for the summer, alongside Stephen King and Dan Brown’s new novels.

Photo of Atlanta from here

Pairing Books with Movies: Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Friday, June 14, 2013

Tell the Wolves I’m Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt

This tender story is about June Elbus, a 14-year-old whose best friend is her eccentric Uncle Finn. It’s set in New York City in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis. Finn passes away from the disease and June is left reeling. She loses her bearings when he dies and she begins to question so many things she’s always taken for granted.

Greta is June’s talented older sister; the opposite of her in every way. The relationship between them is tenuous and strained. Most teenage sisters go through this period, but everything is heightened by this unexpected grief. There’s something visceral about dealing with grief while you are still trying to figure out who you are. The grief shapes you in some ways, it’s an undeniable guiding force on your formative years. It influences the way you see the world. Most teens feel invincible, but when you lose someone at that age I think it makes you understand that nothing in this world is permanent and it effects your actions for the rest of your life.  

One thing that stood out to me in the novel is the way the author beautifully conveys the raw vulnerability of your early teen years. It is so easy to feel childish and immature or self-conscious. You are balancing on the cusp of adulthood and you have the desperate desire to be both an adult and a child and it’s so hard to navigate that change. I remember being embarrassed by things I didn’t understand or things I felt. That embarrassment can quickly turn to defensiveness and the people who you’ve been closest to, your family, somehow become the enemy over night.

BOTTOM LINE: This book touched my heart in such a real way. I would highly recommend it and the audio is particularly good.

“That's the secret. If you always make sure you're exactly the person you hoped to be, if you always make sure you know only the very best people, then you won't care if you die tomorrow.”

“I thought of all the different kinds of love in the world. I could think of ten without even trying. The way parents love their kids, the way you love a puppy or chocolate ice cream or home or your favorite book or your sister. Or your uncle. There's those kinds of love and then there's the other kind. The falling kind.”

Pair with a viewing of the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Also watch Angels in America the 2003 miniseries version of the award-winning two part play. It stars everyone from Meryl Streep to Al Pacino and is a fictional account of the AIDS crisis from multiple points of view. It’s not that the novel is only about AIDS, but the documentary and miniseries give you some context for the atmosphere of fear that surrounded the disease in the 1980s.

Summerland and Gregor the Overlander

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Do you guys ever read two books back-to-back that are unintentionally incredibly similar? I actively try to avoid doing this, but sometimes I don’t realize it until I’m already midway through the book. This happened to me a few months ago with The Likeness and The Secret History.

Now it’s happened again and like the first time, I can’t help but compare the two and favor one over the other. Both Summerland and Gregor the Overlander are about 11-year-old boys who find themselves in a strange fantasy land trying to rescue their fathers. There are definitely differences, but the basic premise is really similar.

by Michael Chabon

I went into this one expecting a coming-of-age story about baseball. I’m not sure how I completely missed the fact that it’s a fantasy adventure tale. The other work I’ve read of Chabon’s has been for adults, so this was an interesting change of pace.

Ethan is an 11-year-old living in a quiet town in Washington. His mother passed away and his brilliant but distracted father (a bit of an absent-minded professor) is too caught up in his work to realize how much Ethan is struggling in their new home. He is on the local baseball team, but is a horrible player. Then one day he starts to see some odd creatures.

Soon he’s off on an adventure with his friend Jennifer T, oddball Thor and a strange collection of misfits, including a tiny giant, a Sasquatch, and other creatures. They can travel between the branches of the Tree of Life to the different worlds. They are traveling across the Summerland as they try to find Ethan’s father.

In order to pass through certain areas they must play games of baseball with the creatures that live there. I’m not a baseball fan, so that recurring theme made the book feel a bit long to me. I loved the other fantasy elements though.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s sweet and fun with a few darker twists. A perfect fit for teen readers, particularly those who love baseball. It’s a bit on the long side, but it’s a great quest book for young adult readers.

Gregor the Overlander
by Suzanne Collins

I loved the Hunger Games series, so I’ve wanted to read this one for awhile now. I will say upfront that it’s written for a much younger audience than the HG books and that was hard to adjust to at first.

Gregor and his baby sister Boots fall through a passage in their laundry room of their New York apartment building. They find themselves in an underground world where rats and cockroaches talk and bats are used for transportation. They are in Underland and the people there refer to him as an overlander.

A prophesy tells of an overlander who will play a role in the future or Underland. The people there believe that Gregor must be that overlander and almost without his realizing it, a quest is formed and he is off on an adventure.

The plot and pacing are fine, but I never cared too much about the fate of the characters. It’s strange to read a book about an underground world and realize that the story didn’t even scratch the surface. I wish that we had a chance to get to know the characters a bit more instead of just moving from one bit of action to the next.

BOTTOM LINE: The book lacks the character depth that I grew to love in Collins’ other work. I think this would be perfect for a young reader who loves adventure stories, but it doesn’t work as well for adults.

Wordless Wednesday: Hans Christian Anderson

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hans Christian Anderson in Central Park, NYC

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Top Ten Beach Reads

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

This week's Top Ten from The Broke and the Bookish asks for our Top Ten Beach Reads (however YOU define a beach read!) For me a beach read isn’t necessarily fluff, but it is a book that hooks you and keeps you entertained while still providing good characters.

1) The Harry Potter series! I love re-reading these on vacation.

2) The Count of Monte Cristo: Couldn't. Put. It. Down.

3) Paper Towns: Road trips, Florida, it's perfect.

4) The Pillars of the Earth: A big fat epic novel that you can sink in
and enjoy.

5) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Sweet story and the epistolary style makes it an easy read.

6) Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series: You can't help but get caught up in these.

7) The Shadow of the Wind: The perfect mystery novel.

8) Maeve Binchy novels (Tara Road, Circle of Friends): Great characters, great stories.

Categories I don't read on vacation:

9) Nonfiction: I love this genre most of the time, but while traveling I usually avoid it.

10) Shakespeare: I read a few of his plays each year, but definitely not on vacation.

Image from here.

Swallows and Amazons

Monday, June 10, 2013

Swallows and Amazons
by Arthur Ransome

Four young kids spend a family vacation exploring the local area. This children’s classic was originally published in 1930 and has been cherished by generations of kids ever since.

With their mother’s permission, the children sail their small vessel, the Swallow, to a little island near their summer home. They camp out in tents and make food on a small fire. Every day they visit the local farmer for milk, eggs and bread and their mother visits their camp to check on them.

The kids, John, Susan, Titty (really unfortunate name choice) and Roger fish for their dinner and call everyone who lives in the area “natives.” They search for pirates and buried treasure and learn to conquer their own fears. They meet another group of kids, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who sail their own little ship, the Amazon. It’s such a wonderful adventure story. I wish I’d read it when I was little, but it was still a delight as an adult.

It’s sad to think about how much things have changed in the decades since this book was published. I can’t imagine any parent letting four of their children move to an island for a couple weeks and fend for themselves. The parents would probably end up in jail for neglect. The freedom to have adventures has been curtailed as crime in creases and trust in our neighbors decreases.

BOTTOM LINE: A sweet story about one family’s summer adventures. It made me long for the childhood days of wild abandon when the only thing on your schedule was imaginative outdoor games and afternoons of exploration.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing

Friday, June 7, 2013

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing
by Jasper Fforde

This is the sixth book in the Thursday Next series and it’s the first in the series to have a protagonist other than the Thursday we’ve come to know and love. Instead the story is told from the point-of-view of Thursday Next, the written version from the books about the RealWorld Thursday’s work as a Jurisfaction agent. That will all make sense if you are already familiar with the series. If you haven’t read the first five books I’m sure that sounded incredibly confusing.

We’ve met this Thursday before, in the last book she was the tree-hugging hippie who couldn’t make it as an actual agent. In this book she’s on a hunt for the real Thursday Next who has gone missing in the midst of a mission. A war is brewing between different genres in BookWorld and both Thursdays are trying to solve the crisis. We get to know BookWorld Thursday as she plays her part honorably, despite her misgivings about her talent as an agent.

To appreciate these books you have to embrace the concept with open arms and just enjoy the ride. They are at times confusing, especially this latest installment, (though the reason why is fully and satisfactorily explained in the end) but they are always entertaining. Bibliophiles can have a blast with the book references and characters. Fforde pokes fun at the literary world in a way that only someone who truly loves it can do.

BOTTOM LINE: I love this series. It’s clever, original and completely unique. There have been some books in the series that I loved more than others, but overall it’s a strong finish to a series that I have really enjoyed.

“The RealWorld was a sprawling mess of a book in need of a good editor.”

Previous Thursday Next review:

Fforde's Other Work:

*Map of Fiction Island from the book.

June Classic Club Meme Question

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What is your favorite opening sentence from a classic novel (and why)?

I love the opening scene from I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Cassandra Mortmain tells us the story through her personal journal. The opening line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” paints the perfect picture. She’s a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. She’s living this strange life in a dilapidated castle and from those opening paragraphs you’re completely hooked. Her strange family, the mysterious neighbors, the romance of the castle life with it’s drafty rooms and cups of tea, I just love it.

Join in the fun here. 

Wordless Wednesday: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Top Ten Books Featuring Travel In Some Way

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

This week's Top Ten from The Broke and the Bookish asks for Top Ten Books Featuring Travel In Some Way (road trips, airplanes, travelogues, anything where there is traveling in the book).

1) Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

2) Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon

3) Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor

4) Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co by Jeremy Mercer

5) On the Road by Jack Kerouac

6) Paper Towns by John Green (great road trip book)

7) Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks

8) Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

9) In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (almost all Bryson books!)

10) Novel Destination by Shannon Mckenna Schmidt (best bibliophile travel book ever)

Image from here

The Importance of Being Earnest

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde

You can’t beat Oscar Wilde when it comes to witty dialogue. The playwright mastered the art form of clever repartee and The Importance of Being Earnest is the best example of that talent.

Two bachelors, Jack and Algernon, both find themselves pretending to be someone they are not in order to get what they want. Their actions cause confusion and cat fights when two ladies, Gwendolen and Cecily find themselves falling for the fictional “Earnest.” Top it off with the indomitable Lady Bracknell, whose matchmaking skills rely heavily on evaluating someone’s social standing and you’ve got a recipe for hilarity.

I’ve always loved this play and rereading it was a treat. I also had the chance to finally see it performed in May and I loved it. That version set the story in the 1990s instead of the 1890s, but the text was exactly the same, which reminded me that romantic comedies really haven’t changed too much.

This play also contains many of Wilde’s most infamous lines. Here’s a few of my favorites:

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

“I'll bet you anything you like that half an hour after they have met, they will be calling each other sister.
Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.”

BOTTOM LINE: Read it! It’s a quick and delightful play.

I read this as part of the Let’s Read Plays yearlong event hosted by Fanda. From November 2012 to October 2013 participants will read 12 classics plays throughout the year, at least one each month.