Time to Vote!

With December’s meetup quickly approaching and January’s novel already selected, we’re now ready to vote for our February book!  This month our feature member making the selections is….ME!  In case you’ve forgotten, each member who was present at the very first meetup back in September 2010 gets to choose a month in 2012 and choose the books we vote on!  February is the perfect month for me since I was born on a cold February morning nearly 28 years ago.  You’ll be receiving your voting emails shortly, but I thought I’d augment the simple synopsis provided by enlightening everyone on why I made the selections I did.

I really thought this would be a simple task, but didn’t turn out that way at all.  I made numerous lists of books I love or would love to read.  I emailed Victoria my selections to get her opinion and had my final list approved and ready to go!  But then I got to thinking – which is always dangerous.  Three of the four books I had selected were typical Brooke reads – all living comfortably inside my comfort zone which generally means written long ago.  So I slashed the list and tried to come up with a theme that challenged me – or at least took me out of my reading rut.  Only one of the four novels was something I wouldn’t normally read – contemporary fiction.  I run screaming from bestseller lists and firmly keep my face planted in 19th century literature or wacky sci-fi/fantasy stuff.  Don’t know why – perhaps it’s the hype/buzz that frightens me.  I prefer a book that has stood the test of time.  Anyway, my four selections challenge that notion – all have been major bestsellers, award winners, critically acclaimed novels from the the past 5 years.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese was published in January 2010.  It’s a novel written by a doctor and partially takes place in Ethiopia – so definitely something a bit different than I’ve ever read.  I mainly selected this novel because in the world of book blogging and word-of-mouth book praising, this story always garners high praise.  Even other readers as jaded with book critics as myself love this lovely little paperback!  Another plus, it’s probably the only book on my list that will be available in paperback.  I think I just scored it several economically driven votes.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is both a novel and author I’ve been meaning to read for some time – and it’s in paperback as well (I feel bad for getting Cutting the Stone’s hopes up).  Published in 2006, there’s a movie version coming out starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock which seems intriguing.  This particular novel was the only original selection to survive off my first list – why?  I have a weird obsession with post-9/11 fiction that actually deals with that day.  There’s very little literature written yet about those tragic events so when a book pops up proclaiming to offer some sort of insight, theory, or just humanized depiction I need to read it.  Plus, I think many Americans are still trying to figure out what that day means to us – a great discussion could easily be born.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is brand spanking new and still all hard and shiny.  Touted by many people who claim to know these things as one of the top 10 books of 2011.  Amazon.com named the book it’s number 1 novel of 2011 – high praise, indeed.  I have a special place in my heart for baseball and many other team sports (Go Dawgs!!).  To me, team sports connect people from all different walks of life, teach valuable lessons to the young and old, and promote a sense of community so often lacking in today’s society.  In my head, I’m fairly certain this is a novel about baseball like Friday Night Lights was a television show about football – which means mostly not at all.  It’s a book about one sport, one event, one central current bringing together people in the same way that the most mundane objects and events can bring us together in a sweetly profound way.  I sure hope I’m right!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline made it’s sparkly debut in August to the cries and cheers of critics worldwide.  I selected this one for myriad reasons – namely it’s sci-fi which I love.  For those haters out there, science fiction provides such a creative outlet for commentaries on the world we live in today and the world we hope to live in tomorrow.  I’ll also be honest and tell you that the catchphrases ‘nerdy romance’ and ’80s nostalgia’ kind of made me love the book’s description in an almost embarrassing way.  Definitely my more light-hearted selection.

Okay – go forth and vote, Litwits!  Or comment to tell me my selections suck.

 

Top Ten Tuesday!

Decided to join in the fun of Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Today’s topic is top 10 books on your TBR list for Winter!

1.  The Odds by Stewart O’Nan – Won ARC on Goodreads.  Excited to read!

2.  The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson – Two books technically, but want to finish this series so I can start another.

3.  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Reading for January book club.  Magical Realism is always a bang-up good time!

4.  Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem – Up next on my bookshelves.  Never read anything by Lethem, and I love discovering new authors to love.

5.  Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell – A HUGE novel that has sat on my shelves for a couple of years now.  Always super intimidated by chunky classics, but ready to give it a go.

6.  The Vampire Diaries series by L.J. Smith – One of my favorite genres and the television show is superb.  Ready to compare show to novel!

7.  Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – Time to remedy the fact that I have never read any Steinbeck.

8.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer – With the movie coming out, I obviously want to read the novel first.  Also, really love reading stories related to 9/11 – I have a bit of morbid curiosity about that day.

9.  The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – Has topped many best of 2011 lists and there’s a baseball theme, sounds perfect!

10.  Emma by Jane Austen – Will be my first re-read of 2012.  Austen is a fav and I try to re-read one of her novels every year.

Book Review: The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Title: TheBourne Identity
Author: Robert Ludlum
Pages: 535
Genre: Spy Thriller/Action
Year Published: 1980
Publisher: Bantam Books
Source:Personal Copy

My first spy novel!  Of course, I’ve seen the movies and thoroughly enjoyed them.  Bought this book a couple of years ago from a discount bin and have just now gotten around to reading it.  The movie and the book have almost nothing in common besides a character named Jason Bourne so just because you liked the film does not mean you’ll enjoy the book – you’ve been warned!

The Bourne Identity follows a man pulled from the sea off the southern coast of France after being shot multiple times.  He doesn’t remember who he is or anything about his life.  Random things start to come back to him – languages he knows, phrases he’s repeated over and over again, and a bank account number removed from his hip leads him to begin his adventure to a bank in Zurich.  Once people start shooting at him things get interesting.

I wish I could say this book was a spy-caper extraordinaire, but no – huge letdown.  The narrative is excessively long-winded, convoluted, and clumsy.  Ludlum beats his readers over the head with italicized paragraphs repeated probably hundreds of times.  And while the premise of supposed assassin (Bourne) pitted against super assassin (Carlos the Jackal) sounds great in theory, Ludlum manages to destroy any awesomeness by jumping the shark of reality one too many times.  For once, I truly believe the movie was loads better – in plot, pacing, and characterization.  The entire plot was changed because it needed to be changed – sliced and diced into something far more believable and spy-thriller worthy.

Where Ludlum fails most is the poorly executed ‘love story’ between Bourne and hostage-turned-soul-mate Marie.  Jason, in a desperate attempt to escape his killers alive, uses Marie as a getaway device – slapping her harshly more than once, bruising her arm, screaming at her, and just generally treating her like a grade-A ass.  Then just about 30-40 pages later, she’s in love with him?  No matter how well-written the rest of the novel could have been – this sham of a love-affair would have ruined the entire story for me.

Let’s try to find some redeeming factors, shall we?  The action scenes, though few and far apart, were relatively entertaining.  I enjoyed Jason’s backstory being unfolded and learning his true motivations – something better done in the book than the movie.  Setting and place were well-done – murder and mayhem against the beauty of Zurich and Paris a great juxtaposition.  Although not intentional, I loved the dated phone booths, lack of communication devices, and other old fashioned technology that added a bit more suspense to the 1980 adventure.  Unfortunately, none of these pros are enough to keep me reading the series.  So long, Mr. Bourne!

Brooke’s Movie Reviews (or Warnings)!

I hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving.  This holiday I’ve spent several hours in front of my television watching some movies – really terribly bad movies.  So, I thought since it’s the season of giving and all, I’d provide warnings to anyone thinking about watching the films I’ve forced myself to sit through!

Perhaps the worst offender is No Strings Attached.  I really don’t need to say more than – Ashton Kutcher, do I?  What was Natalie Portman thinking?  Just an easy way to pay the bills?  Anyway, it’s the whole friends with benefits turned soul-mate romance crap that has been done so many times.  Unfortunately, there is nothing to ground this movie in reality or make any of the characters endearing.  If you want a much better version, check out Friends With Benefits starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake – such a better movie.

Last night I sat down to The Roommate with Leighton Meester and Minka Kelly.  Just no.  WARNING: Meester’s character puts the most adorable kitten into a dryer – and then turns the dryer on.  However, if you like watching commercials for the CW, this movie might be for you since every actor from that channel finds their way into this film.

The whole Twilight series baffles me.  To be honest, this post was supposed to be a movie review of Breaking Dawn Part I, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it.  I just couldn’t do anything but write paragraph after paragraph of bashing every aspect of the film which would alienate people who love the story.  I don’t want anyone to hate me and leave the group!  But truthfully, the acting is ridiculous, the music (pan flutes!) comedic, the CGI moments unbelievable, and the wolves just completely stupid.  Any positives?  The special effects crew managed to do one good job – making Bella look super emaciated while the demon baby was sucking the life out of her.  This achievement only makes the other CGI bits that much worse.  The wedding scene was pretty and Anna Kendrick is hilarious.  Also, I liked the horror of the birthing scene.  See how nice I tried to be?

Finally, the one slightly shining moment was watching Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau.  I always appreciate a sci-fi/fantasy love story – they always feel a bit fresh and unpredictable.  Damon is really convincing as a politician and Blunt has obviously danced in her past which adds such realism to the script.  You feel like the what’s happening could actually happen unlike the prior three films.  Everything goes swimmingly until the end, which just kind of ends.  Abruptly.  I mean, everything is resolved.  Just there’s no big twist or excitement.  It’s just like the director yelled CUT! in the middle of a great chase scene.  Very jarring and ruined everything that had worked previously.  FAIL.

I hope y’all have had better luck than me with your recent viewings!  Let me hear about it in the comments!

Book Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: The Gravedigger’s Daughter
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Pages: 592
Genre: General Fiction, Historical Fiction
Release Date: September 1st, 1995
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Source:Personal Copy

I’ve always had a bit of a strained relationship with Joyce Carol Oates.  First, she’s kind of creepy looking in a Tim Burton movie kind of way.  She’s written so many critically acclaimed novels that I haven’t been able to keep up.  And to be honest, most of the time I feel like I spend my time within her novels trying to convince myself I like them.  I’ve read four – We Were the Mulvaneys which I tried reading in high school and hated, Foxfire which I loved beyond reason (and I also loved the Angelina Jolie film), Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart which I read for a college class as an example of how not to write black characters from a white perspective, and finally, I’ve just finished The Gravedigger’s Daughter.

Daughter is the tale of Rebecca Schwart, born on a ship in New York Harbor at the end of her family’s journey to escape Nazi Germany in 1936.  The Schwarts are desperate to be ‘American’ and escape the prejudices of being Jewish – they change their names, their language, and never speak the word ‘Jew’.  Rebecca’s father becomes the local cemetery caretaker in a small town in upstate New York, promising better things (after all, he was a much respected math teacher in Germany) once the townspeople realize that the Schwart family is no different than anyone else.  Of course, their dreams turn into tragedy, and Rebecca is forced to run from, confront, and finally accept the imperfect America of the 20th century and her own past.

The beginning of this story is beautiful, haunting, and completely engaging.  We’re privy to a slice of Rebecca’s adult life and a bit of a mystery she finds herself involved in.  Once we’re transported back to her childhood, Oates does a magical job creating this immigrant family struggling to overcome the prejudices of the outside world while also struggling with their own hidden demons.   Unfortunately, the narrative lags for about two hundred pages as Rebecca and her son are running from her abusive husband.  She is entirely encased within her paranoia, which is understandable, but Oates is unable to make her sympathetic enough to make a couple hundred pages of moving from small town to small town exciting.  The story began to feel more like a travel journal of upstate New York.  But the novel’s final 100 pages see us back on track.  Having been allowed into Rebecca’s past and present, we are now thrown into her future in a series of letters she writes to a long lost relative.  A jarring change to almost musical prose, but what a jolt of realism Oates has provided!

I also particularly liked the honest portrayal of American society – especially in regards to the anti-Semitism.  Yes, America fought in the war against Germany, but that does not mean Jewish people didn’t undergo terrible bigotry and violence by the very people who so proudly took responsibility for helping end the atrocities taking place in Europe.  Americans were creating their own atrocities right here – with Japanese war camps and an overall distaste for anything seen as ‘other’.

So obviously, I didn’t hate this particular novel.  The subject material, WWII and its effects, is always a favorite topic of mine.  I liked Rebecca’s spirit and her strength.  Oates knows how to write a gorgeous sentence, but she often gets a bit exclamation point happy and loves to overuse italics.  The italics are particularly annoying as the repetition of sentiments that Oates obviously finds rather genius seems a bit pompous and patronizing to the reader.  I will warn any interested readers out there – Daughter is far from a happy novel.  The first half is incredibly bleak.  By page 500 you’ll be preparing for a horrific ending only to be pleasantly surprised by a story come full circle and perhaps even a little hope.

P.S. Doesn’t she frighten you just a bit?

Member Spotlight: Abi!

Are there any books that you love to re-read from time to time?

I don’t re-read novels. The only books I re-read are instructional how-to books and spiritual/motivational books.

What are your favorite movies/television shows?

Some of my favorite movies: The Godfather, Love & Basketball, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Sidewalks of New York
Favorite TV shows: The Office, Desperate Housewives, The Big Bang Theory, Jeopardy, VH1 Behind the Music, Martin, Seinfeld

If you could time travel, what period in history would you most like to visit and why?

I’d like to time travel to the 1950’s so that I could meet my grandmother and gradfather. Also, I envision this as an era where it was socially accepted/expected for ladies to routinely don hats and gloves.

What do you think members should know about you other than your love of reading?

If something is funny…I will laugh. I’m unapologetic about that.

What was the last book you finished?

The last book I finished was by Anita Shreve…”All He Ever Loved”.

November Meetup: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Litwits Star Rating:  3.2 Stars!

Yesterday, nine Litwits met at my house to discuss Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  As you can see above with the 3.2 star rating, opinions were a mixed bag.  Some gave a resounding 5 stars while others opted for a less-impressed 2 star rating.  Most everyone agreed that the last third of the novel was the best part – easier to read, more actual plot movement and action.  Of course, the very ending was shocking and not necessarily in a pleasing way, but I won’t spoil the fun for those who haven’t read!

Hedgehog, we all agreed, can be a challenging read due to the philosophical digressions Barbery is so fond of imposing upon her readers.  She’s an author who definitely follows the old advice of writing what one knows – she herself being a philosophy professor who currently lives in Japan.  We also wondered if the translation perhaps hurt the enjoyability for readers who can’t read the novel in its original French.  Then, of course, there’s always the disconnect between cultures and societies – without having a thorough understanding of French class systems, familial structures, and education, the reader is left to impose their own experiences upon the story and characters.  How much does this affect our reading experience?

We discussed in depth the main characters of Paloma, our precocious 12-year-old, and Renee, our cranky concierge.  Some found Paloma amusing in her pompous rants, others felt she lacked a certain vulnerability that belongs to all children, no matter how smart.  We wondered if Renee was bringing her misery onto herself as we rarely saw anyone being openly cruel to her.  We laughed over Renee’s comical discussion of comma mis-usage and her episode with the singing toilet.  Many members bemoaned the dual narrative – citing a feeling of choppiness that kept the story from flowing properly, hating the switch in font.  Others believed the short 2-3 page chapters added to the readability – by the time you were sick of one character’s philosophical ranting it was already over.

If there’s one plus to Barbery’s writing that everyone seemed to agree on, it’s her ability to write some stunningly beautiful prose.  Some readers could even quote a few of her sentences word-for-word which is always a great compliment to any writer.  Of course, don’t take on this volume without a dictionary handy as you will definitely run across words and terms you’ve never heard before – a great vocabulary lesson with every chapter!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has garnered great critical praise by the elite readers of the world – so I definitely think it’s worth checking out, even if only to convince yourself further than professional critics really don’t know what they’re talking about!  After reading reactions on Amazon, Goodreads, and amongst our own Litwits, I’m convinced this is a novel you will either loathe or love, but no matter what side of the fence you land on, I promise you will walk away appreciating at least one aspect of Barbery’s writing.

Special thanks to everyone who came yesterday!  I enjoyed meeting new members and catching up with regulars!  Next month we’ll be reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – a timeless Christmas classic – short, but sweet!  Fellow organizer, Katherine, has been gracious enough to host the meetup at her home in Grant Park so I hope to see y’all there!

Book Review: Ill Wind (Weather Warden #1) by Rachel Caine

Title: Ill Wind
Author: Rachel Caine
Pages: 337
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance
Release Date: December 2, 2003
Publisher: ROC Fantasy/Penguin Books
Source:Personal Copy

For those who know me, you know that my favorite type of book to read is classic literature – the older the better.  Some of my favorite books were penned in the 18th century.  That being said, I’m also a sucker for certain modern genres – most especially urban fantasy/paranormal/supernatural type stories.  I’ve read and loved the Southern Vampire series (aka Sookie Stackhouse), Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan novels, and Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld books.

Over the past few years, I’d heard great things about Rachel Caine and had even purchased the first book in her Weather Wardens series a few years back.  This series follows Joanne Baldwin, manipulator of weather (air and water), in an epic car chase from Florida to Oklahoma after she kills one of the most powerful head Wardens.  Oh, and there are Djinn (pretty much genies in bottles) who assist the Wardens with their powers.

What drew me to this series initially was the originality of Caine’s world-building.  All fantasy novels are responsible for building a world where creatures such as vampires, werewolves, super-humans, and even genies are possible – but far too often these worlds are so similar that nothing feels creative, especially post-Twilight (Quick Note:  I’m well aware that Ill Wind was published pre-Twilight, but since I’m reading in a post-Twilight world, I can’t help but be colored by the unfortunate consequence of sparkly vampires).  But Caine’s world of Wardens who are able to control and manage water, air, earth, and fire feels so different – hell, there aren’t even any vampires and werewolves to speak of, something in and of itself refreshing.  For this aspect alone, Ill Wind is worth the read.

Unfortunately, Caine’s protagonist, Joanne, was a bit of a letdown for me personally.  She’s the cookie-cutter power female – stubborn, doesn’t listen to anyone else, takes her clothes off for too many men, and not-so-surprisingly has amazing abilities beyond anyone’s imagination.  We’ve seen Joanne written time and time again – she brings nothing really fresh to the table.  I did appreciate her love of cars – the Mustang and Viper – and her disdain for the Range Rover and Xterra.  But even this aspect feels forced – so many female heroines in these novels are defined by qualities or hobbies normally associated with men (Mercy Thompson’s a mechanic, Anita Blake loves guns).

Despite the predictability of Joanne’s character traits, the story’s end was surprising and a twist not often done in paranormal fantasy – especially the first book of a series.  The wrap-up accomplishes two things well – answers many questions to truly end the story, yet creates an entirely new path for our heroine to take for the continuation of the series. For once, this feels like a book that requires a Book Two instead of an author merely pandering for more profits.

I’m not really sure I’ll continue on with Joanne.  The world is original, the ending was creative, but the rest of the novel left too little to love.  Nothing about the characters compels me to keep up with their story and see how they resolve the next adventure they face.  Perhaps I’ve read too many of these genre stories and need a bit of a break.  I do believe that Rachel Caine is one of the better storytellers of the genre and deserves the notice by fans of the supernatural.

Member Spotlight: Dawn!

Are there any books that you love to re-read from time to time?
Unless I’m teaching a book I haven’t taught in several years, I generally do not reread just because there are so many books that I want to read for the first time.
What are your favorite movies/television shows?
TV:  Modern Family, Grey’s Anatomy, Real Time with Bill Maher, reruns of Frasier and Sex and the City.  Movies:  Love Actually, Dirty Dancing, Mama Mia!, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Moonstruck, The Big Chill
If you could time travel, what period in history would you most like to visit and why?
The Jazz Age–while I know I am romanticizing it,
it just seems like it would have been a lot of fun, especially if I could have hung around the Fitzgeralds and their social set!
What do you think members should know about you other than your love of reading?
I have two goofy dogs that I adore named Gatsby and Nemo.
What was the last book you finished?
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan