The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Pretty much the entire blogosphere has already read this book as I’m extremely late to this party.  And most of the reviews are overwhelmingly positive – like 5 star, best-book-in-the-world positive.  So instead of focusing on the best aspects of the book, I’m choosing to go the opposite route and discussing the not-so-great bits that turned me off a great deal.

I want to preface this review with some clarifications.  On Goodreads, I rated this a 3 star read which is fairly accurate.  I liked it well enough to keep reading.  An admission that probably stains this review, perhaps unfairly:  I am not a fan of Holocaust fiction.  I just believe that the true stories, the non-fiction has so much more to offer.  A real-life experience about a  person who lived and breathed is always so much more affecting.  And, to be honest, there are so many true stories still left un-told that the fiction just seems misplaced and lazy.

Problem #1:  Death as the narrator.  I was really looking forward to this perspective and the experimentation with the narrative.  I expected a freshness to the story, but instead got a major distraction/intrusion.  I found myself really engrossed in the novel when I forgot Death was narrating, when the POV just seemed an anonymous third person.  When Death would announce himself again and again, I was completely thrown out of the story.  I also found his sarcasm jarring.  While understanding the need for comic relief in such a bleak novel, sarcasm shouldn’t be that humor’s vehicle.  Just bugged me personally.

Problem #2:  The random bits of text that are boldfaced and centered to help bring our attention (or beat us over the head) with one of the author’s genius bits.  Annoyed me to no end and yet again, took me out of the story every time I had to pause for one of these moments.  Just nothing smooth about the transition between flowing prose and gimmicky pop-up text.  Case-in-point – the last line is done in this manner.  It was a beautiful thought, but ruined by the beating it gave me in all its bold glory.  Zusak is telling, not showing.

Problem #3:  I’ve read many reviews that cite Zusak’s poetic, gorgeous prose.  So obviously I’m in an extreme minority here.  I do think Zusak is trying to be poetic and that sometimes it works – that he actually creates something profound and moving.  Other times (most other times) I find that he’s trying way too hard to sound poetic and comes off as rambling.  Half the time his phrasing doesn’t even make sense.  It reminds my of my own adolescent poetry where I would try so hard to sound genius.  Sometimes I amazed myself at what I wrote, but most of the time I ended up giggling at my cheesy, heavy-handed efforts.

Problem #4:  The manipulative ending.  Read reviews long enough and you’ll learn how the ending had everyone sobbing and vowing that this book had changed their life.  I call this huge emotional outburst and tragic ending manipulative.  It’s there not to teach us something, but to make us think we’ve read something super amazing because it made us cry.  I get angry at endings like this.  They feel so HOLLYWOOD.  I would have preferred far more subtlety which would have made much more sense with the story anyhow.  For the record:  No, I did not cry.  I was too annoyed to cry.

Those problems aside, I will say this:  I would highly recommend this to actual young adults.  Books like this hold a lot of value and merit for teenage readers because they act as stepping stones to greater literature and the desire to learn more about our world.  Obviously, this book destroys Twilight and the like as being a worthwhile read.  I also think all of my problems above will be things that teenagers really enjoy – the gimmicks and whatnot.  Shakes their reading experience up a bit and doesn’t bog them down in boring prose, but still offers up a serious story.

As for everyone else, also worth a read if for no other reason than to form your own opinion.  The story is sweet, moving, subtle and has a lot to offer its audiences of all ages.  Many characters you’ll find endearing and lovable.  I’m just not as enthralled as others and wanted to be a voice for those who also didn’t feel like this novel had changed their lives.  So definitely give it to the teenagers in your life and when you have a little down time, pick it up for yourself.

A Storm of Swords Journal – Part 1 (SPOILERS)

The book is officially in my greedy little hands!  And it’s GIGANTIC, but beautiful.  The maps on the end pages have been modified and updated, but I’m afraid to look too closely for fear of spoilers.  Martin also includes a little message that not everything, especially in the beginning, is taking place in sequential order which I already supposed.  My little journal entries are going to cover five chapters at a time – or roughly 50 pages.  This first entry gets a bonus due to the prologue and ends up a total of 60 (1-60) pages.  Let’s dive in, shall we?

Prologue:

We’re beyond The Wall at the Fist of the First Men with Chett, our narrator and member of the Night’s Watch.  He and his fellow brothers are out tracking a bear with the hounds – rather unsuccessfully.  What immediately catches my attention is how cold the North has gotten and how well Martin makes you feel that iciness down to your very bones.  Winter is coming – and rather quickly.

Chett is not a great man.  We soon learn that he has convinced 14 men (himself included) to kill the Lord Commander Mormont and other leaders of the Watch during the night.  Why?  He’s terrified of the impending war with Rayder and the Wildlings who are approaching with many, many more men than the Watch.  Chett plans to kill all those who are for sticking around and fighting in order to leave in charge those who wish to turn around and flee back to the relative safety of The Wall.  Basically – he’s a cowardly little shit.

Did I mention that our dear Chett got sentenced to the wall for murdering a girl who wouldn’t sleep with him?  Pleasant little fellow, no?

After giving up on the bear, the small party heads back to camp where Chett now proceeds to make fun of Sam – for being fat and a coward – because Chett is SO BRAVE and gorgeous with his boil covered face.  We learn that Chett’s intense animosity comes from Jon Snow helping Sam become assistant to Maester Aemon, the position that Chett once held.  So now he despises Jon and Sam equally.  He plans to kill Sam for good measure.

But during the night, his plans are foiled by an intense snow storm (coincidence?  I think not).  He gives up on murdering the commanders and instead focuses on taking out poor Sam in his sleep.  Before he can get the job done, the horn sounds not once, not twice, but three times.  You know what that means folks…Sam is saved by the bell!!!!  Thank the gods because we LOVE Sam.  Also, all the men are probably about to be slaughtered by the Others.  Good times.

At the sound of the three horns, Sam turns ghostly pale, but our new friend, Chett, pisses himself.  He’s so brave, that one.

A great opening for the novel.  The prologues always add a deep sense of foreboding and a promise of things to come.  I cannot wait for the Others to make their appearance and the battle to begin.  One of my most anticipated story arcs for the book and the show.  HBO gave us a little glimpse in the season 2 finale and the White Walkers looked amazing.  Plus, Jon Snow!  How has he fared as double agent inside the ranks of Rayder’s men?  What’s up with Ygritte?  And has Ghost been welcomed by the Wildling troops with open arms?

Jaime:

A new perspective and a fun one at that!  I’ve wanted to get inside the Kingslayer’s pretty little head for a while.  Imagine all the terrible things that cross this man’s mind?  And we are privy to some fairly disturbing thoughts involving his beloved twin sister.  Yuck.

This particular scene has actually already been included in the Season 2 finale of the show.  Catelyn has entrusted Brienne with the duty of taking Jaime back to Kings Landing to bargain a deal for her daughters.  Without Robb’s permission I might add.  In the book, Ser Cleros, a sad excuse for a Lannister and Jaime’s cousin, accompanies Brienne as the negotiator.  Nothing about this plan seems wise.

I liked being inside Jaime’s head to discover his true thoughts and opinions of Brienne.  He’s a complete asshole to her, but he develops a definite sense of respect for her as a warrior and perhaps even a worthy opponent.  He has a vision of smashing her head with the oar (they are traveling by boat) and yet uses it to pull her back into the boat.  Jaime does some interesting things.  Just when you’ve decided he’s an evil, no-good bastard, he does something strangely out of character – like helping/saving Brienne.  What could his motives be?

Another interesting difference between the show’s scene and the source material – Jaime shaves his head so as not to be recognized in his chains.  I suppose the show wants Jaime to remain the gorgeous hunk of man that he is, but the book has no need of such things.  Also, he’s been severely weakened physically by his incarceration which makes me wonder how good of a fighter he will be at the moment.  We do know that he doesn’t fear death at all – a ferocious trait in any warrior.

Also, Brienne is pretty much a super hero with in-human abilities.  Don’t you think?  Looking forward to seeing future interactions between Brienne and Jaime.  Good stuff.

Oh…one more thing.  The Tullys and their Bannermen have been up to no good raping and pillaging the common people just as the Lannisters did.  Is there truly a good side?

Catelyn:

Oh, Catelyn.  Girl, you have lost your mind.  I want to smack you, but I kind of understand.  You think Bran and Rickon are dead – you’ve lost your husband – your father waits at death’s door.  Grief is all you know and it has made you bat shit.  Letting Jaime go was a supremely bad idea, but you want your daughters back.  You need to be surrounded by your children, to be a mother.  Too bad Arya isn’t even with the Lannisters.

In the show, Robb has his mother arrested and held under tent arrest.  In the book, Robb is off fighting and Catelyn remains at House Tully with her dying father.  She’s placed under castle arrest in her father’s chambers and not allowed to leave.  She sits by his side thinking lots of mopey thoughts and listening to her father babble rather incoherently about the things than plague a dying man.

He mentions someone named Tansy.  Catelyn begins to piece together that her father sold off Lysa to a much older Jon Arryn those many years ago because she was with child (by another man, apparently) and Arryn was in desperate need of an heir (no one need know the heir to be illegitimate).  What interests me here is how almost naive Catelyn is about extra-marital affairs.  Pretty much everyone in this damn book is sleeping with someone other than their spouse.  Even her husband who might be the most honorable man to have ever lived.  You can also kind of see how Cat hero worships her father, even into middle age.

Finally, Edmure (Cat’s brother) returns and informs her he’s sent ravens out announcing Jaime’s escape so that someone can capture him and return him to his captors.  This greatly distresses Cat because she knows Jaime will probably never return to Kings Landing or Riverrun.  Her daughters will be lost to her forever.  She’s in a bad place mentally.  I’m worried she’s going to go as insane as her sister since it obviously runs in the family.

We also learn that Robb’s been wounded in battle which seems a bit ominous.  The Starks aren’t having their best day ever.

I know HBO decided against introducing her brother and father in season 2 for good reason.  Looking forward to seeing them in season 3 though.  They help Cat’s characterization because she’s a woman who has always been honor bound and loyal to those she considers family.  Family comes first to her at all times.

Arya:

Been looking forward to catching up with Arya ever since her escape from Harrenhal.  Honestly, her chapter wasn’t super exciting or informative.  Along with Hot Pie and Gendry, they ride tirelessly through the wilderness on their way to Riverrun and safety.  Hot Pie complains a lot and Arya resists rest stubbornly until she is forced to give in and sleep.  In her dreams she is no longer girl, but wolf.  Her pack attacks the Harrenhal men tasked with hunting Arya down after the escape.

Not much to say here.  Arya is a brave little mofo and I still love Gendry.  Loved her line about missing Jon Snow.  Arya’s one of those characters that must never die because I’m not sure I could survive without her in the stories.

Tyrion:

Tyrion’s between a rock and a hard place.  I feel so miserable for him.  He was so brave and smart during the Battle of Blackwater Bay only to be almost killed at the hands of his sister’s commands.  Then his father swoops in, saves the day, removes Tyrion from his duties as Hand, and pretty much throws him away without a second glance.  Tyrion is in major trouble.  He has no friends in Kings Landing which is sad because these people are his FAMILY.

I’m worried that even Bronn will now betray him.  Excuse me, Ser Bronn.  Damn you, Tywin!

The exchange between Tyrion and his father was so bitter and sad.  Tyrion’s been blamed his whole life for killing his own mother in childbirth.  His father refuses to accept him as a true son, has the harshest things to say to Tyrion, and refuses to allow him to inherit Casterly Rock even though Jaime isn’t allowed to bear children and whatnot being a member of the Kingsguard.  And why, you might ask?  Because Tywin hates that Tyrion respects and loves women who are prostitutes.  He doesn’t want his castle turned into a whorehouse.  Tywin is a pig.

This scene makes me miss the Tywin we saw in Season 2 who was such a great father figure for Arya.  Of course, that relationship doesn’t exist in the book.

I’d enjoy seeing this scene between Tywin and Tyrion in the show just to kind of remind us that Tywin is a shit and to allow Peter Dinklage to stretch those amazing acting muscles of his.  So far, nothing I’ve read yet is anything new for the show – most of these events took place in some form in the season 2 finale.

Also, I want to know where The Hound has run off to!  I adore him.

Davos:

We find our dear Onion Knight on the shores of a small rock island in the middle of a treacherous and hidden section of Blackwater Bay.  He’s near death with not much food or water, severely wounded, and with not much hope of survival.  He’s sad about what happened and about leading his sons to their death.  He loathes himself for abandoning the Old Gods in order to help Melisandre and her shadow baby.  He’s a broken man.

When he finally spots a ship, he almost doesn’t flag it down, but at the last minute he decides he has unfinished business and thankfully the ship is filled with those loyal to Stannis.  Davos is going home to kill a bitch, I hope.

This scene probably won’t make it into the show because it’s mostly Davos’ internal battle.  I love a good Davos scene though – he’s such a lovable ex-smuggler.

A Storm of Swords Journal

That’s right – I’m going to keep a journal as I read the third novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series.  I am just so completely smitten with this series and have so much to say that I’d like to keep a log of my thoughts.  And what better place than my own blog?  These posts will definitely be fairly self-indulgent and generally speaking probably boring to other readers – especially if you are not a fan of or not familiar with the series.  And yes, there will be spoilers.

I want to concentrate on the book in 5 chapter intervals – not a huge interval, but with Martin’s imagination so much can happen in 5 chapters.  I’d also really like to record my expectations about how the television series will handle the book’s events.  Re-reading these posts will be so much fun when the show actually airs next year and won’t require me to re-read the massive novel.  I’m even thinking of vlogging my reviews of season 3.

The book is scheduled to arrive at my house Tuesday (I can barely stand the wait).  For now I’ll just sort of lay out my expectations.  So many fans of the novels have expressed their love for the third book.  Several people I’ve talked to cite A Storm of Swords as their absolute favorite installment.  Even though I know better, these reactions have my expectations super high.  I’m trying to ground myself, but I can’t – especially with my rather lukewarm feelings about the first half of A Clash of Kings.

I do remain spoiler free…mostly.  Some things occurred at the end of season 2 of the television series that spoiled bits and pieces of the future story.  I’m vaguely aware that something major happens in book 3 – something that will apparently knock me on my ass.  Martin has already been contracted to write this particular episode of the show entitled, Autumn Storms.  I have absolutely no clue as to what the event could be, but I am willing to guess!!  I hope it involves the forces from beyond The Wall entering the southern lands and the battle that should ensue.  If my guess is even remotely correct, I’ll be thrilled because that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.  The Others!!!!

Beyond that, I don’t have very many specific ideas about what will go down.  More battles as Robb still hopes to free the North from the Lannisters, Dany still dreams of re-taking the Iron Throne, a new Mad King sits upon the throne and will hopefully not sit there long, and then there’s Jon Snow with the Wildling forces beyond The Wall.  Oh…and where will Rickon and Bran end up?

One kind of general idea/theme/story that I would like to see more of in A Storm of Swords is love.  I mean, true love – not just marriage for political gain.  I’d like to see our heroes and heroines struggle more with their emotional attachments versus the pragmatic alliances of war and country.  We are beginning to see this with Robb in the show, but hopefully that particular story line will feature smartly in book 3.  And as much as I want Jon and Dany to eventually join forces to rule the Realm, I’d really like to see poor virginal Jon finally get some.  I’m also rooting for Arya and Gendry which is probably fairly far-fetched since she’s so young.  But a Baratheon married to a Stark needs to happen.

I’ve also heard tales that Arya and Dany’s stories both take really dark turns.  Not sure how true this is, but that excites me.  Assuming more death awaits me is probably smart and completely terrifying.  I don’t want to lose any of my favorites from the story because I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it.  When I thought Bran and Rickon were dead, I very nearly stopped reading.  I know readers felt this way about Ned Stark when he  met his abrupt end, but I never liked Ned and thought his family had a better chance of surviving without his rigid take on honor.  Please just don’t take Ned’s children away from me – well, you might could take Sansa.

Enough for now!  Tuesday – where are you!!!

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

The second book in the Song of Fire and Ice series took some time to get into.  At around page 200, I put the novel aside and read other things for several weeks.  After the climatic ending to A Game of Thrones, the rather slow-paced opening to ACoK was a bit off-putting.  That being said, once I picked the book back up, read another 100 pages or so, Martin delivered with some of the biggest shocks of the series thus far.  Some of them so jarring and unbelievable that I almost stopped reading AGAIN.  Martin had managed to break my heart and fear turning the next page because he will kill anyone and writes some truly heinous characters that are hard to swallow (Theon – you poor, pathetic bastard!).

What can I continue to say about this series?  The characters are wonderful, especially the women.  I loved Arya’s story so much.  She is just a little spitfire and perhaps the best part of the books for me.  Sansa’s character development over this second novel was amazing, thrilling, and often hard to read.  Meeting Brienne and Ygritte for the first time and getting to know them was satisfying and left me excited for all the other amazing women Martin promises to write in future novels.  The only female character I found lacking this time around was Dany.  She wasn’t around much and I missed her.

The men were also well-written.  Jon Snow is just a bundle of literary joy – is he not?  And my big character crush of the moment.  Tyrion outdid himself and has come so far since A Game of Thrones.  Like Dany, I missed seeing Robb and even Jaime Lannister.  Hopefully, they will factor more into the third book.

In A Clash of King the mysticism and magic was also amped up.  The shadow baby?  A huge WTF moment for me, but kind of awesome.  The army gathering beyond the wall – Can. Not. Wait.

For me, Martin’s second installment in this series feels mostly like a set-up for A Storm of Swords which I’ve heard is Epic.  I’ve started watching the second season of the HBO series and I’m enjoying it immensely.  I promised myself to put off reading the third book until next year, but I ordered the book a couple of days ago and will probably start it immediately.  I have a weakness.  I don’t know how people waited the 2-6 years between the original publication of the novels.  They must be very strong people.

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Don’t forget that I’m giving away one copy of Emily Jeanne Miller’s Brand New Human Being!  Check the post before this one for the giveaway!

Also, I just started reading The Book Thief - about 100 pages in – and I’m not entirely sure I’m enjoying it.  Is this normal?  I know so many people rave about it that I’m feeling a bit weird.  Let me know!

Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller + Giveaway!

What most intrigued me about reading Brand New Human Being was the male perspective, particularly the stay-at-home dad perspective that seems incredibly almost non-existent in literature.

Logan Pyle is in his thirties and a dissertation shy of his doctorate.  With grad school on the back burner, he finds himself in the midst of a struggling marriage to a distant wife, father to a regressing four-year-old, and son to a recently deceased father.  When he stumbles upon his wife in a precarious situation with another man, he channels his inner cray cray, grabs his son, and sets off into the sunset on a journey back to himself and ultimately, his family.

Like I said earlier, the dad perspective was a welcome change of pace.  Logan is a deeply flawed individual struggling to make sense out of his life and come to terms with his role as a father and his loss as a son.  I thought Miller’s debut novel really excelled at showing the tough realities of family, marriage, and the crap life hands you out of nowhere.  Plus, it was just nice to see a man struggling with depression and emotions because I was beginning to think they didn’t exist.  Miller impressed me with her ability to write from a male perspective believably.  I wonder if male readers would agree?

I also really appreciated the levity of the novel’s tone.  The story really sat heavily on my conscious during my reading and gave me a lot to ponder because the situations raised and questions asked don’t have easy answers.  For a while I worried that Miller would ruin the ambiguity of Logan’s problems with a storybook ending, but my fear was misplaced.  The ending was left open-ended and fit perfectly within the realities of life.

What didn’t impress me so much was the pacing.  I kept wondering when the big event was going to happen with Julie, Logan’s wife, since this event promised to be the climatic game changer.  Half way in I was beginning to have my doubts and felt the novel was floundering a bit in Logan’s self-pity, but thankfully, just as I was really getting frustrated, Miller’s plotting picked up and the second half of the novel flowed well.

Character development was also hit and miss.  Logan evolves beautifully, but no other character seemed to follow suit.  Julie was the same terrible wife she was at the beginning and never seemed to take responsibility for her part in the shabby state of their marriage.  I disliked her something fierce.  I wasn’t sure if Miller meant us to think her a sympathetic character or just not super important.  With a little something extra from her, Brand New Human Being would have been a near perfect debut.

Overall, the book was enjoyable and anyone who appreciates books about the struggles of family, marriage, and mid-life identity crisis will find something wonderful in Brand New Human Being.  I can see great book club discussions being born from Miller’s pages.  I’d recommend it to parents as well because I suspect Logan’s hang ups – failures and successes as a father – will resonate with readers who have similar experiences.

And guess what!  I get to give away a copy thanks to the lovely people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt!  Just click the link below to enter.  Winner will be selected on June 27, notified by email, and given 48 hours to respond!  US and Canadian residents only and no P.O. boxes.  Good Luck!

Click here to enter!

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EMILY JEANNE MILLER has an MS from the environmental studies program at the University of Montana and an MFA from the University of Florida in Gainesville. She lives, writes, and teaches in Washington, D.C.

Thanks to the lovely people at TLC Book Tours for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review! Check out the other tour dates here! (Now closed!)  Congrats to Allison on winning her own copy!

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Loved it.  It’s been a while since I read two phenomenal books back-t0-back, but what a joy to follow up Out of Africa with My Antonia.  My first Cather novel and definitely not my last.  I have now dedicated myself to reading all of her work.

So what’s it about?  Well…Antonia!  Ha!  Did you see that one coming?  It’s the story of Antonia as told from childhood friend, Jim Burden.  Antonia and Jim first meet on a wagon taking them from the train station to the Nebraska countryside that both children will now call home.  Jim’s parents have died and he’s traveled from Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm.  Antonia’s family has immigrated to the United States from Bohemia (Czech Republic) at the bequest of Antonia’s mother to make a better life for her children.

I know it doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but how wrong you would be!  For non-classics readers out there, this story is one I highly suggest.  Very readable, has a quicker pace and a slightly episodic feel.  Humor is also abundant, in particular a scene with Tony’s mom and a cow – hilarious.  And really, this is just a very human story told simply and sweetly without being sentimental.  Tony’s story is not one of great fortune or misfortune and I loved how very true she stays to herself despite all the expectations her family, friends, and Jim are constantly thrusting upon her.  The final scene where Jim goes to visit her in mid-life was endearing, wonderful, and filled with a gleeful happiness despite Jim’s worries about her being an old, hardened woman who didn’t live up to her potential.  Tony is in love with her life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with no regrets and that just felt so refreshing.

What My Antonia also does well is pay gorgeous tribute to the mid-western countryside and small towns, the early farmers and settlers who established the towns and worked the lands.  Without being overly flowery, Cather’s prose puts you in the heart of corn-country and in the hearts of the many immigrants who helped build the heartland of America.

Cather also does a superb job of recognizing perspective and honoring each individual human experience.  Some characters love their new found American home while others long for their old country.  Marriage is both rough for some and sweetly moving for others.  There are the city lovers and the country lovers and those who love both.  Cather has quite a talent for seeing and showing all range of human emotion equivocally and harmoniously which I appreciated tremendously as a reader.

And finally, the prose…what can I even say?  I lingered on every sentence and never wanted the story to end.  My Antonia has forever earned a place on my permanent shelves.  I’d like to take a moment and share my favorite passage (it’s long, I apologize!):

As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west.  While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon.  For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of  the world.

In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply.  I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall.  I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.

We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted.  I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me.  I held them now a long while, over my heart.  About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women’s faces, at the very bottom of my memory.

‘I’ll come back,’ I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness.

‘Perhaps you will’ – I felt rather than saw her smile.  ‘But even if you don’t, you’re here, like my father.  So I won’t be lonesome.’

As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.

At the Cinema: Haywire and Man on a Ledge

Watched these films Sunday night and you can probably guess that Jimmy got to pick our selections!  I do enjoy a good action film from time to time so I tend to go in with an open mind.  I’m just often left disappointed due to lack of story.

First, we watched Haywire, a high-action, rescue-operation-gone-wrong spy movie.  And if that sounds fun to you, then you’ll probably enjoy this film.  It stars newcomer and MMA star (mixed martial arts), Gina Carano, who doesn’t appear to be the world’s greatest actress, but has the awesome ability to kick major bad guy ass.  It’s refreshing to see a powerful, female action hero and would suggest the movie on that basis alone.  The supporting cast is also shiny – Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum – so there’s plenty of eye candy.  Unfortunately, the story falls a bit flat, the third act is kind of lame, the story has plot holes galore, and the acting can be rather stoic at times.  So give it a watch, but make sure to have no expectations.

Man on a Ledge definitely won the award for most entertaining movie of the night.  Sam Worthington claims to be falsely accused of stealing hella expensive diamond, escapes prison, and perches his cute butt on the ledge of the Roosevelt Hotel in NYC to prove his innocence.  Fun concept.  Elizabeth Banks plays the negotiator trying to literally ‘talk him off the ledge’ and I love her!  Another kick ass female role so we were 2 for 2 on the night.  Granted, the plotting of this film is outrageous, but the emotions behind the crazy are genuine.  I love heist movies and this one has some fun heist-y moments between a bickering girlfriend/boyfriend that lends the movie some comedic relief to break the tension.  So many people gave this movie bad marks, but I enjoyed it as did Jimmy.  We had lowered expectations which probably helped, but would watch this again – even the terribly cheesy ending.

Final verdict (Skip, Rent, Buy):

Haywire:  Rent

Man on a Ledge:  Rent/Buy – if it’s your thing!

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)

I’ve been thinking for a couple of days about this ‘review’ and how to approach gushing about this novel while also taking the negative aspects of colonialism seriously.  Normally, I wouldn’t write about a book club selection until after our meeting (which is this Sunday), but this time I really wanted to gather my thoughts before the discussion.

Karen Blixen under the pen name Isak Dinesen wrote Out of Africa about her nearly two decades in Africa, specifically Kenya.  She first traveled to Kenya with her husband/second cousin to operate their coffee plantation near the capital of Nairobi.  During the next several years, she divorced her husband, took over the plantation’s management, entered a long-term affair with game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, struggled with illness, and, eventually, the financial loss of her farm – leaving Africa behind for her native Denmark.

Within the pages of Out of Africa, you get much of her relationship and bond with Africa itself and its many peoples, but very little about her personal life – so I’d be wary to call this a memoir.  A lot of criticism for Dinesen’s novel revolves around how little she’s willing to share of herself which limits the reader’s understanding of her as a person and how she relates to everything around her.  There can be no character development when there is no real character discussed in any depth.  Dinesen, instead, chooses to focus solely on the running of her plantation, the African natives who inhabit and work ‘her’ lands, the friends who come and go on visits, and the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife surrounding her.  And she does this splendidly with the kind of prose that puts a giddy smile on my face and reminds with every page why I love reading so incredibly much.

Dinesen’s imagery is the kind of writing that makes film almost obsolete.  I can’t imagine a picture or movie doing her descriptions justice.  After 400 pages of such layered detail, the fact that I can still envision singular images from the first 20 pages is amazing – the lion with his head covered in blood from nose to ears, the pack of elephants described as resembling a Persian rug – really beautiful stuff.  And so, for me, Out of Africa becomes a sort of portal to a different world – the African bush of the early 20th century.  My senses are on fire with the visceral nature of Dinesen’s writing and I completely forgive her for leaving out her personal life – there are other books for that.  Think of Out of Africa as a travel log rather than a memoir.

As for the colonialism aspect of the novel, yes – this book is written from the European perspective and as such will sometimes make contemporary readers squirm.  Dinesen often expresses a parental condescension towards the native men, women, and children who live and work on the plantation.  She also thinks thoughts and behaves in ways we could easily label as racist and ignorant.  And those ideas and behaviors are wrong – we all know this (hopefully, we all know this), but her actions and the recording of them are honest and real and allow us to learn.  Out of Africa lets the reader get inside the mind of a well-meaning colonist, to understand where she is coming from, to know that she means nothing malicious, but that well-intentioned racism is still racism.  So, my suggestion to readers who are wary of the negativity of colonialism – supplement your reading with all the varying perspectives – those pro and against colonialism – African and European.  History should be viewed from all viewpoints – not just the ones we’ve determined to be correct.

I loved every moment I spent reading Out of Africa.  Upon completion, I immediately googled Dinesen, Kenya, and many other regions of Africa – desperate to spend more time there.  I even did some research on a Kenyan vacation and discovered that Dinesen’s house is now a museum!  If only I had massive quantities of disposable income!  The movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford is high on my must-watch list.  Anyway, if you haven’t read this book yet you are doing yourself a disservice.  Go forth and read!  I’ll do a quick follow up post after our book club discussion Sunday afternoon to share everyone else’s opinions.  Really looking forward to this discussion!

Next up, I’m currently reading Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller for the TLC tour and hope to start My Antonia by Willa Cather this week.  And I’m going to tentatively promise to finish A Clash of Kings this month as well.  We shall see!

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So what did the group think?  Very mixed bag – a very polarizing novel.  Those who loved the story same as me were enchanted by the African bush, saw Dinesen as a brave explorer, and loved reveling in the luscious prose.  Several members talked about how this is a book meant to be read oh-so-slowly so that you can really soak up the experience.

Those ladies who weren’t a fan tended to dislike Dinesen’s voice.  She wasn’t someone they cared about or wanted to get to know better.  Some even thought her despicable.

Most everyone loved the movie, however, no matter their feelings on the book.  And pretty much everyone agreed that Africa is a must-see destination at some point in life.

At the Cinema: Let Me In

I’m really enjoying watching movies and recommending them to everyone.  It’s also a great filler topic for when I don’t have a book I’ve recently finished to discuss.  So be prepared for this feature to become a blog norm – after all, movies are stories just as much as books are.  The title isn’t perfect since I didn’t actually see this film ‘at the cinema’, but you get the general idea.

Let Me In was released a couple of years ago and is a remake of the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In.  The Swedish movie was also based off a novel of the same name.  What initially drew me in was actress Chloe Grace Moretz who I happen to enjoy immensely, plus she’s from Atlanta and I feel some weird need to support hometown successes.

The movie follows a young boy, Owen, growing up in small town New Mexico during the early 80s.  His parents are divorcing and he’s struggling with being a loner and being bullied by some particularly heinous kids at school.  Owen needs a friend, badly.  When Abby and her father move into the apartment next door, he thinks he’s found not only the perfect friend, but also his first girlfriend.  The sweet, innocent smiles that pass back and forth between Owen and Abby are endearing, subtle, and remarkable in actors so young.  The chemistry and relationship between these two characters is absolutely what makes this movie so wonderful.

Abby, of course, is not what she seems.  I’m not really spoiling anything as most everyone knows this is a vampire movie since it was marketed as such.  She’s not a ‘Twilight’ vampire by any means.  She must kill to survive, can’t go in the sunlight, must be invited into your home, and sees vampirism as a curse – something she wouldn’t wish on anyone.  Owen loves Abby, but does struggle with what being a vampire means and the idea of evil.  But he stays by her side until the end and the audience wouldn’t have it any other way.

This movie is definitely a horror film and there is some gore.  The gore, however, is never indulgent.  Beautifully shot, this film is quietly and darkly gorgeous – slow-moving, deeply engaging, and morally poignant.  Let Me In is a genre film with substance and heart.  In the same frame, it will creep you out and break your heart with no apologies.  Such a rare kind of cinematic treat and I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a great film, even if horror isn’t your cup of tea.

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer

Meet Naomi Feinstein.  She’s an uncommonly intelligent, quiet, stand-offish little girl who experiences several life-defining events as a young child.  Her mother hides in her bedroom suffering from a deep depression, her father has a massive heart attack, and she loses her one true friend, Teddy, quite suddenly.  These events set her determination to become a cardiologist and save everyone in her life.  Her first goal?  Attend Wellesley and everything else will just fall into place.  But once she joins the Shakespeare Society – things start to change.

This review really has me at a loss for words.  And not because I didn’t like Percer’s debut novel – I did, tremendously.  Home girl can write.  Honestly, her writing outshines every other aspect of the plot and characterization.  Percer could write a how-to manual on ship building and I’d be all over it.  I often thought that her writing talents made the story, especially character growth and development, seem weak in comparison.  Does that make sense?

Many readers have commented that the first half of the story were slow and a bit hard to get through.  Most preferred her college years as they seemed more lively and had more action.  I’m the opposite.  I loved getting to know the younger Naomi and thought her development was so beautifully realized during the first third of the novel.  When she finally arrives at Wellesley, I started to lose her a bit, but maybe this distance was done on purpose as Naomi’s really grappling with coming into her own personhood which differs from her girlish ideals.  Once she leaves Wellesley and we learn more about her adult life, I was right back in the story – enjoying every second.

The secondary characters and the entire Shakespeare Society sub-plot wasn’t fleshed out enough in my opinion.  Hardly any of the other girls in Shakes were fully developed.  I had a hard time keeping them straight as individuals which was always disappointing because they had so much potential.  Jun was the only character besides Naomi that I ever cared about and at times I cared about her the most.  I’d love to read a book about Jun and what happened to her after she moved back to Tokyo.  I found her so fascinating.  As for the Society, it wasn’t very exciting.  They just performed plays and held meetings.  I think I had it in my head that this was going to be some creepy, super-secret, dangerous society like The Skulls.  Not so much.  I can’t really fault Percer for this – just a disconnect between my own made-up expectations and the truth.

All that criticism aside (don’t be discouraged), An Uncommon Education was a tremendously accessible read and gorgeously written.  I particularly loved Percer’s thematic quest through the search for identity from childhood, through college, and into adulthood.  How many times we reinvent ourselves during these formative years and how far off the mark we often end up from our earliest aspirations is well-conceived in Naomi’s story.  At many times, I found myself in Naomi and know that many other readers and bookish women will find themselves too.

The things I didn’t like about the novel only stem from the fact that I wanted everything to be perfect because this story was something I clung to from the very first page.  Having read many similar tales of all-female prep schools and colleges, An Uncommon Education was hands-down my absolute favorite – far and above any similar plot-line I’ve ever read.  Definitely worth a read!  But don’t just take my word for it!  Percer’s debut was named one of Amazon’s Top 10 books in May and many others on TLC’s book tour have wonderful things to say as well.

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Elizabeth Percer is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and has twice been honored by the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. She received a BA in English from Wellesley and a PhD in arts education from Stanford University, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship for the National Writing Project at UC Berkeley. She lives in California with her husband and three children. An Uncommon Education is her first novel.

Thanks so much to Harper and TLC Book Tours for the generous copy of An Uncommon Education in return for my honest review!  Check out the rest of the tour at TLC Book Tours.