Attention Litwits: May Voting!

Hi Ladies!  In celebration of Leap Year, I’m sending out the voting links early!  Our May books were randomly selected from the master list.  The selection is quite diverse and I’m sure you’ll see something to your liking.  As always, vote via the surveymonkey link that will arrive in your inbox shortly!  If you don’t receive an email (but please check your spam filter), feel free to leave your vote in the comments.  Voting closes on Sunday!

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen:  Throughout the 1980s, the highest priority of Seattle-area police was the apprehension of the Green River Killer, the man responsible for the murders of dozens of women. But in 1990, with the body count numbering at least forty-eight, the case was put in the hands of a single detective, Tom Jensen. After twenty years, when the killer was finally captured with the help of DNA technology, Jensen and fellow detectives spent 188 days interviewing Gary Leon Ridgway in an effort to learn his most closely held secrets-an epic confrontation with evil that proved as disturbing and surreal as can be imagined. Written by Jensen’s own son, acclaimed entertainment journalist Jeff Jensen, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story presents the ultimate insider’s account of America’s most prolific serial killer. Green River Killer is bound to become a well-recognized member of the crime-genre graphic novel family, including titles like Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter and Alan Moore’s From Hell.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand:  On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared.  It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War. The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini.  In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails.  As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile.  But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.  Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion.  His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will. In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit.  Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: A novel of remarkable depth and poignancy from one of the most acclaimed writers of our time. It is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at University College of London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence’s response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite. Ian McEwan has caught with understanding and compassion the innocence of Edward and Florence at a time when marriage was presumed to be the outward sign of maturity and independence. On Chesil Beach is another masterwork from McEwan—a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen: The largely unknown story of female Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532–1625) is beautifully imagined here in YA novelist Cullen’s sparkling adult debut. In a page-turning tale that brings to life the undercurrent of political, romantic, and interfamily rivalries in the court of Spanish King Felipe II, the author shines a light on Sofonisba, who is brought under the tutelage of Michelangelo and later appointed as a lady-in-waiting for the king’s 14-year-old wife, Elisabeth, to whom she becomes a close confidante. The author offers an intriguing vision of what life was like for women of different economic and political stations at that time, and she also takes care to not short-shrift the specifics of Sofonisba’s art and methods. Cullen has found a winning subject in Sofonisba, whose broken heart as a young woman colors her perceptions and judgment about the queen and her imperious husband, as well as the young Elizabeth’s attraction to the king’s brother, and Elizabeth’s odd relationship with the king’s son from his first marriage. Ongoing references to the Spanish Inquisition and the life of the controversial Michelangelo add depth to this rich story.


Movie Rec: Midnight in Paris

Not a Woody Allen fan?  That’s okay – me neither, but don’t avoid this film on his behalf because you would be doing yourself a great disservice.

Owen Wilson plays a guy who abandoned his dream of living in Paris and writing a Great Novel many years ago.  Instead, he sold his soul to Hollywood as a screenwriter and earned great success. Several years later, he finds himself on a business trip to Paris with his fiancee’s parents, dream renewed, trying to convince Rachel McAdams to move their life to Paris so he can finally be the writer of novels he always wanted to be.  Rachel is not too keen.

One evening Owen takes a lonely stroll through the Parisian streets, gets lost, and as the bells chime midnight is beckoned by a rowdy group of party-goers to join their escapades.  Owen, thinking nothing of getting into a strange 1920s car with drunk people, climbs aboard and sets off back into 1920s Paris.  He does this time travel several nights – meeting the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife, Zelda, Hemingway, Dali, Picasso, Cole Porter, and one lovely young lady he falls instantly in love with.

So who would appreciate this premise?  I believe, almost anyone.  The movie is a love story to Paris, the 1920s, the ‘Golden Age’ of thinking, Art, Music, and Literature.  You’ll want to visit Paris immediately – the cinematography is gorgeous and does the city all kinds of justice.  The lighting, the costuming, the writing – all very well done.  You’ll be enthralled and delighted from the opening scene through the end credits.

Some have described the movie as a romantic comedy, but I feel the film is much more about Owen Wilson’s quest to appreciate the present through his love of the past.  And for those who think the movie sounds a bit too ARTSY, the choice of having Owen Wilson play the lead counteracts any pretentiousness that could have existed – Owen is far too much the average guy – funny, humble, and sincere.  Kudos to the casting peeps.  Also, Rachel McAdams plays an alarmingly excellent vapid bitch of a woman.

Did the movie deserve its award nominations?  Yes and no.  I’m glad Allen won the writing Oscar as the script was super deserving and refreshingly original.  However, I’m not sure the film was Best Picture material.  The acting wasn’t amazing and nothing felt GREAT in the way that The Artist experimented with silent filming.  The movie was a tad too ‘cute’ for such an honor, but an utter delight to watch nonetheless.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This book has been reviewed across the interwebs probably thousands of times.  People are John Green obsessed – if the voting age were lowered, John Green would become President and brother Hank would obviously be VP.  With all the hype, I was nervous to read anything by Green, but decided to give his latest and most beloved novel a chance.  After all, he’s won the Printz once and has been Printz honored a second time.  The crazy buzz can’t all be for nothing, right?

The Fault in Our Stars introduces us to Hazel and Augustus, teenagers living the unfortunate reality of cancer.  Hazel’s been diagnosed terminal although a miracle drug has lengthened her life and Augustus has been in remission for one year.  They meet at a support group, feel an instant attachment, and then proceed to fall in love and live life in the face of death.

I don’t know where to start or how to articulate how I feel about this book.  Initially, blinded by tears shortly after finishing the novel, I rated the book a 5-star read.  As my emotions settled, I removed one star and ever since that demotion I’ve felt an urge to lessen the rating again to a final 3-star rating.  What this means is that TFiOS will pummel you emotionally – I flipped the pages quickly, laughing and crying along with the characters, desperately needing to know how things turned out.  Hazel’s voice was fresh, hip, and upbeat despite the odds against her and Augustus was charming, sexy, and smart – together they are literary gold for teenagers so the appeal is obvious.  And throughout most of the novel, cancer took a backstage to teenage love infused with a healthy young snark.  And even when ALL THE SAD THINGS happened, I found myself smiling through devastation thankful to have Hazel, Augustus, their parents, and friends in my life.

BUT.  See that but there?  I had a major problem with TFiOS, perhaps two major problems.  John Green is just too accessible.  His Vlog Brothers videos on youtube, while entertaining and slightly addicting, give such person to his authorship that I was  hardly ever able to separate John’s voice from his characters.  Instead of Hazel’s snarky remark, I heard John Green’s snarky remark.  This happened far too many times and definitely took me out of the story.  The voices were authentic, just authentically John Green’s.  Not John’s fault, but inevitable when you are so EVERYWHERE.  I feel a bit nasty for lowering my star rating over this, but the truth must be had – plus, this review won’t in any stretch of the imagination hurt his book sales so guilt is lame.

In correlation with the John Green voice fiasco, I had another problem with the voice.  I completely get that teenagers can be brilliant and shouldn’t be talked down to in YA.  But teenagers can still sound like teenagers without compromising the integrity of the writing and characterizations.  I grew up a smart kid with lots of smart kid friends and we didn’t talk like this – we didn’t use big words in all our sentences and drown ourselves in sarcastic existential metaphors for fun.  Sure, we believed we knew more than everyone else on the planet, but we showed this through fights with our parents and rebelliousness – not memorizing all the great poems of the 20th century.  Not that some teenagers didn’t do this – I’m sure there’s a healthy number of kids with Prufrock memorized, but they don’t all live in the same town in Indianapolis, have cancer, and become the best of friends.  So, for me, TFiOS suffers from Dawson’s disease.  That’s right, I just referenced Dawson’s Creek.

Okay – I’ve babbled on for far too long.  I recommend reading The Fault in Our Stars to anyone – young or adult.  There’s a lot to enjoy with Green’s writing and his references to Shakespeare, The Great Gatsby, and Catcher in the Rye make the English Nerd inside of me extremely happy.  This book is not bad, just suffers under Green’s ubiquitous nature – I needed more separation of Church and State.  I also look forward to reading John’s other books in the future and continue to believe in the Nerd Fighting Nation.

TSS: Book Buying Ban!!!

That’s right!  No more book buying for as long as I can hold out.  I hope to make this stick until May at the very least.  Hopefully, the books I win, receive for review, or am gifted will scratch my ‘need new books’ itch I get practically every day.  February 14 marked my final book purchase so I’ve had 12 successful days thus far.  My bank account is so happy.  My willpower has yet to be truly tested though since I know there are about 5 books in the mail headed towards my house as we speak.  Once these beauties are received – WHAT WILL HAPPEN THEN?

This book buying ban has occurred at a rather opportune time as I’m feeling generally book slumpish.  After being super excited to begin The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, I haven’t progressed past page 36 and it has been a week.  Something tells me that particular book just might not be for me right now since I flew through John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and have quickly progressed through The Expats by Chris Pavone.  The Marriage Plot just feels so pretentious – exactly what I don’t need right now.

Speaking of The Expats, I’ll be finishing this one up soon and have a copy to GIVEAWAY thanks to the lovelies at Crown Publishing/Random House.  My review will probably be posted later this week with the giveaway so mark your calendars and check back.  I’m having a lot of fun with this one so far!

In non-bookish news, my week was pretty average.  The birthday was okay, but I got to feeling pretty lousy so mainly just snuggled up on the couch watching movies as a celebration.  Oh how much has changed in the past 7 or 8 years!  I did get to eat some birthday ice cream.  I don’t allow myself this particular treat often because I can’t control myself and go on ice cream binges.  But I enjoyed my little pint of deliciousness – flavor of choice?  Mayfield’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough – YUM!

Happy Sunday everyone!!

A Look Back: February 24, 1984

This day in history is famous, at least in my household (or just my own head), for being the day of my birth!  Yes, one rather chilly February afternoon some 28 years ago marked the beginning of my existence.  In celebration, I thought why not discover what a pop culture blog – whether book, movie, or music – would have looked like on that fateful day in 1984.

As my mom drove herself through rush hour traffic to Piedmont Hospital in midtown Atlanta, she probably encountered several popular radio hits, but no trio more likely than Van Halen’s Jump, Karma Chameleon by Culture Club, and Uptown Girl by Billy Joel.  These three songs were all top hits in and around my birth week.  And yes, I can sing along to each one.

While speeding up the connector, she probably saw billboard advertisements for Footloose starring Kevin Bacon.  80s movie magic at its most musical and so iconic it spawned a remake just recently.  I must admit to owning the original film, but having no desire to see the newest incarnation.

Now, while going through the lighter moments of labor – you know, before medicinal pain killers were necessary to get her through my devastatingly painful birth – my mom probably spent a few moments of leisure reading the top selling book at the time – Pet Cemetery by Stephen King.  King’s prolific horror stories are really such an appropriate read as you prepare to part with the parasitic being that’s been growing inside you for 9+ months.  My mother and the rest of America sure knew how to pick ’em!  Pretty awesome that 28 years later King has published another bestseller and hasn’t lost his writing mojo in the slightest.

So, a blog entry on February 24, 1984 would probably have housed reviews for the above popular venues of entertainment.  Of course, the common people didn’t have computers and internets – and blogs were still a thing of the future.  I’m tempted to buy a copy of Pet Cemetery tomorrow in honor of a day long since past or watch Footloose for the millionth time.  Does anyone remember this time fondly?  Was Kevin Bacon really all the rage?  Were horror novels at the top of their game?  Was hearing Van Halen and Billy Joel back-to-back normal?

Emma by Jane Austen: Wrap Up

Jane Austen’s endings always leave a smile on my face.  How could anyone be but pleased at Mr. Knightley’s declaration:

“I cannot make speeches, Emma . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

Everyone ends up properly engaged or married to their rightful mate and Emma has grown so much as a character.  Mr. Knightley – or perhaps we’ve now earned the right to call him George – has won me all over again at his offer to live at Hartfield so that Emma’s father is not left alone.  The third section of Emma always leaves me in Austen fangirly speechlessness and a tendency to ramble on incessantly about how modern men lack a Knightley-esque finesse.

My overall impressions of the story have not changed – I freakin’ ADORE this book and it’s my favorite Austen, for sure.  Before I get all blubbery, let me just leave you with a perfect scene from the 2009 BBC version of Emma as Mr. Knightley makes his speech that’s not a speech and you can all feel free to swoon with me.

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop: The Winner Is….

First, thanks to everyone who participated in the Blog Hop and entered to win a copy of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I feel sad that I couldn’t magically produce 52 copies of the book to give to everyone, but such is life.  So, without any further ado, the winner is:

Vicki from I’d Rather Be At The Beach!

Congrats, Vicki! I hope you’ll enjoy the book as much as I did. For everyone else, check back in early March as I have more giveaways headed your way!

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

My TIME’s 100 Best selection for February was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe for two reasons:  It was short and appeared infinitely more readable than a Pynchon novel.  The added bonus of reading an African writer didn’t hurt matters. My reading history is sorely lacking in African post-colonial novels and this unfortunate fact needs to change.

Okonkwo lives in a small Nigerian village with his wives and many children.  He has risen from the ashes of his shameful, lazy father to be one of the most powerful men in his village only to eventually fall from grace.  Interwoven is the fateful colonization of Okonkwo’s Nigeria by the white men who bring their Christianity, education, and bizarre ways of life.  And so, what life and community exists at the novel’s beginning has literally fallen apart by the turn of the last page.

Achebe’s storytelling is striking.  His prose is concise and almost starkly simplistic, but manages to build a world so effortlessly complex.  Okonkwo is not a man you will like.  More than likely, you’ll come to somewhat loathe him.  He suffers from daddy issues, sexism, and a violent temper that results in bloody and bruised wives and children.  His ideas of what a ‘man’ should be involve ruling with an iron fist, little compassion, and a lust for power.  But just when you think he’s completely irredeemable, he reels you back in with his love for Ezinma – his oldest daughter and favorite child.  So just when you think a character is only WHAT he is, you realize that they are always MORE.  And while their past behavior will never be acceptable or forgivable, you are willing to get to know this despicable person better because you can always learn something, perhaps most especially from those you despise.

Reading Things Fall Apart functions beautifully as a cultural immersion.  Achebe doesn’t pussyfoot (yes, I just used that word) with making the immersion easy either.  The characters and villages have names that are both authentic and extremely difficult to keep track of.  He intersperses foreign words liberally and doesn’t stop to define all of them (although there is a glossary in the back).  Cultural customs, tribal legends, and other societal norms of the Nigerian experience are hardly ever fully explained.  Achebe prefers to drop his readers into the middle of village life and say, ‘You wanted to know what Colonial Africa is like?  Well, here you go.  Good luck.”  This method was both infuriating and brilliant.  As a reader, you start as an outsider, but by the time the ‘white men’ arrive you find yourself with the audacity to now consider yourself a local and fiercely protective of your new home DESPITE THE FACT THAT MORE THAN LIKELY YOU ARE THE ‘WHITE MAN’ IN REAL LIFE (metaphorically speaking, obviously).

A word of warning for future readers who are sensitive to the mistreatment of women:  there are many unpleasant episodes in this story.  I read some comments from other readers who were put off by Achebe’s supposed misogynistic tendencies, but I think that’s supremely unfair.  Achebe’s novel is not belittling to women, but instead is frank in depicting the brutality that sometimes exists in tribal life – or really, life in general.  After all, misogynists come in all shapes and sizes.  In many ways, I think Things Fall Apart rises above these nasty incidents to become highly respectful and celebratory toward the female gender.  Consider my favorite passage:

“It’s true that a child belongs to its father.  But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut.  A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet.  But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland.  Your mother is there to protect you.  She is buried there.  And that is why we say that mother is supreme.”

Without a doubt, I highly recommend squeezing this story into your already overflowing TBR piles.  Achebe is an author I’ve only just now discovered, but plan to spend many days with in the future.  Definitely deserving of the TIME’s list and far more accessible than Pynchon – thank goodness.

February With the Litwits: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Another book club Sunday has come and gone.  And, as always, we had a marvelous time.  We had several new ladies this month who were wonderful to meet and I hope they had a good time and will continue to read along with us!

As for the book, most everyone enjoyed it on some level.  We praised Harbach for his ability to draw interestingly complex characters even though they often frustrated us to no end.  The writing is really on a higher level than many other contemporary authors – we learned new words, read some beautiful sentences, and found much to praise in Harbach’s technique.  I particularly appreciated how the novel was intelligent without being pretentious, although there are a couple of pretentious characters.

Some members loved the book’s pacing while others believed the narrative to wax and wane.  For me, the novel started off a bit slow because I had no clue what the point was or where the story was going, but about halfway through I could not put this book down.  The characters were just so engrossing even though most of them weren’t the kind of people you liked, but they felt honest in their waywardness and their utter lack of direction.  Each character deals with a search for identity, especially in the aftermath of having the person they thought they were ripped out from underneath them.  And everyone loved Owen – hands down our favorite character.

We discussed the implausibility of many situations our protagonists found themselves in – from how they deal with their mortality and death to their ideas about relationships and love.  The ending left some wondering what happens next and would we be willing to read a sequel.  Most of the characters are in their early twenties with so much life left ahead of them – we left the novel caring about where they’d end up in 20 or 30 years.

Harbach has created a moving novel about the quest for identity, the hunt for the American ideal, and the love for a book called Moby Dick.  He writes a story wrapped in baseball and all its superstitions where baseball transcends sport into a metaphor for life – an American life of hopes and dreams both fulfilled and unfulfilled, and those still in process.  And if I’m being honest, I might have cried just a bit at the end which hardly ever happens to me.  Something I can’t quite place my finger on captivated me in a way that genuinely surprised me and turned on the waterworks.  The Art of Fielding is the kind of book I know I’ll reread again and again, learning something new each time.  Highly recommended read.

Next month we’ll be reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin!

TSS: Blog Hop Giveaways and Birthday Celebrations!

Happy Sunday, dear readers!  I hope everyone had a pleasant week or at least a relaxing weekend.  Things here have been quiet.  Valentine’s Day came and went with barely a whimper although the Hubs was generous enough to buy some excellent Belgium chocolate that we shared and some bath goodies that I love.  This next week begins my week long birthday celebration!!!  I’m giving myself a whole week this year because for the past 4 years I’ve worked 80 weeks during February and have been unable to celebrate due to exhaustion.  Yay for having my life back!

Later today is another glorious Litwits meeting!  We’ll be discussing Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding which was superb in my opinion, but more on that in the discussion wrap up post tomorrow.

Yesterday marked the beginning of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop hosted by Judith at Leeswammes’ Blog. Nearly 60 blogs are hosting giveaways and invite you to visit, spend some time on their blogs, and win free books! Check out my post here for your chance to win The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and links to all the participating blogs.  Giveaways end February 22.

My reading week has been pretty successful.  I finished three books and bought several more which has to stop.  I’ve temporarily placed myself on a book buying ban – we’ll see how long that lasts.  This week I’ll be snuggling up with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  What will you be reading?

Friday night I stayed up far too late marathoning Downton Abbey Season 2 in preparation for the season finale tonight.  And then I proceeded to spoil myself on what happens because I have no willpower.  Still excited!