Sunday, January 31, 2010

January Reading List

As January closes on a cold and windy note (walking in Toronto yesterday after seeing the Tut exhibit at the AGO -- so numbingly, achingly cold), I find myself happy with my reading, the challenges that I have joined and the selections that I have made. Canadian winters are good for readers. Big chair, fleecy blanket, bright windows, hot coffee, drowsy dog, all I need.

I read 10 books in January. Surprised by this really. Initially, I worried that I may not finish 26 in a year. I hope to read at least 5 books in February. I'm back in course work, have conferences to attend, dance recitals to cheer at.....

Favourite book this month was The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.

January Reading List:

1. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (All About the Brontes Challenge)

2. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (451 Challenge, To Be Read Challenge)

3. Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

4. Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan

5. The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

6. Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich

7. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

8. Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

9. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (What's in a Name 3 Challenge)

10. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays

Miz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to:
Grab your current read.
Let the book fall open to a random page.
Share with us 2 sentences from somewhere on that page. Be careful not to include spoilers.
You also need to share the title and author of the book that you're getting the "teaser" from... that way people can add it to their TBR lists if they like the teaser you've given.

This week's teaser comes from The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This is a work of historical fiction that retells the story of Dinah from the book of Genesis, Chapter 34 (The Rape of Dinah). Dinah does not speak in the Bible and in this story Diamant gives a voice to Dinah and the women who surround her.

"In the red tent we knew that death was the shadow of birth, the price women pay for the honor of giving life. Thus, our sorrow was measured. "

Part One, Chapter Two, p.48

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Forgotten Garden

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton is the first book that I have completed for the "What's in a Name? (3) Challenge. I'm using this for my "Book with a plant in the title." I figure a whole garden is just as significant as one plant. Especially a garden rich with secrets.
The Forgotten Garden starts in London, 1913, when a four year old girl is abandoned aboard a ship bound for Australia. She is told by the mysterious "Authoress" to remain hidden behind a barrel and to keep her name a secret. But the Authoress never returns and the little girl survives the voyage and is left standing alone on the wharf with a little white suitcase containing her only belongings and the only clues to her identity.
The mystery shifts backwards and forwards in time over the span of a century. Three main characters help to move the story forward and fill in the gaps that lead the reader ever closer to the truth (Eliza, who we meet as a young child orphaned in London (1900) working to earn her keep alongside her twin brother Sammy, a chimney sweep; Nell, who is 95 in present time -(2005) and spends much of her life troubled by a secret she learns on her 21st birthday and carries with her to her deathbed; Nell's granddaughter, Cassandra, who not only inherits a cottage high atop the rugged, rocky cliffs of Cornwall, but also the quest that her grandmother started in 1975).
Of course this gothic tale would not be complete without the presence of a coldly calculating, aristocratic family whose lives are intertwined with our main characters. The Mountrachet family reside at Blackhurst, a large country estate complete with a maze... that leads to a garden.

There are many parallels in this story to the famous children's book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). The story of young Mary Lennox brought to live on her Uncle's large and stuffy English estate. Mary befriends her sickly cousin Colin who craves his father's attention and together with the young gardener Dicken, they set to restore to life the garden that caused his father so much pain. Morton cheekily has Burnett make a "cameo" appearance in this story, as herself, a liberated, society woman (imagine being twice divorced at the end of the Victorian era, an established writer, and a powerful figure to boot - I really like this lady! Note to self - more research on Burnett - for example, Why, oh why, did you name one of your sons Vivian?) invited to a soiree at Blackhurst (1909) and takes an interest in the maze on the grounds of the estate. Burnett was living in England at this time and left to reside (until her death) in the United States that same year. The Secret Garden was published in 1911 and it has been said that Burnett's "secret garden" actually existed and she discovered it in Kent, at Great Maytham Hall, where she lived from 1898 until 1907.
The first movie that I ever saw at the cinema (that I remember) was the 1949 black and white version of The Secret Garden starring Margaret O'Brien. The year was 1971 and the movie was then well over two decades old. Imagine paying $10 or more today to see a movie more than 20 years old! I was mesmerized by the movie and just beside myself when the black and white gave way to glorious technicolor as the garden came to life. I remember being enthralled with the beauty and magical qualities of that walled garden. Did pixies live behind the rose bushes? Were elves peeking out of the ivy? I didn't really give a hoot about wimpy, whiny Colin and his miraculous restoration to health. In fact, I wanted to pinch him. I wanted to pinch him very hard for every nasty temper tantrum, for lying about feeling sorry for his miserable self in his dark, dreary bedroom screaming at Mary. (Ok, I was five, perhaps I missed the bigger message of the story.) It would be a few more years before I discovered that the movie was based on a children's story, one waiting for me to find in the library, crack it's spine and return to the garden once again.
Just as I was mesmerized as a child by Burnett's story of a mysterious secret garden, I was equally spellbound by Morton's story. I feel that my review is not doing this story the justice it deserves. My fear is that the more I divulge, the more I spoil. There is a reason that this story is listed on many of my fellow book bloggers "To Be Read" (TBR) lists. It's outstanding!
One more thing before I close. Central to the mystery is a beautifully illustrated volume of Victorian fairytales found inside the child's little white suitcase. These tales are told in their entirety as the story unfolds. They are enchanting and so well written that I literally found myself "googling" their fictitious author. I figured if Morton inserted Frances Hodgson Burnett then maybe....

Can't wait to read Morton's other novel, The Shifting Fog (also titled, The House at Riverton), which is on my "To Be Read Challenge 2010" list.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Say You're One of Them

I dropped by my local library last week as I was in the mood for the comfort of a traditional book. I found several (like finding a great deal shopping, I have to have it!) that were not titles in my electronic collection.
The first that I read was "Say You're One of Them" by first time author Uwem Akpan. This collection of short stories are each told from the perspective of an African child, and is an Oprah's Pick.

This was a difficult read for me on many levels. First, there were language and cultural barriers. Many unfamiliar phrases and terms that I had to try to glean meaning from the surrounding story. Then, there was the complete lack of schema that I have for the lives these children led. It was overwhelming to read these stories and I found that I was glad at times for their short length because the situations were so foreign, so sad, so unbearable. Yet, I don't think that Akpan wrote the stories to intentionally tug on one's heart strings (although you'd have to be a rock not to be affected by them). The young narrator's were simply relating the events of their lives, recalling their known experiences and sharing their appreciation for what they had in life and the hope that their futures held promise.
I find myself haunted by one particular story, Fattening for Gabon, in which an uncle caring for his orphaned niece and nephew sells them into slavery. The children believe that they are being fostered out and feel fortunate to have such generous sponsors who wish to give them a better life across the sea. I keep thinking about these children, what happened to them? Did they survive? Did the quality of their lives change? Did they lose their innocence, their hope?
I think that's the sign of a great author. One who writes characters so compelling that the reader starts to blur fiction with reality. I'm concerned about the welfare of fictional siblings. Maybe that's Akpan's intent. Because there are living, breathing counterparts to these fictional characters suffering similar torments today. And I should be concerned.

On a lighter note, I also thought that Beezus and Ramona Quimby were real siblings and the only reason they didn't go to my school was because they lived in the United States and I lived in Canada. Beezus was such a Jan Brady! Ramona was adorable, a rascal, and always held everyone's attention. She was the "Junie B. Jones" of my childhood. So, thank-you Beverly Cleary for Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ribsy.

So, it was time to indulge in some light hearted reads. I like balance in my reading. I wanted something to make me laugh and just take away the weight of injustice in our world. I read Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story and then Marian Keyes' The Brightest Star in the Sky. I adored Wishin' and Hopin'. It was a hilarious romp through the 1964 world of young Felix Funicello, a fifth grader attending a Catholic parochial school. How I loved this nostalgic story (ok, '64 was a few years before I was born, but just). If you enjoyed the movie, A Christmas Story, then this book is for you. Many memorable laughs, and a great little joke about women being like ovens which goes horribly wrong when told by an 11 yr old.

The Brightest Star in the Sky is about 600 pages long, but I devoured this one in a few days. Like shopping and eating, I just can't savour things. Its all devour,devour -- finish, finish. So, I have to wonder if this is a some repressed memory thing of when I was a young girl. I was sent to bed each night around 8pm and allowed to read for about 30 mins. This was never enough for me though. I had a little white nightlight that hung from the top of my bed's headboard, and my Mom would see the glow of the nightlight in the hallway and I'd be forced to turn it off before I could read "just a few more pages/just to the end of the chapter." One night, I devised a plan to fool Mom and I made a little reading tent by placing my pillow over the light. Boy, did I think I was clever. Well, she didn't see the glowing light, but she could sure smell the smoldering pillow! Immediate end of nightly reading. Immediate loss of my beloved white rectangular metal with fancy starburst cut-outs nightlight.

Ok, enough digressing. I thought at the beginning of this book, "Oh, its another ghost story... why are all the popular authors these days so intent on telling a ghost story?" But it's not a ghost story. The twist, when revealed is very charming. This is a love story that involves the residents of Dublin's 66 Star Street, and many of the characters are in their 40's! Yeah!

I still have a nightlight, but it's a true lamp and it sits on the dresser beside my bed. I can turn it on and off whenever I want. (Again, not necessarily so, my husband calls it a spotlight and grumbles and groans incessantly about this "bloody, blinding floodlight that blinds him in his sleep", and then moves on to many unnecessary remarks about my love for scented candles that will eventually lead to the house catching fire.. and I swear I've never told him the nightlight story.) What's a girl, uhm, what's a slightly middle-aged girl to do?
Read on, of course!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Water for Elephants

This was one of those "I just can't put it down" books that I finished in about a day and should have savoured over many before finishing. Odd, because I really wasn't expecting to enjoy the story as much as I did. It's a gritty, raw and graphic exposure to the world of the train circuses of the 1930's.

Set against the despairity of the Great Depression, the young hero Jacob Jankowski, leaves veterinary college behind upon learning of the tragic death of his parents and jumps a train which he later discovers belongs to The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. He befriends some interesting characters and comes to be the show's vet. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, a performer married to August, the head trainer and Jacob's boss.

The story is told by Jacob at the age of 90 (or 93) who unravels the events in a series of memories, from his nursing home, as a circus sets up its tents across the street. Jacob laments that his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have placed him in this "assisted living facility" and dutifully take turns visiting him every Sunday. On this particular Sunday, he awaits the arrival of the designated family members who will take him to the circus. Without giving away too much for those that haven't read Gruen's book, the prologue gives the reader a glimpse at the ending, but the ending has its own unique twist and is written slightly differently. This leaves room for ambiguity and has the reader question Jacob's memory - which is reality and which is illusion?

In this circus world, there is a definite class system that distinguished the importance and rank of the lowliest workmen, to the performers, to the bosses. This ranking included the animals as well. Performing animals were often kept alive on the carcasses of sacrificed work animals deemed unproductive. Your importance was directly related to the money you brought to the show.

In life, the fat lady, was an enormous star (but not so enormous as advertised - 850 lbs - closer to 400) but when she died she was was hauled around town in an elephant cart to drum up business for the show, later to be unceremoniously disposed of. The glamorous, bright, superficial facade was kept in place by the "Patches" who smoothed over any glimpse that the public may have gotten into the reality or underbelly of the circus world (Rosie in the lady's garden was one good example).

Poor old Camel! An alcoholic who suffered greatly from the imposed bans of Prohibition (1919-1933), Camel was on the "Jake" and was diagnosed with Jamaica Ginger Paralysis. His floppy gait soon gave way to paralysis and he was hidden away by Jacob and Walter (a clown) for fear that Uncle Al's (ringleader) men will redlight him (throw him from a moving train) during the night as Camel is no longer useful to the circus.

The charming and dapper head trainer August turns out to be an abusive, sadistic wretch. Silver plated dinners and white tie cannot hide the viciousness of his true character. Even the shiny circus cars, the banners and tents are not as they seem. If one were to look closely, other names of circuses that have fallen to the wayside remain visible underneath the Benzini banner. So, it appears, the Benzini circus itself has fed on the carcasses of other fallen circuses as it chases a dream to be as big as Ringling's.

Even Rosie, the bull elephant turns out to be something different than she appears, and one is left wondering in the end, was it Rosie or Marlena?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Agnes Grey Quietly Makes Her Mark

Agnes Grey was a lovely, sweet novel to start out my New Year's reading. I find it hard to imagine that Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey were all published during the same year, 1847. It's almost inconceivable to think that three siblings could produce such enduring classics during their (all too short) lives.

Anne Bronte was the youngest of the three Bronte sisters and died in 1849, around the age of 29. I can't help but wonder what other masterpieces could these sisters have produced had they lived longer?

Being Anne Bronte's first novel of two, and having only read her sisters, I began with Agnes Grey. Said to be largely based on Anne's own experiences as a governess, this story is deceptive in its simplicity. Bronte's crisp, clear and realistic narrative about life as a governess amongst the country gentry is quite different from the gothic and suspenseful stories of her sisters. Is this why Anne Bronte is so often overlooked? Ghosts are not traversing the foggy moors, and crazed women have not been locked away in dusty attic apartments. These were the Bronte books of my high school and university memories.

Agnes Grey really grew on me as the chapters flew by. For those that shy away from Victorian literature due to its verbose and sometimes unfamiliar vernacular, I suggest you give this story a try.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of parents who married against the norms of society. Her father was a poor minister and her mother descended from a more superior lineage. Mrs. Grey was subsequently disowned on marrying Mr. Grey. They lived happily for many years until the minister made a disastrous investment which threw the family into financial despair. Agnes decides to prove her worth and usefulness to her family by accepting a post as a governess for the Bloomfield family. She is rudely awakened to the reality of the class system and social distinctiveness of Victorian England and to the challenges of caring for gentry children. She despairs over her personal invisibility and the lack of moral character of her young charges (Indeed young Tom Bloomfield is a budding sociopath - how skillfully did Bronte sketch this character - the torture of the birds and the adults' acceptance of such - the indulgence of a young boy without remorse- the self-absorbed narcissist Rosalie - a pampered product of her era - a fabulous character you hoped got her just desserts in the end).

Agnes Grey is also a romance, albeit a sedentary, slowly paced one. Agnes pines away (quite modestly, quite respectfully) for Edward Weston and finds herself ill equipped to compete with the beautiful and incorrigible (think Mean Girls, think Heathers) Rosalie Murray. Will she prevail?

Oh, they have robbed me of the hope
My spirit held so dear;
They will not let me hear that voice
My soul delights to hear.

They will not let me see that face
I so delight to see;
And they have taken all thy smiles,
And all thy love from me.

Well, let them seize on all they can;
One treasure still is mine;
A heart that loves to think on thee,
And feels the worth of thine.

from Chapter XVII "Confessions"

Flowers in this story were symbolic of the beauty, remembrance and home. Edward helps Agnes retrieve some primroses which she cherishes for the remainder of her days. He later brings her bluebells as he remembers that they are dear to her as well. I quite like this beautiful poem by Anne Bronte. You can listen to the audio version of it below.

I cannot put Agnes Grey in the same league as Jane Eyre, perhaps my all time favourite book. This story is very well written and deserves to be read for its own merit.