12.31.2011

The year in books

Books read in 2011: 125

You'll find 10 memorable books read in 2011 here.


January (reviews/discussion here)
The Nest Home Design Handbook (Carley Roney)
Decorating Ideas That Work (Heather J. Paper)
Speed Decorating (Jill Vegas)
Flip! for Decorating (Elizabeth Mayhew)
Home Decor: A Sunset Design Guide (Kerrie L. Kelly)
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua; memoir, parenting)
Macbeth (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
The Other Side of the Island (Allegra Goodman; fiction)
A Lantern in Her Hand (Bess Streeter Aldrich; fiction)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Winifred Watson; fiction)

March (reviews/discussion here)
The Source of All Things: A Memoir (Tracy Ross; memoir, review copy)
Heaven Is for Real (Todd Burpo; memoir, religion)

April (reviews/discussion here)
Things a Brother Knows (Dana Reinhart; YA fiction)
Illyria (Elizabeth Hand; fiction)
The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
Model Home (Eric Puchner; fiction)
Mouse Guard, Volume 1: Fall 1152 (David Petersen; graphic novel)
Mouse Guard, Volume 2: Winter 1152 (David Petersen; graphic novel)
The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child (Barbara D. Rosof)
Beyond Tears: Living after Losing a Child (Ellen Mitchell)
Love Never Dies: A Mother's Journey from Loss to Love (Sandy Goodman)
After the Death of a Child: Living with Loss through the Years (Ann K. Finkbeiner)
Trapped (Michael Northrop; YA fiction)
Sherlock Holmes: Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; fiction)
The Colony (Jillian Marie Weise; fiction)
The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country (Neil Gaiman; graphic novel)

May (reviews/discussion here)
Daughters-in-Law (Joanna Trollope; fiction)
Sempre Susan (Sigrid Nunez; memoir)
Gardening Step by Step (Phil Clayton, et al.)
John Brookes' Natural Landscapes (John Brookes)
Month-by-Month Gardening in Illinois (James A. Fizzell)
The New Gardener (Pippa Greenwood)
Glorious Gardens (Jacqueline Heriteau)
Midwest Top 10 Garden Guide (Bonnie Monte, ed.)
Midwest Gardens (Pamela Wolfe)
Low Maintenance Garden (Jenny Hendy)
The Complete Beginner's Guide to Archery (Bernhard A. Roth)
Know the Sport: Archery (John Adams)
Sherlock Holmes: More Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; fiction)
The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton; YA fiction)
The Raising (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
The Life before Her Eyes (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
No Time for Goodbye (Linwood Barclay; fiction)
Too Close to Home (Linwood Barclay; fiction)

June (reviews/discussion here)
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth (Alexandra Robbins; non-fiction, education)
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch (Alison Arngrim; memoir)
Pitch Uncertain (Maisie Houghton; memoir)
The Silent Land (Graham Joyce; fiction)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; fiction)
Robopocalypse (Daniel H. Wilson; science fiction)

July (reviews/discussion here)
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss; graphic biography)
A Short Course in Canon PowerShot S5 IS Photography
Short Stories (Doyle, Henry, Poe; fiction)
The Winter's Tale (William Shakespeare; classic, play)
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card; science fiction)
The Sister Knot (Terri Apter; psychology)
My Man Jeeves (P.J. Wodehouse; fiction, audiobook)
Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges--and Find Themselves (Dave Marcus; non-fiction)
The Millionaire Next Door (Thomas Stanley; non-fiction, personal finance)
Fear the Worst (Linwood Barclay; fiction)

August (reviews and discussion here)
The Time Machine (H.G. Wells; classic science fiction)
Umbrella Summer (Lia Graff; YA fiction)
Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosay; fiction)
Never Look Away (Linwood Barclay; fiction)
Blank Confession (Pete Hautman; YA fiction)
Joy for Beginners (Erica Bauermeister; fiction)
Boy Heaven (Laura Kasischke; YA fiction)
Feathered (Laura Kasischke; YA fiction)
Daytripper (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon; graphic novel)
In a Perfect World (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs; non-fiction)
One Day (David Nicholls; fiction)
The Idle Parent (Tom Hodgkinson; non-fiction)
Drawing Birds (John Busby; non-fiction)
Be Mine (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
Suspicion River (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
Want to Go Private? (Sarah Littman; YA fiction)
Mid-Life (Joe Ollmann; graphic novel)
A Hope in the Unseen (Ron Suskind; non-fiction)
A New Culture of Learning (Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown; non-fiction)
The Accident (Linwood Barclay; fiction)
The Hypnotist (Lars Kepler; fiction)
This Beautiful Life (Helen Schulman; fiction)
Beginner's Guide to Traditional Archery (Brian Sorrells; non-fiction)
This Girl Is Different (J.J. Johnson; YA fiction)

September (reviews and discussion here)
Before I Go to Sleep (S.J. Watson; fiction)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith; fiction)
101 Things I Hate about Your House (James Swan; non-fiction)
DMZ: Volume 9: MIA (Brian Wood; graphic fiction)
The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta; fiction)
Barns of Illinois (Larry and Alaina Kanfer; non-fiction)
Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work (Tim Gunn; non-fiction)

October (reviews and discussion here)
The Sibling Effect (Jeffrey Kluger; non-fiction)
The Magic Flute (P. Craig Russell; graphic retelling)
Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes; fiction)
Henry IV, Part I (William Shakespeare; classic, play)
The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry Prince of France (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1956; art)
Très Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece (Lillian Schachert; art)
The Walking Dead: Rise of The Governor (Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga; fiction)
Feynman (Jim Ottaviani; graphic biography)

November (reviews and discussion here)
Blue Nights (Joan Didion; memoir)
Henry IV, Part II (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
Elizabeth Rex (Timothy Findley; play)
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (Michael Pollan; non-fiction)
Toxic Parents (Susan Forward; psychology)
DMZ: Volume 10: Collective Punishment (Brian Wood; graphic fiction)

December (reviews and discussion here)
The Schwa Was Here (Neal Shusterman; YA fiction)
My Lobotomy (Howard Dully; memoir)
World War Z (Max Brooks; fiction)
Mean Mothers (Peg Streep; psychology)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs; fiction)
Twisted Summer (Willo Davis Roberts; YA fiction)
The Grounding of Group 6 (Julian F. Thompson; YA fiction)
Lord of the Flies (William Golding; fiction)
Brain Jack (Brian Falkner; YA fiction)
Tomorrow Code (Brian Falkner; YA fiction)
Missed Connections (Sophie Blackall; art)
Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler; YA fiction)
Drawing from Memory (Allen Say; graphic biography)
Pilgrimage (Annie Leibowitz; photography)
The Heights (Peter Hedges; fiction)
The Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp; non-fiction)
The Kitchen Madonna (Rumer Godden; juvenile fiction)

12.30.2011

Reading life review: December

Books read this month: 17
Books read in 2011: 125

I've got a rapidly advancing bookmark in Lily King's The English Teacher, and both The Autobiography of an Execution (David R. Dow) and Like Shaking Hands with God (Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer) are poised on my nightstand for all-in-one-gulp consumption. But this seemed as good a place as any to call it a month... and a year.

The Schwa Was Here (Neal Shusterman)
YA fiction. A delightful and clever story from the author of Unwind, this reminded me of Richard Peck's work, as well as Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars and Trouble.

My Lobotomy (Howard Dully)
Memoir. Although it seems clear that the author's message is one of hope and triumph through research and self-knowledge, this was still one of the saddest, most horrifying stories I have ever read. Related link here.

World War Z (Max Brooks)
Fiction. Gosh, it took me forever to finish this! But that's really more a remark on my distractedness over the last couple of months than on this compelling novel. Published three years after his popular The Zombie Survival Guide, Brooks' post-apocalyptic tale is related through a series of eyewitness reports, a device which makes the audiobook particularly compelling, according to Mr. M-mv. (Note that the full-cast audiobook, while superlative, is an abridgment.)

Mean Mothers (Peg Streep)
Psychology. Subtitled "Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt," this exploration of a provocative subject provided background material for a recent research project.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)
Fiction. The photos were a neat "hook," and I appreciate genre "shake-ups" (e.g., Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer), but, in the end, Peculiar fell short for me. Related aside: I began reading this on the Kindle but finished reading it on the iPad. This is definitely a book that should be read in the traditional format or on a larger format e-reader; the Kindle simply couldn't offer the clarity needed to appreciate the photographs.

Twisted Summer (Willo Davis Roberts)
YA fiction. A cozily predictable mystery for the youngest YA readers, Twisted Summer features Cici, a fourteen-year-old girl who wants to be acknowledged as one of "big kids." What I appreciated about this simple story was that Cici demonstrated her maturity through her displays of tenacity, intellect, and loyalty -- not through, say, sexual and/or substance experimentation. I know, right? How positively old-fashioned.

The Grounding of Group 6 (Julian F. Thompson)
YA fiction. When it was first published in 1983, Grounding caused a bit of a stir with its blend of satire and psychological thrills (to say nothing of its frank sexual content, which, though tame by today's standards, was quite taboo then). I was nineteen when it was first released and missed its ascent into cult classic status (enthusiastic review here). And though I had rediscovered the merits of YA fiction by the time Grounding was re-leased in 1997, I somehow missed it again. Arriving at the book sans hype, then, I would say that it is both competent and compelling, though not nearly as memorable as a more recent entry into the "really, really bad parents" sub-genre of YA fiction: Neal Shusterman's Unwind.

Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
Fiction. With the Misses. This was my fourth go-round with Golding's classic, and I see something new each visit. What a startlingly perceptive view of people and what little holds us together, eh? And how eye-opening to read this after having seen, loved, and dissected "LOST." I'll have more to say about this one in January.

Brain Jack (Brian Falkner)
YA fiction. This fast-paced blend of cyber-geekery and thriller put me in mind of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Robert J. Sawyer's WWW: Wake: Teen hacker Sam Wilson lands a position with a national cyber defense organization in lieu of a jail sentence. His job? To help protect the world from a malicious presence on the internet.

Tomorrow Code (Brian Falkner)
YA fiction. Not quite as seamless as Brain Jack, this was still a competent effort from New Zealand author Brian Falkner. This time, the protagonists race against (and through) time to save humanity from a virus.

Missed Connections (Sophie Blackall)
Art. This collection of illustrated love stories is delightful and touching. Have you seen the Australian illustrator's whimsical art before? If not, start with the blog that inspired the book.

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)
YA fiction. Written by none other than the man behind the pen name Lemony Snickett and illustrated by the incomparable Maira Kalman, this is, quite possibly, my favorite book of 2011. Imagine Ellen Page's Juno narrating the unlikely (and short-lived) romance between a smart-talking, "different" girl and the co-captain of the high school basketball team. Now couple that sarcastic and searingly honest insight with the detritus of a failed relationship -- the ticket stubs, books, shirts, combs, matchbooks, and so on that hold so much meaning. Voilà! It's magic. It's also wonderfully cinematic; I will not be surprised when plans to translate it into film are announced. Highly recommended.

Drawing from Memory (Allen Say)
Graphic autobiography. I agree with the Chicago Tribune: "This visual memoir is captivating and always unexpected."

Pilgrimage (Annie Leibovitz)
Photography. Elsewhere, folks are rather awed by this volume, but I was left somewhat cold by the effort. The photographs are stunning, but that admission addresses not Leibovitz's eye or art but rather the compelling subjects themselves: Emily Dickinson's dress. Virginia Woolf's sitting room. Charles Darwin's specimens. John Muir's field notes. Annie Oakley's boots. Unfortunately, these fascinating subjects suffer from a poor, disjointed layout and a, for lack of a better word, distant text. Call me soulless, but when Leibovitz notes that her journey began with the headline-grabbing financial crisis that sent her into personal and professional turmoil, I didn't think she was experiencing some sort of life-altering epiphany. I thought, Yes, so you decided to get to work, put out another book, and make some money. Smart woman. All of that said, I urge you to seek out the volume for the valuable history-museum-in-a-book that it is. How many of these amazing places and objects might we miss if not for such books?

The Heights (Peter Hedges)
Fiction. Told in alternating voices, The Heights chronicles, as one reviewer put it, "marital claustrophobia." The dark humor, crisp narrative, and wickedly wise social observations put me in mind of Tom Perrotta and Meg Wolitzer.

The Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp)
Non-fiction. Chapbook entry here.

The Kitchen Madonna (Rumer Godden)
Juvenile fiction. In search of something different but also sweetly simple, even childlike, for our Christmas week read-aloud (because (a) they are never too old for read-alouds -- just ask them; and (b) "sweetly simple" just feels right by the glow of the Christmas tree, whether you are four, fourteen, or forty-seven), I pulled out The Kitchen Madonna, which I first heard about over at Here in the Bonny Glen. The Misses and I loved this beautifully moving story.

12.28.2011

Ten memorable books read in 2011

At this writing, I have read 123 books this year. Many of them were quite good. Others? Maybe not my cuppa. (I'm thinking particularly of the tedious hours spent with gardening books earlier this year.) So which books were real stand-outs? Setting aside the Shakespeare plays and all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures since, as the Misses have pointed out, “Those are obviously the favorites,” I am left with the following (presented in the order in which I read them):

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Winifred Watson)
Fiction. Girl Detective recommended this, calling it "cheering." And it was. It was also old-fashioned and improbable, both of which likely contribute to its appeal. First published in 1938, this breezy novel is a fairy tale of sorts, in which a down-at-heel nanny is sent to the wrong address for her next assignment and is thrust into the romantic and glamorous circle of one Delysia LaFosse. Witty banter and unlikely entanglements ensue.

Things a Brother Knows (Dana Reinhart)
YA fiction. After a long period of listlessness, this book reminded me that I am, in fact, a reader. (Thank you, Dana Reinhart.) A well-wrought examination of one Marine's journey home -- and, perhaps more significantly, the impact this difficult journey has on his family -- Things a Brother Knows is both excellent and timely.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss)
Graphic biography. An artful combination of science and romance, Radioactive manages to be both informative and beautiful. From "The Curies, Seen Through an Artist’s Eyes" (New York Times, December 21, 2010):
Described simply, “Radioactive” is an illustrated biography of Marie Curie, the Polish-born French physicist famous for her work on radioactivity — she was the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice — and her equally accomplished husband, Pierre. It lays bare their childhoods, their headlong love story, their scientific collaboration and the way their toxic discoveries, which included radium and polonium, poisoned them in slow motion.
Daytripper (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon)
Graphic novel. How can it be that a book in which every chapter concludes with the protagonist's death is so, well, life-affirming? From a review earlier this year (Publishers' Weekly, January 11):
A stunning, moving story about one man's life and all the possibilities to be realized or lost along the way. Brothers Bá and Moon take readers through the life of a man named Brás de Oliva Domingos, selecting a series of individual events of great significance to Brás, showing each as if it could be the day Brás dies, and in so doing creating an examination of family, friendship, love, art, life, and death that urges the reader to turn the same careful inspection on their own life.
In a Perfect World (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. As I mentioned when I first wrote about this book, as much as I enjoyed my whirlwind tour of Kasischke's oeuvre, I was fairly certain she could no longer surprise me -- until this novel. In a Perfect World coyly misleads an inattentive reader to believe it is simply an exploration of otherwise mundane subjects: a doomed marriage and an equally doomed foray into step-motherhood. And then it blossoms into a beautifully written and melancholy meditation on the end of the world as we know it and how we might become our most authentic selves when it all falls apart. If my previous recommendations didn't persuade you to give a Kasischke a try, let this one do so.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs)
Non-fiction. The appearance of this title on my list will not surprise regular readers. I did rather carry on about it. Chapbook entry here; two other related entries here and here.

A Hope in the Unseen (Ron Suskind)
Non-fiction. Suskind won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for the series of articles that grew into A Hope in the Unseen, the chronicle of Cedric Lavar Jennings' journey from an impoverished and dangerous Washington, D.C., public high school to Brown University. Subtitled "An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," Unseen unflinchingly and repeatedly points out that Jennings didn't graduate from Brown (and later, Harvard and the University of Michigan, according the afterword in this revised and updated edition) because of extraordinary academic gifts; he succeeded through hard work alone -- the grueling, single-minded study of a "headstrong monk." I was transfixed by the story, a result of its compelling subject as well as Suskind's assured narrative style.

Feynman (Jim Ottaviani)
Graphic biography. Both the private and public lives of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman are described in this wonderfully accessible biography, which is illustrated by Leland Myrick. You'll find an excellent review here: "The Feynman picture-book is a fine example of gekiga for Western readers." Note: I gave this book to Aunt M-mv for Christmas. Is there a higher recommendation than that?

Elizabeth Rex (Timothy Findley)
Play. Again, regular readers will be unsurprised by the inclusion of this book. (Chapbook entry here.) The excellent CBC Stratford Festival Reading Series recording accompanied my reading of this wonderful work, and in addition to seeing Diane D'Aquila in the recent Chicago Shakespeare Theater production (related entry here), we also had the pleasure of seeing the CBC Television production from 2002, the year after D'Aquila originated the role at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)
YA fiction. Written by none other than the man behind the pen name Lemony Snickett and illustrated by the incomparable Maira Kalman, this is, quite possibly, my favorite book of 2011. Imagine Ellen Page's Juno narrating the unlikely (and short-lived) romance between a smart-talking, "different" girl and the co-captain of the high school basketball team. Now couple that sarcastic and searingly honest insight with the detritus of a failed relationship -- the ticket stubs, books, shirts, combs, matchbooks, and so on that hold so much meaning. Voilà! It's magic. It's also wonderfully cinematic; I will not be surprised when plans to translate it into film are announced.

11.30.2011

Reading life review: November

Books read this month: 6
Books read in 2011: 108

I'm still serial-dating my books, still taking a number too great to be called decent out for a burger and fries, a movie, a kiss at the door even, and then not calling. Christmas vacation will offer the time I need to tackle the book stack of reproach. Until then, you must again sign me, An unapologetically promiscuous reader.

Blue Nights (Joan Didion)
Memoir. Related entries here and here.

Henry IV, Part II (William Shakespeare)
Play, classic. With the Misses.

Elizabeth Rex (Timothy Findley)
Play. The excellent CBC Stratford Festival Reading Series recording accompanied my reading of this wonderful work. The recording also accompanied Mr. M-mv to and from work for two days and earned his recommendation. We're looking forward to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production, directed by Barbara Gaines and featuring Diane D’Aquila as Queen Elizabeth. (D’Aquila originated the role in the premiere production at Stratford Shakespeare Festival and voices Elizabeth in the recording.)

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (Michael Pollan)
Non-fiction. This title arrived on my stack for one reason only: Maira Kalman's whimsical illustrations. (Related entries here and here.) That said, the book is a cheerful reminder -- one perhaps more than a few of us require during this food, food, food season -- to eat mindfully and well.

Toxic Parents (Susan Forward)
Psychology. Subtitled "Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life," this self-help manual provided background material for a recent research project.

DMZ: Volume 10: Collective Punishment (Brian Wood)
Graphic fiction. Apparently, the series will conclude with Volume 12, and I'm beginning to agree with some of the harsher critics: The plot has stalled.

11.17.2011

Recent acquisitions


❧ The Mountain and the Valley (Ernest Buckler)
Apparently, it's one of Paul Gross' favorite books: "A sadly overlooked, magical novel about the fragility of time and art."

❧ The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska (Colleen Modor)
An entry at Melissa Wiley's blog led me to this Chasing Ray entry: "It is clear to me that this is going to be one reader at a time, one book sale at a time, one long year of trying to gain notice."

❧ P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters (edited by Sophie Ratcliffe)
I blame Girl Detective; she sent me the link, after all: "Countless readers of Wodehouse have testified to the way his novels have their own 'stimulating effect' on morale, providing not just comic, but almost medicinal effects...."

10.31.2011

Reading life review: October

Books read this month: 8
Books read in 2011: 102

As I prepared this entry, I thought, But I've read so much more than this! And I have. But I have only finished those listed below. That's right: My Lobotomy (Howard Dully), World War Z (Max Brooks), Just My Type (Simon Garfield), and at least a dozen more perfectly wonderful titles perch, bookmarked and abandoned, on what can only be called a book stack of reproach. Yes, I've been serial-dating my books again -- taking a number too great to be called decent out for a burger and fries, a movie, a kiss at the door even, and then not calling.

Ah, well. There are worse things. Sign me, An unapologetically promiscuous reader. Heh, heh, heh.

The Sibling Effect (Jeffrey Kluger)
Non-fiction. Subtitled "What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us," this personal-history-laden, pop-psych bestseller made quite a splash in late September and early October for its assertion that every parent has a favorite child. (Related links here, here, and here.)

The Magic Flute (P. Craig Russell)
Graphic retelling. The Lyric will present The Magic Flute beginning in December, so, yes, we picked this up by way of an introduction. The Misses and I agree with Publishers' Weekly:
Sure and confident, Russell's art switches from tense action sequences to slapstick without missing a beat. His sense of physical characterization is also impressive, helping readers keep track of Mozart's often confusing cast of characters. Even traditionally less-recognized aspects of comics presentation, like color and lettering, here serve the story brilliantly.
We're following this up with a related entry in 100 Great Operas And Their Stories: Act-By-Act Synopses (Henry W. Simon).

Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes)
Fiction. With the Misses. We blew right over this title when they were in middle school, but when we embarked on our U.S. history course earlier this month, both of them expressed an interest in reading it, so we did. "There shall be no more tyranny. A handful of men cannot seize power over thousands." It was just the respite we needed before embarking on October's Shakespeare project.

Henry IV, Part I (William Shakespeare)
Classic, play. With the Misses. It was seven years ago to the month that I last spent time with Falstaff.

The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry Prince of France (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1956)
Très Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece (Lillian Schachert)
Art. A facsimile in the Adler's "Universe in Your Hands" exhibit (related entry here) led me to these titles, which discuss the beautiful "book of hours" that is widely considered the fifteenth century's most important illuminated manuscript. You can find the images and related commentary here, if interested.

The Walking Dead: Rise of The Governor (Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga)
Fiction. Two authors on a work of fiction rarely bodes well, and this 320-page zombie-gorefest is no exception. Fans of the comic book series, the television series, or both already know Rise explains how Philip Blake became the Governor, but, the so-called "twist" is apparent early on, and really? The book adds nothing new to zombie literature, generally, or The Walking Dead, specifically. Bad fiction, like everything else, though, is certainly relative, and I can honestly say that this isn't the worst book I've read in 2011. Nope. Sarah's Key still holds that dubious honor. (Related entry here.)

Feynman (Jim Ottaviani)
Graphic biography. Both the private and public lives of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman are described in this wonderfully accessible biography, which is illustrated by Leland Myrick. You'll find an excellent review here: "The Feynman picture-book is a fine example of gekiga for Western readers." Highly recommended.

9.30.2011

Reading life review: September

Books read this month: 6 7
Books read in 2011: 93 94

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
Fiction. The "Girls Rule!" Book Club read this beautiful classic -- savored it -- in September. It was a re-read (five? six? more? times now) for me, and I maintain that this old-fashioned favorite still works and works well. (Look for a chapbook entry in the coming weeks.) We love to complement our book club selections with a family film night, but I'm having a dickens of a time tracking down a DVD of the 1945 film, directed by Elia Kazan. Keepin' my fingers crossed, though.

101 Things I Hate about Your House (James Swan)
Non-fiction. This silly book, which suffers from a grievous lack of both substantive and copy editing (a reflection of the publisher (HC 1) or the state of publishing in general?), gave me nothing new or bold to think about in terms of home decor. Hand towels? Soap? Really? Not recommended.

DMZ: Volume 9: MIA (Brian Wood)
Graphic fiction. If I remember correctly, this volume took quite a critical drubbing but I enjoyed it.

The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)
Fiction. Perrotta's (Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher) latest "suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs" take on the aftermath of a rapture-like event has earned mixed reader reviews, although critics liked it: NYT review here; Los Angeles Times review here. I think it's worthwhile, if not his best. Interested but unsure? Check out Terry Gross' author interview: "After The Rapture, Who Are 'The Leftovers'?" (NPR, August 25).

Barns of Illinois (Larry and Alaina Kanfer)
Non-fiction. Gorgeous photos and engaging text from a husband-and-wife team. Published by the University of Illinois Press in 2009.

Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work (Tim Gunn)
Non-fiction. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The Misses and I absolutely and completely ❤ Tim Gunn. As you might imagine, then, passing this little gem back and forth, reading aloud bits in our best "That's a lot of look!" voices, and marking our favorite passages with Post-Its have been a real source of delight for us. No, the writing isn't perfect, but Gunn is such a genuine personality that the reader simply appreciates his anecdotes and related suggestions as wisdom from an experienced and generous teacher. You'll find excerpts here and here. Don't miss the related videos in the sidebar of that first link. With any luck, I'll offer a chapbook entry on this book, too. Until then? Highly recommended.

Added later:
Before I Go to Sleep (S.J. Watson)
Fiction. Is the fact that I forgot that this was the first book I finished in September a review of sorts? That's probably not fair, though. Sleep is a much-hyped, overpraised, but, in my opinion, simply adequate thriller that depends wholly on a reader's suspension of disbelief to work. I didn't regret the time I spent with it; I think I just expected... more.

8.31.2011

Reading life review: August

Books read this month: 26
Books read in 2011: 87

The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
Classic science fiction. With the Misses. Followed up with the 1960 film starring Rod Taylor. Both the book and the movie hold up under repeated re-reading, -watching.
"It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers."
Umbrella Summer (Lia Graff)
Juvenile fiction. Following the aftermath of her brother's unexpected death, Annie fears everything, from bee stings to ebola. Graff gently and sensitively explores death and loss through the eyes of her Junie B. Jones-inspired protagonist, but I think she utterly missed the mark with Annie's clueless parents. The Misses shared my concern. What are they thinking? we exclaimed several times.

Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosay)
Fiction. This fictionalized account of Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv might have been a worthy addition to Holocaust literature had it not been so badly (awfully, terribly) written. Not only is the resolution of the book's central mystery and horror apparent by the middle of the third chapter, but the compelling story of Sarah and her family is sandwiched between dull, predictable bits about a middle-aged American journalist growing weary of her cheating French husband. Not recommended.

Never Look Away (Linwood Barclay)
Fiction. As I've mentioned before (here and here), Barclay's novels are beach books: capably written, entertaining, and not too easy to piece together halfway through. Perhaps this one strained credulity more than the others I've swallowed whole this summer, but that might just be the stitches talking. Heh, heh, heh.

Blank Confession (Pete Hautman)
YA fiction. I've read a number of Hautman's books. Godless was one pretty terrific read, as was Invisible. Rash? Meh. But this? Solid. And timely. The hook -- a teen has walked into a police station to confess to a murder -- is well employed, and the narrative hums and clicks along, even as it explores bullying and drug use among teens. Recommended.

Joy for Beginners (Erica Bauermeister)
Fiction. File this one under "reading like a girl" -- or "perfect for bed rest." Kate has survived cancer. Accepting the challenge to go on white-rafting trip to celebrate her victory, she, in turn, issues each of her friends a life challenge. What could have been predictable and trite ended up being warm and life-affirming.

Boy Heaven (Laura Kasischke)
Feathered (Laura Kasischke)
YA fiction. Speaking of reading like a girl... I picked up several Kasischke novels after enjoying The Raising and The Life Before Her Eyes in May. Boy Heaven is an urban legend framed as a ghost story, and this is just the sort of story my fifteen-year-old self would have loved, although I think my fifteen-year-old self would have been rather perplexed by Feathered. My forty-seven-year-old thought both were pretty terrific, and I'll now be tempted to urge any teen who murmurs, "Spring break," in my presence to read the latter. Carefully.

Daytripper (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon)
Graphic novel. From a Publisher's Weekly review earlier this year:
A stunning, moving story about one man's life and all the possibilities to be realized or lost along the way. Brothers Bá and Moon take readers through the life of a man named Brás de Oliva Domingos, selecting a series of individual events of great significance to Brás, showing each as if it could be the day Brás dies, and in so doing creating an examination of family, friendship, love, art, life, and death that urges the reader to turn the same careful inspection on their own life.
Beautiful art and beautiful writing. I loved this book.

In a Perfect World (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. As much as I've been enjoying my whirlwind tour of Kasischke's oeuvre, I was fairly certain she could no longer surprise me. I was wrong. In a Perfect World coyly misleads an inattentive reader into thinking that it will be a beautifully written exploration of otherwise mundane subjects: a doomed marriage and an equally doomed foray into step-motherhood. And then it blossoms into a melancholy meditation on the end of the world as we know it and how we might become our most authentic selves when it all falls apart. If my previous recommendations haven't persuaded you to give a Kasischke a try, let this one do so. Good, good stuff here, folks.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs)
Non-fiction. Highly recommended. Chapbook entry here; two other related entries here and here.

One Day (David Nicholls)
Fiction. Nicholls writes so well that it almost saddens me to admit how much this silly book annoyed me. I will tell you that I started and stopped and skipped ahead so many times that when I finally returned to it this month I was essentially rereading the entire book (which, I'm sure, added to my annoyance because who would willingly reread this?). Perhaps I was also annoyed by the cloying advertisements for the opening of what will likely be a heavy-handed adaptation of the book starring Anne Hathaway as the -- SPOILER ALERT! -- doomed-from-the-moment-she-met-'im Emma.

The Idle Parent (Tom Hodgkinson)
Non-fiction. Apparently just as it took me a year to finish One Day, it took me a year to finish The Idle Parent. I was thinking about reading it in July and then acquired it later that month. I must have begun reading it because I quoted from it in August. And then? Nothing. It was tucked away with a bookmark, and as I did with One Day, I returned to it during my recovery this month -- though with much happier results. I must admit that Hodgkinson's tra-la-la paean to benignly neglectful parenting is probably best read in snippets because reading it all at once might put one in mind of Polonius' collection of platitudes masquerading as wisdom. Chapbook entry here and another related entry here.

Drawing Birds (John Busby)
Non-fiction. Highly recommended. Chapbook entry here.

Be Mine (Laura Kasischke)
Suspicion River (Laura Kasischke)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. Suspicion River and White Bird in a Blizzard were Kasischke's first two novels; Be Mine was published in 2007. That I didn't care for River or Mine is my own fault; I should have read the descriptions more carefully, instead of letting my unbridled enthusiasm for In a Perfect World lead me to acquire Kasisichke's remaining novels. Just... grimly explicit and not my cuppa. And White Bird? Meh. Also pretty graphic and dark; more, I saw the conclusion coming.

Want to Go Private? (Sarah Littman)
YA fiction. An honors student on the social fringes begins high school with some fear, but soon after connecting with an older boy in a teen chat room, she finds a friend in whom she can confide her concerns. His attention makes her feel compelling -- even attractive. This book's frank treatment of a young girl's seduction by an online predator was so lurid that it can only be described as an R-rated "Afterschool Special."

Mid-Life (Joe Ollmann)
Graphic novel. Promising but, in the end, not one of my best encounters with this genre. I found the pages too "heavy" -- too dense and dark with image and text. And really? The protagonist is not at all likeable.

A Hope in the Unseen (Ron Suskind)
Non-fiction. Suskind won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for the series of articles that grew into A Hope in the Unseen, the chronicle of Cedric Lavar Jennings' journey from an impoverished and dangerous Washington, D.C., public high school to Brown University. Subtitled "An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," Unseen unflinchingly and repeatedly points out that Jennings didn't graduate from Brown (and later, Harvard and the University of Michigan, according the afterword in this revised and updated edition) because of extraordinary academic gifts; he succeeded through hard work alone -- the grueling, single-minded study of a "headstrong monk." I was transfixed by the story, a result of its compelling subject as well as Suskind's assured narrative style. Highly recommended.

A New Culture of Learning (Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown)
Non-fiction. Chapbook entry here.

The Accident (Linwood Barclay)
Fiction. And with this, I had my fill of Barclay. It was fun while it lasted.

The Hypnotist (Lars Kepler)
Fiction. It seems as if I've had a bookmark in this for most of the summer. It finally captured my imagination -- in the way a particularly implausible but generally riveting episode of "Criminal Minds" will -- late on the last Saturday of the month. Twenty-four hours later, I set it aside with satisfaction. A gruesome, sordid, and suspenseful exploration of human weakness, frailty, and, yes, evil -- as I said, not unlike an episode of "Criminal Minds."

This Beautiful Life (Helen Schulman)
Fiction. What was the author thinking, invoking The Great Gatsby -- perhaps the original wealthy-Americans-experience-angst-too story -- at the mid-point of this overwrought novel? The comparison only made This Beautiful Life seem... more baldly less than. Sure, I'm a bit tetchy as I write this, but seriously? I finished with two thoughts: (1) I'll never get that afternoon back; and (2) Another book with unlikeable characters behaving stupidly -- bleah. Maria Russo (NYT, July 28) loved it, by the way. Did we read the same book?

Beginner's Guide to Traditional Archery (Brian Sorrells)
Non-fiction. Because I cannot WAIT to use my new bow!

This Girl Is Different (J.J. Johnson)
YA fiction. A mostly predictable YA treatment of the "homeschooled kid decides to attend public high school -- and change the world!" story -- although I did appreciate the strong, intelligent protagonist.

7.31.2011

Reading life review: July

Books read this month: 10
Books read in 2011: 61

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss)
Biography, graphic book. What an artful combination of science and romance.

A Short Course in Canon PowerShot S5 IS Photography
Non-fiction. It's wrong, I know, but I felt the need to "cheat" on the Nikon for a while. I just wanted the ease of my reliable point-and-shoot.

Short Stories (Doyle, Henry, Poe)
Fiction. With the Misses. "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," "The Adventure of the Priory School," "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge," and "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; "The Gift of the Magi," "The Last Leaf," and "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O. Henry; and "The Gold Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Winter's Tale (William Shakespeare)
Classic; play. With the Misses, in preparation for this year's trip to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Related entry here. Favorite line: "A lie: you are rough and hairy." (Act IV, Scene 4)

Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
Science fiction. With the Misses. Has it really been more than eight years since I read this with my son? RDA here.

The Sister Knot (Terri Apter)
Psychology. Subtitled "Why We Fight, Why We're Jealous, and Why We'll Love Each Other No Matter What," this was actually a pretty fascinating read, one that reminded me of Deborah Tannen's books.

My Man Jeeves (P.J. Wodehouse)
Fiction; audiobook. This was our companion for the ride to and from the Festival. Technically a re-read for me, the book was delightfully interpreted by Martin Jarvis.

Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges--and Find Themselves (Dave Marcus)
Non-fiction. Read this one on the Kindle. (Related entry here.) I was thoroughly engrossed by the stories of Gwyeth Smith and his students. Recommended particularly for the deft manner in which college application and essay tips are woven into the narrative.

The Millionaire Next Door (Thomas Stanley)
Non-fiction; personal finance. RDA here. Read this one on the Kindle, too.

Fear the Worst (Linwood Barclay)
Fiction. As I mentioned in May's reading life review, I picked up some Linwood Barclay after seeing Stephen King's summer reading list. Barclay's novels are beach books: capably written, entertaining, and not too easy to piece together halfway through.


Bookmarked
Well, the following have now been carried over from June. No excuses. This is simply the fate of some books when a reader insists on reading so many at the same time.

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown)
Education. This title appeared on a list of summer reading suggestions. Wish I could remember who sent me the list....

This Girl Is Different (J.J. Johnson)
Fiction. A mostly predictable YA treatment of the "homeschooled kid decides to attend public high school -- and change the world!" story.

The Hypnotist (Lars Kepler)
Fiction. Poolside reading courtesy of the wave of Nordic lit enjoying such popularity here in the States.

And these are being carried over from July:

The Beekeeper's Apprentice (Laurie R. King)
Fiction, mystery. With Misses. Obviously related to our current Sherlock Holmes "obsession."

Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosay)
Fiction. Inspired by a brief article in Newsweek (a periodical that is all but unreadable now, isn't it?), I loaded Key onto the Kindle. One obligation or another had me set it aside just a couple dozen pages in.

The Strain (Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan)
Fiction. Not terribly well written vampire / virus fare.

Fifth Business (Robertson Davies)
Fiction. First book in the Deptford trilogy. Recommended to me by the Biblioracle. (Thank you, Girl Detective.) It was more than a little cool that he recommended a book that was already on my shelves... and had been awaiting my kind attention for fourteen years.

6.30.2011

Reading life review: June

Books read this month: 7
Books read in 2011: 51

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth (Alexandra Robbins)
Non-fiction, education. Robbins argues that all of those weird, quirky, yes, geeky traits that make it difficult to find a table in the high school cafeteria will translate into measures of success in the "real" adult world (although the anecdotes for Regan, a twenty-four-year-old teacher, seem to argue against this premise). As one Amazon reviewer quipped, the book seems to explain "why the 'preps' are sometimes sitting by themselves at class reunions." Heh, heh, heh. As a parent-teacher, I am naturally interested in young people who stray from stereotype, so I did enjoy this book. NPR discusses it here.

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch (Alison Arngrim)
Memoir. What a thoroughly entertaining book! With an assured, distinctive, and thoroughly likeable voice, Arngrim describes her harrowing childhood, her life on the set, her castmates, and her journey into adulthood. Some readers may be shocked by her somewhat salty talk, but I was completely engaged. Recommended.

Pitch Uncertain (Maisie Houghton)
Memoir; review copy. Related entry here.

The Silent Land (Graham Joyce)
Fiction. A happily married if somewhat immature couple on winter holiday discovers the nature of love amid a series of unsettling events. This quickly-consumed novel reminded me of "LOST" and "The Twilight Zone," and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare)
Play, classic. Related entries here and here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Fiction. With the Misses. Family film night this weekend will feature Jeremy Brett's take on this classic. By the way, I read this and A Midsummer Night's Dream on the Kindle.

Robopocalypse (Daniel H. Wilson)
Science fiction. Weary of vampires and zombies? It's humans versus -- you guessed it! -- robots in this entertaining tale that is told in a manner similar to Max Brooks' World War Z (a book my son recommended to me several times).


Bookmarked
Although the following are not included in the June count, I am nearly done with them / plan to finish them over the coming week (or two) of (mostly) digital fasting. *

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown)
Education. This title appeared on a list of summer reading suggestions. Wish I could remember who sent me the list....

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss)
Biography, graphic book. What an artful combination of science and romance.

This Girl Is Different (J.J. Johnson)
Fiction. A mostly predictable YA treatment of the "homeschooled kid decides to attend public high school -- and change the world!" story.

The Hypnotist (Lars Kepler)
Fiction. Poolside reading courtesy of the wave of Nordic lit enjoying such popularity here in the States.


* It's nothing cryptic. It's not even inspired by recent reading. We're just a little busier than is our wont, and I know how to recover a couple of hours, right quick.

5.30.2011

Reading life review: May

Books read this month: 18
Books read in 2011: 44

Daughters-in-Law (Joanna Trollope)
Fiction. Has it really been a year since I settled into a Trollope novel? Really? How does that happen? Well, in any event, Daughters-in-Law was a companion earlier this month, and I was reminded all over again that what in another writer's hands might read like banal chick lit becomes in Trollope's able hands something considerably more substantial. In this recent novel, she explores familiar emotional territory (i.e., couples, families, and the web of relationships between them), examining the marriages of three brothers and the effect their relationship with their parents has on those marriages.

Sempre Susan (Sigrid Nunez)
Memoir. After reading an excerpt in the NYT, I put Nunez's memoir on my list, and, in search of "a little something" to read while waiting for the Misses one afternoon, I stuffed it in my bag. While I admired the intimacy of Nunez's observations, the clarity of her recollections, and the sureness of her writing, I was unable to overlook the fact that scene followed remembrance followed anecdote with an alarming lack of transition.

Still, there were moments:

p. 49
She was a feminist who found most women wanting. There was a certain friend she saw regularly, a brilliant man she loved to hear talk and whom, though he was married, she usually saw alone. Those times when his wife did come along, though, were inevitably disappointing. With his wife there, Susan complained, the conversation of this brilliant and intellectually stimulating man somehow became boring.

She was exasperated to find that the company of even very intelligent women was usually not as interesting as that of intelligent men.
p. 138
"But that's what happens," she said. "You have to be prepared for that." It had happened to her a lot, she said. Once she started meeting writers and artists, it happened over and over. "I'd be so thrilled about meeting these people -- my heroes! my idols!"

And over and over she would feel let down, or even betrayed. And she was so disillusioned that she'd end up regretting having met them, because now she couldn't worship them or their work anymore, at least not in the same pure way.
Having read this earlier in the month, I've had the benefit of a few weeks' reflection, and it wasn't simply the perceived herky-jerkiness of the text that troubled me: It was the lack of epiphany. In his review for The Washington Times (April 29), Martin Rubin writes:
Even after all she recounts in these pages and with the benefit of more than three decades of hindsight, Ms. Nunez still doesn’t realize that the drama of which she was both bystander and participant was yet another of those demonstrations that the emperor in fact has no new clothes. This is of course in some ways a strength of her narrative, yet one cannot help regretting that, for her own sake, she could bring herself to realize it.
Yes! From Nunez's memoir, one gets the sense that Sontag was, for all the drama and hype to the contrary, a disappointment of sorts, but Nunez does not allow that she may have felt -- as Sontag did on meeting her own idols -- let down, betrayed, and unable to worship the writer or the work any longer.

(By the way, Sontag would have dubbed Trollope's Daughters-in-Law "passé suburban realism," I'm sure. Heh, heh, heh.)

Gardening Step by Step (Phil Clayton, et al.)
John Brookes' Natural Landscapes (John Brookes)
Month-by-Month Gardening in Illinois (James A. Fizzell)
The New Gardener (Pippa Greenwood)
Glorious Gardens (Jacqueline Heriteau)
Midwest Top 10 Garden Guide (Bonnie Monte, ed.)
Midwest Gardens (Pamela Wolfe)
Low Maintenance Garden (Jenny Hendy)
Non-fiction. Maybe you detect a pattern -- perhaps even a project -- here. Well, two weeks spent poring over these tomes, taking copious notes, sketching, erasing, and sketching again convinced me of one thing: I am most decidedly not a gardener. I am an appreciator of gardens and a lover of nature, but a gardener? No. Emphatically, no. As it turns out, the yard makeover will be confined to the installation of a split rail fence, some serious hedge and bush trimming, and the planting of some arborvitae, hosta, and lavender. And all but the last (which I actually purchased) of these lovely books have been returned to the library (with a huge sigh of relief).

The Complete Beginner's Guide to Archery (Bernhard A. Roth)
Know the Sport: Archery (John Adams)
Non-fiction. Related entry here.

Sherlock Holmes: More Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Fiction. With the Misses. I still intend to post a chapbook entry. Until then, the stories this month included "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," (from Adventures of Sherlock Holmes); "The Crooked Man," "The Resident Patient," "The Greek Interpreter," and "The Naval Treaty" (from Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes); "The Adventure of the Empty House," "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder," "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," and "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" (from Return of Sherlock Holmes); and "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" (from His Last Bow).

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
Fiction. With the Misses. I contributed "Nothing Gold Can Stay" to a Poetry Friday gathering earlier this month, which led to a conversation about the first time I had read it, which led, of course, to The Outsiders. This is not a terribly sophisticated piece of writing, but it's an enduring one, isn't it? The Misses both loved it, though they lost no time pointing out how convenient it was that the church (!) burned following so many foreshadows about the boys' smoking and that the fire led to Johnny's public redemption. "Perrine would not be impressed!" Heh, heh, heh. And, yes, we have every intention of devoting an upcoming movie night to the 1983 film.

The Raising (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. I picked this up after reading Julia Keller's review in The Chicago Tribune (March 26), and it's the best sort of summer reading -- exceptionally well written, compelling, and honestly? Just not too hard.

The Life before Her Eyes (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. So pleased was I with The Raising that I picked up a few other Kaischke titles. Life was both thought-provoking and well written.

No Time for Goodbye (Linwood Barclay)
Too Close to Home (Linwood Barclay)
Fiction. And I picked these up after reading Stephen King's summer reading list in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly (June 3). They are the second-best sort of summer reading: capably written, entertaining, and not too easy to piece together halfway through.

5.10.2011

On the nightstand

Miss M-mv(ii)'s pile

Miss M-mv(i)'s pile

Mrs. M-mv's pile

5.01.2011

Reading life review: April

Books read this month: 14
Books read in 2011: 26

Things a Brother Knows (Dana Reinhart)
Fiction. A YA novel about one Marine's journey home. Excellent. Just excellent. More, it was the book that reminded me that I am, in fact, a reader. Thank you, Dana Reinhart.

Illyria (Elizabeth Hand)
Fiction. Blend one part Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews) with a half-measure of Damage (Josephine Hart). Season generously with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. There. Now you have Illyria, a slender bit of a YA novel I picked up after reading Jeanne's emphatic review. While I didn't hate Illyria, I did set it down sorely disappointed, although I'm still trying to decide whether I'm disappointed with the book or with my inability to piece together the mystery of the toy theater in the attic and the point of Rogan and Maddie's interaction at the conclusion of the novel. (Are they together or not? she pouts, stamping her foot like one of those high school girls who read her best friend's chemistry partner's older sister's dogeared copy of Flowers in the Attic because she hadn't resources (or imagination?) enough to secure her own copy of the forbidden book.)

The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare)
Play, classic. With the Misses M-mv. Related entry here.

Indulge me in a related aside?

As it happens, this time out I read from a 1985 Barron's "Shakespeare Made Easy" edition of The Merchant of Venice, which runs a modern English version alongside the full original text. It was the only single-play edition of Merchant in the house, much to my surprise, and I needed something I could slip in my bag. In other words, the hardcover Pelican simply wouldn't do.

When they saw me reading it, the Misses became deeply interested in the idea of a "translation" of Shakespeare. Did people really need that? (Oh, to have been immersed in bardolatry so young that no help is needed, eh?) It would have helped me when I was your age, I conceded. To illustrate the difference, I read the following passage from Act I, Scene 2:

From the original text:
If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions. I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. Such a hare is madness the youth—to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple. But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word “choose!” I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike—so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?
From Barron's "Shakespeare Made Easy":
If practicing were as easy as preaching, chapels would be churches and poor men's cottages would would be princes' palaces. It's a good cleric who follows his own advice. I'd rather instruct twenty people how best to behave, than be one of the twenty obliged to follow my teaching. Reason tries to control behavior. Madcap youth rejects good advice, because it's a handicap. But all this philosophizing won't help me choose a husband. [She sighs again.] That word "choose." I can neither make my own choice nor turn down those I dislike. So the will of a living daughter is thwarted by the will of a dead father. Isn't it unfair, Nerissa, that I can't either choose or refuse?
As I read aloud, it struck me that the "Shakespeare Made Easy" was not as -- for lack of a better phrase -- "dumbed down" as I had thought it might be. Later, I decided to check out Sparknotes "No Fear Shakespeare":
You think it’s that easy? If doing good deeds were as easy as knowing how to do them, then everyone would be better off. Small chapels would be big churches, and poor men’s cottages would be princes' palaces. It takes a good priest to practice what he preaches. For me, it’s easier to lecture twenty people on how to be good than to be the one person out of twenty who actually does good things. The brain can tell the heart what to do, but what does it matter? Cold rules don’t matter when you’ve got a hot temper. Young people are like frisky young rabbits, and good advice is like a crippled old man trying to catch them. But thinking like this won’t help me choose a husband. Oh, the word “choose” is strange! I can’t choose who I like, or refuse who I dislike. I’m a living daughter still controlled by the wishes of her dead father. Isn’t it a pain that I can’t choose or refuse anyone, Nerissa?
The opening and concluding sentences are painfully colloquial, which makes this passage (copyright 2003, eighteen years after the Barron's) seem, yes, dumbed down, but the rest isn't too terrible, is it?

All right. Yes, it is. It's terrible. Too terrible to contemplate further.

Model Home (Eric Puchner)
Fiction. This served as a wonderful (albeit, unintentional) companion piece to Gabrielle Zevin's The Hole We're In, which I read last March. Both titles -- explorations of consumerism, debt, and family dysfunction -- are highly recommended.

Mouse Guard, Volume 1: Fall 1152 (David Petersen)
Mouse Guard, Volume 2: Winter 1152 (David Petersen)
Graphic novel. When I visited the local comic store for #83 of "The Walking Dead," I was stopped in my tracks by the exquisite art and unusual size of an altogether different publication. The clerk who usually seems sort of disengaged (or terribly, terribly shy) when we stop in all but leapt o'er the counter to lead me to the section featuring this series about mice (which owes no small debt to Redwall and Tolkien but really is quite fantastic on its own merits). I was so delighted by his animated presentation that I bought the first volume from him (i.e., I paid full price). Excellent stuff.

A note on the next four books
What is surprising, perhaps, is that this reader-thinker-autodidact didn't turn to books on the subject sooner. For a while there, though, as I have already shared, I handled books a lot -- purging, moving, dusting, reorganizing, purchasing; I just couldn't read them.

So I didn't place the order until mid-March, and I finally read the books -- in the order in which they are presented here, in fact -- in mid-April. (Again, I credit Reinhart's novel with reminding me that I am, in fact, a reader.)

The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child (Barbara D. Rosof)
Psychology. With its recovery-oriented approach, The Worst Loss reads like a handbook prepared by bereavement counselors. As many researchers and psychologists have begun to acknowledge, however, the idea of a recovery rubric for bereaved parents is more than inadequate. The death of a child violates the order of the world. How can one define "recovery" from the inexplicable? Despite the limitation of its viewpoint, however, The Worst Loss is a suitable resource for those seeking some understanding of what bereaved families may be experiencing.

Beyond Tears: Living after Losing a Child (Ellen Mitchell)
Psychology. The voices of nine mothers, most of whom lost adult children, form this braided narrative -- a style that simply failed this reader. The "We felt --," "We found --," "We discovered --" voice reminded me less of a Greek chorus than of the "majestic plural." It distracted and ultimately grated, which was unfortunate because I was deeply moved by the nine narratives of loss -- written in the singular first-person, thank goodness -- that separated the book's chapters. The decision to italicize the individual remarks of the nine contributors was also ill-conceived. A paragraph or two of "We-this" and "We-that" might be followed by a series of individual quotes, which sometimes resulted in italicized 'graph upon italicized 'graph. That's just too much work for any reader, let alone one who might be reading through tears.

Love Never Dies: A Mother's Journey from Loss to Love (Sandy Goodman)
Memoir. I should have read the description of this book more carefully. Had I done so, Mr. M-mv would not have had to repair and repaint the wall that took the direct hit when I hurled Love Never Dies across the room after reading the first chapter-concluding remark written from the author's dead son's perspective! Are you KIDDING me?!? ARGH!

After the Death of a Child: Living with Loss through the Years (Ann K. Finkbeiner)
Psychology. Still reading this one with great interest and appreciation.

Trapped (Michael Northrop)
Fiction. Predictable? You bet. But I think I had something of a soft spot for this YA novel before I had even inhaled its new-book scent. You see, when I was in sixth grade, I wrote a story about how one family survived being SNOWED IN! That was the title: SNOWED IN! It was nearly as implausible as Trapped is, but my English teacher loved it, scrawled an A+ on top, and stapled it to the main bulletin board in our hall (where someone promptly doodled a, ahem, member in one of the margins). From that moment (the A+ and the placement on the bulletin board, obviously; not the doodle) on, my dream of becoming an interpreter at the United Nations was dead because I was a writer.

Heh, heh, heh.

Kids are funny, aren't they? Me, the kid who doodled on my story, even the kids in Trapped. How self-absorbed we all are.

Anyway.

Speaking of implausible, why didn't the characters in Trapped rip down the curtains from the auditorium for more warmth? And, really, why were they so bent out of shape? So, the roof is collapsing. Move to a sturdier part of the building (e.g., the basement). Bring food, of which there is an abundance. Stay together wrapped in the heavy curtains, eat peanut butter and jelly, and settle down, kids.

These characters -- and to some extent their creator -- exhibited an alarming lack of imagination and intellect, as well as an overabundance of hormones and attention to stereotypes.

Sherlock Holmes: Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Fiction. With the Misses. Chapbook entry to follow. Until then, the stories included "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Red-Headed League," "The Man with the Twisted Lip," "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes); "Silver Blaze," "The Musgrave Ritual," and "The Final Problem" (from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes); and "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist" (from The Return of Sherlock Holmes).

The Colony (Jillian Marie Weise)
Fiction. Girl Detective, who is a reliable source of neat recommendations and cool links, sent me over to the Biblioracle earlier this month. I was too late to participate, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading his recommendations (here, here, here). The Colony turned up in a couple of responses, so I decided to check it out. One reviewer wrote, "Part Wellsian dystopia, part medical mystery, part Hawthornian allegory, and part reality show, The Colony is a potent exploration of ethics in the Age of the Genome." I could not have described it better. I'll just add that it stays with you, rather like Feed (M.T. Anderson), Unwind (Neal Shusterman), and The Unit (Ninni Holmqvist). In fact, since I'm so fond of companion pieces (see above), I'd say that for me The Colony read like a companion piece to that latter book.

The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country (Neil Gaiman)
Graphic novel. I have Girl Detective to thank for this one, too.