I’ve read/am reading/am trying to read a couple of books that folks are buzzing about lately, and I’m not sure if I like them or not. (SPOILER ALERT: I never want to warn anybody off from reading one of my posts, but if you don’t want to know specifics about either one of these books, tread cautiously.) I’d heard talk, of course, about Stieg Larsson’s “Dragon” book that seems to have taken over the world and somehow I thought it was one of those woman-journeys-to-exotic-locale-to-find-her-true-self (sort of an “Eat, Pray, Get Tattooed” experience) but of course that is waaaay off. We’re reading it in one of my book clubs, and I think I like it. I really dig the Agatha Christie-like mystery part and I love all the coffee-drinking and sandwich-eating those wacky Swedish people seem to do. But the overriding theme of … well, evil and unspeakable violence is disturbing. As it should be, I know. And then there’s the background story of Larsson’s politics and journalism career, which adds a whole other layer of complexity. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book. On the other hand, I know exactly how I feel about the darling of the post-post-modern or whatever crowd, Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad”: Bored. And confused. I just don’t get it. Am I supposed to care about these people? I keep picking it up and trying to read it because I know I should — it keeps getting fantastic reviews — but then after a few pages my attention wanders and I wonder if it’s time to feed the cats or water the plants or do something else more interesting. Like find another book. Or am I just not cool enough to appreciate “Goon Squad”? That seems more likely.
Happy spring! Saturday, March 20 marked the arrival of this much-anticipated season. Most years by now in my northwest-Alabama northeast-Mississippi southern-middle-Tennessee corner of the South, we’ve already had several gorgeous spring days. But 2010? Not so much. That’s why everybody who saw it loved this spring-like tablescape at a recent book-signing with author and columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson. It was a typical gray and cool and wet day, but the folks at ColdWater Books in Tuscumbia, Alabama, outdid themselves with these sweet and delightful touches of spring. I love the gentle pop of colors in the blue-and-white print tablecloth, the pink punch and the yellow flowers. And aren’t you impressed with that huge pottery bowl holding ice and water bottles? When I first saw it, I was thinking $300 or more handmade one-of-a-kind creation. But no. It’s a $30 planter from Lowe’s. Sweet! Just make sure the one you buy doesn’t have a hole for water drainage, and you’re good. And here’s another good idea: Buy Johnson’s new book, Enchanted Evening Barbie & the Second Coming: A Memoir. It’s Johnson at her best — funny, smart, insightful and a tad wistful. The book-signing was the first time I’d met her, and if you ever get the chance to meet her, too, take it. She was so gracious and friendly — a real delight. And if you haven’t read it yet, pick up a copy of Johnson’s previous book, Poor Man’s Provence. It’s about the second home she and her late husband, Don Grierson, created for themselves in Cajun Louisiana. But be warned: It will make you want to drive down there to see it for yourself. Spring-break road trip, anybody?
Was I the only one underwhelmed with Elizabeth Kostova’s newest, “The Swan Thieves”? Her first book, “The Historian,” intrigued me so I couldn’t wait to dive in to Swan, but … meh. It’s about a somewhat famous painter who attacks a painting in a New York museum and then refuses to talk. His psychiatrist takes on the project of trying to figure out why the artist did that — and we get to tag along. There are various narrators and voices as the doctor digs into the artist’s past, including both the painter’s wife and his girlfriend plus a mysterious woman the artist obsessively painted portraits of. Turns out the mystery woman was an English artist who lived more than 100 years ago. We learn her story in the book through love letters between her and her husband’s much-older uncle, and if Kostova had just stuck with that narrative and lost about half of Swan’s almost-600 pages, she would at least have ended up with something halfway entertaining and satisifyingly dark and Gothic. But, sadly, she didn’t. It’s hard to keep up with who’s saying what, the characters are practically indistinguishable from one another and I kept having to ask myself, “Now, why am I reading this again?” Plodding, slow and tedious are the words that come to mind. But the bottom line is that Kostova never convinced me I cared about any of these people. An artist ripped a painting — so what? He was supposed to be this charismatic always-center-of-attention type of guy who everybody immediately fell in love with despite the fact that he harbored this deep and tragic secret, but I wasn’t feeling it. I’m sure there were supposed to be all sorts of subtle sub-texts and multi-layered themes about art and psychiatry and obsessions and love, but I mainly just wanted to get it over with. I know, I know — Kostova is a gifted writer who layers complexities upon complexities and excels at rich detail and historical interweaving. Shrug. If she can’t make me care about her characters, then I am not impressed.
I am absolutely obsessed with these books and have slowly been working my way through the Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child sections of my local library. I have to admit I’d never heard of this thriller-writing team until my daughter and son-in-law lent me some paperbacks with intriguing recommendation of “better — and earlier — than Dan Brown.” Who could resist that? Preston and Child collaborate on the can’t-put-it-down series about FBI Special Agent Augustus Pendergast, a sophisticated genius-level investigator who combines otherworldly mental acuity with almost super-human physical strength — yet he still has weaknesses and makes mistakes. So he’s just like us, really! The ongoing series started out as your typical ancient-beast-roaming-deserted-museum-halls type of mystery but now has morphed into a to-the-death chase between our Good Guy and his evil brother, Diogenes Pendergast. There’s also plenty of wine, a creepy mansion, a girl-woman who’s much older somehow than she looks, a curious and impetuous newspaper reporters to keep things riled up and a straight-shooting hardworking police officer to keep things grounded. I’m telling you, once you get hooked you’ll read these books straight through and then haunt the bookstore for the next one — Fever Dream, due out in May. Preston and Child also have written other books both together and each separately that mostly seem to follow the same pattern: Scientists or archaeologists or some other type of professionals discover fossils/dead frozen animals/ancient writings/deadly bacteria/computer viruses that will cause widespread damage and body counts unless Something Is Done In The Next 24 Hours To Stop It. And you know, something always is done, which is reassuring. I think I’ve read more than a dozen of these books in the past couple months — they’re perfect for snow days or when you’re too sick to go to work but not sick enough to spend the whole day sleeping. Go to http://www.prestonchild.com for more.
Have you all heard about the Jane Austin zombie book? (It is so much fun to say “Jane Austen zombie book.”) My husband just finished it and agreed to write a review of it for you all. Prepare to have some fun:
My wife and I have developed a shorthand to describe certain kinds of restaurants we encounter: “It’s better than it needed to be.” That’s my hearty endorsement of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a clever and careful reworking of the classic Jane Austen novel by Simon Grahame-Smith, “with ultraviolent zombie mayhem.” A crafty publisher came up with the concept to marry a great novel in the public domain (no copyright infringement) with a classic horror movie antagonist. Grahame-Smith takes the existing story – and all of its memorable characters, especially headstrong Elizabeth Bennet and the proud Mr. Darcy – and looses a plague of “unmentionables” onto the English countryside. From a writer’s perspective – which is the way I read most books – it’s a dazzling experiment. In lesser hands, it could have been a mess, a one-note parody that would grow tiresome after a few pages. Give a lot of credit to Austen. She wrote such a sturdy tale that it easily bears up under the weight. After all, Elizabeth Bennet is surely the literary ancestor of those strong-willed heroines who survive their cinematic battles with Jason or Freddy or the aliens. Mr. Darcy – and, yes, it’s impossible to avoid picturing Colin Firth wielding a sword as you read along – fits in nicely alongside misunderstood antiheroes like Han Solo. Austen’s story chugs along toward an inevitable happy ending as the zombie corpses pile up. After I was through, I had to go find an online copy of the original, so I could marvel at how Grahame-Smith pulled it off. Of course they’re going to make a movie of this. And of course there will be more literary mash-ups after this one was a best-seller. Sense and Sensibility and Werewolves? Cathy and Heathcliff and Dracula? Little Women and The Robots From Mars? Why not?
Arrggghhhh! No, it’s not Talk Like A Pirate Day. That is me being aggravated at myself for forgetting things. Like today. I was hanging out with family all day — including grandson Capt. Adorable, my parents and both daughters — and then came home to more computer problems so I spent an hour on the phone getting my wireless router reconfigured and then completely forgot I had an AAUW book-club meeting tonight. I love my American Association of University Women group because those ladies are so dang smart — I just sort of soak up wisdom whenever I’m around them — and it aggravated the bejebbers out of me for forgetting it was meeting tonight. Also: I was looking forward to hearing more about our book. “The Golden Child” by Penelope Fitzgerald. Written in 1977, this novel is a delightful poke at pretentious high-museum politics as a world-famous archaeological exhibit opens in London — and murder and mayhem ensues. With proper English decorum, of course. I had never heard of this book or this author, who wrote her first book at 69 so that means there is hope for the rest of us, and I wanted to learn more. Oh, well. Plus, this week I also have forgotten three water bottles and left them at various places: 1) My parents’ refrigerator, 2) the local library board room (which doesn’t sound as impressive when you know I was there only for a Harry Potter book-club meeting) and 3) well … I now have forgotten the third place where I left a water bottle. I think it’s time to go to bed.
Hmm … a friend on Facebook posts about going to dinner at Christ Church in Oxford, England, where Harry Potter scenes were filmed. I, on the other hand, take a Facebook quiz about which Harry Potter character I am, although the typos and misspellings in those quizzes drive me so crazy that I WANT TO MAKE A QUIZ ABOUT WHY CAN’T YOU PEOPLE SPELL AND PUT APOSTROPHES IN THE RIGHT PLACES???? And then that puts me in such a contrary mood that I think I’ll write about other things that make me crazy — things that other people absolutely adore … such as the book “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. Many, many friends whose opinions I respect and recommendations I follow love this book. Love, love, love it. They think it’s a powerfully female story about one woman’s journey to discover and accept who she is. They kind of get all starry-eyed when they talk about it. And listen, I’m all for everybody having their own opinions and liking what they like for their own reasons. So with all due respect to everybody who puts this book in the you-gotta-read-this pile, I think that instead of a classic, it actually is a powerfully narcissistic story about one woman’s self-indulgent justifications and her ability to come up with something that validated her $200,000 book advance. I despise books in which everybody loves the narrator/main character and thinks the narrator/main character is the best thing since sliced white bread for no discernible reason whatsoever. Such as in this book. Such as in the fan club that Ms. Gilbert gathers around her everywhere she goes with no effort on her part. Such as everyone who meets her falls in love with her and wants to do things for her. Or so she says, as she journeys around the world and dabbles in other cultures to erase the pain of a failed marriage and love affair. Look, when faced with broken relationships, most of the rest of us women learn about our submerged talents and unknown strengths and authentic selves by going to work and getting the kids ready for school and fixing the leaky toilet every day on our own all by ourselves. I’m just saying.
And which Harry Potter character am I? Harry! According to the quiz (corrected for spelling and grammar), I’m “destined to do great things and highly ambitious. Sometimes, in order to go after your dreams, you seem to disregard rules — there is a slight haze (?) in your sense of right or wrong but in the end, you’re a good person.” Phew! That’s a relief.
Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore or computer and buy Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge,” the 2009 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner. I first heard about this book on NPR and I’ve since read it three times and recommended it to all readers I know. This has it all: Lovely and lyrical writing, subtle details that stay with you, stories you can’t forget and powerfully ordinary characters. The book is a series of short stories that follow the lives of folks in a coastal Maine village over several years — some people we get to know well and others just sort of pass through, leaving more questions than answers behind. This is the sort of read that makes you think. And want to reread it so you can think some more. If swine flu-closings furlough you from work, pick this book up and take it home. And even if your workplace remains blissfully swine flu-free, pick it up, anyway. You’ll be glad you did.