Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley, but not Jane Austen

Last month, I was disappointed in a failed attempt at Jane Austen imitation, in my post Another Jane Austen Knockoff. This month, I'm impressed by P. D. James's efforts in Death Comes to Pemberley. 

The book picks up a few years after Pride and Prejudice leaves off. Darcy and Elizabeth are happily married, with two young sons. Elizabeth has risen to her role as Mrs. Darcy, and the household staff respects and admires her. Jane and Bingley live nearby, and have introduced a new friend into their circle: Henry Alveston, a London lawyer, soon to inherit his father's title. Georgiana Darcy, still at Pemberley, is being courted both by Alveston and by Colonel Fitzwilliam, their cousin and onetime admirer of Elizabeth.

The household is in the midst of preparations for the annual Harvest ball, to which much of the surrounding landowners and townspeople are invited, when a traumatic event occurs. Late on the eve of the ball, a carriage comes barreling down the lane, carrying Elizabeth and Jane's youngest sister Lydia, who is in hysterics. Lydia tells them she was on her way to the ball, accompanied by her husband, George Wickham, and his friend Captain Dennys. En route, Dennys and Wickham got into an argument and stopped the carriage to continue it outside. A little while later, Lydia and the carriage driver heard gunshots, and immediately left for the safety of Pemberley. A search party is sent out, and a dead body is found in the woods... but where is the murderer?

The most fascinating thing about this book is how very Austen-like it is. It's really astonishing. I've read all of Jane Austen's novels, and this book reads like Austen risen from the grave. The language, the level of description, the habits and temperaments of the characters are all en pointe. The story builds the same way, with unexpected climaxes and even the "dirty little secrets" that Austen incorporates into all her novels (i.e., Mr. Willoughby's affair with Brandon's young charge in Sense and Sensibility). The one concern I have is why this book was billed as a mystery. If it is a mystery, then all of Austen's work is mystery. The only difference is that the question in the book is centered around a murder, not around a marriage. But the plot structure adheres to a more literary novel like Pride and Prejudice itself, not to any Agatha Christie-like framework.

I've never read any P. D. James before, but she does such an extraordinary job with the near-impossible task of imitating Austen that I'm going to have to try some of her more original work. I am very impressed!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Another Piece of my Heart

I've been reading Jane Green for years. She's one of the few contemporary authors that I've enjoyed throughout my entire twenties and now into my thirties. Her style and characters have changed from urban and gritty to suburban and neurotic, and her settings have gradually migrated from England to New England to the West Coast, but the essence of her writing remains the same: relationship-centered, deeply revealing and highly emotional.

In Another Piece of My Heart, forty-something Andi has finally settled down and married Ethan, a wonderful, loving man who also happens to be a divorced dad with an alcoholic ex and two daughters. One daughter, Sophia, is a pre-teen delight and bonds with Andi instantly. The other, Emily, is a teenage terror. She goes out of her way to make trouble between Andi and Ethan, trying to push her new stepmother away while making excuses for her alcoholic mother. Emily's acting out becomes more serious when she starts drinking heavily, doing drugs and experimenting with sex. The wedge between Andi and Ethan widens as Ethan seems unable to stand up to his daughter and Andi cannot tolerate the frequent tantrums and disruptions to their lives. The last straw comes when Emily gets pregnant at seventeen. Andi, who has wanted her own child since their marriage but was unable to conceive, sees this as an opportunity to make the family whole again, but Ethan balks, wanting to give the child up for adoption. The choice is made for them when Emily goes into early labor, decides to keep the baby, and then abandons him weeks later, running away and leaving him under Andi's care. For three years, there is peace, but then Emily returns, a little bit older and wiser, and makes a demand that Andi and Ethan cannot endure. 

The book is a strong, compelling read and completely typical of Green's aforementioned style: very insightful, very emotion-centered. My only big issue with Green is that she sometimes makes her characters too self-aware, making speeches that seem unrealistically honest. For example, after Ethan finds out that Emily wants to keep the baby, he says to Andi: 

"It's not you," he says sadly, swallowing the lump that has risen in his throat. "It's her. I never wanted to believe it. I never wanted to think of my daughter as... I don't know... broken somehow, or in need of fixing. I know that her behavior stems from insecurity, from her wanting to be loved, but I also know it's about her, and nothing to do with you, and I know it's not acceptable. Not anymore."

I don't know too many men who speak that candidly in one long sentence, do you? I completely believe that Ethan feels those things, but I'm not sure if I believe him saying them so precisely. This happens in Green's writing, not over-frequently, but sometimes. I guess there's a need to suspend belief a little to get every character's emotions across, but it does take me out of the story somewhat.

The other thing that takes me out of the story, and it's a small thing, but sometimes Green uses British sayings that don't make sense coming out of an American's mouth or mind. For example, during a chapter that Emily narrates, she thinks, "That bit totally freaks me out... That bit is just beyond gross." An American teen would say "That part" or "That stuff/ crap/ shit," not "That bit." Overall, Green is pretty good at Americanizing, but every once in awhile, I find one of these. She is, after all, British herself, and all of her early novels are set in or around London. I'm not sure why she made the switch- maybe she moved here?- but several books ago she wrote a story that was set between England and New England, and all her novels after that were based solely in the U.S. 

Try some Green, if you're a woman, or a particularly sensitive man, who loves good literature. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Saluting Literature at the Olympics

How many of you watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics? If you did, can you guess what my favorite segment was? I loved the salute to children's literature. I think it's wonderful that Britain values its literary history so highly as to devote part of their worldwide stage to it. Before tonight, I hadn't really thought about the amazing legacy that British authors have created for children. From J. M. Barrie to P. L. Travers to J. K. Rowling... wow, they really love their initials over there, don't they?

What would a child's literary world be without Peter Pan and Tinkerbell? Without Captain Hook, Neverland and believing in "second star to the right, and straight on til morning?" Without the wonder of children who never grow up?

And who would we be without Mary Poppins? Without "a spoonful of sugar" and "supercalifragilisticexpealidocious" and tea parties on the ceiling? Without the magic of seeing the world from a different perspective?

And of course, what would the world be without Harry Potter? J. K. Rowling made the love of reading cool again for kids (and adults) across the world, paving the way for millions of new readers to experience further literary delights.

Thank you, Britain, for giving us these wonderful authors, and many others, who contributed to my personal love of reading!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book List

I've been pretty lax about blogging this week. Partly, that's due to the fact that I've spent the week at home fixing up my new office space (which looks fantastic) and working on the baby's room (which isn't ready yet, but getting there). This involved all sorts of sorting, organizing and heavy lifting. (I took care of the first two, my husband took care of the third. Thanks honey!) Unfortunately, all of this activity was hard on my back. I've never had back issues before- I pride myself on taking good care of this part of my anatomy through regular strength-training and yoga- but apparently carrying 30 extra pounds, all in one general area, can create quite a strain. So in between all the moving and organizing this week, I also had to spend several hours on the couch with my friend the heating pad. Which means I had plenty of time to read. Which I did. And if I had time to read, I also had time to blog. Which I didn't. And that brings me to the real reason why I didn't blog this week:

I haven't read anything worth blogging about.

Not that I haven't read anything good. I just haven't read anything that provoked a strong opinion. Here are the books I've finished in the last 9-10 days:

Animal Farm by George Orwell. I just had a craving to re-read it, similar to my craving for The Handmaid's Tale a few weeks ago. But I don't have much to say about Animal Farm that most people didn't cover in their high school English classes. It's a classic fable about politics and communism. And yes, I know that's a very simplistic generalization, and yes, that's why I'm not going to get into it further.

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin. My sister-in-law and I chose this one to read together, hoping to discuss it afterward. It was a well-written book and a fast read, and I enjoyed it while I was in the midst of it. But after we were both done, we found we didn't have much to say about it. It was kind of forgettable. I'd recommend it as a good beach read for people missing Downton Abbey. If you'd like to know more about the book, the NY Times Book Review is here: NY Times- The American Heiress.

Across the Miles, a compilation of short stories by L.M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables. This one is an old favorite. I have several of her short story collections and they're all packed full of quirky characters and unexpected story lines. Don't dismiss them as children's books. They're an excellent read for all ages, just as the Anne series is, and just as her other novels are. My Montgomery favorites are The Story Girl, A Tangled Web and Magic for Marigold. 

Here are the books I'm currently working on:

Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews. I'm listening to this on audiobook while I do my housework. I like it, but not as much as I've liked her previous books. I'm also not crazy about the reader.

Another Piece of My Heart by Jane Green. I always read Jane Green's newest book eventually. I haven't gotten very far into this one, and so far I'm not passionate about it, but I'll definitely finish it.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. So far, this Pride and Prejudice spinoff has not disappointed. It's very authentically written, and has the murder-mystery element as well. Hats off to P.D. James- she succeeds where many Austen imitators fail, as I wrote about in my post Another Jane Austen Knockoff.

So I'm definitely reading, but finding little to comment on. I apologize for my lack of inspiration, but it's not always easy coming up with a definite opinion about everything I read, especially the kind of books I read in the summer. Hopefully, when I'm done with the three I'm working on, I'll have some meatier posts for you.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Power of Habit

If you're going to read one "important" book this summer, let it be this one:

I love, love, loved this book. I'm always fascinated by human behavior and social psychology. This book explores the power of habit in three arenas: personal, organizational, and societal. For each, Charles Duhigg tells stories of individuals, corporations or movements that were able to take a negative habit pattern and turn it into a positive one.

If you read this book, you will learn how to:

- create a positive habit by continuously repeating the loop of cue-routine-reward
- break a negative habit by finding the cue that triggers it, changing the routine, and creating a new reward
- recognize the power of individual and corporate habits in the running of major organizations, from Target to Starbucks to hospitals
- use the power of habit and the ties of community to help spur the tide of social change.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Habits aren't destiny... habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But... the discovery of the bait loop... reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit- unless you find new routines- the pattern will unfold automatically."

"Habits allow our brain to ramp down more often. An efficient brain requires less room. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games."

"Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work."

And, because I'm a music teacher, and believe this is a very important part of what I do:

"That's why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star... when you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time."

(And a fourth grader who can practice clarinet for twenty minutes a day becomes an eighth grader with the endurance to concentrate on a ninety minute science lab. That's why musicians and athletes make the best students. That's not from the book, but the book proves its truth.)

Like Laura Vanderkam's books, this is another life-changing one. I promise it will get you thinking about your daily habits, everything from brushing your teeth to flicking through the Target coupons (that were customized for you based on your shopping habits- did you know that?).

I've been reading like crazy- more books to come!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Castaways

Over the weekend, I devoured this excellent summer read:

My ONLY objection to this book was the title. When I read the cover, and saw that it was about a couple who are lost at sea, I assumed "the castaways" referred to them, and that they would eventually be discovered alive. I expected a story that flashed back and forth between the devastated family on land and the desperate couple at sea. But that idea was immediately debunked. I'm not spoiling it for you by saying that the couple at sea is definitely dead. They are dead on page one, and there's no mystery involved, except for what happened to cause their deaths. 

"The Castaways" refers instead to the self-imposed nickname of the group of couples that formed a tight friendship circle on the island of Nantucket. Greg and Trish, the lost-at-sea, were two of the eight. The book is about how the remaining six each find their own ways to move on after Greg and Trish's deaths. It's a close-knit, sometimes incestuous bunch. The eight took several vacations together; two of them, including one of the dead, were involved in an affair; two had previously dated and even lived together before their separate marriages; and all of them have a certain degree of attraction or feeling for at least one of the others. The book explores all of those ties, the marriages and the friendships, the healthy and the unhealthy relationships, including the ties that bind the living to the dead. There's a lot of reminiscing and a lot of trying to move forward, and everyone deals with their grief in a unique but completely apropos way. All of the characters are equally enjoyable to read about, which I think is rare for a multi-perspective book, and despite its morbid framing, the book actually feels very heartwarming. 

I highly recommend this for your beach bag- it's definitely my favorite Elin Hilderbrand thus far. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Magic Hour

I mentioned in my post Vacation Book List that one of my favorite summer authors is Kristin Hannah. I just finished another one of her excellent books: Magic Hour.

Following her usual themes, Hannah wrote this book about sisters and set it in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. But from there, she took some unique departures. The book centers on renowned child therapist Dr. Julia Cates, whose practice has recently dissolved after a nasty murder trial involving one of her patients. At the same time, her partly-estranged sister Ellie, the chief of police in the tiny town of Rain Valley, has a major problem on her hands: a wild, feral little girl, apparently unable to communicate with humans, has appeared up in a tree, clutching a wolf pup. Ellie has no idea what to do with her or how to find her family. She calls on Julia to solve the mystery of this little girl, to crack the shell of fear and savagery around her, and to help her learn to speak. As the two, along with the handsome town doctor and some old friends of Ellie's, attempt to help the girl they've decided to call Alice, they both learn to put some of their family's past behind them and create new ties with each other and with Alice.

I'm not sure how appropriate the title itself is, because it only clicks in the last few sentences of the book, but there certainly is something magical about the story. The relationship between Julia and Alice in particular is incredibly beautiful and heartwarming. The two characters draw each other out in a way that's methodical in terms of child development and yet perfectly paced for storytelling. Then there's the mystery that surrounds Alice's appearance, which builds in tension throughout the book, even as the relationships between the characters are building, making the stakes even higher. In short, it's a very well-crafted story, and I admire Kristin Hannah for that. But mostly it's just a great book to sink into, and I highly recommend it, especially as a can't-put-this-down summer read.

I'm actually about two books behind in my posting- I finished two more fantastic ones this weekend, so stay tuned for The Castaways and The Power of Habit! 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Books That Shaped America

The Library of Congress recently released a list of books that they felt had a great impact on the American psyche. They are quick to note that this is not a list of the best American books, but rather ones that sparked debate and forced Americans to think about who we are and how we live. For example, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, released in 1946 by Benjamin Spock (the famous "Dr. Spock" of the 1950s) changed the way millions of parents perceived their children and parenting techniques. Few would argue that this book be on any Best Books in America list, or even that it's the best book about child rearing. But there's no denying the impact it had on the American household at the time. Same goes for Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer in 1937.

The complete list is here: Library of Congress: Books That Shaped America

I can't comment on the impact of most of these books at the time of their release, because I wasn't alive for most of them. In fact, the only one published after 1990, when I might reasonably expect to remember it, is The Words of Cesar Chavez in 2002, and I don't remember that being any kind of event at all. That's not to say that it didn't impact Americans, it just didn't impact me. So I have little to say about most of the books on the list. I'd be very interested to hear how people of my parents' and grandparents' generation perceive the books on the list, particularly my grandparents' generation, since many of the books were published between 1930 and 1960. Obviously, no one is around to comment on Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, but I think most of us can grasp the impact those two books had on major events in American history.

I have read several of these books myself, but I think I'll use this list as a reference to read some more. I love American history, and the social impact of books is fascinating. It occurs to me that perhaps the reason that so few of the books on the list are current has little to do with writers themselves, and more to do with the decline of reading in America. Since the 1950s, television shows and movies have reached a far greater audience than books, and probably had more of an impact on the American psyche. I may not remember The Words of Cesar Chavez, but I certainly remember the release of Titanic and the series finales of Seinfeld and Friends. Maybe it's time we all reminded ourselves of the power of books to change the world. After all, without Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, would the women's revolution have truly sparked? Even greater, without Thomas Paine's Common Sense, would we have celebrated our Independence Day yesterday?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Besides being a national holiday, today is my mother's birthday! I'm not going to embarrass her by revealing WHICH birthday (though it's an important milestone) or post a picture of her. But I want to thank her for giving up so many of her (fill-in-the-blank) years to loving, caring for and educating me. In particular, I want to thank her for passing on her love of books and reading (and sometimes the actual books themselves- sorry Mom, I know I'm bad at returning them). When I think of what my life would have been without her influence, I feel bereft.

Happy Independence Day to the rest of you Americans, and Happy Birthday to my beautiful, intelligent, talented and loving Mom!