Friday, April 30, 2010

bookclubbing in April (1 of 2)

Under the Sabers by Tanya Biank

Subtitled "The Unwritten Code of Army Wives", Under the Sabers looks at the culture of Army spouses by focusing specifically on the lives of four women whose husbands are stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Author Tanya Biank is a journalist and Army brat who reveals only at the end of the book that she too is an Army wife. Under the Sabers was inspired by a rash of spousal murders involving individuals stationed at Fort Bragg. Those murders made Biank want to look more closely at the relationships between military men and their wives (was there something inherent in army life that could have led to the murders?). While Under the Sabers is not about the murders, its action takes place during that same time period and Biank does incorporate them into the book (one of the main characters is one of the murder victims and the other murders are mentioned when they occur).

They way Biank writes about the characters (characters probably isn't the best word as the individuals whose lives are chronicled in Under the Sabers are real, live people, but it'll do) makes it very easy for readers to become invested in them (I got teary-eyed when one of the husbands died in action even though I knew it was coming). That being said, it's hard to tell how true-to-life the depictions are. That Biank treats the murdered woman with the same level of detail as the other women despite never having talked to her makes one wonder just how much of what Biank wrote is "real". Also how much were the stories sanitized in order to get buy-in from the individual women (whose real names are used in the book)?

Only one member of the group had seen the Lifetime television show inspired by the book (Army Wives) and only after reading Under the Sabers. She reported that the characters seemed to be inspired by the individuals in the books, but that in the tv show they are all friends.

During our discussion we found ourselves straying from the book and talking more generally about military life and culture as experienced by us or those close to us. The one part of the book that we dwelt on the most was the death of Gary Shane (son of one of the four women). We understood that the death itself was inexplicable, but we were curious about what Biank wasn't saying about Gary Shane's family.

Monday, April 26, 2010

biweekly reading update

I haven't gotten much reading done lately, which I assume is obvious based on my lack of recent posts.

I have finished a few books:
  • Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy (see post)
  • Rumspringa by Tom Shachtman (online book club selection for April; we've just started discussion so I probably won't post about the book until next week)
  • Under the Sabers by Tanya Biank (library book club selection for April; post to come later this week)
Right now the only book that I'm actively reading is Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir. Of course I have a whole pile of books that I've started, but not yet finished, but really they are all languishing at the moment.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dark Roots

I believe this is the first time I've used a short story collection as the book of the month...

Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy

Dark Roots is a short story collection by critically-acclaimed Australian author, Cate Kennedy.

In the volume's title story a 39-year-old woman begins dating a 26-year-old man. At first the love affair makes her feel invigorated, sexy and powerful, but slowly insecurities begin to take over to the point where she begins to unconsciously sabotage the relationship.

The seventeen stories included in Dark Roots are full of individuals like this, true-to-life characters confused and unsure about their futures. Their actions, though, range from eerily familiar (things you can imagine yourself doing if you were in that situation) and completely inexplicable (things that leave you wondering just how desperate you'd have to be to take such risks).

Dark Roots explores what it means to be human. In these stories there is comedy and there is tragedy and in many cases it is Kennedy's subtlety that is her greatest strength.

In the story I mentioned above, the protagonist is reading the list of side-effects of her new birth control pills, among them is a "tendency to hirsuteness". I didn't recognize the word and was intrigued when, in the following sentence, the character resolves to avoid alcohol except in moderation, something that didn't seem to relate to any of the other side-effects. So, I looked it up and it seems that alcohol doesn't relate to hirsuteness either, as hirsute means "hairy" or "covered with hair".

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

belated weekly reading recap

I really didn't get a lot of reading done this week. In fact, I only finished one book: The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim (post to come).

I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the two books I need to read for my book clubs this month: Rumspringa by Tom Shachtman and Under the Sabers by Tanya Biank.

In the meantime I'm currently in the middle of quite a few books:I'm also finally knitting one of the patterns from Cookie A's Sock Innovation: Knitting Techniques & Patterns for One-Of-A-Kind Socks.

Monday, April 05, 2010

weekly reading recap

Finished this week: I'm currently reading:

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog or book clubbing in March part 2

March was the first discussion month for the online book club my friend Lizzie started. The selection: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog was an interesting experience for me. After hearing all the buzz I was really looking forward to reading the book, in fact it was one of the ones I suggested for inclusion in the reading list, but tracking down a copy was a case in frustration (as per usual, at least for me, the "on the shelf" copy wasn't on the shelf in Lockwood. After checking twice, I put a trace on the book and it yielded nothing). Eventually I gave in and ordered a copy, which I didn't receive until after the discussion period had already started. I planned to read it right away straight through (as I'm wont to do) so I could participate in the discussion, but once I started it soon became apparent that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is not a book that can be read quickly.

When Paloma (the 12-year-old protagonist) on page 37, in only the third line of her narration, announces that she's going to be committing suicide in a few months I was shocked and horrified and I really wasn't sure whether I'd like the novel. Nevertheless I continued to read, persevering through all the dense philosophical passages, and ending up loving the novel.

Europa Editions has a really fantastic discussion guide available on its website. Our discussion leader brought it to our attention and pointed us to questions 1, 2, and 9 as starting points for our discussions.

The philosophical interludes, for me, were the most difficult portions of the book. I had to fight my desire to skim when they came up. Because of my educational background I have a better grounding in philosophy than many, but I was still overwhelmed by the amount and detail included the novel. I had to laugh, though, at the passing reference to Melanie Klein because I only know about her because one of the characters in Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street books is obsessed with her.
The fact that Barbery is a philosophy professor explains the inclusion of the interludes (as does Renée's solitary and intellectually inquisitive character), but I do think they are off-putting to many readers. The philosophical musings decrease as the plot progresses, making the novel easier to read and Renée easier to relate to.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is how very easy it is to relate to the protagonists and how utterly unsympathetic they can be. Both Paloma and Renée are experiencing things we all experience--being misunderstood, un(der)appreciated, feeling alone even when surrounded by others--but they way that they act distances them from the reader. In particular, one can't help being turned off by the self-righteous way that both of them describe the others who inhabit their world. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is essentially about the humanization of Paloma and Renée so as each of them changes she becomes more sympathetic.

My favorite part of the novel, I think, is when Paloma puts Dr. T., the psychoanalyst, in his place:
'Listen carefully, Mr. Permafrost Psychologist, you and I are going to strike a little bargain. You’re going to leave me alone and in exchange I won't wreck your little trade in human suffering by spreading nasty rumors about you among the Parisian political and business elite. And believe me--at least if you say you can tell just how intelligent I am—-I am fully capable of doing this.' (209)
I have to admit that I think part of the reason I like this bit so much is because of how I feel about Dr. Fairbairn from the 44 Scotland Street books. I think Fairbairn is even more deserving of Paloma's vitriol than Dr. T.

I'm always interested in the meaning of books' titles, especially when it isn't apparent. In this case the title's genesis is Paloma's description of Renée:
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary--and terribly elegant. (143)
One of the reasons I was drawn to The Elegance of the Hedgehog was its intriguing title, but I appreciate the title even more now that I know that it's meaningful.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Day of Confession

Day of Confession by Allan Folsom

In Italy, the Cardinal Vicar of Rome is assassinated during a papal celebration. In Los Angeles, entertainment lawyer Harry Addison receives a desperate message from his long-estranged brother, Father Daniel Addison, a Vatican priest. Hours later a tour bus with Father Daniel aboard explodes on the road to Assisi.
When Harry arrives in Italy to claim his brother's body, he discovers that not only may Father Daniel still be alive, but he is the prime suspect in the murder of the Cardinal Vicar. In a sudden turn, Harry finds himself framed for the murder of an Italian policeman. Now on the run and on his brother's trail, Harry is thrust into a terrifying world of horror and deception where an international terrorist hunts Father Daniel as relentlessly as the authorities...and where a monstrous conspiracy arises from the very heart of the Vatican.

I've been listening to Day of Confession (read by Michael Kramer) while in the car for quite a while. I finally finished it this afternoon.

Day of Confession is another one of the inside-the-Catholic-church conspiracy thrillers. I liked the book overall, particularly how layered its plot is, but I'm not sure it's one that I would have chosen to read had it been in traditional book form.

The one thing that I found most interesting is that the two biggest villains both suffered from some sort of mental illness. I'm not sure if Folsom is using that instability to justify their actions. Is he trying to imply that people can't be evil by choice, that all depraved behavior is a result of mental imbalance?

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Glassblower of Murano

This book arrived in the mail on Wednesday and even though I had multiple books in progress I started it right away because it looked good.

The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano is the story of Leonora Manin, a venetian-born Brit who decides to explore her roots after her divorce. It is also the story of Corradino Manin, Leonora's ancestor, a famous 17th century glassblower. While the majority of the narrative follows Leonora, Corradino's part is significant and does not exist solely as a foil to Leonora's storyline.

The Glassblower of Murano is both a historical mystery and a contemporary romance. The novel is full of Venice and Murano and the details of glass-making. Leonora in particular is a sympathetic character and her journey is realistic.