The Graveyard Book

I finished listening to Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Graveyard Book, at Neil Gaiman’s official site for young readers.  On his recent book tour, Gaiman read a chapter (or in the case of chapter 7, a half a chapter) at each stop on his tour.  Videos of his readings were posted on the site.  I’m not sure how much longer they are available, or if they are permanent, but do yourself a favor and enjoy Gaiman reading his work.  He does it very well, and it’s a gift not all authors have.  For instance, I have heard J.K. Rowling read her work on video, and while she wasn’t bad, she wasn’t a particularly good oral interpreter.  Gaiman changes voices for his characters, giving them different dialects and accents, and his emphasis in the right places draws out much of the humor of the book.  And there is quite a bit of humor in the book.  He’s a wonderful reader.

The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens — called Bod for short, a young boy who wanders into a nearby graveyard after his parents are murdered and is raised by the spirits who inhabit the graveyard.  We should all have such an education!  As Silas, Bod’s guardian says, “It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will … take a graveyard.”  Gaiman’s novel is a nod to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard by the spirits, and until he is grown, they promise to look after him, for the man who killed his family is still out there, waiting.

The book was a pleasure from start to finish, and more so as a result of Neil Gaiman’s superb oral storytelling skills.  I plan to purchase a copy for my classroom library and will recommend the book to my students.  I think it very generous of Neil Gaiman to share his book in this manner, and I am grateful for the experience of hearing him read the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Breaking Dawn

Earlier this evening, I finished the final book in Stephenie Meyer’s vampire saga.  Breaking Dawn was not, in my estimation, as good as its predecessors.  I felt the book had a variety of problems that boil down to one main issue.  I expect books about the supernatural to stretch my credulity, but this book went over my credulity line.

Spoilers follow, so stop reading now if you intend to read the book and don’t want plot details revealed.

In this novel Bella, Meyer’s protagonist, marries her Edward (who was a little too bossy and controlling — and yes, he may be from a more patriarchal era, but I still don’t like it) and inexplicably gives birth to a half vampire/half human child.  The birth would have killed her except Edward is able to heal Bella’s injuries by making her into a vampire.  As a vampire, much of the quirks that make her personality accessible to teenage girls — her insecurity and clumsiness — fall away in the face of her superhuman powers.  And she defies the mold by displaying amazing self control and powers, considering she is a newborn vampire.  Meanwhile, Jacob inexplicably imprints on Edward and Bella’s daughter Renesmee.  Never mind she’s not part of the Quileute tribe.  See what I mean?  Finally, another vampire glimpses Renesmee and thinks Carlisle’s coven has done the unthinkable — created a vampire out of a child.  Supposedly it’s a crime to create child vampires because they have vampire strength and no control.  The Volturi — the guardians of the vampires’ secret — descend upon Bella and her family, but she’s not about to give up without a fight.

I believe the best book in the series remains the first, although I liked parts of each of the others, even this one.  However, Breaking Dawn was easy to put down for long periods of time, and it was difficult to pick up again sometimes.  I had eventually read through too much of it to put it down.  Once I invest in a book by a certain number of pages, I tend to plow through.  Overall, I was disappointed with this book, but the series as a whole is a satisfying, fun read.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

First, the good news is that I was able to generate quite a lot of interest in a book club among the teachers at my school.  They graciously allowed me to select our first book, and I chose Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  It’s a perfect book for book clubs, and I believe I had read as much somewhere, but I’m not sure where.  I was taken by the title.

The book is populated with memorable characters who tell their story through letters.  As this is one of only a handful of epistolary novels I’ve read, I’ll call it a unique storytelling device that works well to reveal the plot.  Much better, in fact, than I think a straight narrative would have because it allows for the otherwise risky device of multiple narrators to work much better.  The novel is the story of a writer named Juliet Ashton, who reminded me of Dorothy Parker.  I’ll be curious to see if my book club members thought of her, too.  By chance, Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer on the Channel Island of Guernsey comes upon one of her books in a used book store, and he enjoys it so much that he writes to her.  Over time, Juliet develops friendships with Dawsey and his friends, who formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society during Germany’s occupation of the island during World War II.

Any book focused on a setting ought to leave the reading feeling a desire to visit, and that’s precisely how I felt.  I have never thought even once in my life of going to Guernsey, but just like John Berendt’s characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil bring the city of Savannah to life and have caused a cottage industry around tourism related to the book, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn something similar happens to Guernsey; however, increased tourism will likely depend on how popular the book becomes.  My favorite books — the ones I couldn’t put down even if they were not literature with a capial L — were all populated with memorable, realistic characters I wish I could know in real life, and now I have one more book to add to that list.

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The Mother Tongue

I finished Bill Bryson’s book about the English language, Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way, a couple of days ago.  It was at times an entertaining read, and I think anyone who is interested in the English language or teaches English might want to read it.  I found the chapter on the development of English from Old English to Modern English particularly interesting.  Bryson’s wry observations about the strangeness of English are peppered throughout the book.  However, he does rely a bit on the same few scholars (Otto Jesperson and Mario Pei come up a lot), and I felt that the book became less interesting as it went on the point that I had to force myself to finish it (I’d gone too far to go back).

The biggest problem I had with the book, however, is that it is now dated in the age of the Internet.  The book was published in the early 1990’s.  Since the book was published, English has become even more essential for world business as it has become the language of most of the Internet.  As I read the book, I couldn’t help but feel it needs to have a new edition with Bryson’s analysis of the Internet’s impact on the development of English.  Without such an analysis, it doesn’t feel complete.

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The Lace Reader

The Lace ReaderBrunonia Barry’s novel The Lace Reader is an intricate and fascinating read.  Barry’s description evokes a setting that is easy for the reader to picture and her characters are memorable.  Towner Whitney narrates most of the novel, and readers would do well to pay particular to the first two sentences in which she introduces herself.  I make a habit of checking a book to see how many chapters, parts, and pages it has, and I inadvertently saw something on a page near the end that gave away the ending, but I enjoyed seeing it unravel nonetheless.  Do yourself a favor if you read it, and don’t peek.  The surprise is better.

Towner returns to Salem after 15 years when she discovers Eva, whom Towner refers to as her aunt, is missing.  As the novel progresses, the reader learns that Towner has stayed away to escape some horrible memories from her past, when her twin Lyndley committed suicide at the age of 17 and Towner herself confessed to a murder that had not taken place.  She meets and becomes close to Rafferty, the detective assigned to look into Eva’s death and also into subsequent events.

My favorite character was Ann Chase, whom Barry describes as the second most famous witch in Salem after Laurie Cabot.  She was no-nonsense, funny, and strong.  I also liked Eva, who has died by the time the narrative begins, but whose personality is revealed through other characters’ memories of her.

The title comes from a fictional means of divination called lace reading, which is practiced by Eva, May, and occasionally Towner, though Towner blames her sister’s death on lace reading and refuses to practice it afterward.

More than anything else, this novel is about abuse and its toll on the human psyche.  I found the book to be really interesting, and it wouldn’t surprise me if lace reading becomes a popular means of fortune telling as a result of the novel.  Barry says that she wrote the novel as a “heroine’s journey,” influenced by the ideas of Joseph Campbell.  She wondered how the woman’s journey as a hero would be different from that of the man.  I’m not sure, after reading it, that I see Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in the novel.  However, I do see a sort of journey in it, and I’m glad I went on that trip.

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The Plague of Doves

The Plague of DovesLouise Erdrich’s latest novel A Plague of Doves might be the best book I’ve read this year.  I kept turning the pages as the drama that affected an entire town unravels showing the degree to which the traumatic murder of a family and subsequent lynching of innocent parties binds the townspeople together in a fascinating web of history.

A Plague of Doves is often compared to Faulkner.  Erdrich’s use of multiple narrators as well as the imagery, symbolism, and characters of her novel certainly evoke Faulkner, but readers daunted by Faulkner’s style need not be afraid.  A Plague of Doves contains no page-length sentences or stream-of-consciousness meanderings that make it difficult to follow.  This story is told from the viewpoint of four different narrators who are all connected to the town’s tragic past in various ways.  One of the narrators, Evelina Harp, attempts to parse the connections upon first hearing about the story of the lynching:

The story Mooshum told us had its repercussions — the first being that I could not look at anyone in quite the same way anymore.  I became obsessed with lineage.  As I came to the end of my small leopard-print diary (its key useless as my brother had broken the clasp), I wrote down as much of Mooshum’s story as I could remember, and then the relatives of everyone I knew — parents, grandparents, way on back in time.  I traced the blood history of the murders through my classmates and friends until I could draw out elaborate spider webs of lines and intersecting circles.  I drew in pencil.  There were a few people, one of them being Corwin Peace, whose chart was so complicated that I erased parts of it until I wore right through the paper. (86)

I drew my own family tree chart in the back of my book and added to it as I read and discovered new connections.  After finishing the book, I wish I had thought to make index note cards, as one reviewer did, because the web of relations is so complicated.  For all its complexity the story is that much richer and more real.

Several sections of Erdrich’s novel could stand alone as short stories, and indeed, parts of it have been published as short fiction, as I learned on reading Erdrich’s acknowledgments at the end of the book.  If parts of the novel feel somewhat digressive as a result, I think Erdrich can be forgiven, for when the reader reaches the last few pages, all the digressions are shown to be pieces of a complex puzzle — the reader doesn’t know what the picture is until the last piece is put in place.

In addition to being a fairly good murder mystery, the novel is rich in imagery, symbolism, and well-drawn characters, and by the end of the novel, I felt like a resident of Pluto, North Dakota and felt sure that I had truly known all of these people and uncovered their bloody history myself.   And that, after all, is what a good book should do for us.  Go right out and get this book now!  It’s amazing!  I don’t often post Amazon reviews, but I loved this book so much I want everyone to read it, so this review will be cross-posted at Amazon.

My next book is Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader.

Update, 9/12/09: I managed to make my tree look sort of readable using Inspiration. Download it by clicking this link. I hope it’s useful. It probably goes without saying that unless you’ve read the book, you shouldn’t look at it because it reveals the ending.

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Northanger Abbey

Northanger AbbeyJane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is the story of the naive Catherine Morland. Catherine accompanies Mr. and Mrs. Allen, family friends, to Bath and meets and befriends Isabella Thorpe, the daughter of one of Mrs. Allen’s school friends. Catherine also meets Henry Tilney and is instantly smitten. Catherine also befriends Tilney’s sister Eleanor and secures an invitation to visit the Tilneys’ home Northanger Abbey from General Tilney, Henry and Eleanor’s father.

Every synopsis of Northanger Abbey that I’ve read has been misleading. Even the title is misleading. I was misled into believing the entirety, or at least a large portion of the book would take place at the imposing Northanger Abbey, ancestral home of the Tilneys. I judge about half the book is actually set at Northanger Abbey. Also, most synopses of the book that I’ve read reference Catherine Morland’s romantic imagination convincing her that a strange gothic history has taken place at Northanger Abbey, but that episode occupies only a small part of the plot of the novel — a few chapters at best.

I don’t think this novel is so much a parody or satire of gothic novels as it is the story of how a young girl loses her naiveté. It was a quick, enjoyable read, and I liked it better than Emma, though I don’t think it quite tops Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Catherine was a likable character, and I enjoyed the dialogue in the novel (as always in Austen’s writing).

I read Northanger Abbey as part of the Historical Fiction Challenge. At this point, my progress in the challenge stands thusly:

I don’t think I’ll pick up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell again next, but I’m not sure what I will read, as I expecting a bunch of books in the mail and would like to choose from among them; which one I choose depends on which arrives first. I’ll update once I have the books in hand and have made a decision.

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Emma

This morning, DailyLit sent me my final 191st installment of Jane Austen’s Emma, which I read just a few moments ago. Upon finishing the book, I have to say that while I love DailyLit and the idea behind it, daily subscriptions were perhaps not the best way to read this particular novel (and perhaps Jane Austen in general — I am not sure). Austen has a subtlety and requires, I think, a great deal of concentration from her reader. Reading this novel over the course of about six months made it hard for me to remember some of the events. Of course, I could have had installments sent more quickly by requesting them (by default, the subscriptions will not be sent any more frequently than once a day). A second problem I had in receiving the book this way is that it was very poorly transcribed. On several occasions, my transcription cut off in the middle of someone’s speech or would even end as someone was about to say something (even cutting off at a comma instead of a period). I found this maddening and most of the time either requested the next installment or had to go back and re-read the end of the previous one. Another fault in the transcription were grammar errors — the possessive “hers” was rendered “her’s” on several occasions in the text.

As for the story, I have previously read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and am currently reading Northanger Abbey (I have also attempted Persuasion twice). Of the novels with which I am familiar, I have to say Emma contains my least favorite storyline and characters. I never really managed to quite like Emma. She seemed to me to be quite shallow and snobby. I did like Mr. Knightley, but I fail to see what he saw in Emma. Mrs. Elton was hilarious, as Austen’s most annoying characters typically are. Still, even though I didn’t enjoy the novel as much as I typically enjoy Austen, it was an entertaining read. I had seen Clueless, and it was interesting to see how closely Amy Heckerling followed her source material.

Not one soul commented to tell me which Dickens novel I should read of the three: Great Expectations, David Copperfield, or A Tale of Two Cities. Therefore, I used the only means of divination I could think of and asked my seven-year-old daughter Maggie, who has no investment in my choice except that perhaps the title of the third sounds like a Garfield movie. And of course that’s the one she chose for me.

Meanwhile, I have discovered yet another use for my Goodreads account in addition to keeping a record of all the books I have read and am currently reading. Up until the last couple of days, my “to-read” bookshelf has held only the couple of books that were on my immediate list of books I wanted to read. I have begun cataloging the books I find interesting so I won’t forget about them later, and I am finding that to be really helpful for me. My mother has for years kept a notebook with a list of books she find interesting and checks them off as she acquires them, so consider my Goodreads account my notebook.

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The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the MadmanMy British literature students are (I hope they are, at any rate) reading Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary as part of their summer reading assignment.  If they enjoy it half as much as I did, I will consider it a great success.  The story is enthralling.  Winchester examines the relationship between Dr. W. C. Minor, an American Civil War veteran who was committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum after murdering a man in the street, and James Murray, for many years the chief editor of the OED.

When Murray took the helm at the OED, he solicited help from volunteers who might we willing to look up what he called “catchwords” in their reading and copy quotations.  The OED wanted to include quotations to illustrate each word’s use and also to trace the words back to their earliest uses.  Considering the seeming disorganization of the affair (to modern eyes) and the unclear instructions volunteers were given, you, like me, will probably marvel that the volunteers were ever any use at all.

Winchester does not flinch from honesty with regard to Dr. Minor’s crime, but he also manages to portray him in a sympathetic light, and I found myself feeling he had, in some measure, been redeemed even if his mind was never to give him any peace.

I highly recommend this book to students of the English language, word lovers (this book is essential for word lovers — those children who used to haul out the dictionary at home and just look up words), history buffs, and anyone who just loves a good yarn.

For my next book, I will return to the Historical Fiction Challenge and read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.  If you have followed my progress with Emma in the sidebar under DailyLit, you may notice I will be finishing that book in less than a week’s time.  I haven’t decided which DailyLit selection I’ll read next.

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Wuthering Heights

I finished reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I was originally supposed to read it in high school, but I quickly fell behind our class’s reading schedule, and before I knew it, the unit was over and assessment was done. I donated my copy to my teacher, who gave us extra credit for book donations because she was trying to grow her classroom library. Alas, I didn’t return to the book until this year. I loved it!

I think my favorite part of the book was the setting. I could so clearly see Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange and all the moors surrounding them. In a way, the setting was almost a character, too. I found the characters, for the most part, easy to dislike, yet strangely sympathetic. Just when I had truly written Heathcliff off as totally evil, Nelly jumps in and reminds the reader of his boyhood, and her concern for him near the end of his life awakened my own. I disliked Linton intensely, and I found myself annoyed with Cathy for her sympathy for him. Then, I would feel guilty because he was, after all, slowly dying, and who knows how that altered his character (not to mention contempt from his father and the loss of his mother). And speaking of Cathy, her treatment of poor lovesick Hareton I found horrid. What a forgiving sort he turned out to be. In short, one thing I think Brontë did quite well is paint characters who while flawed and perhaps even reprehensible, still manage to evoke the reader’s sympathy.

I think my favorite character was the storyteller Nelly Dean. She spoke her mind when she felt the need, and I sensed a deep respect for her from the other characters. I did wonder a couple of times why she would dish the family dirt to a complete stranger (Mr. Lockwood). At first, she struck me as gossipy. Later, when I decided that wasn’t exactly the case, I was at a loss as to determine why she would tell the story. I came to the conclusion that she was lonely for the first part of the story. After Heathcliff died and Mr. Lockwood returned, I decided she wanted the story preserved in some manner.

Mr. Lockwood is an interesting character. Through Nelly, he knows more about the true events of the whole story than some of the principal characters, and he is, I think, deeply affected by the story (witness his visit to the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff, and Edgar Linton).

I’m not sure if this will make sense, but this book struck me as so quintessentially English — I couldn’t imagine it in another setting. I imagine that many other British novels and plays could (and indeed, in the case of Shakespeare especially) have been re-imagined in different locations. Wuthering Heights, however, belongs to the moors of Yorkshire.

I will have to think carefully about how to teach this book so that my own students won’t fall into the trap I did. This reader’s guide Web site is excellent, and if you are interested in Wuthering Heights, you might wish to check it out.

I have to take a break from the Historical Fiction Challenge to read some summer reading so I can create assessments for my students. For the record, I planned to read the following books (titles stricken through I have completed):

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is long, but Northanger Abbey is fairly short. I think I can manage to finish the challenge by October, and perhaps the idea that I need to finish the challenge will compel me to finish the former — I put it aside because it was taking me forever, and I wanted to read some other things.

My next book is Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, a story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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