Renoir

Year in Review 2013

RenoirAs I said in my previous post, I didn’t have such a good year this year in terms of meeting goals and challenges. I had planned to read 52 books, and I wound up reading 26, or about half of what I wanted to read.

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Dana has
read 26 books toward her goal of 52 books.
hide

Boo!

Here is the stats breakdown:

  • Total number of books read: 26.
  • Fiction books: 23.
  • Nonfiction books: 3.
  • YA books: 7.
  • Audio books: 6.
  • Digital books: 10.
  • DailyLit books: 0.
  • Books reread: 9.

Favorite reads of the year (in no particular order):

Least favorite books:

  • [amazon_link id=”1419704281″ target=”_blank” ]Splintered[/amazon_link] by A. G. Howard (review)
  • [amazon_link id=”0545477115″ target=”_blank” ]The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle[/amazon_link] by Avi (review)

Favorite book meme of the year: Not that I participated all that much, but Top Ten Tuesdays. Again.

Favorite Reading Challenge: The R.I.P. Challenge, though I made very little progress this year. I was really in the mood for creepy books come fall, though.

Favorite Blog Posts (again, in no particular order, and not that I posted much):

I had a lot of fun with Harry Potter this year, but I stalled out in [amazon_link id=”0439358078″ target=”_blank” ]Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix[/amazon_link]. Here’s hoping I can pick that back up again, but perhaps dial it back a bit. The posts I wrote were loooooong.

Here is my Where Are Your Reading 2013 Challenge map:


View 2013 Where Are You Reading Challenge in a larger map

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The Odyssey, Homer, Narrated by Ian McKellen

The OdysseyIf you have an Audible membership, you should totally use one of your credits to purchase The Odyssey read by Ian McKellen. It is the Fagles translation, which I had not previously read. As you might imagine if you have ever seen McKellen act, he is a masterful reader, and given the material he has to work with in this instance, you can’t miss. I seem to remember that Jenny once said that Fagles was her favorite translation, but I can’t remember if she said why. I believe she was a Classics major as well. I have previously read the Fitzgerald translation, and while I appreciate its beauty, and I understand his reasons for preserving the Greek spellings for names, it was a little confusing. I used a translation by Stanley Lombardo when I taught sometimes as well.

One of the things that struck me again upon listening to The Odyssey is how modern it sounds. People certainly haven’t changed much, and The Odyssey lays bare human nature from the ridiculous to the sublime. I love it. My favorite parts of the book cover the period beginning in Book 9, when Odysseus encounters the Cyclops, to Book Twelve, when Odysseus’s crew is destroyed by Scylla and Charybdis, and he washes up on Ogygia and is held captive by Calypso.

After listening to this version, I was quite struck by how much the poem focuses on loyalty. Penelope is considered throughout all Greece to be the epitome of the loyal wife because she refuses to acknowledge her husband’s purported death and marry one of the many suitors courting her. In truth, they’re all so boorish one doesn’t wonder that she refuses to marry any of them. Eumaeus, Eurycleia, and Argus the dog are all held up as shining examples of loyalty as well. It is not as though I had not noticed this aspect of the poem before, but I think listening to it helped me to see the emphasis on loyalty as it runs throughout. But what bothers me, I guess (as it always has) is the double-standard. Odysseus is not expected to be loyal to his wife or his servants. Their loyalty to him is praised, but his disloyalty is not remarked upon. True that it was written at a different time with different values.

I had completely forgotten the suitors show up in Hades at the end and talk with Agamemnon. For a few minutes, I thought that there was something wrong with my recording, and it had somehow switched back to the part when Odysseus goes into Hades to speak with Tiresias. It felt completely new to me. I wondered at the fact that the suitors blamed Penelope for their downfall. Naturally!

This translation and narration is spot on and gorgeous. I highly recommend it.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Splintered, A. G. Howard

[amazon_image id=”1419704281″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft” ]Splintered: Splintered Book One[/amazon_image] A. G. Howard’s novel [amazon_link id=”1419704281″ target=”_blank” ]Splintered[/amazon_link] is a sequel, of sorts, to Lewis Carroll’s books [amazon_link id=”0553213458″ target=”_blank” ]Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass[/amazon_link]. What if Alice really did go down the rabbit hole, and all the adventures she had really happened? Alyssa Gardner is a descendant of Alice Liddell’s, and she carries a family curse—beginning with Alice herself, a strain of madness has run through each woman in Alyssa’s family. Alyssa’s mother Alison lives in a mental institution, and Alyssa herself hides the fact that she can hear bugs and plants talking to her because she knows her mother’s fate is the fate that awaits her as well. But a Wonderland resident reaches out to her and convinces her that she has the power to save her mother, and herself, if she is willing to go down the rabbit hole and put right what Alice destroyed when she went to Wonderland.

The cover of this book is gorgeous, and the beautiful cover, along with the plot description, convinced me to pick up this book. The book owes a great debt to Tim Burton’s visions of Wonderland, which A. G. Howard acknowledges herself. Parts of it were quite enjoyable, and the ending was a page-turner. However, there were stretches of time when I found myself avoiding reading it, which is always a sign to me that something’s bothering me about a book. I like the premise, but the writing isn’t even, and I almost felt like Alyssa and her crush Jeb were a little too “cool.” I really wanted to like this book more than I did. If it is part of of a series, I don’t believe I’ll be picking up the other books. I admit it was diverting in some places. I liked it best when Lewis Carroll’s characters showed up in all their glory, however. What that means to me is that Alyssa and other characters created for this sequel more or less pale in comparison to Carroll’s memorable characters, even if their descriptions were rather deliciously morbid and freaky. The Wonderland landscape is rendered vividly. I think the right readers will find and love this book, and truthfully, I’m not the book’s intended audience. I give it 3½ stars for being more than just OK and for being different and creative, but in the end, I just wanted to like the new characters and to find them more interesting than I did. It just took me way too long to finish.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi

[amazon_image id=”0545477115″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft” ]The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle[/amazon_image]I realize that [amazon_link id=”0545477115″ target=”_blank” ]The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle[/amazon_link] has been around for a while, and it’s been on my list, but I didn’t actually read it until my daughter chose it for one of her summer reading books. She said she had read and excerpt of it in school and thought it sounded good.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is the story of thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle, who has been away at school in England and is returning home to Providence, Rhode Island aboard the Seahawk. Through a confluence of events, she winds up being the ship’s only passenger, a fact which makes her very uncomfortable. Both the cook, Zachariah, an older sailor from Africa, and Captain Jaggery, the ship’s master, try to befriend Charlotte, but she doesn’t know who to trust. When the crew rises up against Captain Jaggery’s cruelty, Charlotte is even more confused about her place and winds up getting herself into a heap of trouble.

I have to admit it starts slow. I really wondered if Charlotte was going to become likeable and get some sense. She eventually does become likeable, but I think sense is a hopeless case. Once the book gets going, it’s pretty good. I think Avi was attempting to create a 19th century cadence through the first-person narration of Charlotte, but some of the sentences were awkwardly constructed, and I had to read them a couple of times to get them sorted out right. There is quite a lot of naval terminology, but the book has a helpful diagram of a ship and a glossary in the appendix. My daughter gave it two thumbs up. I’m glad she liked it. We read it together, and it was really nice to hear her say she didn’t want to stop at just two chapters once we reached the end of the book. This from a girl who says she doesn’t like reading. So that has to count for something.

If my daughter hadn’t chosen it for summer reading, I might not have gone past the slow start, but I did like it more once the action started, and towards the end, it was a regular page turner. Avi’s characterization brings all the players to life, and he has a true knack for setting, though I think he over-describes a bit. I don’t need to see “everything.” Then again, he is writing for children and may feel he needs to describe a bit more. I don’t know.

It’s a solid YA story, and I’m very glad my daughter liked it.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

[amazon_image id=”0061340405″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_image] Thomas C. Foster’s excellent book  [amazon_link id=”006000942X” target=”_blank” ]How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines[/amazon_link] elucidates literary analysis like no other text I have read. It clarifies the sometimes difficult task of interpretation and making meaning. It has an excellent recommended reading list, and it is indispensable for English teachers. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t enjoy its “sequel,” [amazon_link id=”0061340405″ target=”_blank” ]How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form[/amazon_link] nearly as much.

Let’s start with what I liked:

  • The motif, which runs throughout the book, of the reader as creator. Reading is a creative act. Books demand that we have an imagination. It reminds me very much of something I heard Jasper Fforde say about reading when I went to a book signing. Foster says, “readers are the ultimate arbiters of meaning in a work” (126). I agree with him, and it’s one of the things that can be difficult about teaching English. English teachers are often experienced readers who understand the ways in which texts talk to one another and speak the language of symbolism and metaphor. Students, who are less experienced, often become infuriated when a teacher makes a connection or interpretation that the student didn’t make, and English teachers are often wrongly accused of inventing intentions the author never had. The author’s intentions do not matter once the reader reads the books. We readers bring so much experience, prior reading, belief, opinion, and knowledge to everything we read, that no two readers read the same book, and no reader reads the same book the author wrote. I really like it that Foster explained the importance of the reader so clearly because it is a real issue whenever two readers disagree about a book.
  • I like Foster’s breakdown of 18 things we can tell about a book on the first page. It is a great guide for students who struggle with annotation. If you can point students to look for style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place, motif, theme, irony, rhythm, pace, expectations, character, and instructions on how to read the novel (whew!), then you will have paved the way for them to better understand the novel and help them figure out what to look for when they read. Eighteen is a bit much, but I found as I scanned the list that I agreed that most, if not all, of these elements can be determined to some degree on the first page of the novel.
  • I am fond of telling students that literature is the mirror that we hold up to examine our world and to ourselves. It tells us who we are and what we want. Foster expresses a similar sentiment: “So almost any novel can teach us, and the novel has one big lesson that lies at its very root: we matter. A human life has value not because it belongs to an owner, a ruler, a collective, or a political party, but because it exists as itself” (115). As such, characters in novels matter because they are us. We see ourselves in them. We see our humanity in their humanity.

Now to what I didn’t like:

  • The book is repetitive. Foster discusses the same books, pretty much over and over, and if, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with one of his pet texts or if you didn’t like it for some reason, it’s hard to connect to what Foster is saying—or it was for me. Your mileage may vary. I don’t much like Joyce. There, I said it. I did give him a try. I guess I prefer my novels to be more like the great Victorian novels Foster describes. I am not opposed to Postmodernism here or there, and I don’t have to travel with the characters in a straight line. But Joyce doesn’t do it for me. I like it that Foster acknowledges we have different reactions to novels. Towards the end of the book, he describes a discussion with a high school English class in which one lone dissenter admitted he didn’t like [amazon_link id=”0486415864″ target=”_blank” ]Great Expectations[/amazon_link]. Of this student, Foster says, “It takes courage, to say you’re in AP English and aren’t wild about one of the established classics. For one thing, there’s the weight of more than a century of received opinion going against you” (292-293). Yes. True. I do not like [amazon_link id=”1840226358″ target=”_blank” ]Ulysses[/amazon_link]. I tried to read it. I was grossed out on page one. I gave it up. And that is OK, though the “weight of [nearly] a century of received opinion” is going against me. But he’s a favorite of Foster’s (not surprising, as he seems to be a favorite of many college profs), and he is used as an example over and over and over. And since I didn’t grok Ulysses, I didn’t find myself connecting to those examples very well.
  • I think Foster’s definition of theme is off, and I wouldn’t recommend sharing it verbatim with students. Foster defines it as “the idea content of the novel” (30). When I teach it, I tend to take it further than that. What message did you get from the novel? Deeper than what it is about—why did the author write it? We can’t know that, of course, but we can extrapolate. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald write [amazon_link id=”0743273567″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Gatsby[/amazon_link] because he wanted to comment on how the American Dream is not achievable by all, and maybe that it is even dead or never existed in the first place? I don’t know, but that is a message I receive from it when I read it. Certainly different readers will see different themes. But I don’t find the definition “idea content” to be all that helpful.
  • Likewise, Foster describes different kinds of narration on pp. 46-47. I teach students first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. I mention second person as a type of narration they will rarely encounter. That’s it. And I discovered that there are these other types called third person objective, first person central, and first person secondary, which, as Foster describes them, seem like splitting hairs unnecessarily. He also puts stream of consciousness in there, which is not a type of narration, but a narrative technique. And he even says it’s not a kind of narrator, so I find it confusing that he puts it in this list at all. It doesn’t belong there.
  • The book has no index. How to Read Literature Like a Professor has a great index. It made finding information so much easier.
  • The book doesn’t have a recommended reading list. There is a list of other literary criticism to read, but in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster shared a list of great literary works to read. I liked it. I suppose he figured the list of all the novels he mentioned in the book should do, but I liked the list in the other book.
  • Foster’s appeal lies to a great degree in his entertaining style. He cracks jokes. He’s snarky. For some reason, it was fun in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In How to Read Novels like a Professor, I found it less appealing, and occasionally off-putting.

This book is worth it for the discussion of reading as a creative act and intertextuality, but aside from that, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t captured better in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I highly recommend that book, and I would recommend it far above How to Read Novels Like a Professor.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, Kenneth Branagh

Heart of DarknessKenneth Branagh should read all the audio books.

Well, maybe not all.

He is probably the best narrator I’ve ever listened to, however. Of course, I’m also about to listen to Ian McKellen do Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, so I may stand corrected shortly.

If you haven’t read Heart of Darkness before, I can’t think of a better way to do it than listening to Audible’s version. After all, Marlow tells the entire story to a crew of sailors on the Thames River, and Branagh perfectly embodies not just Marlow, but all the characters, from the Russian protege to Kurtz to the native man who says, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead” to Kurtz’s “intended.” In fact, I dare you not to get a chill when he reads Kurtz. He almost makes you understand why Kurtz has so captivated everyone in the novel. Almost.

I think the reason this novel is still relevant is that it speaks to our infinite capacity for evil. All of us have it inside us, and “the horror” is realizing that fact. I think Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the novel is valid. It is racist. (It’s sexist, too, but that fact often goes uncommented upon.) The African characters are only so much scenery, and their culture is dehumanized. They are depicted like animals, slavish in their devotion to and fear of Kurtz. There is no getting around it. At the same time, you can look at Marlow as narrator. Who is he but a perfect product of his times? Of course he believes Africans to be subhuman. Conrad probably thought so, too, but it is Marlow who tells the story, so who can say? There probably is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator.

You might like this Book Drum profile of the novel. I found the section on the history of the Congo very interesting (and very tragic, as is the case in so many places colonized by Europe).

Many years ago, I went to an English teachers’ conference, and one session I attended discussed how you can engage students in the reading of literature and help them make thematic connections by asking them to choose modern songs that have a story, theme, or message similar to a work of literature they have studied. One of the presenter’s students connected Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Nine Inch Nails’ song “Head Like a Hole.”

After listening to it with that connection in mind, I had to agree that the song and the novel shared such a close connection that I have wondered for years if Trent Reznor was thinking of Heart of Darkness when he wrote it. Connect Reznor’s last line “You know who you are” with Kurtz’s last words “The horror, the horror,” and it’s just plain spooky. And I know I make that connection every time I talk about the novel now. I did it in my previous review of Heart of Darkness. This is the third time I’ve read the novel—once in college, once a few years ago.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this mashup of “Head Like a Hole” and “Call Me, Maybe.”

You can’t unhear it. Sorry. Not really.

Rating: ★★★★★

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The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake: A NovelHow strange it is after such a long reading dry spell, I’ve been whipping through books again. I finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake in the matter of a couple of days. I think I may have started reading it Saturday.

The Namesake is the story of Gogol Ganguli, named for his father’s favorite writer, Nikolai Gogol. His father, saved when his copy of Gogol’s short stories is noticed in the rubble following a train wreck, must give his son a name before he will be released from the hospital. Since his wife’s grandmother has been given the honor of choosing his “good name,” the family settles on Gogol, thinking later they can change it.

Each chapter is a vignette in the lives of Gogol and his family, from his parents’ arranged marriage to Gogol’s rediscovery, at the age of 32, of a copy of Gogol’s short stories that his father gave him when he was a teenager who hated his name. Gogol, born in America, straddles two cultures all of his life, never seeming to feel completely comfortable in one or the other. In one poignant passage, his father finally tells Gogol the true story of how he got his name, and Gogol is moved:

And suddenly, the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years. “Is that what you think of when you think of me?” Gogol asks him. “Do I remind you of that night?”

“Not at all,” his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. “You remind me of everything that followed.”

The one thread that runs through this novel is the importance of looking forward instead of looking back. One of the interesting things about this book is that it is not a grand adventure. It’s the story of an ordinary life. In part, it is a coming of age story. It’s engaging, nevertheless, and Gogol becomes a sympathetic character that I rooted for and hated to see disappointed. He became very real, and by the end of the book, I felt I knew him. I wondered what happened to him on 9/11. I wondered if he found happiness. If he had children. If he went to visit his mother in India.

The lush descriptions of food were one of my favorite parts of the novel. Whether it is home-cooked Indian food or dinner at a restaurant, meals are central to this novel—they bring the characters together. They are the agents of assimilation (Thanksgiving turkey), and they are the vestiges of a home left behind.

My own family has lived in America for hundreds of years. I don’t have any idea what the immigrant experience is like. Sure, I have moved to new places, but the culture in each place I have lived is more or less the same, and if I have to do without restaurants that have become favorites, it’s no small price to pay when I find new favorites and quickly assimilate to the new place. I can’t imagine what it must be like to move thousands of miles away to a completely different culture, where I am unsure of the language and customs. However, I feel like I caught a glimpse of what such an undertaking must be like after reading this book, and it made me admire immigrants for what they are willing to do in order to build a life for themselves. More Americans should read this book. I was moved by a passage near the end, as Gogol reflects on the fact that his mother is selling the house he grew up in so that she can go to India:

And then the house will be occupied by strangers, and there will be no trace that they were ever there, no house to enter, no name in the telephone directory. Nothing to signify the years his family has lived here, no evidence of the effort, the achievement it had been.

On a lark, I searched through census records to see who had lived in my current house. The names changed each decade. In 1910, the Anderson family, Swedish immigrants whose children had been born here in Massachusetts, lived in my house. Arthur Anderson was a carpenter. I wonder if any of his work survives. My husband often says this house was built like a ship. In 1920, the French Canadian Cartier family lived in my house. Frederick Cartier owned a shop, but the census doesn’t say what kind. His three children, all teenagers between 14 and 18 years old, worked—the two girls in a corset factory and the boy in a cotton mill. In 1930, Albert Dupont, a carpenter who had been born in Massachusetts to French Canadian parents, lived here with his family. In 1940, the O’Briens lived in my house. John O’Brien was a salesman. The names change every ten years, and but for a whim, they would have been completely forgotten. I was fascinated to discover a few scant facts about each family. Worcester is a city with a strong immigrant population, even up to the present. It’s one of the things that makes this city interesting. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes Massachusetts interesting. It makes a great deal of sense to me that Jhumpa Lahiri brought the Ganguli family from Calcutta to Boston. Something about this state has attracted people who have set off thousands of miles away from home to build a new life, from 1620 when the Pilgrims sailed The Mayflower and landed at Plymouth to the present day.

Rating: ★★★★★

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The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Inglis

The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, Book 3)What can one say about J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King? It’s the long denouement of Tolkien’s epic saga The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, so I had forgotten just how long the ending is. I think Gollum actually falls into the crack of Mount Doom clutching the Ring, Frodo’s finger still attached, around the middle of the book. The rest of it is setting things to rights and putting a nice bow on the whole story. Of course, my perception may be off because this time I was listening to the books instead of reading the print versions.

As with [amazon_link id=”0788789821″ target=”_blank” ]The Hobbit[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”B00BR9WMW2″ target=”_blank” ]The Fellowship of the Ring[/amazon_link], and [amazon_link id=”078878983X” target=”_blank” ]The Two Towers[/amazon_link], Rob Inglis narrated The Return of the Ring superbly. His characterization once again impresses, and he handles the scene between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum at Mount Doom particularly well. I can’t think of a finer reader for the series. Nothing about his reading disappointed me.

I noticed a propensity for Tolkien to tell a little more than show in this volume, and I don’t recall noticing this issue the first time I read the books. In particular, the Battle of Pelennor Fields seems to be related mostly second hand and after the fact, which is a little disappointing. All of the action in this battle is shown in the [amazon_link id=”B0037WTD5G” target=”_blank” ]Peter Jackson film of the same title[/amazon_link], so perhaps that interpretation interfered with my memory.

One of the ways in which I feel Jackson erred with the movies was to give the Shire the short shrift. It’s a lovely country, and Tolkien brings it to vivid life in his books, but Jackson omits the entire section of the novel in which the Scouring of the Shire sets the hobbits free from the yoke of the wizard Saruman and his band of ruffians, and in which Merry, Pippin, and Sam become heroes in the Shire (Frodo’s role in saving Middle Earth is largely overlooked at home—the great ones are never really appreciated at home).

At the end of the film version of The Return of the King, there is a scene which always makes me cry when I watch it. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry, are bowing to Aragorn, and he says, “My friends, you bow to no one.” And then he bows to them. It’s just such a wonderful acknowledgement of everything they did to save the entire world, and the fact that the king humbles himself before these little folks that people forget about (Treebeard himself needs to add them to the list of the world’s creatures)—it’s just an amazing moment. I didn’t remember it happened in the book, but it does (sort of, words and things are changed), and it’s even grander.

I have to admit my favorite character for years was Gandalf, but as time has worn on, I have come to appreciate Samwise Gamgee, and I think he’s my favorite now. He is the steadfast, loyal friend—even as Frodo begins to succumb to the Ring, Sam remains by his side. His sadness when Frodo departs for the Grey Havens is pitiful. And he is the guy who winds up getting married and having a bunch of little hairy-toed hobbit babies. I just love him. I know a lot of Tolkien’s fans go in more for the elves, but I have to say the hobbits are my favorite.

Incidentally, I made a soap called Hobbit’s Garden that smells like apples, oak, English ivy, and rain. It’s available from my Etsy store, where you can find some other nice soaps I made as well. I have one bar available to ship right now, and the other batch I made will be ready July 6.

It feels almost sacrilegious to do so, but I am knocking half a star off my rating for this book for the excess of telling versus showing, but I am of the opinion that the series should be taken as a whole, and if so, then it’s a five-star read all the way.

Rating: ★★★★½

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A NovelWhat  I love best about Neil Gaiman books is that I know they will touch me and make me laugh, have moments of sparkling philosophy alongside excellent descriptions, and have unforgettable characters and places. His latest novel [amazon_link id=”0062255657″ target=”_blank” ]The Ocean at the End of the Lane[/amazon_link] is no exception. Many critics are calling this novel Gaiman’s finest, and I have to admit I haven’t read him widely enough to agree unequivocally. I will let you know what I think after I’ve read a few more.

We meet the narrator in his late 40’s after he has just attended a funeral and has come back to the place where he lived as a seven-year-old boy. Sitting by a duck pond on the Hempstock farm, he suddenly remembers Lettie Hempstock and how she used to call the pond, her “ocean.” As he remembers this detail, he starts to remember the rest of the story—how Something dark and otherworldly was awakened when the opal miner who rented a room in the protagonist’s house stole the family car and committed suicide inside it and everything that came after. Did it really happen?

Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a lot of things. It’s about the differences between children and adults. It’s about the fuzziness of memory and what’s really real. It’s about nightmares and other worlds. It’s about sacrifice and loss. It’s about friendship. The NY Times review of the novel says “Gaiman helps us remember the wonder and terror and powerlessness that owned us as children.” I think that is an apt assessment, and I think somewhere inside, we all remember those feelings of wonder, terror, and powerlessness. My favorite thing this book is about, however, is books. Gaiman’s protagonist, whom I cannot recall was ever named, is a lover of books, and he makes some very astute observations about them, this observation being my favorite:

I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?

He makes this observation after he describes retreating into books to escape his fear. “I was not scared of anything when I read my book.” Since I was the kind of child who read constantly, and since I’m the kind of adult who loves myths, too (including the odd dangerous fairy), I found myself in the seven-year-old protagonist of this novel.

Neil Gaiman has a gift with language. He weaves beautiful sentences together, and I always find myself highlighting more when I read his books than I typically do. He also knows how to create villains right out of your nightmares. But after reading [amazon_link id=”0380807343″ target=”_blank” ]Coraline[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”0060530944″ target=”_blank” ]The Graveyard Book[/amazon_link], and now The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I think what Gaiman is best at is capturing that feeling of what it is like to be a child and to be a child who is scared and alone.

Rating: ★★★★★

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State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

State of Wonder: A Novel (P.S.)Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder is my school’s upper school summer read. I am not sure I would have thought to pick it up otherwise, as I haven’t read Patchett before, and I have a list of books I want to read a mile long. However, I found it a compelling and fascinating book, and it far outstrips most of the other books I have read this year (and even the previous year) so far.

I don’t typically include the book synopsis in my reviews, but it seems appropriate for this novel.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.

The reference to Heart of Darkness is not incidental, but State of Wonder updates Conrad’s classic with ethical questions for our own times. How far should science to go to improve on nature? Why do we develop certain drugs over others? What impact could such scientific research have on native populations? Should we care about that impact, or should we care more about “the greater good”? What happens when, to paraphrase Dr. Swenson, we allow ourselves to lose focus on the things we are looking for so that we don’t overlook the things we find?

Marina’s journey into the jungle reminded me of some of the ancient mythological heroic quests to go into the unknown and come back again. The hero is often never the same, and even Dr. Swenson warns Marina about this transformation. Dr. Swenson is Patchett’s own Kurtz, a formidable and ruthless woman committed to her research, even at the expense of her supposed commitment to her Hippocratic Oath as a doctor. Marina’s confrontation of her former teacher, a woman who has loomed like specter over Marina’s life and informed some of her most important life decisions, is the central story of the novel, and it is fascinating to watch their relationship unfold. Dr. Swenson is at the center of everything, and it is her choices and decisions that the novel revolves around, in the end.

Laura Ciolkowski says in her review of the novel for The Chicago Tribune that State of Wonder is “Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey,” and “a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.” That would be my assessment as well.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who has read Heart of Darkness, but thought it seemed dated. It will change your mind. But I would also recommend it to readers who liked The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. All three novels explore the Western exploitation of indigenous people, simultaneously unmasking the horrors of colonialism as well as the terrible beauty of the jungle.

Rating: ★★★★★

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