Tuesday, December 6, 2005

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) tells the story of John Grady Cole. Sixteen-year-old Cole and his friend, Lacey Rawlins, cross the Rio Grande from Texas into Mexico on horseback. Along the way, they meet another young man, Jimmy Blevins, who joins them on part of their journey south. Eventually, Cole and Rawlins work on a ranch, and Cole falls in love with Alejandra, the ranch owner’s daughter.

At first, I found reading the novel frustrating because of the lack of quotation and apostrophe marks for contractions. The post-modern, stripped-down style was difficult to read. Luckily, I did not put down the book before the half-way mark, and eventually McCarthy’s writing style grew on me.

There is a profound change in John Grady Cole from the beginning of the story to its end. I enjoy coming-of-age stories, and I thought this was an excellent one. Cole is directed by the women around him (his mother, Doña Alfonsa, and Alejandra) while struggling with the ethics of his actions and lack of action. Compared to his expectations, it’s sad what Cole finds along his journey, and it’s surprising that he’s not jaded at the end of the novel. He still loves life, and he’s still in search of more.

Purchase and read books by Cormac McCarthy:

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, the Crossing, Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is one of the world’s best-known stories. The tale was first serialized in the French newspaper Le Gaulois from 1909 to 1910. Leroux based his story partly on real-life events and rumors surrounding the Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris. Leroux’s story was famously adapted as a silent film starring Lon Chaney as the Phantom in 1925 and as a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1986.

Although I was familiar with the story, having seen the silent film numerous times, Gaston Leroux’s storytelling held my attention and captivated me even though I knew the ending. I found the novel inventive and unique. The story combines elements of gothic storytelling, horror, romance, mystery, and comedy.

The Phantom of the Opera is set in the Paris Opera House, which Leroux describes as a many-storied, maze-like building full of hidden secrets. The building is the perfect home for the solitary Phantom. Leroux narrates the tale as though he is a reporter, piecing together facts he has collected to tell the Phantom’s story. He uses evidence from interviews, memoirs, and diaries to tell the story of what really happened. The structure and pacing of the tale create an exciting and suspenseful narrative. Leroux’s style is so convincing that I was left questioning whether parts of the story were true after closing the book.

Lobby Card for Carl Laemmle's 1925 Silent Film Adaptation of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera Starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin

In reading the novel, I was surprised by its humorous tone. For some reason, I assumed that the book would be serious, and that the silent film made the story more melodramatic and humorous for the screen. The silent film and later adaptations were overall true to the novel. For example, I thought the "Angel of Music" and "Punjab lasso" scenes were invented for the film, but both are present in the novel. Likewise, some of the elements I found especially unbelievable and cheesy when I watched the 2004 film version of The Phantom of the Opera were portrayed directly from the book. I realized that the adaptations have been quite loyal to the novel, capturing the suspenseful, strange, and supernatural aspects, the humor, the sense of mystery and spookiness, and the overall darkness.

Nevertheless, the characters in the novel are more complex than they are often portrayed. Erik, the Phantom, is a puzzle. He is part madman, part angel, and part man—a character who is tragic, disturbed, heroic, generous, and criminal. He is all these things at once, and as a reader, I both despised and pitied him without fully understanding him. Christine is more cunning than innocent, but the story is never told from her perspective. The Viscount Raoul de Chagny is more ordinary than the other characters, but his childhood memories and attachment to Christine give Raoul some substance.

I truly enjoyed reading The Phantom of the Opera. Even if you have watched multiple adaptations, don’t let that keep you from reading the book too.

Purchase and read books by Gaston Leroux:

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris is a collection of autobiographical essays that was first published in 2000. After reading the praises for the book on its back cover and six opening pages, I expected that I would be in for a real treat and that I’d be laughing non-stop from start to finish. Instead, I felt deceived.

The book had no structure, and the essays were not organized by chronology or theme. Worse still, there was no editing to remove the redundancies between stories. Of all the chapters, I only enjoyed parts of one titled “Jesus Shaves,” which included an amusing anecdote about a French class trying to explain the meaning of Easter. Maybe it was just my mood, but I didn’t find the book very funny, and I was disappointed in this read overall. Maybe I'll give the author a try again one day.

Purchase and read books by David Sedaris:

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris Naked by David Sedaris

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan is a novel divided into four sections, each containing four stories. The sixteen stories are about the relationships between four mothers and their four daughters. The mothers are all immigrants from China, and their daughters were all born in America. The aspects of the mother-daughter relationships were emotional, frustrating, and often very sweet. The novel also captures some of the aspects related to growing up as a second-generation child in an immigrant family.

I thought the book felt more like a series of short stories than a coherent novel. There was no main plot to hold the characters and stories together and draw the novel along. The voices of the “mother” characters were often indistinguishable, and there was even less to define the different voices of the “daughters,” who for the most part seemed to be identical characters. Overall, I thought the novel would have been stronger if it had depicted the relationship between a single mother and daughter.

Purchase and read books by Amy Tan:

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love by Dan Rhodes

Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love by Dan Rhodes Book Covers

Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love (2001) by Dan Rhodes is a collection of seven short stories. I found the book in my library and plucked the volume off the shelf. I read all the stories in a day, on my bus ride to and from work and during lunch. Thematically, they cover various aspects of love, often unrequited love, including passion, enchantment, rejection, and pain. Rhodes approaches these subjects in strange and fresh ways making this an truly enjoyable read.

Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love
includes the following stories:

“The Carolingian Period” – The story of an aging professor who missed out on love and marriage.

“Violoncello” – A boy becomes a violincello to be near the one he loves.

“Arc-en-Ciel” – Organized into sections by the colors of the rainbow, this is the story of two men and the lovely Mademoiselle Arc-en-Ciel.

“The Landfill” – A man meets a beautiful woman at a landfill and cannot forget her.

“Glass Eyes” – A man sacrifices an eye for a woman he thinks he is in love with.

“The Painting” – The story of an enchanting painting of a woman in a forest.

“Beautiful Consuela” – Consuela puts her husband through trials until she finally believes he loves her, and not for her beauty.

Visit Dan Rhodes’s website:

Purchase and read books by Dan Rhodes:

Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love by Dan Rhodes Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories by Dan Rhodes Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rhodes Marry Me by Dan Rhodes

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary is a novel by the French writer Gustave Flaubert. Published in 1856, it is acclaimed as one of the best books ever written. Some consider it to be the first modern novel.

When Flaubert was asked who Emma Bovary represented in real life, he replied with a puzzling response, “Madame Bovary, c'est moi” (“Madame Bovary, it’s me”). Following Madame Bovary’s serialized publication in Revue de Paris in 1856, the novel was attacked for being obscene and glorifying adultery. This led to a trial in 1857, which brought greater attention to the story. Flaubert was cleared of all charges against him, and Madame Bovary was published in two volumes.

I thought Madame Bovary was a stunning read, and it is lingering with me even now after I have put the book down. The story was so deliberately repulsive and grim. For me, the realism was hard to bear. There were no sympathetic characters, and while I could pity some characters and believe them to be true to life, I could not feel akin to any of them, at least not fully. When I finished the novel and went to bed last night, I felt ill about it.

While it is easy to understand and identify with dissatisfaction and boredom, Emma Bovary's behavior is so irrational and her feelings of guilt are so fleeting. It was hard for me as a reader to understand Emma. I wonder if anything could have satisfied Emma’s cravings in the end—clothing, riches, sex, words of love, lovers? It does not seem likely. Emma’s expectations are so different from reality. She craves lovers who bore her. She struggles with a banal existence. Emma believes fictional drama and romance are fact, making her appear unreasonable and ridiculous.

Flaubert did not want the reader to understand and sympathize with Emma Bovary. Despite this, I did pity her. Emma asked so many for help, and these people turned her away or didn't recognize what she needed. I wonder though if she really knew what she needed? Emma was incapable of finding a direction that pleased her.

Although Emma was in charge of the household finances, she fails to understand business. Here, Emma has the power of a man, but she squanders it. Emma is upset when she gives birth to a daughter, Berthe, and would rather have a son, who is free. But Emma underestimates her own freedoms. Her husband Charles puts little restraint on her and tries to please her with affection, gifts, and by relocating his practice. Emma fails to appreciate his sacrifices and devotion. While Emma searches for endless, dramatic love outside of her marriage, she misses the constant love Charles lavishes on her until it is too late.

The story begins and ends with Charles. The beginning of the story introduces Charles as weak, and contrasts him with his father. While his father would probably be attractive to Emma, the young Charles is too helpless to even correct his name when it is being mispronounced and mocked.

This set up foreshadows what Emma will do to Charles. At the end of the novel, Charles learns that he has gone through his entire married life deceived. There were ironic touches and symbolism throughout the story like the blind beggar, the tour guide in the church bringing up the fires of hell, and Homais winning the Legion of Honor. The end of the story is also anticipated by Emma’s multiplying problems and lies, but Emma is unaware as to where her choices are leading her.

Overall, though Madame Bovary was very sad, I found the book to be perfectly paced and lush. The story felt true to life even while the dialogue and events sometimes seemed ridiculous. The novel was unconventional in having an adulterer as a heroine. There is no truly good character in the novel to root for and sympathize with fully. As a reader, I simultaneously have both contempt and sympathy for the characters, which is a jarring feeling.

Purchase and read books by Gustave Flaubert:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert Three Stories by Gustave Flaubert

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Following the release of Roald Dahl’s autobiographical book Boy about his childhood, he published a second autobiographical collection, titled Going Solo. The stories in Going Solo begin in 1934 when Dahl is 22 years old. Dahl has just taken his first job working for the Shell Oil Company in Dur es Salaam, Tanganyika, East Africa (now Tanzania). He drives about and delivers oil to British colonists, some of whom are very, very quirky. His memories of the time period involve the deadly black and green mambas and a lion who made off with the chef’s wife.

Dahl’s later stories chronicle his life as a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II. With very little training in aerial combat, he learned to fly with other volunteers in Nairobi. From there, Dahl went to Egypt, and then to Libya. On his final leg to Mersah Matruh, the coordinates for his landing strip were incorrect (in a no man’s land between the English and Italian forces), and he crashed in the desert. Dahl’s flight and survival later became the subject of his first published work. The accident fractured his skull, smashed his nose in, and temporarily blinded him.

After months in the hospital, Dahl was discharged and given the task of flying a Hurricane, but was given a day to learn to fly this new plane. He was to join the forces in Greece, where only 14 planes were assigned to defend the entire region. Dahl describes near-death encounters, accidents, combat, and death without fuss or worry, understating the dangers he and his fellow pilots faced. After the Battle of Athens, he flew in Palestine and Syria until he began having severe headaches from his earlier injury. Unable to continue to fly, Dahl headed home to England.

Throughout the book, Dahl includes his own photographs and excerpts from his letters home to his mother. These additions complement his words to bring his memories to life. Reading Going Solo gives the reader a sense of the sheer luck Dahl had in life and the inspirations behind many of his stories.

Purchase and read Roald Dahl's autobiographical books:

Going Solo by Roald Dahl Boy by Roald Dahl

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Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Boy by Roald Dahl

Boy by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is a captivating writer, and one of my favorites. Though I have read much of his fiction, I had never read his nonfiction before. Boy, is an autobiographical book about Dahl’s childhood, which was published in 1984. Rather than writing an autobiography full of uninteresting details, Dahl chose to write a series of personal sketches about the moments that stood out most to him and sat on the surface of his memories.

Dahl writes about his mother and siblings, candy stores, visits to Norway, having his nose nearly sliced off, and other surgeries, all without anesthesia. He tells stories of his early schooling, and of violent headmasters and older students and their use of the cane. Dahl reveals real-life events, which shaped his later fiction. For instance, Dahl and his classmates were mailed new Cadbury chocolate samples to evaluate, which later provided inspiration for his story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. You will recognize the models for the hateful adult figures who are out to harm children in Dahl's fiction.

Dahl's gift for storytelling extends to his autobiographical anecdotes. They are filled with childlike innocence, horror, humor, darkness, and joy, often all within a single story.

Purchase and read Roald Dahl's autobiographical books:

Boy by Roald Dahl Going Solo by Roald Dahl

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Friday, September 30, 2005

At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter

At the Foot of the Rainbow (1907) by Gene Stratton-Porter is the story of a three people: a deceived man and woman and a second man who is haunted by the lies he told them over fifteen years ago. The story is set in Rainbow Bottom on the Wabash River in Indiana.

Dannie Macnoun lives next door to his best friend Jimmy Malone and Jimmy's wife Mary. Although Dannie rarely expresses his feelings, he has been in love with Mary for over fifteen years. Years ago, Mary chose Jimmy over Dannie. Rather than becoming resentful, Dannie is a good man, who continues to be devoted to both Jimmy and Mary.

Dannie does more than his share of the work. He looks after Mary and takes care of any troubles Jimmy gets into. When Jimmy spends his savings on drinks at the bar, Dannie gets him home safely and even lends him money. Dannie is steadfast and devoted in contrast with Jimmy, who is childish, spoiled, and loves telling stories.

Jimmy's cheer fades as the story proceeds, and he is haunted by a sin from his past. Jimmy did not marry his wife Mary fairly, and he stole her from Dannie. All three characters are unhappy for different reasons, and Jimmy's growing torment begins to tears them apart.

Related Reviews:
A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Purchase and read books by Gene Stratton-Porter:

At the Foot of the Rainbow by Gene Stratton-Porter A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

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Saturday, September 3, 2005

The Dangerous Summer by Ernest Hemingway

The Dangerous Summer by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemmingway wrote The Dangerous Summer in 1960 for LIFE magazine. Here, Hemingway recounts the summer he spent in Spain in 1959 watching a series of bullfights between two great matadors. Luis Miguel Dominguin and his brother-in-law Antonio Ordonez became rivals in a mano a mano (hand-to-hand duel). Throughout the summer, Dominguin and Ordonez tried to show one another up as performers in the ring while traveling from city to city and match to match.

I read an edited version of Hemingway’s LIFE magazine piece with an introduction by James Mitchener. The book serves as an introduction to bullfighting, gives insight into Hemingway’s personal life, and gives the reader beautiful glimpses of Spain as they travel the country. The Dangerous Summer is one of Hemingway’s last stories, and in it, Hemingway looks back upon his life.

Hemingway was friends with both Dominguin and Ordonez, and had broken his personal rule to stop being personally involved with bullfighters. Ordonez was the son of Cayetano Ordonez, a friend of Hemingway's in the 1920s and the model for Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. Although Hemingway is friends with both Dominguin and Ordonez, he favors Ordonez throughout, believing him to be an exceptional bullfighter. Hemingway draws a contrast between these young, vibrant matadors and provides lasting sentiments on their bravery and immortality.

External Link:
"The Last Ole” By William Kennedy, The New York Times

Related Review:
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway

Purchase and read books by Ernest Hemingway:

The Dangerous Summer by Ernest Hemingway In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

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The Reef by Edith Wharton

The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s The Reef (1912) tells the story George Darrow and his former love Anna Leath. Darrow was interested in Anna when he was young, but she married another man. After the death of Anna’s husband, they resume contact and plan to meet in Paris.

As Darrow is ready to travel from London to France to see Anna, she postpones their meeting with a short note, giving him no explanation. Darrow feels angry and humiliated, but decides to go to France. He meets a young woman named Sophy Viner. Sophy is a poor and sincere woman, and while Darrow cares little for her, he enjoys charming her and treating her to fancy meals and nights at the theatre. Darrow also wants to put Anna out of his mind. Darrow and Sophy have an affair.

It is unclear how their affair ends. Months later, Darrow is at Anna’s home, where she lives with her daughter, former mother-in-law, and stepson Owen. The plot thickens when Darrow meets Sophy again. She has taken a job as the governess of Anna’s daughter. Darrow and Sophy hide their relationship from the others.

Meanwhile, Anna and Darrow plan their wedding. Anna talks to Darrow about Owen’s interest in a young lady, and Darrow eventually learns that Owen has proposed to Sophy. His sympathy for Sophy conflicts with his opinion that she is not a suitable wife for Owen. Darrow and Sophy’s affair is eventually revealed in this perfectly executed plot.

Related Reviews:
Summer by Edith Wharton
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

Purchase and read books by Edith Wharton:

The Reef by Edith Wharton Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

The Aspern Papers (1888) by Henry James is the story of an American editor obsessed with getting his hands on letters written by a dead poet named Jeffrey Aspern. This unnamed editor narrates the story. He arrives in Venice to meet Aspern's former lover, Miss Juliana Bordereau, who is now an old woman. He believes that Aspern’s last missing letters were to Juliana, and he aims to obtain them.

The narrator weasels his way into boarding at the Bordereau home under a false name. Juliana is aloof, but he makes some progress in flattering her younger sister Tina. Tina misunderstands his intentions, and the narrator is so focused on getting the letters that he deceives and romances her. Through all this, the narrator seemingly fails to realize his effect on the two women.

What is key to this story is the honesty of the narrator. Since we know he is both unscrupulous and amoral, we must wonder if the narrator is also deceiving us.

Related Review:
Daisy Miller by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Purchase and read books by Henry James:

The Aspern Papers by Henry James Daisy Miller by Henry James The Turn of the Screw by Henry James The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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Friday, July 22, 2005

The Girl Most Likely by Rebecca Sparrow

The Girl Most Likely by Rebecca Sparrow

Lately, I have been trying to add more modern authors to my mix of books. I spotted The Girl Most Likely (2003) on a weekend visit to the library. I knew nothing of the book or its author, Rebecca Sparrow. It was the Fruit Loops on the spine that caught my eye, and I decided to check the book out. Luckily, this spontaneous decision led me to read a charming novel.

In The Girl Most Likely, Rachel Hill returns to her childhood home in Brisbane at the age of 27. She’s soon to be divorced, but has only confessed her mistake of a marriage to her friend Zoe. Her parents and sister are still in the dark, and her divorce papers are left sitting in the fridge with a jar of Miracle Whip.

Facing her quarter-life crisis, Rachel reflects upon all the things she excelled at when she was 17 and on where she thought she’d be by 28. She wonders what her younger self would think of how she’s ended up. She finds a list of things she wanted to do by age 28. The list includes learning a movie theme song, which she begins to practice incessantly.

Slowly, Rebecca begins moving in wider circles outside of her mother and father’s yard. By reassessing her idea of happiness, she begins to accept herself again.

Check out Rebecca Sparrow's website. After writing three fictional novels, she’s focused on writing non-fiction for tween and teenage girls to help them have better experiences in high school. She’s a lovely person. I sent her a thank you message after reading her book, and she sent me the sweetest response.

Purchase and read books by Rebecca Sparrow:

The Girl Most Likely by Rebecca Sparrow The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay by Rebecca Sparrow Find Your Tribe (and 9 Other Things I Wish I'd Known in High School) by Rebecca Sparrow Ask Me Anything: (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls) by Rebecca Sparrow

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is a dystopian novel published in 1932 by the English writer Aldous Huxley. The novel describes a disturbing "ideal" society in the future. In this future world, humans are manufactured in production lines, and then placed at a designated social level.

In the novel, there is no love or commitment, and no sadness. If a true feeling emerges, then a dose of the comforting drug soma cures the feeling. John (the Savage), the novel’s protagonist, cannot understand this world. He defends the right to suffer over feeling false, enforced happiness.

Brave New World is a startling look at what can happen when science is misapplied by a totalitarian government. Moreover, it’s a warning that the public should take an interest in science. I consider this a must-read book.

Favorite Quotes:
"Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensations for misery."

"It's curious," he went on after a little pause, "to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate."

"Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma is."

Purchase and read books by Aldous Huxley:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

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