Thursday, June 25, 2009

Summer Reading Lists and Two More Down on TBR

It's officially summer time, and that means those of us who love reading are scanning the Summer reading lists for ideas on juicy tomes to keep us cool on these long, hot days and evenings.

Librarians Internet Access had a link to a blog that has compiled a host of fabulous summer reading lists, literally doing my work for me. He's the links to those lists:

I also want to write about two books I've just finished, "What Would Barbra Do" by Emma Brokes and "The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte" by Laura Jo Rowland. I've also finished two books in a series, Poison Study and Magic Study by Maria V Snyder, both excellent fantasy novels that I thoroughly enjoyed.

What Would Barbra Do is subtitled, "How Musicals Changed My Life" and while that describes some of the essays in this book, it doesn't cover the breadth of the musical review and critical lambastings that musicals get therein.
Brokes is fully in command of her British wit and snark, and lays it on thick with her childhood experiences of musicals (mostly bad, with the exception of Mary Poppins which she idolizes with her friend) her adult obsession with older musicals of previous eras, and her loathing of current musicals by her fellow countryman Andrew Lloyd Weber. I found that last to be somewhat bizarre, considering I've loved Webers musicals and consider them to be the equal of anything Rodgers and Hammerstein put out in the 40s and 50s. Odd, too, that most of the musicals Brokes lionizes are American musicals, like Oklahoma. Caberet, West Side Story, An American in Paris and Guys and Dolls. I understand that these are classics of the genre, true, but I just don't buy that nothing made after these musicals is worth watching. I also find her depiction of both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as creepy and gross to be mean and unwarranted. Both were consumate professionals who could dance beautifully, act and sing, something that today's stars should take note of, since most of them can't even do one of those properly, let alone all three.
She also doesn't mention several musicals that were popular in the 70s and 80s, like Cyrano, with Christopher Plummer, or Pippin, which was popular in the early 80s when I was in college, and we'd do sing-alongs of all the tunes, or even the worst musical ever made, "Finnigans Rainbow" with an ancient-but-game Fred Astaire. My friend Muff and I would watch the movie version of that show, sing along with the truly awful songs and laugh at the terrible acting and the unintentionally racist plotline.
Still, there are many laugh out loud moments in WWBD, moments when you wish you actually knew Brokes so you could sit and chat over a cup of tea and hear more of her witty asides on the actors and actresses who starred in some of the most popular musicals of all time. She provides delicious background and behind the scenes tidbits on some of those same musicals, making the reader privy to insights on such esoterica as the name of the actress who played the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins.
I'd recommend this book to those who like British humor, wit and charm, as well as commentary on musicals.
The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte was written in the prose style of the Bronte sisters, very overblown and melodramatic, yet the text stands up fine on its own. I found the story of Charlotte Bronte, who rarely left home, as well as her sisters Emily and Ann, to be ridiculously improbable, but fun just the same.
Charlotte gets caught up in a murder mystery by dint of befriending a woman on the train to London. She ends up sleuthing with an early version of James Bond, Mr Slade, with whom she falls in and out and in love with during the course of the book. The Chinese opium trade figures in, as does her hapless, helpless brother Bramwell, who dies, like Emily and Ann, of consumption. During the course of the book, Charlotte is called upon to use all her courage and wit to help Slade catch the criminal who wants to steal Queen Victoria's children and ransom them for an end to the British opium trade through China. Charlotte was by turns a brave and plucky heroine and a terrified, fainting Victorian flower. I found it hard to reconcile the two, as I felt that all three sisters were women of their time, and not at all tough enough to withstand the kind of brutality and manipulation that Charlotte endures during the course of this mystery. I also don't believe that Bramwell could have shown any sort of courage in his final hour, after being the wasted wastrel that he was. I do understand the lure of recreating the famed Brontes with a cast of 21st century resolve and fearlessness, as well as adding romance to their sad lives, but I think it should be made appropriate for the time period, or at least close enough so that the reader doesn't have to suspend disbelief every other paragraph.
Still, this was a fun book to while away an afternoon, and not really anything too heavy for summer time.
I much enjoyed Snyders "Poison Study" series more, as the heroine was put in an impossible situation and lived through it via her brains and strength of character. The intricacies of the romantic sub plot of both Poison Study and Magic Study lead the reader to believe in Yelena as a protagonist with bite. The plots of both novels are swift, sure and clean of holes or inadequacies, and the characters are well drawn and fascinating. I look forward to reading the third book in this series as soon as I can find a cheap used copy or get one from the library, though I am in a long line of people waiting to read the book.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Feast of Words and Lovingly Rendered Language

The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister is one of the most perfect works of modern fiction I've read this year, or in the past 5 years, come to think of it.
Like its subject matter, it's a delicious blend of the perfect seasonings, such as flawless prose with full-fat tasty characters who tell their stories in a honest, unsparing fashion that fascinates the reader. The plot melts and liquifies like butter in a saucepan with the garlic of goodness and the onion of brilliant storytelling adding flavor to the dish.
I drooled over each chapter as my mind consumed paragraph after paragraph of luscious story:
"In the mornings they woke to songbirds and church bells, then walked across the crunch of small white rocks in the courtyard of their bed and breakfast to one of the round green metal tables set under a linden tree. They poured thick black coffee from one silver pot and foaming hot milk from another into wide white cups that warmed their hands as they drank. They ate croissants that melted on their fingertips, scattering crumbs that disappeared among the rocks, only to be found by songbirds after they had left.
They spent days exploring roads that wound like grapevines up through towns set on the tops of hills, their limestone houses drenched in wisteria, their shutters pale blues or violet or faded sage green, the smells of lunch and dinner slipping out of the windows like children, playing in narrow streets that curved and meandered and made no sense, if you only cared about where you were going, which they didn't."

And this ripe melon of prose:

"Antonia made a celebration of things he had always dismissed as moments to be rushed through on the way to something more important. Being around her he found everyday experiences were deeper, nuanced, satisfaction and awareness slipped in between the layers of life like love notes hidden in the pages of a textbook."

And finally:

"Ian slid his finger along the edge of the tiramisu, bringing it to his mouth. The texture was warm, creamy and soft, like lips parting beneath his own, the taste utterly lacking in precision, luxurious and urgent, mysterious and comforting. Ian stood in the kitchen, waiting for Antonia, every sense in his body awake and completely alive, and thought that if stars were suddenly to fall in a great, glorious burst into his kitchen, he would hardly be surprised."

Ahhhhh. Feel that? That is the satisfaction of having devoured a book that will nourish your heart, mind and soul.
This is that kind of book, generous with beauty and dignity and strength of soul.
I recommend that only those who love life read it, as those who don't care for living will weep at what they missed.

I hope to find more books by Ms Bauermeister, so that I can roll around in her prose like a child rolls around in meadows of flowers.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Reading books by Neil Gaiman is pure pleasure, because he's got such a sly sense of humor, and writes like a member of the Monty Python team of script writers that you can't help but appreciate the glimpse into the way the man must think when he sits down to the computer to create his masterful works.
I've been a fan since first reading his graphic novel "Death" series, in which a goth teenage girl is the embodiment of Death. Somehow all that dramatic teenage girl angst melded with the serious function of helping mortal creatures pass to create a very credible face for such an awe-inspiring function. Death had just the right amount of gravitas and snark to make you wish that she really was the grim reaper.

Following that series, I read Gaiman's "Stardust" and "Coraline," childrens books that, in the tradition of Roald Dahl and Ruyard Kipling, are wonderful reads for adults as well. I was also thrilled to learn that Gaiman is a master of the short story after reading his short story anthologies, like "Fragile Things."

The year American Gods came out, the literary fiction world was all abuzz about it, as new fans became devotees of his work. This novel, like all of his fiction, begins with a myth or legend of some type and riffs off into humor and modern dilemmas that keep the reader fascinated, amused and caught up in the swiftly flowing plot. Though there was a bit too much grotesque darkness about American Gods, Gaiman never lets the reader dwell on the horror, he keeps the protagonist moving at lightening speed.

So it was with joy that I welcomed a copy of Anansi Boys into my TBR collection, hoping that it would be a kind of sequel and still a separate story that doesn't retread American Gods.
I shouldn't have worried, Gaiman takes the African legend of Anansi the spider god and turns it on it's head with a modern interpretation of what would happen if Anansi's son was split into two boys, one full of mischief and magic, the other fearful and ordinary, an accountant with a past and parents he doesn't understand. We follow Fat Charlie through his life, his love and his eventual awakening and a reunion with his brother/other half that is amazing, funny and wise.
Gaimans zingy plot and hilarious dialog is in place here, as is his ability to mix the profound with the comic in such a way that you're not aware of the moral you're learning until it unfolds like a flower at the end.
I highly recommend this book to all who love Gaimans previous works, and those who just want an interesting beach read. Gaiman's a sure thing for a good time.