Monday, November 30, 2009

Post-Holiday Week Reading Report

I had planned to do a lot of reading during the holiday, and I did, but I only finished one book.

I'm not a big fan of non-fiction, but I finished The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher Saturday. And I loved it! I thought Kate Summerscale did an excellent job narrating the details of the murder and its ensuing investigation. I had never really thought about how the profession of a detective, whether policeman or private, might have developed nor how the public might have felt about the creation of this new profession. I was fascinated with this aspect of the book. Being a literature lover, I also really enjoyed Summerscale's use of the investigation of the murder as a parallel to the development of detective fiction. I was a bit surprised that Summerscale was able to weave all these informative and narrative threads into such an enthralling book that kept me reading not only to find out who did it but also see how it affected the public psyche and literature.

It's funny that I've never considered myself a mystery connoisseur, because I have always liked mysteries, even as a young reader. I loved Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. As an adult, I've enjoyed Lawrence Sanders, especially his McNally series, and P.D. James. I have always liked movie mysteries too, especially those based on British mystery stories, such as Agatha Christie's, and Conan Doyle's. Some of my favorite TV shows are police dramas, which are often mystery-like in plot, such as the Law & Order franchise, the CSI franchise, Cold Case, and Criminal Intent. In addition, I love British mystery series like Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, and Midsommer Murders. I like mysteries, I think, because I like solving puzzles and trying figure out the answer before it is revealed, and something about knowing the answer in the end is comforting.

Because I think of mysteries as my "easy" reading, I've never thought about mystery sub-genres, such as the country house murder mystery even though I'm sure that I've read and seen some. The murder that is the focus of the book is a real-life country house murder. A child is brutally murdered and someone in the house did it. Because this is a real life murder, it's a bit more difficult, actually damn near impossible for the detective to prove his case. Even years later, when the accused confesses, there's some question as to whether she could have done it alone. I really hate it when TV mystery/police dramas don't tie up all the loose ends at the end of an episode, but I don't mind when a book leaves me wondering.

In the Afterword, Summerscale comments:
"Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional--to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. 'The detective story,' observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, 'is a tragedy with a happy ending.' A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presences of death."
So in the end, we are comforted and cleansed and feel better about the (fictional) world. Is it any surprise that there is more than one book where the detective is/was/almost was a priest/rabbi? (Okay, I can only think of one that I've read, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman, but I'm sure there are more.)

Other Reading
I read some more of both of the two motherhood books that I named in the previous post, and I might blog about them later this week. I also started Water for Elephants. I've only read about 50 pages, but I think I'm going to really like it. (Is it just me or does the opening narration by the 90- or 93-year-old narrator remind you of Little Big Man? I've never read that book, but I've seen the movie a couple of times.)

I did not read any of the YA books that I brought home with me from work. Today at work, I finished the first chapter of Tender Morsels, and I decided it wasn't the YA book for me right now. I read the first chapter of Marked, the first book in the House of Night Series, and thought I might give it a chance. I also read two or three chapters in The Missing Girl, and the opening chapter was kind of creepy, so I think I'm going to give it a try too. Tomorrow, we are doing some testing at my campus, and I have to sit in the hallway all morning and relieve teachers when they need a bathroom break, and I plan to use that time to read more of one of these two books.

Now it's time to go to bed and read for a while. Later.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Big Plans for a Week of Reading & Writing

If you look at the left sidebar of my blog, you will see that it says I'm reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (true - I'm completely enthralled with this book & will definitely write about it later), Water for Elephants (false - not started; planning to begin today), and Moby Dick (false - read about thirty pages at work but that was several weeks ago; planning to restart soon). In addition to those three books, I brought home three work reads: Tender Morsels, which I started a few weeks ago but can't decide if I'll finish or not; Marked, the first book in the House of Night series, and The Missing Girl, the last book by the recently deceased YA author Norma Fox Mazer (brand new book; only one student read so far & her comment: "This is a very creepy book" made me want to read it). Add to this list two books about motherhood: The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, & Birth and Confessions of the Other Mother--I should have already finished the first one (I'm afraid that Valerie is getting frustrated with me for not having finished it or read the one that she read).

Whew! That's a lot of reading for a slow reader to do in only one week. I know that I won't finish all of these this week, but I should be able to make a pretty big dent in most of them.

As for writing this week, I am usually such a procrastinator when it comes to writing, but I've been feeling the need to get some out lately. I spent the summer reading short stories, and I have been thinking a lot about trying to write some since the summer ended. Last week, I decided that I would try to write one this week. I have a couple of ideas for it but unfortunately nothing definite. I'm going to get off the computer and do some housework for a while then come back and work on that story.

Enjoy your Monday!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My To-Read List Just Keeps Getting Longer

I went to the Texas Book Festival in Austin two weekends ago. The weather was gorgeous and the authors were interesting and entertaining, even the ones that I wasn't that excited about seeing. The problem with the weekend, though, is that now I have a bunch of books added to my already impossibly long list of books that I want to read. When I picked the sessions for Sunday, I seriously thought about cutting out early and even not going at all, but I ended up staying all afternoon, and I am so glad that I did. What follows is a list of the authors that I saw and the books that I now want to read. (I started this post over a week ago, so excuse the lack of details for the Sunday sessions. I suck when it comes to posting regularly.)


Jane Smiley and Lucy Silag: I thought that I had read something of Smiley's, but after checking out her list of works, I'm fairly certain that I was mistaken. After hearing her talk about her writing, I definitely want to read something of hers, especially A Thousand Acres and maybe her new YA book, The Georges and the Jewels, which is what she is promoting right now. I already wanted to read her daughter's book Beautiful American, but I didn't know Silag was Smiley's daughter. I picked up an ARC of the book at last year's Texas Library Association's conference, but I haven't made time to read it yet. When I get to work tomorrow, I'm going to move it to the top of the to-read pile that I have there.

Colson Whitehead and ZZ Packer: The title of this session was About Race: Identity and American Fiction. Whitehead began by reading a very funny satirical piece about post-racial America then he read an excerpt from his most recent novel Sag Harbor. I have read and really enjoyed his earlier novel The Institutionist, and I think I started his novel John Henry Days several years ago after I saw him read here in Houston. After hearing the excerpt from Sag Harbor, I really want to read this book. ZZ Packer read from an article that she wrote about Reconstruction. The she read part of a short story from her book Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, which I have read already and highly recommend. She is currently working on a novel about the Buffalo Soldiers and Reconstruction--can't wait to read it now. After they read, there was a discussion about race and American fiction, which was very interesting.

Jim Crace, Johnathan Lethem, Robert Olen Butler, and David Eagleman: This panel was very interesting, but, unfortunately, I had to leave early to get to the location where Margaret Atwood was speaking. I was there long enough to hear each of the authors talk about their most recent books: Being Dead (Crace), Chronic City (Lethem), Hell (Butler), and Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife (Eagleman). It was very funny when Eagleman talked about people coming to his appearances, thinking that he was going to talk about the afterlife from a neuroscientist's point of view and being surprised that the book is fiction. I have to admit that I was one of those people. :-) I have never read any of their works, but I think now that I will definitely try to read some of them.

Margaret Atwood: She is the main reason I wanted to go to the festival. I have seen her once before. I think she was the first author that I ever went to a reading by and Alias Grace was definitely my first signed book. I LOVE Atwood's writing, and I think she is such a smart, funny woman that I don't think I would ever be disappointed by her or miss any opportunity to see her in person. I already have The Year of the Flood, and I will probably read it as soon as I finish Howard's End, the current selection of my book club.


Michael H. Marvins: Texas' Big Bend: A Photographic Adventure from the Pecos to the Rio Grande is about a place that I LOVE. I've been there twice and look forward to going back some day. I liked the photos that Marvins showed during his talk, so I bought this book--Surprise! Surprise! But it was the only book that I bought all weekend, which is really good for me.

PC Cast and Kristen Cast: This mother-daughter team are the creators of the House of Night series, a young adult vampire series. There are currently six novels available in this series: Marked, Betrayed, Chosen, Untamed, Hunted, and Tempted. I really don't like vampire stories, not even Twilight, but I went to this session anyway because some of my students have read the series and have asked if I will get it for the library. Last year, one of my co-workers read the books and said she felt like they were too mature for 7th and 8th graders. One of my 8th grade students who has read the books said she thought they would be inappropriate in our library. Still, I thought I would check out the authors, and I'm glad that I did. They were very entertaining women, who are very concerned about empowering young women. Plus the mother used to be a high school English teacher. She doesn't know it, but we bonded over both those points. According to PC, the vampirism in these books is based in biology, something about junk DNA, something that I know nothing about but it made the books sound more interesting to me than the usual vampire books. I'm going to read Marked, the first book in the series, and see if it really is too mature for my school's library.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Novella Carpenter, James Sheehan, James E. McWilliams: This panel was hosted by an Atlantic Monthly writer, Corby Kummer, and I think it was the best panel of the weekend. Each person briefly described the genesis of their most recent books: Eating Animals (Foer), Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (Carpenter), Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen (Sheehan), and Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (McWilliams). Kummer had obviously read all three books and asked pertinent questions, and the panelists were not afraid to voice differing opinions on how we should eat, where we should eat, and where we should shop for food. (I wish I had made notes or posted this a week ago). There was talk of factory farming and the ridiculousness of farm bills and how the farm lobby does nothing to help change the status quo. I try my best to shop locally and by free range/grass fed meat, sometimes organic and sometimes not, but I learned that all those terms don't always mean what they connote. I'm a meateater, and I can't really see myself ever giving it up completely, but this panel gave me a lot to think about, and I'm putting two of these books on my to-read list, Eating Animals and Locavores. As my regular reader(s) knows, I'm not big on non-fiction, but I think I might have to start reading more of it.

Jessica Lee Anderson, Libba Bray, and Sara Zarr: These are all young adult authors. I've read one book by Bray and one by Zarr, but I've not read their most recent works. This panel was very entertaining, thanks mostly to the antics of Bray, who definitely wanted to be the star of the panel, and the rather dry humor of Zarr, who didn't seem like she wanted to play second fiddle to bray. I was especially interested in hearing/seeing Zarr because she is a self-professed (former?) struggling reader and an admitted slow reader (me too!) who writes realistic fiction, which is much more to my taste than all the vampire/fantasy novels that everyone and their dog is writing these days. After hearing these authors, I think I would like to read all of their most recent works: Border Crossing (Anderson), Going Bovine (Bray)--is that a great title or what!--and Once Was Lost (Zarr). This was the last panel of the weekend for me.

I had a really great time at the Texas Book Festival, and I was pretty geeky impressed by the fact that I was sitting in the Senate chamber and House chamber for some of theses panels. My final assessment of the weekend's events: I'm never going to get my to-read list down to a manageable number.