This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Good book, bright side? What are you talking about? Some thoughts...

To resurrect once more the ideas on which this blog was founded, I'd like to open a discussion on the concept of life-affirming books which are thoughtfully and well written, which are entertaining but do not pander to baser senses, as so many popular novels tend to do. I do not mean to rubber stamp any book as a pure example of such by mentioning it in these pages. (And this blog has morphed into a general one about books, although most are relatively benign in the sense that they are not terribly vulgar or obscene.) But, hopefully, there is an element of worthiness in most of what is presented here.

To seek out books that espouse only worthwhile ideas and to write only about them leaves very little to write about, it seems, sadly. First of all there is the question, whose worthwhile ideas? The disposition of this blog is, generally, to define 'worthwhile' as absent of most vulgarity (although that is, today, a tall order) and exuding a leaning towards brighter standards, rather than darker inclinations, something with less lewdness and more style. But I'll pretty much write about anything that is not overtly offensive. To employ the movie ratings system, even an R-rated book can be included if it is thoughtfully and maturely written.

What prompted this post was a discussion on a couple of other sites about religious fiction. And, so this was born more as a lament to the fact that secular fiction seems so bent on swears and gratuitous displays of violence and sexuality; it does not generally point to any better alternatives, but glamorizes the aforementioned elements, instead. Fiction cannot be sanitized in the way a cloth is rid of grime through the use of chlorinated detergent; it cannot be all high roads and no low ones. It needs conflict. But it would be nice if more fiction reflected a feeling that the high road was the worthy one. A lot of fiction doesn't seem able to do that and, frankly, I'd welcome more proof that I'm wrong.

So the point of this yammering on is to clarify and expand this blog's philosophy and to ask, why can't fiction aspire to more?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book lover solidarity

I was in a bookstore recently and a kid was nagging her mother for a book. Well, it wasn't quite nagging so much as very interestedly and earnestly asking for the book.

"Mommy, look!"

Mother, who was an intense looking woman with an angular face and shredded nerves to match, wasn't that interested.

"Mommy, It's called The Magician's-"

"The Magician's what?" mother snapped.

"Nephew," the girl calmy responded.

"Mommy, this book is so-o-o good!"

"How do you know?" mother barked, adding at one point, "I'm trying to do something here."

The little girl, in a naive attempt to engage her mother's attention and enthusiasm which would tear at any book-lover's heart, started to read from the book.

Mother stops her. "Look, you just don't get it, do you!"

Later, I think I hear the little girl sniffing loudly.

Finally, I'm up at the counter. So's mother. Lo and behold, in their small pile of purchases is CS Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. Annoyed at the mother and wishing to vindicate the kid, I casually point at the book and remark, "That's a good one."

"Oh great!" was mother's reaction. I'm not sure if it was sincere or if she was wishing the buttinsky would shut up. But how many times as a child would it have been nice to have someone stick up for you? I like to think that kid was gratified. Book lover solidarity and all that. Of course she may just be an annoying brat who always hounds her bedraggled mom for new stuff.

In that case, oops.

Timely reading: Comments on Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer

How I came to read the book

I felt like a kid eating at the grown-up table; I probably wouldn't have gravitated to these choices of nourishment if I were sitting at the little table with spaghettios in front of me.

I had a list of books to choose from and none of them were instantly striking me. Still one did tempt my intellectual side (or what there is of it). Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln seemed interesting but scholarly. But did I dare take on the challenge of reviewing a scholarly book? Would it be the readable kind or the type that requires a magnifying glass, intellectual appetite of an academic with an 800 pound brain, and infinite patience?

It was too tempting, so I took a chance.

My little 3 pound brain needn't have worried. As soon as I received the 432 page work in the mail and gave it a pre-read cursory glance I was heartened. The warm egg nog colored pages were filled with print I could ably read and the writing style was conversational. Preliminary indicators were positive; this was promising.

The reading experience

In Giants, author John Stauffer draws upon similarities in the lives of the abolitionist former slave Federick Douglass and the Civil War-era president Abraham Lincoln to create a framework on which this dual biography can be written. The second paragraph of the preface lists some stunning comparisons between the two individuals' lives. Stauffer writes,

"They learned to read and re-make themselves from the same core set of books: the Bible; Shakespeare; Lord Byron; Robert Burns; Aesop's Fables; and The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of speeches for boys. They avoided tobacco and alcohol at a time when people regularly chewed and drank on the job....And they were strapping men, at least a half foot taller on average than their peers, when physical prowess could determine success or failure, even life or death." (Giants, by John Stauffer, page xi)

Stauffer doesn't bring up these shared traits just to list coincidences. He continues within the book to describe how the physical power of these men did, indeed, help them attain power in the forms of intellect and social influence. And Stauffer describes the strength that an excellent skill at orating was at this time in history, as well as the severe disadvantage that was bad speech-making.

Readers are taken on a birth-to-death journey with both men, whose tales are interwoven throughout. And, boy, is it ever more complicated than we were taught in grammar school. Neither was a saint, neither was an innocent in romance, neither's view on abolition remained static through their lives. In Lincoln's case, he became more radical, seeming to grow more willing to stand for abolition as he neared the end of his life - probably no coincidence. As for Douglass, he lived a long life, became quite wealthy and more conservative in his activist views.

If Giants had been available to read one month ago (it's publication date was November 3 - election eve) and immediately read, it would have been a different reading experience. Back then, one month ago, the question was still being asked if an African-American could be elected president. In the course of one day, the nation passed a milestone that future historians will be writing about. So when on page 285 a scene is described of Frederick Douglass sitting in a room with a white man, a judge, while both awaited their respective meetings with President Lincoln, and the judge, "outraged at having to share the same space with a black man," snidely makes a comment by asking Douglass, "Are you the President?" readers post November 4 know something as fact: that today this question cannot be used in the same demeaning manner the judge meant back in 1863. It kind of makes you wish you could hoist that judge out of his nineteenth and into this twenty-first century.

Giants is an engaging read. It explains the drawn out and painstakingly slow pace of the abolition of slavery and the complex personalities behind the movement - some personalities wholeheartedly behind a fight for equality and some with provisos. It is amply supplemented with endnotes and footnotes, populated with interesting major and minor players, and contains nearly enough photographs to satisfy readers.

I'm glad I didn't choose the spaghettios.

Thanks to Hachette for this complementary review copy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What are your favorite first lines?

We all know memorable first lines from famous novels. There's, of course:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

And there's also:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Children's lit has its classic lines, too. Like:

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug." - Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

But there are very many novels out there. And, while they do not provide modern-day writers with material to manipulate and, in some cases, abuse (I'm thinking, the kick-off to Austen's novel), they do have some pretty good openers. One that I like particularly comes from another kids' book, C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I chuckle whenever I read it and like to fancy that I'll one day have the opportunity to read it aloud at some storytime hour somewhere. It so would make a great spoken sentence. As a matter of fact the whole first paragraph is stellar and with it Lewis paints an enviable character sketch of a main character; you get the feeling you know who you're dealing with when you've read the first page.

"There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

I can just imagine that avuncular Lewis telling this story beginning to the neighborhood kids. And do you ever hear of anyone talking about it? At least the negative answer to that question means that the sentence has survived untainted by the overuse of writers looking for a cutesy, "clever" way to open their own stories. I might mention again poor Jane Austen's first line to end all first lines.

I suppose that my love of this line is unique and explains why no one has pinched it to use it in their own way. Lewis's line is unassuming, it doesn't try too hard. And perhaps it plays to a childlike sense of humor. But how many subtle lines can send a kid into hysterics? Granted I have yet to witness this but I haven't tested the theory yet. And if my inner gauge is correct I am sure that I would have been rolling on the floor as a kid and reading this line out to adults while waiting to see them collapse into fits of laughter. (I used to do this - read from my books, look up after I'd read the good part, and wonder why my family wasn't chortling heartily. But that's a story for another day.)

So this is my nomination for the best first lines list. It's not Austen or Dickens but just think what a great theater-trained actor could do with it, reading the first clause matter-of-factly, raising his head and stating slowly and viciously "and he almost deserved it," with eyes narrowing at the poetic justice implied.

Now, what's your nomination?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Instant shelving!

It's really all about the small things in life, isn't it? A cup of coffee with just the right amount of sugar and cream, a child hysterically giggling, more book space? Sure, much of life is made of small stuff, at least that's what the Salada tea bag told me years ago, so I have been delighted recently by the addition of two small shelves , baby shelves if you will, to the big grown-up shelves which hold my books.

It's quite appropos really. I pulled out a bunch of old books that were packed away a while back and wanted somewhere to put them. Perhaps I'm a bit of an ageist when it comes to books; I didn't want my old books mixing with my new. So what to do? Enter refurbished book shelves - your big break has come at last.

I found stacked amid old shoes and sundry items a wooden wine rack which was just begging to be made into a bookshelf. I believe it actually belonged to someone close to me once but, baby, you are my bookshelf now! Hopefully, said person won't mind that I absconded with their holder of libations and took a saw to it in order to remove those pesky rungs that would have held the bottles in place. I washed off the sawdust and put on some lemon oil treatment (mmmm, lovely scent!) and now the former unhappy wine rack has the proud job of holding an old copy of Northanger Abbey and some Lord Peter Wimsey's.

Additionally, this is not nearly as exciting but worth mentioning, I found an old VHS cassette holder. VHS cassette holder? How passe'! So I gleefully ripped out the plastic innards of that thing and, lo and behold, a lovely bookshelf was longing to get out the whole time of its existence. Now, it can live happily.

So you see, now the old but loved books have old but upgraded digs. The old wine rack and VHS cassette holder have seen the light of day again, and have done it in style.

(You think maybe I'm a bit of a book nut?)

Is there such a thing as a free book?

A lively debate was ignited at the Guardian site a few days ago by Edward Champion's article, There's no such thing as a free book, on the practice of publishers giving bloggers advanced reading copies of books that are soon to be published in exchange for a review on their blogs. This interested me as I had just recently received my first review copies from Hachette and Sourcebooks.

It was very exciting to open the front door and see that the postman had brought a lovely hardcover absolutely free to me for reading and reviewing and adding to my library. As it was followed up by a special delivery a few days later of two really stunning paperbacks I can say, as a booklover, it was a good week. But this article got me anxious. Would I feel pressure to write glowing reviews for all such books that I read?

There are lots of book blogs out there. If you're looking at mine right now, let me say (first, what good taste you have!) and, of course, how much I appreciate my readership. On my internet travels, I found a site called Becky's Book Reviews wherein the blogger makes no bones about the fact that while review copies are welcome, she will give an honest review so if you do not wish an honest review please do not send the book. Furthermore, she gets so many review copies she can't guarantee that she'll get around to all of them. Wise girl, Becky, I thought! I'd like to state that I have similar policies; I will endeavor to be as honest as possible with any review copy I have been sent. But I don't foresee a problem of becoming flooded with such books, so I should be able to give each some attention, true and honest attention.

Meanwhile, I am pleased so far to be enjoying my first review copy, the aforementioned hardcover, which is entitled Giants, the parallel lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and is written by John Stauffer. There's a big whew! factor in reading this book since it's genuinely a good, entertaining comparison of the lives of these two famous men. I'll soon be posting a review. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Q&A with author of Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess, Jerramy Fine

Jerramy Fine's whimsical walk on the regal side is described in her absorbing book, Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess. This memoir recounts Fine's quest to become a princess and her lifelong attachment to the English royal family as she grows up with Hippie parents in rural Colorado. Sound a little too fanciful to be true? I was a little cynical, if you remember from my review in April. But I am assured by the author that the story is absolutely the real thing and am very pleased to post here the second of GBBS's writer Q&A's. Many thank you's to Jerramy Fine for taking time out and answering a few questions which I hope have some whimsy of their own!

GBBS: If you could, which fictional literary character would you date?
JF: I know that I'd definitely (and stupidly) fall for Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones's Diary - I just know it. But if I could go back in time, I think the playfully witty aristocratic gentlemen (Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing) in The Importance of Being Earnest would also make my heartflutter to end.

GBBS: What is the one book you'd take to a deserted island?

JF: It's toss up between The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundee, The Alchemist by Paul Coelho, and Return to Love by Marianne Williamson.

GBBS: What's your preferred method of book-buying -- internet or old-fashioned bookstores?

JF: I like both. I prefer browsing in cozy, independent bookstores compared to getting lost in one of the huge, sprawling chains. But I also really like Amazon because it has such a sense of community. I love reading readers reviews and I always get drawn in by listmania. But Amazon can be dangerous because it makes buying books almost too easy - it's good thing they're so heavily discounted because I always end up buying more books than I possibly have to read.
GBBS: Which writer is so great that it's hard to tear yourself away from his/her writing so you can get stuff done?

JF: Phillipa Gregory

GBBS: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

JF: A princess - obviously. Or first lady. :)
GBBS: Reading Someday My Prince Will Come was as addictive as eating potato chips. Are you working on anything new we can look forward to? Any little sneak-peaky tidbit you're able to share?
JF: I'm working on another novel set in London. I can't give away much more than that but stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Q&A with author of the Pink Carnation series, Lauren Willig

Here is the very first of GBBS's Q&As with some very fun and talented writers! First up is Lauren Willig, the author of the Pink Carnation series. For much more on Lauren and her novels follow this link. And for a GBBS review of the first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, click here. Many thanks to Lauren for responses that are super thoughtful and as entertaining to read as her books!

GBBS: What is the one book you'd take to a deserted island?

LW: The idea of only having one book… agh. I’m usually a five book a week girl. Fortunately, I am a re-reader and the book I’ve probably re-read most over the course of a lifetime would have to be Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Even after five different copies and roughly fifty readings, I still find something new every time I open those covers. Her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue, the subtleties of characterization, and the sheer appeal of Rhett Butler just can’t be matched.

GBBS: If you could, which fictional literary character would you date?

LW: It’s so hard to narrow it down! The heartthrob of my teen years was Ian Thornton from Judith McNaught’s Almost Heaven. By the time I got over him, there was Jamie from Outlander to be drooled over, Lovelace from Clarissa (I know he’s an evil rake, but, oh, the challenge!), Orlando Rock from Love: A User’s Guide, and, of course, those traditional swoon-worthy souls: Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, and Rhett Butler.

If I had to choose now, I might go for Rory Frost, from M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind. Rory is the classic black sheep hero, an unrepentant rogue running guns in mid-nineteenth century Zanzibar, always ready with a quick quip, cynical to the core—but with his own sense of honor. Think Errol Flynn crossed with Rhett Butler (which mixes genres a bit, but you get the idea).

GBBS: What's your preferred method of book-buying -- internet or old-fashioned bookstores?

LW: Bookstores are my mothership. Whenever I’m bored or cranky, nothing cheers me up like taking a long stroll through the new book tables. There’s something infinitely soothing about it. I’ve found some of my favorite books that way, just randomly roaming along with my head angled awkwardly sideways, never knowing quite what I might find. If I can’t find a particular book in the store (or three or four stores, since I’m lucky enough to live near a Borders, two Barnes & Noble, Bookberries, and Shakespeare & Co, all in a thirty block radius), then I do resort to ordering online. But nothing can possibly replace the sheer joy of being entirely surrounded by books. Books, books, books, and more books, all waiting to be read.

GBBS: Which writer is so great that it's hard to tear yourself away from his/her writing so you can get stuff done?

LW: Actually, there are a lot of those. (As you might have guessed, I’m very susceptible to distraction!). Even though they’re all very different, Susan Elizabeth Philips, Tracy Grant, Robin McKinley, and Georgette Heyer all have that effect on me. Once I start reading any of their books, I fall prey to Just One More Chapter syndrome and have to keep going until I’m done, even if it’s three in the morning and I know I’m going to be useless the next day because of it.

GBBS: Your books are so detailed (I'm thinking of Amy's sneaking around the passages of her brother's huge house in Paris), how are you able to imagine so much so vividly?

LW: Thank you!! Part of it comes from having spent most of my youth being steeped in other centuries. When I was little, one of my favorite treats was being taken to the period rooms at the Met. Other little kids might clamor to go to the park; I just wanted eighteenth century interiors. Family vacations generally involved roaming around old castles. And let’s not even discuss the sheer number of costume dramas I’ve watched over the years. I managed to put my college years to good use by taking classes on seventeenth and eighteenth century art and architecture (Amy’s brother’s house had its inception in a junior year art history class, for which I had to design a seventeenth century French house) as well as literature and history. By the time I sat down to write Pink Carnation, the vistas of the past were often more vivid to me than the workaday world around me; looking out my window in London, I could picture carriages rather than cars, street vendors hawking their wares, dandies tooling their phaetons to Hyde Park. The hard bit is dragging myself back to the present day.

GBBS: I suppose that, unfortunately, the Pink Carnation must end at some point. Do you have any ideas on the backburner for other series?

LW: So many ideas! I don’t want to jinx any of them by saying too much (I get superstitious about these things), but I’m a little obsessed with a pirate project I’m working on right now. I also have vague plans for an eighteenth century series, involving a husband and wife team immersed in international intrigue in the 1770s. Of course, nothing is set in stone—or paper—until I actually sit down to write it.

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