Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading Roundup: Historical Southern Fiction

Robert Hicks' The Widow of the South hits close to home, geographically speaking. Set in 1864 near the end of the Civil War, this novel takes one small part of that four year conflict and tells a detailed story of one town, one family, and how they were affected by the most bitter conflict in US history.

The Battle of Franklin was one of the most disastrous conflicts for the Confederacy, resulting in thousands of casualties from just one day of fighting. Carnton Plantation (a real place near Nashville that happens to be a beautiful modern-day wedding venue!) was right in the middle of the battle and taken over by troops as a field hospital to tend to the injured and dying. In Hicks' story, Carrie McGavock (also a real person) is forced to face the horrors of the war as they literally arrive on her doorstep. As she works with the soldiers and sees the effects of the war firsthand, she finds the strength and passion to stand up for the individual lives that war so caustically simplifies as mere numbers.

This book was partly fascinating just because its setting is one that's very familiar. And contrary to what you may believe, local Civil War battles are not something we learned in school—so I knew very little about the historic events around which this novel takes place! It's also fascinating that much of this story, though fiction, is based on real people and places. Hicks clearly thoroughly researched the time and place and created a very detailed account of the affects of this war. That being said, this is a long book, and I thought it dragged in several places. When I say Hicks was detailed, I mean it. I finished with a better opinion of this book than I had during reading it, which is a rare sentiment, but I was left inspired to further investigate the real story on my own. Also, my mom and sister both loved this.

I last read Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns back in my 10th grade English class, and I remembered nothing more other than my mom also reading it and liking it. It was this memory that inspired me to pick it up again and read it as a grown-up.

Cold Sassy, Georgia, is the type of small town where everybody knows everything about everybody else just about as soon as it happens. It's summer 1906 and the talk of the town is how Will Blakeslee's grandfather has up and married the young Miss Simpson less than a month after his beloved wife has been buried. Our fourteen-year-old narrator Will finds himself in the middle of the scandal, observing the reactions of the town and his family, and trying to see the subjective side of what's happening around him.

For one, the time period of this story is really fun. It's the turn of the century when modern luxuries are a conversation piece. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, automobiles—there's an excitement in the air about what's coming next. As a narrator, Will is fascinating to read, because he's old enough to understand that there's always more than one way to read a story. He's trying to view the world from an adult, unbiased perspective, and he gains an understanding that everyone has their own reasons for their actions. That's a valuable lesson to learn. I'm glad I read Cold Sassy Tree again; it's an enjoyable, humorous story with a lot of heart. Though, I can't imagine it appealing to too many 10th graders—not provocative enough!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fiction | The Quietest Most Eventful Summer

Gail Godwin's Flora is a quiet book. There's no climactic plot line, no gut-wrenching relationships, nor any other real dramatic element. However, this is a book filled with tension simmering to the brim, told eloquently by our precocious 10-year-old narrator, Helen.

Helen is going through one of the rougher patches of her short life—her grandmother and main caregiver Nonie has just passed away and her dad is spending the summer in Oak Ridge doing important war work as WWII draws to a close. While he's gone, he's left Helen in the charge of her long-deceased mother's cousin, Flora. And the personality differences between these two could not be greater.

Describing Helen simply as "precocious" is not nearly descriptive enough. She's incredibly smart but also intuitive and confident and possesses a haughty attitude more typical of a smart-aleck 16-year-old than of someone her age. She's mirrored Nonie's perspectives and attitudes and experiences the world with a more mature level of cynicism, as if she already knows how it all works; she's realistic and reads people for (what she believes) they are rather than how they appear. Flora, on the other hand, is bubbly and outgoing, but her personality is usually just a mask for her lack of self-confidence. She's constantly questioning her own thoughts and actions and desperately needs someone to guide her through young adulthood. Channeling a Nonie-level of knowledge and life experience, Helen immediately considers herself superior to the anxious and inexperienced Flora.

With our two conflicting protagonists isolated in Helen's crumbling old house, Flora explores these clashes of personality between two characters who are each at a poignant moment in their adolescent development and who each desperately need the guidance that Nonie once provided.

I describe this as a "quiet" book, because in this long and uneventful summer is where the meat of the story lies; as the reader, we are constantly assessing and re-assessing the interactions between Helen and Flora with consideration to each's perspective. Helen is remarkably astute for her age, but we as the reader are able to see that the world according to Helen is still skewed with an immature misunderstanding. These are brilliantly crafted characters that allow a lot to be read between the lines. It doesn't feel particularly complex as you read, but the story has depth; these characters—their differences, their misunderstandings, their flaws—will stick with you.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading Roundup: Sweeping Sagas

Because it's probably hard to keep track of my reading tastes from 4 years of random blog posts, I'm just gonna state as a fact that I love sweeping historical fiction sagas. Love 'em. I will devour them. And because such novels are often chunksters, not only are the stories enjoyable, they feel extra rewarding when you finally get through them! I've read a couple lately that I'd recommend to any other fan of such types of books.

The first is another Rosamunde Pilcher pick, Winter Solstice. As I've posted before, she has become one of my favorite authors I would've never picked up, because, if you remember, she was cursed with a publicity department that made all her book covers look like romance novels. And not that there's anything wrong with that genre, it just scares off some folks and is also deceptive...these aren't romance novels!

The main character of Winter Solstice is the middle-aged Elfrida Phipps who's just moved to the quaint village of Hampshire and befriended a local family—Oscar, a retired musician, his wife Gloria, and their preteen daughter Francesca. Then we have Carrie, a young woman returning to England after the end of a relationship in Austria; and Sam, a young man returning to England after a failed marriage in New York to revive a local textile mill. Each having suffered their own tragedies, these people converge at Corrydale, a cozy old Scottish estate, where they each aim to escape and find solace.

Of course their lives intermingle as relationships form between Pilcher's characters that each have their own very different past. Creating these relationships is what Pilcher is good at. Everyone has a story, and everyone is likable; the tragedies and pitfalls are always situational, never the fault of cruelness or selfishness in others. Her stories highlight the positive attributes of people with an always optimistic tone. The endings will always be happy, so I guess in that sense, she does follow the rules of Romance. All Pilcher's novels I've read have a cozy setting, and this one particularly so—perfect for cold winter days bundled under a blanket!

The other family saga I recommend is Leila Meacham's Roses. Set in small-town Texas where cotton, timber, and textiles are in the town's very foundation, Roses tells the story of the three industries' founding families and the choices that led them where they are today.

The story opens with the last day of Mary Toliver's life, when the reader finds out a last-minute change to her will is going to bequeath her cotton empire to timber tycoon Percy Warwick instead of her niece, the always-intended successor. What follows is a decades-long history that explains Mary's decision, revealing the relationships, secrets, and tragedies that have defined the Tolivers, Warwicks, and Dumonts.

Like Winter Solstice, Roses is a chunkster, but it also reads very fast. The narrative jumps between past and present keep attention without confusing and slowly reveal new pieces to the puzzle. Mary Toliver is a really headstrong, independent, and passionate character that you want to fully understand, and you keep reading with the hope the story will help you do so. Ultimately, the story is about making choices about what's most important in your life and living with those consequences. I thought the ending wrapped up a little quickly, but it didn't detract from the reading experience before that; I wasn't ready to see the conclusion of these characters!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fiction | Secrets & Lies in a Thrilling Sophomore Novel

Several months ago, I was sent Justin Kramon's newest book, The Preservationist, after reading and loving his debut novel, Finny. If you've read Finny, let me just say...this follow-up is not similar in style and theme! Kramon has gone dark with his sophomore novel. The Preservationist is all thriller, where you don't know who's good, who's bad, who you can trust, and who's hiding something.

The perspective of this one varies from chapter to chapter, a characteristic I really enjoy in novels. There are three main characters—Sam, Julia, and Marcus—and as the story is told, their lives intersect and relationships are formed. 

The voice we hear most often is that of Sam—a quiet guy working as a cook in the dining hall of the local college. He's approaching his 40th birthday, but he's young-looking and enjoys his work atmosphere surrounded by energetic youth. Kramon seems to write him as one with a bit of arrested development; it's surprising to find out how old he is, because he's constantly questioning his life and past relationships as would someone typically much younger. 

If we hear Sam's voice most often, it's Julia that is most often the focus. She's a freshman at the college and immediately grabs Sam's attention; she's the one that could make up for all those failed relationships of his past. He's smitten with her, and she shows interest too, but Julia is a bit scarred from a tragedy in her own past that she's having trouble coming to terms with.

Then we have Marcus, another guy smitten with Julia. They share several classes and a love of music, but Marcus also his own secrets, so as you can see, we're never really sure who to trust. Especially when violence breaks out on campus with girls disappearing.

I didn't dislike The Preservationist, but it is definitely not what I was expecting!! "Thriller" might actually be the wrong descriptor for it; my heart was pounding like I was watching a horror movie... and I do not like horror movies, because they are scary and it gets they stay in my head and then I can't sleep and become mistrustful of people! 

So in regards to this, Kramon did an excellent job of scaring the crap out of me. [Do not read late at night nor when you are home alone!] Until the climactic ending, I really never knew who to trust and who to fear. So props to you sir, for your excellent creepy writing, but now I'm going to go watch cartoons and the Disney Channel.

Monday, March 31, 2014

TV & Movie | Solving Crime as an Extracurricular

On Friday, Colin and I needed a late-night escape from the house and to our luck and surprise, we discovered that the Belcourt (our local indie movie house) was playing a late show of the Veronica Mars movie. Now, it is rare that Colin and I agree on any form of entertainment besides music. We spend more time browsing Netflix's instant offerings, trying to decide on something to watch, than actually watching anything. Our tastes are about as opposite as you can get, so when we find a TV show that hooks both of us, it's as close as you can come to a miracle.

And that's what Veronica Mars did.

If you need a bit of an introduction to this whole show/movie connection, here's the two-sentence summary: Veronica Mars was a WB-esque teen show that lasted for three seasons on UPN back in the mid-2000s. Its mega-cult following recently led to the fan-driven funding of a movie follow-up in the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever.

It was this movie that we saw on Friday, which was pretty enjoyable in its own right, but as I do anytime anything about VM is mentioned in life, I'm going to use this opportunity to highly recommend you WATCH SEASON 1!! (You need to know where it all began, right?)

When you meet Veronica Mars in her show's first season, her best friend Lilly has been murdered; her dad has been ousted as sheriff for believing Lilly's dad, the town's richest and most powerful man, had something to do with it; and Veronica's boyfriend and best friends have dropped her like yesterday's trash. Veronica's dad, Keith, has since opened his own private investigation business, and Veronica has taken it upon herself to use whatever means possible to solve the murder of her best friend, as well as her fair share of day-to-day crimes plaguing the town of Neptune. 

Yes it has mystery, murder, and mayhem, but this show is FUNNY. It has some of the best developed characters and wittiest dialogue around--like that high-quality level of Buffy that is often overlooked because it's characterized as a teen show about a girl fighting vampires and dealing with high school. The same oversimplification applies here. Veronica Mars doesn't have quite the Buffy level of seriousness and metaphor, but the writing, particularly the dialogue is fantastic. 

Season 1 is a standout collection of entertaining television that I've recommended to just about everyone I've met. I continued onto season 2 without Colin, and it was okay but not as great; I didn't even bother with season 3 after a fellow fan and coworker told me it'll anger you more than it's worth  watching. To see the movie now in theaters (and I think available on Amazon), you definitely need to see at least the first season to have a grasp of the characters and their history, but I don't think you need to have seen the rest; Colin hadn't and he got it just fine.

The best video summary I could find is a fan-created promo on YouTube, but I think it's a pretty good one to give you the gist!

Do we have any VM fans on here? If you haven't already seen it, who do you hope shows up in the movie?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Nonfiction | Bad Girls Have More Fun

"Only good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don't have the time."
—Tallulah Bankhead

This is the last nonfiction book I read, and I read it before our two months of travels. (Somehow, nonfiction just doesn't sound so appealing to me as a vacation read; give me fluff or give me death!) My mom picked up Elizabeth Kerri Mahon's Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women from the library back in January, and it was a great easy piece of nonfiction. I read it in just a couple of days, because it's easy to digest with short, conclusive chapters.

Many of these scandalous women are ones about which you are probably familiar—Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Anne Boleyn, Zelda Fitzgerald. But then there are many that are probably unfamiliar but were still newsmakers of their times for going against the grain of society—women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Louis VII and also King Henry II, a woman that could easily keep up with the powerful men of her time in both politics and romantic philandering.

Other women we read about are "wayward wives," "scintillating seductresses," and "amorous artists," among others. Mahon writes this book as a collection of brief and accessible biographies; you're not getting the full story but just a quick summary that may pique your interest to read more. (And I did; Wikipedia was my friend while reading this book!)

If the above chapter heads are any indication, Mahon is a fan of cutesy language, which is sometimes pretty annoying. Starting a character biography with the phrase, "She was just a small-town girl, living in a small-town world..." to describe Joan of Arc's beginnings is a pretty lame literary technique—not to mention I hate that song. But these aren't things you can't get past, and it's still a fun and light piece of nonfiction that demonstrates history-makers are never the quiet ones.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Update on What's Happening With This Blog

To anyone who is still reading this blog: hello again! This blog has been on a bit of an unannounced hiatus as I've spent the past 2 months traveling overseas. Don't worry--there are no thoughts of blog abandonment here; I've still been reading a ton and have many books to share in the upcoming weeks!

I did, though, want to check in and announce a few changes that will be coming to this blog in the future, mirroring the many changes that have been made in my own life in recent months! Back in December, I finished my MLS program and quit my job, and Colin and I moved out of NYC. I'll be entering the library field the upcoming months, and that's inspired me to broaden the scope of this blog, because I think it can be a great resource for any kind of media recommendations or reviews--libraries aren't just about books! I hope to post about anything I read or see, not just books--TV shows, movies, documentaries, music, and anything that may pique a person's interest and inspire their own information investigation.

Plus, we're not in New York anymore! I haven't decided if the name of the blog is going to change since this one is already so well established, but it's another consideration as the sphere of this blog widens.

I'd also like to institute more interactivity, both on this blog and in my own reading/watching/listening--new reading challenges, suggestions and group projects.

If you're still here, thanks for sticking around! I'm excited about the changes in my life, and I hope that excitement can extend to this blog. As always, I want this to be a place to talk about the culture we're consuming and share loves and hates, thoughts and opinions--all to inspire interest in and enthusiasm for the many different stories being told.