Tag Archives: Fiction

The First Bad Man by Miranda July (My love letter to Miranda July)

201501-omag-mirandajuly-2-949x1356The First Bad Man by Miranda July
276 pages | Purchase @ Barnes & Noble

It’s been a long time since it’s been physically uncomfortable to finish a book. By physically uncomfortable, I really mean that my emotions are so all over the place that they’re manifesting themselves as thought I’m experiencing some slight anxiety and a fair amount of sadness. And joy. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that this is the state that I am in at the end of this novel as I always feel this way at the ending of anything Miranda July creates.

Some people may not WANT to feel this way, but, honestly, I welcome it. I value this feeling as a sign that I was truly touched by the characters and the journey that I shared with them. Not only did I get to crawl inside of them to feel what they’re feeling, both the good and the bad, but I was also able to sit fully outside of them as a spectator to the events comprising their daily lives.

One aspect of Miranda July’s art (whether it be her novels, film, or performances) that I adore so much is that she captures life so perfectly. The beauty of life isn’t in one single type of experience or a perfect, flawless moment, but it is a culmination of our awkward interactions, happiness, love, pain, loss, the mundane, the disgusting, connecting with other people, connecting with ourselves, and everything in between. She doesn’t shy away from this and, even in a scene of loss and sadness, the beauty shines through.

The First Bad Man is narrated by Cheryl, a woman in her 40s who lives alone and exists within her own eccentric world. She once felt a connection with the soul (Kubelko Bondy) of a young baby and periodically reconnects with Kubelko Bondy, but only ever in passing. Cheryl’s entire world is changed by a brief cohabitation with a young woman named Clee. Together, they explore their boundaries and bring us along with them through the hilarity, the (sometimes) uncomfortable fantasies, life, and loss. Through this experience, Cheryl’s life is completely changed; she finds a strength that we don’t get to see her embody at the beginning of the novel.

A few additional quotes from the story that I am particularly fond of:

A bag of blood was rushed in; it was from San Diego. I’d been to the zoo there once. I imagined the blood being pulled out of a muscled zebra. This was good – humans were always withering away from heartbreak and pneumonia, animal blood would be much tougher, live, live, live.”

“Every night my plan was to make it to dawn and then feel out the options. But that was just it – there were no options. There had been options, before the baby, but none of them had been pursued. I had not flown to Japan by myself to see what it was like there. I had not gone to nightclubs and said ‘Tell me everything about yourself’ to strangers. I had not even gone to the movies by myself. I had been quiet when there was no reason to be quit and consistent when consistency didn’t matter.”

“These exotic revelations bubbled up involuntarily and I began to understand that the sleeplessness and vigilance and constant feedings were a form of brainwashing, a process by which my old self was being molded, slowly but with a steady force, into a new shape: a mother. It hurt. I tried to be conscious while it happened, like watching my own surgery. I hoped to retain a tiny corner of the old me, just enough to warn other women with.”

The ending of this novel feels like the loss of a loved one. I want to crawl back into the pages (or, in this case, my Nook app) and hang out with Cheryl for a little bit longer. She made me laugh. Her story, at times, made me want to cry. From beginning to end, I wanted to give her a hug. I am now in one of those rare circumstances where I want to continue reading and starting in on another novel, but my heart is going to need a few days to get over this one.

My subject mentioned something about a love letter for Miranda July — basically, if Miranda July were to ever stumble across this page, or my face on the street, I would, ultimately, want to adequately convey that her art speaks directly to my heart. I hope that she writes many more novels, short stories, films, and whatever else she desires to create.

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Driftless by David Rhodes

driftlessTitle:  Driftless
Author:  David Rhodes
Genre:  Fiction

The only reason that I stumbled across Driftless was because that this was a featured title on Barnes & Noble’s “Free eBook Fridays” a few weeks back.  I love me some free books and have been desperately missing the free classics that I used to download for my Kindle; it appears as though B&N does not go below $1.99 for the classics.  Anyway.  I jumped at the opportunity to check this title out when I discovered that there was a free eBook that WASN’T a Romance.

I was in the middle of forcing my way through Madame Bovary, which was slow going for me, so there was about a week between the download and the beginning of reading.  I scoped out some of the reviews that were floating around and prepared myself to be a changed woman.  By reading any number of responses to this novel, one would be silly not to prepare themselves to stare God in the face before jumping into Rhodes’ pages.

Needless to say, I was a little excited to get going with it.  I was even revving myself up to perhaps “meet” a new favorite author.

Unfortunately, however, I wasn’t as blown away as I wanted to be.  I’m not going to write that this is a bad read, by any means, but I found myself skimming a lot.  I don’t really like to skim.  I read a little on the slow side, but I enjoy savoring passages and losing myself in the characters’ conversations, the landscape, my own thoughts…  I struggled in doing so for the majority of this book.

Some positives (for me) – each chapter is told through the POV of a different character.  All 400-something pages focus on the same core set of characters, but you get to hop around from chapter to chapter, story to story.  I feel as though this was the main factor that kept me from calling it quits.  Each of the characters is interesting and unique and I honestly can’t say that there was a single one of them that I disliked.

The other positive (again, for me) is that the spiritual exploration seemed to be a melding of Christianity and Buddhism.  I am a fan of not keeping religion or spirituality completely black and white.  Mixing principles, teachings, and philosophies wins big points in my book.

The biggest negative, however, again – for me, was the ending.  No spoilers here, but it felt incomplete.  It felt as though it ended in the middle of a conversation and there still should have been 20 pages or so to wrap everything up.

 

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Sarah (Book #1 in Canaan Trilogy) by Marek Halter

 

Title:  Sarah (Book #1 – Canaan Trilogy)
Author: Marek Halter
Length: 336 pages

As usual, I’m a little behind in my posts here.  Sarah was my read for Hurricane Sandy; we lucked out and didn’t lose any power, but we did lose cable and internet.  So, we had plenty of light and a lack of external distractions (well, except for high winds and falling trees…) to encourage reading.  Needless to say, I powered through this book in about two days despite not really enjoying it as much as I wanted to.

One part of the book that I found exceedingly annoying is the fact that the reader is basically reminded every two pages just how beautiful Sarah is.  And she’s beautiful for her figure, face, and the fact that she doesn’t age.  She’s beautiful from the very beginning, but she stops aging after she takes some witch’s elixir to make her infertile.  Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but I found the aspects that apparently made her so beautiful and desired were  her not aging and never going through the changes that occur to a woman’s body with aging and childbirth.  Granted, Sarah struggled with not being able to age, but… it just became a little much.

My annoyance is probably partially my own fault and due to my ignorance about the Biblical tale of Sarah.  And, thanks to my ignorance, I can’t report on how true to the Bible this novel is.  I can tell you that it’s a huge bestseller and written well.  Regardless of how annoying I found the book at time, I still (overall) found enjoyment in reading it.  However, I would recommend reading The Red Tent with much more enthusiasm to anyone searching for a historical fiction about Old Testament women.

At this point, I’ll probably venture to read the remaining books in the trilogy, but I’ll probably put them off for a few months.

Synopsis from book:

Sarah’s story begins in the cradle of civilization: the Sumerian city-state of Ur, a land of desert heat, towering gardens, and immense wealth. The daughter of a powerful lord, Sarah balks at the marriage her father has planned for her. On her wedding day, she impulsively flees to the vast, empty marshes outside the city walls, where she meets a young man named Abram, son of a tribe of outsiders. Drawn to this exotic stranger, Sarah spends one night with him and reluctantly returns to her father’s house. But on her return, she secretly drinks a poisonous potion that will make her barren and thus unfit for marriage.

Many years later, Abram returns to Ur and discovers that the lost, rebellious girl from the marsh has been transformed into a splendid woman—the high priestess of the goddess Ishtar. But Sarah gives up her exalted life to join Abram’s tribe and follow the one true God, an invisible deity who speaks only to Abram. It is then that her journey truly begins.

From the great ziggurat of Ishtar to the fertile valleys of Canaan to the bedchamber of the mighty Pharaoh himself, Sarah’s story reveals an ancient world full of beauty, intrigue, and miracles.

 

You can visit Marek Halter’s Amazon.com Author Page for more information.

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No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Title:  No Country for Old Men
Author:  Cormac McCarthy
Length:  320 pages
HIGHLY RECOMMEND

Another library book!  I’m on a roll with utilizing my local library.  I watched No Country for Old Men about a year ago.  I loved it.  I watched it immediately after reading and watching The Road by the same author.  I had a fever for McCarthy novels.

I won’t lie to you, however – I tried reading Blood Meridian and couldn’t get past the first chapter.  I really need to amp my brain up before I dive into that novel – and the reasons for my difficulty getting into that novel are the same as my reasons for being so totally in love with The Road and No Country for Old Men.

But, first, a synopsis of No Country for Old Men:

Set in our own time along the bloody frontier between Texas and Mexico, this is Cormac McCarthy’s first novel since Cities of the Plain completed his acclaimed, best-selling Border Trilogy.

Llewelyn Moss, hunting antelope near the Rio Grande, instead finds men shot dead, a load of heroin, and more than $2 million in cash. Packing the money out, he knows, will change everything. But only after two more men are murdered does a victim’s burning car lead Sheriff Bell to the carnage out in the desert, and he soon realizes how desperately Moss and his young wife need protection. One party in the failed transaction hires an ex–Special Forces officer to defend his interests against a mesmerizing freelancer, while on either side are men accustomed to spectacular violence and mayhem. The pursuit stretches up and down and across the border, each participant seemingly determined to answer what one asks another: how does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?

A harrowing story of a war that society is waging on itself, and an enduring meditation on the ties of love and blood and duty that inform lives and shape destinies, No Country for Old Men is a novel of extraordinary resonance and power.

I can attest that the book is as gritty, dark, and powerful as the above description leads one to believe.  It’s probably a good policy to not pick up any of McCarthy’s novels when you’re in search of something light, love-y, or something that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy in your heart.  If you do, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

The narrative hops around between the characters – the good guys, the bad guys, and the “??” guys.  McCarthy, as always, sticks true to the vernacular of the characters, which is both refreshing and a challenge.  On more than one occasion, I had to re-read a paragraph two or three times or take a step back at the beginning of a chapter to figure out who the pronouns referred back to.  There are cuts, shifts in narrative, and please leave your love of quotation marks at the door…  this is truly a unique and challenging read.  And I love, love, love McCarthy for it.

The reader doesn’t have a front row seat to all of the action, but we’re made aware of what happens.  Even if it isn’t exactly what we expect (or want) to happen.  The chaos that plays out in the lives of the characters in the book serve as a nice parallel for the chaos that ensues in the world around us, every single day, start to finish.  I won’t lie – the character of Sheriff Bell voices some of my own thoughts, concerns, and fears about society on more than one occasion.

So, in parting:

I read in the papers here a while back some teachers came across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they’d been filled out and sent in from around the country answerin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So think about that. Because a lot of the time when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I’m gettin old. That it’s one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I’ve got. Forty years is not a long time neither. Maybe the next forty of it will bring some of em out from under the ether. If it aint too late.

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The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

Title:  The Stepford Wives
Author:  Ira Levin
Length:  144 pages
Creepy and amazing! 

The beautiful weather got me wanting to escape the confines of the office building last week, so I took one day and went over to the library.  My “adventure” actually allowed me to walk away with not one, but TWO, books to give me a good amount of fiction between non-fiction titles.

The first book that I dove into was The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin.  A title that I have wanted to read for quite some time — also, a movie that I have never watched, but it’s always sorta kinda been on the list “to see”.  The first thing about this book that is impossible not to notice is that it’s short – there are no extra, flowery descriptions between its covers and that’s just fine with me.

The description:

For Joanna, her husband, Walter, and their children, the move to beautiful Stepford seems almost too good to be true. It is. For behind the town’s idyllic facade lies a terrible secret — a secret so shattering that no one who encounters it will ever be the same.

At once a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a savage commentary on a media-driven society that values the pursuit of youth and beauty at all costs, The Stepford Wives is a novel so frightening in its final implications that the title itself has earned a place in the American lexicon.

Paired with the Simone de Beauvoir quote preceding the tale:

Today the combat takes a different shape; instead of wishing to put a man in a prison, woman endeavors to escape from one; she no longer seeks to drag him into the realms of immanence but to emerge, herself, into the light of transcendence.  Now the attitude of the males creates a new conflict: it is with a bad grace that the man lets her go.

Made me realize that the time had come for me to finally dive into this.

Despite being a quick read, the story, the characters, and the eerie events of Stepford will stick with you.  It’s almost a week later and I’m still thinking about Joanna and the other towns women who seemed to once have so much spark, creativity, and will.  All of that was stolen away by the men in town who would prefer to have perky, flawless, unthinking cleaning machines to come home to.

And, despite knowing what’s coming, each of the women walk straight into their complete loss of self – with some kicking, screaming, and fight – but, nonetheless, when it comes down to the end, each of them winds up going past the point of no return.

Prior to reading The Stepford Wives, I had no idea who Ira Levin was.  However, now I will definitely seek out some of his other titles (including Rosemary’s Baby) and, quite probably, write about them on here.

Check out The Stepford Wives on Amazon.

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Katharine of Aragon (trilogy) by Jean Plaidy

Titles:  Katharine, The Virgin Widow; The Shadow of the Pomegranate; The King’s Secret Matter
 
Author:  Jean Plaidy
Length: 643 pages (all three books in one volume)
Highly Enjoyable!

As I have mentioned many times (most recently, perhaps, right before my vacation?), I am enthusiastic about Tudors history – both fictional and real, actual history.  To further feed this obsession, I scoured GoodReads for any and all books that I could find.  Not too far into my search, not surprisingly, I came across Jean Plaidy’s name and the seemingly never-ending list of titles.

The books that I wanted to start with are the three about Katharine of Aragon – Spanish Princess, English Queen, and the first lady unlucky enough to NOT provide Henry the VIII with a strapping young son.  While I know that the Showtime series isn’t the most historically accurate account out there, I was drawn to their portrayal of her and immediately felt some warmth towards her personality and story.  While I have yet to read an actual biography about her, the fictional accounts of her that I’ve encountered so far (The Other Boleyn Girl and these books by Jean Plaidy) paint her in a similar way to the show, leading me to believe that she truly was a kind-hearted, spiritual woman who commanded respect and honor.

Reading Plaidy’s novels felt like I was reading closer to an actual historical account of the happenings in the Tudor court than when reading The Other Boleyn Girl.  Because of this, while still enjoyable, it took a little longer to get through them.  There is a fair amount of dialogue and action, however, and the keeps the books an entertaining read.  And while the story is undoubtedly focused on Katharine of Aragon, she doesn’t hold back from sharing a glimpse into what King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and the rest of the major players are up to, thinking, or plotting.

The version that I purchased (published by Three Rivers Press, featuring an awesome reading guide/questions) is the only version to contain the entire trilogy covering Queen Katharine’s story from her arrival in England from Spain in 1501 (to marry the young and sickly Prince Arthur) until her own heart breaking death on January 7th, 1536.  Let’s take a closer look at the three individual books in this volume….

Katharine, The Virgin Widow

IN THE ROYAL MARRIAGE MARKET 
THE INFANTA OF SPAIN WAS A TRUE PRIZE.

In the eyes of the world, Katharine of Aragon was a precious object to be disposed of for the glory of Spain. Her parents, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, send her to England to become the bride of Arthur, Prince of Wales.
But soon her frail husband was dead, and a fateful question loomed: Was the marriage consummated, as Katharine’s priest avowed, or was the young widow still a virgin? On that delicate point hinged Katharine’s–and England’s–future. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings was her willful, handsome brother-in-law, bold Prince Henry, who alone had the power to restore Katharine’s lost position.

Jean Plaidy’s narrative genius sparkles in this story of a remarkable royal marriage that inspired some of history’s bloodiest deeds . . . 

I struggled slightly to get into the first book, but, really, only because I needed to adjust to the third person narrative (I’m a sucker for first person…).  The story begins with an introduction to the children of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York during a horrific scene in which the king’s best dogs fight lions to the death.  This scene, in all its gruesome detail, sets the reader up for the plight of anyone else’s wish (or bravery) placed against that of a king’s.  When the dogs win, they still lose because they dared stand up against the king of all animals.  It’s important for all to know, and heed, their place in the social order.

At the beginning of the stories, the children are awaiting (quite eagerly) the arrival of the Infanta from Spain – a young girl born from the honorable Queen Isabella and her consort, Ferdinand.  Briefly, upon arrival (and after settling in), Katharine grows accustomed to the young prince she is set to marry.  He’s kind, shy, faithful, and does not appear to have a cruel bone in his body.  Everything changes when he dies during an outbreak of the sweating disease, however.  This is when Katharine enters into the first troublesome period of her life.  Forced into living without any allowance, she stays in a house with her ladies in waiting and servants, unable to pay them and unable to leave to return to Spain.  Her future is full of uncertainty and relies upon the whims of a fickle and greedy King.

The novel ends with her marriage to King Henry VIII – as he apparently loves to go against the advice and demands of anyone else – for why should he listen to them? HE is the King of England.  In the final scenes of Katharine, the Virgin Widow it appears as though her fortune has changed and happier days lie ahead.  Little does she know…

 The Shadow of the Pomegranate

The marriage of Katharine of Aragon and King Henry VIII was a match made in heaven. But hardly were they wed when powerful people in Henry’s court started spinning webs of intrigue around the innocent royal pair.

King Henry VIII is still a young man.  He loves games, dressing up, and proving to his people that he loves them.  Some of actions seem brazen while all of actions seem highly juvenile.  Above all else, though, he yearns to have a son and is confidant that he and Queen Katharine will produce many.  Only time will tell, though, as their first child born is, in fact, a son, but dies only after a very short time of being alive.

As we all know now, they never have a son.  Instead they have a healthy, intelligent, and highly talented daughter Mary.  If only she were born a boy… is a thought that is repeated throughout this book.  Katharine, alone, seems to be able to find the tenderness in his eyes and is willing to see him with a greater filter of warmth than most others might be willing to.  Perhaps even greater to her love for him, however, she adores her daughter and is devoted to protecting her interests.

The second book also brings the rise of Cardinal Wolsey, who acts as a major influence in directing the course of the king’s life – all with the intent of progressing his own interests..  The second book also brings an increase in the tumult that is King Henry VIII’s moods.  His rage flares up and, once aggravated, seems to know no bounds.  The longer he goes without a son, or, as he sees it, a legitimate heir to the throne, the angrier and less reasonable he becomes.

By the end of the The Shadow of the Pomegranate (which, by the way, is Katharine’s symbol, which is representative of fertility – cruel irony) with the King’s infidelity becoming public knowledge and an accepted fact of how things are going to be.  Bessie Blount, his favored mistress in the court, produces him with a son, whom he names Henry Fitzroy.  The affair and child are both flaunted in front of Katharine, but she maintains composure and finds solace in the fact that she is the Queen of England, beloved of the people.

 The King’s Secret Matter

The personalities and intrigues of the English royal court are brought to vivid life in this tale of Katharine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. The twelve-year marriage of Henry and Katharine has declined from an idyllic union into an uneasy stalemate. The king’s love for his aging queen has grown cold, and he is angry with her failure to give him the heir to the throne he desperately wants. When the seductive Anne Boleyn arrives at court, the king is captivated by her dark beauty and bold spirit, and becomes obsessed with his desire to possess her. With his chief advisor, Cardinal Wolsey, the king devises a secret plot to declare the marriage with Katharine null and void. But Katharine refuses to surrender to his wishes and fights desperately to retain her title and safeguard her daughter, Mary. The ensuing power struggle is one of the turning points in English history, and these pages capture it in spellbinding detail.

We can all guess what happens in the third book,  The King’s Secret Matter, can’t we?  The state of Katharine’s life is in rapid decline.  The king barely visits her.  Her nephew, the emperor, constantly breaks promises with King Henry VIII, thus, creating a distaste for all thing Spanish in his eyes – his wife being one of those “things”.  There are countless women in court who jump at the chance to sleep with the King and he is more than happy to make their wildest dreams come true.

And, as in any royal story, people are unceasingly plotting, planning, and seeking ways to further their own interests, at no matter what cost to others.  Unfortunately, for Queen Katharine, there aren’t many in the court able to fight for her interests since her interests are contrary to the King’s.  And, in this book, he does not shy away from sending “traitors” to the chopping block.  By the final page, we have bid adieu to the majority of the original players and are faced with a new set taking center stage.  And at the very center of that stage is Anne Boleyn (or, as it appears the people of England call her, Nan Bullen).

Katharine, once a woman to know all of the comforts and honors of a Queen, dies in a dank, lonesome building, far away from her daughter, Mary.  Throughout all of her protestations against the King’s cry that their marriage was never valid, she cared most about preserving her daughter’s  honor, dignity, and name.

These books increased my admiration and love for Katharine of Aragon.  They also made me feel even more excited to learn more about this period of English history.  Additionally, I will also read more of Jean Plaidy’s novels.  Her writing is clean and leaves you feeling like you actually, possibly, learned something.

Are you interested in the Tudors?  Which authors do you prefer?

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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Title:  The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Length:  432 pages
LOVED IT!

Am I ever going to NOT love a book that I share here?  Quite possibly not, given the history of my “ratings”… anyway…

The Thirteenth Tale is one of those books that I wouldn’t have picked up without it being recommended to me.  It’s hard for me to really say what types of books I gravitate towards anymore, but, honestly, it probably would have taken me a while to stumble across this title on my own.  With that said, I’m EXTREMELY happy that my friend recommended this read.  And I’m also very pleased that I chose this to be my break from my Tudors infatuation right now.

Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author’s tale of gothic strangeness — featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess,a topiary garden and a devastating fire. Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

And so reads the description on the back cover.  Feral twins?  Ghosts?  Gothic strangeness?  That’s really all that I need to know to automatically be intrigued.  Upon reading even the first few pages, I soon realized that there was going to be much, much more to love about this novel.  The first detail that struck me was the beauty of the language.  Not only does Setterfield use amazing (yet still believable for both the story and characters) vocabulary, but her variance in sentence structure and dialogue are unlike any that I’ve seen recently.  And these are the types of things that excite me.

In addition to telling a compelling, fascinating, and mysterious tale about the odd family living out in Angelfield, Setterfield works in beautiful passages and reflections on the joy of reading.  Our main character and narrator, Margaret Lea, works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop and, as can be expected, loves to read.  As a lifetime book lover and someone who enjoys to write herself, I fully appreciate the difficulty of appropriately capturing the experience of reading in words.  Setterfield makes it look like a breeze.

Now, I just hope that she writes another book very soon!  I hunger for more of her writing.

Have you read this book?  What are your thoughts on it?  Do you have a favorite passage?

Check out The Thirteenth Tale on Amazon.

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Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan

Title:  Rules for Virgins
Author: Amy Tan
Length: Digital Short (42 pages)
Loved It! 

I first ready Amy Tan a few years ago.  The book was The Joy Luck Club and I remember that I enjoyed it, but I can’t remember any one single detail about it.  Therefore, it’s made its way back onto my “must read” list for 2012.  In the meantime, however, I opted to check out Rules for Virgins, which is available as a Digital Short on Amazon for .99.  Put out by Byliner Fiction (link brings you to an excerpt and their write ups on it), this is Tan’s first release of fiction in over six years.  Needless to say, Tan fans are very excited to get their hands on this.  And, in my opinion, they won’t be disappointed.

The story is a narration of advice from an older, experienced courtesan to a younger courtesan who is still a virgin.  Personally, I knew absolutely nothing about courtesan culture (or, really, anything about Chinese culture during this time period), so I was automatically intrigued.  The conversational tone keeps the story moving (you’ll be at the end before you know it) and the advice is, at times, shocking, hilarious, and might make you go “hmmm”.  In short, don’t read this if you’re a kid or blush easily.

In Tan’s own words (from the Byliner article linked above):

So now there is a story called Rules for Virgins. It takes place in Shanghai in 1912, when my grandmother’s cousin was a young woman in Shanghai. It concerns a fourteen-year-old virgin courtesan who is mentored by a seasoned one, Magic Gourd, now over the hill at age thirty-three, who has a no-nonsense attitude, modeled after my mother’s. If you take out the nature of these women’s profession, the actual advice is more like the marketing strategies of any business, and in this story’s case, humorous ones having to do with the vulnerability of men’s egos. That makes it an age-old story, I think.

This book is currently only available in a digital format, but if you don’t own an actual eReader, you can download an app onto your computer, iPhone, or iPad.  Enjoy!  This short story definitely makes for a good “last read” of the year!
Visit Amy Tan’s page on Amazon.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Title:  Little Women
Author:  Louisa May Alcott
Length: 388 pages
Classic Favorite!

As a girl growing up in Massachusetts, of course I have read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  I first read this book in 5th grade and revisited the tale many times throughout my life.  What is there not to love?  A family of sisters, growing up, discovering themselves, and discovering life.  As a ten year-old, I was fascinated to read about these girls beginning to like boys, struggling to fit in with girls of more affluent backgrounds, and how they enjoyed life, being each others’ best friends.

I don’t have a sister, but I’ve always had at least one close girl friend that I’ve always considered a sister of sorts.  And while the “sister” has changed depending on my age, school, or location, there has always been a part of me that thinks back to the March sisters putting on plays in their attic or singing songs together around the piano.  And while my friends and I haven’t done anything quite like that since I was about ten years-old, it’s the spirit, the love, and the comfort with each other that I treasure and can still liken to the sisters in the novel.

In addition to this being a great novel, it was also one of my favorite films growing up.  I wanted to be Jo (Winona Ryder) and had a huge crush on Laurie (Christian Bale).  I watched this movie over and over again, constantly yearning to go back in time and to live in this time period (only a few years after falling in love with Little Women, both the novel and film, I fell in love with Sense and Sensibility).  For me, this film is a childhood classic and one that I periodically revisit.  And each time that I do, I automatically experience the same excitement that I felt when I first saw it.

Soooo dreamy!

Additionally, growing up in Massachusetts, I am extremely lucky to live so close to Concord and Harvard, Massachusetts – two towns that are important for any Louisa May Alcott fan to visit.  In Concord, you can visit Orchard House – the house that the Alcott sisters grew up in.  I have been here about two to three times with plans to go back within the next month or so (weather permitting).  When you visit Orchard House, you get a tour – a very informative tour.  The guide walks you through the entire house, sharing tidbits about the personal lives of the family that lived there as well as pointing out parallels to scenes from the novels.

Orchard House - Concord, MA

In Harvard, you can visit the Fruitlands Museum, which is a beautiful stretch of land housing multiple points of interest – an Art Museum, a museum on Native American culture, a museum on Shaker culture, and another Alcott homestead , which is where the family lived during a brief period of time when Bronson Alcott brought the family to live in an experimental Utopian society.  It is actually at this house where the girls played in the attic and actually visiting here in person was like taking a walk into my childhood imagination.  It was wonderful.  While at the Fruitlands Museum, you will not only learn a lot, but you will be able to enjoy some really stunning views that are a good reminder of why Massachusetts is such a wonderful state.

Fruitlands Farm House - Learn more

If I read Little Women as a child, why write about it now?  Well, a friend of mine (who didn’t grow up in Massachusetts) just read this book for the first time and enjoyed it very much.  It’s always exciting for me when someone reads, and falls in love with, a book that I’ve also read and loved, no matter how far in my past it was that I first read it.  Or, perhaps, I’m just a big ol’ goober.  Entirely possible.

And, as an aside, I am a huge fan of homesteads!  I will visit any homestead out there, but it is definitely much more exciting when there is a literary tie-in, of course.

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Filed under Books, Children's Books, Classics, Favorites, Louisa May Alcott

Local Author: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

I’m not one to really get sucked into books that are classified as one of the following:  Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, “Chick Lit”, or, my personal favorite, Romantica (think lonely everyday women meeting, falling in love with, and being ravaged by really hunky aliens).  There are, of course, exceptions – well, except for with Romantica – so I always keep an open mind when considering a future read.

This past weekend, I came across a copy of The Boston Phoenix featuring Erin Morgenstern on the cover.  I actually passed by this issue a few times during my walk downtown, each time drawn back to the cover, which has a picture of Morgenstern in a field, holding a crystal ball, the words The Enchantress right next to her face.  Seeing that this enchantress was a local author, I quickly snatched up a copy and sat down to look through the article.

The book is called The Night Circus and, after reading the article, I popped into a Hallmark store to see if they had a copy on the shelves.  Luckily for me, they did.  I wasn’t sold on buying it yet (it’s hardcover, roughly $26.00), but the book nerd in me just wanted to hold it, to feel its weight, and to scope out the design.  While I can’t vouch for how excellent a novel it is yet (though if you pick up a copy of The Boston Phoenix or read any review, other people will fill you in), I can tell you that this is possibly one of the most stunning hardcovers that I have ever held.  I could have fallen for it so hard because I’m a big fan of stripes and very much enjoy black, white, and red together, but I felt a draw to purchase it immediately based off the look alone.

Morgenstern is from Marshfield, MA, recently lived in Salem, now in the North End.  Attended school at Smith College.  She’s as local as you can get and I’m a big fan of supporting local talent and artists.  What’s most inspiring to me, as a girl who would love to be a published author someday, is that going into working on this novel, she wasn’t a writer.  The novel spawned from her partaking in National Novel Writing Month in 2003.  She didn’t finish the novel in the thirty days (who does?), but she stuck with it, fleshed out the characters, and eventually came to find a setting and a solid plot.  And now she has a highly regarded novel published and it looks like the story will also be turned into a film.

Below is the novel blurb, which will provide you with a quick background of the story:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.

Sounds slightly fantastical, but due to her inspirational (personal) story, the fact that she is local, and the fact that, yes, sometimes I do judge a book by its cover, I plan on picking up a copy this week and beginning it once I finish the novel that I am currently working on.  I hope that you are inspired to do the same!

Visit Erin Morgenstern’s website.
Purchase a copy on Amazon. 

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Filed under Books, Fantasy, Local Author