REVIEW: A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage by Mark Twain

a murder a mystery and a marriageFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  Classic Lit
ISBN:  0-393-32449-4
Published:  1876 / 2001 (this illustrated edition)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Nothing could be more remarkable than the astonishing appearance, 125 years after it was first written, of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage.  Mark Twain’s delightful rendition of life (and a disturbing death) in the mythical hamlet of Deer Lick, Missouri.  Twain’s story chronicles the fortunes of a humble farmer, John Gray, determined to marry off his daughter to the scion of the town’s wealthiest family.  But the sudden appearance of a stranger found lying unconscious in the snow not only derails Gray’s plans but also leads to a mysterious murder whose solution lies at the heart of this captivating story.

My Thoughts:

Definitely a quintessential Twain story! I enjoyed it, although I found it quite predictable. It’s hard to say if that’s because I’ve read a lot of Twain, or I’ve read a lot of stories with this formula, or it wasn’t Twain at his best. Whatever the reason, it was easy to predict, with perhaps the exception of the Jules Verne connection.

That, of course, brings me to the bonus, which added greatly to the story. Roy Blount Jr. wrote both a forward and an afterward for this story. It is the afterward that is of particular note, as it gives some historical context to what was going on with Twain at this point in his writing career. It’s been a very long time since I studied Twain or Howells (over 20 years ago, in college), and while Blount’s afterward was doubtless nothing new to many Twain aficionados, it did pair well with the story and gave it more depth.

I am also reminded, in reading this story, how much I love Twain’s writing. One of my long-term goals has been to read his entire body of work, and this reminds me that he needs to be (again) a regular part of my reading life.

REVIEW: Night by Elie Wiesel

NightFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit
ISBN:  1419390694
Published:  1958 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Though technically a novel, Night is also an unmistakably autobiographical depiction of the author’s own gruesome experiences in Nazi Germany’s death camps. Told through the eyes of 14-year-old Eliezer, the tragic fate of the Jews from the little town of Sighet unfolds with a heart-wrenching inecitability. Even as they are stuffed into cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, the townspeople refuse to believe rumors of anti-Semitic atrocities. Not until they are marched toward the blazing crematory at the camp’s “receptions center” does the terrible truth sink in.

Recounting the evils at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel’s enduring classic of Holocaust literature raises question of continuing significance for all future generations: How could man commit these horrors, and could such crimes against humanity ever be repeated?

My Thoughts:

It has been almost 30 years since I read Night the first time. I was riveted by it as a teenager, and now, having listened to it this time around, I am equally moved, but in an entirely different way.

What I did not remember from my first reading of this book is how spare and minimal the language is. Wiesel is a master of understatement. I was actually a little (ok, a lot) bothered by the fact that, as I listened, I kept having the impression that these were awful, terrible, wrenching things for Wiesel to experience at 15 years of age, but they were ultimately survivable. And clearly in Wiesel’s case, they were, but that is not the point. It is actually a testament to Wiesel’s mastery of storytelling that he doesn’t overwhelm us with the monumental evil that was perpetrated on the Jews and so many others. He gives us just enough to digest, enough that we are easily able to infer the true scope of Hitler’s vision.

Wiesel speaks to all of the above in the prologue to the revised translation that was published in 2006. He discusses specifically the need to not say too much, and his concerns that even after editing, he still worried that he had overstated his experiences. I truly can not comprehend how the Holocaust could be overstated…even the name is (in Wiesel’s words) an understatement. Nevertheless, I do understand that the further away we move historically from the atrocities of the Holocaust, the more “unbelievable” it becomes to those reading about it for the first time, and in that respect Wiesel has written a book that can be believed without saying, repeatedly, “That’s impossible!”

The only thing I can add, at this point, is that this book is not to be missed.

REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

to kill a mockingbirdFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  General Fiction / Classic Lit
ISBN:  0060888695  / ASIN:  B00RWP9J2G
Published:  1960 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Harper Lee’s classic novel of a lawyer in the Deep South defending a black man charged with the rape of a white girl.

One of the best-loved stories of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has earned many distinctions since its original publication in 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize, has been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide, and been made into an enormously popular movie. Most recently, librarians across the country gave the book the highest of honors by voting it the best novel of the twentieth century.

My Thoughts:

There is nothing to say about this book that hasn’t already been said…probably 100 times. I adore this book – always have, always will. It is as close to a perfect book as I have ever read, and the audio book is the icing on the cake. Sissy Spacek is Scout Finch come to life, with a voice that is exactly as I imagined Scout in my head. Spacek delivers spectacularly, making Harper Lee’s beautiful book a living, breathing work of art.

REVIEW: Needles and Pearls by Gil McNeil

needles and pearlsFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Chick Lit
ISBN:  978-1-4013-4129-9
Published:  2010

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Slip one …A year after her husband’s death, Jo Mackenzie is finally starting to get the hang of being a single parent.

Knit two together …The boys are thriving in their new seaside home, the wool shop is starting to do well and despite two weddings, an in-school knitting project and Trevor the Wonder Dog coming to stay, she’s just about keeping her head above water.

Cast off …But boys, babies and best friends certainly make life a lot more interesting. Can Jo cope when things get really complicated? Because if knitting truly does keep you sane when your life starts to unravel then it looks like Jo is going to need much bigger needles.

My Thoughts:

Funny, I didn’t expect to like this book more than The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club, but I did. Perhaps Gil McNeil hit her stride with this one. Perhaps it was due to several (somewhat unexpected) details that I really liked. Regardless, this one is better.

I won’t give away details, but I will say that I appreciated so much the fact that Jo Mackenzie is character who is growing. I do not enjoy characters who are all they are going to be from the very beginning, and do not learn from mistakes or gain at least some sort of wisdom from their existence. Jo (thankfully) is not that kind of character…at least not so far. She is not given to airs, she seems solid & grounded, and she doesn’t take the easy way out of problems (nor advise her friends to do so). That is refreshing, especially given that this is sort of a departure from what is societally popular right now. She also speaks her mind, and when the occasion warrants it, will put others in their place when they have crossed the line. She gets this trait honestly, and I truly love it, in large part because she also knows when to hold her tongue.

When I read Beach Street Knitting Society, I didn’t realize it was a series, but I’m a sucker for series when they have characters I enjoy. Despite the fluffiness of the books, I do like the characters, and frankly, they provide a nice break from the heavy reading I’m doing this year (and there is plenty of that). Of course, the cliffhanger ending (cue major emotional manipulation) makes it a bit difficult to stop at this point, knowing there are plot resolutions out there that I have not read. I’m glad I finally got around to it.

REVIEW: My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

my life and hard timesFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  Short Stories
ISBN:  9780060933081
Published:  1933

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Widely hailed as one of the finest humorist of the twentieth century, James Thurber looks back at his own life growing up in Columbus, Ohio, with the same humor and sharp wit that defined his famous sketches and writings. In My Life and Hard Times, first published in 1933, he recounts the delightful chaos and frustrations of family, boyhood, youth odd dogs, recalcitrant machinery, and the foibles of human nature.

My Thoughts:

I love James Thurber, and I especially love that this book is autobiographical. His stories are hilarious, partly because they are so absurd, but perhaps more so because of Thurber’s exquisite command of the language. He tells the stories perfectly, with no extraneous words, and it is as though you are a fly on the wall watching an utterly unbelievable event.

What is also great about this collection is the essay that precedes it. Certainly written by a literaty critic who has accurately assessed Thurber’s body of work, he is also an unabashed fan of Thurber – the man and the writer – which makes it the perfect preface for this book.

If your only experience with Thurber is “The Night the Bed Fell,” as mine was, you will not be disappointed.

REVIEW: 1984 by George Orwell

1984 animal farmFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Literature
ISBN:  143320326X
Published:  1949 / 2007 audio

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.

My Thoughts:

I have no idea how to review this book, except to say it is utterly brilliant, utterly startling, and disturbing on a profound level.

I am fairly sure I got a lot more out of it now than I would have had I read it as a teen. I keep thinking abut the “doublethink” concept in the book, and how that reminds me of so much that is happening now politically, though in a more “unofficial” capacity. What struck me the most, however, was the rewriting of history. While not done in the same manner as the book describes, we certainly do have a lot of it going on nonetheless, and it left me feeling pretty disturbed that George Orwell was thinking and writing this in 1949, and we seem to have learned nothing since then.

REVIEW: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

pinocchioFormat:  Paperback (Puffin Classic)
Genre:  Classic Children’s Lit
ASIN:  B00AR0CUM4
Published:  1972

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The old wood-carver Gepetto decides to make a wonderful puppet which can dance and turn somersaults, but by chance he chooses an unusual piece of wood – and the finished puppet can talk and misbehave like the liveliest child. But Pinocchio is brave and inquisitive as well as naughty, and after some hair-raising adventures, he earns his heart’s desire.

My Thoughts:

This is definitely not your Disney Pinocchio, and thank goodness for that, because it is a better and more complex story than Disney’s version. Interestingly, I did not know until reading Carlo Collodi’s book that Pinocchio did not come alive after he was created, but rather as Gepetto was creating him, and it was due to the wood he was carved from, not from Gepetto’s love (or whatever Disney attributed his “life” to). He was much worse than I knew him to be from the stories I read up to now. Sure, he lies, and his nose grows when he lies. But that is not the first negative character trait, nor the worse. He is selfish, self-centered, rude, shallow, irresponsible, gullible, inconsistent, and lazy. As a result, he constantly finds himself in trouble, and often in grave danger, such that he is nearly always at the mercy of a kind stranger to help him out of his jam, which they are often convinced to do because he showers them with promises that he will now be a better boy.

His only redeeming character trait is that he does seem to love Gepetto (his father), and feel genuine affection for different individuals he encounters throughout the book. I think it is this affection that drives his promises to be good, as he really does want someone to be proud of him. But because he is shallow and self-centered, he always forgets, and ends up right back in trouble again.

It is gratifying, though, to see him gradually come to a true understanding of what it takes to be “real,” and therein lies the best reason for teaching this book in school. It addresses virtuous behavior…honesty, kindness, helpfulness, good citizenship, wisdom, caring for others more than oneself…and showing that it is only when Pinocchio’s heart changes that he becomes a real boy. These are not shallow lessons, and it’s a fairly brilliant way to teach not only virtues, but to live by the golden rule.