REVIEW: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

the prince of tidesFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Fiction / Southern Fiction
ISBN:  978-1-4418-0791-5
Published:  1986 (1988 audio)

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Pat Conroy has created a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.  Spanning forty years, this is the story of turbulent Tom Wingo, his gifted and troubled twin sister Savannah, and their struggle to triumph over the dark and tragic legacy of the extraordinary family into which they were born.

Filled with the vanishing beauty of the South Carolina low country as well as the dusty glitter of New York City, The Prince of Tides is Pat Conroy at his best.

My Thoughts:

I am convinced beyond any doubt that Pat Conroy is one of the finest writers living today, and perhaps one of the finest I have had the pleasure to read. This is the book that put Pat Conroy on the literary map, and deservedly so. It is an epic story, and I don’t mean in the “beyond awesome” sense of this generation’s iteration of epic, but in the true definition of the word. It is a work of art, a story that tells of exciting events and adventures, a story “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope.” (Merriam-Webster) This is certainly true in the good and happy sense, but even more true in the bad, dark and disturbing sense. The story sprawls the decades of the Wingo children’s lives, hitting expected highs, but also dipping to horrifically disturbing lows. Maudlin & melodramatic? Perhaps so, but there isn’t a single thing that Pat Conroy could conceive in his mind where something more maudlin, more dramatic, more horrific, more disturbing has not occurred time and again in real life. It has been said many times that fiction contains truth, and Conroy’s fiction portrays the truths of life, ugly or otherwise, in language that penetrates my soul.

REVIEW: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

dawnFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit / Holocaust Lit
ISBN:  1419396722
Published:  1961 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Elisha is a young Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, and an Israeli freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine; John Dawson is the captured English officer he will murder at dawn in retribution for the British execution of a fellow freedom fighter. The night-long wait for morning and death provides Dawn, Elie Wiesel’s ever more timely novel, with its harrowingly taut, hour-by-hour narrative. Caught between the manifold horrors of the past and the troubling dilemmas of the present, Elisha wrestles with guilt, ghosts, and ultimately God as he waits for the appointed hour and his act of assassination. Dawn is an eloquent meditation on the compromises, justifications, and sacrifices that human beings make when they murder other human beings.

My Thoughts:

I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word to describe the reading of Holocaust literature. I appreciate it deeply. I am continually amazed at the fortitude and resilience of those who survived the Holocaust. I admire Wiesel’s ability to put his thoughts into words in a way that touches people, first with his memoir Night, and then with this novel.

Wiesel’s words are spare, his thought processes complex, and as he weaves this tale of a Holocaust survivor – an 18 year old boy – who is now part of the Palestinian resistance, and who has been tasked with assassinating a hostage in response to the assassination (by the English) of fellow freedom fighter, I am wrestling right along with him, trying to make sense of how it can be acceptable to commit this murder, while still being absolutely horrified by Hitler and his Final Solution. Certainly one is on a massive scale, which makes it much more horrific, but it started with one person. One murder. Even if the cause is a good one – and truly, the Israelis were (and are) fighting for the survival of their homeland – the moral implications of committing murder because someone else murdered one of yours is something Elisha struggles with…and we, the readers, struggle with him. It is a true moral dilemma, and one with no easy answer.

Most interesting is that Wiesel does not answer the question…at least, not at the end. I’ll come back to this point. The book ends as it does without Elisha or the reader reaching a conclusion on the morality of the task before him. Or perhaps it is only Elisha. I love the ambiguity that Wiesel leaves here, as it mirrors life in so many ways, including the times when we are tasked with doing something (necessary), that is nevertheless morally repugnant to us. What will we decide? Do we do what we believe is right, and damn the consequences? Do we complete the task before us and learn to live with our consciences?

Elisha wrestled with whether or not the job before him would turn him into “one of them.” IF you catch it, the answer is foreshadowed early in the book with this passage: “Why has a man no right to commit murder? Because in so doing he takes upon himself the function of God. And this must not be done too easily. Well, I said to myself, if in order to change the course of our history we have to become God, we shall become him.” This is as clear an answer as there is, and yet Wiesel puts it early in the book, as an unrelated conversation. Very artfully done, and as a reader I appreciate being stretched to think more deeply, and in a more personal way, about where we ourselves may be trying to take on the function of God.

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.

Top Ten…ok, Five…Books on my Spring TBR Pile

Top Ten Tuesday is a book meme hosted over at The Broke and the Bookish.  I haven’t participated in a l-o-n-g time, but since it’s Spring Break this week, and I’m working on getting the baby on a new nap schedule, and my 8yo is happily eating breakfast and watching Curious George, I have time.

So, what are my reading priorities for Spring 2014?  Read on…

  1. Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon…I’m a pianist, and until recently, I was playing part time at our church.  Long story short, I am no longer doing that, due to some major differences of opinion that are not necessary to discuss here.  So I’m reading this book, which was recommended by a friend.  It should shed some light on some things I’ve felt for a long time.
  2. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather…This past winter, I finally read (well, listened to) O, Pioneers! and My Antonia after many years on my TBR list.  I loved them.  L-o-v-e-d them…and loved O, Pioneers! especially.  Yes, I know My Antonia is Cather’s premier novel, and I really did enjoy it, but O, Pioneers! resonated deeply with me.  So I’m on to The Song of the Lark, to complete the Great Plains Trilogy, and then on to the rest of Cather’s work.  If you haven’t read her books, I encourage you to do so.  They are wonderful.
  3. Pain Redeemed: When Our Deepest Sorrows Meet God by Natasha Metzler…I started this early last year, and have yet to finish it.  I mean to do that this spring.  It is a deeply moving book of Metzler’s struggle with infertility.  I also read her blog (http://natashametzler.com/), and it is very encouraging.  She is a deep, thoughtful woman with a lot to say, and it’s high time I finished her book.
  4. Joy! A Study on Philippians for Women by Keri Folmar…I have a really hard time finding Bible studies that resonate with me, and truthfully, it’s not something I have ever been very good at.  However, I have lately felt like I need to do some sort of study, and I when I ran across this book, I connected with the idea of studying joy immediately.  So, this is another spring goal…to complete the study.  I’ve read Philippians – recently – so I really have no excuses.
  5. Spending the Holidays with People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen of People I Want to Punch in the Throat…This book is a collection of essays inspired by the blog of the same name, which is utterly hilarious.  If you’re not familiar with Jen, stop by her blog and read some of her entries.  She’s a bit of a potty mouth, so if you’re sensitive to that, consider yourself warned.  My personal favorite is her post on The Elf on the Shelf, which was gut-wrenchingly funny.  That was also the post that initially went viral, and launched her into the public consciousness.  She’s snarky & funny, and finds hilarity in every day life.  That is right up my alley.

That’s all I have on my short list for the moment.  There are many others, and you can peruse my entire list at Goodreads if you like.

Bogged (and Blogged) Down

I had some pretty lofty reading goals for this year.  I joined a Southern Reading Challenge, an Adoption Reading Challenge, a Read Your Own Books from Your Own Bookshelf…Mostly…and Don’t Buy (or Try Not to Buy) New Books Challenge, a Back to the Classics Challenge, and a What’s In a Name Challenge.

Then I went and lost my mind and joined the 150 Book Challenge in 2012.  Lost my mind because I have never (I repeat, never) read 150 books in one year…in my life.  And I reada lot!  But the closest I’ve ever gotten to that is 84 in one year, and that was a banner year for me.  Apparently that was not a deterrent when I had my brief moment of insanity, and I signed up for a guaranteed failure.  Yay, me.

Now, if you are familiar with my reading habits, you will understand instantly that these are ALL doable challenges for me.  Well, almost all…because I’ve gotten bogged down.  And blogged down.

I’m at a WHOPPING fifteen(ish) books for the year, and half of those are audiobooks.  Further, I am at a complete standstill on realreading.  Every book I start gets set aside after a few pages.  I am completely without motivation to pick it up again.  No, that’s not true.  I am motivated to pick it up again, but I’ve been hard pressed these days to find a book so riveting to read that I carve out chunks of time wherever I can in order to finish it.  This has not been a problem with listening.

Granted, my eyes are not what they used to be, and they get tired quicker.  But this is an excuse.  Beyond the fact that I’ve been involved in a blogging challenge that has been time consuming (and great fun), I am unsure how to explain it.  It’s also true that I’ve been reading blogs a lot more (part of the challenge), and I’ve run across a few new blogs that are on my regular rotation.  Nevertheless, this is still not an adequate explanation for a near cessation of reading.  I LOVE to read.  What is wrong with me??

It has happened in the past.  I don’t know why.  And…of all the crazy things…it does not stop me from buying more books to read.  HAH!

I knew it.

I really have gone insane.

REVIEW: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

Format:  Audio CD, 10 disks
Genre:  General Fiction, Asian/Am Lit
ISBN:  1597770760
Published:  January 2006 (audio)
Setting:  San Francisco CA / China

Rating:  4.5 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Ruth Young and her widowed mother, LuLing, have always had a tumultuous relationship. Now, before she succumbs to forgetfulness, LuLing gives Ruth some of her writings, which reveal a side of LuLing that Ruth has never known. . . . In a remote mountain village where ghosts and tradition rule, LiuLing grows up in the care of her mute Precious Auntie as the family endures a curse laid upon a relative known as the bonesetter. When headstrong LuLing rejects the marriage proposal of the coffinmaker, a shocking series of events are set in motion — all of which lead back to Ruth and LuLing in modern San Francisco. The truth that Ruth learns from her mother’s past will forever change her perception of family, love, and forgiveness.

My Thoughts:

There are so many things about this book to love – the setting (China, in particular); the vast scope of the story; the deft way that the author ties together the present and the past; the commitment and love between LuLing and Ruth, LuLing and GaoLing, LuLing and Precious Auntie; how Tan’s writing style and word choices seem to exude the culture she is writing about, including a subtle but still noticeable shift in tone in section two (LuLing’s story).

I connected with the story immediately, and particularly with Ruth.  I related to her inability to feel confident, to believe that she actually had something to say, to think that anyone would be interested in her words.  I got how she allowed herself to “disappear” in her relationship, never seeming to require anything concrete or real from Art, not even sure he really loves her, yet continuing on in a sort of hazy mediocrity.  I understood her choice to do the work she did – behind the scenes, anonymous or very nearly so (even if, in the end, she tended to resent the lack of credit), and risk free, meaning any criticism of the work would be directed to the author of record, not her (a “ghostwriter,” but in reality the actual author of all the books she worked on).

Perhaps more than any of the above, I had a visceral and immediate connection to her relationship with her mother.  Their conflicted, competitive, critical and volatile relationship was as familiar to me as the back of my hand.  I was transported time and again back to my own experiences as a child, an adolescent, and a young woman as I read the arguments & struggles between Ruth &  LuLing.  I found LuLing controlling, irrational, hypercritical, and impervious to reason.  I felt the frustration that Ruth felt right along with her, and when time & again she allowed herself and her own desires to be eclipsed by her mother, I wanted to shake her out of her lethargy.

And then came Section 2.

Once again, I felt like shaking someone and screaming “Wake UP!”  But this time, it was LuLing herself.  As I progressed through this middle section, I began to understand LuLing in a completely different way, and while I still didn’t (and don’t) understand the necessity of incessantly criticizing and insulting one’s daughter, I did ultimately comprehend the enormous suffering that LuLing endured & overcame.  I understood how it shaped her and hurt her, how it gutted her and made her strong.  She was so much more than Ruth’s experiences, GaoLing’s interactions or Precious Auntie’s recollections.  It was clear that Ruth needed to know her mother’s history and understand where she came from in order to appreciate her strengths, weaknesses & eccentricities.  She needed to know those things to also heal herself, to recognize that despite herself she had a good partner, and to allow herself the luxury of committing fully to the relationship, loving with reserve, and being likewise loved in return.

Amy Tan weaves this exotic, timultuous, and ultimately cathartic story in such a way that it leaves you wanting more…to continue on with the story, to find out what happens next with the characters you’ve come to love.  That’s good writing…really good writing, and it’s worthy of a place on everyone’s bookshelf.

REVIEW: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Format:  Audio CD, 14 disks 
Genre:  True Crime
ISBN:  073933364X
Published:  January 2006 (audio)
Setting:  Holcomb KS
Rating:  5 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter  family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their  faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture,  trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing  empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights  into the nature of American violence.

My Thoughts:

This book was riveting from start to finish, and I could hardly find enough time to be in the car & listen to it.  Capote is a gifted writer, and has superbly cobbled together the story of the grisly, horrifying murder of the Clutter family from the monumental amount of files, notes, interviews, and evidence that he had at his disposal.  I was (and am) blown away by Capote’s ability to make even the most unsavory of characters somewhat sympathetic.  He was able to (initially) approach the story from a sort of journalistic aspect, and as such he seemed able to write from a relatively objective view about what was obviously a sickeningly violent incident, and an incident seemingly without motive or reason.

What became interesting as I got toward the end of the book was the fact that Capote became more sympathetic toward Perry Smith.  He seemed to see Perry as a sort of pawn in the hands of Dick Hickock.  Perhaps Dick thought so as well at times, but I got the sense from the book (despite how Capote described him) that Perry Smith was much more brutal and cold than Dick Hickock ever dreamed of being.  I find it strange that I would come to that (obvious) assumption, considering that by the end of the book, Capote was personally acquainted with both men.  However, I wondered if Capote was a little captivated by Smith, and as such (by the end) could not see him in as objective a fashion as he did at first.  It was a gut reaction, of course, and I am only speculating.

Regardless of how personally involved in their lives Capote became – and my understanding was that the prison system allowed him generous access to both Smith & Hickock – I think he did what seemed almost impossible to do, and that was to give as accurate an account of the crime as possible.  Not only did he do so, but he created what is widely regarded as the book that introduced the genre of true crime & the non-fiction novel.  In Cold Blood is in a class by itself, having set the bar of excellence in its genre so high that it has yet (in my opinion) to be equalled or surpassed.