Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones

November 30th, 2007

Mister Pip by Lloyd JonesIn a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fablelike, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives. On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with almost everyone else, only one white man choose to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined school-house and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens's classic Great Expectations. So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. While artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, "A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe." Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.

On an island caught in the middle of a conflict it cannot escape, Mr. Watts was a diamond in the rough. This strange white man was a mystery to everyone until their fates had been sealed. With tension rising between the opposing sides of the war many people were able to flee the island. When the last boat was gone, no one was left to teach the children. No one except for the unknown Mr. Watts.

Mr. Watts ran an unconventional school. He had no personal knowledge to pass on to the children, but understood that they needed to learn. One technique he employed was almost "show and tell" meets "career day." One of the villagers came to class and shared anything they could with the kids. This may have been the best places to fish, a recipe, or a piece of the island's history. (As a sidenote, these visits to the schoolhouse were my favorite aspect of the book.) The only other way we saw Mr. Watts engage the children was by reading them a chapter per day from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.

The story was recounted by a girl who was, at the time, a 13 year old living on the island. She lived with, and tested the patience of, her mother. Her father had left the island years before in search of work. Through Mr. Watts she developed a profound relationship with Charles Dickens, and more specifically Pip, the young protagonist in Great Expectations. And through Charles Dickens she developed a special relationship with Mr. Watts. Thanks to her we saw not only life in school, but how the village was directly affected by the fighting. When homes were burned and people were killed we saw how dire the situation was for the people stranded on the island.

This 13-year-old girl was still a child and should have been able to be one. She, like the other children, did not have that option. Her father was gone and she was always fighting with her mother. She had to witness things that no one, let alone a 13 year old, should ever have to see. Great Expecations became a fairy tale to her; a world into which she could escape. And Pip was her guide. From daily peaks into his story, Pip became as real to her as anyone else on the island, maybe even more so. And just as easily as any villager could have, Pip became the cause of a great misunderstanding with a group of men with guns who do not like misunderstandings.

Lloyd Jones gave us a beautiful story full of hope, disappointment and a very unlikely school teacher. He wrote with a balance of poetic imagination and narrative story telling that made me love this book.

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Book of the Month - December, 2007

November 20th, 2007

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoPaulo Coelho's enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world, and this anniversary edition, with a new introduction from the author, will only increase that following. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepard boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasures found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

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Tender at the Bone - Ruth Reichl

November 6th, 2007

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth ReichlAt an early age, Ruth Reichl discovered that "food could be a way of making sense of the world. . . . If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." Her deliciously crafted memoir, Tender at the Bone, is the story of a life determined, enhanced, and defined in equal measure by a passion for food, unforgettable people, and the love of tales well told. Beginning with Reichl's mother, the notorious food-poisoner known as the Queen of Mold, Reichl introduces us to the fascinating characters who shaped her world and her tastes, from the gourmand Monsieur du Croix, who served Reichl her first soufflé, to those at her politically correct table in Berkeley who championed the organic food revolution in the 1970s. Spiced with Reichl's infectious humor and sprinkled with her favorite recipes, Tender at the Bone is a witty and compelling chronicle of a culinary sensualist's coming-of-age.

This is the true story of how an influential food critic came to know food. It chronicles the stories and people from her life that shaped her relationship with food and how food has shaped her relationship with people.

I was worried as the book began that it would be filled with nothing more than anecdotes about her mother's culinary disasters...as that is how the book begins. I thought that if the book continued on like that I would give up well before it was over. And I was worried over nothing.

Rather than reading about a young girl who learned to fear her mother's creativity in the kitchen (even though that happened), Tender at the Bone touches on how food became an integral part of each stage of Ruth Reichl's life. Through food she found friends, made friends, and kept friends. With food she learned to create and express herself to her own delight and to the delight of others. She learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business and experienced first hand how important food is to other cultures.

It is fascinating to read her tale, especially to see the luck she has had. While her life took her the wrong way down many one-way streets, she always managed to come across someone who could teach her or show her something invaluable. (I do not mean to discredit her achievements by mentioning her good fortune since not everyone would have been as astute as she was to learn from everything that happened.)

From the stories of her childhood it seemed unlikely that she would end up in the position she has today. She has lived an interesting life which has taken her to many different countries and many different cultures. This book takes you by the hand and leads you through all of it.

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November 5th, 2007
Lloyd Jones - Mister Pip - 62-63"Also," she added, waving a finger at us girls in the class, "stay away from boys who abuse silence. Boys who shout have mud in their souls. A man who knows about the wind and sailing a boat also knows about silence and is likely to be more sensitive to the presence of God. Other than that, I don't want to tell you girls where to shop."

Throne of Jade - Naomi Novik

October 31st, 2007

Throne of Jade by Naomi NovikWhen Britain intercepted a French ship and its precious cargo -- unhatched dragon's egg -- Capt. Will Laurence of HMS Reliant unexpectedly became master and commander of the noble dragon he named Temeraire. As new recruits in Britain's Aerial Corps, man and dragon soon proved their mettle in daring combat against Bonaparte's invading forces.

Now China has discovered that its rare gift, intended for Napolean, has fallen into British hands -- and an angry Chinese delegation vows to reclaim the remarkable beast. But Laurence refuses to cooperate. Facing the gallows for his defiance, the captain has no choice but to accompany Temeraire back to the Far East -- a long voyage fraught with peril, intrigue, and the untold terrors of the deep. Yet once the pair reaches the court of the Chinese emperor, even more shocking discoveries and darker dangers await.

I am through two books of the series and I am conflicted. I mentioned after His Majesty's Dragon that I love Naomi Novik's dragons. While that still holds true, I now wonder how much, if at all, I truly love the rest of the story.

Throne of Jade is over 400 pages long and I felt like very little happened for the first (roughly) 300 pages. Once it was time for the few important events to take place, they happened so abruptly I wondered if they were as important to the story as they seemed that they should be.

Ms. Novik brought dragons into our world in the first book and here she broadened our horizons with a look at dragons from the far ends of the Earth. I will continue to read the series, at least for now. But I am beginning to wonder if it is the idea that I love and not its execution. It may become difficult to get through what is now already a five-book series if I cannot get excited about what happens on dragonless pages.

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October 30th, 2007
Lloyd Jones - Mister Pip - 60-61Gilbert's uncle, a big man, round as an oil drum, black as tar from toiling out at sea, came to speak to us about "broken dreams." He said the best place to find a broken dream is on the wharf. "Look at all those dead fish with their eyes and mouths open. They can't believe they are not in the sea and never will be again."

Shopgirl - Steve Martin

October 25th, 2007

Shopgirl by Steve MartinOne of our country's most acclaimed and beloved entertainers, Steve Martin is quickly becoming recognized as a "gorgeous writer capable of being at once melancholy and tart, achingly innocent and astonishingly ironic" (Elle). Beautifully written, this novella reveals a different side of Martin, one that is unexpectedly perceptive about relationships and life and profoundly wise when it comes to the inner workings of the human heart.

Mirabelle is the "shopgirl" of the title, a young woman, beautiful in a wallflowerish kind of way, who works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus "selling things that nobody buys anymore..."

Slightly lost, slightly off-kilter, very shy, Mirabelle charms because of all that she is not: not glamorous, not aggressive, not self-aggrandizing. Still, there is something about her that is irresistible.

Mirabelle captures the attention of Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman almost twice her age. As they tentatively embark on a relationship, they both struggle to decipher the language of love -- with consequences that are both comic and heart-breaking. Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness.

I think the last sentence of the synopsis provided by the publisher is the perfect place to look when discussing this book: "Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness."

I agree with the first part of the sentence, but disagree with the second. When I shared my thoughts on Steve Martin's Pure Drivel I said that he was my writing role model. It is the intelligence with which he writes that amazes me and sets the bar (very high) to a level at which I wish to write someday. That intelligence comes through to create those witty and discerning observations.

While I liked Shopgirl, the piece that I thought was missing was feeling. Sure there was emotion written into the characters, but it seemed superficial. I could not feel for the characters because I did not believe they had feelings either. I still would like to stroke the intellectual part of your brain like Steve Martin, but I will have to bring my own passion to my characters.

Shopgirl is short, it's a quick read. It is more beach reading than intellectual stimulation. It was good, but not great.

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October 24th, 2007
Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants - 8Sometimes I think that if I had to choose between an ear of corn or making love to a woman, I'd choose the corn. Not that I wouldn't love to have a final roll in the hay -- I am a man yet, and some things never die -- but the thought of those sweet kernels bursting between my teeth sure sets my mouth watering. It's fantasy, I know that. Neither will happen. I just like to weigh the options, as though I were standing in front of Solomon: a final roll in the hay or an ear of corn. What a wonderful dilemma.

Book of the Month - November, 2007

October 20th, 2007

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Mister Pip by Lloyd JonesIn a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fablelike, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives. On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with almost everyone else, only one white man choose to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined school-house and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens's classic Great Expectations. So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. While artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, "A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe." Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.

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The 2007 Man Booker Prize WINNER!

October 17th, 2007

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction represents the very best in contemporary fiction (from the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth). One of the world’s most prestigious awards, and one of incomparable influence, it continues to be the pinnacle of ambition for every fiction writer. It has the power to transform the fortunes of authors, and even publishers. In 2004, not only did Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty reach the bestseller lists, but previous winners The Life of Pi (2002) and Vernon God Little (2003) were also amongst the bestselling books of the year. Congratulations to last year's winner Kiran Desai for her novel The Inheritance of Loss.

The Gathering by Anne EnrightThe Gathering by Anne Enright
The Complete 2007 Nominee List