Friday, April 27, 2012

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright by Justine Saracen

I didn't learn in school that "homosexuals" were a group targeted by the Nazis. I distinctly remember first hearing about it in the late 80s from the silence = death campaign created during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. When I came across Justine Saracen's new novel, Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright, I was intrigued by its focus on gay and lesbian Germans trying to negotiate the Nazi regime and WWII.

The novel covers twelve years (from September 8, 1935 to April 18, 1945) in the lives of several characters and explores what each does or doesn't do to resist the barbarity of Nazism and cope with the horrors of war. There were some surprises within the story that I didn't see coming and the novel kept up at a good pace.

The opening scene is right out of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935). It literally is. The novel opens on September 8, 1934 with Katja Sommer, the main protagonist, wrapping up the filming of Riefenstahl's masterpiece in Nuremberg. Katja is a young women hoping to build a career in film making, but the job with Riefenstahl was only temporary. Katja is engaged to Dietrich, but is in no hurry to marry her kind, but dull fiancĂ© who is already succumbing to the Nazi's propaganda such as the proper role for women within the Reich (make babies, keep house).

Everyone is full of hope and excitement over the creation of this film, but already there are rumblings of trouble. Riefenstahl insists that the movie she's creating is not propaganda for the Nazi Party. She may declare that "Art is not political," but readers know what is about to unfold.

While Dietrich is off serving in the army, Katja scores a full-time job working for Riefenstahl. She befriends two men, Rudi and Peter, who, she comes to realize, are lovers. Then there's her odd attraction to Frederica Brandt who used to work for Riefenstahl, but now works for Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda. Katja is doing her best to go along with the flow, but when a friend is arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code (prohibiting male homosexuality) her perspective on what makes one a "Good German" shifts.

The plot really takes off from there and I won't go into more detail because to do so would spoil the reading.

The only stumbling point I had with the novel is that Saracen takes her scenes of the fall of Berlin from the movie Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004) to a degree that made me uncomfortable. It made sense to replicate part of Triumph of the Will in the opening of the novel because the creation of that film is part of the actual story Saracen creates. In a postscript she acknowledges "drawing from" Der Untergang, which I was relieved to see, but it still doesn't sit well with me.

But don't let that keep you from reading Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright. It's a historical novel that is both gripping and heartfelt. I hope it finds a wide audience.

Justine Saracen
Bold Strokes Books, March 2012
264 pages
Source: digital review copy via Net Galley
Recommend to WWII historical fiction fans and LGBT fiction readers.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Patricia Cornwell's next novel--THE BONE BED--coming 10/16/12

US cover
Patricia Cornwell recently announced that the release date for her next Kay Scarpetta novel, The Bone Bed, is October 16, 2012.

About the book:
In Alberta, Canada, an eminent paleontologist disappears from a dinosaur dig site, and at the Cambridge Forensic Center, Kay Scarpetta receives a grisly communication that gives her a dreadful reason to suspect this may become her next case. Then, with shocking speed, events begin to unfold.

A body recovered from Boston Harbor reveals bizarre trace evidence hinting of a link to other unsolved cases that seem to have nothing in common. Who is behind all this? And whom can Scarpetta trust? Her lead investigator, Pete Marino, and FBI agent husband, Benton Wesley, are both unhappy with her because of personnel changes at the CFC, and her niece Lucy has become even more secretive than usual. Scarpetta fears she just may be on her own this time—against an enormously powerful and cunning enemy who seems impossible to defeat.

This explains the dinosaur digs Cornwell has shared on Facebook the last few months (here and here).

  • Putnam Adult
  • 512 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399157561

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

World Book Night Recap

Yesterday was World Book Night and I had a fabulous time handing out free books at Hines VA Hospital.

The book I gave was Stephen King's The Stand and it was so rewarding to put the book in the hands of several folks who said they liked his movies, but hadn't read any of his books and were happy to try one. I handed out books to nurses, doctors, veterans/patients, staff, and volunteer workers. I even ran into another WBN volunteer who was giving away her books at a shelter later in the day.

I'm a veteran and get my healthcare at Hines. Everyone is always so helpful and upbeat there, which is one of the reasons I chose it as my giveaway location. However, it dawned on me just yesterday morning that a veteran's hospital is the perfect place to give away copies of a book about an uncontainable military super-flu virus that is accidentally released. One nurse was hesitant to take a copy, but when I mentioned the virus she got excited and quickly took one.

The conversations I had with people ranged from funny to serious, and they were all heartfelt and all about books. It was a fantastic experience and I'm on board for next year!

Here are some photos of my experience:

Me picking up the books from the Cicero Public Library on 4/12. I chose to pick up at the CPL because I grew up in Cicero and read The Stand there as a teenager (staying up way too late reading on many a school night). And it was at the Cicero Public Library where I discovered so many great books to read!
The Box.
The goodies in the box.
Patricia Conroy, Head of Reference at the Cicero Public Library and me.
Hines VA Hospital where I handed out the books.
This is a small, but powerful sign. Hines is in the midst of a huge front entrance/lobby construction project. This sign is in the temporary entrance and I hope it finds a place in the new lobby.
One of The Stand recipients. We met in the elevator and she was carrying a box of America's Women by Gail Collins for an internal Hines book group. It was a book-a-licious kind of day!


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Author Event Recap: Erik Larson at Elmhurst College

On Sunday, April 15th, Erik Larson gave the guest-ship lecture for The Elmhurst College Annual Holocaust Education Project. His lecture followed a Service of Remembrance. Larson's most recent book is In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. (I read and wrote about the book last year here).

The service and lecture were held on campus in the Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. Knowing how popular Larson is, I arrived about 25 minutes early because I wanted to get a good seat. I ended up in the balcony and was lucky to get any seat. As you can see from the picture, it was a full house. Students and other volunteers were asked to come up on stage and sit on the riser platforms to open up seating on the main floor for people pouring through the doors.

I saw Larson speak at Printer's Row book fair in Chicago shortly after The Devil in the White City came out and he packed the tent back then. Everyone I talked with about Sunday's event knew there'd be a great turnout, but I don't think anyone anticipated a standing room only crowd.

Larson began his lecture by saying he was going to talk about Seduction and Illusion. Specifically, how Hitler was able to transform Germany in about a year and create the atmosphere that allowed the Holocaust to occur. His lecture wasn't a tightly constructed argument--it consisted of highlights from researching his book with a few personal stories from his life thrown in--but he certainly didn't ramble. Larson is an entertaining speaker and what I most admired about this talk is his ability to weave in lighter moments that spark laughter in order to take the edge off the painfulness of his topic.

Two of the books that influenced Larson to write the type of history books that he writes are A Night to Remember and The Guns of August. Both of these books make the reader suspend what they know--the reader knows that the Titanic will sink and that World War I will break out--but as you read along a tension is created that makes the reader think, "No way! Can't they see where this is going? Surely they'll stop, change course, whatever. But, no." Larson strives to create an historical experience for his readers. The "trick" to doing this is not about making anything up, it's about finding the right characters to bring the history alive. I love that.

Larson explained that he came to this topic in an indirect way. After his last book he had no idea about what to write about next, so he went to a big bookstore near his home to browse the history section and see what was new. William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which was faced-out on a shelf, caught his eye. He'd known about the book, hadn't read it, but bought it that night. After reading it, Larson read some other general histories of Nazi Germany, then memoirs, then letters, and eventually sought out other primary sources in archives.

Two people who were initially caught up in the seduction and illusion of the new Nazi regime were William Dodd, the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his daughter Martha. Dodd and Martha lived in Nazi Germany and so heard and saw things that were hidden to visitors, but as American diplomats they were still outsiders and not subject to the same stresses that German citizens experienced. Their situation gave them a unique lens through which to see what Hitler and the Nazis were up to. Ambassador Dodd expected to find rationality and instead found organic pathology. Martha, who socialized with Jews and Nazis, soon sees the fear created by the new regime, particularly the fear and back-stabbing between Nazis themselves.

During his research Larson was startled by the open antisemitism of key actors in the US Government. He was also shocked by how rapidly things changed in Berlin, how quickly the Germans embraced the Nazi program. He said you could go out of town overnight and come back the next day to friends who ignore you and shop sellers who no longer sell to you, not because you're Jewish or have done anything wrong, but because you just don't seem to fit into the program. Denunciations were so common and widespread that in 1933 Hitler said to one of his ministers, "We're living in a sea of human meanness."

Larson hears from readers from both sides of the political spectrum. He said those on the Left worry about things like the Tea Party and outrageous immigration laws. Those on the Right worry about Obama being Hitler because of healthcare. Larson assured the audience that Hitler was absolutely not concerned with healthcare. That got a genuine laugh out of the audience. It may just have been a coincidence of time, but after the laughter died down a couple got up and left.

He ended his lecture with a quote from Christopher Isherwood about how it/this can happen in any country, in any city, to you.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A session:
  • What was the US Government's response to Dodd: The State Department was obsessed with the debt they wanted Germany to repay from WWI. It was all they cared about. Dodd could submit a report about some Nazi atrocity and the reply he got back would ask about the status of getting the money.
  • What readable, general histories of Nazi Germany does he recommend: Ian Kershaw biography of Hitler and Richard Evans's Third Reich Trilogy.  Larson said they're "hard on the soul, but very good to read."
  • How committed is Tom Hanks to keeping to the truth (he purchased the film rights to In The Garden of Beasts): Larson said he has no idea and that you can't control Hollywood. He just can't be involved even if Hanks is an upright guy. The screenwriter called Larson several times, apparently feeling him out. They went out for a drink and Larson directly said that, "I don't want to have any roll whatsoever." After that he never heard from the screenwriter again.
  • What happened to the Jewish owner of the house the Dodd's rented in Berlin: The family got out of Germany in time and the father ended up in Chicago at Northwestern as a Professor of African Studies. Larson said that's one of those details that, in hindsight, should have been in the book but for some reason just wasn't.
In a nutshell, Dodd was Paul Revere, the guy trying to alert America and the World to what was happening in Germany, to the war that Hitler was nurturing. Unfortunately, no one listened. Larson, however, is pleased to hear from readers that his book is at least giving people a glimmer of how this (the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust) could have happened.

A zoom shot from the balcony of Larson signing books.

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Antonia: Thoughts & Comments

Lena knitting by Bohemian artist W.T. Benda
My Thoughts
I have a confession to make. In the past My Antonia was NOT one of Cather's novels that I gushed over. I attribute this to a condition from which I'm healing, a condition that inhibited me from reading and/or enjoying books that are "popular." The condition is a form of book snobbishness that can be both the cause and effect of the closing of the mind and spirit that has been known to plague people such as English majors and booksellers. Those afflicted with the condition avoid reading what is considered popular or trendy and either stick with their core "masters" or champion the underdog, be they overlooked or forgotten writers or books.

In my case, I wanted to champion other Cather novels that didn't seem to get enough attention. I was resistant to My Antonia back in the early days of reading Cather because, to me, its wide-spread readership, praise, and scholarly attention seemed to come at the cost of neglect or disparagement of other Cather novels which are less commonly read.

Thankfully I've let go of such thinking and with this reading I fell in love with My Antonia. I was able to appreciate it so much more than during past readings because I tried to give myself over to the story. It probably also helps that I'm no longer in graduate school and continually looking for paper ideas or support for a current thesis.

This time Jim Burden was no longer an annoying little golden boy and I "got" the attraction of Antonia at a much deeper level. In the past I thought her a hokey kind of Mother-Earth/baby-factory in contrast to Lena Lingard who I read as being judged for going into business for herself rather than marrying & reproducing. Now I see a much more harmonious balance between Antonia and Lena. There's a mutual respect based on a deep understanding of each woman's true nature. In fact, there is much of such balance throughout the entire story.

There's so much beauty and violence in this novel and so many, many things to say about both. I'm going restrain myself and comment on three aspects of the novel that have been most on my mind.

Questions to Ponder
A few things that I've been pondering about My Antonia.

1. Sex. What did you think of all the sexual activity in the novel? I've heard My Antonia referred to as a conservative novel. What does that mean? Do you agree? I was struck by the amount and variety of sex and desire presented in the novel: from Lena being accused of making eyes at Ole, to Tiny showing her ankles, to the dances that Jim sneaks out to attend, to grinning college boys, to Wick Cutter turning one of his hired girls into a whore ("One of them he had taken to Omaha and established in the business for which he had fitted her. He still visited her," Book II, Chapter XI). And of course there's Antonia's betrayal. I didn't recall that Antonia's mother had been a hired girl herself who had been put into a precarious position by the son of her employers. Of her father's treatment of her mother Antonia says, he "could have paid my mother money, and not married her....He lived in his mother's house, and she was a poor girl come in to do the work" (Book II, Chapter XIV). Mr. Shimerda marries the hired girl whom he apparently compromised, is ostracized by his family, and ends up on the Nebraska prairie, a place which does not suit his psyche. This leads to--

Antonia plowing by Bohemian artist W.T. Benda
2. Loneliness, Depression and Suicide. Where you surprised by the number of suicides in this novel? Mr. Shimerda's suicide is such a gruesome scene, but I could really see it coming in this reading. Cather does such a brilliant job describing Mr. Shimerda's emotional isolation and withdrawal. The tramp's suicide still seems so odd and harkens back to the clown tramp's suicide in The Song of the Lark. They both make me wonder how many tramps did commit suicide during this time period. Then there's Wick Cutter's murder of his wife and suicide. That's another connection between Mr. Shimerda and Cutter: not only how they've treated the hired girls in their lives, but that they both commit suicide, albeit for different reasons. At one point Antonia seems at risk of suicide herself. When she returns home from her abandonment, "She was so crushed and quiet that nobody seemed to want to humble her." Later on Antonia says to Widow Steavens, "Up here I can pick out the very places where my father used to stand. Sometimes I feel like I'm not going to live very long, so I'm just enjoying every day this fall" (Book IV, Chapter III). Alarm bells when off in my head worrying that Antonia was contemplating suicide. Unlike her father, Antonia is rejuvenated by the Nebraska landscape and it's her true place of belonging. She says to Jim late in the novel, "You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn't' know what was the matter with me? I've never had them out here" (Book V, Chapter I). In contrast, Mr. Shimerda, Jim, and Lena all thrive in larger towns and cities. I hear Cather saying that living on a farm is not better than living in a town or city. Rather, people have to find what type of place best suits their personality in order to thrive.

3. Military activity. One of Ours and The Professors House are usually the novels that get attention regarding Cather's writing about World War I, but I was struck by the instances of military activity in My Antonia. Charles Harling, one of Jim Burden's neighbors in Black Hawk, is early on in the novel getting ready for Annapolis, midway through the novel he's at Annapolis, and later in the novel he's on a battleship in the Carribean (where the US Navy conducted some of their training exercises prior to World War I). There's also mention that Jim had to take drill as a male student at the University in Lincoln and of cadets camping at Plattsmouth (a town along the Missouri River south of Omaha and the Platte River). World War I started in 1914 and was raging while Cather was writing My Antonia. Her cousin G.P. Cather fought in the war and was killed in action on May 28, 1918 (My Antonia was published on September 21, 1918). Cather's inclusion of this military activity seems to foreshadow America's involvement in World War I. There also seems to be a hint of Claude Wheeler (the protagonist of One of Ours) in Jim who is becoming restless with his life, "I was moody and restless that winter, and tired of the people I saw every day. Charley Harling was already at Annapolis, while I was still sitting in Black Hawk, answering to my name at roll-call every morning, rising from my desk at the sound of a bell and marching out like the grammar-school children" (Book II, Chapter XII). Of course the irony here is that Charley's life at Annapolis is controlled even more by bells and marching.

Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about My Antonia, even if it's just a sentence.

Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.

Friday, April 6, 2012

One Man's Initiation--1917 by John Dos Passos

I was planning on beginning my reading for War Through the Generation's WWI reading challenge with Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, but then came across his novel One Man's Initiation--1917 on Project Gutenberg. I started reading it and couldn't stop. As a rule, I'm not into slamming one writer or genre for the sake of another, but One Man's Initiation--1917 makes Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms look like chick lit. (I like Hemingway but he was snarky about Willa Cather's Pulitzer winning WWI novel One of Ours, so I owe him one.)

Like Hemingway, Dos Passos was a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I. One Man's Initiation--1917 was first published in London in 1920. It was republished in 1945 as First Encounter. 

One Man's Initiation--1917 is the story of Marin Howe, an American volunteer ambulance driver in France during the Great War. It is more a collection of short vignettes and images rather than a neatly woven narrative and has been called an impressionistic novel. It is very short, more of a novella, but powerful precisely because of it's form and style.

It begins on a dock next to a ship that's getting ready to leave for France. It's a party scene: a band plays a "tinselly Hawaiian tune," people are dancing between the baggage, there's a scattering of uniforms, young men stand around in groups laughing, "talking in voices pitched shrill with excitement," women wear gay dresses, colored hats, and carry white handkerchiefs.

The party continues during the crossing and in Paris. One group of American guys stay drunk and raise hell to the point that they're sent back to the States. There's also much talk about French women and how there are houses in France where, it's implied, a man can buy sex. One guy says, "Gee, these Frenchwomen are immoral. They say the war does it." To which another guy replies, "Can't be that. Nothing is more purifying than sacrifice." Martin Howe, on the other hand, gets his first close-up look at the price of war as he sits in an outdoor cafe:
"As he stared in front of him two figures crossed his field of vision. A woman swathed in black crepe veils was helping a soldier to a seat at the next table. He found himself staring in a face, a face that still had some of the chubbiness of boyhood. Between the pale-brown frightened eyes, where the nose should have been, was a triangular black patch that ended in some mechanical contrivance with shiny little black metal rods that took the place of the jaw. He could not take his eyes from the soldier's eyes, that were like those of a hurt animal, full of meek dismay."
Martin is soon at the front. He waits around for casualty calls, endures bombings, tries to avoid shrapnel, picks up the blown apart bodies of young men, and navigates roads jammed with convoys, troops, and dying horses and mules. The stupidity of the war, particularly stagnant trench warfare, is soon made evident. The trenches had long been established and the war had become somewhat routine, yet also still random. Artillery is lobbed back and forth like shuttlecocks, men endure direct gas attacks, initiate or repel attacks, and live in the mud to the point their legs and feet look unnaturally large from layers of dried-on mud. There's a persistent smell of almonds, which is actually hydrogen cyanide, the primary chemical weapon used by the French. It's a mutual suicide and men know that the men on the other side are just guys like themselves. As one man sarcastically says, five hundred meters from here they're drinking beer and saying "Hoch der Kaiser" about as much as we're saying "Vive la Rebublique." Martin explodes, saying, "God, it's so stupid! Why can't we go over and talk to them? Nobody's fighting about anything . . . . God, it's so hideously stupid!" To which a doctor replies, "Life is stupid."

There are many moving and/or outrageous scenes in the book, and the ones that stood out to me depict mindless hate with a sense of revulsion. One evening the Americans meet up with an Englishman on his first leave from the front in eighteen months. Without preamble he tells them a story, of when he, too, was "new at the game" and before he left for the front: "I saw a man tuck a hand-grenade under the pillow of a poor devil of a German prisoner. The prisoner said, "Thank you." The grenade blew him to hell!" Later in the evening at the theater the Englishman picks up his story:
"It was like this . . . the Hun was a nice little chap, couldn't 'a' been more than eighteen; had a shoulder broken and he thought that my pal was fixing the pillow. He said 'Thank you' with a funny German accent....Mind you, he said 'Thank you'; that's what hurt. And the man laughed. God damn him., he laughed when the poor devil said 'Thank  you.' And the grenade blew him to hell." 
Later in the evening the Englishman murmurs about that 'Thank you' and one of the women they're with asks what he's saying. Martin says, "He's telling about a German atrocity." She replies, "Oh, the dirty Germans! What things they've done!" the woman answered mechanically." The woman's automatic, unthinking response and the fact that after eighteen months of trench fighting what the Englishman can't get out of his head is this senseless murder of a young man in a hospital bed seem to be saying that it isn't just the actual war fighting that's the problem, per se, but people's inability to think for themselves and their hate.

At one point Martin says, "It isn't natural for people to hate that way, it can't be. It even disgusts the perfectly stupid dam-fool people, like Higgins, who believes that the Bible was written in God's own hand writing and that the newspapers tell the truth."

Toward the end of the novel there's a lengthy scene of dialog that breaks the more impressionistic style. It's a night of conversation between two Americans and some Frenchmen. The conversation opens with one of the Frenchmen asking what Americans think of the war. "I doubt if we Americans do think," says Martin. To which one of the Frenchmen replies, "I hope you won't be offended if I agree with you in saying that Americans never think. I've been in Texas, you see."  Later Martin explains that Americans are like children, "They believe everything they are told...they have no experience in international affairs...To me our entrance in the war is a tragedy."

The conversation touches not only on America's isolationism, but how "dark forces" (these seem to be big business, politics, the church) buy the press and how The Press enslaves our minds. Lies have been mentioned throughout the novel, the lies that have been told for generations to get men to fight in wars. The tools these "dark forces" use are patriotism, nationalism, The Press, and "conventional ties"--parental inculcation of their children to "worship success and respectabilities." This scene is a night of drinking, the kind of night when friends of relatively like minds sit around philosophizing and solving all the world's problems. They decide that "economic war" must end, and that people must learn to help each other rather than believe the lies, especially the lies of the rich who control the poor. In the end they toast to Revolution, Anarchy, and the Socialist State.

Most of the men engaged in that conversation are soon battlefield casualties. I was left with a feeling that nothing matters, nothing can change. It's all talk and those doing any talking against the status quo are simply more cannon fodder for those "dark forces."

Nothing about the above conversation or this book is remotely pro-war or pro-American or pro-any nationality, religion, or ideal. But it is much more than an anti-war novel. It seems to condemn the entire modern world--from those who created the modern war machine and the political system that drives it, to those who support it by being unthinking sheep.

But--and I'm grasping at straws here--it seems that there might be hope in 1) helping each other and 2) giving young men something to do so that they won't want to escape the dullness of life for the adventure of war.

One Man's Initiation--1917 (it seems in the U.S. adding '1917' is part of the actual title, whereas when it was first published in London it was 'One Man's Initiation')
John Dos Passos
London: Allen and Unwin, 1920
Recommend to: World War I enthusiasts, hard-core American Lit readers.
Source: free ebook via Project Gutenberg

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

For years I shelved Fforde's books at the bookstore and always thought they sounded interesting, but never got around to reading one until a book group I've been longing to participate in met on a night I could attend.

I enjoyed The Big Over Easy. It's actually a good mystery novel (not exactly hard-boiled, but it makes nods towards noir) and Fforde is brilliant at slipping in nursery rhyme characters & situations, and, of course, puns. There's even a Greek God (Prometheus), an alien, a mad scientist, and a dinosaur. All of this fits in seamlessly with the regular, daily human life that we all know. Toward the end when I starting thinking let's wrap this up already, something huge happened that completely caught me off guard that made for a thrilling end.

Jack Spratt is the hero of the book. He's a good detective but doesn't play by the current rules which revolve around running one's investigations so that they make good story copy. The "best" detectives are members of The Guild, and the best of the best is Friedland Chymes. He's the golden boy of the moment, the guy the press clamors after and whose stories the public wants to read and watch on TV.  He's also a pompous ass. Jack Spratt is as far from being a golden boy as is possible. He's an everyman and underdog sort of character. He loves his job, helps out his mother, and is happily married with kids.

The mystery begins when it's discovered that Humpty Dumpty didn't just fall off the wall, he was murdered. Jack has a new partner, Sergeant Mary Mary (as in quite contrary), who isn't all that happy to be assigned to the Nursery Crimes Division. Friedland takes an interest in Mary and then wants in on the Humpty case. Why? A complicated picture of Humpty begins to emerge--about his love life (major lady's man), his mental health (chronic depression, especially around Easter), and his business dealings (he's into some odd commodities).

The book wasn't laugh out loud funny for me, but there's lots of good humor and Fforde's imagination is a joy to behold. As is often the case with humor and parody, truth often lives in the absurd. I plan on trying his Thursday Next series.

Oh, and our book club discussion was a lot of fun although we spent an indecorous amount of time discussing how a male ladies-man-of-an-egg would go about doing all that humping.

The Big Over Easy
Jasper Fforde
Penguin, 2005
Recommend to: folks who like mystery with some humor, or humorous novels in general.
Source: library copy

Monday, April 2, 2012

Coming Soon! Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery

Release date: August 28, 2012

If you enjoy mystery novels full of well-rounded characters and plots that have no need to beat you over the head, Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series is probably up your alley (or at the very least should be on your 'to read' list). Penny is a thoughtful and insightful writer. She infuses her books with wit and a mature intelligence that avoids easy answers or tired old sarcasm (well, except for the character of Ruth who is in a class of sarcasm all her own). There's also real awareness of and compassion for the pain of life, a compassion that doesn't drift off into sugary sweetness.

For years my friend Missy told me about this series. I kept it in the back of my mind, but didn't get around to picking up the first book in the series, Still Life, until June of last year.  Once I started reading the Gamache series, I couldn't stop. I briefly thought about stringing out my reading pleasure over a year or two, but then threw caution to the wind and gobbled-up all seven books between June and December. I am now rather shocked to find that I only blogged about the first book. Apparently I was focused on the reading. I also had the pleasure of meeting Louise Penny when she was at The Book Stall for a signing last September. You can read the event recap here. I hope she comes to the Chicago area again for the release of The Beautiful Mystery.

So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool fan and receive Penny's monthly newsletter. In her April newsletter Penny shared the cover art for the eighth Inspector Gamache novel, The Beautiful Mystery. About the cover and the book Penny writes,

I adore this cover for THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY. Among the things I love are the soft light, the dark corners, the deep forest and the sense of duality. The forest, I find, is both inviting and natural, and foreboding.

THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY is set in a remote Quebec monastery, where the monks have taken vows of silence, but sing their prayers, in the form of ancient Gregorian chants. In fact, so glorious are their voices that these cloistered monks have become world famous. But the thick walls and heavy door have remained closed to the outside world. Until one of the monks is murdered, and Chief Inspector Gamache comes calling. He will be the first ‘outsider’ in centuries to see the monastery, and hear the monks sing. But he knows that within this contemplative order, one of the brothers has been contemplating murder. And then committed it. Intertwined in the murder is the music. Chants so astonishing in their simplicity, in their power to move, that they’ve become known as ‘the beautiful mystery’. Gamache realizes that to solve one mystery, he must solve the other.

Here are the Chief Inspector Gamache books in chronological order:
  • Still Life, 2005
  • A Fatal Grace (US title) / Dead Cold, 2007
  • The Cruelest Month, 2008
  • A Rule Against Murder (US title) / The Murder Stone, 2009
  • The Brutal Telling, 2009
  • Bury Your Dead, 2010
  • A Trick of Light, 2011
  • The Beautiful Mystery, forth coming August 28, 2012 
And now the wait begins.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Antonia: Book #4 Intro

Cather in Jaffrey, NH, 1917.
Read all 12 of Willa Cather's novels in chronological order, one each month, throughout 2012. For full details about the challenge click here.

Our fourth novel of the challenge is My Antonia (pronounced Ann-to-nee-ah). Read it over the next three weeks and we'll start our conversation about it on Monday, April 16.

Of Cather's 12 novels, My Antonia probably needs the least introduction. It is by far her most popular novel and the one of which she was the most proud. 
  • Cather started writing the novel after having spent three months in Red Cloud, NE during which time her mother was ill and Cather took on the household work, including cooking for eight.
  • Cather wrote part of this novel in a tent in Jaffrey, New Hamphire. Each day she'd walk down from the inn where she was staying into a meadow where her friends set up a tent for her use. The tent is behind Cather in the picture above.
  • My Antonia was published on September 21, 1918.
  • The first printing was 3,500 copies and they sold for $1.60 each.
  • Sales weren't smashing (there was a war going on, after all), but steadily increased as the years went by.
Vintage Classics Paperback description:

"No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia."

In this symphonically powerful and magnificently observed novel, Willa Cather created one of the most winning heroines in American fiction, a woman whose robust high spirits and calm, undemonstrative strength make her emblematic of the virtues Cather most admired in her country. We first meet Antonia Shimerda as the young daughter of a Bohemian immigrant who in time will be driven to suicide by the oceanic loneliness of life on the Nebraska prairie. Through the eyes of Jim Burden, her tutor and disappointed admirer, we follow Antonia from farm to town and through hardships both natural and human, surviving everything from poverty to a failed romance-and not only surviving, but triumphing.

In the end Antonia is exactly what Burden says she is: a woman who "had that something which fires the imagination, [a woman who] could . . . stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things."
First edition
  • Available at just about all libraries and bookstores.
  • You can download a free digital edition from Project Gutenberg here.
  • Read the Scholarly Edition online here.
  • Support the Willa Cather Foundation and order it online here.

My Antonia is regularly taught in high schools, colleges, and is on many summer reading lists. If you read it in high school, I hope you're one of those for whom it was a good experience, rather than painful. The novel is considered one of the best American novels in general, due to its themes and style, and perhaps the best written about the immigrant farming and small-town experience in late nineteenth century America. Cather herself thought My Antonia was "the most successfully done" of her novels, and that with it she contributed something to American literature.

I'll share my thoughts on reading My Antonia in a new post by noon on Monday, April 16. At that time let's start our conversation--simply post your thoughts about the novel in the comments section of that post so we can have everyone's thoughts in once place. Please hold off on sharing your thoughts about My Antonia until the 16th so everyone has the time to read it.
Happy Reading!
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