December 2008


guernseyliterary“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008); 274 pages.

Started reading December 21, finished reading December 24.

This is a terrific book. Thanks to blog reader Rose for recommending it.

Do not be deterred by the title (the potato thing has very little to do with the book) or the fact that that the whole thing is in the form of correspondence. It sounds a bit hokey and I thought I’d get tired of the format in about five minutes, but I didn’t at all– in fact I tore through this book in just a few sittings. I do love historical fiction– I always get completely swept up in the story, and enjoy learning about some time/place that ordinarily I wouldn’t be thinking much about. In this case: 1946 Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. The book is almost entirely comprised of the letters of Juliet Ashton, Londoner and author of a humorous newspaper column during the war. She receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, resident of Guernsey, and they strike up a friendship. She’s intriugued by him, his literary group (that would be the society in the title), and the island, which was was occupied by the Germans and subsequently cut off from the rest of the world for five years during the war.

The writing is great– Juliet is a terrific character, very charming and believable– and the plot moves along nicely. The literary society of the title is actually a theme throughout the whole book, and there is much discussion about the Guernsey book club and how it–really, the excuse for comraderie– helped keep them going during the war. My only complaint is that I thought it all ended a bit abruptly, but that may have been because I read the entire second half in one sitting. I still recommend this novel completely– so if you read it, let me know what you think, especially about the ending.

summernakedswimparties_lead“The Summer of Naked Swim Parties” by Jessica Anya Blau (2008); 294 pages

Started reading December 15, Finished reading December 21.

OK, So I admit it- I read two young-adult (YA) fiction books in back-to-back weeks. I couldn’t help myself.  I was so excited to finish Twilight before my movie date with some girlfriends, and the same week, my good friend Shana  insisted that I read this novel ASAP. So I caved. And it wasn’t bad, although it was very, very YA. (But more on that in a minute…)

Shana lives in Baltimore and I live in Alabama, but it just so happens that she and her husband came to meet me and Josh and Ben at my parents’ house in Florida…. so since we are vacationing together right this minute, I’m going to take advantage of the situation and present my first-ever guest blogger…

RR: So Shay, how would you describe this book in two sentences?

SA: Its about a young girl’s coming-of-age, and discovering about her body, while looking at everyone else’s body. And discovering boys.

RR: Might I point out, that those other bodies were mostly her parents friends, which was kind of weird, very 1970’s, and way racier than most of the YA fiction I was reading at age 14.

SA: I recommended this book to a old lady at the Pikesville library and then cautiously told her son that it was really dirty.

RR: So did she get it?

SA: It wasn’t available but her son said “Don’t worry she can handle it.”

RR: Well, maybe she’ll get it next time. Didn’t you think these 14-year olds were having more sex than most people do in college?

SA: Yes. It makes good reading. Sex sells.

RR: I was kind of expecting chick lit by the title (which is not good- I hate it when a book has a title that makes it too embarrassing to carry around and read in public) and then from the blurbs on the back I changed my mind and thought it might actually be decent literature– but it was sort of somewhere in the middle. Definitely not trashy chick-lit, but…

SA: She intellectualizes growing up in Southern California in the 1970s.

RR: That she did. And she can write. But I found the main character to be pretty annoying at first, then the whole thing got very depressing (although incredibly true-to-life) but it really all came together at the end.

SA: I’d like to add that Jessica Anya Blau is Jewish and lives in Baltimore and teaches at Hopkins.

RR: I think we should be friends with her.

SA: Of course.

RR: I have one more problem with the book. The shoes on the cover don’t look like 1970’s shoes. Who picked out that photo?

twilight_book_cover “Twilight” By Stephenie Meyer (2005); 496 pages

Started Reading December 8, Finished reading December 14. Saw film on December 15.

So if you want to read a almost-500 page book in less than a week, this is the one. In fact, I would have finished it much sooner had I had a few hours in a row to just sit down and read. And as my friend Kim promised, the last 150 pages go by really fast. Like, in an hour. (If only I had had this one on the plane… but no, I was busy trying to get through Sarah Vowell…)

There’s not too much new to say about Twilight, and I’m betting that you already know all about it by now… But just in case: this teenage vampire romance series was a phenomenon before it came out as a movie a few weeks ago…  now you can’t go anywhere without seeing references or hearing people talk about it. (Today I was in Barnes and Noble and saw a woman walk by with a big stack of the tell-tale black books in her arms… clearly buying gifts for all the teenagers on her list.) It’s a cute book, if you like, um, teenage vampire romances (or really, even if you don’t). Seventeen-year-old Bella moves to the Pacific Northwest to live with her dad, and develops a huge crush on a beautiful, pale guy named Edward who only hangs out with his weird siblings, all of whom are equally beautiful and equally pale and are never seen eating. Huh, go figure. Not the best-written book out there, but really, what do you expect? Bella is a pretty convincing character and the story pretty evocative of real high-school life, except for maybe, oh, the entire the vampire part. And the fact that there is no sex whatsoever– but that’s part of the plot. (Spoiler alert: it’s kind of hard for vampires to start kissing humans without going further, you know?) But it’s really fun, and even though I generally have no interest in reading anything about vampires (or werewolves, zombies, monsters, etc.) I really enjoyed this one. Eventually I’ll finish the series (the are 3 other books) but not quite yet- it seems kind of like cheating to speed through 4 books like this and legitimately count them towards the goal.

And as much as I liked the book, I LOVED the movie. It was really well-done– gorgeous and funny and full of teen-angst (that’s a good thing) and was not nearly as much of a chick-flick as I thought it might be. The actress who played Bella was perfectly cast, but I kept wishing that James Franco would show up and step in for Edward. Alas, it was not to be. Oh well. I’ll see it again anyway.

assassinationvacation “Assassination Vacation” By Sarah Vowell (2005); 255 pages

Started reading around November 24, finished reading December 8.

So, I had never read Sarah Vowell before, but I’ve listened to essays on “This American Life” and heard her as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. If you know her voice, and her inflections, then you can’t help but imagine her doing out-loud readings from this book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but combined with the rest of her shtick, it starts to get old. It didn’t help that a third of the way into it, I read Virginia Heffernan’s review of Vowell’s new “The Wordy Shipmates” in the NYT Book Review. Heffernan was mostly annoyed by the book, and while I hate to let outside reviewers influence my opinions, I can sort of see what she means.

Vowell is really smart, really nerdy, and loves relaying historical anecdotes.  So this book is kind of a memoir of her own “assassination vacations” (visiting the hot spots associated with three presidential assassinations – those of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley). I know what you may be thinking- a book about assassinations sure sounds grim. Indeed, it does. It helps, kind of, that the most recent one she is describing happened 107 years ago. (But still, all the talk of these various villains plotting against the sitting president started to be pretty upsetting, for obvious reasons. I really hope that the Secret Service is more competent nowadays–pooh pooh pooh). But despite the topic, the book is upbeat, and Vowell is a good tour guide. I’d be really tired of her by the end of that vacation, though.

You should also know that for this week, I got a slow start. I wanted to read a book about Lincoln, so I started one called “Land of Lincoln” by Andrew Ferguson (also about historical tourism, but slighty more history-book-ish). I liked it, but was reading a grand total of three pages a night before falling alseep. Not going to be helpful towards the overall goal. I told Josh the book didn’t have enough zip, and he said if I wanted zip + Lincoln, Sarah Vowell was the way to go. And historian that he is, he was correct! So I liked reading all about Lincoln, and truth be told, anything I had ever learned about Garfield or McKinley in high school did not stick, so all that was fun too, despite the overall theme of the book. Vowell characterizes the presidents, their cohorts, and their assassins and fills us in on the news of the day, circa late 19th century. (Her descriptions of the assassins in particular can be very funny. In case you were wondering, but don’t get around to reading the book: John Wilkes Booth was a handsome, charming racist; Charles Guiteau was cheerful, although delusional and stalker-y; Leon Czolgosz was a complete sad sack, with a crush on anarchist Emma Goldman). She ties it all together nicely, and manages to work in some of the history of how the Republican Party started to evolve into what it is today. It’s not bad at all, and not as slow a read as my 2-week-reading time should lead you to believe… but I was ready to be done with it. Mostly because I had a couple of fun novels waiting for me (stay tuned for the next posts, and soon!!) than because of Sarah Vowell, but you get the idea. Good book, and a nice change of pace, but definitely not my favorite.