Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

I'm going with the one trick pony approach to blogging this week and reviewing a book from the collection I posted the giveaway for on Tuesday.  Oddly enough, I cracked open the Christmas books even before breaking out the Christmas music that I've diligently been avoiding despite my inclination to start listening to it a couple weeks ago.  I always peak too early with my Christmas music love, and by the time the holiday rolls around I'm kind of over it.  As for Christmas themed books?  It's probably never too early for a busy person who reads at a snail's pace to start reading them, so here I go!

First, another moment of honesty. This, of course, is one of the five Penguin Christmas Classics I was sent for review.  I may or may not have chosen this one at this early date because A.) it's the shortest (clocking in at a brief 65 pages) and B.) I kinda thought I wouldn't like it as much as the other ones.  I'd heard it's a little offbeat and not quite Christmassy enough for the Christmas club, if you know what I'm saying.  Neither thing that I'd heard is necessarily false, but in all actuality, I quite liked this short tale of Christmas Eve in a small village in Ukraine.

The day of Christmas Eve ended, and the night began, cold and clear.  The stars and the crescent moon shone brightly upon the Christian world, helping all the good folks welcome the birth of our Savior.  The cold grew sharper, yet the night was so quiet that one could hear the snow squeak under a traveler's boots from half a mile away. Caroling hadn't yet begun; village youths weren't yet crowded outside the windows waiting for treats; the moon alone peeked through, as though inviting the girls to finish up their toilette and run out onto the clean, sparkling snow.

Gogol's story opens on Christmas Eve with the scene of a witch and a devil who are up to no good.  The devil has in mind to foil the plans of devout local blacksmith, Vakula, to pay court to the village beauty, Oksana.  Oksana is as dreadfully vain as she is beautiful, and has chased off all her many suitors, mistreating them and playing hard to get, not to mention spending  more time with her mirror than with them.  Frustrated by the continual rebuffing of his advances, Vakula has nearly given up on Oksana and life itself, when he comes up with one last risky gambit to win her affections. 

I'll say no more for fear of giving away overmuch, but I was thoroughly charmed by Gogol's remote village where carolers traverse the town on a cold, crisp Christmas Eve, singing for treats from the townspeople.  Besides the witch and the devil and the unfortunate Vakula, the town is populated by a cadre of important men made laughable by their foibles, a crowd of fierce housewives, and gaggles of laughing girls.  Despite the less than traditional Christmas content, I found Gogol's story to be a delicious and humorous little folk tale of his own creation and a welcome departure from the Christmas norm.

If you'd like to read this book plus four more holiday classics from Penguin, the giveaway is open until Monday evening, so stop by the post and enter! 

(Disclaiming: Yes, I received this book for free from the publisher for review consideration.)

Do you have a favorite Christmas story to read around the holidays?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year! (Giveaway)

Greetings one and all!  The holidays are very nearly upon us, as you may have noticed.  I know there is one place my blog very often comes up short of late, and that would be giveaways. (If you said "content," I'm scowling at you right now, even though it's funny cuz it's true).  Since the season of giving is arriving, I, with great enthusiasm, have taken up Penguin on their very generous offer to let me give away a set of all five of their super-pretty (!!) Christmas classics.

They're compact, short on pages (long on Christmas spirit!), and (I may have mentioned with many exclamation points) super-pretty!


Anyhow, they're great quick reading to get you in the spirit during a busy holiday season, probably most excellent for gift-giving (if you're not going to totally hoard them for yourself like yours truly), and they're also good for cuddling with creepily (if you're that weird book lover - don't forget to quietly murmur to them how pretty they are while you're at it.  I don't do that, though.  Okay, yes I do).

Here, we'll let Penguin do a better job of describing them, you know, minus the Ghost of Christmas Creepy thing I've got going on in this post.

Penguin Christmas Classics honor the power of literature to keep on giving through the ages. The five volumes in the series are not only our most beloved Christmas tales; they also have given us much of what we love about the holiday itself. A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Charles Dickens) revived in Victorian England such Christmas hallmarks as the Christmas tree, holiday cards, and caroling. The Yuletide yarns of Anthony Trollope popularized throughout the British Empire and around the world the trappings of Christmas in London (CHRISTMAS AT THOMPSON HALL: And Other Christmas Stories) . The holiday tales of Louisa May Alcott shaped the ideal of an American Christmas (A MERRY CHRISTMAS: And Other Christmas Stories). THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Nikolai Gogol) brought forth some of our earliest Christmas traditions as passed down through folk tales. And THE NUTCRACKER (E.T.A. Hoffman) inspired the most famous ballet in history, one seen by millions in the twilight of every year.
Beautifully designed—with foil-stamped jackets, decorative endpapers, and nameplates for personalization—and printed in a small trim size that makes them perfect stocking stuffers, Penguin Christmas Classics embody the spirit of giving that is at the heart of our most time-honored stories about the holiday.
Enough talk, it's time to enter to win the lovely books.  If you want to win and have a US mailing address (sorry international friends), fill out the form below.  One entry per person, please.  No hoops to jump through, and I promise not sell your e-mail address for extra holiday cash.  Flattering comments will get you somewhere, but probably not closer to winning.  ;-)  Get your entry in by Monday, November 24th before 10:00 PM EST

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman

I read Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman at the very beginning of the year.  It was one of these hidden treasures that the randomizer rescued from the depths of my bookshelves that I really ended up liking.  Unfortunately, this validates that "I should give this a chance" point of view that keeps lots of books on my shelves taking up space for way, way too long.  Anyhow, it's been a while, so I don't actually remember it that well, but let me take a stab at some thoughts anyway.

Love triangles. We love them, we hate them. Falling Under has one, and it's a doozy. Mara Foster is a troubled artist, making a career of producing stock paintings of geometric designs to decorate peoples' offices. She used to paint other things, but other things awaken her emotions, and she's decided that her emotions are better off stifled. Mara is riddled with fears and anxieties that plague her whenever she dares to leave the safe confines of her house. Her parents' acrimonious divorce left a profound mark on her that leaves her terrified to love, so when she meets Hugo and dares to imagine a normal life with a normal guy, it threatens to undo her. Soon, she's painting for real and all that real painting is bringing the demons of her past close to the surface. She flees instead to Erik, the bad boy with baggage, the one she has plenty in common with, including a desire to eschew love for sex that will chase those demons away for a night.

Younge-Ullman, according to the author bio, is also a playwright and it shows. Falling Under is filled with fast flowing, excellent dialogue. Mara's past is brought to light in the immediacy of second person narration and easily draws readers' sympathies. There's a plot twist that actually surprises and supporting characters that fill out Mara's story while being their own people. I even liked the love triangle. It was so believable and viable that even I couldn't choose a guy for Mara. As far as I know, this is the only novel Younge-Ullman has written, but I hope she writes another, because I'd definitely be interested in reading more from her.

Miraculously, he loves you back. Though you're not quite sure he would if he really knew you, if he
knew the things you've done and the family you have and the sad, dark, panicky places that come out and haunt you at night. He would never understand how being happy makes you sad. How the happier you are the more you know the sky is about to explode into tiny, sparkling shards of glass that will pick up speed as they fall to the earth and slice right through you leaving your skin with little holes in it, leaving your heart bleeding.

(No disclaimer required for this one, either.  I'm pretty sure I won it from another blogger.  I can't remember who, but thanks who ever you were, it was excellent reading!)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Slam by Nick Hornby

It's November, I'm back, and I brought books (or, um, book reviews - you know what I mean)!

Nick Hornby's Slam is about Sam, the teenage son of a single mother who had him too young.  Sam, unfortunately, in the course of book, is about to follow in his mother's footsteps.  Sam's a pretty normal teenager, into skating (that's skateboarding for the uninitiated), preparing for the possibility of studying art at college, and, of course, spending all kinds of time with his superhot girlfriend, Alicia.  Everything is going along quite nicely, that is, until Alicia gets pregnant.

Slam's kind of a weird book.  Sam himself is, for the most part, a very normal teenage guy.  When faced with the staggering revelation of his girlfriend's pregnancy, he doesn't really know how to be supportive and kind of irrationally just wants to run away from the whole thing.  In short, he's inarticulate, obsessed with Tony Hawk, and he's kind of irritating - just like you would expect him to be at his age.  Then there's this weird plot thing where he consults with a poster of Tony Hawk for tidbits of life advice, which are tangentially related quips from Tony's book reproduced by Sam's overactive imagination, and the part with the supposed time travel (dreaming?) that reveals to Sam the various courses his life might follow as a too-young dad.

By turns bizarre and painfully realistic, Slam makes for some interesting reading.  Hornby seems to be spot on when he digs into the issues of teenage parenting, how unprepared kids are for the responsibility, how the parents eschew helping for debating over which kid ruined the other's life, as well as how quickly kids can age when they are forced to take on big responsibilities.  I liked these parts.  I liked that even though Sam's very colloquial narration reveals a character that, from a female perspective, is, on the whole, kind of aggravating, Hornby doesn't shy away from a creating a character who has very real and believable reactions to a very real and drastic turn of events in his life.

I could very well have done without all the weird Tony Hawk stuff, but even that, kind of points to Sam's immaturity that obviously doesn't go away just because he's about to become a father.  On the whole, being inside the head of a character I often couldn't decide whether I'd like to give a hug or a shove made it a little difficult to love this book, but Slam is definitely an interesting and rare look inside the male perspective on teenage pregnancy.

(No disclaimer today, friends.  I, like, bought this book - and read it, too!)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Currently: It's October?!?!?

It's too late on Sunday afternoon/evening for comfort, and I am coming to you more or less live from the wreckage of my overcluttered desk.

Listening\  To Train's new album, Bulletproof Picasso.  I became a colossal Train fan, like, two albums ago, and I continue to be.  The last track, Don't Grow Up So Fast, may or may not have made me cry.

Making\  Plans.  (Ha! No I haven't taken up knitting or cross-stitching or anything, and the world breathes a sigh of relief.)  I've been contemplating seeing Straight No Chaser on tour for a few years now.  Their a cappella awesomeness makes me smile.  They'll be in Hershey this year.  Maybe I will be, too?  I just need to find a some poor sucker to take with me.  In the meantime, I'll be serving as my dad's "poor sucker to take with me" as we make the journey to Pittsburgh to see the first NFL game I'll ever see in person, and his, too.  He's been an Indianapolis Colts fan for as long as I can remember and probably a lot longer than that.  So, we'll be a couple of Colts fans in hostile territory, but I'm looking forward to it anyway.

Hating\  Fall.  I know, I hate myself for hating fall, but I do.  You see crisp, colorful leaves.  You feel refreshing cooler temperatures.  Pumpkin spice lattes, bonfires, high school football games, hot cups of tea, reading books while wrapped in fuzzy blankets.  That stuff is all nice, don't get me wrong.  Unfortunately, I have to build a fort of distraction around myself to stop from fixating on the coming 6 months of undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder, not to mention cold and flu season which has already started at my house.  *sniffles*  All this potential misery amplified by my rapidly forthcoming shift change which will call for me to rearrange my life schedule right before the dreadful winter months set in.

Returning from\  The first of two October trips to Boston (see above re: Fort of Distraction).  My college BFF and I took Boston last weekend.  We stayed in a beautiful inn in Cambridge that served a full breakfast and afternoon tea everyday, wherein we were decidedly *not* the target demographic, which, okay, was awesome.  We stayed in a room with two twin beds like a 50s sitcom married couple and dined every morning in the presence of older couples from foreign countries with grown or semi-grown children living in the area.  We also rode the cool Greenway carousel and spent a rainy day observing penguins, seals, and sea turtles at the New England Aquarium to skew our age group back the other way.  We also, of course, ate lots of delicious food including the ubiquitous Mike's cannoli, went book shopping at Porter Square Books, paid a quick visit to my old neighborhood to enjoy some Indian food, and enjoyed the best entertainment the basement of a CVS has to offer at the Improv Asylum (hilarious!). 

Going to\  New York City for the day on a bus next Saturday.  It'll be my cousin's first time in said city, and I'm looking forward to showing him the sights, one of which will surely have to include The Strand, right?  I mean, you can only tolerate the top of the Empire State Building and Times Square for so long before you need to be soothed by vast amounts of books, am I right?

Missing\  Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon.  So sad to have booked something over it, but alas, I seem to be on tour this month.  I guess I'll have to read on the bus in honor of Dewey and all the dedicated participants. ;-)

Reading\  I just finished Allegiant thus wrapping up the Divergent series.  Roth definitely made an interesting choice about how to end her series.  I guess I didn't hate it with the vitriol that some people have, but, on the whole, I think the first book was the best and the series very slowly declined from there.  Nonetheless, I was kind of in a reading funk, so I'm satisfied to have simply finished a book that was moderately absorbing.  Now I'm on to The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood whose Wicked Girls I enjoyed earlier this year.  Lately, books written for grown-ups haven't really been working out for me, but I'm pretty sure The Killer will be the one to break that trend. 

Watching\  I finally saw The Fault in Our Stars movie.  It was good, but not as good as I wanted it to be.  Oddly, in text Green's main characters' precocious pretentiousness was the stuff dreams are made of, on screen, I'm afraid it all just irritated me the slightest bit.  Still good, still cried, but I don't know, something just wasn't quite right.  I also saw the movie version of This is Where I Leave You.  I haven't read the book because I'm seriously sucking at getting to the book before the movie lately, but the movie was great.  It was one of those that gets you laughing and crying at the same time (which is different from crying with laughter, if you must know), very well cast, and most satisfying. 

Blogging\  Wait...what's this blogging you speak of?  I haven't been, and I'm pretty sure I missed another blogiversary in there, too.  That means Leafing Through Life just (very unceromoniously) turned....7? Yeah, 7, I think.  I know this month has been kind of a bust because I've kind of been "on tour," but other than that I was happy to see my desire to blog come back for a lot of this year.  It's been fun being a part of things again, and I've pretty well sunk into the groove of blogging when I want, and not blogging when I don't feel like it, in a way that has been largely guilt free.  This, I'm pretty sure, is the mark of the mature B-list (okay, C-list) blogger. Expect more of this guilt-free slacker blogging to continue while I spend several more weekends away from my desk enjoying the last few weeks of passable weather before the SAD kicks in.

So, what have you been up to while I've been distracted?  Reading great books?  Having exciting adventures?  Blogging bookish content that isn't linked up to Top Ten Tuesday?  Tell me!