Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott

Every once in a very great while I get picked to review an ARC for Harper Collins First Look. This one came to me from Harper Teen First Look for my review. It's also my first title for the Spring Reading Thing down! Of course the first thing I'm going to do is break the cardinal rule of ARCs and post a quote because...well...I can't resist.

The story of my life can be told in silver: in chocolate mills, serving spoons, and services for twelve. The story of my life has nothing to do with me. The story of my life is things. Things that aren't mine, that won't ever be mine. It's all I've ever known.

Danielle's first memory is of waiting outside a lavish house for her mother to return with stolen goods. As a child, she learns when to wait quietly for her mother and father to finish burglarizing the homes of the rich. As she grows up, instead of attending a normal school and having a regular life, Danielle is schooled in the art of thieving and soon makes her mother an accomplished accomplice. Her mother only believes in the value of what she can hold in her hands, but at the age of eighteen Danielle doesn't share the thrill her mother gets from stealing, instead longing for the normal life and normal relationships she has been missing out on for her entire life. Little does Danielle know as they enter the small beach town of Heaven with their eyes set on its lavish estates, that her life is about to change in more ways than she could have imagined.

First, there's the guy that seems to pop up everywhere she goes - a cop named Greg. Despite her fear of what he is, Danielle can't seem to stop talking to him and soon even tells him her real name, a massive faux pas for a traveling thief. Then there's Allison, a rich but friendly inhabitant of one of the very houses Danielle's mother is looking to rob. As Danielle probes her for valuable information she finds that Allison doesn't seem like the type of person she'd like to rob but the type of person maybe she'd like to have as a friend, that is, if she was allowed to make friends. All of this and her constant reservations about her mother's choice of "career" make Danielle begin to reconsider the path her life is taking and consider that maybe she isn't so powerless to change her situation as she had always thought.

Stealing Heaven is an engaging read about a girl who wants nothing more than what most teenage girls have - a school, a friend, a boyfriend, stuff that belongs to her instead of to someone else. Scott captures Dani's longings for all these things and her mother's total lack of understanding of why anyone would ever want the things that Dani wants. The conflict between Dani's love and loyalty to her mother and her desire for a different kind of life is realistically drawn. The lush beach town of Heaven comes to life and it's hard not to love its friendly citizens and understand why Dani would desperately want to trade in her unusual way of life for a place among Heaven's population. Stealing Heaven strikes a good balance between the more fluffy parts of the book and more serious issues such as Dani's questions about the morality of stealing from the very rich, the difference between love and sex, and even the prospect of losing a loved one to cancer. This is a quick read about growing up and learning that it's never too late and you're never too powerless to make the decisions that can change the circumstances of your life.

Book available May 27, 2008.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Well, I haven't Booked Through Thursday in a while, have I?

While acknowledging that we can’t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations? Etc.?

Ah, this is a great question and allows me to explore my weird book neuroses in greater detail. First, I have to get this off my chest. I do judge books by their covers. I can't help it. There aren't any pretty pictures inside the books that I read, so is it too much to ask for a pretty pictue on the outside that make me drool in anticipation?

When it comes to hardcover or softcover, I have no preference except for when I need a book to be particularly portable. I did a lot of reading on the train back when I lived in a place where there was public transportation, and paperbacks are just more conducive to that. That's not to say I didn't still carry hardcovers back and forth for my train reading, I did (even that hulking Harry Potter finale!), but it certainly wasn't as convenient.

I'm a total nut for trade paperbacks. I like that they're a little bigger but they're still portable. I just like how they feel in my hands, and they just generally seem like a better quality book. I'm also a little put off of mass markets because the types of books I read aren't typically made in that format - though there are notable exceptions to that including one book that I'm reading now. I'm a lit/fiction sort, and when I see mass market, I guess I'm usually expecting something genre. I read genre fiction on occasion and enjoy it, but usually when I'm looking for a book, I'm looking for a trade paperback.

This brings us to font. I'm so picky about fonts that I start to feel like Goldilocks. This font is too big! This font is too small! This font is just riiiiight! But I have to say, if I can't have my ideal font size, I'd rather the font be a little too small. If the font is a little small, I can usually suck it up and deal with it. Oh but if it's too big, that really bothers me. That's my chief problem with some of the young adult books I read. I mean, why is it that a teenager needs a book with slightly oversized font? Does that make it more approachable or something? Not for me. Really large print books that aren't written for small children, frankly, give me the creeps. Gosh, I hope I never lose my eyesight because reading one of those large print books might possibly drive me insane. Weird much?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sobibor by Michael Lev

So, once upon a time in the beginning of the year, I inadvertantly booked myself for a bit of an early year Holocaust-fest by committing myself to reading Schindler's List and then asking for and receiving Sobibor by Michael Lev from the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing. At long last I have finished this second book of my unintended Holocaust-fest, and found that it was somewhat similar to Schindler's List and also very different.

Sobibor is a documentary novel in the style of Schindler's List by Michael Lev, who is, as I gather from the author information and foreword of the book is a big name in Yiddish literature. The book has been translated from the Yiddish, rather clunkily at times it seemed to me, by Barnett Zumof.

Sobibor is the story of 14 year old Berek Schlesinger, a Polish Jew, whose parents send him away from his shtetl to hide from the Nazis in the woods. He scrapes by getting a little help from a friendly elderly Pole and his wife and eventually reuniting with his beautiful cousin Rina who he had presumed dead and who he seems to love in a way that is distinctly uncousinly. While trying to reach Russia or at least some relative safety with partisans in the forest, Berek leaves Rina to find some water only to find her gone on his return. After he discovers that Nazis have taken her to the death camp Sobibor, he determines to go to the camp in search of her. There he is taken under the wing of a jeweler who is as close to indispensable to the Nazis as one can be inside a concetration camp, and Berek's life continues through his association with Kuriel the jeweler.

At this point, the book seems to break away from Berek's narrative entirely to chronicle the successful Sobibor uprising from the view of its leader Alexander Pechersky. I found this section to be much more captivating than the beginning of the book, but it was a little difficult to adjust to the abrupt turning away from the base of the plot. The book continues after this unexpected diversion to follow Berek after the war as he encounters former SS from the camp and uses his extensive knowledge of the atrocities in Sobibor and his feeling of responsibility to those who died to help convict the officers of war crimes.

Unlike several Holocaust novels I've read, Sobibor requires more base knowledge of the Holocaust to appreciate its nuance, despite its footnotes that clarify some of the more basic elements. I'll be the first to admit that I occasionally appreciated the nuance and the undertones that required some consideration to understand, but I also found myself baffled at some points and would have liked some more explicit explanation of events instead of subtle hinting at goings on.

"...What, you want to know, has happened to Kapo Shlok? Listen to this: On the way here, two stones fell from the sky; one, thrown by the Germans, broke the Kapo's backbone, and the other, thrown by the Jews, finished him off."

The book was slow to start but really hit its stride with the chronicle of the uprising. Lev's depiction of the uprising is brief yet powerful. In less than fifty pages, Lev brings Pechersky to life following his escape into memories while he is cramped in a cattle car traveling from Minsk to Sobibor but also establishing his character as a leader that people are inspired to follow in even the most dire situation.

In the dark, deep cellar prison in Minsk, it had been so crowded that only on the fifth day, when most of those who had been driven down there had already died, could they find room to lie down. Every time they opened the door to carry out the dead, the guard, himself a former POW, would ask, "Will it be long yet before all of you die?"

"Long!" a certain man would answer.

...Once the senior guard had said, "We're sick and tired of you already, but there's been no order to do away with you. Haven't you dragged this out long enough? Strangle one another and let there be an end to it!"

The same man who used to answer "Long!" cried out in the darkness, "You'll never live to see that day!"

The convicts hadn't elected that man as their leader - not all of them even knew his name. (...) He wasn't the leader, but everyone obeyed him.

Thankfully, the narrative keeps the fire it acquires during the account of the uprising as it follows Berek into the post-war period. Lev gives us an inside view of the trials of several high ranking SS murderers from Sobibor, but more interesting and thought-provoking are the brief encounters he has with the former torturers of Sobibor. Berek and his wife pass by Erich Bauer, the chief gas-master of the camp responsible for the deaths of thousands, in a crowded park in Germany. The encounter has the surreality of a meeting with a ghost. During one of the trials, through sheer happenstance, Berek comes upon the father and brother of two of the SS killed in the uprising who lament their son and brother being dead in Berek's hearing. Lev also captures the former commandant of Sobibor, Kurt Bolender, who charms restaurant guests as an immaculately groomed head waiter but soon finds himself desperately trying to prove he has a Jewish grandmother to somehow lessen the penalties he faces in his war crimes trial.

Sobibor while often confusing and on occasion awkwardly written, presents the Holocasut from a slightly different angle. Instead of focusing exclusively on the suffering that took place, Lev explores the uprising and the aftermath. This unique angle provides a lot of food for thought for any student of the Holocaust. It begs the question of why uprisings weren't more common and more successful. Was it having Pechersky as a leader that made it possible or were the Germans so lax in that camp at that time that the inmates had a rare window of opportunity to pursue an otherwise impossible course of action? How can thoughts of someone as the pinnacle of evil be reconciled with thoughts of the same person as someone's brother - someone's son? How long should the search for justice have gone on? Would it have been better for Jews like Berek to leave the past to the past and free themselves from the burden of pursuing justice or to spend countless years pursuing evil men who have since become weak and feeble and even a bit ridiculous in the extremity of their love for Hitler and his twisted ideals? Lev's narrative asks all these questions and provokes us to consider their answers while at the same time shining a bright light on a valiant and successful uprising that proved that what seemed impossible could be and was accomplished.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Spring!

So, it's spring. Of course, it's ridiculously cold outside and doesn't seem very springy at all, but I did brave the crowds of irritating youths to get some free Rita's Italian Ice, so spring must really be here. Spring generally means everything gets to start anew and afresh, right? Well, it's recently come to my attention that the enormous pile of waiting to be read books on my nightstand is simply out of control and I would desperately like to finish them and start a new and a fresh pile, hence the joining of....

The Spring Reading Thing is hosted by Katrina at Callapidder Days and encourages us to set our own goals for books to be read between now and June 19th. I liked the nice loose parameters and welcome the incentive to tackle the dreaded "nightstand pile of doom" even though my langorous reading speed of late might make this list a bit too ambitious...even though it's not all that ambitious to the average reader (or maybe I should say "average book blogger"?). Nonetheless, I will cease my advance excuse making now and get on with the list!

Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich
The Widows of Eden by George Shaffner
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen
Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn by Sarah Miller
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

and, this is unoffical, but if I am seized by a vast increase in reading speed, I'll include Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth here as my "bonus" book, as in, I'd be perfectly happy if I got all those other ones read, but if I get those read plus this daunting chunkster, I'd be truly ecstactic and deserve a great pat on the back.

There's the list. Reviews will be linked to this post as I finish the books. So let the reading (and uh...spring too, please) begin!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Good and the Not So Great

Hey, look, it's one of those posts where I try to make up for all the posts I didn't make all week. Let's start with good stuff. Wednesday (was it Wednesday? I think it was Wednesday, but I could be wrong) was a very excellent day. I recently got offered a part time position at the place where I'm working as a temp which entails an automatic $3 raise and the possibility of more hours. Then on Wednesday I was offered more hours learning to do something totally new in the lab which will mean I'm working almost full time at a decent wage which is pretty exciting this being the first time I've ever deemed my hourly rate of pay an actually acceptable amount of money. Of course, it will also mean I'll have to juggle some stuff around until I've managed to establish some sort of routine so this whole reading and blogging about reading thing doesn't fall by the wayside. This blog was started when I was unemployed and needed a fun and constructive way to pass the time, which it definitely has turned out to be, so now I just need to figure out how to keep at it (with hopefully slightly more frequency) with much less time than I had when it was begun. Guess I'll have to cut out all those Law and Order re-runs my parents are hooked on and downsize the subscriptions on the feed reader a bit (uh, don't worry anybody, the cuts would most likely entail people who don't know I'm reading their blog in the first place).

So yes, Wednesday was a lovely spring day in which I got offered another nice new job and then came home to find that I was a winner! Amy over at Lives Less Ordinary whose awesome blog is about to celebrate six months of well...awesomeness...held a drawing for all kinds of Scottish goodies. And I won! And I pretty much could not be more excited. I've actually been to Scotland and loved it dearly and would love to return someday, so the prospect of Scottish goodies coming in the mail is simply delightful. If you haven't checked out Amy's blog, you definitely should. Her photos are beautiful and her writing just shines. Her posts at the very least always give me food for thought and they often brighten my day as well!

So there's the good stuff. Onto the not so great.

I've been trying to read this book about the trees (that would be The Wild Trees by Richard Preston). I like trees. I like them a lot. As a matter of fact, several households along our road have recently had trees cut down and removed from their yards for what seems to be no good reason whatsoever and every time I see the wood piles still sitting there massive outpourings of bitterness ensue even though the topic has been quite beaten to death among my family. Nonetheless, I just can't get into this book. I can't decide whether it's because the tree-obsessed people get on my nerves (which is kind of distressing because they are actual people and I start to feel bad that their lives as depicted by Preston just kind of bother me) or because the author seems to be trying to accomplish too much. The book's chapters are divided into sections where a great deal of different tree explorers are introduced often from early childhood, where descriptions of trees and the mechanics of their ecosystems are elaborated on, and where various explorations in search of the tallest or largest living trees are chronicled. Honestly, I don't know what I'm supposed to focus on. The trees? The people? The tree climbing? And having to keep so many things straight just kept making me want to put the book down because I just couldn't seem to get engaged with it when the narrative is bouncing all over the place at what seemed to be random.

The other part of it is probably just me. A part of me wishes I had what the people in this book have, in a way. These people are just living their lives not quite sure what they're doing or how to go about it, but then (as Preston would have us believe) they wake up one morning full of the knowledge that they are not only passionately in love with the idea of exploring redwood canopies but are quite certain that they want to spend their entire lives analyzing a certain type of lichen that makes these gigantic trees possible. That's right, they just wake up one day and know that their life's purpose is lichen! Would that I would wake up one day full of the passion and knowledge that would give me a clue where the path of my life should take me. Just so long as it's not lichen, mmmkay?

Being mildly uninterested and mildly miffed by the content of this book, I have at long last decided to not finish the book. When I look at the book I'm reading and see only a wall standing between me and other books I wish I was reading instead, that's usually a good sign that it's time to give it up. Despite my quibbles with it, I'm sure that this is a perfectly valid piece of narrative non-fiction. I was definitely interested in the parts describing the unusual way in which redwoods grow and even with the climbing experiences of the tree explorers, but it just seems there is a mental block keeping me from getting the most out of this book, so it's on to something new for me!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Wentworths by Katie Arnoldi

So, when Elle sent me books to review, I thought, hey, I can review these for my blog, too. My best intentions went sort of awry because this is the only one that I managed to write a full review of at the time, and ironically, it's the one that I liked the least. One of the others, Alex Witchel's The Spare Wife didn't inspire enough of a reaction in me to even attempt a review, not to mention trying to summarize the plot with its many characters would have been an incredible feat. It was entertaining while I was reading it, but really nothing to write home about. The other, Willing by Scott Spencer, whose ARC contained not a single quotation mark which I ranted about in an earlier blog post, I hope to still write about in some capacity in the nearish future as it was a strange but oddly compelling story and the one I voted my favorite for Elle. So, without further ado, and written in the belief that other people might (and often do) like books that I don't, I present, the one review.

With The Wentworths Katie Arnoldi has penned a vicious satire of the upper class. Dysfunctional barely begins to describe the Wentworth family. August, the patriarch, has barely been faithful to his wife for a moment in their lengthy marriage. Judith, however, is so caught up with the myriad of beautiful things and the power over a small army of maids she has accumulated as a result of her marriage to August that she couldn't care less where August chooses to spend his time. Their three children are even more twisted than their parents. Conrad is an expensive lawyer whose wildly sadistic side is revealed early in his life. Their one daughter, Becky, after being stung by a comment made by her father during her youth is obsessed with controlling her weight leaving little time for her meek husband, Paul, and her two children Monica (a drug addict) and Joey (a shameless kleptomaniac). Finally, there is gay Norman, who by his mid-thirties has failed to so much as move from his parents' guest house but, for the most part, is too stoned to care.

Throughout the novel, Arnoldi makes this elite family downright laughable by revealing their problems and insecurities while at the same time using everyday occurrences to showcase their ridiculous responses to the mundane. Judith's quest to recover a set of missing sugar tongs spotlights the Wenthworths' pure inanity. She grills each family member about the whereabouts of the tongs while the many real problems this family faces have a blind eye turned to them. Arnoldi brilliantly renders this family's inability to deal with its many problems, and even more so, its unwillingness to even admit that there are problems at all.

Though it seems that Arnoldi succeeds admirably in what I imagine to be her quest to satirize the type of people who quite literally have more money than they know what to do with, this book was nonetheless a difficult read. Short, sometimes wittily named chapters contain the astonishing, twisted, and often very explicit foibles of the family members. While I don't consider myself to be too faint of heart, I found myself agape at many of the events taking place in the pages of this book. As a result, I found The Wenthworths to be all too easy to put down making a lengthy read out of a very short book. While I can appreciate Arnoldi's message, such as it is, her means of revealing it in this novel was almost more than I could take.

Release Date: March 13, 2008.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Not Old, Just Older

How come there's always plenty of time to go to work and so little time to do all the other stuff in the world (even when you don't really spend all that much time at work)? In this "explanation for prolonged absence post" I've decided to take a detour from my usual approach of whining a lot and well... not whine a lot. Alas, I have been a busy girl trying to keep pace with all the stuff I normally do and going to New Jersey for all but about 3 hours of last weekend and my birthday was this week so, people came and brought me presents and we ate cake - so there's another night with no reading, no blog-hopping, no blogging, and regrets!

One of my best friends lives in New Jersey (the scenic central part as opposed to the not so scenic rest of it) and it's been some time since I've gone to visit her and probably some time before I'll be able to pin her down for a visit again. So, I left right from work on Friday and didn't get back until Sunday at six in the evening leaving me just enough time to get ready to start this week and none of the usual "catch up" time that the weekend usually affords me. Despite the lack of reading, I had a fabulous time. We went to her high school's musical (The Sound of Music - pretty good!), took the train into Philadelphia for the flower show which I'd never been to before and was pretty awesome (I mean, who knew that people could totally recreate Louisiana bayou inside a building), and inexplicably devoured vast quantities of ice cream (which I don't even like as much as other desserts, so it was rather strange). All that, and more! It was a great weekend full of quality catching up with her, and it was so, so nice to get away for a while, too.

In other news, yes, I'm another year older this week. No, I don't feel any different. Yes, I did eat lots of cake...some of it purchased by one of my co-workers which was really nice since I'm still kind of newish there (but, in additional good news, I may soon really actually be going "real" part time in the department instead of staying all temp-ish)! Yes, book gift cards were involved in the birthday festivities as was a new wallet filled with money (er, only small bills, though) and the promise of a free lobster dinner in the nearish future. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to hold off on my book shopping spree as the shelves are all full and the stacks of books on my bedroom floor have truly started to overwhelm me (who knew it would come to this?)! That and with all the activity I've hardly been reading. I know, distressing isn't it?

That brings me to the reading update. I'm about 70 pages into two different books. One, The Wild Trees, is narrative non-fiction which is, so far, about some vaguely irritating people with a dangerous obsession with climbing really tall trees. So far it's mostly introductions to people who seem to love trees a bit too much (you were so caught up in looking at trees, you forgot to register for classes for your next semester of college? Are you serious?), so I'm hoping it starts to have some sort of point soon. The other book is Sobibor by Michael Lev which is a Library Thing Early Reviewer read despite its already being available to the public. Not that I'm complaining, they sent me a sparkly new hardcover which, unlike ARCs, can be quoted in book reviews which is a big plus in my view. The downside? Yeah, I definitely inadvertantly signed myself up for a really Holocaust-heavy early 2008. So far this one is more about interesting nuance requiring some background Holocaust knowledge as opposed to clobbering one over the head with the sheer awfulness of it (a la Schindler's List). At times, I think it's a pretty good book which is pretty absorbing, at other times, I have little to no idea what's going on and the weirdly pitched dialogue bothers me (is that the translation, do you think?). Also kind of awkward is the the overkill of anthropomorphizing (that's a good 10 million dollar word for 9 in the morning, yeah?) things like the moon. The moon was doing lots of not-so-moonlike things for quite some time until it got to the point of, "are you being serious?"

So there you have it. The story of my week. And how I am not really reading. And, is it just me or am I less interesting when I'm happy? Because this entry is kind of putting me to sleep despite my having done much more exciting things than usual.

But I promise I'll be back on my (reading/blogging/blog reading) game soon!