Friday, November 27, 2015

A book you can sink your teeth into

Dracula by Bram Stoker

3 words: complex, creepy, original

The classics and I have a complicated relationship. I tend to resist reading them, out of a concern that the books will be stodgy and dated and difficult. Yet so often—as with my book club’s reading of Dracula—I find that the reason a book has become a classic is that it resists those dreaded concerns. 

So yeah, I just keep learning.

Reading Dracula was actually rather a delight. My favorite surprise was that the story is told via journals and letters, and it’s narrated from multiple viewpoints. This made it seem strangely modern—that the novel has such a complex structure. I had Wilkie Collins flashbacks, and that’s always a good thing.

And I was delighted with the gradual, creepy build-up of suspense in this story. Well done, Mr. Stoker!

My happiness with the book grew further when I read Lark’s review and discovered that it’s one of her favorites and she had highlighted similar aspects of the book.

Finally, I found it fascinating to read Dracula after having read Frankenstein several years ago. Both novels share the theme of coming to terms with death, which is infinitely preferable to the unnatural state of un-death evoked in the stories.

A great read for late fall.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

It's official: I'm related to a witch

Witch House, Salem (photo credit: Library of Congress)

The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff

3 words: detailed, narrative, dense

Related to a witch! 

Actually, I’m not. 

But my 8th great grand uncle* (a male witch—even more unexpected!) was accused of witchcraft (and later released).

This was vaguely horrifying and mostly thrilling. It may have been the high point of the book for me.

Years ago, I read Saint-Exupery: A Biography by Stacy Schiff, and it was one of those remarkable reading experiences where a book just drew me into its world and I wanted to stay there.

So this new book, The Witches, enticed me powerfully. Schiff has become a Name in the world of biography writing, and I was excited at the thought of reading another one of her books.

And then I got into this book, and I felt frustrated.

Here’s why: Schiff does a masterful job of gathering and presenting an immense array of research, so she is able to present a wonderfully detailed account of the events of 1692 in Salem. She places the reader in the scene, which is a terrific accomplishment.

But I was bothered by the lack of analysis of why this group of adolescent girls was twitching and writhing and accusing others of being witches—and why innocent people were confessing to being witches.

There was no sense to it! And it was really bugging me.

And I realized that as a reader, I needed some interpretation along the way, to help explain the madness that was taking place in Salem—to cut my irritation with the utter nonsense of the situation.

Relief arrived in the final chapters, where Schiff explains some of the possible reasons for the witch accusations and trials. But I’d just experienced over 300 pages of descriptions of utterly bizarre behavior without much of an explanation. I was worn out and slightly peevish.

That having been said, I don’t want to undercut the book overall. Beyond being a magnificent researcher, Schiff has a delightful writing style—and even manages to add some humor occasionally, despite the grimness of her subject matter.

For example:
“He that summer took in thirteen-year-old Martha to see to her cure. She cantered, trotted, and galloped about the Mather household on her ‘aerial steed,’ whistling through family prayer and pummeling anyone who attempted it in her presence, the worse houseguest in history.” (21)

“…the devil aimed to destroy the villagers because they bickered among themselves and their ministers. (In fairness, were those the criteria, Satan would have had his choice of New England congregations.)” (303)

I wanted to love the experience of reading this book. But I merely liked it. I remain un-bewitched.

*my personal history of genealogical nerdiness is indeed quite something

Friday, October 30, 2015


So I’ve wrapped up Book Bingo 2015, and I was feeling all calm and comfortable and assignment-free… for about 10 minutes. 

Then I started creating other reading assignments for myself.

This Type A lifestyle, it’s not for the faint of heart. 

For Book Bingo 2015, here, in alphabetical order by bingo square, is what I read:

20th Century Dead Author
They’re dead. They lived, published, and died in the 20th century.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

300 Pages or Fewer
If it has 301 pages, forget it. Page count includes afterword, notes, index, etc.

Another Culture
A book outside your country, background, ethnic group, or cultural realm
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Fiction or nonfiction -- how-to, critique, art thieves, artist biography, or art as a pivotal object in a story. Any way art inspires the book.
Heist by Daniel Silva

Any book on a banned book or challenged book list, anywhere in the world
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

A Book Abandoned
Started a book? Don’t want to finish it? Abandon ship! This is your free square.
Fast Track by Julie Garwood

Book of Essays
The book can be a collection of essays by a single author or by various authors.
Look for the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer by Heather Lende

A book by a celebrity, about a celebrity, or about the idea of celebrity

Cited in a Story
A book or author mentioned in another book, story, movie, or TV show
Songbook by Nick Hornby

Cover Attraction
Judge a book by its cover

Cult Classic
A book with an unusually devoted following that touts this book, whether or not the critics agree. This book could change your life.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Found Online
A book you discovered online; does not have to be an eBook
Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery

Graphic Novel
A standalone book of comics--fiction or nonfiction. May be a single story told in one book, a single volume in a series, or a compendium of serialized comics.
Kingsman: Secret Service by Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn

Magical Realism
A book in which magical elements exist within an otherwise ordinary world

Something you’re passionate about, something that consumes a character, or the pages smoldering under your fingers are so hot you need to take a break  

Published in the 70s
A book originally published between 1970-1979
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

Pulitzer Prize
A book that was nominated or won a Pulitzer in any category
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Recommended Book
A book recommended by a friend, a website, or a “best of” list

A book you re-read  
The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

A suspense novel or a book that is suspenseful
Alone by Lisa Gardner

Any book you’d be embarrassed to be seen reading. Or any kind of fluff that you’re not embarrassed to be seen reading.
Deadline by Sandra Brown

UFO (unfinished object)
A book you’re returning to, after having abandoned it. You gotta finish it this time.
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan

Could be a thriller, suspense, horror, gore, or something subtle that made you feel uncomfortable
Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

Fiction or nonfiction. Past, present, or future.

A book about writing, a book about a writer, or a book whose writing you really enjoy

My favorite of the bunch? That last one there, which was actually the first book I read for Bingo. 

The planning for Book Bingo 2016 began as soon as we got this year set, and I can't wait to finalize the categories.  [silent squealing just ensued]