Saturday, March 31, 2012

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

About a year and a half ago, my wonderful book club read Empire Falls by Richard Russo.  I missed it because our family had gone to live in France for three months.  While that was about as amazing an experience as you can imagine, I really wish I hadn't missed this book discussion.  Several book club members had mentioned how much they liked the book and one even told me it had become her favorite book that we had read yet.  It has taken me this long to finally get around to reading it (so many books, so little time) and I can't wait to discuss it with someone. 

This winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize (really, how incredible must it be as a writer to win the Pulitzer?!) was later made into a two-part mini-series for HBO that went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series in 2006 (again, how incredible).  Empire Falls is set in a small, economically suffering town in central Maine.  The book begins by chronicling the Whiting family's history and rise to power and money over many generations.  Mostly, however, the story revolves around the present day town's inhabitants.  Miles, who once tried to leave the town but has been back for twenty years, runs the local diner.  His ex-wife, his daughter, his brother, his childhood friends, his father and his former mother-in-law all play important roles in his life.  The elderly Mrs. Whiting is also a strong presence for Miles and for the entire town, seeing as how she owns most of it including the three now abandoned mills that used to support the town. 

Miles is often described as a "soft touch" and a "pushover" of whom many of the people around him like to take advantage.  Miles' aging father Max expects his son to support him regardless of the fact that Max did very little supporting himself while his boys were young.  Miles' ex-wife walks over him with the expectation that he will not complain.  And Miles' employer, Mrs. Whiting, has him doing her bidding with very little reward for himself. 

The local soon-to-be chief of police, Jimmy Minty, is obviously corrupt and his son, Zach, is a much darker, meaner version of Eddie Haskell who has no respect or regard for the adults around him.  John, the young man Zach chooses to torment, has a disturbing secret and Tick, Miles' daughter, tries her best to keep the peace despite the fact that Zach is her cruel ex-boyfriend and John is the boy the principal has asked her to befriend. 

The timeline begins as summer is ending and as the story progresses over the next four months, the reader can almost feel the clouds and cold descend on the characters.  While filled with moments of humor, life is not easy for the residents of Empire Falls and many seem to have lost hope.  Several times during my reading I wanted to urge the characters to leave and start anew somewhere else.  Of course, that is not an option for many of the characters as this small town is all they and generations before them have ever known. 

As many of my book club friends mentioned, this book was a bit of a slow start.  I believe several identified around page 100 when the story began to pick up speed.  As for me, I had about a third of the book to go last night when I just couldn't seem to stop reading.  This morning I woke up knowing I would finish my reading before I could accomplish anything else today.  At 483 pages, while long, the real mystery to me is how Mr. Russo fit in so much story.  Each of the many characters feels fully developed and three-dimensional.  I was captivated by the story and anxious to discover all the skeletons hiding in so many closets in this town.  I am borrowing the mini-series from the library this week, so it will be interesting to see how such a robust novel will fit into 197 minutes. 

A note to my local friends:  Now that I've finished reading this one, I'm happy to pass it along.  Would anyone like it? 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

The book club selection for April is The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen.  I love Ms. Allen's books, Garden Spells being my favorite.  I love the magic; I love the whimsy; I love all the food. 

In this book, Willa Jackson is just trying to live a normal, quiet life.  Do those exist in SAA novels?  I'm pretty sure they don't.  Willa, the former high school Joker, is thrown together with Paxton, the former high school princess.  Paxton is struggling to maintain her social status while also searching for a way out.  The two women are both pulled into a mystery that began with their grandmothers were friends as young women. 

I really liked this book, but it felt incomplete to me.  Several things began in the book that didn't quite seem to resolve.  Maybe that is just be wanting more, but I was slightly disappointed.  It was a fun book and I read it very quickly, I just wanted more.  And I totally off base here?  Did you read it and love it?  I'd love to hear what you thought.

Austenland by Shannon Hale

After reading about Austenland by Shannon Hale on several book blogs, I knew I needed to add it to my list.  Austenland is about a young woman, Jane, who is more than a little obsessed with Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy, specifically the Colin Firth version.  Can you blame the poor girl?  Because of her obsession, Jane's aunt sends her on a truly unique vacation- she gets to spend three weeks living like a Jane Austen character.  Jane travels to England, stays in a very old home, dresses in period clothing, commits to using period language and manners and lives her fantasy. 

I knew I liked this book from the very beginning and when I say the beginning that's just what I mean, as in the dedication page.  It reads:

For Colin Firth

You're a really great guy, but I'm married,
so I think we should just be friends.

Don't you love it already?  Starting with a good little chuckle is always a positive thing.  The book also documents poor Jane's failed past relationships.  Unfortunately for her, Jane thinks of almost any date as a "boyfriend" and the sentiments are not always returned.  I;m afraid she is a bit naive.  She begins with her first love, a young man named Alex.  They were four-years-old and in preschool.  The boyfriends begin each chapter, finally ending with a man who was twenty-nine and whom she refers to as "a jackass."  The book is about finding a way to be happy with who she is, only she's not quite sure how to do that.  One moment she is sure that she must swear off love and be happy alone with her  Pride and Prejudice DVDs.  The next moment she thinks she just needs to date more and burn the DVDs since they are giving her false expectations.

Is this the best book I've ever read?  No, but it was light and fun and it would be the perfect vacation read even if your vacation isn't in the English countryside.  After all, it's clever, it is the world of Austen and you can almost imagine the British accents and Colin Firth's lovely, lovely face. 

There is a sequel that I have reserved from the library and will soon be reading.  Also, Shannon Hale happens to be good friends with Stephenie Meyer who loved the book so much she produced a film version starring Keri Russell.  There is no release date set yet, but it is expected sometime this year.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

After reading about this book on several book blogs and hearing a friend say she really needed someone else to read it so she could talk about it, I finally got around to reading The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner.  I've actually had this book for a long time having picked it up at our fabulous library used book store for $2 (you really can't beat that, can you?), but I just hadn't found the time.  Well I've had a little extra time on my hands lately and I'm so glad I read it. 

In a word- brilliant.  This book is fantasy fiction written for young adults and I think it would be a good read for anyone 10 and older.  It is a fun adventure book written from the perspective of a young man who insists he is the best thief in the land.  His less than humble attitude lands him in prison and then on a quest for a possibly mythical stone that will surely be the death of him.  Set in an imaginary time and place very similar to ancient Greece, superstition leads the way and is the source of most of the clues the five searchers possess. 

This is the first in a series of four and I cannot wait to read the next installment- I hear it's even better!

Cesar's Way by Cesar Millan

We have a very sweet dog, but like a lot of people I know, he has his...issues.  Having not really grown up with a dog, I thought I would look to a professional for a little help.  Cesar Millan offers lots of good advice in Cesar's Way, both for the two legged animals and the four.  One of the first things I learned from this book is Nose, Eyes, Ears.  A dog doesn't process information the same way we do.  He first smells, then sees and then hears.  Maybe that is why repeating sit over and over again doesn't always work.  The next thing I found interesting is the need to lead your pack, even if it is a pack of one.  "If you give your dog any opportunity for him to lead you, he is going to take it." 

I also found it interesting that much of his advice could have been taken straight from a book about parenting and if it couldn't, then perhaps it should.  When talking about how to deal with a dog with fearful aggression, he says, "You don't give in.  Either wait out the dog and let her come to you or go in and get her.  If you go in and get her, you have to follow through.  You simply cannot let her win.  You must remain calm and assertive, and you can't get angry."  Now if that isn't good parenting advice, I don't know what is!

Finally, Millan advocates for lots of exercise for your dog.  He says, "Americans in general seem to have problems with getting enough exercise for themselves, and don't recognize that all animals, even humans, have an inborn need to be active."  Several times in the book Millan compares the level of contentedness of dogs that belong to homeless people and dogs that live in very nice homes in very nice  areas of town.  Surprisingly, it is the homeless dogs who are happier, he says, because they are much more active and they know how to follow their pack leader.  Buying a dog a plush bed and organic food isn't what he wants; exercise and a strong leader is exactly what he needs. 

I found this book very enlightening and I hope I will be able to put his advice into practice.  At the very least I think I can handle a longer walk for our sweet puppy.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

Have I mentioned that I live in Southern Arizona?  Well I do and not far from where we live is Picacho Peak.  Several years ago when I first read The Host by Stephenie Meyer I was thrilled to learn it was set in the desert surrounding Picacho Peak, midway between Phoenix and Tucson.  It is always fun to read a book and be able to say, "Hey!  I know where that is!"   My husband and I have always wanted to hike Picacho Peak and we finally did a couple of weeks ago.  It was a tough hike, but it was also really fun.  Of course that meant I also needed to reread The Host

I love this book.  It's fun.  It's exciting.  There is a little romance and a lot of adventure.  For people who turn their noses up at the name Stephenie Meyer, let me assure you this is not "Twilight with aliens" as some people have said, at least not in my opinion.  The romance is certainly secondary to the struggles of the various characters.  I have never been a big sci-fi reader, but I really enjoyed this one. 

I can say very little about this book without saying too much.  What I can say is that you should read it.  Read it and enjoy.  The film version is being released March 29th, 2013.  Please let it be a good one and let the countdown begin!