Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

Hardcover, 572 pages 
Published January 1st 1984 by Douglas & McIntyre / Fsg Adult (first published 1971)  
ISBN: 0374127522 (ISBN13: 9780374127527) 
original title: The Complete Stories 
literary awards: National Book Award for Fiction (1972) 
5 stars 

Goodreads Synopsis: 
The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O'Connor's monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do not appear in the only two story collections O'Connor put together in her short lifetime--Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.

O'Connor published her first story, "The Geranium," in 1946, while she was working on her master's degree at the University of Iowa. Arranged chronologically, this collection shows that her last story, "Judgement Day"--sent to her publisher shortly before her death—is a brilliantly rewritten and transfigured version of "The Geranium." Taken together, these stories reveal a lively, penetrating talent that has given us some of the most powerful and disturbing fiction of the twentieth century. Also included is an introduction by O'Connor's longtime editor and friend, Robert Giroux.

My Thoughts:
I've been skipping around with the stories in this book, primarily because I'm reading them for book group discussions, and I think I will try and review each story as I read it rather than analyze the book as a whole (which is next to impossible).

Let me first start with saying that Flannery O'Connor is a genius of a writer, with an immeasurable talent for biting social commentary. It is not out of place to compare her in spirit to Mark Twain, and while she is a different style of writer than Twain, they share a common bond of identifying the social ills of their generation(s) and skewering them repeatedly in their writing. O'Connor is a standout in the genre of Southern Gothic, and she used both hyperbole and the grotesque to sharply and critically harpoon accepted social mores, customs and beliefs - both religious and political - with which she vehemently disagreed. She was also a Christian, and had little patience with the legalistic and judgmental "Christians" the she often encountered. To say that she saw them as disingenuous is an understatement, as her writing gives evidence to the fact that she could not suffer the shallowness of their faith or their total misunderstanding of grace and salvation.

O'Connor's stories, as they shed light on the cultural woes of the American South, make us uncomfortable, and sometimes offend us. But her purpose in going there is to make us think critically about ourselves as she exposes hypocritical behavior in others. These are not for the faint of heart, and they are not frothy or fun. They are, however, meaty and complex, upsetting and difficult, and ultimately satisfying in mental, spiritual and emotional ways.

So, without further impressions of the stories as I read them.

The Geranium - thoughts forthcoming

The Barber - Skewering the ridiculousness of racial politics with a sharp understanding that political issues should have no color. It's interesting, though, how O'Connor uses an inarticulate man to make this point, and thus sheds light on the weaknesses and foibles of both sides of the political debate.


The Crop
The Turkey
The Train
The Peeler
The Heart of the Park
A Stroke of Good Fortune
Enoch and the Gorilla

A Good Man is Hard to Find - A very pointed statement about what is good and what is evil, and how perceptions can be very distorted. The Grandmother is "supposed" to be good because she is pious, but she is judgmental and critical, and her faith is shallow. The Misfit - a murderer - is an evil man, but he understands who God is with great clarity, and though he has no faith at all, he is the vehicle through with the Grandmother is exposed, and through which O'Connor causes us as readers to inspect our own beliefs.

A Late Encounter with the Enemy

The Life You Save May Be Your Own
The River
A Circle in the Fire
The Displaced Person
A Temple of the Holy Ghost
The Artificial Nigger

Good Country People - rereading

You Can't Be Any Poorer than Dead

A View of the Woods
The Enduring Chill
The Comforts of Home

Everything That Rises Must Converge - rereading

The Partridge Festival

The Lame Shall Enter First
Why Do the Heathen Rage?

Revelation - (on deck) - thoughts next week

Parker's Back - Here is another sharply critical commentary on Christianity, particularly what constitutes faith and what does not. Parker is not a Christian - not saved, but he marries Sarah Ruth, who is. In the end, though, it is he whose faith is found, and hers that is found wanting.

Judgement Day - thoughts forthcoming

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Paperback, 334 pages
Published January 30th 2007 by Penguin (Non-Classics) (first published February 16th 2006)
ISBN: 0143038419 (ISBN13: 9780143038412)
primary language: English
original title: Eat, Pray, Love
2 stars 

Goodreads Synopsis:
In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want--husband, country home, successful career--but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she felt consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and of what she found in their place. Following a divorce and a crushing depression, Gilbert set out to examine three different aspects of her nature, set against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.

My Thoughts:
Not keen on her definition of God, or Christian for that matter, but she is a good writer, and despite her shallow understanding of Christianity, I am enjoying her journey of self discovery so far.

UPDATE: Not so keen on her India section - she seems to take a rather superior attitude about her approach to spirituality, which is quite off-putting.

I QUIT! The only reason this book doesn't get one star is because I enjoyed the Italy section. Her self absorption was tempered by the focus on food and friends, which was enjoyable. However, moving into India, she became so focused on herself and her "higher" state of enlightenment that it truly overshadowed anything rewarding about the setting. I found her overblown sense of self-importance so off-putting that I quit. Blech. No more for me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Audio CD, 6 disks (7 hours)
Published September 1st 2009 by Random House Audio (first published January 1st 2009)
ISBN:  0739334166 (ISBN13: 9780739334164)
original title:  Homer & Langley
4 stars overall / 4 stars audio narration
Goodreads Synopsis: 
From Ragtime and Billy Bathgate to The Book of Daniel, World’s Fair, and The March, the novels of E. L. Doctorow comprise one of the most substantive achievements of modern American fiction. Now, with Homer & Langley, this master novelist has once again created an unforgettable work.

Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.

Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.

My Thoughts:
When I reached the end of this book, I was struck with the utterly overwhelming sadness I felt for the Collyer brothers.  Their lives seemed to start out with some promise of normalcy.  They had relatively normal parents - a bit overly prim and proper, perhaps, but with a large group of friends with whom they socialized regularly.  They were wealthy, had a beautiful house in a posh part of New York City with a view of Central Park, and many valuable antiques and pieces of art.  There was so much promise for them to have fulfilling and eventful lives until Langley was physically and emotionally scarred from the war (and mustard gas), and Homer slowly lost his sight.  As the years past, the brothers became more & more reclusive, Langley became more & more paranoid, and Homer became more & more dependent upon Langley as he lost not only his sight but his hearing as well.  Couple their physical and mental deterioration with Langley's uncontrollable compulsion to hoard EVERYTHING, and it became a recipe for disaster...which, of course, is what eventually led to their demise.

The utterly overwhelming nature of their hoarding provoked me to look them up online to see if I could get an accurate visual idea of their living conditions.  After looking at the pictures, it seems amazing to me that they were able to function, even at a basic level, for as long as they did.  I don't think I have ever heard of or seen anything quite like it before, and likely never will again.  I thought Doctorow did a good job of bringing this story to life, and perhaps that most evident in the fact that when I came to the end of the book, I was looking around my own home with an eye for purging and reducing.  I can not imagine a more miserable end than that of the Collyer brothers.  It is extraordinarily sad given the completely unnecessary nature of it, and yet it makes for a mesmerizing story of how engulfing mental illness can be.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Audio CD, Unabridged, 13 compact discs (16.5 hours)
Published September 16th 2008 by Random House Audio (first published 2005)
ISBN: 0739370642 (ISBN13: 9780739370643)
primary language: English
original title: Män som hatar kvinnor
series: Millennium #1
setting: Sweden  Stockholm, 2000 (Sweden)
It's about the disappearance forty years ago of Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden . . . and about her octogenarian uncle, determined to know the truth about what he believes was her murder.

It's about Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently at the wrong end of a libel case, hired to get to the bottom of Harriet's disappearance . . . and about Lisbeth Salander, a twenty-four-year-old pierced and tattooed genius hacker possessed of the hard-earned wisdom of someone twice her age who assists Blomkvist with the investigation. This unlikely team discovers a vein of nearly unfathomable iniquity running through the Vanger family, astonishing corruption in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism and an unexpected connection between themselves.

Contagiously exciting, it's about society at its most hidden, and about the intimate lives of a brilliantly realized cast of characters, all of them forced to face the darker aspects of their world and of their own lives.

My Thoughts:
I waited a year from the time I bought this book to listen to it, because it was one earmarked for my husband and me to listen to together.  Finally a road trip that was long enough for the book, and it was definitely worth the wait.  Although I have heard that it is slow going during the first 100 pages, we were pretty much hooked from the first disk.  It is true that a lot of set up happens at the beginning, and due to the complexity of the story and a fairly large cast of characters, it does take some time to establish who is who and how they connect.  In the end, though, it is worth the time it takes to get acquainted with the characters, because when the story takes off you take off with it. 

This is an action adventure and a mystery rolled into one, with a journalist as the unlikely protagonist, and yet that element alone makes for a level of intrigue (and a few interesting twists) that ramped up my enjoyment of the novel a few notches more.  I can do nothing but urge anyone and everyone who is looking for a ball-busting mystery to read this book.  Even better...listen to it!  It is 450+ pages of an almost perfectly executed story, even down to the abrupt ending, which is exceedingly effective in pointing you toward the second installment by leaving loose ends and unresolved issues that warrant further exploration.

Read it.  I urge you.  You will not be disappointed.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

Audio CD, 10 disks  (12 hours)
Published June 1st 2008 by HarperAudio (first published April 29th 2008)
ISBN: 0061556041 (ISBN13: 9780061556043)
primary language: English
original title: The Plague of Doves
4.5 stars overall / 4.5 stars audio narration

Goodreads Synopsis:
The unsolved murder of a farm family still haunts the white small town of Pluto, North Dakota, generations after the vengeance exacted and the distortions of fact transformed the lives of Ojibwe living on the nearby reservation.

Part Ojibwe, part white, Evelina Harp is an ambitious young girl prone to falling hopelessly in love. Mooshum, Evelina's grandfather, is a repository of family and tribal history with an all-too-intimate knowledge of the violent past. And Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, who bears witness, understands the weight of historical injustice better than anyone. Through the distinct and winning voices of three unforgettable narrators, the collective stories of two interwoven communities ultimately come together to reveal a final wrenching truth.

My Thoughts:
This book took me three separate tries to get going - I would get half to 3/4 through the first cd and restart, because even though I was listening closely, I felt that I was not absorbing all of the pertinent details adequately. This was not because the book lacked interest, or plot, or mystery, but rather because it has a massive scope, and I found it necessary to revisit the beginning more than once to ensure that I thoroughly understood the foundation on which Erdrich was building her story. By the end, I was singularly impressed with what she presented.

Erdrich covers several generations, a lot of geography, and a huge amount of Ojibwe history as she constructs this tale. From the outset, it is clear that Indian culture, customs, traditions, beliefs, etc. ON the reservation are often at odds with not only the whites they interact with, but also the OFF-reservation Indians. There are clashes, improprieties and discriminations, but there are also intermarriages and their subsequent baggage (of a wholly different kind). And there is a dying town, which with the exception of being more Ojibwe than anything else, is not very much unlike any other small town that is dying out as the country changes industrially.

What I found at the end of this read was a deep appreciation of Erdrich's skill in handling the complexities of this story in a way that (I believe) fairly portrayed the culture clash between the Ojibwe and whites. It was a sensitive story about a specific set of occurrences, and yet the underlying prejudices that fueled the actions and reactions of the characters were certainly universal. What I also found was a desire to revisit this book at some point, as I felt not only sad that I was finished, but that rereading would give me an richer understanding, as well as a deeper enjoyment borne out of that richer understanding.

This is not a run of the mill book by any means, and it is a book that I would highly recommend.

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Life as a Belching Baboon with Bad Breath by Bill Myers

Hardcover, 128 pages
Published October 31st 2005 by Thomas Nelson (first published 2005)
ISBN: 1400306345 (ISBN13: 9781400306343)
original title: My Life as a Belching Baboon with Bad Breath (The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle)
2.5 stars

Goodreads Synopsis:
Wally's got a bad case of the "I WANTS!"  All his friends have way cooler stuff than he does, and he hates it. Even his prayers have turned into, "Dear God, gimmie, gimmie, gimmie, oh yeah, and gimmie some more" . . . Until Dad drags him along on some aid project to Africa . . . Until Wally gets majorly lost in the wilderness . . . Until he's attacked by hiccupping hippos, rampaging rhinos, and a herd of baboons who have some pretty weird eating habits . . . Until he meets a boy his age who shows him what really counts in life and the key to real happiness.

My Thoughts:
I can definitely see how this book would appeal to (mostly) pre-adolescent boys. It's full of body function humor, written in a way that little boys (and some girls) find extremely funny. As such, it really didn't do a whole lot for me, but I would (and hopefully will) get a kick out of hearing giggles from somewhere in the house when my kiddo is able to read this one on his own. As titles go, this one ranks near the top in terms of creativity and general hilarity, and I would venture to guess that, to some extent, it will draw kids to this book who might not otherwise be inclined to read. I mean, belching and bad breath in one title...what's better than that in the eyes of an 8 year old?? And the bonus is, of course, that there is reasonably good teaching point at the end about happiness.

I'm definitely keeping this one on the shelf for my little guy, who will likely find it hilarious, but I hope that I never have to read it again. :-)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bestest Literary Settings I've Ever "Visited"

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. This meme was created because they are particularly fond of lists at The Broke and the Bookish. They love to share their lists with other bookish folks and LOVE to see your top ten lists!

Each week they post a new Top Ten list complete with one of their bloggers answers. Everyone is welcome to join. All they ask is that you link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND sign Mister Linky at the bottom to share with all those who are participating. If you don't have a blog, just post your answers as a comment. Don't worry if you can't come up with ten every time...just post what you can!



1.  South Carolina - from various of Pat Conroy's books.  I have read numerous books set in the South, and some of the most memorable of them have had South Carolina settings.  In fact, South Carolina is so much a part of the fabric of some of Conroy's novels that it almost becomes an additional character.  I love how intimately intertwined Conroy's stories are with their setting, such that they would never work in any other place.

2.  Hogwarts - from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling.  What better school / castle setting is there in all of literature?
3.  London - I love London settings, from historical to present day.  I loved how J. K. Rowling made London a functioning city for both muggles and magicians.  I loved how Jack London showed an otherwise ignored part in People of the Abyss. I love how Monica McInerney sets some of her novels in both Australia & London, building on the already existing relationship between the two places.  I love how London has become such a presence in literature, and how it is a viable setting no matter the subject, time period, or style.

4.  Practically anywhere in Australia - This is my number one dream vacation destination, so I always love any Australian setting.  Tim Winton, Kate Grenville, Monica McInerney, and others hold a special interest for me because of their Australian heritage.

5.  Florida - I love books that have that have familiar settings to me, and there is none so familiar as Florida, particularly Central Florida.  When small towns, roads, landmarks, parks, beaches, etc. are mentioned that are a part of my own personal history, I am able to visualize a much more precise and concrete picture of the story as it plays out in my head.

6.  New Iberia LA (and various other bayou settings) - I love James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux detective series set in the Louisiana bayou, and how the different areas of southern Louisiana - including New Orleans - play such a big part in Burke's books.  But even more, I love and how he creates such an authentic contextual ambience for a thrilling detective series.

7.  Post-Apocalypse Settings - i.e. The Stand by Stephen King, Swan Song by Robert McCammon or The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  I like that there is a sense of purpose in the isolation, and that the purpose is not divulged all at once, but seems to become clearer throughout the course of the novel.  In the case of The Road, the seemingly hopeless desolation is more difficult to digest than in either King's or McCammon's books, primarily because the evil, dangerous marauders seem to outnumber the good guys in such numbers as to create a sense of hopelessness that the father & son will ever find others like them.  Conversely, both King & McCammon create stories with a definite sense of hope that gains momentum as the book draws closer to it's conclusion.

8.  India - I pretty much love any Indian setting that is replete with authentic customs, culture, architecture, class structure, clothing, food, etc. etc.

9.  Island settings - Guernsey Island (of the Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society), Hedeby Island (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Nantucket Island (Elin Hilderbrand novels), any number of islands - beachy or otherwise - along the east coast of Canada & the US from New England down to the Florida Keys, through the Gulf of Mexico and down into the Caribbean.

That's all I can come up with right now.  I'm sure I'll edit this in a day or two as more favorites come to mind.