Monday, August 31, 2009

Greek for Beginners

I'm reading Beginner's Greek, by James Collins. Mike made a little joke about whether I'd learned any new Greek words from my book about Greek for beginners, and I had to explain that yes, I did, but that was a different book that I've had for years (a first grade Greek language workbook), and that this Beginner's Greek is a different book than that. It was a long, complicated explanation, but I got a chuckle.

Anyway, I'm only halfway through the book. It's probably inappropriate to write a review at this point, right? But I think this is the point where it's easiest to get a handle on what the experience of actually reading it is like. When I get to the end of a book, the ending will often color my experience of the whole thing.

A Curse Dark as Gold is an excellent example of this. I found most of the book to be a drag to read--it's like there was a great book in there for somewhere, but I couldn't find it. Like meeting someone who you think seems really cool, but somehow not being able to get past a superficial relationship, small talk. Then the last hundred pages were so good, I walked away thinking it was a great book. But that's not what the experience of reading it was like.

So: halftime at Beginner's Greek. The reviews I've read are so mixed, I think that the buzz might work against the book. I think it's great, but if I told you it was amazing and wonderful, you'd probably be disappointed.

It's an almost oddly simple book. It's a love story, pretty straightforwardly, with all the nice hurdles to romance that a love story needs. It uses the toolbox of literary fiction, including a lot of attention to details of environment and small anecdotes for verisimilitude. Amazingly, I find these incredibly engaging, I think because they're used very directly. Every word is used to tell you something important, rather than just a huge amount of information that drags the story down in the mundane.

Can you tell how I usually feel about literary fiction?

But what I like about the book--what I think lends to the simplicity, the black-and-whiteness of it--is that it reads almost like a fable. It is, at least in part, about fate stepping in in ways that just don't happen in real life. Coincidence, sudden realization, bolts of lightening, etc. play a huge role in the story. It's almost mythological, with sort of a dreamy solemnity.

Now, some people might say that a story like this should have an unhappy ending, to drag you back to earth. But I have to ask why you'd want to be dragged back? Wouldn't that negate the rest of the experience, the same way a good ending can negate a less-than-stellar reading experience?

I think the only way to end this book is with "...and they lived happily ever after." I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ready to Burst

I've put off posting so long that I have too many things to say and can't keep track of them all. I guess I'll pick one. Let's see....

Terry Pratchett should write all the books that there are. I just finished The Wee Free Men, which is billed as a kids' Discworld novel. It was so funny and smart and solid, and I couldn't stop talking like a tiny blue Scotsman for days afterward. I'm just amazed by his ability to do everything that goes into a book: language (description and humor), plot (complicated and satisfyingly fitting together at the end), character, world building, everything. Funny, scary, smart, dramatic, everything. I love Terry Pratchett.

Okay, two: I've been meaning to read some Georgette Heyer forever--I have in fact checked several of her books out several times and returned them unread. Finally, finally this time I picked up The Grand Sophy. It's SO good! If you've read all the Jane Austen books and are sad that there aren't anymore, pick this up. It's not exactly like Austen, not by a long shot--because they were written more recently, the characters have a more modern sensibility--but the setting is satisfyingly similar, and the drawing room dramas and comedies are just what a frustrated Austen fan might be looking for.

Also, A Curse Dark as Gold was good, but could have been better. The first three quarters just seemed too long--each scene, and there were too many scenes, ditto paragraphs, everything. The last quarter was fabulously tight and so satisfying.

Okay, now that's off my chest. Maybe I'll keep up with my blogging!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Fence Me In

I can't stand a five point rating system. Goodreads uses a five star system to indicate how you feel about your books, and it just kills me. (Roger Ebert, by the way, whose days revolve more around star counts than mine, agrees with me.) I know five stars is for awesome, and one is for dreck. I don't do zero stars because that looks like I forgot to rate it. But how do you sort out the in-between?

Goodreads offers you rollover text: 5 for "loved it," 4 for "really liked it," 3 for "liked it," 2 for "it was okay," and 1 for "didn't like it." I can handle that, I think--I try to save 5s for things that had me clutching my seat, weeping, shrieking. Anything I just plain liked gets a 4, something I didn't NOT like gets a 3--maybe I just sort of didn't care, but it wasn't bad.

Two holds a lot of, "eh, not really." Two is for a book that I don't think, objectively, is a bad book, but that I didn't enjoy at all. Or, alternatively, it's for a book that objectively is an awful, awful book, but that I enjoyed a little on some level--but not enough to transcend its awfulness. And of course, 1 is just yuck, yuck, don't ever read this. I want those hours of my life back.

But what I find, often, is that I'll finish a book, and I'll feel one way, but then when I look back at my rating a while later, I'll be shocked. I finished, for example, The Queen of Attolia, and called it something I really liked, a 4. But a few weeks later, when I think about that book, I remember loving it passionately. I want to read it again right now. It's SO good. Why didn't I give it a 5?

Or Just Ella, why did I only give it one star? It wasn't totally without redeeming qualities--I saw enough in there to run out and--rather maniacally, I'll admit--read pretty much everything else the author's written. Shouldn't it have at least gotten 2?

I think the problem is, when I'm sitting with a book, I see the complexities. I see the imperfections, the flaws. Isn't that a sad way to be? It's not that I'd always be wishing it was better, but when you analyze something technically, it loses its sparkle. But from a distance of a few weeks, I remember impressions. I remember the big moments, or the big feelings.

So is it better to record my in-the-moment reactions, or what lingers? Is what matters the experience I had then, or the memory I have now?

And for heaven's sake, why can't the scale be more reasonable? Like 1-100? Just Ella gets a 24.

Well, 23.8.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Purchasing Power

I decided to spend my 40% off Borders coupon, come hell or high water. And I got there and I dithered. I found a copy of The Thief, which I'd been wanting, but it only cost $8. Hardly worth wasting a coupon. A couple of board books for Adam, similarly inexpensive. Sure, they add up, but this is indulgence we're going for.

But then, oh then. I don't remember if I wrote much about In the Company of the Courtesan, which was, I think, the last book I finished before having the baby. It was so great. An amazing combination of character and setting, storytelling and writing. A beautiful book about a very high class prostitute in Venice in the 16th century, beautifully written and so compelling.

I have been meaning to read more of Sarah Dunant's books since then. And today, in the bookstore, I discovered that her most recent novel is about NUNS! Sixteenth century nuns. Ladies and gentlemen, it is not often that an author I already love produces a nun book. It makes me feel small in the face of the universe. I am humbled, and thrilled, and now I OWN this book!

O happy day

Monday, August 03, 2009

Pippa Greg

O, Philippa Gregory, how you've failed me! For books that are all so similar, I've had such different reactions to the three books I've read that I can't even tell you what I think of this.

I'm reading The Other Queen, about Mary Queen of Scots. The problem I'm having is that there are almost no scenes in this book. It's told by three narrators, two of whom are the couple who hosted/imprisoned Mary during her time in England on Queen Elizabeth's orders, and the third Mary herself. You follow the large events of the day--armies are amassing, court intrigue is going on--but mostly the narrators get this news through letters and gossip. Each short chapter reads like a dispatch, and rarely is there a conversation, or even an occurrence that actually takes place as I'm reading about it. I'm just not compelled. At all.

This is a far cry from my reactions to The Other Boleyn Girl (Harlequin trash!) and The Queen's Fool (action-packed chick lit!). I didn't love Boleyn Girl, but I really did like Queen's Fool very much. I had really hoped that there would be something in this book of that one. But at this point, I'd settle for a ton of steamy sex. And at least each of those books was immediate--what happened in the book was actually happening as you read about it.

But I'm halfway through. I'm loathe to quit now. I might, though.

By the way and for the record: by the end, I really loved American Wife. I think the best way to explain my change of heart is that, at the beginning, I felt like the author and the narrator shared a sensibility that I couldn't. By the end, I realized that the author and I were the ones with the same opinions; the narrator was the only one who saw things her way. It was good, in the end, to have the author on my side.