Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton

A long time ago in a small town far, far away.... the Bookbabe read "Age of Innocence" by Wharton as a high school student. Loved it! I thought Wharton's style was amazing, and I was so moved by the tragic love that couldn't be due to societal mores. I never forgot that book, and in my quest to read more "classics", I was pleased to see that this Wharton title was next on the list.

When the book opens, we are being addressed from the first-person narrative of a visitor to Starkfield, one who has seen Ethan Frome but longs to know the story behind his physical appearance. Frome is literally and figuratively a broken man after his "bust-up". The narrator gets his wish when he's driven by Frome in his carriage to a neighboring town; on the way back, a snowstorm forces them to stop at Frome's failing farm for the night.

Once upon a time, Ethan was a brilliant lad with a bright mind. He had gone to college to study science until his father died suddenly; at that point he had to return home to work the farm. When his mother became ill, Zeena (Zenobia) came to help care for the woman. When his mother passes, Ethan is so distraught at the idea of Zeena leaving that he asks her to marry him. Forward to years later and the scene is an unhappy one: the farm barely provides the couple a living, and Zeena is always "sickly". Eventually her illnesses are bad enough to require help of her own, at which point her cousin Mattie Silver comes to live in the Frome household.

Of course Ethan can't help but notice Mattie. She's everything that Zeena is not - healthy, young (Zeena is 7 yrs older than Ethan), and full of laughter. Ethan and Mattie develop feelings for each other, and Zeena becomes suspicious. When she puts her foot down and says she's hired another girl, one who will actually be able to "do something", Ethan is devastated, as is Mattie. They act rashly near their parting moments, with grave consequences.

While I am again impressed with Wharton's ability to turn a phrase, I have to admit that I wasn't as moved by this novella. I certainly felt the pain of two people in love but unable to be together. I could almost feel the cold and the snow of Starkfield. No, I believe for me the fault lies with Zeena. Wharton never explains why Zeena is bitter nor does she explain her illnesses. Is Zeena unable to have children? Is the illness a chronic one, or does she have a new one each time? Are the illnesses real or is she just wanting some sort of sympathy from others, sympathy she doesn't get? I understand wanting the reader to fill in some of the blanks on their own, but her character was written in such a way that I couldn't understand why Ethan married her in the first place, nor could I understand why he hadn't already left her. I also don't agree with some of the reviews on Amazon that say the end of the book shows Zeena to be more than one-dimensional; I thought the final scene showed her to be just as cruel as ever.

Overall I'm glad I read this and I would recommend it to others (especially students needing a short classic!) But this isn't my favorite work by Wharton.

Monday, May 30, 2011

"Dear Dumb Diary..." by Jim Benton

I'm going to review the series as a whole because there are too many books to do each one. At a mere 100+ pages or so, that would be a lot of writing. But I didn't want to omit telling you about these fabulous books...

They came in to my branch about 2 weeks ago on a Friday afternoon. I had never heard of the "dear dumb diary" series, and I didn't know who Jim Benton was, either (or so I thought). The first thing I noticed were the covers - bright, flaming fluorescent colors: hot pink, neon green, fire engine red, etc. Extremely eye-catching, enough that I really started to look at them. Then the titles caught me: "Never Do Anything, EVER", "My Pants are Haunted!", "It's Not My Fault I Know Everything", etc. Very cute, a bit snarky, and highly intriguing. Then I read the author's bio - and lo and behold, this is the Happy Bunny Guy!!!

Well, that cinched it. I checked out every single title (all except #9, which is somehow not assigned to my branch) and took them home. I devoured the first three on Saturday, read another 3 or so Sunday, two on Monday, and finished the last one Tuesday morning. Yes, they are that good!

The reading level is appropriate for third thru fifth grade, I think. (remember, I'm not a professional here, just giving my humble opinion). There are plenty of illustrations to keep those not overly ready for "text only" books, and those of us that enjoy a good, humorous picture, too. The books are short, but not super-short, which makes them perfect for kids looking for "chapter books". 

The best thing though is the writing. Finally, smart, well-developed books for kids! Don't look for the repetition of "Lemony Snicket" here, nor the outright meanness of the "Wimpy Kid". These are smart, funny works by Benton, and god love him, there's actual character development here! None of the kids is purely good, nor purely evil, and the relationships between the main characters changes a bit in each book. Childhood fears are explored, doing the "right" thing, etc, so that each title has a small morality tale to it; Benton wisely does not hit the reader over the head with each "lesson".

Jamie is smart and witty; her best friend Isabella reminds me of a pit bull drawn like Marcie from the Peanuts cartoon; Angeline is soooooooo pretty and "good" (but not really); the boys are - well - boys. The adults aren't stupid and clueless, and neither are the teachers. It was such a pleasure to read books for the grade school reader that I would actually recommend, and I can't wait for Benton to put out the twelfth in the series, "Me! (Just Like You, Only Better)"

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Every Shallow Cut" by Tom Piccirilli

"He's nameless, faceless, and has nothing left to lose - and now he has a gun."

Wow! How can you not want to read a book with that as the first line on the back cover? I had picked this for the branch quite a while back, so it took me a minute to recognize it when it finally arrived (sort of like when I add books to my Amazon Wishlist, then forget why months later). I read the whole back cover, then started flipping through it while I did our usual processes for checking in new books - and before I realized it I'd already read the first chapter! Obviously this book wanted to go home with me, so I checked it out and home it came.

I don't normally gush about authors or their works as a rule, and I'm going to try not to do that here either, but damn; this guy is good, very good. I blew through this in no time at all, then actually went back and read it again to see if I'd missed anything. I never do that! And on the second reading, I did get more out of it, which changed my initial opinion about the nameless protagonist.

When the story opens, our "hero" has just been punched in the face by a punk outside a pawn shop. He starts flashing back on how he arrived at the pawn shop, again and for the last time; he was once a minorly successful writer with a wife living in Colorado and enjoying his life. Granted, each book was more of a critical success and less of a popular one (which meant less and less money), and granted his wife doesn't seem to love him much anymore, and granted he's been keeping up with the bills - just barely - but his life is pretty good. Then the bottom falls out of the economy and everything spirals into the toilet. His wife leaves him for "Sweetie", his publisher won't answer his calls, the collectors come for all his furniture (well, what his wife didn't take with her), and the bank forecloses on his house. When he arrives at this pawn shop for the last time, he's got nothing left but some clothes, the pieces he's going to pawn, and his bulldog, Churchill. He's gone from an overweight, doughy intellectual living the high life to a lean, mean, perhaps fighting machine. Why not fight? He didn't fight when he was losing everything, so why not do it now?

And fight he does; he buys a gun from the pawn shop owner after beating down the thug that hit him, and his two friends. Then he heads out from Colorado to the east coast to see his brother, a meeting that he dreads with every fiber of his being. Once upon a time, his brother loved him, even encouraged him to write, thought he was so smart. But that changed somewhere along the way, and his brother has shown nothing but contempt for him since they were teenagers. But if you can't go home, where can you go?

It's a powerful work, and when I read some reviews on Amazon, I came across a new term, one evidently coined just for these small pieces by Piccirilli - "Noirella". Perfect! It's definitely got the feel of a noir work, and it's definitely a novella, so "noirella" describes it perfectly. Now to what I realized on my second reading.... Yes, the author has nothing left to lose, and yes, he's spiralling out of control, and yet, he never really loses control. The ending is left ambiguous enough that you can decide what he does next, but I wouldn't agree with the nameless narrator, that he's now like the characters he used to write about, hard, lean men who get into fights at the drop of a hat. The narrative bounces from present to past seamlessly, and you can tell that despite what he says, the narrator does feel like there's something left to his life, no matter how small or tenuous it is.

Piccirilli's got a masterful way with the dialogue, too. When our writer friend visits a buddy of his out East, he leaves his newest creation in his backpack. The buddy reads it after drugging our narrator into a 48-hour nap. Describing the new work, his buddy says this: "There's a poignancy to it that's lacking in most of your other novels. You're writing from the marrow. I can feel every shallow cut you've ever suffered in it, all of them still bleeding, tearing wider and becoming deeper. You can die from a paper cut if it becomes infected. That's what I feel in your words now."

I will definitely be picking up more of Piccirilli's work. I can only hope that they live up to my now very-high expectations.

"Wild North Carolina: Discovering the wonders of our state's natural communities" by David Blevins and Michael P. Schafale

Working in a small library in North Carolina, I thought we should definitely have a book like this. It's one of those that may not circulate overly often, but it's got a lot of very important information relevant to our state, just as the book's subtitle indicates. It's packed full of information on the "natural communities" (wilderness areas that are untouched by man in any way), giving you places you can find each community, what sort of vegetation you can expect and why, how they were formed, etc. The authors have an obvious love for the subject and have done extensive research. The book moves from the western part of the state to the coastline on the eastern side, a natural progression in itself.

Probably the most wonderful thing about this work are the numerous photos included. If you want a good look at North Carolina, the beauty of our state, this is definitely a book to pick up. There's a picture of some sort on nearly every page, including scenic views of the natural community, specific vegetation in a community, and even some fauna/birds/insects native to that community. I learned a good deal just from the lovely pictures!

My problem with this book boils down to the writing: it's dry as toast. For two men who love nature and want to protect these places, they don't translate that into writing that made me want to go out and save them. I realize this isn't a thriller or romantic adventure, but there's no reason that non-fiction has to be presented in such a factual way, either. Facts are good, but if you're trying to rally support for a cause, you need more active dialogue. By the end of the book, I was skimming the text and looking more at the pictures, not the response I'm sure the authors had in mind.

Overall, I'm still glad we picked it up for our library system. It's what I consider solid information, something that we need on our shelves along with the James Patterson and John Grisham and such.