Monday, December 31, 2007

Lord of Hawkfell Island by Catherine Coulter

iconiconAfter finishing Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing, I felt somewhat caught up in the dark mood of the book, and decided to read something more lighthearted next. Catherine Coulter's Lord of Hawkfell Island was the result of this decision.

This is one of those books I've had on my shelf for years, intending to read it but never quite getting to it. As a result, I no longer read this type of book — "this type" being romance.

(Note: The spine of my copy actually proclaims it a novel, but don't be fooled. This is a "smut book," as we used to call them when I was in high school. It just happens to have a good plot and a bestselling author's name on the cover.)

Lord of Hawkfell Island is definitely a fun, easy read, which is what I wanted. It is also suspenseful, as I seem to remember Coulter's books usually are. However, in reading my first "smut novel" in many years, I realized I'm not as entertained as these as I used to be. For one thing, my feminist sensibilities are more highly developed than they used to be — all the tying the women up, protecting them, etc., doesn't appeal to me, even in the slightest. (In fact, I can't imagine it ever having appealed to me!) The constant fighting between the hero and the heroine — pretty much a given in any romance novel — also fails to entertain. It makes me think of all the bad relationships I had when I was younger, all the fights and passionate make-up scenes. Hmmm, I wonder where I got the idea that that was normal, even expected...

Feminism aside, I think my tastes in literature have simply matured beyond the vapid, formula stories that romance novels provide. (I mean, really, how many romance novels feature a captive woman and her handsome captor falling in love? At least a third of them, I'm sure.) In college and in the years since graduation, I've read plenty of really good literature, and I've developed a taste for nonfiction as well. And while I'm not saying I'll never read another romance novel again, I doubt I'll be tempted very often.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

iconiconI recently finished Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing, and it was easily one of the darkest and most depressing — and yet most riveting — books I've read lately.

Before Lessing received the Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this year, I don't think I'd even heard of her — a shame, considering my English degree and my appreciation for feminist literature.

I put library holds on several of Doris Lessing's books, and The Grass is Singing was the first I got. It took me a few weeks to get to it, but once I started reading I couldn't stop: I finished the book in just a couple of nights, despite all the holiday activity.

The Grass is Singing is one of those books that sweeps you along, until you find that what was initially not all that compelling suddenly won't let you go until you've seen it through to the end.

Here are my two strongest impressions:

* The book isn't really a love story as the NPR article suggests, rather one of despair. You know from the first paragraph of the first page that the main character, Mary, is murdered. Most of the book is about Mary's slow collapse, a breakdown caused by poverty, solitude, and the downright neglect of her mind. (There's something of the feminist writer in there, too, since it's the shift to confinement from a life of total independence that causes Mary's unhappiness and eventual madness.) It isn't until near the end that the "love affair" comes into play, and even then it doesn't seem like love. In fact, what it seems like is both manipulation and co-dependence existing at the same time, which cannot end except in tragedy — most likely a metaphor for the racist divisions in Rhodesia at the time, actually.

* I've never disliked a main character so much, yet still been so compelled by her story. Being a writer, I know that compelling main characters are flawed. This goes beyond simple flaws, though. Mary is downright distasteful: She is cruel to her native servants, snappish with her husband, and ill-suited for dealing with poverty. Yet at the same time, you are made to understand why she is like this, and to empathize — to a certain extent — with her: She gives up comfort and independence for a poor housewife's life, and then is forced to watch her husband's repeated failures to generate a respectable income. And when you realize you still don't like her, no matter why she is like she is, you also realize that you want to find out how, exactly, she got from this life of despair to being murdered.

This is not a happy or uplifting book. It is dark and somewhat depressing, and if you tend to immerse yourself in a book when you read, you will most definitely be affected by its mood. After finishing The Grass is Singing, I knew I had to read something lighthearted — which I will blog about next.

A Girl and Five Brave Horses by Sonora Carver

iconiconNote: This book is no longer out of print!  The image link will take you to Barnes & Noble, where you can order an inexpensive paperback reprint edition.

Every once in a while, a book comes along that really tests your resolve to read it. That's the way it was with this book.

A Girl and Five Brave Horses is technically the basis for the Disney movie Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, which is loosely based on the life of Sonora Webster Carver. Unfortunately, the book is out of print, and has been for a very long time — as far as I can tell, the first edition (in 1961) was also the last edition printed. Even many libraries don't have it; I had to order it through an interlibrary loan.

Since the book is hard to find, yet has attracted a bit of a cult following, its value is phenomenal — Amazon's current price of $498.50 being the cheapest I've seen it, and that's for an ex-library copy (which usually devalues a book considerably.) Being a book collector and a horse lover, I would love to own a copy — but being a writer, I needed to find a cheaper (read: free) way of reading it, which is why I settled for checking it out for the library.

I don't really expect that anyone is going to buy a five hundred dollar book, but I'll include the Amazon link anyway, in case anyone wants to look into the book a little more.

Basically, A Girl and Five Brave Horses is the autobiography or memoir of Sonora Webster Carver, one of the most famous (if not the most famous) of the horse diving girls in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s. Sonora wasn't any ordinary diving girl, though: She was blinded in 1931 after she hit the water with her eyes open, yet she continued diving for 11 more years afterward.

As is typical for Hollywood and Disney, the story as it is told in Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken is very romanticized. Sonora wasn't a runaway; her mother actually suggested she join the diving act in 1923, when she was 19. She and Al didn't have some kind of whirlwind romance; they had been working alongside one another for six years before they married, and even then he had to talk her into it.

One thing the movie did manage to do justice to was Sonora's bravery and spirit. She really was that determined to continue diving after she was blinded. She never wanted to be treated any differently, and as a result, she dove blind for five years before a reporter finally found out.

Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken is a wonderful movie, a (somewhat) true-life Disney fairy tale. However, for anyone who is truly interested in Sonora Carver or her experiences diving horses, I suggest getting your hands on A Girl and Five Brave Horses any way you can.

Other Resources:

* Yahoo diving horses group, an effort to get A Girl and Five Brave Horses republished

* Sonora Webster Carver on Wikipedia

* The Diving Horses of Atlantic City, by Susan MacDonald: descriptions, eye-witness quotes, and pictures

* Article by Mike Cox about Doc Carver (Sonora's father-in-law), the diving horse show, and Sonora

* YouTube video "Last Days of the Steel Pier" — the video of the diving horse, and the two pictures that follow it, are of Red Lips, Sonora's favorite horse; the color picture is of Sonora, and I'm assuming it's her riding Red Lips in both the video and the photograph that follows

* Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of interviews with Allen "Boo" Pergament, a historian and friend of Sonora's, about the Atlantic City Steel Pier

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Green with Envy by Shira Boss

iconiconI heard about Green with Envy when NPR ran a story about Shira Boss back in November. I promptly placed a hold on the book at the library.

The book was a quick read, but very compelling. Boss's writing style is very readable, and she knows how to create just enough interest in tension to keep you reading.

In fact, I would say that she uses the very same aspect of human behavior that she is warning against — a morbid interest in other people's finances — in order to hook her readers.

Regardless of why you want to keep reading, the simple fact is that this book is hard to put down. My husband read it after me, and finished it in about 24 hours — not a frequent occurence for him.

Green with Envy is one of those books that makes you think about your spending habits and your debt. Most of us are not as bad off as the people Boss features in this book, but it reminds us how easy it could be to become them. Running up credit card debt is actually a pretty painless process — it's after you've run up more than you can handle that the pain begins to hit.

I always like reading books (or watching documentaries) about the evils of overspending, as it usually encourages me to be more careful with my finances for a while. (Not that I'm all that bad about it — I don't buy much for myself, actually, but I still need to focus more on paying down my debt.) Unfortunately, the effects of Green with Envy were destined not to stick with me for very long, because I read it just before Christmas — when Christmas shopping was in full swing.

Still, it did galvanize me into creating a game plan for paying off my credit card debt, and following that will be one of my New Year's Resolutions this year.

Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

iconiconNancy Garden's Annie on My Mind is the fourth in a list of books I checked out of the library during Banned Books Week in October. The others were:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

I found with some of these — such as Beloved — that simply being a banned book didn't mean I would find them meaningful or inspiring. However, I was really impressed with Annie on My Mind. It was beautifully written... But before I can say more, I need to explain what this book is about.

Annie on My Mind is a story of two high school-age girls who fall in love. As a result, in addition to the normal confusing and overwhelming feelings of first love, the book explores the difficulties of realizing you're gay at this age.

What I found so fascinating is how Nancy Garden made it all so believeable — or maybe "immediate" is a better word. Basically, she wrote the story in such a way that it is easy for a straight person to suspend disbelief, so to speak, and see things from the eyes of a young lesbian.

Which is no doubt why it has been challenged. Goodness knows, there are people out there who refuse to empathize with gays and lesbians, and who definitely don't want anyone else doing so, either.

Another reason I think Annie on My Mind is banned book material is the harsh way it illustrates the prejudices and discrimination gays and lesbians face. There are many appalling examples of discrimination in this book, but again, told in a way that makes the reader see it through the lesbian narrator's eyes. I'm sure right-wing anti-gays see that as very dangerous: Heck no, we don't want to make gays and lesbians seem human or — God forbid — normal!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

iconiconNote: The image links to an inexpensive paperback copy of The War of the Worlds from Barnes & Noble.  If you prefer an ebook edition, you can download it for free from Project Gutenberg.

I read H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds for a book review that is upcoming (I'll link to it when it's live). I'd read The Time Machine earlier this year, so I was eager to read another of his books.

Unfortunately, I found The War of the Worlds much less interesting in the beginning. The Time Machine hooks you early on, because the story is told to the narrator after the time traveler has already returned from his travels — in other words, you already know that he has an exciting story to tell, because of the condition he is in when he returns.

The War of the Worlds is told in a different manner: The narrator tells primarily of his own experiences, with a middle section of the book being about his brother's experiences (though not narrated by his brother). I personally thought the story started off rather slow, though it did pick up about halfway through. Still, there was something about it that always made me drowsy — and it isn't often that it takes me a full week to get through a book that short!

Interestingly, although many of the details of the book were changed in Hollywood's recent version of the movie &mash; for instance, the narrator's wife exchanged for two kids and a bad relationships with an ex — many other details were kept the same. An example that really stood out to me was the similarity of the endings and why the aliens failed in their invasion. The parts of Wells's book that formed the strongest basis for the movie were the meat of the story, which I think speaks highly of the author's ability to create believeable sci-fi.

Principled Profit by Shel Horowitz

iconiconNote: According to the author's website, Principled Profiticon was withdrawn when he published his new book, Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, which includes 95 percent of the original contents of Principled Profit.  The image link will take you to Barnes & Noble's listing for the new book, but remember that this review is for Principled Profit!

I heard about Shel Horowitz's Principled Profit when I attended his workshop during the Muse Online Writers Conference. Unfortunately, I read this book a little over a month ago, and I'm finding it difficult to recall my impressions.

One thing I do remember is how it galvanized me on the idea of honest marketing. All of us know the annoyance of marketers who just won't go away — whether phone and door-to-door solicitors who won't take no for an answer, or stores with a "used car salesman" approach that makes you forget all about your purchase in favor of running far, far away.

Horowitz takes a totally different approach toward marketing. One thing he talks about is targeting only those folks who are most likely to make a purchase, rather than hitting completely uninterested consumers over the head with your product or services. It benefits both you and them: It saves you time and money, since you're not wasting it on people who simply aren't interested, and it saves the uninterested people the hassle and annoyance of fending off poorly planned marketing attempts.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

iconiconI'm really behind on my book list, so over the next few days I'm going to try to catch up to where I am right now.

I read Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins way back in November, about a month and a half ago. (Yes, I'm that behind!!) Like In Cold Blood and Beloved, reading this book was my tribute to October's Banned Books Week.

The fact that Gilly Hopkins has been challenged both amuses me and makes me angry. Reading it, the only reason for banning it that I could discern was the fact that it tells the truth about what foster care is like for many kids — and as far as I can tell, Paterson does a pretty good job of getting into the head of a foster child and demonstrating where some of the discipline problems might come from.

But really, we can't have our nation's children — let alone the adults — knowing what foster care is really like. They might actually sympathize with foster children!