Stories within Stories

I read a couple of books in the last week that contained stories within the story.  You know the type, each chapter from a different character’s perspective, each telling their own story, but their stories all come together somehow.  In the case of the books that I read, their stories came together in a cooking class and at an inn in Ireland.  Although very different in many ways, I liked both of these books for the same reason.  Regardless of where people (or characters in a story!) come together, many of the messages are very similar.  We will have an impact, sometime in the future, on people that we have not yet met.  Our lives are bound to others in ways that we cannot foresee.  You never know the burdens that others carry.  Everyone’s personal story is unendingly complex, truly personal.  There is always hope.

ImageA Week in Winter, the last book written by Maeve Binchy before her death, was certainly my favorite of the two books.  Knowing that it was the last Maeve Binchy book made me a little melancholy before I even started reading, and a book set on the rocky and stormy Atlantic coast of Ireland will have plenty of melancholy already!  I love books set in Ireland, and while this one offered no surprises to fans of Maeve Binchy, it transported me to Stone House, an inn opened by Chicky Starr with the help of Riggy (a troubled young man who needs to find his way) and Orla (Chicky’s niece trying to find her place).  Separate chapters focus on each of these characters as well as an American actor who ends up there on a whim, a couple of doctors that are trying to recover from the tragedies they’ve witnessed, a psychic librarian, a cantankerous school principal, a Swede torn between family duty and his love of music, a young girl and her not-happy future mother-in-law, and a prize-winning couple.  Each has a different story and separate reasons for being at Stone House, where they will hopefully (mostly) find hope and a way forward in their lives.

Unfortunately, Maeve Binchy did not get a chance to finish editing the book before her death, and in places, it shows.  There are several awkward transitions, some characters that are not as well-developed as in her previous works, and some storylines that seem to be left unfinished.  However, it is still Maeve Binchy, comforting and thoughtful storytelling.

  Title: Week in Winter
   Author: Maeve Binchy
   Genre: Fiction
   Pages: 336
   Publication: Knopf, February 2013

ImageThe Art of Mixing, the sequel to The School of Essential Ingredients, is now on the shelves at the library and I decided it was time to bump the first book up to the top of my to-read list!  The story focuses on a cooking school being taught at a restaurant owned by the instructor, Lillian.  There are chapters in the book devoted to the back story of each of the students – the struggling teenager, the shy computer guy, the beautiful Italian woman, the harried mother, the forgetful elderly woman, the sad widower, and the older married couple.  Other chapters in the book focus on the cooking class each week and the interactions that the students have with the instructor, each other, and food.  Food is certainly a character of its own in this novel, and there are beautiful passages describing food and the art of cooking that could cause me to gain twenty pounds!  There are parts of the book that may be a little too saccharine, and maybe things end a little too neatly for everyone, but ultimately it was entertaining, a light set of stories about people and the way that food touches our lives.

   Title: The School of Essential Ingredients
   Author: Erica Bauermeister
   Genre: Fiction
   Pages: 240
   Publication: Putnam, January 2009

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Top Ten Authors on My Auto-Buy List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. Book bloggers create their own lists based on the chosen topics and post links to our lists. It’s a way of all sharing our thoughts and our love of books.  And who doesn’t love lists??

So this week the challenge is to list the authors that we love, and love enough to hand over our hard-earned cash anytime they publish something, anything.  My list is all over the place, just like my reading interests, but these are the ones that will get my cash no matter what…

  1. Markus Zusak – After reading The Book Thief, I devoured everything he has ever published and would be the first in line for anything else he ever writes!
  2. John Green – I have really been moved by all of his books and collaborations, they’ve made me laugh and they’ve made me cry, and they have all stayed with me when I was done reading. Fault in our Stars, An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska and Will Grayson, Will Grayson being among my favorites…
  3. David Levithan – I have not had the chance to read all of his stuff, but I thought every day was fantastic, and I loved his collaboration with John Green (did I already say that??)
  4. Ruta Sepetys – Great historical fiction for a young adult audience.  She does a fantastic job of transporting you to a different time and place.  Just started Out of the Easy and I am already hooked!
  5. Eoin Colfer – I got hooked with the Artemis Fowl series which I read with my husband and son, and have moved on to read his other works, all which were engaging.
  6. Louise Penny – Her Inspector Gamache series has to be my favorite series of all time.  The character development, settings, stories, relationships, everything, is nearly perfect and I eagerly await the next book, How the Light Gets In, coming out in August!
  7. Reed Farrel Coleman – I originally became a huge fan of his gritty series about ex-NYC cop Moe Prager and can’t wait until he writes another!  I also really enjoyed his recent novel, Gun Church. 
  8. Janet Evanovich – Might be lightweight reading, done in an afternoon, but her she always makes me laugh out loud, particularly in her Stephanie Plum series!
  9. Kate DiCamillo – Her books are my favorites to read out loud to my kids, Tale of Despereaux, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Because of Winn Dixie are our favorites, but there are none that we didn’t all love as a family!
  10. Thich Nhat Hanh – OK, he hasn’t been on my auto-buy list yet, but I really want him to be!  He writes a lot, so it would be tough to make sure that I always kept up with it, but everything that I have read of his I found to be insightful and thought provoking.

Sense of an Ending

ImageOK, before I talk about the book I need to talk about the length of chapters in a book.  This is a silly little idiosyncrasy of mine, but I like the chapters in the books that I read to be a reasonable length.  I often read when I go to bed at night.  And whether it’s because my eyelids are growing heavy, or because they should be because the alarm clock will go off all too soon, I often tell myself that I will put down the book “after I finish this chapter”.  If the chapters are absurdly short, 2 or 3 pages, I often break the promise to myself and end up reading another 4 or 5 chapters.  But when chapters are unreasonably long, or really half of the book, like they are in The Sense of an Ending, finding a natural place for my bookmark before turning out the light becomes a frustrating pursuit.  Does that double space between paragraphs indicate a natural break?  To find out I need to keep reading, and then, well, I’m still reading.  Silly, I know, but a little pet-peeve of mine.

Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of and Ending and it received much critical acclaim, so it’s difficult for me to admit that I didn’t really like it, and not just because there were only two chapters in the entire book.  Don’t start yelling at me about how amazing it is; I will admit there were moments in the book that were thought-provoking and amazingly written.  The story is told in two parts (hence the two chapters), following the life of the main character, Tony, through his youth and then transitioning to his retirement years.  Central to the book are the stories and relationships that he shares with a love interest, Veronica, and a school friend, Adrian.  Julian Barnes certainly has a way with words as Tony ponders his life, his perception of his memories, love, loss, and friendship. Some of my favorite quotes, ones that made me stop and think, are included below:

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” 

“When you’re young – when I was young – you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?” 

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” 

“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.” 

So, with all of the great writing, why didn’t I like it?  What I love about books is the stories that they tell and the characters that they bring into my life.  Honestly, I wasn’t enamored with either in this book.  The characters were ones that I could not be inspired to love, hate, connect with, or even care all that much about. I found Tony to be dull and obsessive and a little ridiculous.  I thought Veronica was vague and aloof and difficult and annoying for no real discernible reason.  And as I spent each night trying to figure out where to stop and put my bookmark for the night, I kept waiting for the story to get good, for it to rope me in and make me care.  Unfortunately, when the story was all told, and the surprise ending revealed, I still just didn’t care.

   Title: The Sense of an Ending
   Author: Julian Barnes
   Genre: Fiction
   Pages: 163
   Publication: Knopf, October 2011

Kids’ Books About Books!

I love to read to kids, particularly my own, but I also love the opportunity to read to the kids that come into the library.  I try (with varying success in the middle of drama rehearsals, karate classes, piano lessons, etc) to read to my kids every night.  It doesn’t matter that they are 11 and 16 and perfectly able to read by themselves, there is something about sharing a story aloud and sharing it as a family.  Sometimes it’s a picture book, sometimes a classic, sometimes a new juvenile or young adult chapter book that has appeared on the library shelves, but we all enjoy the time in the evening, curled up on the couch, sharing a story.

Children’s books are no less engrossing than those written for adults.  Whether they are teaching a moral lesson, taking you on an adventure, or just plain silly, these books really can be enjoyed by people of any age, and are always best when they are shared.

I have a special affinity for picture books.  I can get lost in the illustrations which can add so much to a story, taking you to different times and places, making you laugh, or just awing you with the works of art contained within the pages of a children’s book.  As a self-admitted bibliophile, what could be better than picture books about books?  Below are some of my favorites.  No matter your age, if you love books, they are worth a look, and the illustrations alone make them worth owning.

ImageElizabeth Brown loves books, spends all her time with books, and is always reading.

“Elizabeth Brown

Preferred a book

To going on a date.

While friends went out

And danced till dawn,

She stayed up reading late.”

Following Elizabeth from her birth through her old age this beautifully illustrated book tells the story of a true bibliophile.  When her house is so full of books that there is no longer room for her, Elizabeth donates her collection to the town to create a public library and spends her old age walking to the library each day with her friend, still enjoying her books while others do as well.

Title: The Library
Author: Sarah Stewart
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 40
Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  April 1995

ImageMy favorite thing about this book is definitely the illustrations.  It tells the story of Peter and his cat, characters from a book themselves, on a quest for the one missing book in a library that holds all the books ever written.  The book is How to Live Forever, and in a library that comes alive at night, containing the world within its pages, they discover the Ancient Child who has the book and need to decide whether to read it.  For every bibliophile who ever dreamed of a world within books, and built of books, the beautifully detailed illustrations provide a dream come true.

Title: How to Live Forever
Author: Colin Thompson
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 32
Publication: Knopf Books for Young Readers,  April 1996

ImageThis is a book of poems, about books, written for children.  Again, the illustrations are fantastic, a little on the dark side, but definitely engrossing.  Little kids seem to love the poems – some are silly, some offer great plays on words, some are touching, and some are even a little sad.  My favorite is definitely the title poem:

“Please bury me in the library

In the clean, well-lighted stacks

Of Novels, History, Poetry,

Right next to the Paperbacks,

Where the Kids’ Books dance

With True Romance

And the Dictionary dozes.

Please bury me in the library

With a dozen long-stemmed proses.

Way back by a rack of Magazines,

I won’t be sad too often,

If the bury me in the library

With Bookworms in my coffin.”

Title: Please Bury Me in the Library
Author: J. Patrick Lewis
Genre: Children’s Poetry
Pages: 32
Publication: Harcourt Children’s Books,  April 2005

ImageThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is by far my favorite book about books.  The illustrations are truly magical, as is the story of a man who spends his life being surrounded by, caring for, and being cared for by, books.  And as his story is finished, the cycle begins anew, with the books remaining the one constant.  As much as I love the book, and I do, immensely, the short animated film that preceded the book is perhaps even more fantastic (and I NEVER say that about a film!). It won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and can be found on iTunes.  I highly recommend that any book lover own both!

Title: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Author: William Joyce
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 56
Publication: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 2012

Uniform Justice

ImageWhile many books can take you on adventures in new places, give you new ideas to contemplate, and introduce you to new and complex characters, there is comfort in curling up to drop in on old friends.  I love a good mystery (OK, even some not-so-good ones) and a good mystery series is even better.  I will not bore everyone by carrying on about every book in a series, but I will occasionally highlight the one I’ve most recently read, hoping it will inspire someone else to check it out!

I just recently finished the 12th installment in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series.  The series takes place in Venice and is one of the rare books where the location itself is a main character.  In Leon’s series it is easy to become absorbed in the descriptions of Venice, the canals, the architecture, the art, the fashion, the food (which all sounds fabulous even when I’m not sure what it is!).  Against this backdrop of beauty Leon writes about a corrupt city void of trust in the law, where things get done based on who you know and what you are willing to pay.  Commissario Guido Brunetti is a man of honor, struggling within this system, often walking a thin line between pursuing justice and using a corrupt system he abhors in order to do so.  Brunetti is surrounded by a cast of vivid characters including both trusted and devious co-workers, an inept boss, a sly and useful secretary, and a loyal, opinionated, out-spoken, and supportive wife.  It is against this backdrop that these mysteries become less about who-dun-it and more about why and what to do with the answers.   How can justice truly be served?  Can justice be found at all?

“Brunetti had no taste for this, not any longer.  ‘There’s no justice here, Dottore,’ he said, frightened to realize that he meant not only for this man and his family, but for this city, and this country, and their lives.”

The 22nd installment of the series will be release in March of this year, leaving me many more hours to spend curled up on the couch with Brunetti!

  Title: Uniform Justice   
   Author: Donna Leon
   Genre: Mystery
   Pages: 259
   Publication: Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2003