Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Okay, so this is a book review site, but a quick review of the musical version of Wicked which I saw on Saturday with some lovely people. I actually liked it. I found myself smiling, laughing, interested in what would happen to the characters and singing the songs later in my head, certainly not out loud, since I didn't want to hurt my friends' ears and embarrass myself publicly. But I'm not a theatre critic so if I'm smiling, laughing and caring about the outcome and singing later, then that is a successful musical for my money. I sound surprised that I liked the musical because I really loved Wicked as a book. And usually my love of a book dooms my enjoyment of the movie or play version. And Wicked the musical is naturally incredibly different from the book, it kind of has to be. You can't make a violent, sexual and political musical based on characters from the Wizard of Oz and have 8 year olds attend with their parents. So the musical is vastly different but still entirely enjoyable for me. See it if you get a chance and musical theatre doesn't creep you out.

And on the fairy tale theme, over the long Memorial day weekend I read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire. Great book. Once again, Mr. Maguire takes a story that everyone knows, this time its Cinderella, and sets the tale on its head, the basic premise still exists but its been shot through with depth, complexity, and ambiguity. Told from the point of view of Iris, who is not so much an ugly stepsister as a horribly plain stepsister, Confessions is set in 17th Century Holland and follows the story of Iris, her mother Margarethe and her mildly retarded older sister Ruth, as they flee an angry mob in their home country of England, rushing to find safety with Margarethe's family in Holland. Finding no family left in Holland, Margarethe struggles to find work and lodging for herself and her daughters and ends up keeping house for a local painter. The painter is incredibly talented, helps Iris find her own skill as an artist and provides an opportunity for Margarethe to climb the social ladder to become housekeeper for one of the artist's clients. As the fortunes of Iris' family appear to improve, in comes Clara, the Cinderella character, a pampered and isolated child who is lovely beyond words and at the same time dreamy and spoiled. And of course Cinderella's mother dies, Margarethe marries her father, ball, prince etc. But while the basic story follows that of the Cinderella fairy tale, Gregory Maguire is able to inject the story with so much humanity and realism. While this is certainly still a fanciful tale with mystery and magic, the characters are not black and white. The stepmother and stepsisters aren't evil and Clara as Cinderella is certainly no saint. I love the way Maguire is able to flesh out the simple fairy tale and make it something fresh and original. This book is a study in contrasts, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty. Maguire's ability to contrast the static and formulaic fairy tale against his dynamic, developed and flawed characters is compelling and a heck of a fun ride.
I read The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander this weekend. Or I should say I read about 100 pages of The Kitchen Boy this weekend, put it down and picked up something else. Ever since I freed myself from the rule of having to finish every book I pick up I feel so free and guiltless, like fat free cookies! I didn't like The Kitchen Boy. It did not hold my attention and so I put it down. This story follows the last days of the Russian Tsar after the Bolshevik revolution and before the execution of the Tsar and his entire family. So those few stuffy months stuck in a house awaiting rescue or death fill the pages of The Kitchen Boy. And the book felt stuffy and doomed. So I didn't finish it. I have always found the story of the Russian Tsar and his family fascinating but I just couldn't get into this version of it. I think I would have preferred to read a solid non-fiction book about the Tsars rather than this fictionalized and dramatized account. So on to the next book, or "And now for something completely different!" - In honor of seeing Wicked (the musical) this weekend (and since I read Wicked last summer) Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked) and enough with the parentheses! ( )
I finished Forever by Pete Hamill about two weeks ago and really enjoyed it. The book begins in Ireland following the life of Cormac O'Connor. Born in 1741 when Protestant rule made following any other religion punishable by death, Cormac grows up half Jewish and half Pagan, having to keep both a secret, all the while learning more and more about his family heritage and having to mask his true identity. Tragedy befalls Cormac and his family, and seeking revenge on those who have caused the tragedy, Cormac travels to New York to pursue the Earl of Warren.

This book covers a huge swath of New York history, I won't go into the details so I don't spoil some of the suprises, but Cormac can essentially live forever if he stays on the island of Manhattan. So with that in mind, Cormac watches New York grow from a small, dirty, wild town with not enough water or police to the thriving metropolis of today. I was fascinated by some of the characters, Cormac's boss at the printing press, Korhogo, the Countess, and many many other lively characters. But for me, the strongest part of the book is the first half. I was so sucked into Cormac's childhood in Ireland. His parents and the small piece of land he grew up on were so vivid and real to me. The author did a fantastic job of portraying this time and some of the more mysterious and ellusive pagan practices and beliefs. I also enjoyed the first part of Cormac's adventures in New York. But as we progressed out of the Revolutionary War and into some of the later Tammany Hall scandal, things stalled a bit. Though the lull rather fit with Cormac's struggles to stay connected to the world throughout the decades, I found that the author, who is a New Yorker and a journalist, really seemed to want to share all his knowledge about the city and some of his personal experiences within the city. This desire to share tended to overwhelm the plot and characters a bit for me. I felt like New York was certainly a main character but I felt disconnected from Cormac as the protagonist at times.

As the book was being written September 11th, 2001 occured and as book about New York, the author of course felt that he had to include this catastrophe. I understand the need to process that event and what it meant to the country and to New York in particular, but I felt as if the ending was sort of slapped together to include September 11th. I thought it was well written and fascinating to see September 11th from Cormac's perspective but I just didn't love how it fit in with the storyline and it felt a little manipulative. And naturally the ending left me a little conflicted but again, read it and we can discuss, I don't want to give it all away here! All in all a really fascinating study of New York, war, religious conflict and a little bit of love thrown in for good measure. I think you'd like it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Books I read while on Bravely Obey hiatus, 10 second reviews:

The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer
all three were fantastic! I felt like a teenager again, waiting anxiously for the final book in August.
Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
Yeah, yeah, yeah, its Jodi Picoult again, twists, turns, improbable coincidences
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Great, silly, playful, sly, ridiculous
The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury
Classic over the top yellow journalism from the early 1900's, flashy, dirty and a bit fun
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
Jim from The Office is making this into a movie, I'd buy a ticket
Now is the Hour by Tom Spanbauer
touching sad funny story of a boy coming out in rural 60's Idaho
The Best American Non Required Reading 2007
The Best American Non Required Reading 2006
These are so good I give them out as gifts
Run by Ann Patchett
Not my favorite of hers but a compelling story and memorable characters, fast read too
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Strange, sad and left me wondering what happened?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
this book hasn't left me yet. I read it one night into the wee hours. Everyone should read it
Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King
Can we go back to Florence soon? I want to walk up the Duomo
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
I'm hungry writing about this one, I love a good memoir
The Great Influenza by John Barry
Scary and fascinating, I want to stock up on Tamiflu today as a precaution (fat lot of good it might do)
The Mistress of the Art of Death by Arianna Franklin
Great story, action, interesting time period and plotting
The Serpent's Tale by Arianna Franklin
The sequel, also good, great strong female lead character, fascinating portrait of royalty too

More to come, hold your breath!
I got about 80 pages into Middle Age: A Romance by Joyce Carol Oates and found it to be dull, odd, in no way a romance, and as boring as middle age seems to the majority. A pompous, judgemental and as usual, beautifully written book but I just didn't feel anything for the book besides boredom and disdain. About the privileged rich who live in suburban New York, Oates seemed to dislike all of her characters and most every aspect of their lives. When the most interesting character is killed off within the first 10 pages I'm not sure that I'm going to like a book. And in practicing my new belief that there are too many books in the world and not enough time to waste on bad books, I set this one aside last weekend and picked up Forever by Pete Hamill. What a difference! Fantastic story, strong characters, and I found myself crying a bit in the first 25 pages. I'll report back once I finish this one, and I almost can't wait to see what happens!