A Year In Books

A Farewell To Arms

Sometimes, you just need an old favorite. Last week, I did, so I read A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway. It’s one of my absolute favorite reads and I usually re-read it about once a year. This year reading it held special meaning for me after reading Paris Without End a few weeks ago.

If you have never read A Farewell To Arms, you need to. It’s a classic for a reason. Full disclosure, I had a reputation in High School for being a bit of a Hemingway fanatic. So, you know, obviously I was one of the cool kids. I read everything Hemingway ever published- it was a bit of an obsession for me. I’m a sucker for stream of consciousness. True story. It all started with A Farewell To Arms though, it was my first, and still holds a very special place in my heart. Catherine Barkley is a bit crazy, which I absolutely fall in love with every time. I think she is one of Hemingway’s better written female characters (hmmm maybe that’s because he used first wife Hadley Richardson as the inspiration….). I’m entirely sympathetic to Catherine throughout the novel, although I don’t have that same consistent sympathy for Frederic Henry. There’s just something about Catherine Barkley, when she talks about her first love and how she became a nurse with vague notions of taking care of him after he suffered a heroic but not life-threatening injury during the war, I think how entirely human and sweet those imaginations were, and when she reveals he was blown to bits by a bomb, I think how entirely true and real that is. Catherine is a real person. And by that I mean, really well written.

I don’t entirely agree with Hemingway’s notion of two lovers becoming one another and being only one complete person when together but it certainly makes for lovely reading. The descriptions of WWI were powerful in that they never felt emotionally manipulative. The war is described frankly and without grandiose exclamations (which is interesting seeing as how Hemingway himself was quite prone to grandiose exclamations), it is the war as Hemingway experienced it and his way of viewing and discussing it would ultimately be part of an entire literary generations conception of it. It’s simple and beautifully written.

This is just one of my absolute favorite books ever. If I was forced to choose only 5 books to read for the rest of my life, this would be one of them.

What are you guys reading? What 5 books would you choose??

A Year In Books

Ok- full disclosure, I haven’t completely finished this weeks book yet. I’m reading Justinian’s Flea and I am loving it and don’t want to rush through it and not give it’s due. I don’t feel too bad about  missing this weeks deadline because there have been other weeks when I’ve read more than one book, so technically, I’m still ahead of the game.

In lieu of a reviewing a new book, I thought I would share one of my favorite reads with you guys this week instead. I promise a full review of Justinian’s Flea next week. But as for today……

The Shadow of the Sun

I would like to introduce y’all to The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. This is my absolute favorite non-fiction book of all time. It’s a collection of stories that Kapuscinski wrote while traveling as a journalist in Africa during the independence movement of the 1960’s. Ghana was the first African nation to declare independence in 1957 and Kapuscinski was one of the many foreign journalists to travel there and report back on the developing events, however, unlike many foreign journalists, Kapuscinski didn’t stop in Ghana. He continued on across the continent reporting on the independence movements and subsequent coups and civil wars. He lived in Africa, and deliberately chose to live many times not in the rich white areas, but with the Africans. He was in Uganda at the time of Amin. He battled a cobra with a barrel in a roadside hut. He caught malaria and suffered through it many times. He saw countless battles and the carnage they left behind. He met leaders that were later assassinated. He was there. There for all of it, the good and the bad.

I read The Shadow of the Sun on the airplane the first time I traveled to Uganda. It was an invaluable resource to me. Even though the Uganda I entered and resided in was very different from the Kapuscinski experienced, I found some things to be the same. I was well prepared to be called “mzungu” because of that book. I recognized the pride the Bugandan people take in their appearance and with their courtesy towards others. More than anything, what this book prepared me for was the overwhelming hope I would feel in spite of the overwhelming poverty. Because, no matter how bleak and grief-filled Kapuscinski’s accounts of events were, there was always a tone of hope. Always the sun after the rain. I was able to fully embrace and experience the beauty and joy of Uganda because I read his book. Maybe it was because, after reading his brilliantly written account, I felt as if I had already been there, like I was traveling to a place I knew well. It took a lot of the fear out of traveling by myself to Uganda and not knowing for sure what I was about to experience. And when I went to Uganda for the second time, I took The Shadow of the Sun with me again. And when I feel homesick for Uganda, I read The Shadow of the Sun and it helps a little bit.

What are you guys reading this week?

A Year In Books.

If you’re new to Girl on the Contrary, welcome!!! I made a New Years Resolution to read one book every week of the year and I write a review of that book every Monday. Today is Monday so….you get the picture.

Mockingjay

Finally we are at the last book of the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay. Before I dive in, I should warn you, there WILL BE SPOILERS. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mockingjay is the final book in the Hunger Games Trilogy and I read it very eagerly. I had to know how the brilliant post-apocalyptic series was going to end. Had. To. Know. Which is why I read it within the same 48 hours I read the first two books. Have I mentioned this series was compelling? :)

In Mockingjay, Katniss is struggling with being the face of a resistance she didn’t intend to start and you struggle with her.  The Capital has Peeta, she is still trying to protect those she loves, and is having a hard time trusting the leadership of District 13. The final chapter of The Hunger Games is rough on Katniss. Very rough indeed. This book was an emotional roller-coaster kids. A loopy fast moving roller-coaster. And I loved every second of it.

Can I just say, the monsters Suzanne Collins creates in these books called “mutts” are freaking terrifying. Seriously, those things are nightmare inducing. And they became even more upsetting when they killed Finnick. Finnick! My beloved Finnick! And he was just married. Honestly, at that point, I felt a little broken. I wasn’t sure that the book could get any sadder. I mean, fighting a rebellion, dealing with people you’re not sure you can trust, Peeta gets brainwashed against you, your friends die, and then….and then…..well, I won’t tell you what happens next but I will say that I cried. I legitimately cried. The ending of the rebellion was very jarring. But honestly, if it had ended in a way devoid of real emotion and sacrifice, it wouldn’t have been true to the tone of the books. It was upsetting but it was honest.

I realize this is all very vague so I suggest you read the books. I will say, however, that I absolutely loved the way the story wrapped up. There were certain things I initially thought I might want to change but the more I thought about it, the more perfect the ending seemed just as it was. It was surprisingly real for a fictional story. It felt genuine. The best recommendation I can give this book, and truly all of these books, is that I thought about them for days after I finished them. Good books and good stories follow you and The Hunger Games Trilogy definitely followed me.

And I really can’t wait for The Hunger Games movies to come out because I have a feeling they will fill the Harry Potter sized hole in my heart.

What are you guys reading this week??

A Year In Books.

Very Valentine

Last week, I read Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani, who also wrote Lucia, Lucia. It was recommended by my Mom as a “light read”, which after all the heavy stuff I usually read, I kind of needed.

She was right, it was a light read but a good one at that. I had a bit of trouble getting into the story at first but once I did, I was very engrossed in it. The main character Valentine, is going through a lot of change throughout the book and I could very easily relate to it from one single gal to another. I like Valentine, she’s ballsy. She ends a long relationship in order to pursue something she loves- shoemaking, the family business. She helps her Grandmother run the family business and in the process becomes an apprentice, learning to make shoes. She also finds herself a new chef boyfriend and goes to Italy. It all seemed to be heading to one of those “She saves the business, gets the guy, and lives happily ever after” endings, but it didn’t end that way. Not exactly. And I have to say, I liked the book all the more for that. She does save her families business, and indeed she seems very happy at the ending, but it’s her Grandmother who ends up being the one to fall in love and live happily ever after. And I think that’s awesome. Valentine comes into her own in this book but it isn’t all centered on a man and falling in love. It’s about her and her journey.

I love it when women write books like this. When everything doesn’t center on Prince Charming and a wedding. I mean, I like those books too, but I just think it’s amazing when women write about the many different kinds of happily ever after we can have. This book was very well written and I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a good story.

What are you guys reading??

A Year In Books

Slaughterhouse Five

So sue me. I re-read Slaughterhouse Five last week. I re-read it every year. So it goes.

I’m not going to get into my deep and undying love for this book. You already know all about that. What I would like to share is how this book came into my life.

I was working at a coffee shop as a barista the summer after I turned 20. That summer was actually one of the hardest of my entire life. I was dealing with some heavy stuff. So it goes. I loved working at the coffee shop though, because there was a recording studio above it (owned by the same people) and we had live music and musicians in the shop all the time. We also had a lot of artists coming by. One of those artists and I became fast friends. One day, we were talking and he brought up Kurt Vonnegut. I said I had never read anything of his before. The guy couldn’t believe it. It was like I dropped a bomb on his brain. The next day, he came in carrying a book. He handed it to me across the counter and said “Here. You need this more than I do.” It was his very worn, very old, copy of Slaughterhouse Five. Usually, manners would have led to me to resist taking his book. That day, however, my manners were nowhere to be found and I took it. I started reading it that night and stayed up the entire night to finish it. It was a revelation. To be funny and moral and sad and poignant- it seemed impossible to me before I read Slaughterhouse Five. Now, I knew it was not only possible, but that it had already been done.

The next time I saw him, I tried to return his book but he wasn’t having it. He told me it was mine to keep. “The first read isn’t even the best one. It gets better each time you read it.” He said. And you know something, he was right. So now, when I know someone is having a rough go of it, I don’t send flowers. I send Slaughterhouse Five.

A Year In Books

Child 44

Last week was a fiction week and I chose Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. Usually, I’m not a huge fan of thrillers- they are certainly entertaining but not usually thought-provoking or particularly artistic. And yet, Child 44 surprised me. I really enjoyed the exploration of paranoia and crime in Soviet-era Russia. And I thought basing the novels crimes on the real-life crimes of famous Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo was incredibly interesting.

It was a very exciting read but also very disturbing. This wasn’t the type of book you read before bed at night. The characters were well developed and apparently this book is the first in a series so I would surmise that at least two of the main characters get deeper. For me what was lacking in this novel was comic relief. Even in some of the most depressing books I’ve read there is some sarcastic comment or absurd joke that lightens the mood, if only for a moment. And with the whole world of Soviet-era satires to work with, I can’t really understand missing out on making some attempt at humor. It was a very heavy read. A good read, to be sure, but very very dark. And don’t get me wrong, I like dark. I just think a little dark humor wouldn’t have been remiss.

One thing I really responded to in this novel was the main character of Leo. But what I responded to wasn’t the character of Leo per say, it was that I didn’t  like him very much. Sure, he has some change of heart about working for the secret police. But that comes later. When he is introduced, he is a faithful drone of efficiency and ignorant heartlessness. I didn’t like him a bit. I still don’t really like him. But I love that I don’t like him. That’s interesting and unique and it made me want to keep reading.

I enjoyed this book but I have to say I don’t feel particularly strong about it in any way with the exception of Leo. I just think it takes a brave and interesting writer to create a character that people might not actually like but want to keep reading about. I will probably read the subsequent novels in the series but they aren’t at the top of my list.

What have you been reading???

A Year In Books

While Mortals Sleep

For several years, I have boasted about having read everything ever published by Kurt Vonnegut. Last week, I found another collection of short stories that was published posthumously that I had never read. Touche Mr. Vonnegut, you have taught me an important lesson on braggadocio. Well played.

So- my choice for last week was that very collection, While Mortals Sleep. It was everything I expect in a Kurt Vonnegut book and more. In fact, I have to say this is my favorite collection of his short stories. Every time I read one of his stories I can almost feel him smirking at me through the words. No one writes like that anymore. Every story is delivered with a smirk and a moral- if you will (or if you won’t, it really doesn’t make any difference to me). What I mean to say is, these are certainly stories with morals/messages, they just  might not be what you expect. They aren’t preachy or chastising, they are just observations meant to inform. Even if it is a little biting.

The introduction to this was written by Dave Eggers- another writer I greatly admire and enjoy. He makes some great observations about Vonnegut and his style of writing and comes to the same conclusion I do, which is, Kurt Vonnegut  cared a great deal about the human condition and he didn’t give a damn if his writing was politically correct- he cared that much. God bless him. Vonnegut once described his effort at improving the human condition through writing as “throwing cream pies” (particularly his effort to protest the Vietnam war). Maybe he felt it was ineffectual, but gee if that man didn’t throw more cream pies than any other writer of his time or ours. He kept throwing them, time and again. I certainly hope I can throw a pie or two like Mr. Vonnegut.

Of course, you know I loved this collection of stories. Read it immediately- or I will throw a cream pie in your face.

A Year In Books

No one can say I don’t stick to my New Year’s resolutions……..

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Last week I read The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett. I’m going to be straight-up with you guys- when I first picked up this book at my local B&N, I totally thought it was fiction. I took one look at the title and thought “Oh, I’m in.” and bought it. As it turns out, this book in non-fiction, which is awesome except this was a fiction week, nevertheless I got really crazy wild and decided to continue reading a  non-fiction during a fiction week. I am such a wild woman.

So check it, I LOVED this book. It was quite the page turner. This  isn’t a book you read a chapter of a night. This is a book you read until your eyes literally pop-out and then you rest them for a while but get straight back to the book when they are firmly back in-socket. To be honest, one of the things that attracted me the most was the title – I mean, that is a killer title for a book. I already told you what my first thought about this book was, but my second thought was “No way is there such a thing as loving books too much.” I still don’t think there is such a thing as loving books too much but this book did make me think about the reasons why I love books so much. Gilkey, the thief, loved books because of the status he thought they brought him. Books made him feel rich- not that he was- just that they made him feel that way. And it wasn’t even so much about reading all of them (He thought Lolita had little moral fiber….this coming from a thief), it was more about the way they made him feel. Interesting. Gilkey is a criminal but he has such an interesting psyche- there were several times I had to re-read what he said because I was sure I had it wrong the first time, he didn’t seem to have a strong grounding in reality and yet he comes across so average. Gilkey stole rare books not for profit, but (supposedly) for love. I have to say, of all the types of crimes I’ve read about this one makes the most sense to me, although I’m much more interested in saving money to buy a first edition than stealing one. Prison would not suit me.  But to be honest, I don’t think Gilkey loved books so much. I think he was just a kleptomaniac who stole rare books because it was easier than stealing jewelry- at least it was much less guarded.  Sanders is the rare book dealer turned detective that catches Gilkey. He was incredibly fascinating as well. Not because he loved books so much but because he took a job he hadn’t asked for, security chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, and carried it out so diligently. I mean, Gilkey stole books but the grand total of what he stole was about $100,000, which is not even close to what some very rare first editions are worth. (Seriously, a first edition Slaughter-House Five goes for about $7,000). Why was Sanders so hell-bent on catching Gilkey? Because it was his job I guess, although not one he got paid for or even- it seems- likes that much. More than anything, what I really loved about this book was the tales of bibliomania, my favorite being the story of a professor who had to sleep on a cot in his kitchen because his home was filled with 90 tons of books. Some would call that crazy, I call that a dream come true. Do I suffer from bibliomania? No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be willing to kill anyone for a book, and I wouldn’t trade my relationships for them either. I just love books. A lot. A lot a lot. And though I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a bibliomaniac, I realized after reading this book, that I love books, but I’m no maniac.  Which, was nice to realize actually.

A Year In Books.

I call all these posts, “A Year in Books” because my New Years resolution was to read one book a week for every week of the year. But after, discussing this with my family, I think a more apt title might be, “The Blog Post My Family Doesn’t Read Because They Think I’m Boring on Mondays.”

The Gangs of New York

Last week, I read The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury. LOVED IT. The stories of New York’s first gangs are sensational, although, probably based more on legend than fact. Nevertheless, I couldn’t put this book down. The Five Points and Bowery gangs had incredibly violent but extraordinary beginnings and had an immense impact on the city of New York that far outlasted their heyday. Asbury tells the tales of these gangs in very descriptive and compelling ways, the way that these legends were meant to be told. Sure, a lot of these stories are embellished but how much fact-checking is really possible when dealing with the secret nature of the gangs? More than anything, this book is a thrilling account of the beginnings of gangs and mobs as we know them today. I have read a lot of books on the Irish Mob and a fair few about other gangs and the Italian mafia but this book is one of the most interesting I have ever read. Maybe because it was written in 1928 when many of these first gangs still held respect in New York. Asbury’s language does seem to hold a tone of respect and nowhere in the book does he pass judgement on the gangs activities- even the most vile. And I mean, some of the things these gangs did were incredibly evil, I literally gasped several times at the description of some of the murders the gang members committed (and I’m no lightweight). Despite the gruesome details, and sad history of the gangs and their formation,  I seriously loved this book. I know I already said it but the one word I keep thinking of to describe this book is “compelling”. Also, you kind of have to love a book written by a guy named Herbert.

On the back of the book there is a note that says Martin Scorcsese was so inspired by this book that he made the movie “The Gangs of New York”. Let me tell you something, that movie was nothing like the book. And sure, I already hated this movie for two reasons.

1. Historical inaccuracy

2. Who the heck was Cameron Diaz kidding what that “Irish” accent. She should be ashamed.

But now, I really  hate this movie because it was a bastardization of the book. You  let me down Scorsese. You let me down, and you let Herbert down. I mean, after all your movies about gangs/mafioso I would have thought you had more respect for who these gangsters really were. I can forgive you, but only because Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher (a real Five Points gangster) was crazy brilliant- even if you did set him in a time a decade after his actual death.

So what are you guys reading? Or- if you would rather, what movie based on a book do you hate?

A Year In Books Week 10

East of Eden

I’m a Steinbeck fan but I had never read East of Eden until last week. Wow. I finished it not quite knowing what I thought. Maybe that’s one of the signs of a truly great novel. I think it needs to sink in a bit. Maybe.

The characters are beautifully developed and complex. My favorite by far was Lee, the cook of the main character Adam Trask. Lee is well educated, philosophical, and kind. Lee felt like someone I should hope to meet someday. Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton are both men I felt I could understand and relate to. I especially enjoyed Adam’s years of roaming the country aimlessly- it made complete sense. And the way he approached his days fighting in the army was admirable. Samuel was a dreamer and almost everybody likes a dreamer, no? On the other hand, there are a few characters I hope never to meet in real life. Steinbeck wrote a stunning portrait of a sociopath without ever calling it such in the form of Cathy Ames. She is called a “monster” in the novel and she certainly lives up to that moniker. The interesting thing about Cathy is that she isn’t really complex- her emotions aren’t conflicting- they are just pure darkness. There isn’t anything confusing about that except that everyone else, the reader included, is determined that there should be more to her. Adam’s brother Charles was no peach either. He was both frightening and pitiful. My feelings toward him were unresolved although certainly negative. I couldn’t hate him completely but I certainly couldn’t find much good in him either. I know that Steinbeck wrote this novel with the intention of capturing all of the aspects of Salinas Valley, but as I’ve never been I can’t say whether or not he was successful, my guess is that he was. For me though, it wasn’t the setting that gripped me, but rather the characters and the plot. Many Biblical themes are captured in this novel and even though as you are reading it’s pretty apparent where Steinbeck derived inspiration from- I still read on as if I didn’t know what happens to Cain and Abel, or in this story Cal and Aron. These stories seem at once alike and yet more complicated than the Biblical stories. Like I said, I think it needs to sink in a bit. Steinbeck considered this novel to be his masterpiece and it certainly is a stunning piece of work- I just can’t decide exactly how I feel about it. Perhaps that is what makes it a masterpiece.

I hear they are re-making the movie of this novel. The original movie starred James Dean- I can’t imagine how they plan on improving upon that.

What are you reading?