Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl EarringI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it has been nothing but comics and book club books for the last couple months ’round these here parts. This year that’s been a pretty good thing, because I’m picking the books for one club and my friends are picking the books for the other, and there’s always great discussions to be had.

This book, however, definitely suffered from New Book Club Syndrome. The club at my library wanted an official library moderator, so I stepped in and read the book at the last minute and spent all the time after that nervous about meeting new people whose opinions I don’t already understand. Noooooot the greatest reading environment.

It is possible that NBCS is why I got to the book club meeting and wondered if the other members and I had read the same book, but it’s also possible that this is a terrible book and they’re all just wrong. I’d tell you to read it and get back to me, but I really don’t want to inflict the book on you.

Here’s the basics: The book purports to tell the story behind the painting Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is a pretty plain painting of… a girl… wearing a pearl earring. This is not rocket science. In the story, a girl called Griet (who is, as I understand, completely invented for this book) must leave her family, suffering after her father’s loss of sight and thus loss of tile-painting job, to go work as a maid in the Vermeer household. Life as a maid is rough, but things get much better and much worse for Griet when Vermeer decides to make her his secret assistant, having her prepare paints for him and eventually sit as his subject.

And, seriously, if I had known that was what this book was, I would have read the Cliff’s Notes of the movie and called it a day. But the book is short, and I wanted to do it right, so I ended up reading the whole thing. Ugh.

At book club, after everyone else talked about how great the writing was and how evocative the imagery was and how wonderful the historical setting was, they were like, so, what did you think? When my attempt to plead the fifth failed, I said something like, well, the writing was terrible and the characters were boring and I just didn’t care about any of it. And then I sat quietly and let them love on the book because I’m not a monster.

But, seriously. From the very beginning I knew the writing wasn’t for me — there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, there’s a lot of Griet knowing things that she doesn’t seem like she should know anything about, and the sentences are full of unnecessary words or missing important words like “Vermeer”. But maybe the characters would make up for it? No, it’s mostly just Griet in the book and she’s the one thinking all those unnecessary words and also painting all the other characters as just one thing, good or bad. Maria Thins was okay, but even she was mostly inscrutable.

And then I didn’t care about the plot because I didn’t care about Griet and she is the only thing going in this whole darn book. I don’t care how hard your maid work is, I don’t care about your weird suitor and your weirder crush, I don’t care about this apparently horrible scandal that you don’t seem to be getting that worked up about.

The one maybe interesting bit of the novel is the part where Vermeer recruits Griet to make paint and we get a couple pages about how paint used to be made with bits of bone and other weird stuff and stored in… kidneys? I think?… and then we get a couple other pages about Vermeer’s painting process, which involves a camera obscura so that’s pretty cool. Facts! I like them!

So, yeah. I was definitely not the target audience for this book, and I definitely wish I hadn’t bothered reading it, but if you’re an art person or a Netherlands person or an historical fiction person, you’ll probably like this a heck of a lot better than me.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

SpeakWhen I saw this book come up for my book club, I was like, ugh, I didn’t like that one, I’ll be skipping that discussion. Then I realized I had gotten Speak mixed up with Catalyst, the latter of which I read for my YA Services class in grad school and which is a companion novel to Speak and about which I remember nothing except that I didn’t like it and I never read a Laurie Halse Anderson novel again (mostly coincidentally).

Part of my confusion was that Speak is one of those novels that I’d heard enough about that I was sure I must have read it, and so when I realized I hadn’t I was happy to correct that oversight. Unfortunately, I’d also heard enough that I spent most of the book wondering when the parts I’d heard about were going to happen, which kind of ruined the reading experience for me. If you’ve also not read the book, you may want to skip this and come back later so as not to find yourself in the same situation!

Speak tells the story of Melinda, a freshman who started off her high-school career on some unspecified terrible foot. All her friends have abandoned her, kids she doesn’t even know hate her, and she’s really just hoping to coast through freshman year and maybe the rest of high school without any big confrontations.

That’s almost the entire story, really… Melinda goes to class, she gets pity-friended by the new girl, we find out what she did that got her shunned, she gets berated by her parents for having terrible grades, she tries to figure out how to make an artsy tree for art class, we find out why she did what got her shunned, she survives the year intact.

And when I was reading it, I was like… cool? I had already known what the why part was, so all the little hints that Anderson dropped made me go, “Yes, yes, thank you, let’s get to the part where we talk about that” rather than “Huh, suspicious, what’s that about?” And then when I got to the part where we talk about that, it was a few pages of melodrama and then just more Melinda goes to class boring stuff. I felt kind of cheated.

But now, having had a few weeks to reflect on the story, I can see that it is way more awesome than I gave it credit for. It would certainly have helped if I didn’t know the secret, but even knowing it I didn’t know everything and neither did Melinda, so I was actually probably a bit closer to her than I would have been going in cold. And for all that I wanted Anderson to just move the story along, well, she moved it along as fast as it would actually go over the course of one school year. I’m just old and time goes faster these days, I guess.

A friend noted that she was surprised I hadn’t read this book when I was of a high-school age (this book came out when we were probably in middle school or so), and I really wish I could go back in time and let my high-school self know that there were books that were better than Sweet Valley University and more age-appropriate than Middlesex just waiting for me to read them. I think I would have enjoyed this much more ten or fifteen years ago, but I am glad that I finally got around to it. If you have other suggestions to make up for my lost YA years, let me know!

Recommendation: For any teen who needs reassurance that high school is survivable.

Rating: 8/10

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (27 September — 1 October)

How did I manage not to read this book any time in the last ten years? Jeez, self. Get with it.

This is another book without a discernible plot, and another book without a discernible plot that I liked. Something is wrong with me. I need to go read some Grisham or Patterson or something (no! false!). This book is also a freakin’ epistolary novel, which would normally irk me but good but this book did not! Chbosky is a genius or something.

Um. Right. Topic: this book is about a kid called Charlie, who is entering high school and is a little worried about getting through freshman year okay. Charlie’s got some issues (a few more than the usual), but he’s working hard to make them okay and make some new friends. He totally nails that last part and starts hanging out with some senior kids who are really cool (but not the popular kind of cool) and help Charlie figure out who he is and what he wants from life.

I liked it. Charlie’s life is nothing like mine, but his emotions associated with going to school and doing well and “participating” and making friends are totally dead on to mine. When things went wrong in his life, especially where girls were involved, I was totally rooting for him all the way. Even when some really odd things happened (um, picking up guys in the park, anyone?), I was still totally on board with Charlie’s life being normal, which I think says something. 🙂

This is also one of them “banned books” the parents are talking about (still) these days, and I totally understand why. There’s sex, and pregnancy, and dudes liking dudes, and recreational drug use by a fourteen-year-old, and people going to college at Sarah Lawrence. No good can come of these things! And yet all of these things are good in some way or another throughout the novel, so whatever, book banners. I don’t know what high school you went to, but it was probably just like this one.

Rating: 8/10
(My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge)

(Also, this is the first book read for my personal Donors Choose Challenge! $2 for literacy!)

See also:
Thoughts of Joy
things mean a lot
books i done read

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket (10 August)

The power was out at our house from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, which was super-lame, as Scott and I are both rather in love with our computers. And when we’re not on the computer, we’re snuggling in front of the TV. Luckily for us, I had recently put The Bad Beginning on my iPod (a harrowing experience, actually, but it’s all better now!), so we hooked Travis (the iPod) up to Hobbes (our stereo system) and listened for two and a half hours (such a tiny book!).

This was one audiobook experience I really enjoyed! I think it helped that I had already read the book (and also that it’s a fairly simple story), because I didn’t feel like I had to concentrate terribly hard to keep up. Also, it’s narrated by Tim Curry, whom I adore, and the dialogue is actually done by several other voice actors so I wasn’t ever confused as to just who was talking. And there were some excellent ambient sound effects that just drew me even more into the story. It was like a radio play, and very well done. I highly recommend it.

I also highly recommend this book, if you haven’t already read it, and the whole series, really. The Bad Beginning kicks off the story of the Baudelaire children, who quickly become the Baudelaire orphans when their parents die in a fire that also consumes their home. The Baudelaire parents’ wills specify that the children are to be sent to live with their closest (in distance, not relation) relative, which leads them to live with a distant cousin, Count Olaf, on the other side of town. Olaf is terrible to them, but no one will help the children out of their situation and they have to do what they can themselves.

And, as this series is called A Series of Unfortunate Events, I’m sure you can guess that their lives don’t get much easier. In case you had doubts, the narrator (Lemony Snicket) reminds you many times that things are going to go badly and why don’t you just put this book down and go do happy things, which is not quite as entertaining the second time ’round, but is still good for a giggle here and there.

Rating: 8/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

See also:
Back to Books

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling (23 July)

Uh, what’s that? Oh, um, yes, I did read this in the same day as book two. -cough- Moving along now.

Book 3: Harry returns to school again, but this time there is a Secondary Bad Wizard just escaped from Azkaban (wizard prison and thought to be impossible to escape). Oh, and, bad news, Secondary Bad Wizard might possibly want to kill Harry. Seriously, this kid’s life kind of sucks. Primary Bad Wizard doesn’t make an appearance in this one, but his presence is felt and in the end a Very Tertiary (Vigenary?) Bad Wizard is presumed to have gone off and joined Primary Bad Wizard. Then four more books happen.

Since this is my favorite of the movies, I found myself many times wondering why things hadn’t happened/weren’t happening in the book. Sigh. I certainly missed Alfonso’s Knight Bus. But, interestingly, I feel like I enjoyed the book better than I did when I first read it.

I have to say my favorite part was the time travelling, what there was of it. Rowling followed my favorite of the time-travelling conventions — that of each timeline being dependent on the others. And no changing the course of events! I did think the bit with Harry thinking Harry Prime was his father was a bit contrived, but, well. I don’t know how it could have been done better (do you?).

I also appreciated Dumbledore’s handling of the Buckbeak and Sirius problems; he seems to love, as my LIS textbook would call them, “wrong way” approaches. It might not be doing it right, per se, but it’s getting it done well that matters. I think that’s why I like Dumbledore so much.

This book is where Rowling also starts to tear down Harry’s “good guy” persona; he jumps to conclusions without full facts, he flaunts rules meant to protect him, and he is accused (rightly) of ignoring the sacrifice his parents made for him. And he’ll continue to do that right through to the end of the series. It makes me dislike him rather a lot at times, but it really does show that he’s a teenager and I respect Rowling for that.

Rating: 8/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

Keeping Faith, by Jodi Picoult (25 September — 3 October)

I love Jodi Picoult, but I did not particularly like Keeping Faith. The premise is interesting; a little girl called Faith is seeing God, even though she’s been raised essentially without religion by a Jew and a Christian. She performs some awesome miracles, like bringing people back from the dead and curing a baby with AIDS. It’s the rest of the book that’s rough.

Faith starts seeing God after she sees her father, Colin, with another woman. Colin goes off with the other woman, Jessica, to start a new family, and leaves his wife (or, after six weeks, ex-wife), Mariah, in the dust. Mariah is a doormat and has to figure out how to live without Colin without falling into a deep depression and also has to take care of her seemingly crazy daughter.

The press gets wind of Faith, and suddenly everyone wants to meet her, from reporters to rabbis and priests to Ian Fletcher, a tele-atheist. Ian is out to prove that Faith is a hoax all while Colin is out to prove that Mariah is an unfit mother so he can get custody of his daughter.

There are a lot of stories here, just as there are in all of Picoult’s other novels, but I don’t think she does as good a job juggling them here. A lot of people come in and then get ignored, and some very interesting plotlines never get resolved. Pooh.

Rating: 5/10

Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (3 September − 8 September)

My first book for the RIP Challenge, and a great one, at that!

Tamsin is the story of a girl called Jenny (not Jennifer) Gluckstein, who is forced to move from New York City to a farm in Dorset, England, when her mother marries an English bloke. She thinks it’s going to be really boring, but it gets pretty exciting when she discovers boggarts, ghost cats, and the titular spirit. Jenny befriends Tamsin and works to help her get free from 300 years of wandering around the farm.

The book is written from the point of view of Jenny at 19 looking back on herself at 13, so a lot of the text is riddled with “Meena told me to write this,” and “I’ll come back and fix that sentence later,” and after reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics I was feeling a little overloaded on self-aware novels.

It also takes a little while to get into the real story − there’s lots of mostly-unimportant backstory at the beginning about Jenny’s home and school life and how much she whined about moving to England − but once Beagle gets to the good part, it’s really good. I appreciated that with 30 pages left to go I had no idea how the book was going to end, and the end of the real story didn’t disappoint. There’s a bit of a where-are-they-now epilogue after that which did, but let’s ignore that, shall we?

Rating: 8/10
(RIP Challenge)