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July 16, 2008

July books in my bag (plus one you can win)

I love books.

On the plane from Burbank to Dallas I plowed through Chip St. Clair's memoir THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN. I met Chip and his wife Lisa at the Book Expo back in May and they were the nicest folks, sweet and down-to-earth and I got a copy of his book but hadn't had a chance to read it. I had high hopes for it, though. Faith got a copy at BEA, too, and read it cover-to-cover the first night of the expo! She came to pick me up the next morning and told me she'd stayed up half the night reading his book, and told me his story was amazing.

Well, I opened that book up as we were taking off the runway in Burbank and by the time we touched down in Dallas I was closing the final chapter and letting it all sink in. Chip's story is dark and sometimes scary and it makes you wonder how such a good man could come from such a childhood. His father was one of America's Most Wanted and Chip's story -- unraveling the lies, deprogramming the abuse -- is a complete page-turner. It made it all seem more real since I'd met him, met his wife, the whole story fit together and it made me want to call him up and tell him how happy I was he'd lived to write it all down.

Chip sent me a signed copy of THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN to offer to my readers so post a comment if you'd like to be in the drawing and I will announce a winner tomorrow!

[Edited to add: Thank you everyone who commented, I closed comments now and will announce a winner tomorrow! I love my fellow bookworms.]

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On the way from Dallas to Tampa I started reading first-time author Tana French's dark Irish murder mystery, IN THE WOODS. (Don't you love reading on airplanes? It's like built-in free time!) I stayed up all night Saturday finishing it and boy was I disappointed. This book is so well written -- it's complex and the characters are really well done, this author obviously has amazing talent so I was really excited to see how she ended the book and how the primary mystery was unraveled. I won't spoil the plot but I will say in general I don't expect perfect, tidy endings to mysteries but I do expect something, some kind of resolution! The reason why we have FICTION is that in fictional life we can discover truths and unravel mysteries even if it's not exactly what we wanted, we are at least left with something to go on. That's what the author gives us in fiction. Real life is where we go unsatisfied -- so if I wanted a real-life dud of an ending, I would just watch TV news.

I am dying to see if any of ya'll have read this book and what you thought about it. I don't like to be critical of books or authors because I know how hard it is to write one. This author has obvious talent, beautiful prose, characters that get under your skin, a really intriguing premise. (Obviously I loved reading this book and had higher expectations from such a good writer or I wouldn't be so mad about the ending!)

For the most part this novel was a really good read but the ending was totally unsatisfying. When you write a book, you make a contract with the reader. You say to the reader, Follow me on this and I won't leave you hanging totally empty-handed. This author broke the contract and left her readers 400+ pages holding an empty bag. What a disappointment on an otherwise awesome book.

[Edited to add: I'm not trying to turn anyone off this book, in fact I want you to read it so we can talk about it! I am making my friend Corey read it right now and I called everyone I know to see who read it and no one had so now I need the innernets to be my book club ;) ]

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Now I'm reading SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky. I am a big WWII history geek (with an emphasis on the European front, I know more about Poland in the forties than is probably healthy) and I try to read everything I can about the entire era -- Holocaust memoirs, historical data, fiction from those who lived through it. If you're into that, too, this book is a must-read.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the author:

Némirovsky is now best known as the author of the unfinished Suite Française, two novellas portraying life in France between June 4, 1940 and July 1, 1941, the period during which the Nazis occupied Paris. These works are considered remarkable because they were written during the actual period itself, and yet are the product of considered reflection, rather than just a journal of events, as might be expected considering the personal turmoil experienced by the author at the time.

Némirovsky's oldest daughter, Denise, kept the notebook containing the manuscript for Suite Française for fifty years without reading it, thinking it was a journal or diary of her mother's, which would be too painful to read. In the late 1990s, however, she made arrangements to donate her mother's papers to a French archive and decided to examine the notebook first. Upon discovering what it contained, she instead had it published in France, where it became a bestseller in 2004.

I picked this up based on the background I knew about the author. I know some folks who couldn't get into this book and I totally understand, pieces from this era about this subject matter tend to have a certain voice that can be off-putting to readers. It's a more dispassionate and observational voice than we're used to in contemporary fiction. And I think readers often expect stories about this era to be very clear cut, good vs. evil. But many of the vignettes here describe people who are weak, or self-centered, or mousy (in other words, they were pretty normal people!) The tone (much like The Last Eyewitnesses or even The Pianist to a certain degree) makes sense to me based on the amount of horror you'd have to insulate yourself from to live during that period, not to mention writing about it. But it can be a tough read if you aren't drawn to the subject matter.

I'm about half-way through it and couldn't wait to get on the bus last night so I could settle in and read more (it's one of the few times I don't mind glacially slow traffic!) I am in love with this book, I can't imagine what it would have been like had the author lived to really finish it and polish it.

The author died in Auschwitz in 1942. She was only 39 years old. I don't even have words to describe how I feel about that.

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Books take you places. There is nothing like the delicious feeling of being so wrapped up in a story that you can't wait for your real life to subside so you can curl up again with the plot, the characters, and let it all spill out in words on the page.

What kind of books do you reach for first? Do you read mysteries? Romance? Non-fiction? Humor? Do you want a twisty-turning plot? Characters who feel real, who live on in your head after you finish the last page? Do you look for pure escapism, fun, tension, history, laughs?

I love hearing about what people are reading. Whenever I'm in a bookstore I watch what people are buying, at Target I always browse too long in the book section to see what folks are taking home from the shelves. I've always been a bookworm, I think it's a trait most hermits share. Sometimes the characters in books are more real to me than the people on the bus beside me! Do you ever feel that way? I guess that's why I was so let down by IN THE WOODS, I took it personally that the author left me with a totally discarded storyline, flicked away by the main character in the last drag of a cigarette.

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Thank you again to Chip St. Clair for offering an autographed copy of his book THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN, I'll draw randomly from the comments and announce a winner tomorrow. You can read about his foundation online, The St. Clair Butterfly Foundation, and follow Chip at his blog.

Posted by laurie at July 16, 2008 8:57 AM