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Horns by Joe Hill

My newest book club and I recently chose to read the book Horns by Joe Hill.  We have joked about how our club is really a books-that-became-movies club, and this is no exception – the movie adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe is hitting the big screen Halloween of this year!  Our book club gave Horns mixed reviews, but one thing I really enjoyed about this novel is that it is completely different from what I usually read.

Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill

Horns follows main character Ignatius Parrish on what has to be the most bizarre downward spiral I have ever read.  The story begins when Ig awakens from a night of drinking in response to the anniversary of his girlfriend Merrin’s brutal rape and murder – but upon waking, a  few major changes have taken place.  First, Ig notices the horns that have sprouted from his head in the night.  Then, as he goes looking for help, he notices that everyone he encounters can’t seem to help sharing their deepest darkest secrets with Ig – and you’d be amazed at how dark some of these people’s secrets are.  The story vacillates between exploring Ig and Merrin’s relationship as it first developed, right up to Merrin’s tragic end, and Ig’s hunt for the truth of where the horns are coming from, how to get rid of them, and meanwhile, how to retaliate when he discovers the identity of Merrin’s killer.

I have to give props for the story seeming very original – it was.  And it was fun to explore the connections between this fairly bizarre work of fiction and the biblical stories I heard in church as a child.  What wasn’t fun was how unrelatable most of the story was.  For example, I have a really hard time believing that people (all people) are really as dark as they are portrayed in the story.  The relationship between Ig and his parents (who secretly believe he murdered Merrin) was especially disturbing to me, because it made family ties seem so much weaker than I’ve always known them to be.

My other complaint was all the symbolism in the book.  After reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor, I was really excited to do some interpreting of the various things I was reading.  But Hill never gave the reader a chance – he very obviously spelled out every allusion, connection, and piece of symbolism for us, leaving absolutely no interpretation or heavy lifting for me!

I don’t think I’ll watch the movie, and I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book to our readers at Of Print and Prose.  I give it 1 star.  ★

Red Devil Cocktails - not my favorite alcoholic beverage, but drinks always make book club a little more interesting!

Red Devil Cocktails – not my favorite alcoholic beverage, but drinks always make book club a little more interesting!

… but on the bright side, the discussion at book club led to some delicious themed drinking!  In honor of Ig thinking he was turning into the devil throughout the book – we mixed and drank Red Devil cocktails, which was way too much fun!

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When It Happens To You by Molly Ringwald

You can probably imagine my surprise when I learned at book club that Molly Ringwald (of Pretty In Pink, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles fame) has added ‘author’ to her resume.  I grew up watching and have a nostalgic appreciation for her movies, but truthfully, I didn’t expect much from her writing.  While When It Happens To You was not my favorite book, I have to give credit where credit is due… it was a lot better than I was expecting and it led to a book club discussion that (I felt) brought people who were mostly strangers a lot closer than any of the other monthly discussions have.

The author (above center) in one of my favorite movies from high school, Sixteen Candles.

The author (above center) in one of my favorite movies from high school, Sixteen Candles.

When It Happens To You is a novel told through a series of vignettes from the perspective of different, but loosely connected, characters (a lot like the movie Love Actually).  This part worked really well for me, and I thought Ringwald did an excellent job of subtly including the characters’ connections to each other in a way that was realistic, believable, and interesting.  The stories are all told from a female character’s perspective and cover such topics as a spouse’s death, a transgender child, and a straying spouse.  This is where I was disappointed – while the writing itself was surprisingly sophisticated at points, the interconnected plots were incredibly stale and predictable.  The idea of a book with so many character narrators – all of whom are females – is so cool.  It really disappointed me that each woman’s biggest concern seemed to be the main male in her life – whether he be dead, cheating, or questioning a gender identity.  While the novel shed light on issues that are very real and present (the chapter on a transgender child was undoubtedly my favorite), it did so in a way that every other medium does, and I would have loved to see a fresher perspective.

Nonetheless, I do appreciate a book that can get a more real conversation out of a book club of people who don’t know each other very well.  For the first time, the book club I discovered via goodreads had a much more personal discussion of our own experiences, as opposed to our typical “I liked the part where _______ happened.” discussions.  For that, Ms. Ringwald must be given credit.  If you have someone to discuss the book with, or are a huge Breakfast Club fan, give When It Happens To You a try.  Otherwise, watch another hour of Lifetime to get your “overdone and overly dramatic” fix, and keep your eye out for something a bit more novel.  (Hah, see what I did there?)  I give When It Happens To You 2.5 stars. ★★ 1/2

– Becca

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/softestthing/3796385095/”>bokeh burger</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

To break up the research books, I am reposting my review of Travels with Charley.  We road tripped to Richmond to get Reeses, and she and I will be headed back next week (so we can complete the adoption!)  Planning our drive south reminded me of this book.

When my friend decided to organize a summer book club, I was excited to join.  I hadn’t had a chance to be in a book club since I moved to DC.  The theme of the book club is road trip memoirs, and Travels with Charley was the book for June.  I was initially hesitant, since I had read several of Steinbeck’s novels for English class assignments and, to say the least, he is not my favorite author.  Fortunately for me, this memoir feels very different than Steinbeck’s novels.  It was written late in the author’s career, and for the most part it is less serious than his other work.

In 1962, John Steinbeck decided to take a road trip around America.  He traveled in a camper truck and took one of his dogs, a poodle named Charley, for company.  Starting from his home in New York, he travelled up to Maine, and then across the northern states.  He continued through his former home state, California, and then back through the south.  Steinbeck had already achieved a lot of success by this point in his career and was considered a quintessentially “American” author, but he was concerned that he was falling out of touch with the “real” America, partly because he had been living in New York for a long time and partly because of all the social changes that were taking place at that time in our history.  The point of his road trip was to rediscover the country he had made a career of writing about.

I particularly admired Steinbeck’s prose, especially the descriptions of some of the places he visited.  Thanks to this book, I definitely want to see Wisconsin and Montana someday soon.  As a Californian, I also enjoyed his descriptions of the Redwoods.  Another thing that stands out about the book is that he records very specific interactions with individuals that he met in his travels and then reflects on them, instead of trying to give the reader a more generalized picture.  I appreciated that.  A book like this could easily have become a series of generalizations about Americans and the states they live in, but by writing down small slices of experience, Steinbeck made this book a lot more honest and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is planning a road trip (or maybe just daydreaming about one).  I would also recommend it to people who are fans of Steinbeck’s novels, because you get a chance to see a completely different side of the author.  And if you are interested in the civil rights movement during the 1960’s, pay special attention to the last part of the book, where Steinbeck and Charley travelled through the American South.

Personally, I would give this book three and a half stars.  I would probably reread it if I was ever planning a road trip, and I would definitely recommend it to a friend!  ★★★1/2

I borrowed Travels with Charley from my local library, but you can also find it here.

-Elizabeth

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Do you ever have those books that you’ve been meaning to read for years and years, but when the time comes to start a new book, you look at it on your shelf and think, “maybe next time”?  That is The Book Thief for me.  It’s been recommended to me since the time it was published (2007, for those of you who are interested to know just how long my procrastination can extend) and I’ve always wanted to read it.  I guess I just always wanted to read something else more.  Then, I started my teachers-only summer book club and sure enough, most of us had been putting this book off.  We vowed that at last, we would read it!

So here’s a brief outline of what it was that “we” read:  A young girl, Liesel, and her brother are being sent to foster care.  She doesn’t realize it yet, but it’s the beginning of Hitler’s power in Germany, and her parents are what Hitler considered unsavory characters (not Jews – Communists).  En route, her brother dies and in the commotion, Liesel notices a book has been left behind in the snow.  She takes it, starting a long career as, you guessed it, a book thief.  One problem: she can’t read.

Her foster father discovers this and begins teaching her.  As Liesel’s hunger for books grows stronger, so does Hitler’s power.  The story changes as Hitler’s power grows – they harbor a young Jewish man who becomes part of Liesel’s reading and writing journey.  Ultimately, the book focuses less on Hitler’s atrocities and more on the effects not on his Jewish prisoners, but on every day Germans under his rule.

In case you were wondering, by the time my book club met, only one person had finished the book.  In my defense, I was only 12 pages to the end, and finished it later that night.

I may be acting a little unfairly here.  As a young adult novel, The Book Thief is good – though long.  I can imagine several of my students absolutely gobbling up, and that is exactly the attitude I want when selecting a new book.  It has a lot of creative elements that I feel worked really well – having Death as the narrator, for example.  The biggest challenge for The Book Thief in my opinion is that it’s a book about the Holocaust.  And while it’s a fascinating and worthy subject, there are a LOT of books in this genre, and the competition is fierce because a lot of them are done incredibly well.  While I didn’t dislike The Book Thief, I did feel, at times, that it was simply more of the same.

Here’s what I did like: Death as the narrator.  This was a really cool creative touch, and it was done in a sophisticated and new way.  It wasn’t morbid or dependent on cliché – Death was insightful, neutral, and surprisingly human.  I loved that.  Also interesting was the focus on German characters throughout.  So many books in this genre focus on the unbelievable cruelty in the concentration camps and while this aspect can’t be ignored in The Book Thief, I think it was a bold and wise decision to step away from it because it’s so prevalent in this type of literature that it can often become desensitizing to the reader – exactly what the author would likely want to avoid.  Instead, Zusak focuses on the German neighbors in Liesel’s village – and artfully exposes that not all Germans were evil, or even agreed with Hitler’s views.  Some did, for valid (though misguided) reasons.  And some were just plain evil.  I like literature as an exploration of the human condition and Zusak captured the complexity of the situation and the people involved extremely well.

Overall, I’d give this book 3 stars.  Because it’s intended for young adults, it didn’t have quite the sophistication or pull for me that I prefer, but it is an interesting read, and one that I predict most teenagers will really get a lot out of.  ★★★

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

My most recent Santa Barbara Book Club pick was The House Girl by Tara Conklin.  I’m a big fan of historical fiction, though I haven’t read much from this pre-Civil War time period, so I was excited to check it out.  The narration alternates between past and present times, like one of my favorite books, The Forgotten Garden, so I had pretty high hopes for this book.  Unfortunately, those expectations may have been a bit too high.

The story follows two characters: Lina, a young attorney working on a slavery reparations case at a high powered law office in New York City.  She’s looking to find a plaintiff for her reparations case linked to a slave that will get great publicity for her case.  Through her artist father, she stumbles upon the other main character: Josephine.  Josephine is a slave whose artwork, by Lina’s time, has become famous – under the name of her mistress, Lu Anne Bell.  The story follows each character on a journey – Lina, as she learns about her missing mother, searches for the perfect plaintiff, and questions her career path.  And Josephine as she struggles to escape the bonds of slavery, despite setbacks and nearly every turn.

Overall, the story was good.  The only problem was, it didn’t seem to start until about halfway through.  The author took a very very long time setting the stage, almost unnecessarily so.  Throughout the first several chapters, I found myself asking if anything was going to actually happen.  Once Lina, the attorney, found some old letters, things really started picking up, and I was much more drawn to my kindle.  But man, it took a long time getting there!

That said, I give The House Girl 2.5 stars.  It’s not a bad read… once you’ve made it halfway through the read, that is.  ★★ 1/2

– Becca

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I’m continuing my vein of writing about books I teach, and my latest novel for my current combination class of 11th and 12th graders is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  If you’re a reader, this book is pretty cool.  If you’re a teacher (of older, mature students) this book is THE.COOLEST.BOOK.TO.TEACH!  Psychology was my major in college, and continues to be a hobby of mine, so bringing in relevant psychology articles and discussing the ethics surrounding psychological treatments then-and-now with a novel set in a mental ward made for a really fun teaching and reading experience.  Also, if you’re a movie buff, the film version of this book, starring Jack Nicholson absolutely swept at the Oscars in 1975 and is unquestionably worth watching.

The book is narrated by a patient with schizophrenia, who for the first part of the novel is perceived by those around him to be deaf and mute – making him the perfect fly on the wall narrator, since the other characters will reveal more around him.  Having a schizophrenic narrator is also a really cool choice on the part of of the author – throughout the book the reader is “in the fog” with Chief Bromden, and you must constantly decide what is real, what is illness, and what is a side-effect of treatment for that illness.  Life on the ward is strictly controlled by domineering Nurse Ratched, until Randle P. McMurphy rolls into town.  A criminal with psychopathic tendencies, he refuses to abide by the ward rules and in so doing, shows the other patients to stand up for themselves and get more comfortable with not fitting the mold society places on them.  The book can be heartbreakingly brutal and is a very clear commentary on society and how we treat those people who are just a little bit different (or a lot different) than we are.  Kesey has very clear commentary speaking out against conforming to what the established authority expects, which is indicative of his activities in the 60s, when the book was written.  The plot itself is so-so, but the beauty of narration by an unreliable narrator (who slowly becomes more reliable, the longer McMurphy is on the ward) is worth reading.  Also, if possible, read this book with a book club or other discussion group because there is so much to talk about!  A few of my favorite points of discussion to consider:

  • the role of women in the novel – not that flattering!  Was this also a statement by Kesey?  Is it bad enough to shun the book all together?  Is it a coincidence?  The choice to make the “cruel establishment” character female was definitely an interesting one… and I’m still trying to decide what Kesey’s motivation behind it was.
  • the ethics of psychological treatment – yes, they’re better today.  But discussing the element of choice in receiving a certain procedure is really interesting as well as discussion of effectiveness and if the trade off for certain side effects is worth it.
  • the time period of the novel – free love, acid trips, war protests, etc.  The 60’s were rife with anti-establishment music, art, and literature.  The historical influences on this novel are really cool to explore and discuss.  And hello, the treatment of Native Americans by our government?  Fascinating, though heartbreaking stuff.  Though this is a minor plot thread in the novel, it’s still worth exploring.
  • And I’m sure there are many, many more.  If you do discuss this novel with a book club or other group, please, let me know what big questions you grappled with!

Overall, I recommend this book – with or without a group to discuss it with.  It’s a great look inside mental health facilities of the ’60s, and from a purely artistic standpoint, the writing is really interesting.  My students and I learned that Kesey often wrote while on acid, and I can definitely see some points in the novel where this may be the case.  I give this book 4 stars, but leave with a warning.  There is some brutalization in the novel where no one is the bad guy – everyone is a victim and the world we live in made certain characters do cruel things to those weaker than they are.  It’s worth reading, but you need a strong stomach.  ★★★★

– Becca

 

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

I’ve recently joined a book club here in Santa Barbara that I discovered through my roommate (who discovered it on the website GoodReads).  It’s been so nice to have book suggestions for my leisure reading coming from people other than high school students – though surprisingly, the high school students often have great recommendations too.  The first book I read for the club was The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.  At book club, the verdict on this novel was mixed.  No one completely hated it, but we were split down the middle as far as who enjoyed it, and who thought it was just okay.  Personally, I’m on the “just okay” team.  I finished it, but there wasn’t anything particularly special about this book, in my opinion.

The Weird Sisters is about three adult sisters who come home to their parents house in a small college town to escape varying failures each has experienced.  The sisters aren’t particularly close, and are each very different, but now that all of them are under the same roof, they are joined in caring for their mother who is battling breast cancer and recovery from a mastectomy and their father, the typical “absent-minded” professor (he specializes in Shakespeare, which is where the book gets its title).  A few things I liked about the book: though the story wasn’t particularly well developed, the author uses a collective narrator as the voice of all 3 sisters (“We” instead of “I”) which was unique and interesting as a reader.  Additionally, I loved the snippets of Shakespeare sprinkled throughout the book – some of which I recognized and some of which I did not.  It encouraged me to read more of the bard, and that is never a bad thing.  However, aside from those positives, the characters are entirely one-dimensional and not particularly likeable.  They each seem like stereotypes of characters that you see frequently in chick-lit books, but are nowhere to be found (at least in this exaggerated form) in the real world.  Additionally, the epilogue at the end is far too neatly stitched up for my taste.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a happy ending!  But I love a happy ending that I can actually believe would have happened with the characters, and in this respect, Brown didn’t deliver.

Again, the book wasn’t awful.  But there are so many great books out there… I’d say, don’t waste your time on this one and find instead one you will really really love.  They’re out there!  As such, I give this book 2 stars.  And don’t be surprised if you see some higher ranking Shakespeare reviews on our blog in the near future! ★★

– Becca