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Archive for May, 2008

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Review: A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb

May 29, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb (2005)
Young Adult Fiction, 288 pages
Graphia Books an Imprint of Houghton Mifflin Co.

Read for the Triple 8 Challenge


In the class of the high school English teacher she has been haunting, Helen feels them: For the first time in 130 years, human eyes are looking at her. They belong to a boy, a boy who has not seemed remarkable until now. And Helen–terrified, but intrigued–is drawn to him. The fact that he is in a body and she is not presents this unlikely couple with their first challenge. But as the lovers struggle to find a way to be together, they begin to discover the secrets of their former lives and of the young people they come to possess.

Is this a love story or a ghost story? Both. And it works fairly well. What makes this book unique is its point of view, told from the perspective of Helen, a 130 year old ghost who haunts, and is haunted.

I couldn’t recall my past sin, that deed I had done before my death that had banished me from heaven.

Thinking she is alone in the world, she attaches herself to living “hosts” in order to avoid the unbearable pain of reliving her death.

The pain, once I was dead, was very memorable. I was deep inside the cold, smothering belly of a grave…Icy water was burning down my throat, splintering my ribs, and my ears were filled with a sound like a demon howling…I dragged myself, hand over hand, out of the earth…weeping muddy tears. All I knew was that I had been tortured in the blackness, and then I had escaped.

Then, one day her world changed: She was seen. She learned was no longer alone.

How was he doing this? Had he somehow chosen me? I had two strong and seemingly contradictory sensations. One was a fear of being seen by a mortal…The other was an almost indescribable sensation of attraction…I wanted to see him again, to see whether he really was that rare human who saw what others could not. Nothing was more disturbing to me, and yet nothing compelled me more.

This title has been rated for young adults (age range approximately 12 -18), however due to some strong language and sexual content; I highly recommend that it be read by those on the higher end of that range.

Other than, that I found no significant “cons” to this book. Yes, I have read reviews that thought the characters and plot weak, but I never thought I was reading anything other than an entertaining story with a unique twist: one that is targeted towards a younger audience. It is important as a reviewer to consider the intended target of an author’s work, and as such refrain from judging it with a skewed sense of standards.

I do admit that Whitcomb could have made this a much larger work. But would it have been as entertaining and had the same impact? Truthfully – who knows. However, I feel this is of no matter as I found this to be a good read and I loved how she took a well worn theme and made it unique and interesting.

There is complexity here, don’t get me wrong. This is apparent when one realizes the parallels between the lives (uh, well un-lives) of the ghosts James and Helen and those of their hosts, Billy and Jenny. In the end, one has to wonder if there really was randomness involved when these four come together, or a greater plan at work in order for each to find the personal peace they seek.

I had trouble starting this book, but not because of its story or writing. It was just a matter of timing. However, once I began, I did not stop until it was finished. I could not put it down, which normally would earn 5 stars, however as I said earlier, the story development is not what it could be – perhaps because it is the author’s first book. Thus I am going to give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday Salon: Recycled Reading

May 25, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Miscellaneous

Uh. Yeah. Haven’t gotten very far with this read, as this last week was too hectic. I completely forgot a holiday weekend was coming up. However, I really like what I have read so far and can already tell this is going to be receiving a 5 Star rating. The only reason I have put it down is that I know if I didn’t – I never would. Does that make sense? I was hooked from the beginning, when I read the first sentence:

“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.”

To intrigue you further (if you have not read this book), here is the copy on the back flap:

In the class of the high school English teacher she has been haunting, Helen feels them: For the first time in 130 years, human eyes are looking at her. They belong to a boy, a boy who has not seemed remarkable until now. And Helen–terrified, but intrigued–is drawn to him. The fact that he is in a body and she is not presents this unlikely couple with their first challenge. But as the lovers struggle to find a way to be together, they begin to discover the secrets of their former lives and of the young people they come to possess.

And yes, so far it is as good as it sounds; at least to me. I hope next week to have it read and reviewed.

I was at the library yesterday and of course had to stop by their used book shop. I rarely buy new. Hence the title of this post, “Recycled Reading” as I can’t stand to see a perfectly good used book languish on a shelf. I am never disappointed. My only problem is when my ‘finds’ exceed my budget, which happily did not occur. I found three wonderful additions to my bookshelf:

I already had a volume 2 (different edition) but for two dollars, it’s an excellent find. Not that I pick up and read them often, but every once and a while, when I feel the shame of never having read many (if any) of what is considered the best of world literature, I have something on hand to leaf through until the feeling passes.

I have heard good things about this book and actually had it on my TBR for next year. I guess fate says otherwise. Not that I always purchase a book by recommendation alone, but after reading the opening paragraph I knew I had to get it. Here is just an excerpt:

First picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight.

Hmm, I can’t wait to read more.

This book wasn’t anywhere on my radar. None whatsoever.

But I love the premise. Plus, of course, I leafed through it as I would never buy a book unless I have been able to read a few passages.

Synopsis (from back cover):
In the summer of 1892, 26-year-old Rudyard Kipling arrives in Vermont with little money, a pregnant wife, and the germ of a story about a feral child raised by a pack of wolves. Fleeing the literary high life in London, he hopes to build a sanctuary that will offer him refuge from the scrutiny incurred by his burgeoning fame and the wounds of his own troubled past. Kipling soon settles into his new home and sets to work on The Jungle Book, eventually introducing his young neighbor, Joe, to the likes of Mowgli, Shere Khan, and Baloo. As Kipling’s stories take root in Joe’s mind, the child is able to free himself from the confines of his dismal life, newly enlivened by the powerful and unsettling influence of the imagination.

As for the writing:

And following the downward turn of his thoughts his mood takes yet another slide, so that when he looks up at the fall-bedecked hills, he feels only the tidal, magnetic pull of his old friend, pessimism. It is like a blight, darkening his vision, reminding him not only of his own derelictions and ineffectiveness but also of the fact that he gory of autumn only leads to bleak winter days.

I don’t know about you…but that right there is enough to tell me I am going to have some wonderful reading ahead of me.

This wasn’t a purchase, but if I were to find this edition, I wouldn’t hesitate. I just wish I could have found a better picture of the art deco cover. I love art deco!!

This is Edith Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon, which is the next book to be read for Slaves of Golconda.

According to the back cover:

Set in the 1920’s, The Glimpses of the Moon details the romantic misadventures of Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, a couple with the right connections but not much in the way of funds. They devise a shrewd bargain: they’ll marry and spend a year or so sponging off their wealthy friends, honeymooning in their mansions and villas…The other part of the plan is that if either one of them meets someone who can advance them socially, they’re each free to dissolve the marriage. How their plan unfolds is a comedy of eros that will charm all the fans of Wharton’s work.

I must admit, I flipped through it casually and in doing so found that I am excited about this selection, and it may become one of my favorites.

Well that is my Sunday so far, other than having ribs on, corn on the cob to do, beans to start bakin’. Oh, I know tomorrow is the holiday, but today is when we all can be together.

So why I am I here blogging? I’ve got things to do, beer to drink, corn to shuck, ribs to turn, beer to drink…uh…you get the picture.

Happy Sunday Salon! See you all next week.

BTT: Books vs. Movies

May 22, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Miscellaneous

This weeks BTT was suggested by: Superfastreader:

Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

I hate to rehash old stuff, as sometimes I think it makes me look lazy. However, I could not help but read this question and think back to an assignment I had in college. The instructor was a fan of Capote’s and had us reading biographies about him and a book he had written. In addition, he had us watch the movies made from each of these: the biographies as well as two different versions of that book, which was In Cold Blood.

Our assignment was to choose our favorites and explain why. Here was my essay that I turned in, and as you will see, I feel it does justice to the question asked this week. It may not answer the question exactly, but I think you will see how I tend to judge…or should I say compare books to movies, as well as books which cover similar topics.

Tone, Timing, and Topic

Truman Capote once noted, “Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.” In all mediums used to convey a message, the tone, timing, and topic are of utmost importance, yet each are rarely if ever completely objective. This became apparent to me while reading the assigned biographies.

Gerald Clarke’s 1988 book, Capote: A Biography was begun before Capote’s death. Mr. Clarke spent many hours interviewing the famous author, as well as others who were involved with Capote during the years writing In Cold Blood. Not only did Mr. Clarke get to know his subject intimately, his book allows us to do the same. Even in the author’s style, one can sense Capote’s spirit, his gift of melodic prose as when he writes, “Such a kaleidoscope of contradictory emotions.” (326) The majority of the book was written while Capote was still alive, and published only four years after his death. While reading, one can sense that a truer interpretation resides within the pages of this book.

George Plimpton’s book, Truman Capote: In which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, was published many years after Capote’s death. Plimpton chose to write his book as an “oral biography”. As he explained in an interview, “an oral biography consists of edited transcripts stitched together in chronological order to form a seamless whole.” This format offers the reader many points of view leaves him or her to decide which is true, or at least what accounts they want to believe is true. It is a biography of opinions about the man, not the man himself. Plimpton once stated in an interview that Gerald Clarke’s biography is more about Truman’s life whereas, his is a “series of sketches rather than a portrait.” Due to the nature of this style, Plimpton’s book paints a less flattering view than Clarke’s does.

Both print biographies were published years apart; however, the movies were filmed at the same time. Each is as dissimilar in tone as their literary counterparts. “Capote” is muted in tone, colors, and speech. “Infamous,” on the other hand, is clear to put Capote’s outrageousness on display. Toby Jones’ portrayal in “Infamous” is more accurate in terms of Capote’s flamboyant character and his life before going to Kansas. However, Phillip Seymour Hoffman captured a side of Capote that one would expect due to the strain of his involvement with the killers, and the obsession with finishing a book dependent upon matter and timing of their death.

Both movies, and actors, are similar in that they poignantly portray Capote’s growing obsession in writing the book he “was always meant to write” and the devastation that followed his achieving that goal. As noted by his biographer Gerald Clarke, Capote would never have gone to Kansas if he had known the cost. He “would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell”. (320) Unfortunately, due to the nature of Plimpton’s oral biography, it is difficult to determine the accuracy of each film, as even within his book there are contradictory accounts; most notably, whether or not Capote stayed to watch Perry Smith’s execution.

There were two adaptations of Capote’s novel In Cold Blood. The more striking of the two is Richard Donner’s 1967 version. Due to the skill of the director and the actors, the film evolves as more of a documentary than a fictionalized account. The film was released less than a year after the book was published, and no more than two years after the killers hung on the gallows. To add to the realism, the director used members of the community and jury to play their own roles, and filmed on location in Holcomb, including the Clutter Farm. Moreover, in the final scene, it is astonishing to learn that the executioner who pulled the lever on the real killers, Hickcock and Smith plays himself. It cannot be underestimated the impact this film has on those who realize the accuracy of the events being depicted. The only significant discrepancy is a character that was in neither the book, nor part of the original events. He is Bill Jensen, a reporter very loosely based on Capote. He was portrayed as everything Capote was not. One telling difference was Jensen’s ability to immediately gain the confidence of Alvin Dewey and the local people, something Capote struggled with for months after his arrival in Holcomb.

In 1996, In Cold Blood was remade as a television movie. One similarity to the earlier film is that the script remained faithful to Capote’s book. Other than the movie being in color and a soundtrack that at times seemed disconnected from the action, there were no significant differences. Yet it cannot compare to Donner’s version. This would especially be true for the older members of the audience who remember the headlines, seeing the actual killers on the evening news, and the stark realism of the 1967 movie. After watching both, the Donner film by far has the authenticity and the intensity to draw, and entrance an audience while taking it for a dark and horrifying ride.

Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, the movie “Infamous”, and Richard Donner’s “In Cold Blood” are my choices as several sources I would refer to in order to conceptualize who Capote was, and how he came by the nickname, ‘Tiny Terror’. Clarke’s biography shows a side of the man which had to have existed even though it was hardly, if ever shown in public. Much has been said and written regarding his outrageous behavior, mannerisms, and voice. In Capote: A Biography, we learn that he was human, with human failings, and suffered for them as much as anyone else would have if faced with the same.

“Infamous” shows the other side of Capote, the side he wanted everyone to see – and hear. Capote himself once said, “Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.” The movie epitomizes the public persona of this famous and troubled author. It shows more of the relationship he had within the New York social circle he adored, as well as the humorous and raunchy side of him that must have made him the hit of every party. Primarily it was the scene in the prison as he walked to Perry’s cell that made it evident how he earned the nickname “Tiny Terror.” Capote’s humor had a sharply honed edged and heaven help anyone on the wrong side of that blade.

Richard Donner’s “In Cold Blood” delivers the book visually nearly word for word, act by act. Donner sought, and succeeded, in bringing “honest realism” to the screen. Capote provided the words; the film sight and sound. The event becomes more alive and frightening, as the director skillfully uses his medium to ensure that the audience who previously could only imagine what must have really happened, to being shown how the terrible events actually unfolded. Capote created a solid framework for Donner to build upon, and it is for this reason that you must believe that this was the “book he was always meant to write,” and that he was a truly gifted writer regardless of his own personal failings.

Sunday Salon: Great Find!

May 18, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Miscellaneous

Several Sunday Salons ago, I mentioned how much I enjoy reading essays. This week, due to an incredible find at the used book store in my library, I am going to enjoy much more than just essays. I found this:

Even the kind lady who rang me up marveled at my find and almost looked upset that she had failed to notice it and snatch it up herself.

Contained within are stories, poems, essays, and excerpts whose themes cover: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. According to the introduction, “This book is intended to aid in the time-honored task of the moral education of the young.” However, I find that this task should never be regulated to only the young in our society. All of us, throughout our lives, face challenges, and having a strong sense of integrity can make the difference in how handle these situations.

What really caught my eye though was the following passage also found in the introduction:

Along with the precept, habit, and example, there is also the need for what we might call moral literacy. The stories, poems, essays, and other writing presented here are intended to help…achieve this moral literacy. The purpose of this book is to show…what virtues look like, what they are in practice, how to recognize them, and how they work.

By no means is this a complete collection, but it is a nice reflection of what our culture, as well as others, have to offer. Here is only a sampling of the authors and works you will find within: Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Hans Christian Anderson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Aristotle, Pablo Neruda, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, various fables by Aesop, George Washington’s Rules of Civility, and quite a number of stories retold by, or adapted from James Baldwin…the list goes on.

What surprised me more than anything, were the stories I remember learning as a child, but had completely forgotten about until leafing through this book. Stories such as Chicken Little, The Three Little Kittens, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Sword of Damocles, and The Gift of the Magi. My decision to buy this book was based primarily on the fact that I knew I was going to enjoy re-acquainting myself with the authors I know, and introducing myself to those I don’t. I know I will not be disappointed.

However today, I intend to begin reading A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb. I have already cheated by looking at a few chapters, and now I can’t wait to dig into the rest of it. In the wings? The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Yeah, I am an eclectic reader. How could you tell?

Have a great Sunday,

Review: Dreaming In Cuban by Cristina García

May 12, 2008 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

Dreaming In Cuban by Cristina García (1992)
Fiction, 245 pages
Frist Ballantine Books Edition (1993)
A One World Book
Random House, Inc.

Read for (and cross posted at) the Slaves of Golconda

I love it when a book is not only enjoyable, but brings me to a new understanding about myself, or of something I had not known, or been aware of before.

Dreaming In Cuban by Cristina García introduced me to a genre of which I knew little. The term magical realism would come up repeatedly when I read other reviews of this book. It is a term and concept I had not given much thought to previously, but as I continued reading, I could hardly keep it out of my mind.

According to García, this book began as a poem that quickly grew into a something else:

Dreaming in Cuban actually started out as a poem and slowly grew. After about a hundred pages, I realized that what I was working on was a novel. Nobody was more surprised than I.

Her initial efforts are evident by the beautiful language used when developing her settings and characters:

At the far end of the sky, where daylight begins, a dense radiance like a shooting star breaks forth. It weakens as it advances, as its outline takes shape in the ether. Her husband emerges from the light and comes toward her, taller than the palms, walking on water in this white summer suit and Panama hat.

However, there was much more to what was being said and described by the author. I wanted to understand so I could better appreciate her words and story. Thus I took it upon myself to do some research and find out what this genre was and its impact on literature. It was then that I discovered an essay written by John Christie titled Magical Realism (The Magic in the Real). In it he gave an excellent definition:

…put simply, [it] refers to when an artist blends the fantastic with the real, or mixes the bizarre with the logical and plausible.

I cannot tell you how much this helped when reading García’s novel.

On its surface, Dreaming In Cuban is the story of three generations of women who are dealing with the physical and emotional challenges to their identities as well as their relationships. The story spans eighteen years and takes place in Cuba, New York City, and Florida. Yes the principal characters are Cuban, and this does have a strong influence upon what takes place between them. However, I found the following within the book, and it seemed to me the most accurate way to describe what I was reading:

I’ve been reading the plays of Molière and wondering what separates suffering from imagination. Do you know?

I feel that the author actually succeeds in integrating suffering with imagination. Her beautiful prose shows this in the characterization of Celia del Pino:

Celia cannot decide which is worse, separation or death. Separation is familiar, but Celia is uncertain she can reconcile it with permanence.


Death was alluring, seductive, and Celia longed to die in the thrill of it over and over again.

This book touches a lot upon the suffering of its main characters, but not in a way that makes this a depressing book. Somehow, the struggles of each woman, swirls in and around their imaginations, feelings, and memories in a way that makes this a much more interesting read.

The author said it best when asked about what kind of role memory plays in the novel:

Memory is more a point of departure than a repository of facts. It’s a product of both necessity and imagination, of my characters’ needs to reinvent themselves and invest themselves in narratives of their own devising. Each of them needs to be a heroine, to believe she is doing the right thing, choosing the only path to a kind of personal redemption.

This statement, as much as any, speaks of what I liked about this book. However, it is not for everyone, as some readers may not be comfortable with the surrealistic quality of many of the passages.

I am going to give this novel a 4 Star rating. I can honestly say that as much as I enjoyed it, it was not one I could, or would read voraciously in one sitting. There is too much about it, and within it, that deserves that its reader spends more time enjoying it.


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