20 Books of Summer: Sticky Post

20 Books of Summer

This is a sticky checklist of my titles for the 20 Books of Summer, hosted by 746 Books.  (more info in my sign-up post) Reviews for these books may pop up out of order of actual reading and may occur in batches.



20 Books of Summer sm


  1. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
  2. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
  3. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan by “Lady Sarashina”
  4. Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates
  5. Budapest by Chico Buarque
  6. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  7. From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus
  8. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
  9. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
  10. Pastoralia by George Saunders
  11. Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryū Murakami
  12. The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino
  13. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  14. The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  15. The Martian by Andy Weir
  16. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  17. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
  18. The Third Man by Graham Greene
  19. Weight by Jeanette Winterson
  20. Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

Read:  3/20


Book Thoughts: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

HowlTitle: Howl’s Moving Castle
Author:  Diana Wynne Jones
First Published: 1986
Rating: 4/5
Challenges:  TBR Pile

This post will be a short and not especially structured one, hence it’s better filed as Book Thoughts rather than a proper book review.  I finished Diana Wynne Jones’s delightful Howl’s Moving Castle several weeks ago but never got around to writing about it.  So as it’s one of the books on my list for Roof Beam Reader‘s TBR Pile Challenge, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my thoughts on the book.

Like many others, I was first introduced to this story via the (also delightful) 2004 anime of the same name by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.  I had been meaning to read the source book by Jones for many years, so I included it on my TBR Pile list to encourage myself to get on with it.  Now that I’ve finally read it, I am pleased to report that the animated film remained largely true to the book, capturing the charm and quirk of each scene perfectly.  However, the movie version changed or omitted a few details, from the age of the wizard Howl’s apprentice – a child in the film, a young man in the book – to the lives of Sophie Hatter’s sisters – much more fleshed out in the book, with strange twists of their own subplots –  to the recasting of some of the characters, but honestly I feel these changes for for the better, as they streamlined the story and made it more fully about the central characters.  In written format, following multiple side stories works very well, but on the screen, especially with a story suited for younger audiences (…although I don’t feel like Jones originally intended her story to be only for kids…it’s pretty universally-appealing…)  it works better with a cleaner plotscape.  One large and obvious addition that Miyazaki added for his adaptation:  the war (rather, anti-war) subplot. This is not to be found in the book at all, but I do think it enhanced the film and helped round it out, making up for some of the meatiness lost be the snipping out of other details.  These changes aside, the majority of the scenes in the movie are straight from the book, and reading them felt like visiting an old friend.

At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story.  But it’s not a standard example of that genre, as Sophie (whose name, appropriately, means “wisdom”) is not so much literally growing up, having been fairly mature already, supporting herself and being both thoughtful and responsible.  But she becomes cursed by a spellcaster jealous that Sophie’s hats seem to have a magical ability to bring out the best in their wearer, and is forced to endure her body aging to a progressed elderly state.  She spends the duration of the book not only looking for a way to lift her curse, but also learning much about herself and viewing the world and others through changed eyes.  She better understands the motivations, pains and foibles of others and is able to both empathize and see with a clearer sense of objectivity now that she is in many ways moved outside society, viewed as not a viable and vital member of the community but as a weak, old thing to be pitied.  This affords her also a new sense of freedom as she is able to act and make decisions without thought for reputation.  She gains true independence and agency even as she must endure aches and pains and a loss of her youth and potential.  But she makes for herself new potential, chooses new paths and finds, at last, true happiness and contentment.

I daresay this is less a coming-of-age and more a story of breaking free of constrictions – a story of lightening and of enlightenment.

I highly recommend this not only for lovers of fantasy but also for readers who may be resistant to modern YA literature or who want to recapture the feeling they had when they first encountered fairy tales.  It would be awesome for reading aloud to a mature child and perfectly suitable for an 8-12 year old to read alone.  And if you know an anime lover of any age, get a copy of this book into their hands right now, especially if they enjoy more thoughtful, less whiz-bang anime stories.  It would also be especially wonderful for readers who enjoy remade myths and unconventional character studies.  Not only Sophie, but also each of the other major characters are all fascinatingly multi-faceted, not at all simple and conventional.  Jones does a better job with her characters than many writers of adult-aimed literary fiction.  I thoroughly enjoyed this story!

Deal Me In Challenge: Story #24 – “Silver Water” by Amy Bloom

Deal Me In 2014 ChallengeFor this week’s Deal Me In story I drew the 2 of Spades – Amy Bloom’s “Silver Water.”  The story can be found in the collection Come To Me, but I read it online at Beyond the Couch:  The Journal of the American Association of Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work.  From that association, you may suspect that this story is heavy and emotional and perhaps a bit of a downer, and you would be so very right.  But it is also strangely positive and, if not exactly uplifting, at least injected with humor and ultimately satisfying.

The story is fairly short.  It follows the progression of the deteriorating mental state of a girl named Rose and the experience of her family, through the eyes of her sister Violet.  Rose has a beautiful singing voice, likened to “mountain water in a silver pitcher.”  She stands to have a brilliant career in the arts ahead of her.  But then she experiences the first of many psychotic breaks, derailing her future and turning the world of her family inside out.  Rose’s mindset swings between despondent, violent, withdrawn and jubilant, and her behavior is often wholly public-inappropriate.

2 of spadesThe family is incredibly close-knit and handles their situation amazingly well, often with humor.  They go through a string of therapists and doctors, some good, many bad. Eventually they meet Dr. Thorne, who provides the balm the injured family so sorely needs:

“The day we met our best family therapist started out almost as badly. We scared off a resident and then scared off her supervisor, who sent us Dr. Thorne. Three hundred pounds of Texas chili, cornbread, and Lone Star beer, finished off with big black cowboy boots and a small string tie around the area of his neck.

“O frabjous day, it’s Big Nut.” Rose was in heaven and stopped massaging her breasts immediately.

“Hey, Little Nut.” You have to understand how big a man would have to be to call my sister “little.” He christened us all, right away. “And it’s the good Doctor Nut, and Madame Hickory Nut, ‘cause they are the hardest damn nuts to crack, over here in the overalls and not much else is No One’s Nut”—-a name that summed up both my sanity and my loneliness. We all relaxed.

Dr. Thorne was good for us, Rose moved into a halfway house whose director loved Big Nut so much that she kept Rose even when Rose went through a period of having sex with everyone who passed her door. She was in a fever for a while, trying to still the voices by fucking her brains out.

Big Nut said, “Darlin’, I can’t. I cannot make love to every beautiful woman I meet, and furthermore, I can’t do that and be your therapist too, It’s a great shame, but I think you might he able to find a really nice guy, someone who treats you just as sweet and kind as I would if I were lucky enough to be your beau, I don’t want you to settle for less,” And she stopped propositioning the crack addicts and the alcoholics and the guys at the shelter. We loved Dr. Thorne.”

Things become more centered for Rose and her family.  Rose starts singing with a church choir.  The parents are able to sleep better and get more involved in their own careers.  Violet finishes school and starts teaching.  But several years down the road, when Dr. Thorne dies, everything falls apart in dramatic and spectacular fashion.

Problems with insurance and the (criminal, in my opinion) insurance company vagaries about “prior conditions” mean that Rose must come home to live with her parents. Things go badly, and her condition deteriorates rapidly.  Finally, things come to a head.

As short as this story is, I can’t be more specific without spoiling the entire plot.  I definitely recommend giving this tale a few minutes of your reading time, as I was immediately hooked by the language and, despite the bleak nature of the plot, I was spellbound and could not stop reading.  Yes, I cried.  Amy Bloom treats her subject and characters with respect and allows them to be honest, yet manages to use humor to help the medicine go down a bit smoother.  “Silver Water” is a brilliant and humane treatment of a difficult topic, and I thought it was a wonderful and worthwhile read.

Summer Reading Plans: The 20 Books of Summer and Summer Reading Events Galore


20 Books of Summer


I’ve been working on my reading list for the next few months, and I think I’m finally happy with my selection of titles.  I know I want to read something for Spanish Lit Month in July, hosted by Winstonsdad and Caravana de recuerdos – specifically something for the sub-theme of Marquez week in week 4.  I also want to include several books for the Japanese Literature Challenge 8 (June ’14- January ’15) hosted again by Dolce Bellezza.  I should also get in at least one more book toward my list for Roof Beam Reader‘s year-long TBR Pile Challenge.  I also have my Classics Club Spin book to finish and a few pre-selected titles for book groups.  So I needed to keep all those goals in mind when choosing my summer reads.

I normally average 4-5 books read per month – more if I end up with several shorties in a month or get sucked into a graphic novel.  So I expected to eat through perhaps 12-15 books during June, July and August.  So when I read about 746 Books’ 20 Books of Summer Challenge, I figured 20 would be an unrealistic goal for me.  But then I remembered that the next round of Bout of Books runs August 18-24!  During the week of the read-a-thon, it is likely that I’ll burn through 5-10 short books, (I’ve learned that the sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing short works and story collections really motivates me to keep reading during marathon events.) which makes a 20-book list a much more attainable goal for the summer.

So… here is my intended summer reading list.  I’m keeping with 746 Books’ plan of ending my challenge on September 6.  (For anyone interested who may find 20 books daunting, there is also a 10-book version with graphic posted down the page here.)

Note:  If for some reason I don’t end up getting a copy of the new Haruki Murakami when the US version comes out in August, I’ll have to sub in another book and read the H.M. later.


20 Books of Summer sm


  1. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
  2. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
  3. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan by “Lady Sarashina”
  4. Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates
  5. Budapest by Chico Buarque
  6. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  7. From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus
  8. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
  9. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
  10. Pastoralia by George Saunders
  11. Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryū Murakami
  12. The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino
  13. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  14. The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  15. The Martian by Andy Weir
  16. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  17. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
  18. The Third Man by Graham Greene
  19. Weight by Jeanette Winterson
  20. Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong



Spanish Lit Month

Japan Lit Challenge 8

Deweys 24hr RAT

Deal Me In Challenge & Angela Carter Week – “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter

Deal Me In 2014Story #23 for the Deal Me In 2014 short story challenge does double duty, crossing over nicely with Angela Carter Week – June 8-15, hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia at Postcards from Asia.

I draw my Deal Me In stories several weeks in advance so that I have time to get a collection from the library if a story isn’t available online.  This week’s story is actually scheduled for a couple of weeks down the road, but in light of the Angela Carter event taking place this week, I couldn’t resist swapping stories #23 and #25 so Ms. Carter’s story would feel at home nestled among all the other reviews of her work that will be popping up around the blog-o-sphere this week.  Angela Carter is linked in my Deal Me In list with the Queen of Hearts – which is oddly and darkly appropriate.  angela carter week

queen of hearts

“The Fall River Axe Murders” can be found in the 1985 collection Saints and Strangers, which retells the stories of four different women from history and folklore.  “The Fall River Axe Murders” approaches the story of Lizzie Borden and her infamous axe from a different perspective.  Long enough to perhaps more accurately be called a novelette or novella rather than a short story, the story did much to create a sense of empathy for Lizzie, and while I wasn’t necessarily rooting for her to succeed at her grisly task, I could certainly sympathize with why she might have done it.

Lizzie is in her mid-30s and unmarried.  She lives in a large, soulless home with her older, also unmarried sister, their father and step-mother and the housemaid.  The “girls” live a sheltered, joyless life.

“The girls stayed at home in their rooms, napping on their beds or repairing ripped hems, or sewing loose buttons more securely or writing letters or contemplating acts of charity among the deserving poor or staring vacantly into space.”

“In this city of working women, the most visible sign of the status of the Borden girls is that they toil not.”

“Strange, that endless confinement of these perpetual “girls” who do not labour in the mean house of the rich man.  Strange, marginal life that those who lived it believed to be the very printing on the page, to be just exactly why the book was printed in the first place, to be the way all decent folks lived.”

The father is a greedy, miserly slumlord, and his second wife is a glutton with no maternal love in her.  From the beginning, Carter conveys the sense of constriction and aimlessness that rules the “girls'” daily life.  She uses the heat of high summer to illuminate just how close and stifling is their existence and how it must influence their mental state:

“On this burning morning when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents, she will, on rising, don a simple cotton frock, that, if worn by itself, might be right for the weather.  But, underneath, has gone a long, starched cotton petticoat; another starched cotton petticoat, a short one; long drawers; woolen stockings; a chemise; and a whalebone corset that takes her viscera in an unkind hand and squeezes them very tightly.

There is also a heavy linen napkin strapped between her legs because she is menstruating.

In these clothes, out of sorts and nauseous as she is, in this dementing heat, her belly in a vice, she will heat up a flatiron on a stove and press handkerchiefs with the heated iron until it is time for her to go down to the cellar wood-pile to collect the hatchet with which our imagination – “Lizzie Borden with an axe” – always equips her, just as we always visualise Saint Catherine rolling along her wheel, the emblem of her passion.”

In addition to the heat and riot of ridiculously unsuitable garments, Lizzie suffers migraines and visions and blackouts.  Her step-mother insists she has a poltergeist and can make the dishes rattle when she wants to.  On one occasion, while her father and step-mother are out, Lizzie hears a door slam, which should be impossible as her father insists that all doors, even to each room in the house, be kept locked at all times, regardless if anyone is in a room or not.  She discovers that the house has been robbed and vandalized, thievery and destruction compounded by the desecration of the parents’ marriage bed having been defecated upon and the scrawling of filthy words on the kitchen windows in soap.  The fact that Lizzie’s sister finds Lizzie standing in the kitchen, having just wakened from one of her “spells,” wearing only her corset and clutching a bar of soap does nothing to stop the father from blaming the “filthy” poor and even “filthier” Portuguese for the crime.

This hatred of the poor and of immigrants is at the core of Lizzie’s father’s nature.  He is so full of avarice and so stingy with his vast wealth that he lives in continual fear of it being taken from him.  He thinks of his wife and daughters as property, as well.  But he absolves himself of any sin for his greed by never spending any money.  The curtains in the home are 30 years old, and the “girls” have few and meager clothes.

The step-mother’s chief sin is gluttony.  She must have the most delicate and expensive foods, which she eats to excess.  But she also absolves herself from any sin by never enjoying a single mouthful.  Her eating is for show, only to broadcast her wealth and privilege – not for actual enjoyment.  Lizzie desperately needs a loving mother, and this step-mother has no love or motherliness in her and certainly no interest in her step-daughters.

One of the only joys in Lizzie’s life is the care and feeding of pigeons.  She channels into them all her feelings of compassion and her desires to help the less fortunate, which her father will not allow.  Her father considers the pigeons vermin and one day wrings their necks.  The step-mother muses that they would be good in a pie.

All these aspects come together to play hard upon Lizzie’s psyche.  She despises her father and step-mother, is disgusted by their greed – both her father’s miserly greed and her step-mother’s gluttonous greed.  These two stand as living metaphors for the archetypes of Jack Spratt (who would eat no fat) and his wife (who would eat no lean.)  Eventually, Lizzie loses her fragile hold on her sanity, and things come to a head.

Carter suggests that had Lizzie had more freedom, more intellectual stimulation, more opportunities…had she had some love in her life instead of self-absorbed parents who only care for their own concerns, things might have turned out very differently.  Had she had the freedom to love and be loved, to develop abilities and to become a real person, perhaps she would not have exploded outward in a fatal, final expression of her frustration.  And it is very hard for the reader to disagree.

Angela Carter is a wonder of a writer.  Although her writing is often quite dark, few have her level of ability to provide the reader with a new lens through which to view an old tale.  If you have never before read her work, I wholeheartedly suggest giving her a try.   She is a myth-remaker extraordinaire, a fantasist/social commentator of the highest order.



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