King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Z. Lorenz

King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethologist, is not your typical science book in that it is written with a less-scientific audience in mind.  Complete with minimal illustrations from Lorenz, the book does not read like a scientific experiment that can be precisely duplicated, but more like a series of observations and anecdotes from a man who invited the wild into his home.  Unlike King Solomon, Lorenz claims not to need a magic ring to learn the language of animals and to communicate with them.  While there are discussions of domesticated and wild dogs, among other animals, Lorenz mainly focuses on the behaviors of the water shrew, his aquarium fish, and the Jackdaw.

While considered a premier examination of animal behavior and discussing in detail the phenomenon of imprinting, on some occasions he appears to anthropomorphize these animals, making them seem more human than they are, particularly when discussing their mating rituals.  Lorenz also is very descriptive of the animals and their interactions with one another and with the humans who lived in the home and surrounding neighborhood.  These descriptions, while interesting to a scientist, may border on tedium for others.

“The whole charm of childhood still lingers, for me, in such a fishing net.”  (page 12)

“I intend to develop further this mixed breed, now that it has happily survived the war, and to continue with my plan to evolve a dog of ideal character.”  (page 142)

He raises some interesting questions about the parallels between certain species and humans in that some species, like humans, share their experiential knowledge of dangers and enemies with their young, rather than their young having an instinctual knowledge of what animals are their natural enemies.  Lorenz also discuss language and how body language is a lost art among humans, but is alive and well among animals, like yawning and smiling in humans to signify an emotion.

His wife must have had enormous levels of patience, though the bit about leaving their own child in a cage while the animals roamed free in the house and outside was hopefully a joke.  King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz is light on scientific method and heavy on observation, but at times the descriptions get bogged down with too much detail even for a general audience.  For those who have studied imprinting and other aspects of animal behavior before, the book could seem very repetitive and far from engaging.  Additionally, there are moments where he pats himself on the back or the backs of his friends who achieve some interesting feats with animals, which can seem a bit self-serving.

About the Author:

Konrad Z. Lorenz ForMemRS was an Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist. He shared the 1973 Nobel Prize with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch.


This is my 81st book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.


What Book Club Thought:

This book, which was our November pick, really wowed one member of the book club, who said he learned a great deal from Lorenz and his theories about animals in his care, while most of us seemed to think that we’d learned all of the things he talked about in the book already through other sources — most likely in school or the animal channel.  The rest of us either thought it was an OK book or didn’t like it very much at all.  Our youngest member said that there should have been more about Penguins, though Lorenz lived in a place where Jackdaws were the most prevalent bird it seemed.  Two members found the chapter about dog ancestry and behavior the most interesting, particularly about the relationship to masters and one another in a pack versus the dog that prefers to be alone.

One heated discussion was about whether animals are intelligent or not, with one member playing devil’s advocate and insisting that animals act on pure instinct and are not problem-solving beings with intelligence.  In one scenario, the member suggested the lion would simply die in the arctic and be unable to problem-solve their way out of the situation or find food, but it was argued that there are different levels of intelligence in the animal kingdom and that some things can be learned by animals and other things cannot.  Additionally, there was a discussion about adaptability versus intelligence as well as the teaching of danger to young animals by their parents, much like humans teach their own children about dangers.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which was my book club’s October selection, has been celebrated and made into a movie already.  Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter share the narration for the 1960s segregated Jackson, Mississippi, as the lines blur between the races and to social classes.  While Skeeter’s social class is not as pure as it seems, the Black maids are struggling to make ends meet and hold their tongues even as others are engaged in sit-ins at the local Woolworth’s and marches.  Stockett carefully illustrates the social and color lines in the South, while also paying careful attention to the harsh realities of Black maids in white households.  This is not just a story about Black maids, but also about where stigma comes from, how it is perpetuated, and how it can be overcome.

“And I know there are plenty of other ‘colored’ things I could do besides telling my stories or going to Shirley Boon’s meetings — the mass meetings in town, the marches in Birmingham, the voting rallies upstate.  But truth is, I don’t care that much about voting.  I don’t care about eating at a counter with white people.  What I care about is, if in ten years, a white lady will call my girls dirty and accuse them of stealing the silver.”  (page 256)

Stockett has created a novel that gets readers thinking about their own environment and what they tolerate on a daily basis, even though they do not agree with certain things that happen or continue to be spoken in anger or prejudice toward others.  Like she notes in her “Too Little, Too Late” essay at the back of the paperback, no one in her white family who had a Black maid even thought about asking the maid what it was like to be Black in the deep south.  How many things that go on daily do we disagree with and dislike, but allow to happen without so much as a criticism or objection?

On one hand, readers are introduced to the Black maids and the prejudice they put up with from their white employers, and on the other hand, Stockett introduces Skeeter, a young woman returned from college to find that she is vastly different from her childhood friends, Hilly and Elizabeth.  While the parallel is lightly drawn and clearly not the same kind of prejudice on both sides, it does raise the question about what it means to create groups within a larger society to the exclusion of others.  Both avenues lead to great isolation and emotional pain, but the consequences of speaking out against that oppression are potentially more violent and devastating for the maids than for Skeeter.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett provides a balanced look at the love and disdain in the relationship between white women and families and Black maids, but it also tends to play it safer than one would expect given the volatile time period being discussed.  Yes, there are occasions of devastating tragedy, spousal abuse, and hints of other violent behavior, but truly the focus is less on the consequences of speaking out and more on the ties that bind each group to one another.  Stockett has chosen to show the complex relationships between these women given the societal constructs that constrain their actions and behaviors, even if they would wish it not so.

About the Author:

Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She currently lives in Atlanta with her family. The Help is her first novel.


This is my 77th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.



What the Eclectic Bookworms Thought (Beware of Spoilers):

Overall, we all enjoyed The Help and determined that it accurately portrayed the South, particularly the conflicted emotions of the Black maids and the children they raised.  It also demonstrated the poor logic that many white families used to determine what Blacks were good enough to do for them, but not good enough to share with.  For instance, Blacks cannot use the same bathrooms as whites because they are diseased, but at the same time, those maids can cook their families’ food and raise their children.

The group seemed split about which character they liked best, with some of us in favor of Minny, while others liked Skeeter and Aibileen best.  One of our female members said that Aibileen’s voice was the most balanced, and that’s why she liked her best, while our youngest member said that she enjoyed Skeeter best because she was an aspiring writer.  Personally, Minny’s kick ass attitude and yet vulnerability when it came to her husband and children made her both frightening and endearing — as well as a little bit vulnerable.

The club also discussed whether we would go as far as Minny to get revenge on Hilly, with only a few of saying that we would and a couple of us indicating we would have gone further.  At one point the discussion of slavery came up and whether the maids would have considered themselves still slaves or something more than that, but we all seemed to be on the fence about that question.  A discussion of other cultures’ use of slavery and how slaves could earn their way out was also mentioned, though none of us had any concrete sources on hand to discuss that too much in depth.

Other topics touched upon during the discussion include the friendship dynamics in Hilly’s group and how most of the women were subservient to Hilly and her approval, while others like Skeeter seemed to see that cow-towing to Hilly was wrong as well as how Minny and her family seemed to get by more easily than Aibileen who was on her own without any children.  We all enjoyed the book, though some of us would have preferred less about Stuart and Skeeter’s relationship and that other sections were trimmed down.  I personally enjoyed the additional insight into Skeeter and Stuart’s relationship after having watched the movie and found that part lacking in the film.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is a novel that tries hard to be a Gothic tale full of ghosts and melodrama, but light on the actual romance.  Margaret Lea receives a random letter from famed contemporary author Vida Winter, a woman who spends a lot of her time telling stories even to those journalists seeking her real-life story.  Lea is a bookworm extraordinaire, who helps her father in his antique bookshop, while her mother is hold up in her room every day barely engaging them.  Margaret is intrigued by Winter after reading a volume of short stories from her vast collection of books, titled “Thirteenth Tales of Change and Desperation.”  Upon meeting the woman and asking for three true things she can double-check for their accuracy, Margaret is sucked into her real-life tale by their own common bond.

What follows is the unraveling of Vida Winter’s real life story in a fragmented narration, which vacillates between Margaret’s journalistic digging and Vida’s fairy tale-like story.  Setterfield weaves a story of mystery that Margaret is determined to uncover even as she is haunted by her own family past.  There is a cast of secondary characters that are as colorful as Winter, but there are moments of too much detail that bog down the narration in Winter’s story and in Lea’s investigations and wanderings around Winter’s childhood home of Angelfield.

“Vida Winter’s appearance was not calculated for concealment.  she was an ancient queen, sorceress or goddess.  Her stiff figure rose regally out of a profusion of fat purple and red cushions.  Draped around her shoulders, the folds of the turquoise-and-green cloth that cloaked her body did not soften the rigidity of her frame.  Her bright copper hair had been arranged into an elaborate confection of twists, curls and coils.  Her face, as intricately lined as a map, was powdered white and finished with bold scarlet lipstick.  In her lap, her hands were a cluster of rubies, emeralds and white, bony knuckles; only her nails, unvarnished, cut short and square like my own, struck an incongruous note.”  (Page 43-4)

Despite this, Setterfield peppers her story with mist and ghosts, leaving the reader wondering if they are real.  The creation of Margaret and her back story, which is similar to Vida’s, is a bit contrived to propel the story forward and to engage Margaret in the investigation of Winter’s family.  Overall, the story within the story is the most engaging with incest, twins, and family secrets, and the story on which Winter builds her new life as an author.

“‘You think that a strange thing to say, but it’s true.  All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap, where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich organic mulch.  The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable.  Other people call it the imagination.  I think of it as a compost heap.'”  (Page 46)

The conclusion of the story is very anti-climatic with a wrap up of all the secondary and tertiary characters, which felt unnecessary, and there are elements of the story that remain unresolved.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is an intriguing novel that could have done better under a different structure to capture the reader’s attention fully, rather than allowing the story of Margaret to pull them out of the biography of Winter, who is the true protagonist of the novel.  While Margaret is a necessary evil in that she is picked by Winter to tell her story, and she must investigate the truth of it given the legend that surrounds Winter as an unreliable narrator, there are too many moments in which Margaret’s wanderings and indecision disengage the reader.

About the Author:

Diane Setterfield is a British author whose 2006 debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, became a New York Times #1 bestseller. It is written in the Gothic tradition, with echoes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

This is my 70th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.



What the Book Club Thought (Beware of Spoilers):

Most of the members enjoyed the novel, including the male member who selected the book as his pick for the month.  Two of our members, including me, just felt the book was an OK read.  While most of us did not mind that Setterfield did not provide a concrete time or setting for the novel, one of our female members wanted to feel more grounded.  Several members mentioned an overuse of Jane Eyre and allusions to the classic novel, which was clearly a favorite of the character and the author.  Most of us enjoyed the story within the story that was about Winter’s childhood and family and thought it was the most engaging.  While most of us did not hate Margaret, most of us believed it was contrived to make her a match for Winter’s story.  One male member absolutely did not like Margaret at all.

Also touched upon in the discussion was the great feelings of Margaret for her deceased twin, a twin that she never met and never saw given that she died almost immediately after birth.  Some of us didn’t believe in this feeling and deep connection, but would have believed it more if she had grow up with her twin and she died after a bond had formed.

At one point during the discussion, one member wondered aloud if Winter would have chosen someone as inexperienced as Margaret to write her biography or if she would have chosen someone with more experience.  In most of our estimations, we believed that Winter was as eccentric enough to want some unknown writer write her biography rather than someone more experienced.  In a way, some of us agreed that she would prefer an unknown writer because she could more easily manipulate the story with someone less experienced.

The cutting of Isabelle randomly when her and Charlie begin to interact seems incongruous with a young girl who is doted on by her father.  While we could see that the kids were neglected in many ways and that the dishevelment of the house played a role in how they all interacted, it was a bit of a stretch that a well-loved young lady would automatically cut herself and enjoy inflicting pain without a catalyst/reason.  One member, in particular, wanted to know more about why she engaged in those behaviors and why the incestuous relationship began or was inevitable.  However, given that the point of view of the story is from a younger member in the household as it was told to her, this was not possible, which again calls into question the structure the author chose to use.

Overall a good book with some good elements and some not-so-good elements.

How I Rank Our Book Club Picks for the First Round:

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  2. City of Thieves by David Benioff
  3. A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear
  4. When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  6. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
  7. Ashes by Ilsa Bick
  8. Star Wars & Philosophy by Kevin S. Decker and Jason Eberl

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is part one in a trilogy of dystopian young adult books in which an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) wipes out all electronics, including pacemakers and other devices inside people’s bodies.  Alex is a 17-year-old girl with a brain tumor, who also has lost her parents in a horrific accident and has undergone numerous traditional radiation and experimental treatments.  She decides to leave her Aunt Hannah’s house near Northwestern University and head to the Waucamaw Wilderness of Michigan to determine what to do next — whether to go on fighting the tumor or move on.

While in the woods, she meets Ellie, her grandfather, and their dog Mina.  The 8-year-old Ellie is sarcastic and bit angry since her father’s passing in Iraq, but when the EMP hits, the only one left to rely on is a stranger and her dog, a dog that reminds her of all she’s lost.  Granted, she has a right to be angry and sad, but she whines just a bit too much and readers may find that they would be glad if Alex were to ditch her in the woods alone.

“The buzz on the plane faded and the quiet descended again like a bell jar over the forest.”  (Page 13)

Bick’s writing is suspenseful and clear, but the end of each chapter reads like a cliffhanger.  After 30 chapters, readers will be singing the equivalent of DUN DUN DUN.  Not every chapter ending needs to be this dramatic especially when there are no major plot twists revealed.  In addition to the EMP and the dramatic chapter endings, Bick introduces the Changed (aka the zombies/cannibals), those who survived the EMP, but turned primal and become cannibals.  This being a trilogy, there was no explanation of what changed these people into cannibals, nor why some kids, like Alex, Ellie, and Tom, do not change.

“She didn’t know if the tightness in her throat or the fullness in her heart meant that he was there; that they were connected somehow.  Maybe all that she saw and felt was the sensual fullness of memory:  that which abided and was nothing but the ghost of a touch, the whisper of a word, the lingering of a scent.”  (Page 374)

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick is an action packed novel that reads like horror with all the graphic details about the killings and eating, but what it lacks is a cohesive story.  In one half of the book, Alex seems like a strong young lady interested in taking charge, but in the latter half of the book, she becomes mush.  Once in Rule, she no longer physically tries to fight or escape her captors once they’ve set her up in a house and she begins work in the hospice, and of course, meets a kind boy her own age.  The novel becomes less about the EMP and the zombies than it is about the cult-like settlement of Rule in which surviving women are passed off like chattle and are only good for propagating the species.  In many ways, it is like the author could not decide what story to tell, and whether the character was to be strong and a main catalyst or merely a weak pawn in a larger chess board.  At more than 400 pages, readers may find that editing could have compacted the story more and maybe the plot could have been tied up a little better, with fewer loose ends — even for a trilogy this has too many.  However, if you are looking for something entertaining and fast-paced, this is for you.

About the Author:

Ilsa J. Bick is an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books and novels. She has written for several long-running science fiction series, most notably Star Trek, Battletech, and Mechwarrior:Dark Age. She’s taken both Grand and Second Prize in the Strange New Worlds anthology series (1999 and 2001, respectively), while her story, “The Quality of Wetness,” took Second Prize in the prestigious Writers of the Future contest in 2000. Her first Star Trek novel, Well of Souls, was a 2003 Barnes & Noble bestseller.


This is my 62nd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.


Book Club Thoughts (Beware of Spoilers):

This selection was from one of the male members in the group who reads a great deal of young adult dystopian fiction.

Most members enjoyed the book for what it was, a fast-paced thrilling dystopian novel, but two of us disliked it because the zombies were implausible and the main character was too weak by the end.  One member said that the portion of the book in Rule was “bungled.”  While I felt that Chris in Rule was a cardboard cutout of a “good guy,” one other member liked him more than Tom, the earlier love interest for Alex.  The youngest member of the group hopes that Tom is still alive in book two, Shadows, because as of now, his fate is unknown.

Most of us agreed that should the world end as we know it that a marshal law would be necessary to keep people civil to one another and that controlling information — even about super senses — is an essential part of that.  However, I disagreed that Alex would have become as complacent as she did and merely though about squirreling away supplies; I wanted more from her — maybe more recon or attempting to find out how the town of Rule operated and why.  The information that she does glean is told to her by some rather chatty members of the town, and she learns the information with little effort on her part or very little help from her super smell.

In the final cliffhanger of the book, Alex learns that the town of Rule has been feeding the teen cannibals, but she doesn’t know why.  One of our female members suggested that maybe the teen cannibals were once some of the town’s own children that became the Changed and the members could not bring themselves to kill their own kids.  Another member said that feeding the enemy is incredibly stupid and that the town should be cutting off the food supply; at this point the town is merely aiding in their own doom.  There also are quite a few loose ends in the book that some of us noticed, and it would have been nice if some of them were tied up by the end of book one so that new mysteries could be revealed and unraveled in book two.

Five of us, which is a majority, said they would read the second book to find out what happens, but three of us were not interested in reading book two at all for a variety of reasons.  However, looks as though we’ll all be reading Shadows as it was selected from the nominations by the member who selected Ashes.

Book Club Schedule

At this point, the book club has been humming along, and we’ve come down to a name of Eclectic Bookworms as far as I can tell.  At this past meeting, we selected books for the end of this year and through May 2013.

  • Sept.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, which I’ve had on the shelf since I began blogging five years ago!
  • Oct. The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which I bought ages ago and still sits unread.
  • Nov. King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz
  • Dec. Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell — ah, poems, you’ll never guess whose nomination this was!
  • Jan. Ripper by Stefan Petruchia; I’ve got a disturbing fascination with Jack the Ripper.
  • Feb. Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick
  • Mar. Every Man Dies Alone by Han Fallada — Anna’s nominations were too hard for me to choose between, it’s a good thing majority ruled in this one.
  • Apr. Winters End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated by Anthea Bell; I’m happy to see this is a translated work.
  • May The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman; I cannot wait to read this because yes, I have a fascination with certain artists and Van Gogh is one of them.

As usually, when I post the reviews of these books, I’ll be sure to add the book club’s thoughts on each and a spoiler warning.

What’s your book club reading?

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan has been compared to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, but it is really a combination of the two as Hannah Payne is not melachromed for adultery, but for another sin and she lives in a world where the separation between church and state has been broken.  Roe vs. Wade has been overturned once a scourge has rendered most women unable to have children and men who are carriers unwittingly have passed the disease onto unsuspecting partners.  Under the defense of saving the human race, society has outlawed abortion.  This idea parallels the notions of The Handmaid’s Tale, though the society in that novel is more severe in terms of limiting women’s rights and control over their bodies.

Punishment for breaking the laws of this society are no longer being thrown in jail, but being chromed and thrown back out into society to face ridicule and stigmatization.  Chroming takes place when a virus — which had unknown side effects for many years and often results in fragmentation of the brain if not re-administered every six months or reversed properly — turns the skin the color of the crime, such as red for violent offenders and blue for molesters.  Once back in society these men and women are looked upon as freaks and outsiders, and they are lucky if they are given jobs to survive on their own while their sentence is carried out.

“The virus no longer mutated the pigment of the eyes as it had in the early days of melachroming.  There’d been too many cases of blindness, and that, the courts had decided, constituted cruel and unusual punishment.”  (Page 6-7)

Aiden Dale in Jordan’s book is very reminiscent of Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter in that his character is very weak and he is forced by the pressures of guilt to confess.  Naturally, Hannah is a young women in a close knit community of religious communities and the injury of her father leaves the family in a precarious position until their pastor Aiden Dale comes to the rescue.  His character is only seen through Hannah’s eyes as she is the main point of view throughout the novel, which leaves a lot of his motivations in question, especially given the relationship he embarks upon as a pastor and married man.

Jordan’s novel is very fast-paced, and may even be too fast-paced as it seems that Hannah needs a moment to slow down, breathe, reflect but her character is very emotional, impulsive, and impatient.  Given her upbringing in a religious community, it is clear that she knows little of the outside world in Texas, which is cliche location for a novel about ultraconservative religious groups, etc.  Her actions are frustrating, but at least they are understandable given her upbringing, but there are other occasions where she seems superior in her perceptions of others’ personalities and actions and yet completely oblivious when others are plying her with food and a place to sleep after being chromed.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is ultimately a mesh of worlds that does not go to the extremes of the other nations created by Atwood and Hawthorne, and in that, the world building loses ground as it uses a heavy-handed nature in drawing parallels to today’s society, its punishments, and our own history of discrimination against certain groups.  However, this novel would make an excellent selection for a book club discussion given the issues it raises about the separation of religion and government, abortion, crime and punishment, and other topics.

About the Author:

Hillary Jordan received her BA in English and Political Science from Wellesley College and spent fifteen years working as an advertising copywriter before starting to write fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.  (Photo by Michael Epstein)

What the Book Club Thought (beware of spoilers):

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan was one of the two books I nominated and the book club selected it for this month’s discussion.

Most members agreed that the character of Aiden was very weak and that we disliked him.  One member insisted that most of us had laid too much blame on Hannah for what happened to her, but the women of the group said that blame lied with both Aiden and Hannah.  Given that Hannah knew Aiden was not only her pastor, but also a married man, she should not have engaged in an illicit affair with him, and he knew he was married and a paragon of the community.  While this is billed as a love story, I didn’t see the depth I expect from love-based relationships and the relationship between Aiden and Hannah appeared to be more one of lust and passion than of love.

While some of the sci-fi elements worked best for one member of the book club, others of us were happy that unlike the Hunger Games series of books the back story as to why the society had changed so drastically was presented.  Some of the members thought that Jordan skewed some elements of the society such as making all of the religious figures and members mean or evil, except for the one female priest.  But one of us thought there was a balance in the casting as there were good and bad in both the religious community from the bad priest and his wife to Hannah’s father who was more tolerant and in the Novemberists (which reminded me of the V is for Vendetta movie with its focus on November and bombing, etc.) there were good and bad guys as well.

In terms of the books we’ve read so far, this one generated a great deal of discussion about what would happen in today’s society if Roe vs. Wade was overturned (which most of us don’t see happening), what punishments are considered cruel and unusual, what being a second-class citizen would entail if we were chromed, and how the women in the group felt about abortion.  One of our members also suggested that the book is focused on demonstrating that we should not judge others and their sins but worry about ourselves, even if we are devote Catholics, etc.

This is my 57th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is a quick read even at 600+ pages, and is a middle grade novel that pairs words and images to tell a heartfelt story of family, discovery, and understanding.  Ben, who has one good ear, has lost his mother in a car accident in 1977 Minnesota and is thrust into his aunt’s home with his cousin Robby, who isn’t too keen on sharing his room.  Ben by all accounts is a curious and shy boy, whom his mother showered with love and attention, encouraging him to scavenge for mementos along the way, which he kept in his museum box.  The loss of his mother weighs heavily on him, and upon discovering his other cousin, Janet, in his mother’s room, he decides to remain behind and feel closer to her.

Meanwhile, Rose’s story is told in drawings set in New Jersey and New York City.  The narration shifts from the present (1977) and Ben’s story to Rose’s story in 1927.  Their stories parallel one another at various points after Ben makes the fateful decision to run away to find the father he has never known.  Wolves, nature, and the Big Apple loom large in both stories as Ben and Rose make their way into the unknown.

Selznick’s prose has an easy flow between the illustrations and the text, and given that both stories are told in separate mediums, it is easy for younger readers to keep them straight. Most readers will note the parallels in the two stories and likely will uncover the final destination long before the last page is turned. The illustrations are detailed in some cases, but there are moments where the illustrations seem to be just filler pages to increase the suspense associated with Ben’s story of self-discovery. Rose’s story could have been told in fewer pages and more sparsely spaced throughout the book and the connections would still have been present.

“The curator then must decide exactly how the objects will be displayed.  In a way, anyone who collects things in the privacy of his own home is a curator.  Simply choosing how to display your things, deciding what pictures to hang where, and in which order your books belong, places you in the same category as a museum curator.” (page 98-9)

Additionally, readers may find that they wanted more about the teasing Ben endures as a boy with only one good ear and who does not know sign language, as well as more about Rose’s story as a young deaf girl in the late 1920s who is sheltered a little too much by her parents.  However, Selznick doesn’t always need a pencil to paint a picture of readers, especially when he can do it so well with words.

“Jamie came and sat next to him as the sky filled with shooting stars.  The projector rotated, the view changed, and the boys found themselves inside a meteor, hurtling across the sky.  They flew to the moon and bounced between craters.  One by one, the planets drifted into view, and soon they were out beyond the solar system, gazing down on the universe like ancient gods.  Ben thought of the glow-in-the-dark stars in his room, and the Big Dipper, and the quote about the stars, and his mom.  The glowing lights above him spun and swirled, tracing endless patterns against the perfect dome of the ceiling like a million electric fireflies making constellations in the dark.”  (page 406)

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick definitely will appeal to younger readers and illustrators, but it should not be discounted as a fluffy YA novel.  There is a deeper message about finding one’s place outside your own family, about discovering new places and wonders, and about finding the courage to take chances.

What the Book Club Thought (beware of spoilers):

Wonderstruck was the selection of our youngest member, The Girl from Diary of an Eccentric. She prepared discussion questions ahead of time to see what everyone thought of the entire book, the way the two stories were told, and whether anything surprised us. We also discussed what each of us would put in our own museum boxes, and answers ranged from coin collections and shells to Red Sox and Patriots stuff to pictures, stuffed animals, and other sentimental items.

We had an interesting discussion about the “Captain Obvious” nature of some of the prose (The Girl’s words, not ours), and about whether who Rose was or how the stories came together surprised any of us. Most of us were not surprised to find out who Rose was, but I was surprised to learn who Walter was. Many of us agreed that Rose’s ability to cut up a book for the deaf and create a paper replica of NYC was fantastic, and I particularly liked how one of the buildings she made had the picture of the mouth on it from the book. One of the male members liked elements of the story individually, but not how they came together as a whole. Overall, it seemed like most of us enjoyed the book, though two members were absent from the discussion this time around.

Next month is my selection, When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, and one of our members has already finished it and is itching for discussion.

About the Author:

Brian Selznick is the illustrator of “Frindle” by Andrew Clements, “Riding Freedom” and “Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride,” both by Pam Munoz Ryan; as well as his own book “The Houdini Box,” winner of the 1993 Texas Bluebonnet Award. Mr. Selznick lives in Brooklyn, New York.


This is my 47th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves by David Benioff, which was the May book club selection, is set during WWII on the Western front of the war between 1942 and 1945, though mostly during the nearly 900 day siege of Leningrad, which was cut off from supplies of food and more.  Lev and Kolya are thrown together by circumstance when Lev is arrested as a looter when a dead German is found in his neighborhood and he’s discovered taking items off the body and is sent to the Crosses.  Kolya a Red Army deserter is thrown in the Crosses where he meets Lev.  The dynamic between these characters is full of initial paranoia, which morphs into irritation and finally camaraderie.  Kolya loves to chat about anything and everything, but he’s particularly boastful about his sexual exploits and his experience with just about everything related to war.  He’s pompous but in a comical way, and he reminds me of those wise jesters in the king’s court who uses humor to slice to the root of truth, even at times when it could be fatal.  Lev is a young boy who often portrays himself as an older young man or younger as it is convenient to the situation.

“There was something oddly comforting in Kolya’s consistency, his willingness to make the same jokes — if you could call them jokes — over and over again.  He was like a cheerful senile grandfather who sat at the dinner table with beet soup splattered on his collar, telling once more the story of his encounter with the emperor, though everyone in his family could recite it now from memory.” (page 161)

The beginning almost sets it up as a framed story in which the author or someone with the same name as the author hears the story from his grandfather, the knife fighter.  It’s not a far stretch to imagine the beginning chapter sets the story up to read similar to a memoir of David’s grandfather, Lev Beniov.  However, the frame is never closed literally by the end of the story, which is good in this case because it provides the story with a greater emotional impact.

“Wick lamps lit the small apartment and out long shadows crept across the walls, across the frayed rugs on the floor, the brass samovar in the corner, and a white sheet hanging on the far side of the room — partitioning off the sleeping area, I assumed.  When the giant closed the door, the sheet billowed like a woman’s dress in the wind.  In the moment before it settled down I saw what lay behind it — not a bed, no furniture at all, just slabs of white meat hanging from hooks, suspended from a heating pipe by heavy chains, with a canvas drop cloth on the floor to collect the drippings.”  (page 59)

Lev and Kolya embark on a journey to find eggs — yes, that is a chicken in the far snowy distance on the cover — to save their own hides, a deal offered by a powerful Soviet colonel.  They mean cannibals, partisans, and of course Germans bent on killing them.  While there is darkness, mystery, and suspense, there also is a quaint feeling to the setting and the interactions between Lev and his new friend.  The absurdity of their situation is never lost on them, and it attempts to mirror the absurdity of war.  Despite the danger they find themselves in, they often joke and rag on one another as if they are playing baseball in the streets of Leningrad.

City of Thieves is a well written coming-of-age story at a time when the world was at war, but in spite of the danger, Lev and Kolya form an unbreakable bond.  It’s easy to see their tentative interactions blossom into true friendship, a bond that keeps them alive and watching each other’s backs throughout the novel.  While in the midst of German attacks, in the rural farmhouses appropriated by Germans as whorehouses, and even in a remote hunting cabin, the journey they are on is not only one in search of eggs, but in search of the faith and strength they need to survive.  Another for the best of list.

Here’s what Book Club thought (Caution may contain spoilers):

We actually had a rather long discussion about this book from the prologue and the interjection of the author in the prologue as the grandson of one of the main characters to what the eggs symbolized.  One of the members thought that the eggs symbolized the absurdity of war, while another thought it was the fragility of human life.  As for the prologue, most said that they had forgotten about it, while two others (including myself) thought it was the author’s ego leading him to place himself in the story.  Although it’s an interesting device, it also seems to make the story appear true when it is not — given that in interviews the author has said he was never able to ask his grandparents about their time in Germany during WWII before they died.  And the prologue is not the only instance of the author interjecting his family subtly into the novel — i.e. Lev Beniov is one of the main characters, a close last name to David Benioff.

There also was quite a lot of discussion about the “Courtyard of the Hound,” which was talked about as a great work of Russian literature by Kolya and whether it was a great work of literature, could be a great work of literature, or was merely a boring story about a shut in who finally leaves his apartment because of a dead dog.

Other elements we discussed is the lack of care with human life by the generals on both sides of the war — whether the Russian colonel sending Kolya and Lev on an absurd journey to find eggs when all Russians are starving or the callous way in which the Germans used Russian women as sexual play things.  One member also highlighted the seeming lack of outrage regarding the cannibals compared to the outrage displayed against the women who were being used as whores by the Germans and acquiesced so that they could survive — why was one form of survival better than another or at least more acceptable.  Another interesting point was made about the cinematic feel of the latter half of the book where there were dramatic scenes lumped together one after another from the dogs used to carry bombs under tanks to the German whorehouse and the showdown with the German elite assassins.  It seemed to be very packed in and gave the reader little time to breath or be deeply impacted by the events at hand, which I did notice that this half of the book read more like a screenplay (haphazard of the author’s screenwriting occupation perhaps?).

Also, please read Diary of an Eccentric‘s review.

About the Author:

David Benioff worked as a nightclub bouncer in San Francisco, a radio DJ in Wyoming and an English teacher/wrestling coach in Brooklyn before selling his first novel, The 25th Hour, in 2000.

He later wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s adaptation of Hour starring Edward Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In 2005, Viking Press published Benioff’s collection of short stories, When the Nines Roll Over.

Benioff’s screenwriting credits include Troy (2004), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and Stay (2005), directed by Marc Forster, and The Kite Runner (2007). Jim Sheridan produced Benioff’s screenplay Brothers, and Hugh Jackman reprised his role as the clawed mutant in Benioff’s Wolverine. Viking published his most recent novel, City of Thieves, in May 2008.

Benioff is married to actress Amanda Peet; the couple has one daughter, Frances Pen. Also check out his interviews.  And another interview.

This is my 39th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear is the eighth book in the Maisie Dobbs series of cozy mysteries, but can be read as a stand-alone novel.  Set between the end of WWI and the beginnings of WWII, Dobbs is called upon by the British Special Branch to be their eyes and ears inside the College of St. Francis about events that would cause concern to the Crown.  Once installed as a junior lecturer of philosophy, a murder occurs that sets events in motion and tangles Dobbs in yet another mystery.

Dobbs runs her own private investigation agency in London, but she’s called away to a college in Cambridge on special assignment, leaving the office in the capable and reliable hands of Billy Beale.  Beyond the murder mystery and the search for anything that threatens national security, Dobbs is concerned about her father and her friend Sandra, who has just lost her husband in a freak accident.

“She wound down the window and gave a hand signal to indicate that she was pulling over to the side of the road, thus allowing an Austin Seven behind to pass, followed by the motor car that had been shadowing her for at least half an hour.  As soon as they passed, she turned back onto the road again and began to drive as close to the vehicle in front as safety would allow.” (page 3)

Winspear crafts an intricate novel of mystery that resonates with the reader as Dobbs is a strong woman making her way in a man’s world just after the war has ended and women are struggling to maintain their new found freedom.  Dobbs is a strong woman, though scarred, who is intelligent and observant.  Interestingly, Winspear demonstrates how idle gossip can provide just the nugget of information investigators need to close in on a killer.  While Dobbs is kept in the dark about the knowledge held by government officials, she manages to uncover their secrets and those of other government officials who view her as an inconsequential lecturer.

Although there are three or more stories going on at once, Maisie is always central and she juggles so many tasks with ease — almost like she is superhuman.  Pacifism, the treatment of conscientious objectors, and whether someone’s heritage plays a role in their loyalties are just some of the issues addressed in this novel.  A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear raises questions of how much should we idolize our mentors — after all they are just human — and whether we should vilify those that do not see the world in quite the same way that we do.  Moreover, she tackles the power of the written word and its impact on political parties, soldiers, and average citizens, plus how words can inflame already volatile situations.

About the Author:

Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in the county of Kent, England. Following higher education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, Jacqueline worked in academic publishing, in higher education, and in marketing communications in the UK.

She emigrated to the United States in 1990, and while working in business and as a personal / professional coach, Jacqueline embarked upon a life-long dream to be a writer.  Find out more about Jacqueline at her website, www.jacquelinewinspear.com, and find her on Facebook.

This is my 19th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.




This is my 8th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.

Star Wars & Philosophy edited by Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl

Star Wars & Philosophy edited by Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl is a collection of philosophical essays that draw on the Star Wars movies for examples and the philosophies of St. Augustine, Sartre, and others.  The collection is moderately well done in some parts and blatantly falls short in others, with one particular essay not using secondary sources to back up its arguments at all and leaving readers to beg the question whether Trekkies can write about Star Wars at all.  The essays draw on ancient philosophers as far back as Plato and Aristotle as well as one essay about Eastern philosophies and mythologies.  There are also essays that point to the theories of Kant, Heidegger, and Hegel.

Broken up into four sections — May the Force Be With You: The Philosophical Messages of Star Wars; Try Not — Do or Do Not: Ethics in a Galaxy Far, Far Away; Don’t Call Me a Mindless Philosopher: Alien Technologies and the Metaphysics of the Force; and There’s Always a Bigger Fish: Truth, Faith and a Galactic Society — the collection tackles the hidden philosophies and ethics inherent in the story behind Star Wars and its characters, plus the ethics of future wars and whether droids can be considered people (not humans).  There also are questions about whether everything is preordained or if we have the free will to choose our own paths.  Moreover, religion and moral ambiguity are discussed as well, especially in terms of prophecy and whether one can choose to be moral even if a destiny signifies an opposite action.

In terms of Yoda, when watching the movies, there is a clear Eastern philosophical influence in his manner, his behavior and his teachings, but in the essay “Stoicism in the Stars” by William O. Stephens, the author also makes the case that Yoda is a Stoic and takes on the role of the Sage who never rises to anger and never gives into the desires or seeks out adventure or excitement.  Additionally, Stephens comments on how Stoics often live in agreement with Nature as Yoda does in his hut on Dagobah, and Yoda praises equanimity and peace of mind, which also is characteristic of Buddhists and others who meditate to find peace and separate themselves from ego.  In a way, several essays — even though they focus on Western philosophy — often draw out elements of those philosophies that are found in Eastern philosophy, such as the fluidity of the Force in Star Wars or the fluidity of the future despite prophecies and destinies referred to with regard to the Skywalker family, which is somewhat like the soul or the energy shared by all living things in Eastern philosophy that is reused and recycled in nature (i.e. reincarnation, etc.).

What does this collection offer that is new to someone who was a philosophy major or minor, probably very little, but what was intriguing was some of the history lessons, such as the parallels between the Jedi in Star Wars and the Hwa Rang as leaders of the “military.”  It does provide a great number of secondary resources for readers to check out should they need further explanation of a philosophy without the Star Wars references.  None of the references used were overly surprising in the well done essays, but there were times when references to the movies were inappropriate to the argument being made.  Such was the case in the essay “Send in the Clones:  The Ethics of Future Wars” by Richard Hanley (which cited no secondary sources other than a previous essay in the book) in which Hanley talks about Just War Theory — that is only satisfied by having the right intention, competent authority, just cause, reasonable prospect of success, discrimination, and proportionality — but does not use an example of actual war from the movie.  Rather, Hanley relies on the slaughter of the Sand people by Anakin Skywalker, which he engages in to revenge the killing of his mother by specific Sand people.  Clearly, the vengeful act of Anakin is not warfare and should not be used to demonstrate unjust war.

Star Wars & Philosophy edited by Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl offers little in the way of new theories about the movies, but does provide fodder for book club discussions and additional contemplation about our world and our selves.

***March Book Club Selection***

We all arrived early it seemed to Novel Places for our March meeting, which could have been a sign we were eager to discuss the book.

This selection was made by one of the males in the group and it did generate a great deal of discussion, even though he was likely the only one who finished the entire collection.  Most of the group picked a few essays to read, while some of us attempted to read more than half.  The essay about whether droids could be considered people generated a great deal of discussion as some of us could see the difference the author was trying to draw between being a “person” and likely being “human.”  Others thought that the argument was not well done, though the example in the essay of a blind woman believing C3P0 was a “man” and not a “droid” just from listening to the movie was telling about how well George Lucas had drawn the character to be human-like.

Another essay generating a great deal of discussion was the one regarding the gray areas of war and of course the use of clones in warfare, though the essay had fallen apart as the arguments were not backed by secondary sources and the author failed to sustain the foundation of his arguments.

Overall, the club would probably say it was a tepid read, but it did generate a great deal of discussion about the world around us, war, and morality.  For that reason, I’d recommend it alone.  I generally think this book would have worked better with two contrasting essays on a given point, such as whether clone armies should be used and whether clone armies should not be used and the reasons for each, because it would have provided a more rounded discussion.  I also think that even though there were Star Wars references illustrating the authors’ points, some essays could have benefited from a little more background and use of secondary sources.

For April, we’re reading A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear.

The Giveaway:

1. Leave a comment about why you’d want to read this book in the comments.

2.  Extra entries for those that Tweet, Facebook, or otherwise spread the word about the giveaway and leave me a link.

Deadline is March 31, 2012. Open Internationally.


This is my 18th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is a Gothic novel with strong themes of corruption, innocence, and the “grand” Faustian bargain.  The novel begins with Basil Hallward who speaks of a mysterious and beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, to his friend Lord Henry Wotton who has some very hedonistic world views.  With elements of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Wilde has created a critique of the Victorian era by exaggerating elements of the Romantic age, particularly the horror, awe, and aesthetic experience, which is embodied in Lord Henry and eventually Dorian Gray — in the most absurd way.

Dorian is an insanely narcissistic man who meets Basil and Lord Henry, two men obsessed with beauty and pleasure and its fleeting nature.  Basil is more obsessed with Dorian’s stunning beauty as a fuel for his art, while Lord Henry pontificates his various theories about pleasure and beauty and its transient nature in an effort to garner Dorian’s favor and fuel his own ego that loves the art of influencing others.  Dorian is ripe for Henry’s picking as he seems to be — at least initially — like a child seeking stimulation and knowledge, but like a child, he does not have the tools to question what he is told and what he experiences.

“There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence.  No other activity was like it.  To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or strange perfume:  there was a real joy in that — perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited and vulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly common in its aims . . . ” (page 26)

Wilde’s prose is full of contradictions and theories about the age in which these characters live, and many of these theories (contradictory and otherwise) are espoused by Lord Henry, who remains a catalyst for Dorian’s thinking, which ultimately leads to his tragic downfall.  What’s interesting is that the Faustian bargain is not an outright bargain made by Dorian, but simply an expressed wish that comes true.  This technique is typical of Gothic literature in that some supernatural elements occur and are not explained.  However, Dorian is not blameless in the events that befall him because he is given several opportunities to amend his ways and to experience life more deeply than his superficial pleasure seeking.  For instance, he meets a young woman, Sibyl Vane, who mirrors his older self in that she is innocent of influence and able to see the good and beauty in all of life before her, in spite of its obvious crassness and dingy elements.  But rather than seizing the moment to become something more, Dorian again falls into Lord Henry’s mold, only able to see the superficial and abandons Sibyl, who like Ophelia and Juliet has little choice but to exit from his world.

“There is something of a child about her.  Her eyes opened wide in exquisite wonder when I told her what I thought of her performance, and she seemed quite unconscious of her power.” (page 39)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is like a flippant response to an age where pleasure was the main concern, but its dark, Gothic undertones provide a horrifying examination of how pleasure-seeking and narcissism can lead to a corruption of the soul.  Dorian is a young man led willingly astray by his peers and willingly ignores reason and his conscience to improve his treatment of others and himself.  When the portrait takes on his sins, he becomes free of accountability and engages the world in more than one way that dirties his soul and that of those around him.

***This was the first selection for my new book club***

Only one member did not finish the book, and he said that the language and dialogue between the male characters was unrealistic to him and he had a hard time connecting with the characters and their story.  Other members seemed to like the book well enough, but no one was overly impressed with it, though it did generate a great deal of discussion as to whether Lord Henry was the devil or merely an influencer and why Dorian was so eager to follow the path laid out for him by Lord Henry.  There was a great deal of discussion as to what caused the painting to reflect Dorian’s sins and how that came about and whether the fact that the painting absorbed all his evilness allowed him to not be accountable for his actions and fueled his downfall.

There were some in the club who wanted to know more about certain events in the book (i.e. a poignant blackmail letter), and most of us agreed that the pages of description of Dorian’s collection of fabrics, jewelry, and musical instruments was dry and excessive, it did point to Dorian’s excessive existence.

While it was no one’s favorite book, it certainly generated a great deal of discussion.  I may have liked the book a little more than others and kept pimping the movie version with Ben Barnes.

We’re looking forward to March’s pick:  Star Wars & Philosophy by Kevin Decker and Jason Eberl

New Book Club, New Beginning

Anna and I have had bad luck with book clubs over the last several years, as we continue to seek like-minded individuals who are willing to give anything a try in their reading and not quit a book club simply because they hate one of the books they’ve read.

This past Saturday, we met with our new book club at Novel Places — my new favorite bookstore. Our meeting lasted about 2 hours as we browsed the books — used and new — and chatted about how we’d select the books we’d read. So far, we have all our books through August selected. A few of our members were not able to make the meeting, so I suspect their book nominations will fill out the rest of the year. We have an interesting mix of classic and contemporary fiction, historical fiction, scifi-like fiction, and nonfiction. I cannot wait until the February meeting where we’ll talk about our first book, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

In case you’re interested in the rest of our list, here it is:

Feb.: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
March: Star Wars & Philosophy by Kevin Decker
April: A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear
May: City of Thieves by David Benioff
June: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
July: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
Aug.: Ashes by Ilsa Bick

What will your book club be reading?