Monthly Archives: January 2012

Year of 52 Books #5: Wintergirls

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson


How do I write a review of this book?

A week later, I’m still shaken by it.

I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak last year and loved it. I cried when I finished it—beautiful and cathartic tears. It hit me in a way that a lot of books don’t. It was definitely a five-star read for me.

I’ve decided that Wintergirls is a five-star read, too, but it took me a long time to make that decision.

Wintergirls is no less powerful than Speak. In fact, I’d say it packs an even stronger punch, although I hate to use such a cliché for such a book, even though I can only think of clichés to describe it. Kick in the gut, brick to the face, hit by a train, knock the wind out of you, rip you open—pick your own description here, that’s what this book did to me emotionally. I couldn’t put it down even though it was, simply put, terrifying.

The book begins with Lia, a high school senior, being told by her stepmother that Lia’s best friend Cassie was found dead in a motel room. Cassie and Lia haven’t spoken for six months, which is why Lia didn’t answer her phone over the weekend when Cassie tried calling her thirty-three times, and now Lia is haunted by the idea that somehow she is responsible for Cassie’s death.

Which sounds simple enough, and rough enough for a book premise.


The reason Cassie and Lia haven’t been close is because Cassie’s parents made her stop talking to Lia after Lia’s second stint in rehab for anorexia. The first stint happened after Lia blacked out while driving Cassie’s car because she didn’t have enough food in her system and when the paramedics got there her blood pressure and body temperature were only just this side above dead, and Lia’s secret was out. Cassie wasn’t even scratched and so her secret eating disorder, bulimia, stayed secret and she stayed popular and cut off Lia as “a bad influence.”

Until Cassie winds up dead in a motel room.

Honestly, I have never read a book this intense, where the heroine seems absolutely determined to destroy herself slowly and systematically. Nearly every time a food is mentioned, Lia tacks on the number of calories in parentheses. She often speaks in strikethrough font, so you can see the war between her body and her mind as she slowly and determinedly tries to starve herself down to 99, 95, 90, 85 pounds and lower, all while hiding that fact from her family so they won’t send her back to the hospital. “I take the cup [of orange juice] from her. My throat wants it my brain wants it my blood wants it my hand does not want this my mouth does not want this.”

I had no idea until the very end whether Lia was going to make it or not, and it was a sick-making kind of feeling to watch her spiral downward out of control and not be able to shake her awake, or wave my arms in front of her parents’ faces and say “How are you not seeing this?” or heavens, just shove a cupcake down her throat or do something, anything to get her or anyone to see the madness and stop it. It was not a comfortable book to read.

And yet I couldn’t put it down. I read it straight through and felt absolutely depressed for most of the rest of the day as I processed it. Anderson’s writing style is gripping and immediate and visceral, and you really do feel like you’re living through the experience yourself, which, as I said, is not a comfortable thing. But there is no doubt it is well written.

I don’t know if I liked this book or not. I do know I won’t forget it any time soon.

And I think that I’m going to have to recommend it to people to read. Not like Speak, which I think everyone should read, period, no exceptions. But I think that some people should take the opportunity to read Wintergirls because even though it’s not a comfortable experience, it is a powerful experience, and one that will change you.

(And if you do read it, I’d love to discuss it with you.)


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Year of 52 books #4: Longitude

Confession: I’ve had some crazy scheduling stuff come up recently so while I’m currently reading book #6, I’m a bit behind in my reviews, so I’ll be playing catch-up in the next few days. I finished this book a little over a week ago.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

by Dava Sobel



My dad loves documentaries, especially of the National Geographic or Nova variety. This may be where a lot of his random trivia knowledge comes from; I know that the things I learned through osmosis while these programs were on in the house for much of my childhood certainly come in handy when it’s Trivial Pursuit time. They also, incidentally, made me look like a huge nerd (yes, even more than normal) one time in eighth grade history class when I happened to be the only student who not only had heard of but also was able to tell about the German Enigma code machine from WWII. I had learned about the enigma machine while sitting on the couch in our family room downstairs, probably working on some counted cross stitch project (my nerdiness factor really isn’t shrinking much here, is it?) as my dad watched a TV program on the code breaker. I think he also used the opportunity to tell me about the decoder rings he had loved in his childhood, but I may just be thinking of A Christmas Story.

Anyway. Most of the documentaries he watched have just kind of blurred together for me, but I do have a specific memory of once again sitting downstairs (only this time I was working on a puzzle, I think of a map of the USA—yeah, I’m never getting rid of the nerd label now) watching a documentary about the search for longitude with my dad. I also remember missing the end of it because I was rather young and my mom made me come upstairs to get ready for bed. So when I saw that the Kindle Daily Deal awhile back (we’ll talk another time about just how much I adore the KDD) was a book called Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, you can bet I 1-clicked the heck out of that deal.

And I loved this book. It’s written as a popular account rather than a history, so while it is still historically accurate and well-researched, it moves along at a great clip, it doesn’t get bogged down in footnotes and it’s exciting and accessible. It almost reads like a novel in some places—you’ve got your problem that is threatening the existence of the kingdom; your plucky hero from somewhere obscure, fighting against all odds to save the day; your villains and antagonists who are bound and determined to throw every obstacle possible into the hero’s way in order to win the glory for themselves; and somehow it all turns out right in the end. Throw in a handful of astronomers and watch-makers and you’ve got Longitude.

Most people don’t realize in our era of GPS and Google Earth that in the early and not-so-early-at-all days of sailing, longitude was a major problem. Captains could determine latitude quite easily from the sun and the equator, but longitude was a different matter all together. Leaving aside the basic fact that people couldn’t agree where the Prime Meridian should be in the first place, even once you started from the prime meridian you had no accurate way to measure your distance from it. This could lead to disaster at sea, from not knowing how close you were to shore, which led to a disastrous shipwreck of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell’s fleet on the Scilly Islands in 1707, causing a loss of 4 ships and 2000 men; or from losing time and supplies backtracking to find your destination, as in the case of Commodore George Anson, whose longitudinal delays in 1741 eventually led to the death by scurvy of more than half of his 500-man crew. These and similar disasters prompted Parliament to establish the Longitude Act in 1714, which formed the Board of Longitude to award a prize worth millions of today’s dollars to the person who came up with (and proved!) an accurate method of determining longitude at sea.

Sobel’s subtitle makes it seem as though this book is mostly focused on English clockmaker John Harrison, who eventually won the prize. However, the book’s scope is a bit wider than the subtitle lets on, and Harrison’s story is only one of the threads of the narrative. Sobel also chronicles several failed attempts, some of which are hilariously bad (one involving pouring “sympathy powder” on a wounded dog’s tail at a set time everyday is particularly great, as is the one that proposed to anchor ships at various intervals throughout the ocean to set off fireworks and cannons at set times), and the aftermath of Harrison’s inventions. All in all, this is an excellent and comprehensive-enough view of the longitude problem, and it was fascinating.

I loved Sobel’s writing style, which was clear and succinct but also lyrical. I also have to applaud her choice of chapter epigraphs, especially the nod to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” (and that was the last nail in my nerd coffin. Ah, well). My one complaint is that there were no accompanying pictures of the people or devices described in the book, at least not in my Kindle edition.

If you’re interested in readable history and science (or even if you think you don’t like history or science) and cool inventions and astronomy and unpleasant people with names like Rev. Maskelyne, do yourself a favor and pick up Longitude.

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Year of 52 Books #3: I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I have been meaning to read this book for some time, and was spurred on by several references that Kristen has made to it in the past few months. (I would claim that I also picked it up because the author also wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the book upon which my son’s favorite movie is based, but I have to admit that despite seeing Dodie Smith’s name in the credits as often as I do, I didn’t make that connection until I glanced at the author bio in the back of the book. Movie recognition fail.)

This book hit me in a funny way that I can’t quite describe. I was pre-disposed to like it based on what I’d heard about it and also the fact that I approve of plots that resemble Austen in general. (People often mistake Jane Austen books for romantic comedies, which is true to some extent, but that misses the HUGE undercurrent of the do-or-die struggle that is the Regency marriage game.) And I did enjoy it, but it went deeper than that.

The Mortmain family is living out their 40-year lease of an old castle which has fallen and continues to fall into disrepair. They are in a state of not-so-genteel poverty, although the grinding hopelessness of their situation doesn’t really crash down on the reader as it might because it is held at bay by the wonderful personality that is the narrator, Cassandra Mortmain. Can I just say that I love her? I love her in the way you love a sister or a best friend (or, occasionally, yourself), who you cheer for and laugh with and who makes you tear your hair out when they do really stupid things that you can’t save them from and which you know they are better than. I loved her voice, the way she frequently stops to take stock of herself and her feelings, and her determination to be fully honest with herself in the journals she’s keeping.

Cassandra’s older sister, Rose, out of desperation, determines to marry strictly for money. I get this. I remember a time during law school when my husband and I did the calculations and said unless something can change and soon, this is the day we will run out of money. It’s a terrifying, suffocating feeling, and you get just enough glimpses of it through the lens of Cassandra’s plucky (but not foolish) optimism to forgive Rose for deciding to do whatever it takes to never be in that situation again. And for the record, I like Rose a lot better than I ever liked Scarlett O’Hara, who made a similar vow.

I had more problems with Mr. Mortmain, the father of the family. For reasons I (and the other characters) can’t quite fathom, Mr. Mortmain fritters away his time and talents NOT writing his second book for years as his family sinks farther and farther into the above-mentioned poverty. I was frustrated that he could be as callously oblivious as he seemed to be to his family’s bleak situation. (Although I have to confess that from the descriptions of the book he wrote, I wouldn’t want to read it myself.)

The rest of the cast of characters are worthy of this book in every way. Dodie Smith has a gift for characterization that makes you feel as though you know these people, or might run into them at any moment.

The book was extremely well written, and I loved reading it. I’m not sure that I liked finishing it, though. In order to explain, I may need to get ever-so-slightly SPOILER-y, although I won’t give away any main plot details.

This book wormed its way into my heart, and I wanted nothing more than good things for Cassandra especially. I wanted her to be happy. And in the end, it felt like I hadn’t quite gotten that for her, and had to settle for her being smart instead, with the hope that happiness would follow sometime in the future. The ending was almost devastatingly effective for me, rather like a kick to the gut, in that even though it was a good ending as far as being hopeful and as far as the welfare of the characters was concerned, I felt every bit of the ache that Cassandra must have been feeling, and it stayed with me long after I finished. It’s taken me a few days to come to terms with it and write the review.

That being said, the book was absolutely worth that kick in the gut. I’m not sure how soon I’ll want to re-read it, knowing what’s coming (because who likes being kicked all the time?), but I’m betting it will eventually go into my re-read roster.

Let me reiterate that it’s really not a depressing book and that nobody gets eaten by the eels at this (or any other) time. But if you tend to fall into deep smit with fictional characters and live their lives vicariously, be warned that this one is going to be a bit of a ride.

In short, this book truly was extraordinary. I’ll be feeling it in my bones for a long time to come. Five stars.


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Year of 52 Books #2: Coco Chanel

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m packing in a few quick books up front to buy me buffer time to tackle that copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that’s been sitting in my TBR pile for a couple of years now. 


Book #2: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel by Karen Karbo.

I finished this book a few days ago and have been trying to figure out ever since if I actually liked it or not.

I picked this book up as a Kindle daily deal for cheap as free because I have a secret fascination with things that have to do with high fashion (this may or may not be traceable back to the time I read The Devil Wears Prada. We won’t get into that here), as well as a weakness for impulse-buy-priced ebooks, and it looked like an interesting read.

And it was, as far as the actual biographical bits about Coco Chanel went. The author seems to have done her basic research and I liked the way Chanel’s life was presented according to category (“On Style,” “On Self-Invention,” “On Cultivating Arch-Rivals,” etc.) rather than strictly chronologically (although it was chronological enough to avoid confusion).


Something about this book bugged me from the get-go, even though it took me a while to figure out exactly what it was. Even while I was enjoying the presentation of Chanel’s life and quotes and loves and adventures, I wasn’t enjoying the book itself. I didn’t hate it or dislike it enough to quit reading, but it just rubbed me wrong.

It finally clicked that I didn’t really like the author. I wasn’t interested in the autobiographical sections that she used to frame the chapters on Chanel. I didn’t like the editorializing she made on Chanel’s life and attitudes. I guess it boils down to one basic thing: I didn’t like her tone of writing.

Let me clarify: I think she’s a good writer. Her tone positively sparkles in some places. She definitely has wit and skills and such.


The book didn’t really gel as a whole. It felt a lot like a compilation of newspaper columns in some ways: each chapter is complete in itself and follows some little gimmick or motif, but doesn’t necessarily match the preceding or following chapters.

In some cases it felt like the author had already drawn her own conclusions about Chanel’s life or actions based simply on surface facts and was writing what fit those notions, rather than actually exploring what might have been really going on in the background, what her motivations were, or the like. (At one point she actually says, “I was going to discuss [incident], but I simply can’t bring myself to do it.”) I guess I’m more accustomed to having biographers dig a little deeper than mere surface facts, even when those surface facts are pretty damning.

But what really bothered me the most was the author’s tone relative to the fact that she was writing this book from a feminist point of view (she all but stated it outright). I have no problem with that in general; what bothered me was that the tone seemed to be less about the feminism that’s for gender equality and respect and more about the stereotypical feminism that, to put it bluntly, sounds more like man-hater than anything else, and which gives more reasonable branches of feminism a bad name. To paraphrase a quote from Pride and Prejudice, “Take care, Karen; that speech savors strongly of disappointment.” I kept feeling like this book had been written in the aftermath of a bad breakup and the author kept forgetting that the book is about Chanel and not her own relationship problems. At several points I wanted to tell the author to quit whining and get back to Chanel.

Which is probably very unfair for me to say. It’s quite probable that the author meant nothing of the sort. But it was kind of hard to get away from that feeling, and that is what has ultimately made me decide that this book only gets 1.5 stars. I liked parts of it, but overall I didn’t really care for it, although someone else might.

(Maybe I’ll just go watch The September Issue again to make myself feel better.)

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Year of 52 Books #1: Miss Pettigrew

I’ve set a goal to read 52 books this year, and finished the first yesterday. To be fair, it was a very quick read and one I’ve read before (I was re-reading it for my book club). I’ll be posting periodic reviews and updates on this goal as I go along, so here’s the first review, all shiny and exciting and new.

The ratings system is as follows (shamelessly borrowed from Meg’s project, where I will be guest-posting as well):

No Star : I hated it. Do not recommend.
One Star : I didn’t like it, but someone else might.
Two Stars: It was OK. I could take it or leave it.
Three Stars : I liked it. Read it someday.
Four Stars : I loved it. Definitely recommend.
Five Stars : It was extraordinary. I want this on my shelf.
The Elusive Six Stars : Reserved for the Best Book of 2012.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson.


This book is absolutely delightful. It reminds me of a big, lavish Fred Astaire musical in terms of both tone and wit. It’s frothy and fun and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Busby Berkeley number popped out from between the pages at any moment. This is the perfect kind of book for a rainy day, when you need a little pick-me-up, or a sunny day, when you need a book that’s in keeping with the weather, or for any kind of day in between. Unless you hate puppies and sunshine and people having fun, you will most likely enjoy this book. (Note: this book does not actually contain puppies.)

Miss Pettigrew is a middle-aged, dowdy, down-on-her-luck, timid, perpetually-seeking-employment spinster of a governess, and the daughter of a clergyman to boot. She begins her day at 9:15 a.m. by going to the employment agency, where she is given word of a possible position. She heads over to the home of Miss Delysia LaFosse, uttering a little prayer before she rings the bell, admitting to God that it’s her last chance, and they both know it.

Little does Miss Pettigrew know that by ringing the doorbell at Five, Onslow Mansions she is heralding the start of one bright, golden, adventurous day. In the glittering world of Miss LaFosse (a decidedly non-clergyman’s-daughter-type actress), Miss Pettigrew is given the chance to act the heroine, save a damsel in distress, reunite young lovers, eat delicious food, play dress-up, incite a night-club fight and even (gasp!) wear make-up and curl her hair. What would her strictly proper, strictly conservative, dearly departed parents say if they could see her now? And what would her new acquaintances do if they knew what she really was—only a lowly governess, and not a very good one at that? And how on earth will she be able to settle down to her dull gray existence after living for this one spectacular day?

I have to say that my favorite thing about this book is the snappy dialogue. It feels just like a rapid-fire comedy from the era of early talkies (and was supposed to have been one. several motion picture studios had their eye on this book, and the rights had even been acquired, but for one reason or another the project kept getting delayed. The film version wasn’t made and released until 2008, with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams. I highly recommend the movie, too, although it doesn’t follow the book exactly. But how could you resist Lee Pace or Ciaran Hinds? That’s right. You couldn’t). My favorite passage involves this exchange between Miss Pettigrew, Miss LaFosse, and one of Miss LaFosse’s several suitors, regarding another of her suitors:

“What does he remind you of?” [asked Michael.]

“Ice-cream,” said Miss Pettigrew.

“What?” said Michael. His face lit with joy.

“Woman,” he cried in delight, “your acumen is marvellous. I could only think of him singing mushy songs to mushy señoritas in mushy films.”

[. . .]

“Ha!” said Michael triumphantly. “Caldarelli’s ice-cream. She prefers the son of an ice-cream vendor to me.”

“How dare you?” cried Miss LaFosse indignantly. “You know Nick’s father never sold ice-cream in his life. And your father sold fish.”


Michael jumped to his feet. He exploded into oratory. He strode up and down the room. Miss Pettigrew cast nervous eyes on chairs and ornaments.

“You compare fish . . . with ice-cream,” cried Michael. “Fish has phosphorous. Fish feeds the brain. Fish is nutritious. Fish is body-building. Fish has vitamins. Fish has cod-liver oil. Fish makes bonny babies bigger and better. Men give their lives for fish. Women weep. The harbour bar moans. You compare fish . . . with ice-cream. And look me in the face.”

Love it!

I give this book four stars, because it’s one that always cheers me up, that I bought right after the first time I read it, and that is clever and well-written to boot. (I should mention in fairness that since it was written in the 1920s there are a few moments that definitely are not PC, but if you can get past those it’s an absolutely lovely read.)

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The first book I can remember loving was Miffy in the Hospital, by Dick Bruna. I don’t remember right now if my mom checked it out from the library for me specifically in preparation for my tonsillectomy at age two and a half, if she’d already read it to me many times before then and just revisited it on the eve of my own trip to the hospital, or if it actually came later in my reading life and I’ve retroactively superimposed it onto my memories of getting my tonsils out, but the fact remains that Miffy was a major part of my childhood book experience. It was a book-love that I shared with all of my younger sisters, and I’m pretty sure the library’s copy spent more time on our bookshelf at home than it did on the library shelves. 

I’m sure I (or my mother) shared Miffy with my older brother, too, but being a boy I don’t know if he connected to the little girl rabbit on quite as deep a level. He did, however, connect deeply to the second book I can remember loving: The Great Steamboat Mystery, by Richard Scarry.

This was another book that we could have easily made a case for ownership-through-adverse-possession, and it was a dark day indeed in our house when the librarian told us that their copy had been lost, and they couldn’t replace it because it was out of print. My siblings and I all cried, and I’m pretty sure my mom shed a secret tear, too, although she put on a brave face for us children. We eventually moved on with our lives, as people do after great losses, but every now and then one of us would say, “Do you remember The Great Steamboat Mystery? I miss that book.” It was a book we loved, and had therefore become a fundamental part of our identities.

(Incidentally, this was how my husband managed to finagle his way into the good graces of my family right off the bat, back when he was only my boyfriend. I had told him in passing about these two lost books of my childhood—the library’s Miffy having eventually suffered a similar fate as Steamboat, also marked by many shed tears—and he had stored the information away for later use. Later use, of course, being that he got on eBay as soon as he got home and tracked down a copy of each, and then had them delivered to my parents’ house for me to open on Christmas. The peasants all rejoiced greatly, and Husband was pronounced to be a great guy. My copies of Miffy in the Hospital and The Great Steamboat Mystery still occupy important spots on my bookshelf to this day.)

I guess my basic point is that I love books, and they affect the way I shape my relationships to this day. My closest friends love books like I love books, which is to say like I love sunshine and goodness and breathing (Scout Finch’s proclamation notwithstanding). I once had a boss who bragged that he had never finished reading a book in his life; you can imagine how well that work experience went.

I love books that are well-written, books that are horribly written (although for different reasons), books that are classics and books that are fluff, and pretty much anything in between.

I love the feeling you get when you fall in love with a book. I don’t mean a little fleeting crush or a passing attraction, but honest-to-goodness, life-changing love. While I’m reading a book like that, it gives me a rush of excitement every time I think of it. When can I slip away to meet it again? What’s going on behind that cover? Does it like me, too? (Okay, not so much that last one. Okay, I lied. I totally anthropomorphize books and pretend they love me back and we’re involved in an epic love affair. Only, you know, clean, because I’m married and love my husband and all.)

This response is so intense sometimes that I find myself, after finally reading the last sentence and closing the back cover of one of these love-of-my-life books, hesitant to pick up a new book and start reading. It won’t be the same—the characters will be different, the pages won’t feel right, and most of all, it feels like cheating on my newfound love. In order to get my feet back on the ground again, figuratively speaking, I have to spend time with a book that’s an old friend first, one where the relationship is already easy and established and comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Re-reading is the only thing better than reading, just like old friends are the only thing better than making new friends.

And that’s why I love books. And that’s the reason for this blog.

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I’m Ellie. I read, I write, I edit, I breathe (usually). I love old movies, and I love new movies. I spend most of my time hanging out with my toddler son and my husband. In short, my life is fairly ordinary, but I love it.

Welcome to LitGroupie. This is where I will geek out about books, movie adaptations of books, authors, writing, book clubs and the like.

Please feel free to pull up a comfy chair and join the discussion.

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