Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mr. Fox, Mrs. Fox, Ms. Foxe

Mr. Fox
Mr. Fox
Helen Oyeyemi

Several weeks ago I featured Mr. Fox in a Book Beginnings post. I had good intentions about finishing the book and quickly posting my review. Well, I did finish the book shortly thereafter. The review...not so much. But here it is now!

This was my first book by Helen Oyeyemi, who I heard of through Eva over at A Striped Armchair. If you aren't following her, you absolutely should be. She reads a ton and recommends super interesting books.

In Mr. Fox, the title character is a writer who has a penchant for killing off the women in his stories. His muse, Mary Foxe, appears and attempts to take him to task for this. They begin a game of stories, back and forth. Mrs. Fox is not amused. She feels her husband slipping away to this conjured woman. How can she compete?

The story is great, and the writing is beautiful. For example, I love this excerpt. It makes me want to give up my laptop and switch to an older method of writing.
I look inside my typewriter. There's a city in there. Black and grey columns and no inhabitants.
And later, when a character is describing Egypt:
Nut crane her neck over her long, lithe, blue back to kiss Geb, and Geb cradles her, careful, because she is nothing, less than nothing, but if he should drop her it would be the end of everything.
Nut & Geb
Fortunately, Oyeyemi has written three other books so far, so there's more of her work for me to discover.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Back: May

A Graduation. Not mine. 
May was the month of my last round of law school finals, the beginning of bar review, and the joy of hosting my family as they visited me in preparation for graduation. Oh, how I miss those days. Yeah, right.

May also brought some rather eclectic reading. I read three books that I heard about through Three Percent, an organization dedicated to promoting literature in translation. I first heard about them when I was looking at reviews for Visitation, which I read in April and loved. However, I also read two young adult books and an autobiography that was out of my normal comfort zone.

Total: 8 books
7 fiction                          88%
1 nonfiction                   13%
4 female authors           50%
3 work in translation     38%

I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson***I lovedlovedloved Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, so when I saw he had a new book out, and it was longlisted for the 2011 Best Translated Book Award, I had to give it a try. Unfortunately, it just didn't do it for me. Reading about an overgrown man-child quickly loses its charm.

Circle of Magic: Briar's Book, Tamora Pierce****This was the final book in the Circle of Magic quartet that I read earlier back in February. It was a very quick read, and was very good, just like the others in the series.

The Last Brother, Nathacha Appanah*****This was excellent. The story of a poor family living on the island nation of Mauritius. All the sad stuff a reader like me could want: child abuse, death of siblings, sad WWII Jews being held in limbo. Depressing, and just what I go for.

The Tiger's Wife, Téa Obreht***Overrated. I know this won the Orange Prize, and it had its moments, but I just felt Obreht was over reaching. This review sums it up (even if Ms. Fisher doesn't know it's "Newbery") "She writes like she’s trying to please the grown-ups, and in so doing produces the good student’s notion of what constitutes a good book."  Of course, someone could probably say similar things about The Last Brother, but that one worked for me while this one didn't. I'm sure there are plenty of people that feel the opposite.


True Deceiver, Tove Jansson***This is exactly the type of book I'd normally like. Cold, close kept, emotionally stunted characters, secrets, mysterious motivations. It won the Best Translated Book Award. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood. I'll have to give Jansson another try. Maybe The Summer Book?

Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, Albert Maori Kiki**Honestly, I don't remember what it was that I didn't like about this, but I just couldn't get into it.

The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin***The book makes more sense than the movie. Other than that, meh.

The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman***
The second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. We meet new characters without losing track of the old ones, and the mystery is expanded. Good times.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some Blog Love

I've been looking for a new way to organize my blog subscriptions. I'm trying out bloglovin' - anyone else use them? If so, thoughts?

Anyways, now you can follow my blog with Bloglovin.

Stumbling Along this Path

The Pathseeker
The Pathseeker
Imre Kertész

I spent the majority of this book thinking "I'm pretty sure I know what's going on, but I CAN'T BE SURE AND IT IS DRIVING ME TO DISTRACTION."

Yeah. It's like everything is a secret. Only one character has a name, you're not told where the story is happening, you don't know what's being investigated, or on whose orders. 
Fortunately, my Melville House edition comes with a handy afterword by Tim Wilkinson, which answered some of my questions.

Of course, there is a distinct post-WWII Eastern European feel to everything, so you can make an educated guess or two. 

At one point, the commissioner and his wife are telling each other an old folk tale. His wife recounts the version she was told. The commissioner shrugs, making it clear that he's not convinced at the story's accuracy. The wife asks: 

"Well, wasn't that what happened?"
"That is what they want us to believe, at any rate," he responded.
That sense of foreboding permeates the entire novella. It's certainly worth taking the time to slowly immerse yourself, as it does not unravel as you might expect.

Disclosure: Melville House sent me this book after participating in the Art of the Novella reading challenge.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches
A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I mean, as much as I'm a fan of "literary" fiction and the classics, I still like a good vampire & witches story every now and then. And this one started off strong.

Diana Bishop is descended from a long line of powerful witches, but she's rejected her magic when it didn't save her parents from a horrible, violent death. Now she's turned to academia. She's researching alchemy, which means she's poring over old must books in gorgeous libraries. Turns out one of these books holds some kind of secret regarding witches, vampires, and demons. Now every magical creature wants to get its hands on it, but it's protected by some sort of spell. When Harnkess is describing the details of the ancient texts, it's like magic (ha). You know that she's done these things, and she has a love for the written word. As a book lover myself, I was totally drawn in.

Unfortunately, Harkness seems to want to describe everything she loves. I do not need a wine lesson every 50 pages just because you're an expert on it. Vampires, demons, and witches do not need to form a supernatural yoga club just because you like yoga. It's just a bit much.

Also, Diana, hunter goddess witch extraordinaire - how many times do you have to be swept up and rescued? It's like she's a wilting violet one moment and an unstoppable force of nature the next. It doesn't make for a very believable character.

Speaking of unbelievable characters, wow, Matthew Clairmont. Wow. I cannot believe that a 1,500 year old vampire has not learned to keep control over his emotions. He's about to rip people's throats out because they tease him about his fashion choices (okay, maybe I exaggerate a tiny bit).

Don't get me started on the cheesy romance aspect. Just don't.

Bottom line: discover something else.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Death is Sloooooooowwwww in Coming for the Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather

I keep seeing Willa Cather mentioned as one of those female authors that you "should" read. I've never read anything by her before, so I thought I'd giver her a try.

Death Comes for the Archbishop
 is the story of two French Catholic missionaries, Bishop Latour and Vicar Valliant, who come to America's western frontier to minister to the population. Set in the mid to late 1800s, the book describes, in episodic format, an isolated landscape in which these two men must carve out an existence.

The men deal with uncooperative fellow clergymen, the traditional beliefs of the Native American tribes, harsh elements, and criminal activity. Cather's characters take everything in stride. In that way, they seemed a bit unrealistic. It's like she describes their personalities and backstories and makes them very different from one another, but at the same time they are both simply do-gooder missionaries who never get ruffled because God blesses their pursuits. Both men worry about how to spread their faith while no insulting the Native American people, but at the same time they dismissively call their trusty guide "boy," even though he's a grown man with a family.

That said, there are some really gorgeous passages.
She advanced in a whirlwind of gleaming wings, and Tranquiliano dropped his spade and stood watching her. At one moment the whole flock of doves caught the light in such a way that they all became invisible at once, dissolved in light and disappeared as salt dissolves in water.
Minor spoilers ahead: 
Another thing that bothered me about the book was the "death comes for the archbishop" part. I mean, he's not even an archbishop until way towards the end of the book. You keep wondering when death is coming, but it is a long way off. The bulk of the book takes place over a fair number of years, where the men are settling into their new territory. Then suddenly, in the last part, we jump forward like 40 years, Latour is an archbishop, and now, okay, he can die (according to out title). But he STILL manages to hang on for what seems like an endless amount of time.
/End of spoilers.

Cather certainly has a way with words, but I can't say I'll be reading more of them anytime soon. There are just too many other authors to try out first.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mockingjay: The Hunger Games Concludes

Mockingjay
Mockingjay
Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy conclude with Mockingjay, and I have to say I was impressed by this book's strength. Katniss is no linger a tough young girl trying to protect her little sister. She's a solider, fighting a war that has serious, continent-wide repercussions.

Mockingjay picks up right where Catching Fire left off. Katniss is plucked from the arena and deposited in District 13, where the rebels expect her to willingly embrace her role as the symbol of the revolution. Katniss isn't going to go along with the plan unless she secures the safety of her loved ones, including Peeta - who is trapped in the Capitol.

I won't write anymore about the plot. I will say that it was a satisfying conclusion to a gripping trilogy. Collins isn't afraid to upend the reader's expectations - and not just about the love triangle storyline. With Mockingjay, Collins asks probing questions about society, power, and control. This is much more than child's play.

Discussion of part 1 and part 2

Sunday, December 25, 2011

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas...

To all those that celebrate, Merry Christmas!

Source: imgfave.com via MJ on Pinterest

I can't decide my favorite thing about this picture - the book tree, the floating shelf, or the awesome teapot lamp.

Did you get (or give) any bookish gifts today?

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Murder Mystery

Hercule Poirot's Christmas
Hercule Poirot's Christmas
Agatha Christie

Who said this is the time of peace on Earth, goodwill towards men? Not in the Lee family, certainly.

Agatha Christie spins a tale of a crotchety old man, Simeon Lee, who calls his offspring to him to celebrate Christmas. Only Mr. Lee's idea of fun is to threaten to rewrite his will, reduce his children's allowances, and insult their wives. Since he can no longer leave the house to cheat on his long-dead, long-suffering wife, get into business feuds over South African diamonds, or otherwise traipse around getting people to hate him, he'll just bring the drama to his house. Awesome!

So, of course, he winds up dead. There are no shortage of suspects, between his family and a house full of servants. But no matter! Hercule Poirot, armchair sleuth extraordinaire, happens to be visiting the area and will solve this case in no time at all.

This was a fun read, and when I'm feeling the stress of family overload this weekend, I'll remember that we haven't actually  killed each other - so far.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lookalike Covers

I know that avisannschild over at She Reads and Reads has a similar covers feature. I never realized that the same stock photos were used for different book covers. Of course, after discovering this, I stumbled across my own example. I was on Goodreads trying to find my edition of The Optimist's Daughter when I saw this cover:

I immediately recognized it as the same picture used on the cover of The Well and the Mine, Gin Phillips' debut novel, which I read several years ago. Here it is:

Same photo, same overall color scheme. I have to say, it fits much better with the story in The Well and the Mine. The main character in The Optimist's Daughter does have flashbacks to her childhood and visiting family in Appalachia, but that's not really the focus of the book.

Have you noticed this similar cover thing? I know my eyes are going to be peeled for them in the future.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Looking Back: April

Margaret Atwood, David Levine
April showered down some quantity, even if the quality was a bit lacking. I only gave two books out of eleven more than three stars. How did I manage 11 books? It must have been my cold, rainy, Spring Break.

Total: 11 books
9 fiction                          82%
2 nonfiction                   18%
6 female authors           55%
1 work in translation     9%

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin**
I never read this as a kid, and I heard it was great, that Turtle (the main character) was brilliant, yada yada. I just found it kind of annoying.

Chaka, Thomas Mofolo**
This is a retelling of the mythic leader Shaka Zulu. Violent, disturbing, not my thing.

A Respectable Trade, Philippa Gregory*
I had read another Gregory book, The Queen's Fool, and thought is was a fun, light piece of historical fiction. This, on the other hand, was AWFUL. I just can't even explain how wrong it was on so many levels. I threw this book down twice while reading it (into a laundry basket full of clothes, but still. Literally threw the book across the room.) But hey - I bet if you liked The Help you'll like this, too. Something for everyone.

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman***
I wanted to compare this series with Harry Potter. Although I rated them  the same, the edge went to Pullman. I think that just may be that he had a more sophisticated storyline.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling.***
Yes, this was my first time reading this. It was a fun book, and I can see why it is so popular. Action packed story, lots of great imagery, and who doesn't want to believe that they're secretly a wizard?

The Gangster We are All Looking ForLê Thi Diem Thúy***A family of Vietnamese immigrants tries to make life work in California.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, Xiaolu Guo****
Story of a modern young girl growing up in China, told in twenty fleeting fragments.


Stiff, Mary Roach***
Quirky, respectful, and straightforward look at what happens to our bodies after we leave them.

The Surrendered, Chang-Rae Lee**
I've blocked out a lot of this book, because it contained some of the most brutal scenes I've ever read. Deals with the Korean War and its aftermath.

King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild***
I had been wanting to read this for years, and finally got around to it. I thought it was pretty good, but the author has romanticized Joseph Conrad a bit too much for my tastes. Most people probably wouldn't be bothered by this, but it distracted me.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood*****
Oh, wow. This was so good. Margaret Atwood at her best.

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Immortal Woman Brought to Life

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
Rebecca Skloot

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot documents the importance of HeLa cells – something apparently widely known about in the scientific and medical community, and not so much outside of it. Basically, HeLa cells were the first cells that scientists could get to grow and reproduce in a lab, which allowed them to do a bunch of research and make some amazing medical breakthroughs.

Skloot is interested in the importance if HeLa cells, but she is more interested in the woman from whom they came. HeLa cells came from a real woman – Henrietta Lacks. She was much more than four letters and cancerous cells. She was a daughter, wife, mother, and woman. She was poor, black, and terminally ill. A doctor took samples of her body and used them in ways neither she nor her family (nor, really, anyone at the time) could ever have imagined. Skloot’s fantastic account of the lives of the Lacks family forces us to confront ugly truths about how science and society at large treats some of humankind’s most vulnerable members.

What does it mean for a doctor to take a sample of cancer cells from a person, conduct experiments on them, ship them throughout the world for other doctors to poke, inject, refrigerate, multiply, infect with disease? Is it just something that we should all unquestioningly accept as for the greater good? Our small part in the advancement of the species? What about when huge multinational companies make untold amounts of money as a result, and the person who gave the cells dies a pauper, their family unable to afford basic health insurance? Is it worse when the “donor” is a member of a minority group that has routinely been oppressed, denied knowledge and learning, treated as less than human, and experimented on?


Skloot points out the medical ethics were not what they are now. But is it any surprise that medical doctors in the mid 20th century would feel that they knew better than their uneducated patients, and not bother to get anything close to informed consent? Apparently battery (touching someone without their consent), which has been against the law since, I don't know, a really freakin' long time, doesn't apply to people in white coats.

This book is about more than these abstract, big picture questions. It shows how an individual family, a group of real, flesh and blood people, try to deal with something so big, so complicated, that it touches not only their lives, but the entire world, and even outer space. Skloot's talent lies in bridging the divide between the personal and the monumental. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hoping for a Bit More from The Optimist's Daughter

The Optimist's Daughter
The Optimist's Daughter
Eudora Welty

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972.

It must have been a slow year. Not that the book is bad, it's just not that good. The characters are flat and static, which is a personal pet peeve, made worse here by the fact that there's not much in the way of a plot.

The basics: Laurel is a 40 something widow whose mother has died more than 10 years before the start of the book. Her father, seventy years old, has married a woman his daughter's age. He falls ill and dies. Laurel mourns, spending a few days alone in her childhood home after the funeral, thinking about those loved ones she has lost. Stepmother is an evil witch.

That said, there are some absolutely beautiful passages, such as when Laurel recalls a childhood memory of visiting her mother's home state of West Virginia:
Bird dogs went streaking the upslanted pasture through the sweet long grass that swept them as high as their noses. While it was still day on top of the mountain, the light still warm on the cheek, the valley was died blue under them.
Now, if there was a bit more of that, I'd be willing to overlook many more of the book's flaws. But alas, the balance is tipped against it. Three stars.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Looking Back: March

Time for the third installment of looking back at my pre-blogging days.

March is actually when I thought about starting reviewing books. I read several books and had strong reactions to them, but no one to talk to about them. I actually started writing a review of Visitation without knowing if, when, or where I'd eventually post it. It turned out to be one of the very first posts on this blog.

So what did I read?
Total: 6 books
5 fiction                          83%
1 nonfiction                   17%
3 female authors           50%
1 work in translation    17%

Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck*****This is the book that started it all. Click here to read my full review.

The Fourth Hand, John Irving***If you've never read John Irving, don't start here. It's funny - I see I gave it three stars, so I must have thought it was pretty decent. Looking back now, I'm remembering mainly the parts I disliked. Irving does have a acerbic sense of humor and a gift for describing a scene that is truly wonderful. Towards the beginning of the book he talks about a doctor going for a run and batting abandoned dog poo off a bridge towards university rowers out practicing. It's brilliant. He's also a master at capturing children's characteristics.


Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury***I read this for a negotiation class I took. It's a good overview of how to change the dynamics of a competitive negotiation situation.


Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga****The story of a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe. Complex look at woman's place in family relationships and traditional values versus modern times.

The Map of Love, Adaf Soueif****
Set in Egypt, in modern times, but with flashbacks to the early 20th century and the ancestors of the primary characters. There's a feeling of looping through eras, languages, countries, and families.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe**
Worst read of the month. All the characters are despicable. Wolfe seems to be trying to make a point about how broken our system is, but seeing how he places equal blame on everyone, the responsibility of any one person or group is negligible.

***all links to Indiebound are affiliate links***

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Book to Mend

A Heart to Mend
A Heart to Mend
Myne Whitman

Groan.

I won this book after participating in Amy's Nigerian Independence Day Reading Project. I'm going to make this short, and say that this was not my cup for tea.  I was hoping that I'd be pleasantly surprised, as supposedly this was a romance that was more than just a romance. (I don't read romances).

Well, it certainly wasn't a bodice-ripper. A couple mentions of foreplay is as racy as it gets.

So what's the problem? This book is in serious need of an editor. The typos are awful, and this is from someone who can normally read right over them. More aggravating than that was the constant need to tell and not show. The whole thing just needs help.

Why two stars, and not just one?

I liked the premise. A modern young couple in Nigeria is trying to live their lives and find happiness together. Both parties have good jobs, friends, a support system. It's clear that there's more to modern Nigeria than internet scams. Most of the books I've read from African authors deal with young characters coming of age through crisis, or people dealing with war. I can see an author wanting to write this simple love story, since it is a difficult one to find. I just wish that publishers would believe in stories like this, so we could see them properly shaped and brought to bookstore shelves. This one in particular just doesn't cut it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Sunday Salon

This week, I’ve been reading quite a bit, because I am so close to one hundred books read this year that I want to make sure I hit that number. Why? Honestly, I have no idea. I didn’t have a goal of reading 100 books, but when I realized that it was doable, I decided to go for it.

One of the books I’m determined to finish (and soon) is David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. I have been working on this book since SEPTEMBER. At first, I just couldn’t get into it. I’d read ten or so pages at a time, and then put it down. Now that I’m finally absorbed in it, I have to take breaks because it is just so intense I can’t read too much at a time.

This got me thinking about my general reading habits. I used to be the type of reader who very rarely had more than one book going at a time. If I was reading more than one book, they would be vastly different, maybe one fiction and one non-fiction.  Now, it seems that I’ve always got three books started at any time. I may be focusing more attention on one, one may have been abandoned for a while and staring at me from my nightstand, wondering when I’ll ever pick it up again, and another will be one from which I read a chapter or so a night.

I guess I used to think that I would get confused going back between multiple stories, but that hasn’t happened. I think that by juggling multiple books at a time I’m actually reading more. If my mood isn’t compatible with one book, I can just pick up another.

What kind of reader are you? A one book at a time focuser, or a multi-book juggler?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Beginnings: Terrier

Thanks to Katy over at A Few More Pages for hosting Book Beginnings.

How to participate: Share the first line (or two) of the book you are currently reading on your blog or in the comments. Include the title and the author so we know what you're reading. Then, if you would like, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line, and let us know if you liked or did not like the sentence. The link-up will be at A Few More Pages every Friday and will be open for the entire week.

This week I'm reading Terrier, the first book in Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper trilogy. Here are the first few lines:

From the journal of Eleni Cooper, Resident, with her six-year-old son, George Cooper, of Spindle Lane, the Lower City, Corus, the Realm of Tortall.
March 18, 406 [H.E.: the Human Era]
In all those lessons for which I was made to memorize chants and prayers I never used, couldn't our temple priestesses have taught one-just one!-lesson on what to do with a boy who is too smart for his own good?
The first few lines are pretty good. They let you know who the characters are, where they live, give you a sense of time, introduce you to the book's structure (it's written entirely as journal excerpts) and let you know that there may be a bit of magic afoot. At the same time, there's the universal lament of an unruly child.

Unfortunately, the next bits are rather slow going. I'm about halfway through now, and the pace is finally starting to pick up. We're following along with Beka Cooper, a new trainee in Tortall's police force, or Guard. She's ready to protect the Cesspool in which she grew up from master criminals, serial killers, and whatever other Rats (baddies) lurk around the corner.
Beka, ready to kick some Rat butt.
Some of the terminology is a bit heavy handed. The trainees are constantly referred to as Puppies to the senior Guard Dogs. It's irritating. But it is very cool that Tamora Pierce has once again created a rich world full of diverse characters with a female lead. Gotta love that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Audiobook Success with Toni Morrison

A Mercy
A Mercy
Toni Morrison

Bottom line: Read this, immediately.

Why are you still here? You need more convincing? Fine, I’ll see what I can do.

I didn't think I liked Toni Morrison. I read Beloved back in high school, and it was just too much. I wasn't mature enough to fully absorb it and take it in, so I rejected it. Ever since, I've felt like I missed out. Now, a bit older (hopefully a bit wiser) I have a better grasp of history, of institutionalized oppression. I wanted to give Morrison another try.

I listened to this on audio. I didn't think I liked audiobooks until 2 minutes into listening to Toni Morrison read to me the words of a young slave girl, Florens:

Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you. In spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark weeping perhaps, or, occasionally seeing the blood once more. But I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. 
And then Florens explains what has brought her to this point. Of course, her story is so much bigger than just a girl scorned by her first love. It's about a country being forged by the slave labor of kidnapped people. It's about loneliness, love, and betrayal. It's about figuring out your identity when the world around you keeps changing.

A Mercy  is set two hundred years before Beloved, but it is, in a sense, the earlier novel's historic precursor. Florens (or one of the other characters) could easily be Sethe's ancestor, in spirit if not in blood.  Both books deal with the mother-child relationship and the impact slavery had on it. However, A Mercy is much more than a rehashing of Beloved. It stands on its own as a powerful tale by a master author.

Seriously. Go read it.

And why not buy it from an independent book store? Shop Indie Bookstores (affiliate link)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins

Okay, so I sat down on my couch to start reading this and didn't merge until a few hours later when I turned the last page. This series really sucks you in in a way I haven't experience in quite awhile.

Book two manages to catch you up and remind you of book one's highlights (not that you need the reminders, if like me you read them nearly one after the other). Our heroine, Katniss starts to gain a greater awareness of her world. As part of that, she begins to realize just how much danger she and her family have been. She may have won The Hunger Games, but that didn't win her many friends in the government.

That's not to say it isn't without its flaws. Katniss is smart in book one. Here, sometimes you want to hit her over the head because she's being so dense, which is out of character. Also, I don't like how she seems to be much more of a pawn in a bigger game in this book. Yes, she's still a strong character, but she gets swept up (literally) in the events surrounding her in a way that isn't completely believable.

Overall, I still enjoyed it, and can't wait to read Mockingjay. It's tempting me from my end table, but I think I'll wait a couple days before I start it. I'm almost done with Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, and I want to finish that. I started a couple other books before my slump of September/October and never finished them. I might go back and try to finish up at least one of them.

Discussion of part 1 and part 3

Monday, December 5, 2011

Books Through Bars

Wanting to spread some bookish holiday cheer? Consider helping out this great organization, Books Through Bars.

Back in January, when I was still in law school in New York, I organized a book drive for their benefit. If you're in New York, I'm sure they could use books. If you're not in New York (or if you are) they also desperately need money to send out packages to incarcerated people who are requesting reading material.

Below I've copied the email I received from them today, asking for help. Even $20 goes a long way - sending packages to seven people. Without financial support, the books languish in Brooklyn, not able to travel to those who are locked away, thirsting for knowledge.

Books Through Bars

c/o ABC No Rio
156 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002

Dear Supporter of Books Through Bars NYC,

The United States currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world with over 2.3 million people in jail or prison. Over fifty percent of those people do not hold high school diplomas.  Access to books and educational materials is minimal to non-existent in most prisons, and in 2011 funding for libraries and educational opportunities for prisoners was further reduced. While more than 95 percent of individuals in state prisons are eventually released, the lack of educational, practical or social skill training leave many individuals ill-equipped for life outside of prison. Books and access to education are critically important to people in prison, as one person incarcerated in California  wrote in a letter to us, “With you [sic] help a smarter man will come out of this place and with that it feels that my life will be better and make it harder for me to come back into this place.”

Since 1996, NYC Books Through Bars (BTB) has been dedicated to sending books to people incarcerated nationwide.  Over the last fifteen years, we have received mail from people in state and federal prisons in all 50 states and sent free books, magazines and photocopied information in response to their requests. We receive over 400 letters from women and men in prison every month and are able to respond to the majority of their requests.

This past year Books through Bars sent approximately 4,500 packages each containing 2-5 books. Building off our efforts last year, in 2011, we were able to answer a higher proportion of the prisoners’ written requests for books through a combination of more volunteers, wider donation collecting, creative fundraising ideas, and  substitution of material we might not have available in our library with related reading material.

Despite our hard work, BTB NYC anticipates significant financial challenges in the coming year. US Postal Service rate increases seriously impacted our work in 2010, and media mail rates are slated to rise again
in early next year.  It now costs 30% more to send out a one-pound package of books than it did just a few years ago.

We appreciate your past support of our efforts to send books to prisoners. We are writing to ask for your support again. It costs $300 to send a week’s worth of packages. Donations at even the $20 level go a long way to ensuring that people in prison have access to quality reading material. Twenty dollars will enable Books Through Bars to send books to at least 7 people in prison.

-  $50 will enable us to send books to 20 people in prison.
-  $75 will enable us to send books to 30 people in prison.
-  $100 would send books to 40 people in prison.

Our collective is entirely volunteer-run, and postage is our sole overhead expense. That means that every penny donated goes directly to pay for postage on books for prisoners. Your donation will not only ensure books continue to be sent but also allow us to provide important support for prisoners around the country. As one person wrote to us, “Books have always been my passport to enrich both my mind and spirits, but now they are essential to my emotional survival.” Another person, incarcerated in New York, wrote, “You’ve no idea what it means to me. Not only to get the books but also to know someone out there gives more than half a damn.”

Over two million men and women will be unable to spend the holidays with their loved ones this year. Please help Books Through Bars give someone the gift of books this holiday season.

Sincerely,

The Books Through Bars collective

P.S.  Your contribution is tax-deductible. Books Through Bars’ fiscal sponsor, ABC No Rio, has 501© 3 status.

Please make all checks and money orders out to our fiscal sponsor, ABC No Rio, and please note in the memo that your donation is for Books Through Bars.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November in Review

its   november ... <3
Credit
Wow, November.

It's over! No more commitment to blogging every day! No more having to get something up, even though it's late, even though I don't really feel like writing. I'm glad I went through with my plan, but I don't think it was as successful as I had hoped. I certainly posted much more than I've ever done, but the quality wasn't where I wanted it to be. I think my next blogging goal will be to really focus on the quality of each one of my posts. I want to make sure each one is saying something I want it to, not just blabbering on about whatever. Also, I like to focus more on books themselves, and that's hard to do when I'm posting ever day but not reading that many new books.

So what did my month in reading look like?

Here's my November breakdown:
10 books total
8 fiction                      80%
2 nonfiction                 2%
9 female authors        90%
3 work in translation 30%

Those numbers include 3 graphic novels and one audio book.

It was a good month for reading. Only 2 of the 10 books were 3 star reads (which is still plenty respectable), 6 were 4 star, and 2 were 5 star. Not bad at all.

I've got a bit of a goal to read 100 titles before the year is up. That means this month I need to read 8 books. It's certainly doable, especially since I'll probably read Mockingjay (the last book in The Hunger Games trilogy) this evening. 
Today does start the Goodreads Winter Seasonal Challenge, so I'll be reading books for that, too.

100 is within my reach!

Do you have any reading goals to accomplish before the year ends?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Confession

When I visit people, I always end up looking through their books


And judging. Yes, I admit - I'm a (recovering) book snob.

But it is nice if you see a similarity in tastes - then you can make a mental note of what else is there so you can add to your TBR list.

And if they don't have visible books? The horror!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Persepolis 2

Persepolis 2
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis 2 starts up where the first volume left off - Marjane has left Iran for the safety of Europe, where she bounces around from house to house, school to school. I was shocked by the seeming ease with which her initial host family carted her off to a boarding school in the Alps.

Marjane has trouble fitting in and making friends. She misses her family, but tries to put on a brave face, knowing how much they've sacrificed to allow her this opportunity, and knowing what they must be going through at home with the revolution.

The pressure becomes too much when she has a bad breakup with a boyfriend. She completely breaks down and ends up homeless and suicidal. This signals the beginning of the return, when Marjane rejoins her family in Iran.

But returning to Iran does not solve her problems. Satrapi eloquently portrays her feelings of fitting in in neither a secular, Western culture, nor the Islamic, repressive society Iran has become. It is fascinating to read her story as she progresses from the headstrong young girl of volume one into the equally strong willed woman in volume two.

Satrapi's illustrations do not disappoint. On one page, she describes an art class. It's amazing how much she is able to express when the majority of the illustration is a flowing black garment.

I really enjoy graphic novels. I don't know why I haven't read more of them. Maybe I can fit in a couple more before the end of the year. Do you have any suggestions for me to look for? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thoughts on The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

A friend at work was raving about this trilogy, and I finally decided to give in to the hype. I have to say, I'm happy that I did. In The Hunger Games Collins does a great job painting a scary dystopian portrait of North America after a major disaster. The main characters, especially Katniss, are entirely believable. Since this is part of a trilogy, Collins doesn't tell you everything - but it leaves you wanting more. It's like you are in Katniss' shoes as she starts to focus on more than just the survival of her family and learns more about the Capitol and the rest of Panem.

Okay, so as you probably know, Katniss volunteers to take her young sister's place in a government sponsored fight to the death. There are two "tributes" from each of Panem's 12 districts. The other tribute from District 12, Katniss's district, is Peeta, a boy the same age as Katniss. The two of them are at times thrown together and torn apart as they try to formulate a strategy to win the game. Of course, there can only be one winner, or can there? dun dun dun.

You might have heard about the controversy about the movie's casting choices. First, there was the issue of specifically looking for a white actress to play Katniss, when her description seemed to contain the possibility that she was Mediterranean or something other than Caucasian. Then, when the casting for other characters, like Rue and Cinna were announced, people were exclaiming that neither of them should be black. In the book, Rue is specifically described as black - with "satiny brown skin." Cinna isn't described much beyond having short dark hair (green?) eyes, and a penchant for gold eyeliner.

As I read the book, I knew about these issues, so I was already keeping an eye out for the descriptions. I normally don't really pay attention to what characters look like. I don't form a picture of them in my head - I've just never been that type of reader. This time, though, knowing who was cast definitely influenced how I saw the book in my mind.

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone
Jennifer Lawrence, from Winter's Bone, is playing the Katniss. I know the book described her with dark hair, but I just kept seeing her as Ree Dolly. As for Cinna, I think Lenny Kravitz is a brilliant choice. I can totally see him as a stylist with a mysterious past. I didn't know that Woody Harrelson had been cast to play Haymitch, Katniss's mentor. I had just finished reading Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad before picking up The Hunger Games, and for some reason her description of Odysseus totally clicked for me as Haymitch.  Not that great looking, with short stubby legs, not all that strong or fast, but smart and wily. I do think Harrelson will do a good job playing Haymitch, but he wasn't what I pictured.

Have you read The Hunger Games? What do you think about the movie casting choices?

Here are my posts on part 2 and part 3

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Small Business Saturday Success!

So yesterday I went out and participated in Small Business Saturday. I drove up to a local(ish) independent book store that I'd been wanting to check out - the Vero Beach Book Center. It's about a 20 minute drive, and in the next county over, but it's the closest I've got! I was supposed to be doing Christmas shopping, and I did, but I also picked up a few things for myself:
The Bloody Chamber, Middlesex, & Shadow Tag
I paid full price for Shadow Tag, but I found the other two books used. The place is really big. It's actually two separate buildings. The first building is the regular adult bookstore. It had a good selection of local books on Florida, bestsellers, etc. I bought two books there - Shadow Tag, and Hidden Seminoles,* a gift book. Both were full price. I knew what I was getting into with Hidden Seminoles, though. It was $40, which is a lot for a book, but not bad for a Christmas gift. It was a little easier to take paying full price when they offered to gift wrap it for me.

After I finished in the first building, I headed over to the second. That's where they keep the children's section,  bargain books, and used books. I didn't know it, but apparently Santa was visiting that day. The place was mobbed. I thought I had avoided the whole holiday shopping ridiculousness, but no, i got my fair share. I thought about leaving and coming back another day, but I bravely pushed through and found more books. This is where I found Middlesex and The Bloody Chamber. I also bought some bargain priced books for the kids on my list.

All said, I spend a little over $100 during my Small Business Saturday shopping excursion. I'm happy to know that more of that money is staying in my community than if I'd have chosen to do my shopping at a chain, or on Amazon. I know that shopping local isn't always a feasible option for everyone, but I'm trying to do my small part.

Oh - and I spent much of yesterday and today thankfully reading The Bloody Chamber. It's really good! Retold fairy tales for the win!

*affiliate link

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Booked Solid



Lots of reading to be done if I'm going to reach 100 books read this year. Two finished so far this weekend, now deciding what to tackle next. Catch y'all in a bit!

Oh - and it's Small Business Saturday, so when I take a break from reading I'll be hitting up the indie bookstore closest to me. You could do the same!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bookish Weekend Plans

Guess who's not spending this weekend shopping at ridiculous Black Friday sales? This girl!

I do plan to participate in Small Business Saturday by heading up to an independent book store that I've been wanting to check out. I figure I'll see about buying some Christmas gifts there and well, maybe just a little something for myself. The hubby and my dad are planning to ride their motorcycles to some kind of car show swap meet thing that's a couple of hours away, so I'll have plenty of time to do bookish browsing to my heart's content.
3 books to review

On the blogging front, I need to get my review of The Hunger Games written, since I'm giving the book back to my friend on Monday. She's bringing me the other two in the trilogy - yay! I have two other books on my to-review list, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Persepolis II. I'll see what I can do about getting those reviews finished, too.

Of course, if I catch up on reviews, that means I need to read more books! I'm almost done with Mr. Fox, and I plan to finish that this weekend. I won a book through Amy's Nigerian Literature challenge, so I might give that one a try. It's not the type of book I'd normally pick out, but I try to stay open-minded. I also picked up a Barbara Ehrenreich book at a library book sale, so that is certainly an option.

Check out more posts from Black Friday avoiders at Jenn's Bookshelves.

What are your reading plans this weekend?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful

White pumpkin with the words THankful Thursday
Today in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving. I'm choosing to focus on the positive aspects of this holiday, where I express gratitude for the many good things in my life.

One of those good things is my ability to read. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. First, a good friend's mother has recently gone nearly blind from macular degeneration. She is an older woman, but never had vision problems. Then one day, boom! she's going blind. I've been told that I'm at high risk for this condition as I age. The thought of not being able to see is absolutely terrifying.

The other incident that inspired this post is a friend who could not pass a written test to get a job. The job is a  good paying one, and it would have been very helpful to his family had he been able to get it. However, he had trouble with reading the information on the test and answering questions based on it.According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, forty percent of American adults, "who although they do not meet criteria for functional illiteracy, nonetheless face reduced job opportunities and life prospects due to inadequate literacy levels relative to the requirements of contemporary society."

So I'm thankful. For my current ability to read, and much more. For my family and friends, some of whom I'll spend time with tomorrow, eating good food and enjoying each other's company.

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Measure of a Man Doesn't Measure Up

cover of The Measure of a Man Audiobook
The Measure of a Man
The Measure of a Man
Sidney Poitier

I listened to this on audio book last month, and have been hesitating to write the review ever since. I just really, really, disliked it - and I was hoping to enjoy it. I mean, it's Sidney Poitier! Who doesn't like Sidney Poitier?

I spent half the book wondering if I didn't like it simply because it was an audio book. It was only the second audio book I've listened to, so I thought "well, maybe the format just isn't my thing." Nope. I've since listened to another audio book and loved it. Not the format.

Okay, so what was it that bothered me about this book? It starts off strong. Poitier is talking about how he doesn't believe that we should look to other, less developed societies to find ways to be strong, upright people. That basically, your kid isn't going to grow up to be a screw-up because zie has access to television. Makes sense. THEN he spends the rest of the book extolling the benefits of growing up on an undeveloped island in the Bahamas where there was no electricity, running water, etc. He comes back to this theme all the time. I guess that you could say he's just explaining where he personally came from, but the impression is that this is the way all children should be raised and if they aren't - if they're raised in say, Miami, they're going to be morally bankrupt by 16.

There's also a lot of self congratulating going on. Poitier takes nearly all the credit for the success of the play A Raisin in the Sun. It was painful to listen to. His vision of the play may have been a better one - I'll concede that - but wow, the ego involved was staggering. Of course, it takes quite a bit of ego to write a book about your life and be sure that many people would want to read it, and I'm sure most people in Hollywood probably have enormous egos, too.

I was interested in Poitier's interactions with civil rights activists. He talks about how studios wanted to to sign contracts that he wouldn't associate with certain people who were considered agitators, and he refused to do that. Again, this part of the book fell short. I don't know if he had his reasons for not talking about these encounters in more detail - was he protecting someone? - but I wanted to know more.

I do want to read Harry Belafonte's new memoir, My Song. He and Poitier were friends, and I heard him interviewed on NPR about the two of them splitting a theater ticket, one watching the first half of a play and the other going in to watch the end. Something about how Belafonte told the story was more engaging than anything that I heard from Poitier.

Have you read this? Did you like it? What am I missing?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Penelopiad: The Oddessy Retold

The Penelopiad
The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood's reconsideration of Homer's classic The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus's wife. Penelope narrates her story from Hades, where she and her contemporaries are spending eternity, with the occasional visit to Earth and modern times.

Penelope tells her story, starting from her childhood, before Odysseus was ever in her picture. We learn about her family, how her mother, a Naiad (water nymph) was more interested in playing with sea creatures than parenting a daughter, and her father, the king, tried to drown her when she was a small child.
You can see by what I've told you that I was a child who learned early the virtues - if such they are - of self-sufficiency. I could see that I would have to look out for myself in the world. I could hardly count on family support.
Penelope does her readers a favor by reminding them of elements of the traditional telling of The Odyssey, so if you haven't looked at the poem since high school, you'll be fine. She then tells you what really happened. Of course, there's a bit of a problem completely trusting her take, as she's not exactly a reliable narrator. But why should she be? We've been hearing a slanted take on the story for millenia.

I actually found the maids to be the most interesting aspect of the story. They are just girls who are trying to make their way the only way they can. If they're favored because of their rosy cheeks, well, they're grabbing every advantage. The fates are not kind to the maids, however, as you know - they end up hanged from a ship's beam.

I loved how Atwood not only took a classic myth, framed it through the eyes of Penelope, but then offered the an additional academic interpretation of the story's meaning. Sometimes I think Atwood's viewpoint gets a little heavy handed, and it does verge on it here, but I thought overall the feminist perspective was presented in a smart, thoughtful way. This is the third Atwood novel I've read, and I'm glad there are many more out there to read!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Looking Back: February

I bring to you the second of a seven or so part series, looking back on my 2011 pre-blogging reads.

February
 was a much better month for reading than January.

Total: 9 books
7 fiction                          78%
2 nonfiction                   28%
5 female authors           56%
3 works in translation   33%

Algerian White, Assia Djebar*** This memoir was good, and I would have enjoyed it more if I had any idea who or what she was talking about. It's the author's recounting of Algeria's struggle for independence,and many of the intellectuals who lost their lives during the events. I definitely want to read more by Djebar, especially An Algerian Cavalcade, which has been on my TBR list for well over a year.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
, Alison Bechdel***** Graphic novel about a young woman growing up, coming out as a lesbian, and discovering her father was gay. Really, really good. Bechdel is also famous for the Bechdel movie test, which a film passes if it has 1) Two named female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. It's scary how many movies fail, big time.

Circle of Magic: Daja's Book
, Tamora Pierce****I was running out of reading material and had these on my shelves, leftover from my classroom library days. I had heard Tamora Pierce wrote really strong, well rounded female characters, so I gave these a try. I was pleasantly surprised.
Circle of Magic: Tris's Book, Tamora Pierce****See above.
Circle of Magic: Sandry's Book, Tamora Pierce****See above.

I am the Messenger, Markus Zusak***Disappointing. I really liked The Book Thief, but this was not as strong. Just...enh. Not bad, but not anything I'd read again, or gush over.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
, Jorge Amado**** Cute, fun story with magical realism elements dealing with what makes the title character a happy wife.

The Death of Artemio Cruz
, Carlos Fuentes***This was really well written, but the graphic subject matter got to be a bit much for me. I'd give Fuentes another try, though. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
, Raymond Carver***I was stranded at the airport and started chatting with a guy in the same position. He was a reader, and insisted I borrow this for the flight home. I read the whole short story collection on a 2 hour flight. It was good, but I wish I had more time with it to better reflect my thoughts.

Assia Djbar. I just really like this picture by Irmeli Jung, so I'm posting it.