Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Great Book Club Picks

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Today's theme:

Top Ten Books I Think Would Make Great Book Club Picks

I've belonged to a couple book clubs, and loved them. I think the key to picking a good book is to find a novel with layers - not something you just breeze through in a sitting with a cuppa tea. It should stick with you, give you something to think about, have characters you can root for or against. A bit of controversy never hurt, either, but stick with fiction - unless you want real arguments. I also like reading something that had a connection to your geographical locale, which is admittedly easier to do if you're reading in New York than Oklahoma.


A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving.
My book club did read this, and I'm so glad. I probably never would have picked it up otherwise. If I remember, pretty much everyone loved it, but there was still plenty to talk about. I hate when you get a book about which everyone says "This was great!," and then...nothing. There is so much going on in this story that it is sure to lead to engaging conversations.
The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood.
It's a retelling of a classic, so people will be familiar with the general story. It's a great book to take a character's side - do you think Penelope's full of it? Is Helen unfairly demonized? What's really going on with the maids?
The Lifted Veil, George Eliot.
It's short. Yay! And there's a lot packed into this novella, so there's still plenty to talk about. Plus, if people like this, maybe they'll be willing to tackle Middlemarch the next time you suggest it. Which is, um, not short.
House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III.
The last book club I was in was a group of lawyers. We often picked books with a bit of a legal angle, but not anything too close to work. This would seem to fit that. It's about a woman who loses her house because she ignores notices and tax bills, and what happens to her and the new family of recent immigrants who buys the house. I can imagine people having very strong reactions to this and being firmly on the side of one or the other characters.
Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Assia Djebar.
I really wanted my book club to read this, but for some reason the others didn't seem to be as fascinated with it as I was. I love the title, and it has to do with a girl growing up in Algeria, and there's war and independence and the role of language. This is the only book on my list I haven't actually read yet, which needs to change, asap.
The Taste of Salt, Martha Southgate.
Because it's good. And you get to talk about race and addiction and family issues. See? Interesting conversations, I promise.
The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck.
Sometimes picking a classic means that more people show up. Either they've read it before, or it's one of those books that they will read if they're just given a bit of a push.
Sula, Toni Morrison.
Morrison is intimidating, but this book is pretty straightforward and accessible. The are no Beloved type ghosts to confuse the heck out of everyone, but it's still a wonderfully written, beautiful book. Plus, the friendship of two young girls is at its core. I know there's plenty to talk about there.
The North of God, Steve Stern.
Again, this one is short but powerful. It has a lot of references to Jewish culture, so it helps if people have at least a working understanding of Judaism. Warning: it's a bit of a downer.
House of Mirth, Edith Wharton.
Another classic, this time with an ambiguous ending, drug usage, plenty of scandal. Perfect.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: Library Guilt


It seems I've overdone it at the library. I've checked out more books than usual lately. I'll take them home, set them on my coffee table, and then...nothing. I can't get excited to read them. So then a week later I'll go back to the library, pick up more books, and read some of the new ones, while the old ones still sit untouched.

I have five books that are due back on Tuesday. I already renewed them once, and my library's online system won't let me renew them again. I read two of them, and two are completely unread. I started one, Palace Walk, but have only read two chapters. I enjoyed those two chapters, but I haven't picked it back up in several days. It's highly unlikely that I'll be able to finish the book by Tuesday - but perhaps I'll give it a try. I mean, who needs to do anything besides curl up on the couch with a 500 page book?

For some reason, I feel guilty returning library books unread. I feel like someone else could have been reading them in that time.

Besides just not having read the books, I'm also behind on reviewing those I have read. Maybe this will be the push I need to get some reviews written. I like to have a few posts drafted so I can keep a somewhat regular posting schedule. It's nice to have some waiting in reserve in case I get too busy to write much or I haven't finished any books so I have nothing to talk about.

In other news, I'm super excited that my plans to (at least temporarily) return to New York have been realized. Okay, technically I'll be staying with my cousin in New Jersey, but I'll be working in Manhattan for 10 weeks, starting at the beginning of March. I can't wait! And hopefully wither the hubby or I will find a permanent position up there so we'll be able to stay for good :-)

~~~~~>>
That's me in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, maybe 18 months ago, give or take. It was during the annual Museum Mile fest, where you get free admission to awesome museums like the Met, the Guggenheim, the Museum for African Art, and more. Plus there's music and chalk painting and people wandering in the closed-to-traffic street. Yeah, I miss that city.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Gorgeous Radioactivity

Radioactive, Lauren Redniss
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout
Lauren Redniss

I have been wanting to read this book ever since I first heard about it six or so months ago. Unfortunately, my library did not have a copy, and I kept waiting and waiting for the one they ordered to arrive. When I went the other day to pick up a hold, the librarian said, "Oh - it says you have two holds - let me go see what the other one is." To my absolute delight, it was their brand-spanking new copy of Radioactive. I gleefully snatched it up and started reading it over lunch.

Line drawing in black ink on white background of Marie Curie sitting at a desk with a pen in hand, writing in a notebook. Her face is in three quarters view and she is staring at the reader.
Those eyes! They're staring into your soul!
Immediately, I was drawn into the book. The opening pages are in beautiful tones of blue, and green, and orange. They glow much as you imagine vials of radium glowing. Then, when you actually get into the first "real" pages, Marya Sklodowska, aka Marie Curie, stares at you through a completely captivating black and white drawing.

As much as I loved this drawing, I was a bit worried that I wasn't going to get any more of the intense color of the introductory pages. I actually flipped ahead, and was relieved to see plenty of color.

Lauren Redniss has done an amazing job tying her artwork with the story of Marie and Pierre Curie. She tells about their personal lives, their work, their interests, and the future implications of their research.

I was amazed at how much work they had to put in to their experiments. The tools they needed often didn't exist, so they made them. They were interested in anything that could enlighten them and cast light onto their experiments, even if that meant attending Spiritualist sessions where tables somehow levitated and scientists tried to measure the weight of ghostly presences.
The first x-ray of the human interior


They worked along side other accomplished scientists, including Albert Einstien, and Wilhem Röntgen, who discovered the x-ray. It was an experience to be holding the pages of the book with my left hand, next to the first x-ray, which was of the left hand of Anna-Bertha Röntgen, Wilhem's wife.


There were some jarring elements. I'd be going along, happily reading about the Curies, when suddenly I'd turn the page and be reading about the Manhattan Project or something else. The little extras were interesting, and certainly form a major part of the fallout from the Curies, but they felt out of place somehow, as if they weren't fully integrated in the rest of the book.

Another nit-picky criticism is that the text was often unevenly spaced, in places where it made no sense to space it that way. It was sometimes hard to read, because the words would be almost squished together.

Still, I rated the book overall as 4 stars. Usually I give books 4 stars because there's some little tidbit that keeps them from being 5 stars. In this instance, the book, while very good, probably was only 3 stars on its own. I bumped it up a notch because of the incredible artwork.

This copy is going back to the library, but I'm going to need a copy on my shelves to add a little beauty.

Want more like this? Try:
  • Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. This time it's a murder mystery, but based on a real case in the mid 1800s. Some of the characters are very interested in the intersection of Spiritualism and science. 
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Non-fiction, approachable science. 
  • Laurence Yep, Hiroshima. A slim young adult novel dealing with the aftermath of the US's atomic bombing of Japan, and the Hiroshima Maidens.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thoughts on Then Came You, and "Chick Lit"

Then Came You
Jennifer Weiner

I read all kinds of books. I'm more drawn to what I guess is called "literary fiction" or the classics, or  some under appreciated but somehow "worthwhile" novel. Every now and then I will indulge in a bit of "brain candy" as I like to call it. I usually do not admit this. There was one time, back when I was teaching, and the assistant principal (and a member of my book club) caught me reading a Nora Roberts novel my grandmother had given me. I probably turned three shades of red as I stammered out an explanation.

Why is this? I think it has to do with the fact that many books by female authors are thought to be silly and not worth reading. And honestly, that reeks of sexism. I mean, if you're caught reading I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, it may be embarrassing, but for other reasons. People generally probably aren't thinking you're incapable of reading anything more serious. They might (rightfully, IMHO) think you have bad taste.

Jennifer Weiner seems to have become one of the more visible authors pushing back against these stereotypes. I give her a lot of credit for doing this, because it's not easy countering sexism in public, under your real name, wanting your ideas to be seriously considered.

So in recognition of that, I decided to read one of Ms. Weiner's books, Then Came You. Was it my favorite book? No. It was fine. Three stars, which is pretty typical for how I rate books (46 out of the 113 books I read last year were 3 star reads). Did I enjoy my time reading it? Yes. It was a cute story.

I liked that the main female characters each had their own voice and personality. I could even see them in my mind's eye, which is pretty rare for me. I usually just gloss over descriptions and see everyone as a blurry outline. I liked that there were POC and lesbian characters who weren't stuck in there just because. I liked that I learned a bit about egg donation and non-traditional ways of having children.

Some of the details did make me roll my eyes. Please, I know New York is an expensive city, but believe me, if you make $100K a year and live in a crappy apartment with three roommates you should not have a hard time making that work. And you aren't looking for the most economical route to get somewhere in the city. You use your monthly unlimited transit pass and hop on the subway or bus, not thinking twice. Maybe that's nit-picky, but I hate it when authors get details so wrong. I don't know about a lot of things, but when I know you're getting stuff wrong, it makes me wonder what else is inaccurate.

The other main thing I dislike was that one character, India, seemed to change a couple of times with no real warning or explanation. She goes from über-evil gold digging stepmother to loving wife at the drop of a hat. just a quick:
"[A]t some point, I'd actually fallen in love with my husband."
Okayyyyyy, whatever.

So, the book certainly wasn't perfect. But I've read far, far worse. I liked this way better than Pillars of the Earth or Bonfire of the Vanities, two books by men that are raved over and celebrated and I thought were garbage.

Double standards, perhaps?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Playing Catch Up

Okay, I have given up on the idea of doing full reviews of any of the books I read in 2011 but have yet to review. I've decided to just present them with some quick thoughts on each. I've arranged them by my star rating, starting with five stars.

*****
Five Stars
Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Heinrich Böll. Translated from German.
Yeah. This. This was really, really good. The Faehmel family is a German family living near Colonge. Heinrich, the family patriarch, loved to the city when he was a young man to pursue a career as an architect. His son, Robert, was conscripted into Germany's army during WWII to be a demolition expert. The book's events are all over one day, Heinrich's 80th birthday, but much of the story is told in flashbacks. Old acquaintances pop up, the past and present bleed together.
Melville House sent this to me for participating in The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge

****
Four Stars
To the End of the Land, David Grossman. Translated from Hebrew.
My book club decided to read this back in September. I actually ended up moving before we met to talk about it, which is probably a good thing because it took me forever to read. I just could not get into it, for some reason. I don't know if it was just my mood, or what. This book was INTENSE, and I was under a lot of stress at the time, so it just didn't seem like a good fit. There is some beautiful writing here, but the emotions were so raw that sometimes it was hard to read. I mean, it's about a woman who thinks her son is getting out of the army and then he volunteers to go back for one last mission. She's convinced that if she doesn't go home, there will be no one for the "informers" to tell that he's hurt - or worse. So she goes for a walk - a really long walk - with an old friend.
Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones.
The story of a bigamist and his two families, only one which knows of the other. Heartbreak galore, just what I like.
Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich.
I realized that I've never really read anything by Native American writers (that I can remember), so when I saw this book about a wife who is keeping two journals because she discovered her husband was reading one of them, I couldn't resist picking it up. I'm glad I did, because it was excellent. The couple has an incredibly complicated, tumultuous relationship, which was difficult to read about at times. You want things to end on a happy note, but perhaps that's too much to ask for.
Sula, Toni Morrison.
If I had read this at another time, it probably would have been a 5 star read. However, I picked it up not long after finishing Toni Morrison's A Mercy on audio, which completely blew me away. This was a wonderful book, but not *quite* as good as A Mercy, so it gets 4 stars. The gist - two girls grow up as best friends in a small town in the midwest, facing the limits of their gender, class, and race. The writing will take your breath away.

***
Three Stars
The World We Found, Thrity Umrigar
I read Umrigar's The Space Between Us a couple years ago for my book club. I thought it was just okay, even though so many of my fellow book clubbers were in love with it. I wanted to give her another try, because her books are so popular. Unfortunately, this one wasn't a favorite. It's not bad, by any means, but her style just isn't for me. This book centers around four friends who were "comrades" working for a more just India back in their university days. Now, 20-some years later, have drifted apart. When one of them, now  living in the United States, is diagnosed with cancer, the four are determined to reunite. However, that is not as simple as it seems.
I won this in a publisher's giveaway hosted on S. Krishna's Books

America and the Pill, Elaine Tyler May
This was an eye opening book about the invention and usage of oral contraceptives in the United States. May's father was a scientist involved in the approval process, and she grew up with the pill in her consciousness. She does a good job explaining the origins and controversies of the pill, while acknowledging the interplay of gender, race, and class. The biggest drawback was her use of a an internet survey of pill users, whose anecdotes where interspersed throughout the book. It just felt a bit rushed and unprofessional. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Sunday Salon: Africa Reading Challenge

Kinna Reads is hosting the Africa Reading Challenge, and I just had to sign up. I've read some literature from countries in Africa, but not a lot. Of the creative writing books portion of the Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century, I've only read four. For the challenge, you have to pledge to read five eligible books. An eligible book is one that is written by an African writer, or take place in Africa, or are concerned with Africans and with historical and contemporary African issues. At least 3 of the books must be written by African writers.

I've got my initial 5 books picked out:
  • Palace Walk, Naguib Mafouz (read, 2/5/2012)
  • Butterfly Burning, Yvonne Vera
  • Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi wa Thiong'o
  • A Palace in the Old Village, Tahar Ben Jelloun
  • Maps, Nuruddin Farah

I'd like to read a few more. I've been wanting to read Assia Djbar's Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade for quite awhile now. If I like Palace Walk I'll look into the remaining books in the trilogy. 

One of the difficulties with reading African authors is that the books are not easy to locate. I'm a big library user, but my library doesn't have a lot of these books. It trends towards the latest Carl Hiaasen or James Patterson.

So I broke down and ordered books from Amazon. As much as I love using my local book store, they don't really have the selection I need. And honestly, they're not that local - the closest bookstore to me is in the next county. I know I could ask them to order what I want, but then, I admit, price becomes a factor. I like to be able to sit at my computer, search for a few different titles, see how much they are, see how much alternate titles are, decide how much money I want to spend, etc. I don't expect someone at a bookstore to humor me like that. It doesn't hurt that I still have an Amazon student account, which gives me free prime shipping.

Ideally, there would be a lovely independent book store near me with a great selection, friendly staff, and good prices. Unfortunately, that's just not my reality at the moment. (Oh, Strand, how I miss you!)

Where do you get your books? And do you have any suggestions for African literature for me to read?

Friday, January 20, 2012

First Up in the Back to the Classics Challenge: The Good Earth

The Good Earth
The Good Earth
Pearl S. Buck

I chose to read The Good Earth as part of the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge because it is one of those books that I always thought I should read but never actually got around to. Or so I thought.

After reading the first few pages, I kept thinking it seemed awfully familiar. Oh, well - I probably picked it up and skimmed it at some point. I kept reading, thinking I'd come to a point that I hadn't read before. Finally, I was forced to realize that I have read this book. I think it must have been a few years ago, when I was teaching high school. I once had my students read a historical fiction book and then research what that time period was really like and compare it with the book they read. While I was preparing this assignment I checked out several books from the school library and read them. This must have been one of them.

Anyway! On to the book.

The Good Earth is set in pre-WWII China, although the exact dates are fuzzy. From what I've read, it's intended to be rather contemporaneous with its writing (it was published in 1932) but at the same time, it spans about 50 years. The protaganist, Wang Lung, begins the novel as a young man of about 20, and is in his seventies by its conclusion.

Wang Lung starts life as a poor man, forced to marry a slave girl in a rich house as there is no one else for him. Still, Wang Lung is excited about his wedding day. The first scenes in the novel were my favorite of the whole book:
This cauldron he filled partly full of water, dipping it with a half gourd from an earthen jar that stood near, but he dipped cautiously, for water was precious. Then, after a hesitation, he suddenly lifted the jar and emptied all the water into the cauldron. This day he would bathe his whole body. Not since he was a child on his mother's knee had anyone looked upon his body. Today one would, and he would have it clean.
His wife, O-lan, ends up being the best purchase he ever made.  At first, it seems that Wang Lung recgnizes this, although he would never admit it aloud to anyone, nor does he truly admit it even to himself. As the years go by and struggles pass, he takes her for granted more and more. It's heartbreaking.

None of the relationships in the book seem to make much sense, at least through an American lens (and of course, it was an American who wrote this). The traditional Chinese concept of filial loyalty seems hopelessly flawed. Family members take advantage of one another, and use threats to ensure compliance with "proper" behavior. At the same time, this system seems to be falling apart in the younger generation.

Wang Lung is caught in this time of upheaval. He's and old fashioned farmer with traditional values trying to do the best he can in an era of uncertainty. He worries what will happen after he's gone. Will his sons continue to work the land, which was been the family's source of social and financial ascension? Or will they abandon it for other, more cosmopolitan pursuits? And if they leave the land that has given them so much, what will happen to them?

The answers, at least for Wang Lung, are unknowable.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Code Name Mariposa

In the Time of the Butterflies
In the Time of the Butterflies
Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictional recounting of the Maribel family of the Dominican Republic. The family is notable for having three of four sisters run afoul of dictator Rafael Trujillo, or "El Jefe," paying for their actions with their lives.

Julia Alvarez, who spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, wrote the book to bring the story of these courageous women to a wider audience. In her postscript she writes:
"To Dominicans separated by language from the world I have created, I hope this book deepens North Americans' understanding of the nightmare you endured and the heavy losses you suffered - of which this story tells only a few."
The novel is framed by the only living sister, Dedé. She is the caretaker of her sisters' memories, and the one interviewed about their lives, by journalists and curious tourists. It is one such casual visitor that calls her up and asks if she can come over for a visit to ask about the sisters, setting up the novel.

The story itself is told by each of the four sisters in alternating chapters. It covers their early lives, when as young girls even the thought that someone might overhear a comment that could be interpreted as anti-Trujillo interrupts family time on the porch and sends everyone scurrying inside for safety.

Minerva is the most focused activist of the sisters. She was the first to speak out against Trujillo, and the one to never waver in what she knew to be right. However, Alvarez does a good job in showing that she's still human, not a mythological hero. She gets scared and discouraged at times, but she knows what has to be done.

All of the women have strong, identifiable personalities. They may have been involved to varying degrees, and for varying reasons, but they all are drawn realistically. Alvarez has certainly succeeded in making these celebrated sisters easy to relate to but still more than capable of inspiring others to action. When they were assassinated, the country was in an uproar. Their deaths were one of many events that led to the downfall of Trujillo's regime. The United Nations chose the date of their deaths, November 25, as the day of the  International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Fortunately, most of us in the US are relatively safe from violent government reprisal when we engage in protest (mostly). So in the spirit of the Maribel sisters, tell me: How do you speak out against injustice?

Want more like this? Try:
  • Junot Díaz, The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Very different style, but it also covers the Dominican Republic under Trujillo.
  • Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. Set in Haiti, the DR's neighbor on Hispaniola, around the same time as In the Time of the Butterflies. This time the dictator is Duvalier. This novel is more like a series of interconnected short stories. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swamplandia! Where there are Gators and Exclamation Points!

picture of oranges resting on white snow, with 'Orange January' written at top of the image

Swamplandia!
Swamplandia!
Karen Russell

The Bigtree clan runs an alligator themed theme park on the western edge of the Everglades. No Native American blood runs through their veins, but they put on a good show for the tourists, complete with attendant "family history" museum of outgrown clothes and constantly changing placards. Their performances are so intense that even the Bigtree children are unsure of where the edges of their reality lie.

Hilola Bigtree married into the family, became the star of the show, and produced the third generation of Bigtree offspring. She's an award winning alligator wrestler and daredevil diver. For every evening performance, in the dark of night, she stands high on a precarious diving platform, a single spotlight illuminating her form as she swan diving into a gator infested pool for her signature performance, "Swimming with the Seths."

Unfortunately for the Bigtree family and their theme park, Hilola is diagnosed with cancer and quickly succumbs to the disease. Afterwards, the rest of the family members rapidly begin their descent into their own private hells.

Things get weird when Osceola, the oldest daughter, finds an occult book that convinces her she has the ability to commune with the dead. No one knows quite what to make of her new hobby. Ava, the younger daughter, half believes in her sister's ability and is hopeful they will be able to contact their mother. Chief Bigtree, their father, dismisses it as a fantasy of a boy crazy teenager. Kiwi, the oldest Bigtree child and only boy, is more worried about how they are going to afford to stay on their island paradise.

One by one, they leave Swamplandia! and head out to some place they hope offers salvation. But alone, they lack the skills and knowledge they need to navigate their new worlds.

Things get really weird when Ava sets off to find Ossie, who has run away with Louis Thanksgiving, her boyfriend that's been dead for 70 years. Can the mysterious Bird Man really help Ava sail to the underworld and rescue her sister? The unexpected injection of the supernatural leaves you wondering what's real and what isn't.

I'm a native Floridian, so I loved reading about "old" Florida and how it's changed over the years. The federal government certainly played its part, for better or (mostly) worse through actions of the Army Corps of Engineers that tinkered with the environment and Indian removal programs that terrorized Native Americans and pushed them further and further south, deeper into the swampy Everglades.

The appropriation/invention of Native American lore made me really uncomfortable, but I can certainly imagine a family taking this on if they think it's going to bring in the dollars. So it rang true, if discordant. Other parts of the book, however, seemed to push how far I could suspend my disbelief.

Want more like this? Try:*
  • Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. Another book where you can't be sure what is real. Is this a ghost story, or the story of a young governess dissolving into madness? 
  • Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered. Fictional tale of three generations of Floridians, beginning with the arrival from Georgia of Tobias and Emma in the mid 19th century
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Florida in the 1920s from the perspective of and African American woman. The great Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 is a focal point.
*This new feature is inspired by Eva over at A Striped Armchair, who often includes "Suggested Companion Reads" in her posts  on books. I can't promise I'm going to do this every time I talk about a book, but I'm going to try to make it a somewhat regular part of my posts.
~~~
After much internal debate, I feel it is necessary to add a SPOILER for potentially triggering plot point:

There is a sexual assault that is not gone into with extreme detail, but it is certainly graphic enough.

END SPOILER

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Poetry Challenge

Nikky Finney
In 2011 I read a single volume of poetry. That's not really all that surprising, as poetry is not typically one of my go-to genres. I would like to read more of it, though. So I'm signing up for the 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Challenge hosted by Serena over at Savvy Verse & Wit.

Here's what you have to do (your choice):

a. Read and review up to 2 books of poetry throughout 2012 and leave the full link to each review in Mr. Linky.

b. Participate in at least 3 Virtual Poetry Circles throughout the year.

c. Sign up to feature poetry on your blog for April’s National Poetry Month as part of Savvy Verse & Wit’s Blog Tour.

d. Or some combination of the above.

At the very least, I'm aiming to read and review two books of poetry. I've got them picked out, now I just need to go buy them: Nikky Finney's NBA award winning Head Off and Split and If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson.

Do you have a favorite poet? Any suggestions for what I should read? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Floating Barge of Death

Death on the Nile
Death on the Nile
Agatha Christie

Wow - after a rather slow start, in which I was holding my breath, waiting for the lovely Linnet to get hers, Ms. Christie certainly has the bodies pile up.

Poor Linnet -she's young, beautiful, rich, popular, and newly married, yet none of these attributes will save her. The question is, which was enough for someone to kill her? There certainly is not a lack of suspects, or motives.

Not to fear! Hercule Poirot is a passenger on this floating death trap, and he and his formidable gray matter will have this murder solved in no time. Unfortunately, not quite quick enough to prevent some collateral damage.

This is a fun read, and a classic in the genre. Of course, considering it was published in 1937 and set in Egypt, there's your typical amount of racist commentary. Nothing over the top, but it is certainly noticeable.

Seeing as this is a mystery, that's all you're getting, folks! I wouldn't want to spoil this for anyone who hasn't yet read it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Loud Hands Project

Much of the content of this post is taken and modified from The Loud Hands Project tumblr and project site.

You can support this awesome project on its fundraising page over at Indigogo.

The Loud Hands Project is a transmedia publishing effort by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network dedicated to amplifying the voices of Autistic people speaking, however they do, as they make the world one we all can share. They’ve already made a video, and right now they’re raising money for their first anthology and the creation of a website for future projects. The anthology will consist of submissions by Autistic authors speaking about neurodiversity, Autistic pride and culture, disability rights and resistance, and resilience (known collectively by the community as having loud hands).

A lot of people are supporting this project, and the Autistic community is really excited about it. They’re trying to raise $10,000 dollars to cover their starting costs, and they are well over half way there. Donations start at $10 and are tax-deductible. I can't wait until this anthology is finished and I can read the submissions. I've contributed; won't you join me?

Some of the perks for being a supporter:
$20 gets you a .pdf version of the anthology when it's finished.
$50 gets you a hard copy of the anthology
$100 gets you a hard copy, plus the library of your choice receives one as well.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Literary Blog Hop: To Supplement or Not to Supplement

Literary Blog Hop

Welcome to my contribution to the Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase. Be sure to check out everyone else's answers over at the link-up post. Here's this month's question:

Do you like to supplement your reading with outside sources, like Sparknotes, academic articles, or other bloggers' reviews? Why or why not? 

It depends. C'mon - you didn't think I'd answer with a simple yes or no, did you?

If I'm reading a classic, or a particularly difficult piece of literature, I will sometimes look at outside sources. However, I don't like to look at much before starting to read. I'd rather go in with a relatively blank slate and draw my own conclusions about what I'm reading. Then I might go back and read criticism or reviews  or whatnot.

I'm remembering when I read The House of Mirth for my book club. The edition I purchased had a ton of supplementary material. I read some bits out of the introduction just to get an idea of the world I was about to enter, but as soon as it started getting too detailed or spoiler-y, I stopped. I read the book, and then went back and read some of the supplementary text.

Recently, I've read two books were I was very happy to have an explanatory afterward. One was The Pathseeker. The other was Billiards at Half-Past Nine, by Heinrich Böll (of which I still haven't written a review. I should get on that, like, stat). In the case of The Pathseeker, it served to clear up some questions. In Billiards, it served to open up a whole other take on the novel, which was pretty exciting.

Generally, I find that I'm most interested in reading supplementary material when I liked the book and want to find out more about it, or when I have question that I'd like to have answered. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sunset Park, according to a White Dude

Sunset Park, a novel by Paul Auster. Blurry picture on cover shows a young blond boy wearing a black sweater, tossing something unseen into the air.
Sunset Park
Sunset Park 
Paul Auster

I was so disappointed in this book. I picked it up because I used to live in the neighborhood south of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I would ride my bike up 5th Avenue to the best taco place in the city, Tacos Matamoros. Then I'd go to La Gran Via Bakery and get myself a delicious coconut macaroon that was so good, a friend declared it must be made with baby jesus parts. Afterwards, I'd walk to the park known for having some of the best views in Brooklyn.

The most delicious macaroon, ever.
And yes, Paul Auster, sometimes I'd walk around gorgeous Greenwood cemetery, looking at the graves of the famous and not-so-famous.

In Paul Auster's idea of Sunset Park, the vibrant, diverse community becomes nothing more than a sordid backdrop for four white privileged twenty somethings to play out their anarchist dreams while squatting in an abandoned and dilapidated house.

The plot - as much as there is one - revolves around Miles Heller. Miles is battling some serious physic wounds from a teenage trauma. Wounds are a major theme here, made most clear by a young Miles engaging in a thoroughly mature critique of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Despite Miles's hurt, or maybe sometimes because of it, people are drawn to Miles. Everyone loves him. Including seventeen year old Miami schoolgirl, Pilar. It's because Miles is running from rape charges that he ends up in Brooklyn. It's no big deal - everyone agrees, Miles is so great. Just let him have his Pilar. (Ew.)

If you can get past these issues, the book has some good qualities. The descriptions of Miles's relationships with his parents are particularly realistic. They show people bumbling along, making mistakes, but ultimately forging lasting bonds.

I wish that the rest of the novel could have lived up to the better parts. Le sigh. Oh well - another author I can say I've read, and not have to mess with again, at least for a while.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday Salon: Applying my Mantra

Last Sunday, I talked about my life and reading goal for 2012 - to live thoughtfully. So how's that going?

Um, well, it's an adjustment, honestly - especially in my reading. In December I was speeding through books. I was in a rush to meet some arbitrary number by the end of the year. Even when I reached that magic number, I didn't stop. I had started a seasonal reading challenge, and I was desperate to be as high in the points standings as possible.

So far this year, I've only finished one book. One! (Middlesex - yes Middlesex. Oh, Jeffrey Eugenides has a new book out? Maybe I'll get to it in 2020.) I'm also in the middle of two others. Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, is taking me much longer than I anticipated. I'm trying to resist rushing through, difficult now that I'm getting so close to the end. There are little sticky notes peeking out the edges, showing that at least I'm thinking about what I'm reading. I even flagged one of the books in the bibliography to read in full some time. I also started Swamplandia!, which is proving to be a rather unpredictable book. That's all I will say about that one at the moment.

There have been moments during this week when I've started to panic a little about my reading. Oh no! I'm falling behind in my challenge! Then I stop and remember that the pace at which I was reading in December was neither sustainable nor enjoyable. Plus, I want to do other things besides sit on my couch and read. Well, I have been sitting on the couch a lot and reading, but much of the material is study material for the Florida bar exam. Booo, bar exam. You are a fun-sapper.

As far as living thoughtfully in other areas of my life, I'm taking advantage of living on the beach in Florida in January. As much as I miss and love New York, I have to admit that there are perks to being elsewhere in the winter. I woke up early last Sunday and watched the first sunrise of 2012. I've gone for several long walks on the beach this week, taking time to enjoy the waves, watch the birds, and dip my toes in the water.

Sunrise, 01.01.2012, by me, with my fancy camera phone (ha)

All in all, it's been a pretty successful week. It's nice to just try to concentrate on living thoughtfully in my day to day life, rather than beating myself up over strict resolutions that may or may not be kept.

How's you're 2012 so far?

***All book links are affiliate links to Indiebound.org

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Cousins' War, #1

The White Queen
The White Queen
Philippa Gregory

This is the third Philippa Gregory books I've read, and the second in 2011. Several years ago I read The Queen's Fool. It was a gift, and not anything I'd usually pick out for myself. I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would. Then back in April I read A Respectable Trade and thought it was one of the worst books EVER. I thought that I might giver her another try, but only when she was writing about old dead English people. I couldn't deal with her talking about Africans.

Hence, The White Queen, aka Elizabeth Woodville/Rivers/etc. For a book that talks about more battles than I could try to count, wow is it boring. It's all husband goes to war, comes home, goes to war, comes home, goes to war. All while the Queen sits around, twiddling  her thumbs and having babies (she had ten children by this guy!). If you're going to have the Queen hanging out in the castle all the time, at least tell me what she's doing. She can't just be sitting around, breathlessly waiting for news all the time. Her husband had time to bed half the women in London, so at least one of them had leisure time.

Elizabeth was the mother of the infamous princes in the Tower of London, who mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Gregory has her own theory about what may have happened to them, and shares it here. It's kinda interesting, but it doesn't make it worth reading the whole book.

Well, whatever. I won't be reading any more Philippa Gregory anytime soon. I don't feel the need to pick up the next book in the series. The one thing I do like about historical fiction is learning more about the real stories and people involved. Somehow I can keep all the players straighter in my head if I read about them in novel form. The when I read nonfiction, it makes more sense to me. So that's something, I guess.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Two Mini Reviews

Today I'm bringing you two mini reviews with a couple similarities. Both were written by well respected female authors, and both are fantasy type fiction.

The Bloody Chamber
The Bloody Chamber bookcover. Black background, white castle with girl hanging out and calling for help, surrounded by angry red waves
The Bloody Chamber
Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber contains ten reworkings of classic fairy tales, from Bluebeard and the Erl-King to Puss in Boots (somehow, I think the new animated film shares nothing but a title). My biggest complaint is that they seemed repetitive, especially with two versions of Beauty and the Beast told consecutively.

Carter fully embraces the violent, bloody, ribald nature of the original tales, but updates them with her own personal twists. They are certainly disturbing - I'd recommend only one a day, and not before going to sleep. Who knows what might show up in your dreams.

If you like the idea of reworked fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (affiliate link), is certainly worth picking up. I bought it this past year and read several of the stories, but haven't completed the whole book. There are selections from writers including Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates.

Dragonflight
Dragonflight
Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey was an early female science fiction/fantasy writer known for her Dragonriders of Pern series. I was never really a science fiction fan, and had never read her work. Ms. McCaffrey passed away in November, and I saw several authors writing tributes to her. It made me think I should try one of her books.

Unfortunately, Dragonflight  was not for me. The general idea was interesting - people living on outlying planets, then forgotten about, trying to make it on their own. Oh, and they hang out with dragons. That's cool.

The downside? The pacing seemed off, and there were some serious plot holes. And I almost forgot - the whole "let me continually rape someone until they fall in love with me" story line. Ick, ick, ick.

So many pioneering women fall into the "exceptional woman" trap, where you try to prove you're not like all the other women who really are less worthy than the menz. That's the vibe I got from McCaffrey, and to an extent, from Lessa, the main character. So, yeah - I'm glad to have read a staple of the sci-fi genre, and one by a female author at that, but I'll pass on the rest of the series.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Two by Tamora Pierce

Terrier and Bloodhound
Tamora Pierce

These two books are the first and second in Pierce's Beka Cooper trilogy. The trilogy is set in Tortall, but 200 years before Pierce's other Tortall universe books.

Terrier

In Terrier, the first book, we are introduced to Tortall through the diary of Elani Cooper, frazzled mother to unruly six year old George. She tries to get her son to behave and stop stealing by telling him about a famous ancestor and legendary Guardswoman, Rebekah Cooper.

The book then switches to Beka's diary, which she has begun to when she started her training to be a member of the Provost's Guard (an early police force). Beka is a hard worker, and is determined to rise from her "Puppy" status to a "Dog" faster than any other trainee. She doesn't want any favors from her patron, Lord Gershom, but wants to make her own way.She uses her magical abilities to  supplement all of her non-magical efforts. She's able to listen to the spirits of the dead, carried on the backs of pigeons, to gather clues about who is being murdered in her city. Beka's trainers, Goodwin and Tunstall, learn to appreciate Beka for all of her help. They still recognize that she has a lot to learn, though, and they do their best to protect her and keep her safe.

The book is slow going at first, and there is some annoying slang that gets distracting, but overall it was a pleasure to read about a strong, independent, but imperfect female character. The supporting characters are great, too. I especially liked Beka's friends of the criminal persuasion. They kept her seeing the gray in every situation, which is useful in a world where the police force supplements member's pay by collecting bribes.

Bloodhound
In Bloodhound Beka gets her wish and is a full member of the Provost's Guard - a true Dog. However, now that's she's broken with her trainers, she's having trouble keeping a partner. It seems Beka takes her duties more seriously than many of the other lazy Dogs.

Through a series of mishaps, Beka acquires a scenthound and is put back together with Goodwin on an out of town mission to Port Cayann to crack down on a counterfeiting ring that threatens to destabilize the entire economy.

She works closely with Lord Gershom's cousin Nestor, another Dog, who she used to have a crush on before finding out he was gay. Nestor is now living with his partner, Okha. Okha performs in gambling halls as the beautiful Amber Rose, explaining to Beka that he believes the Trickster god made him a woman in a man's body. I thought Pierce handled this topic pretty well, and I liked who she introduced gay and transgender characters without it being the focus of the plot. Nestor and Okha are just another loving couple who both play their own role in the story.

We get to see Beka let down her hair a bit, and have fun out on the town, even if it is just undercover work. Who would have thought she loved to dance? She becomes a more fully developed character now that we can see she care about things other than work. One of those "things" is a young man named Dale (kissy face here).

This is definitely a fun series, even if it drags a bit at times. The final installment, Mastiff, was just published a few months ago. I'm sure I'll get to it at some point, when I need a break from heavier reading.

Monday, January 2, 2012

American Born Chinese: A Graphic Novel

American Born Chinese
American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang

In this acclaimed graphic novel, Yang tells three interconnected stories about the importance of accepting yourself.

The first tale to be introduced is that of the legendary Monkey King. Although he is an important figure in his community, he is laughed out of a party with the gods. He is determined to have his revenge.

The second story belongs to Jin, a young boy who moves from Chinatown to a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood. He is desperate to fit in and determinedly avoids his only Asian classmate. However, when Wei Chen arrives from Taiwan, Jin slowly accepts him as a  friend, until a fight tears them apart.

Finally, we meet Danny,  high school student embarrassed by his horribly stereotypically Chinese cousin Chin-kee, who visits every year. Chin-Kee's character is so over the top I was afraid my eyebrows would get stuck in the raised position.

Honestly, I was expecting more from this book. There were some interesting aspect, including the ways Yang interwove the three stories, but then the moralizing at the end was a huge turn-off. Also, I know Chin-Kee was supposed to make the reader feel uncomfortable, but I can't put my finger why he bothered he so much. It was like the book as a whole couldn't decide if it was a sophisticated commentary or an overwrought fable.

On a more positive note, I will leave you with the ever-adorable Monkey King:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sunday Salon: Best of 2011, Thoughts on 2012

Happy New Year, everyone!

2011 was quite the year. I graduated from law school, passed the NY bar, couldn't find a job, moved back to Florida, started preparing to take the Florida bar in February, started this blog...the list goes on.

I'm hoping that 2012 brings some positive changes, especially in the career department. I'm not really setting specific goals or making resolutions besides resolving to "Live Thoughtfully." That's the motto for 2012.

I first realized that I needed to apply this to my reading. 2011 was the first year I kept track of the books I read. I like doing that, because so often I can't remember titles of what I've read or when I read something. I am awed by people who have been keeping reading journals for 10-plus years. I wish I'd start this a long time  ago. However, I got a little obsessed with numbers. I saw I was on track to read 100 books, and so in December I started an intense bout of reading to insure I met that arbitrary number. I ended up surpassing 100 by a fair margin - I finished the year at 112. Unfortunately, I was reading a little too much. Other things in my life got pushed aside, and I felt like I was just rushing through books.

Part of the reason I read such a large number of books in December was because I joined a reading challenge on Goodreads. It runs from December 1 through February 29, and to complete it, you have to read over 70 books. I never really planned on finishing the challenge, but I just thought it would be fun. I ended up getting caught up in climbing to the top of the leaderboard - those pesky stats again. I plan on continuing the challenge through February, but I won't be signing up for the next round. It's just too much pressure for me, and I'm not taking the time to appreciate what I'm reading.

This led me to the decision to "Live Thoughtfully." There are areas in my life I'd like to improve, and I think by applying this mantra I can be guided by what matters without setting specific goals that I end up scrambling to reach. I can ficus on the journey, not the destination. Appreciate the moment. Be happy with the choices I make everyday.

Okay, enough mushy stuff :-)

With all that reading, what rose to the top? Here are my five star reads of 2011 (in the order I read them).
All links are affiliate links to Indiebound.

1) Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel (graphic novel)
2) Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (translated from German)
3) The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
4) The Last Brother, Nathacha Appanah (translated from French)
5) A Happy Man, Hansjörg Schertenleib (translated from German)
6) The Phantom Tollbooth, Norman Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer
7) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
8) A Mercy, Toni Morrison (audiobook)
9) Billiards at Half-Past NineHeinrich Böll

I'd also strongly recommend anything I rated four stars. The complete list of what I read is here.

And some statistics (I love statistics)

Total: 112 books
90 fiction                            80%
22 nonfiction                     20%
68 by female authors         61%
21 works in translation     19%