- Fizzy Thoughts: 2009

I've moved (again)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My blog, that is. I'm tired of moving houses.

Hello wordpress, goodbye blogger.

And if there's any chance at all you are reading this, you will need to update your feed reader. Or a link. Or something.

You see, I took the self-hosting plunge. I kept my name, but I broke my feed.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

But come visit me over at the new (albeit a little buggy) www.fizzythoughts.com!

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The Earth Hums in B Flat

Friday, August 28, 2009

b flat
The Earth Hums in B Flat
Mari Strachan
June 2009
339 pages

Publishers Weekly

Twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan bears witness as her family crumbles under the weight of its secrets in Strachan's lyrical debut. In a small Welsh village swirling with secrets and gossip, few are willing to tell the truth about who they are. Gwenni soars above the local intrigue in her dreams-each night as she drifts off to sleep she flies away from her family and over the nearby fields and farms-and hopes someday to fly during the day as well. Though most, including her mother, see Gwenni's unending curiosity as a nuisance, local schoolteacher Elin Evans nurtures Gwenni's dreams of a different life. When Elin's husband, Ifan, disappears, town tongues wag, and when his body is found, Gwenni's mother mourns him more than seems proper. Strachan ramps up the tension, as Gwenni is caught between loyalties and learns some damning family secrets. The author's light touch keeps the story unfamiliar and surprising, while Gwenni's über-precocious narration revels in a love for language and reveals an unspoiled innocence about the world. It's small, quiet and nicely done.

I adored Gwenni. She is so precocious, and imaginative, despite her bitch of a mother. Sorry, but it’s true. Mrs. Morgan is all about Mrs. Morgan. And she clearly plays favorites…Gwenni’s older sister Bethan can do no wrong, and Gwenni can do no right. However, Gwenni doesn’t let that get her down. I especially like how she is always imagining the Toby jugs on the shelf as little people looking down on her family.

Gwenni fancies herself a detective, and after the death of Ifan Evans, she is determined to find out who killed him. Gwenni’s efforts often embarrass her mother, who is all about appearances. Eventually, Gwenni abandons her search after family secrets emerge…both for the Evans family and the Morgans.

Chris at book-a-rama wrote a knock-out review of this one. And I’ll just leave you with her review, since if I keep typing I’ll probably just end up repeating what she said. And that wouldn’t be very cool.

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Housekeeping

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This post unintentionally inspired a guessing game, because I chose a picture that was too small.  For those of you who are still curious, the book was Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.  And the winner is Word Lily. Yay!!!!!

I started the book a couple of weeks ago.  By page 18 I realized I didn’t have the patience to work my way through the dense (although lyrical) prose.  So off it goes to a new reader.

Congrats to Word Lily…please send me your address?

A little more housekeeping (ha, ha)…

bbaw-button2009
A belatedly huge thank you to whoever nominated me for BBAW awards.  I received nominations for Best Community Builder (not really sure why, on that one), Most Humorous/Funny Blog, Best Literary Fiction Blog, and Most Eclectic Taste.  Thank you, thank you, thank you…the nominations warmed the cockles of my heart.  And made my day.

So as a way to say thanks and I love you too, I’m going to give away my copy of one of my favoritist books of the year.  I raved about it yesterday, and would love for one of you to read it.  All you have to do to get your name in the running is tell me what your favorite book (so far) of the year is.

Also.  Have you seen this?!?  And have I told you that I’m planning a trip to Croatia next May/June?  Wah!!

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The Calligrapher’s Daughter

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

 calligraphersdaughter
The Calligrapher’s Daughter

Eugenia Kim
2009
375 pages of pure awesomeness

From the website:
In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.

In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

Why I loved this book:
For me, this is historical fiction at its best.  The Calligrapher’s Daughter is full of historical and cultural details, and the author does a fantastic job of bringing both Korea and her characters to life.  This is a passage from late in the book, during WWII.  It shows both the effects of the war, and offers a brief glimpse of traditional ways:

”I wrapped my skirt in sand-colored apron and squatted, tilling with a bamboo hand-hoe.  When the home inspectors began collecting metal goods, garden tools were among the first items to go.  I was grateful for the childhood years spent outside with Byungjo, watching his able hands fashion tools from bamboo, sticks and hemp rope, Mother and I planted cabbage, cucumber and squash.  The warm wind smelled green and soft, but the earth was still frozen in places where the winter clouds had lingered.  I broke up those clumps as if beating them into submitting to spring.” - page 335

Admittedly, this may not have been the best excerpt, but there was just something about the detail of the bamboo hoe that struck me.  It’s that attention to detail that makes this such an exceptional book.

Another reason I love this book is for the characters, especially Najin.  Kim created a strong protagonist in Najin, who we follow from childhood into adulthood.  Throughout the story, Najin is often torn between duty and desire.  Duty includes her role as the traditional, subservient daughter who is supposed to serve the men in the family.  Her desires include education, work and choosing her own husband.  As Najin struggles between duty and desire we learn about both traditional Korean culture and the changes the country (and the culture) undergoes in the early 1900s.  Kim shows us Korea…its beauty, its struggles and its people.

Last night on Twitter I asked if anyone had any questions about the book.  Ali asked, “Calligrapher doesn't seem like a high profile job. Is calligraphy important to the plot?”

This is an excellent question.  It’s important to both the plot, and the meaning in the title.  Najin’s father is a calligrapher, and was well-known for the scrolls and screens he created.  Calligraphy was more than just fancy writing…the brush strokes were considered an art form and calligraphers were held in very high regard.  In the book, Najin’s father’s screens are displayed in royal palaces.  Furthermore, the Joseon Dynasty of Korea and Confucianism emphasized the ideal of the scholar gentleman, and Najin’s father epitomizes this ideal through both his actions and his calligraphy.  He is a member of the privileged yangban class…he does not work, rather he studies and creates.  He is also resistant to change, mostly because it is being forced upon him by the Japanese invaders.  So the calligraphy in the title is representative of the old ways, and also the social class that the family belonged to.  And Najin’s little brother also becomes a calligrapher, so calligraphy reappears later in the story and again has some importance to the plot. 

To continue on about the title, in Korean culture it was rude to call someone by their given name.  You could be the daughter of the woman from Nah-jing, or the calligrapher’s daughter, but not just Najin.  Actually, Najin wasn’t even her real name: 

“I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.” - first sentence

Najin, with her ambitions, represents, to some extent, the changes Korea faces.  Her lack of a name plays into this throughout the novel.  However, Najin also has a keen understanding of tradition.  She may rail against it at times, but she still strives to be a dutiful daughter, the calligrapher’s daughter.  As you can see, this is a deceptively simple title.  And as you read the book, you realize that there are many meanings and layers to both the title and the person.

I’m really hoping people fall in love with this book like I have.  It’s a great story, and creates an incredible sense of place.  It’s also the perfect example of what historical fiction can be…a story so good you don’t realize you’re reading about history.  :-)  So even if you’re resistant to the genre of historical fiction I’d urge you to try this one. 

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The Favorites

Monday, August 24, 2009

the favorites 
The Favorites
Mary Yukari Waters
June 2009
279 pages

This was a really different book for me to read, and not something I normally would have stuck with.

Publisher Comments:
In her exquisite first novel, Waters explores the complex relationships among three generations of women bound by a painful family history and a culture in which custom dictates behavior. Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, half-Japanese and half-American, feels like an outsider when she visits her family in Japan. She quickly learns that in traditional Kyoto, personal boundaries are firmly drawn and actions are not always what they appear. Sarah learns of a family secret — an interfamily adoption arranged in the throes of World War II. Her grandmother gave up one of her daughters to the matriarch of the family, and the two families have coexisted quietly, living on the same lane. While this arrangement is never discussed, it looms over the two households. In this carefully articulated world, where every gesture and look has meaning, Sarah must learn the rules by which her mother, aunts, and grandmother live. Delicately balancing drama and restraint, Waters captures these women — their deep passions and tumultuous histories — in this tender and moving novel about the power and beauty of mother-daughter relationships.



The story is actually told in three parts.  The first part is when Sarah returns to Japan when she is 14.  On that initial visit, Sarah learns that her grandmother’s sister-in-law adopted her grandmother’s second daughter when she was a baby.  Because they live across the lane, the families see each other on a daily basis.  But her grandmother and her aunt rarely talk to each other, for fear of hurting or disrespecting her aunt’s adoptive mother.  The second part of the story takes place four years later, when Sarah again returns to Japan.  And the final part is Sarah’s third visit, after she finishes college.  In all three parts of the story, the focus is on the women, and the complex relationship between the two families…things that can and can’t be said and/or done, for fear of stepping over some never stated but definitely there boundary. There are some complex family dynamics happening in this book.

Despite the intimate look into a family’s secrets and past, this book could be very formal at times.  Which is why I initially struggled with it.  I know this is indicative of Japanese culture, and I’ll confess I’ve always struggled with an interest in that, too.  Throughout the book, there is an emphasis on tone and voice.  Also, all of the adult women are referred to by their married names, although not in conversation.  Here is an example of what I’m trying to explain:

”Granny-san,” said Mrs. Rexford, returning to a tone of affectionate familiarity that her daughter nonetheless suspected was an “outside” voice, “sit down here on my cushion.  Ne, please.”  She smoothed the cotton fabric in a deferential gesture of invitation.  Mrs. Asaki accepted, ducking her head in a pleased quarter-bow, and Mrs. Rexford went away to help her mother with tea.  “Sarah,” she called back over her shoulder, switching once again to a disciplinary tone, “clear those dirty dishes off the table.  Quickly.” –page 26-27

In the end, I’m glad I stuck with this one.  It provides an intriguing glimpse of Japanese culture, as well as a look at how an intra-family adoption played out.

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Weekly Geeks: Why oh why?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

This week’s Geeky question is:

I think just about every reader has a least one book that they've been meaning to read for awhile (months or even years) but, for one reason or another, they just haven't gotten around to it. Maybe it's a book a friend recommended last year, or a title you've flirted with in a bookstore on more than one occasion, or maybe it's a book that's sitting right there on your bookshelf, patiently waiting for you to pick it up -- but the thought is always there, in the back of your mind: Why haven't I read this yet?

This week, tell us about a book (or books) you have been meaning to read. What is it? How long have you wanted to read it? And, why haven't you read it yet?
 

My bookshelves are filled with books I’ve been meaning to read.  But for this question, I think I’ll focus on three well-known classics that I’ve managed to put off for awhile now.   

dracula                               lolita                               

anna

These three novels are all sitting on my bookshelf.  Anna Karenina has been sitting there the longest, a gift from a co-worker that I’ve always felt like I should read.  I’ve even started it.  It’s just so daunting.

Lolita has only been a resident of the bookshelf for the past few months.  It’s one of those books that is referred to so often that I almost feel like I’ve already read it.  Same goes for Dracula.  I bought both books because I wanted to experience the full story, rather than just guess at the rest of the story every time I see mention of either of the books.

I do plan to read Lolita next month, in honor of Banned Books Week.  And Dracula seems appropriate for October.  But who knows when I’ll get around to finishing Anna Karenina.

Anyone up for a read-along?

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Desperately seeking new reader

Saturday, August 22, 2009

housekeeping
Me: Single novel, looking for one interested reader.  Published in 2004, 224 pages.  Interested in trains, wordy prose, and not a lot of dialogue.  Some people call me a modern classic.

You:  Interested in reading me.  Leave a comment and maybe you’ll get lucky.

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The Rest of Her Life

Friday, August 21, 2009

rest of her life

The Rest of Her Life
Laura Moriarty
August 2007
320 pages

From Publishers Weekly
Moriarty's follow-up to book-group favorite The Center of Everything again explores a tense, fragile mother-daughter relationship, this time finding sharper edges where personal history and parenting meet. Now a junior high school English teacher married to a college professor, Leigh has spent much of her adult life trying to distance herself from her dysfunctional childhood. Raising their two children in a small, safe Kansas town not far from where Leigh and her troubled sister, Pam, were raised by their single mother, Leigh finds her good fortune still somewhat empty. Daughter Kara, 18 and a high school senior, is distant; sensitive younger son Justin is unpopular; Leigh can't seem to reach either—Kara in particular sees Leigh (rightly) as self-absorbed. When Kara accidentally hits and kills another high school girl with the family's car, Leigh is forced to confront her troubled relationship with her daughter, her resentment toward her husband (who understands Kara better) and her long-buried angst about her own neglectful mother. The intriguing supporting characters are limited by not-very-likable Leigh's POV, but Moriarty effectively conveys Leigh's longing for escape and wariness of reckoning.

It’s true that Leigh is not-very-likable.  In fact, she’s down-right annoying, even after her best friend calls her on her self-centeredness.  I often wanted to reach into the pages and wring her neck.  Leigh has tried to leave behind her unhappy childhood, but she has overcompensated by being stand-offish, even with her own daughter.  The tragedy is that Leigh doesn’t see that her attitude has alienated almost everyone around her.

The book is so skewed towards Leigh’s perspective that at times I forgot it wasn’t being told from the first person point of view.  So while we learn all about Leigh, it’s hard to get to know the other characters, particularly Kara.  I often felt myself wondering what was going through her head.  While the Kara’s accident is the catalyst for everything that happens in the book, Kara spends most of her time in her room, a place the story (and Leigh) doesn’t often venture.

Despite my vexation (hah…I love that word…it’s so old-fashioned) with Leigh, I still flew through this book.  Despite the topic, it’s an engaging read. 

I read The Center of Everything at the end of 2007…I think I liked that one better though, because the main character was in high school during the 80’s, and all of the familiar cultural references were entertaining.  Also, this one has that increasingly familiar back-of-a-woman’s-head cover.  It seems like everywhere I look lately there’s a book with that choice of cover art.  What’s up with that?

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A Prayer for Owen Meany

Thursday, August 20, 2009


A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving
1989
543 pages

I’ve already talked about my thoughts when I posted about Chapter 7. This book was an experience…that’s the best way to describe it. I’ve been curious about Owen Meany for quite awhile, and I am glad I read the book. But as previously mentioned, it’s way too heavy on the symbolism for me. As Care so aptly put it, it’s “symbolism on crack.”

I found the editorial reviews for this one fairly entertaining. While the Library Journal review isn’t exactly doing back flips, it’s not a bad summary:

Diminutive Owen Meany, the social outcast with the high, pinched voice, has an enormous influence on his friend Johnny Wheelwright--not least because the only baseball Owen ever hits causes the death of Johnny's mother. But as Johnny claims, "Owen gave me more than he ever took from me. . . . What did he ever say that wasn't right?" Spookily prescient, convinced that he is an instrument of God, Owen intimidates child and adult alike. Why Johnny "is a Christian because of Owen Meany" is the novel's central mystery but not its only one: Who, for instance, was Johnny's father? Untangling these knots, the adult Johnny pauses to consider his religious convictions and distaste of American politics in passages that are neither especially persuasive nor effectively integrated into the book. And though Owen is a compelling presence, his power over others is not entirely convincing. Still, readers will be drawn in by the story of the boys' friendship and by the desire to see some resolution to Johnny's mysteries.

However, Publishers Weekly went all out:

Irving's storytelling skills have gone seriously astray in this contrived, preachy, tedious tale of the eponymous Owen Meany, a latter-day prophet and Christ-like figure who dies a martyr after having inspired true Christian belief in the narrator, Johnny Wheelwright. The boys grow up close friends in a small New Hampshire town, where Owen’s loutish parents own a quarry and where the fatherless Johnny, whose beloved mother never reveals the secret of his paternity, becomes an orphan at age 11 when a foul ball hit by Owen in a Little League game strikes his mother on the head, killing her instantly. The tragedy notwithstanding, Owen and Johnny cleave to a friendship sealed when Owen uses desperate means to keep Johnny from going to Vietnam, and brought to its apotheosis when Johnny is present at the death Owen has seen prefigured in a vision. Despite the overworked theme of a boy's best friend causing his mother's injury or death (one thinks immediately of Robertson Davies and Nancy Willard), the plot might have been workable had not Irving made Owen a caricature: Owen is, all his life, so tiny he can be lifted with one hand; he is “mortally cute,” and he has a “cartoon voice” because he must shout through his nose, which Irving conveys by printing all of Owen’s dialogue in capital letters; an irritating device that immediately sets the reader’s teeth on edge. Then too, the author’s portentously dramatic foreshadowing, which has worked well in his previous books, is here sadly overdone and excessively melodramatic. On the plus side, Irving is convincing in his appraisal of the tragedy of Vietnam and in his religious philosophizing, in which he distinguishes the true elements of faith. But that is not enough to save the meandering narrative. Owen is not the only one to hit a foul ball in this novel, which is too “mortally cute” for its own good.

Ouch. Although I will confess to agreeing with a lot of that review.

At the end of my copy there is an afterword by John Irving in which he compliments himself on the first sentence in Owen Meany:

“I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it. I have a feeling for first sentences, and I’ve written some pretty good ones.”

And okay, I admit the first sentence of Owen Meany was intriguing:

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or even because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

But is it really necessary to brag on yourself like that? I know…your books are held in very high regard and are even taught in English classes and courses. But good grief, can you sound any more pompous?

Because I’d been curious about Owen Meany for quite awhile, I’m glad I read the book. And thanks to Care for organizing our read-along…without it I’m sure I never would have finished

Some of our group discussions can be found at Care's Online Book Club, Regular Rumination and Casual Dread.

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The Well and the Mine

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

well-and-mine
The Well and the Mine
Gin Phillips
January 2008
251 pages

Another Southern novel. Another story told from multiple points of view. Another debut novel. You’d think I was stuck in a rut. Yet, this is a very different book than both Mudbound and The Help.

Set in Alabama during the Great Depression, this is the story of the Moores. Albert and Leta are struggling to raise their three children, Virgie, Tess and Jack. Alfred works both the coal mines and the farm he bought to be free of company housing and company store. When Tess sees an unrecognizable woman toss a baby down the family well, the family is at first skeptical. When they later draw the baby out of the well, the family struggles with both guilt and the search for resolution (who was the child, how could someone do that, why their well…).

The story is told from the point of view of all five family members. Although the voices are not as distinct as they are in Mudbound (I know I keep mentioning this book, but it’s because the author did such a fantastic job of creating such distinct voices for all of her narrators), it is still interesting to see the different family member’s takes on their life. Albert is concerned with providing for his family and raising his children to be good and free of hate. Leta is uber-practical, constantly working to keep the house clean, her family fed, and the animals tended to. Virgie is the child who cares for everyone, while Tess is a bit more curious and fanciful. Jack, the youngest, is a bit removed from the present story and tends to add in details of the future.

For awhile, I was a bit annoyed by how perfect everyone seemed. Later, a few quirks turned up, but still, this is the family everyone in town turns to for help in grim times. The baby in the well adds a bit of mystery to the story, but what I found so fascinating was the day to day life. Albert and Leta worked extremely hard, pretty much all the time, just to survive and provide food, clothing and shelter for their family, as well as those less fortunate. I think I found it so fascinating because this is how I imagine life was for my paternal grandparents when they were growing up in Mississippi in the 1910s and 1920s.

Here are two of my favorite passages from the book:

"She said worms could crawl up into the bottoms of your feet and make a home there.
I could see those little worms setting up house in my heels or big toes, carving out little living rooms in my feet, building nice warm fires and bringing in tiny mattresses and kitchen tables no bigger than freckles.
Mama said that was not how they did it at all." Tess, page 59

"There was something perfect about a spoon of thick heavy beans and a bite of sweet onion.  That mix of hot and cold, soft and crisp.  Leta was a great cook, good as any woman I'd ever known, but the real mystery was how she knew what should fit together, what mix of foods made the right mouthful.  Beans and onion.  Squash and tomato.  It was the different tastes together, the ones that it didn't make no sense at all to stick on the same fork, that your tongue really remembered." Albert, page 159

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The Weight of Silence

Tuesday, August 18, 2009



The Weight of Silence
Heather Gudenkauf
August 2009
384 pages

Publisher Comments:
It happens one August morning. As dawn's light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to do the best she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay has cost more than her daughter's voice.

Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend and voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual demeanor.

Now these families are tied by the question of what happened to their children. And the answer is trapped in the silence of family secrets.


The author does a fantastic job of building the tension in this book. For the first half of the book there is the question of who took the children. The second half of the book is more about resolution and both families finding answers to their questions, as well as justice. And because there is a slight twist to the story, I don’t want to discuss any of the details of the story. But I will say I was compelled to keep reading because of the need to know what happens, and also because of the characters.

What is especially touching is the friendship between the two girls. Calli is selectively mute (and that’s another great question that kept me reading), and Petra acts as her voice. The girls are so close that Petra seems to instinctively know what Calli wants and needs. How this plays out later is wonderful to read.

Some people probably won’t want to read this because of the disappearance factor. I remember this issue coming up with Precious. And while the two books are nothing alike (other than having strong characterization and being great reads), I will say the disappearance of the girls plays a much larger role in this book. So while I always hate to warn people off of books, I would say that moms who worry about the abduction of their daughters and who don’t like to read things like that should probably not dive right into this one. And I wouldn’t normally bring this up, but I remember how some people were reluctant to read Precious for this very reason.

This is a very impressive debut novel…I hope Gudenkauf keeps up the good work. :-)

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Behold…

Monday, August 17, 2009

First, I have winners to announce.  The winner of The Housekeeper and the Professor is:

Amy



And the winner of The World in Half is:

Diane



Yay!!  If you two would be so kind as to email me with your address, I’ll mail you your book.

Also, Care pointed out that in my post I transposed The Housekeeper and the Professor.  Ack…blonde moment!  I’ll fix it one of these days.  Maybe.

Also, also…you guys are funny.  Thanks for the giggles with the Twinkie rhymes.  Especially since I just about forgot I had put that in the post and I was initially confused as to why Jill was talking about a binkie.

Also, also, also…lookie, lookie:

001
New bookcases!  I am so excited.  Especially since I put them together all by myself.  I just want to sit in front of them all day long and stare.  And did you notice?  There’s still an empty shelf!  And that other bottom shelf is books I need to get rid of, so really, I have TWO empty shelves.  Plus, the old bookcase now has room:

002
Three shelves!!  Maybe I should go to the bookstore?

And, since I’m trying to cram as much stuff as I can into one post and this is going to also count as my TBR post for Lisa, here is the other shelf of books in the house:

003
This is actually a hutch that belonged to Hamburger’s grandparents that I think is ugly (note the plant futilely trying to hide the curly-cued wood).  So while the bottom cabinet provides storage, I use the top shelf to display things that make me happy.

Not all of these shelves are TBR shelves, although most of them are.  In the new bookcases, the top two shelves of each are books to be read.  The third almost-full shelf is travel books.  In the old bookcase, the bottom two shelves are reference books, so those don’t count either.

I still have two little piles of books that I need to recover from elsewhere in the house and shelve with their friends.  But I no longer have them stashed away in closets in drawers.  My books are so happy to be standing upright and together!

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The World in Half

Sunday, August 16, 2009



The World in Half
Cristina Henriquez
April 2009
320 pages

Book description:
Miraflores has never known her father, and until now, she’s never thought that he wanted to know her. She’s long been aware that her mother had an affair with him while she was stationed with her then husband in Panama, and she’s always assumed that her pregnant mother came back to the United States alone with his consent. But when Miraflores returns to the Chicago suburb where she grew up, to care for her mother at a time of illness, she discovers that her mother and father had a greater love than she ever thought possible, and that her father had wanted her more than she could have imagined.

In secret, Miraflores plots a trip to Panama, in search of the man whose love she hopes can heal her mother—and whose presence she believes can help her find the pieces of her own identity that she thought were irretrievably lost. What she finds is unexpected, exhilarating, and holds the power to change the course of her life completely.

In gorgeous, shimmering prose, Cristina Henríquez delivers a triumphant and heartbreaking first novel: the story of a young woman reconciling an existence between two cultures and confronting a life of hardship with an endless capacity to learn, love, and forgive.

Dawn has written a beautiful review of this book. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Nice, huh? Think I can top that? Pfft…I’m not even going to try. This book really is all that. The only itty, bitty complaint that I had was that I didn’t get much of a feel for Panama, other than the canal and the crazy bus system. But that’s okay. The book is really focused on Miraflores and her exploration of her parents’ lives and her acceptance of her own life.

Dawn sent me her ARC of The World in Half (along with a bag of Twinkies…don’t think I’ve forgotten!). If you would like to be the next person to read this (keeping in mind that it is an ARC and also, that Twinkies are not included), leave the secret code word in the comments (anything that rhymes with Twinkie). I’ll pick a winner tomorrow.

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The Housekeeper and the Professor

Saturday, August 15, 2009

prof and housekeeper
The Housekeeper and the Professor

Yoko Ogawa
February 2009
192 pages

Ali very kindly brought me this book when she was visiting the Central Coast. It’s one I’d seen around and the premise sounded intriguing.

From Publishers Weekly:
Ogawa weaves a poignant tale of beauty, heart and sorrow in her exquisite new novel. Narrated by the Housekeeper, the characters are known only as the Professor and Root, the Housekeeper’s 10-year-old son, nicknamed by the Professor because the shape of his hair and head remind the Professor of the square root symbol. A brilliant mathematician, the Professor was seriously injured in a car accident and his short-term memory only lasts for 80 minutes. He can remember his theorems and favorite baseball players, but the Housekeeper must reintroduce herself every morning, sometimes several times a day. The Professor, who adores Root, is able to connect with the child through baseball, and the Housekeeper learns how to work with him through the memory lapses until they can come together on common ground, at least for 80 minutes. In this gorgeous tale, Ogawa lifts the window shade to allow readers to observe the characters for a short while, then closes the shade.

I don’t even like math, and I liked this book. The author weaves in interesting mathematical concepts, such as amicable numbers. And then she relates it to the characters. While I don’t necessary remember anything that I learned, I did find it fascinating at the time. Ogawa personalizes math, and uses it as a bridge between two disparate people.

The story itself is haunting. The Professor is such a lonely character, and the Housekeeper and Root end up becoming a sort of family for him, and vice versa. It is clear they all care for each other, despite the limitations placed upon them by 80 minutes of memory.

Anyways…I can’t thank Ali enough for sharing this little gem with me. And I want to pass on the book love, so leave a comment letting me know if you’re interested in this book. I’ll pick a winner tomorrow.

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Better late than never

Friday, August 14, 2009

Brad (aka Brad'll Do It, which if you're a SlowTrav follower makes perfect sense) is the winner of Small Town Odds. Hopefully he checks in soon...'cause I need your address Brad!


More giveaways to come, because I need to off-load some books on you all!

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Entertaining email of the week

It’s been awhile since I had fun at a spammers expense.  This is one of the emails I received this week:

NB: Please you can contact me through my personal email address: novellfrancesuk3
Here writes Lady Novell Frances, suffering from cancerous ailment. I am married to Sir David Novell an Englishman who is dead. When my late husband was alive he deposited the sum of 2 Million Great Britain Pounds Sterling which were derived from his vast estates and investment in capital market with his bank here in UK.
Recently, my Doctor told me that I have limited days to live due to the cancerous problems I am suffering from. I have decided to donate this fund to you and want you to use this gift which comes from my husbands effort to fund the upkeep of widows, widowers, orphans, destitute, the down-trodden, physically challenged children, barren-women and persons who prove to be genuinely handicapped financially.
I took this decision because I do not have any child and my husband relatives are bourgeois and very wealthy persons. I do not want my husband's hard earned money to be misused or invested into ill perceived ventures hence the reason for taking this bold decision.
As soon as I receive your reply I shall give you the contact of the Bank in UK. I will also issue you a Letter of Authority that will empower you as the original beneficiary of this fund. My happiness is that I lived a life worthy of emulation. Please assure me that you will act just as I have stated herein.
Hope to hear from you soon.
You can contact me through my personal email address: novellfrances04
Madam Novell Frances

Let’s start with the name.  I have to confess that I got all excited when I saw the first name was Novell.  Except wait, apparently that’s the last name.  Oh, well.  I was thinking they actually knew I loved books and they personalized the email just for me.

Next, are they lumping me in with widows, widowers, orphans, destitute, the down-trodden, physically challenged children, barren-women and persons who prove to be genuinely handicapped financially?  I’m confused.

Third, David Novell doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.  I’m really bummed about this, because the last time I wrote one of these posts Lisa discovered the guy actually did die from polonium poisoning. Can you believe that??  So not finding David Novell on Wikipedia was a serious let-down.

And what’s with the two different email addresses?  Also, are you a lady, or a madam.  Personally, I’d avoid Madam, unless you really did want me to think you are, as Merriam-Webster puts it, the head of a house of prostitution.

Really Frances, you can do much better.

Oh, and Gmail…how could you possibly let this one slip through the spam filter?  I think I’m more disappointed in you than I am in the spammer!

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The Help

Thursday, August 13, 2009

the help
The Help
Kathryn Stockett
February 2009
464 pages

Mudbound put me in the mood for more Southern fiction. Lucky me, I just happened to have The Help sitting on my bookshelf screaming for attention. All I knew was it was set in the South and people seem to like it. Good enough for me.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, The Help is the story of three women. Aibileen and Minny are black maids/nannies. Underpaid and at the mercy of their white employers, these women have no recourse because it’s the South and it’s the 1960’s…segregation, Jim Crow laws and all that nastiness. Skeeter Phelan, on the other hand, is a member of the white privileged class. Skeeter increasingly finds herself questioning the racist actions and comments of her bridge partners and fellow Junior Leaguers. Because Skeeter wants to be a writer, she comes up with the idea of collecting the maids’ stories and featuring them in a book. This isn’t so easy, though. First, no one wants to talk to her. Then, everyone wants to talk to her and there is the threat of discovery.

While Mudbound is more about subtle racism (although, yes, there are some brutally racist comments and scenes), I think The Help shows more overt actions. We see how the maids are treated…there is some good, and there is a lotta bad. We see how attitudes and actions dictate a woman’s acceptance into white society.  We see how force and fear can rule a person’s life.  And we see how much courage it takes to stand up to institutionalized racism, even when your stand is in the form of a book illustrating how black maids were treated.

Although quite different from Mudbound, I found this book to be equally fascinating and well-written.  Mudbound has a bit more diversity in characters (and slightly stronger characterization…but then it is entirely in first person point of view), whereas I found myself pulling more for the three main characters in The Help.  If you are at all interested in reading about life in the segregated South, I’d recommend both of them.

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Oryx and Crake

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

oryxcrake
Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood
2003
374 pages

Oryx and Crake is a dystopian novel that imagines a future where humans have taken gene splicing and genetic engineering (and other science-y stuff) to the extreme.  This novel can be considered a warning about what can happen when humans mess with nature and think they can create perfection.

When the novel opens, our protagonist, who is currently calling himself the Snowman, is living in a world where he is alone, except for the Crakers.  The Crakers are a small group of people that are not quite the same as him.  They are human, but not quite.

Throughout the book, the Snowman reflects on his life and his lifelong friendship with Crake, a brilliant scientist.  As the novel progresses we learn about the series of events that led to the Snowman’s current situation.  Actually, we don’t learn.  We can infer, since Atwood never explicitly explains the entire situation. From the beginning, we know it’s Crake’s doing, but we don’t know the why or the how.  Eventually, the how becomes clear…the why, however, is only hinted at.  Additionally, we continue to learn more about the Crakers, and why they might be the way they are.

Just as important to both the Snowman and the Crakers is Oryx, a mysterious woman with a small but vital role.  Before he was the Snowman, the Snowman was Jimmy.  And Jimmy loved Oryx.  The Crakers, however, have apparently deified her.  Oryx’s story (but only the part that Jimmy knows) is also divulged through the course of the book.

I loved how the story unfolded.  I expected this to be my book for this week, but I ended up staying up last night to finish it.  Because I just had to know what happened!  I also appreciate the tone of the book.  While the company names and the new animals (pig + baboon = pigoon) seem almost ridiculous and far-fetched, it’s not improbable that we’re heading in the direction that Atwood imagines.

Totally off topic, this sentence at the end of the book struck me because of the audio book I’m currently listening to:

“Crake used to say that Homo sapiens sapiens was not hard-wired to individuate other people in numbers above two hundred, the size of the primal tribe and Jimmy would reduce that number to two.” -page 343

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks at length about how 150-200 people seems to be the ideal size for a group, whether it be an army unit or a Hutterite community. I had never heard of this theory (although, evidently Atwood has), so it was odd to see it pop up in two books that I’m currently reading. Just another one of those weird literary coincidences.

Atwood’s sequel to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, is due out next month (9/22, to be exact). I can’t wait.

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Small Town Odds

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

small town
Small Town Odds
Jason Headley
October 2004
320 pages 

Eric Mercer screwed up in high school.  Sure he was a smart kid, an unwitting football star, and a likeable guy, but a night of drunkenness results in an unplanned pregnancy.  As a result, Eric gives up his dreams of college and stays behind to be a father.

Six years later Eric is still screwing up.  He helps out at the local mortuary, bartends at the American Legion, and spends his spare time engaging in drunken brawls.  Despite all that, he’s still a likeable guy.

Small Town Odds tells of one week in Eric’s not-quite-what-he-expected life.  The return of his former girlfriend forces him to take a look back and come to terms with where he is and where he is going.  Despite a bit of a slow start, the book (and Eric) grew on me.

I realize I didn’t say much about this one, but if you’re interested in reading it, let me know in the comments.  I’ll draw a name from the interested parties tomorrow and send that person my copy.

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How we read

Monday, August 10, 2009

My friend Rochelle and I both love to read.  But we are totally different readers.  I’m not talking about the types of books we read, because we read many of the same books.  Kafka on the Shore and Run are favorites for both of us.  But after I read Owen Meany I had a mini-epiphany.  Owen is Rochelle’s type of book.  She reads for deeper meaning.  Me, I read for story.

Okay, and so Rochelle has yet to actually read Owen, but since she now has my copy and I’m posting about her, I’m predicting it won’t be long.  And I’d be willing to bet she loves it.  Because while I was standing in her cubicle ranting about all of the symbolism she was practically bouncing in her chair with excitement.  (And yes, we work together…I don’t randomly show up at her work to talk about books.)

See, Rochelle likes to think about symbolism and what the author was getting at and all sorts of other things that drive me a little batty when I’m reading.  I want to be entertained.  I want to read a story that is so engrossing it transports me into the scene.  I want to imagine I’m there with the characters, seeing what they’re seeing, feeling what they’re feeling.  But I don’t necessarily want to analyze those feelings.

I also tend to sit down and plow through a book.  This year I’ve been reading about 12 books each month.  Rochelle reads about 2.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  :-D  Far from it…Rochelle tends to remember scenes and details that I forget after a few days.  And she ponders the book.  I just want to dive into whatever book grabs my attention next.

Do I have a point?  Not really.  This was just something I’ve been thinking about all weekend, after we talked about it on Friday.  Because Rochelle is pretty much the only person I know that I can talk books with that I see on a regular basis.  Yes, I know a few other readers, but she’s the one I connect with over books.  Despite our different reading styles, we still love to hear each other’s thoughts about the books we’re reading.  Does that make us complimentary readers?

So what kind of a reader are you?  Are you like Rochelle, or are you like me?  Or are you a completely different type of reader?

PS:  Rochelle has a blog, but she very rarely posts.  Don’t you think she needs to work on that?

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Game On! Diet

Sunday, August 09, 2009

game-on-diet
The Game On! Diet
Krista Vernoff and Az Ferguson
June 2009
320 pages

If you’ve been reading my Game On! posts, you probably have a good idea what the book is about.  And really, the only major beef I have with the book is that the D word is on the cover.  Because I don’t look at this as a diet.  It’s a way to live your life healthier…how you eat is just one component.

My favorite part of the book is the humor.  Let me list the chapters, and you’ll get an idea of both the content and the humor:

1: How to Play the Game (Or, I’m really too lazy to read this whole book, plus I’m so out of shape turning pages kinda hurts.)
2: Why Should I Play the Game (Or, I like myself just the way I am.  Except for the love handles.  And the self-loathing.)
3: Teaming Up (Or, why should I give a crap what anyone else does?)
4: Playing By Yourself (Which varies slightly from playing with yourself.)
5: Picking a Prize (Or, okay, I’m skinny, whatever, but what do I WIN???)
6: The Honor System (Or, no French Fries REALLY don’t count as a vegetable.)
7: The Weigh-In (Or, you’re kidding, right? You want me to buy a scale? SERIOUSLY???)
8: Food (Or, why French Fries don’t count as a vegetable)
9: Exercise (Or, I never knew I had a muscle there.)
10: Water (Or, are you trying to drown me?)
11: Sleep (Or, Shhhhzzzz…)
12: Transformation (Or, habits? That’s, like, nun’s clothes, right?)
13: Healthy Habits Instructions (Or, how the hell am I supposed to do THAT???)
14: Alcohol, Coffee, and Diet Soda (Or, what do you mean I can’t drink all my calories?)
15: The Day Off, The Meal Off, and the 100 Calories of Whatever You Want (Or, holy nectar of the gods, this French toast is good!)
16: Troubleshooting (Or, WTF am I doing wrong?!) 
17: Post Game Wrap-Up (Or, I am liking this new ass of mine)
18: Pep Talk (or, GAME ON!)

Do you get the gist?  You eat healthy, exercise, drink a boat load of water, get lots of sleep, avoid alcohol, coffee and diet soda like the plague, and you do it with a group of people so you’re motivated to stay on track and kick butt. (Did I mention my team won?  Oh, I did in yesterday’s post?  Sorry.)  Really, I doubt I would have stuck with it so strictly had I not been accountable to my teammates (go Team Ding Dong!).  And after 4 weeks, most everything became a habit.  Since I really needed to start eating healthier, this challenge provided me the perfect opportunity to pick up some tips and good habits.

The authors have challenged each other (a few times), and Krista does a great job of anticipating questions, problems and complaints (the water chapter is a great example of this).  Also, her candor about her own weight and eating habits was appreciated.  While it feels weird to recommend a “diet” book, if you’re looking for a way to instill some healthy habits in your life, I’d definitely suggest you give this a try.  

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(belated) Game On! Challenge final update

Saturday, August 08, 2009

GameonTile
We finished our Game On! Challenge two weeks ago, so I’m way late with this post.  First, vacation interfered with my blogging plans.  Then, vacation-recovery interfered.

When I last blogged about Game On!, the snack cakes were three weeks into the challenge, and other than a standstill on the weight-loss front, life was going good.  I ended Game On! at the same time I started my vacation (a week at a family reunion with no control over the meals that would be cooked), so I was a little nervous about ruining all my good work.  However, I’m happy to report that I was able to make smart choices (a few bites of dessert as opposed to a whole dessert, no snacking, still drinking (almost) 3 liters of water) and when I returned, I found I’d lost 2 more pounds.

So now that it’s all over and I’m back to my daily routine, what did I learn or change?

1)  I’m definitely eating healthier.  All whole grains, lean protein and more veggies.  I’m still avoiding sugar, caffeine, artificial sweeteners and processed foods.  I even have Hamburger cooking healthier, although he hasn’t abandoned diet soda and raisins.  I had 1/2 of a diet soda on vacation, and discovered I had lost my taste for it.  The only thing I drink these days is water.  Glug, glug, glug.

2)  My healthy habit was to start wearing sunscreen every day.  I continue to apply it to my face every morning.  Since I broke out in hives on my chest, that is now a sunscreen-free area.

3)  The habit I chose to give up was Starbucks.  6 weeks later, I have yet to set foot in one.

4)  This is not to say I’ve turned into the food police.  I’m not going to beat myself up if I choose pizza for dinner, or if we decide to go out.  But I am happy with the smarter decisions I’m making. 

5)  The exercise habit is still sticking, too.  Tuesday through Friday I walk on my lunch break and afternoon break.  Saturday through Monday it’s either an hour walk outside or 40 minutes on the treadmill.  Any longer than that on a treadmill, and I go stir crazy.

The Game On! Challenge was just the kick in the butt I needed to get out of the unhealthy rut I was in.  I know there are other changes I could make, but for now I’m happy with the changes (including the 12 pounds lost) I’ve made.

Oh yeah, and Team Ding Dong won.  Bonus. 

A huge thank you to Dawn for inviting me to participate in the challenge and putting together our fun prize packs, as well as to Book Club Girl for providing us all with copies of the Game On! Diet book.  Also, thanks to all my fellow snack cakes for the support and camaraderie…I couldn’t have done it without y’all!  Stay tuned…tomorrow I’ll post my review of the book.

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BBAW meme

Friday, August 07, 2009

bbaw-button2009
I don’t think I’ve mentioned BBAW lately (okay, so there was yesterday on Twitter).  But here on the blog, it’s time for a little reminder that the event of the year is fast approaching.  The BBAW site has a little meme designed to answer some questions about BBAW:

If you were a part of BBAW last year, please answer these simple questions on your blog:

1)  What was the highlight (something that happened, a post, an activity, etc.) of BBAW for you last year?

As usual, I’m going to put my own spin on things.  I was just re-reading my BBAW posts from last year, and I found this post, which is a meme about how blogging has changed your life.  Because BBAW is a celebration of book bloggers, this was a fun post to re-visit, because it reminded me of a few things I love about our community.

2)  What is one new blog you discovered during BBAW last year? 

You expect me to remember that?  I’m lucky I remember where I met Hamburger.  Honestly, I’m a little afraid of this year’s BBAW because I know it’s going to explode my Reader.

3)  What tips would you share to help others get the most out of their BBAW experience?

Don’t try to do everything or visit everyone.  It’s like the Read-a-thon…all things in moderation.  ;-)  Seriously, I know it’s tempting to check out every new blog, but if you try to do this, your head will be spinning and your Reader will never forgive you.  And then you’ll start to wonder how you’re going to find the time to visit all of your new friends and leave meaningful comments.  Trust me on this.

Registration for BBAW can be found here, so what are you waiting for?  Go.

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Mudbound

Thursday, August 06, 2009

mudbound
Mudbound
Hillary Jordan
2008
339 pages

Publisher Comments:

In Jordan's prize-winning debut, prejudice takes many forms, both subtle and brutal. It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband's Mississippi Delta farm-a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family's struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura's brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not-charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. But no matter his bravery in defense of his country, he is still considered less than a man in the Jim Crow South. It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion.

I flat out loved this book.  Each chapter is told from a different point of view.  We hear from Laura, her husband Henry, Henry’s brother Jamie, Ronsel, and his parents, Hap and Florence.  Noticeably absent is the despicable Pappy.  Thank god.  Jordan does such a fantastic job of giving each narrator a distinct voice and personality that the despicable Pappy might have been too much to bear.

Mudbound explores the pervasive racism that was so prevalent in the segregated South.  Hap and Florence are tenant farmers on the McAllan’s land (because they own their own mule, they only have to turn over 1/3 of their crop, as opposed to the sharecroppers who have to turn over 1/2 of their crop).  Their eldest son Ronsel fought in WWII as part of a tank battalion (I think that’s right…my memory for military terms is crappier than my normal memory).  After returning home from a more liberal Europe, Ronsel struggles to comply with the Jim Crow laws

What makes this book so interesting (besides the superb characterization) is being able to read from Ronsel’s perspective, and then switch gears and get an intimate look about how others feel about the same situation.  I particularly enjoyed Laura, who would probably deny any blatant racism, but whose actions still reflect the racist culture that she was raised in.  Jordan provides an excellent snapshot of life in Mississippi both before and after WWII.

This will definitely be a favorite read for this year.

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Good guessing, Julie!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

When I left for vacation, I posted a picture of the pile of books I hauled to Oregon with me (it’s a good thing Honda’s have big trunks).  I also challenged people to guess which books I would read before I got back on 8/2.  I actually got home very late on 8/1, but since I didn’t finish any books on 8/2, it still works.

While in Oregon I read:
The Professor and the Housekeeper
Mudbound
The World in Half
Small Town Odds

I also came very, very close to finishing A Prayer for Owen Meany.  But I didn’t quite make it on that one.

So Julie, over at Booking Mama, who guessed Mudbound, Four Seasons in Rome, The Promised World, The Professor and the Housekeeper and The World in Half actually came closest to guessing what I read.  Care was close, too, but since she thought I’d read 8 books total (hah!) she ended up being a bit of an overachiever on this one.  ;-)

Congratulations to Julie, who gets her choice of a book from that original pile.  What’ll it be Julie?  You have your choice of:

Winterton Blues
Mudbound
Small Town Odds
The Island of Eternal Love
The Mother Tongue
Four Seasons in Rome

The Promised World
1776
A Voyage Long and Strange
The Professor and the Housekeeper
The World in Half

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Owen Meany discussion

Monday, August 03, 2009

A group of us are reading and discussing A Prayer for Owen Meany…see Care’s post for all of the details.  Despite a rocky start, I haven’t given up and I’m almost through with the book.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s going to be a favorite, but I can certainly understand why others might feel that way.  Honestly, it’s got way too much symbolism and foreshadowing and Deep Meaning going on for me to truly love it.  I like my books a bit simpler, thank you very much.

So today I’m responsible for leading the discussion about Chapter 7, The Dream.  Owen’s dream is hinted at throughout the book, but we still don’t know the details of it.  However, in Chapter 7, Owen’s life takes a turn that seems to ensure he is on track with his dream, and his perceived destiny.

I actually found part of Chapter 7 funny.  The scene with Dr. Dolder’s VW Beetle was a bit unexpected, and quite amusing.  This was actually the first time I was engrossed in the book.  How about you?  What did you think of the scene? Were you surprised by Owen’s actions?  Did it seem in keeping with his character?

Speaking of Owen’s character, he’s very accepting of his fate.  On page 326, he states:

”THE THIRD THING I KNOW IS THAT I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT; I HAVE FAITH THAT GOD WILL LET ME KNOW WHY I’M SUPPOSED TO DO, AND WHEN I’M SUPPOSED TO DO IT.”

Johnny, on the other hand, struggles with Owen’s fatalism.  What is your stance on fate?  Do you think we determine or our fate, or is it predetermined?  And, what do you think of Owen’s decision?  Would you be an Owen?  Or a Johnny?

Chapter 7 also features a lot of grown-up Johnny, with his rants on Reagan and US politics (and girl-barbers…did any one else find that odd?).  At one point, Johnny seems angry with the reader for not remembering Melvin Laird, or Gen. Creighton Abrams or Gen. William Westmoreland.  What do you make of Johnny’s rants?  Personally, I find myself skimming some of them.

A Prayer for Owen Meany has been challenged, due to it’s opinions on the Vietnam War, and religion.  When I first heard that, I was surprised, because I find the book to be very religious.  However, (and I’ll confess I’m on chapter 9, and that is factoring into this question) there are some parts that I suppose could be considered blasphemous (if that is even the right word).  Not that I’m advocating book banning, but it did make me think about parts of the book that are surprising or even shocking, such as Hester the Molester.  Are there any parts that have surprised you, or made you uncomfortable?

And finally, one last personal comment.  I don’t think I’ll ever look at all caps again without hearing Owen’s voice in my head…which I’m visualizing (or whatever the auditory equivalent of that word is) as an odd combination of a drill sergeant sounding like he’s being strangled.

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Bitter Sweets

Sunday, August 02, 2009

bitter sweets
Bitter Sweets
Roopa Farooki
September 2008
355 pages

Publisher’s Comments:
Henna Rub is a precocious teenager whose wheeler-dealer father never misses a business opportunity and whose sumptuous Calcutta marriage to wealthy romantic Ricky-Rashid Karim is achieved by an audacious network of lies. Ricky will learn the truth about his seductive bride, but the way is already paved for a future of double lives and deception--family traits that will filter naturally through the generations, forming an instinctive and unspoken tradition. Even as a child, their daughter Shona, herself conceived on a lie and born in a liar's house, finds telling fibs as easy as ABC. But years later, living above a sweatshop in South London's Tooting Bec, it is Shona who is forced to discover unspeakable truths about her loved ones and come to terms with what superficially holds her family together--and also keeps them apart--across geographical, emotional and cultural distance. Roopa Farooki has crafted an intelligent, engrossing and emotionally powerful Indian family saga that will stay with you long after you've read the last page.

This is way more than just Henna, Ricky and Shona’s stories.  In fact, Henna drops out early on and doesn’t fully return until later in the book.  Primarily, this book is about Shona…the lies that built her family, and the lies that tear her family apart.

As a young bride, Shona moves to London.  Over the years, her and her beloved husband build a successful business and Shona returns to school to get a Master’s degree.  However, this couple that started out so in love gradually drift apart as they grow into separate interests and separate lives.  As the marriage starts to unravel, their twin sons grow up and discover their own interests and loves. 

I loved all of the different stories in this book, how the author focused on different members of the family at different times, yet still managed to keep them all tied together.  She also does a good job of stringing the reader along…I didn’t want to put this one down because I wanted to know what was about to happen…to everyone!  Although some might argue that the end might have been a bit too neatly tied up, it still worked for me.  Besides, there’s still a little bit of wondering going on at the end.

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Kinky Gazpacho

Saturday, August 01, 2009

kinky gazpacho
Kinky Gazpacho
Lori Tharps
March 2008
224 pages

Publisher Comments:

Magazine writer and editor Lori Tharps was born and raised in the comfortable but mostly White suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she was often the only person of color in her school and neighborhood. At an early age, Lori decided that her destiny would be discovered in Spain. She didn't know anyone from Spain, had never visited the country, and hardly spoke the language. Still, she never faltered in her plans to escape to the Iberian Peninsula.

Arriving in the country as an optimistic college student, however, Lori soon discovers Spain's particular attitude toward Blackness. She is chased down the street by the local schoolchildren and pointed at incessantly in public, and her innocent dreams of a place where race doesn't matter are shattered. The story would end there, except Lori meets and marries a Spaniard, and that's when her true Spanish adventure really begins.

Against the ancient backdrops of Cádiz and Andalucía, Lori starts the intricate yet amusing journey of rekindling her love affair with Spain and becoming a part of her new Spanish family. From a grandmother who spies on her to a grandfather who warmly welcomes her to town with a slew of racist jokes, the close-knit clan isn't exactly waiting with open arms. Kinky Gazpacho tells the story of the redeeming power of love and finding self in the most unexpected places.

At its heart, this is a love story. It is a memoir, a travel essay, and a glimpse into the past and present of Spain. As humorous and entertaining as such favorite travel stories as Under the Tuscan Sun, this book also unveils a unique and untold history of Spain's enduring connection to West Africa. Kinky Gazpacho celebrates the mysticism of travel and the joys of watching two distinct cultures connect and come together.

I would say this book is more about Tharps’ own quest for love and finding herself, and less of a travel memoir.  Her reflections of her experiences in Spain focus more on what it is like to be Black in Spain, than on living or traveling in the country.  So in the one sense it is a highly personal account.  However, if you are looking for a book that gives you a sense of place, this isn’t it. I was actually disappointed when Tharps got to Spain and seemed to spend her time wanting/not wanting men.  I wanted more travel!I think it’s misleading that I found it in the travel memoir section…I think it would be better suited to multi-cultural education.

And if I look at the book in that light, than I like it.  Tharps is very candid about her experiences growing up in white suburbs, and not quite fitting in.  When she went to college she tried to reinvent herself by embracing Black culture, but she didn’t find instant acceptance there, either.  Spain was also a struggle, as she struggled to figure out why she was both an object of attraction and scorn.  It isn’t until she is married and a journalist that Tharps uncovers Spain’s history with slavery, and therefore gains a better understanding of the people and the country that have become intertwined in her life.

So while this certainly wasn’t the book I originally thought it would be, it still ended up being an interesting and educational read.

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The Last Beach Bungalow

Friday, July 31, 2009

last beach bungalow
The Last Beach Bungalow
Jennie Nash
February 2008
288 pages

Synopsis (from barnesandnoble.com):

After five cancer-free years, April Newton should be celebrating, but instead she's restless. She feels her husband slipping away, and though the spectacular, stylish house he's building for her should be a fresh start, April finds herself wanting something more. As their move-in date approaches, she becomes obsessed with winning the right to buy the last bungalow in Redondo Beach, convinced that the quirky, lived-in little house represents comfort, completeness-everything she is missing in her life. And though her quest for the bungalow will take some surprising twists, it may put back together the pieces of her heart.

Like Care, I read this one after I read The Only True Genius in the Family, and while enjoyable, it didn’t quite impress me as much.  I think I need to take a break between books by the same author, otherwise I usually end up a little disappointed.

Also, like Care, I didn’t fall in love with April, probably because we have nothing in common and I thought she was just floating along, complaining about her unhappiness, but not really taking steps to confront or fix anything.  But the bungalow.  Oh, the bungalow.  I definitely fell in love with that, and it’s owner.  The bungalow scenes and stories were actually my favorite parts of the book. 

I think part of the reason why I wasn’t as excited with this one, compared to True Genius, is that the families are a bit similar.  There is a loving husband and a wife who is vaguely dissatisfied/unhappy.  In both stories the husbands are supportive, but remain in the background while the wife muddles through her emotions and unhappiness largely on her own.  And then she comes to a measure of understanding and resolution by the end.  Don’t get me wrong, both books are well written and enjoyable reads, but I think I did them a disservice by reading them back-to-back.

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Into the Beautiful North

Thursday, July 30, 2009

beautiful north
Into the Beautiful North
Luis Alberto Urrea
May 2009
352 pages

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a book that I’ve never read, but that I’ve picked up countless times at the bookstore.  Something about the title, or maybe the cover, tempts me.  But I never went so far as to actually buy the book.  Then, when I was at the LA Times Festival of Books, I attended a panel featuring (among others) Luis Alberto Urrea.  And he started off by reading a passage from his latest book, Into the Beautiful North.  I was hooked.  And I loved the panel…along with Thrity Umrigar and Gina Nahai, Urrea spoke about sense of place.  They discussed language and culture and how to give readers a sense of the place they are writing about.  Without ever reading a word he’d written, I became a fan.  As soon as the panel was over, I rushed out to buy the book.

And okay, then the book sat in the TBR pile for awhile.  But not too long!  Only about a month, which is actually pretty good, considering how much competition it had.

This book surprised me.  I didn’t expect it to be so funny, or so casual in tone.  And even though Urrea spoke about how he uses language to convey culture, I somehow didn’t expect how much language he would use, or how much culture he really could convey.  In that sense, this book is like Oscar Wao, only better.  Because while I didn’t understand every word, I certainly understood the tone and the intent. And I know some people don’t like this, but I would argue that there is so much Spanglish and humor that it is fairly easy to understand a great deal of the Spanish.  And without it, this book wouldn’t be as good as it is.  Besides, if you get totally stumped, there’s always Google and urbandictionary. :-)

Into the Beautiful North is the story of Nayeli and her friends, and their journey from Mexico to the US in search of men.  Not men for themselves, but men for their village.  Nayeli has come to the realization that all of the men in her town have left for the US…and they never came home.  Inspired by the film The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides that it’s time to follow them north and find seven men who will return with her to help protect and revitalize the town.  Additionally, Nayeli is determined to find her own father, who left years ago and never returned.  As Nayeli journeys north, she finds help in the unlikeliest of places, and amongst the unlikeliest of characters.

Along with the language, the genius in this book is in its characters.  They are all quirky, unique and lovable.  While I occasionally found myself shaking my head at their actions, I was still rooting for them all the way.  Atomiko!

And someday, I’m going to read The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Powell’s has a wonderful interview with Urrea, in which he talks about all sorts of things, including Into the Beautiful North.  He’s also on Twitter, with his lovely wife Cindy, and I have to say, they are the nicest couple.  Because you can actually chat with them…and it’s like talking to your neighbors (only better, because my neighbors spend all their time staring at our house and freaking me out).  I always appreciate people who are approachable and unpretentious, so at the risk of sounding too fan girly, I’ll just end by saying Urrea is the bomb.  Both in real life and in print. 

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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

beautiful things
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Dinaw Mengestu
2007
228 pages

Publisher Comments:

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution after witnessing soldiers beat his father to the point of certain death, selling off his parents' jewelry to pay for passage to the United States. Now he finds himself running a grocery store in a poor African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. His only companions are two fellow African immigrants who share his feelings of frustration with and bitter nostalgia for their home continent. He realizes that his life has turned out completely different and far more isolated from the one he had imagined for himself years ago.

Soon Sepha's neighborhood begins to change. Hope comes in the form of new neighbors— Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter — who become his friends and remind him of what having a family is like for the first time in years. But when the neighborhood's newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again.

Told in a haunting and powerful first-person narration that casts the streets of Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa through Sepha's eyes, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a deeply affecting and unforgettable debut novel about what it means to lose a family and a country — and what it takes to create a new home.

If you read all of the critics’ comments, this sounds like a (haunting, lyrical or other adjective of your choice) novel.  Unfortunately, it fell a bit flat for me…both he writing and the story.  But then, I had just finished The Angel’s Game, and that’s a tough act to follow.

Also, I disagree with the publisher’s comment “But when the neighborhood's newfound calm is disturbed by a series of racial incidents, Sepha may lose everything all over again.”  Gentrification is changing the neighborhood and pushing out people who have lived in the poor neighborhood for years.  And yes, you could argue that it ends up being the whites pushing out the blacks, but the novel doesn’t present like that.  It’s more about the haves v. the have-nots.

The novel also jumps back and forth to tell the story of Judith’s arrival in the neighborhood, her growing relationship with Stephanos, and her departure.  While not too bad, it is a bit jarring at times to try and figure out where the narrator has taken us.  And the end certainly came as no surprise.

I guess I wasn’t in the mood for subtle.  I was expecting more of an immigrant tale, while I got a novel about the meaning of hope and community and home.

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

Monday, July 27, 2009

cellist

The Cellist of Sarajevo
Steven Galloway
2008
231 pages

For such a small little book, this one sure packs a whammy.  It takes place during the early 1990’s, during the Siege of Sarajevo, and shows us the impact the siege has on the lives of four different individuals.

The Cellist:  The Cellist has vowed to play Albinoni’s Adagio every day for 22 days, in remembrance of 22 people killed by a mortar attack while waiting in line for bread.  (Note: this character is based on Vedran Smailovic, who is not at all happy about this book.)
Arrow: a sniper in the army, Arrow is tasked with taking out the sniper who will likely target the Cellist. Used to the unique freedom of picking her own targets, this assignment is difficult for Arrow, who may soon find herself losing this small bit of control she counts on. 
Dragan: an older man who was able to send his wife and son to safety before the city was locked down, Dragan struggles with his journey to work every day.  As he walks the streets and crosses the bridges, he is always aware that he may be shot down by the snipers in the hills.  The constant vigilance is beginning to affect him, however.  Dragan is almost to the point of being incapacitated by the sound of gunfire.

Kenan:  Every four days Kenan must traverse the city to fill up water bottles for his family.  Like Dragan, he is hyper-vigilant about snipers.  But for Kenan the focus is on the two additional, inconvenient water bottles that he carries to fill for his ungrateful elderly neighbor.  Kenan is constantly wondering if lugging those two extra bottles around is worth it.


The Cellist begins the story, and while everyone is aware of him, he is usually in the background.  The book really focuses on Arrow, Dragan and Kenan.  The stories take place over the course of a month, and alternate between the three characters.  By the end of the novel, each has come to an important resolution.  Despite the huge toll the siege has had on their lives, they each manage to wrestle back control...although not control in the sense of being in charge, more like they are determined not to let the siege turn them into people they are not.  They all manage to transcend the war and emerge victorious in their own way.

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In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. ~S.I. Hayakawa

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
~St. Augustine

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
~Mark Twain

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