Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review: The Inn at Lake Devine

This book tells the story of how one anti-Semitic hotel owner shapes the life of Natalie Marx, from her childhood through young adulthood. When Natalie's family is turned away in the 1960s from a Vermont resort because of their Judaism, Natalie becomes obsessed with the inn's owner and her prejudices. As a child Natalie works hard to infiltrate this forbidden world. The second part of the book jumps forward to Natalie's early twenties. By this point Natalie has more or less put the Inn at Lake Devine behind her, but when she makes the choice to revisit part of her past, the Inn at Lake Devine will return once again to Natalie's life in important and tragic ways. Once again Natalie will be forced to confront anti-antisemitism and the pain of her youth. At the same time, Natalie is trying to negotiate the world of and early twenty something: breaking away from overprotective parents, establishing a career, and finding love. Overall, a beautifully written and engaging story.

Elinor Lipman, The Inn at Lake Devine (Vintage, 1999) ISBN: 037570485X

Friday, December 26, 2008

Wyrding Studios Sale

Hear ye, hear ye, one of my very favorite jewelers is having a big end of year sale. Have a look here at all of the beautiful jewelry on sale. I wear Wyrding Studios jewelry frequently, and I get compliments on my jewelry all the time.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Pub Challenge

I absolutely love the new books rack at the library, so this next challenge is a perfect fit for me. The Pub Challenge involves reading nine books published in 2009. I have no idea what I'm going to read yet- my strategy is going to be to peruse the new books rack and take whatever looks interesting. Bottoms up to great books in 2009!

The Victorian Challenge

I've decided to join up with the Victorian Challenge, as I really need to read more Victorian literature. Between Jan. 1 and June 30 I have to read books written during, set in, or about the Victorian era. I can choose my own level, and right now, given all the other challenges I have going, I think I'm going for "A Walk in Hyde Park" which involves reading four books. Right now I'm planning:

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley (1899)
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Hopefully this will get some more Victoriana under my belt, though I recognize that books 1 and 2 just barely make the cut!

Review: Spook

I think Mary Roach is a hilarious writer. Ever since I read Stiff, I've been waiting in anticipation for her next book. In Spook Roach jumps from the physical to the metaphysical. Whereas Stiff examined the ultimate fate of cadavers, Spook looks to the soul. In particular, the book examines scientists' efforts to to offer measurable proof of the existence of the soul, and their attempts to understand what happens to immaterial parts of personhood after death. To give a full picture of these efforts Roach's research takes her across cultures and continents. She brings us the story of the woman who could vomit large quantities of fabric on demand in the name of talking to the dead. She writes of doctors who attached dying consumptives to giant scales. As with her other work, Spook is infused with Roach's sense of humor and her clear fascination with the bizarre. The stranger it gets, the happier Roach seems to be. This book is, without question, a rollicking good read. Beyond pure enjoyment, Roach book also shows just how enmeshed certain sectors of the scientific community have become, in the past two centuries, in matters of belief. The very premise of this book, and what unifies these stories, is an attempt to merge seemingly incompatible thought systems. Ever since the arguments in Kansas and the Dover, PA school board case, the ability, and the desirability of merging these two thought systems in the name of education has become an issue of political significance. Roach's study suggests that scientists and lay people have been involved in efforts to merge the physical and metaphysical arts. It shows that at significant points in the past, large numbers of people have been drawn to efforts to apply science to faith; see, for example, her chapter on spiritualism. The experts involved, however, (scientists, doctors, etc.) have usually been marginal figures, on the fringes of their fields, or at least respected only in their work outside of the supernatural. Obviously, the scientific question of the afterlife is never going to create the firestorm generated by evolution/creationism/intelligent design. The general consensus remains that afterlife is a matter of faith, not science. Public schools have little need or desire to teach about the fate of the soul. That is the work of clerics and philosophers. But here lies the great irony. It is precisely because there is such widespread agreement in the western world on the division of body and soul, that attempts to bring science to bear of matters of the spirit and the immortal may be able to proceed without the criticism and argument generated by by similar battles in which the divisions seem less clear.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A to Z Challenge

I've decided to join up with the A to Z challenge for the upcoming year, and this is perhaps the most challenging yet. The rules are as follows, in 2009:

Option A: Read authors A to Z. Commit to reading 26 books theoretically speaking.
Option B: Read titles A to Z. Commit to reading 26 books theoretically speaking.
Option C: Read both authors A to Z and titles A to Z (52 books; this is the challenge Joy created)
Option D: Read internationally A to Z (books representing 26 different countries) (The books could be from international authors (writers from that country); however, it's fine if a book is only set in that country. If need be, instead of countries one could use cities, states, regions, etc. The idea is to use proper place names. If you'd like you could even use a few fictional countries.)Option E: Read 26 Alphabet books. Embrace your inner child and go visit the children's section!

I've decided to go with Option B, so I'll be reading titles A to Z. I'll be relying heavily on my Librarything catalog to pick books. Here are some thoughts of what I may choose:

A: Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali
B: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
C: The Camomile by Catherine Carswell
D: Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane
E: Educating Esme by Esme Rajii Codell
F: The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates
G: Gorgeous Lies by Martha McPhee
H: The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
I: The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
J: Joy School by Elizabeth Berg
K: The Kindness of Strangers by Katrina Kittle
L: Life after God by Douglas Coupland
M: Mary O'Grady by Mary Lavin
N: Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee
O: On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon by Kaye Gibbons
P: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
Q: The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum
R: Rebecca by Daphne duMarier
S: The Seduction of Water by Carol Goodman
T: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
U: Unless by Carol Shields
V: Vernon God Little by D.B.C. Pierre
W: The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau
Y: You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates
Z: Zami by Audre Lorde

I'm still searching for an X, and these might change at any time, but this is a good starting point.

What's in a Name Challenge

I'm signing up for this year's What's in a Name Challenge. The instructions are as follows:

*Dates: January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009
*The Challenge: Choose one book from each of the following categories.

1. A book with a "profession" in its title. Examples might include: The Book Thief, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Historian

2. A book with a "time of day" in its title. Examples might include: Twilight, Four Past Midnight, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

3. A book with a "relative" in its title. Examples might include: Eight Cousins, My Father's Dragon, The Daughter of Time

4. A book with a "body part" in its title. Examples might include: The Bluest Eye, Bag of Bones, The Heart of Darkness

5. A book with a "building" in its title. Examples might include: Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little House on the Prairie, The Looming Tower

6. A book with a "medical condition" in its title. Examples might include: Insomnia, Coma, The Plague

Sounds like lots of fun. I've got lots of books that fill these categories, but here are some thoughts:

1. Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (perhaps it's stretching it to consider thievery a profession, perhaps I will change it to The Handyman by Carolyn See)

2. Kaye Gibbons, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon

3. Lori Parks, Getting Mother's Body

4. Renate Dorrestein, A Heart of Stone

5. Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant's House

6. Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

These titles are, of course, all subject to change!

Support Your Local Library Challenge

I am a huge fan of my local library. Whatcom County, Washington has a fantastic public library system. Thus, I was thrilled to find this challenge, which involves reading books checked out from the local library. There are three options- one can choose to read either 12, 25 or 50 books. I've decided to go with the second option, and read 25 books from the library. This challenge will dovetail nicely with my 999, as there are several categories in my 999 that will rely heavily on the library. Can't wait to begin!

WWII Reading Challenge

I've decided to join up with this reading challenge, which involves reading five books (fiction or non-fiction) on WWII in the 2009 calendar year. I love reading challenges way too much. In any case, I can choose to read five or more, and right now (because I'm a bit of a challenge whore) I've decided to challenge myself to read five. Here's a tentative list of what I might read:

Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine
Jeanne Houston, Farewell to Manzanar
Anita Shreve, Resistance

Those are the only definites thus far, and I'm certainly open to suggestions. Can't wait to get started!

Review: Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

My poor abandoned blog- it was a rather busy end of quarter. It's over now and I'm back. So, back to the reviewing.

This novel is a fictionalized account of an all-female gang that forms in a working class community in upstate New York. The gang, Foxfire, is founded by a group of girls who've all suffered alienation and lack of parental attention. The girls share a sense of being alienated and restricted from any sort of real social benefits or meaningful relationships because of their age, gender, economic status, and family situation. The gang is formed, and begins, by using public humiliation and minor violence to bring justice to local men who have abused the privileges of their gender. Quickly, though, their activities escalate, and it becomes clear that the gang is on a path to self-destruction. This book was a bit hard to get into at first because its written in the tone and style of one of the gang's members, but the writing becomes engrossing. Oates truly takes on the tone and spirit of a teenage girl gang. While this is part of what makes the book hard to get into, it ultimately makes for an engrossing story. It is striking just how anti-male Foxfire's violence is, and the book seems to suggest that this is one of the myriad of social responses to a world in which girls are expendable objects, sexualized, and undervalued. Indeed, Oates invites the reader to consider the gang and it's activities as part of a continuum of responses that individuals in a depressed, sexist, and emotionally alienated society might produce. The book is as much a critique of the word that made Foxfire possible as it is a narration of the gang's activities. While Oates does not excuse the violence she clearly assigns broader culpability to the world in which these girls live.

Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (Plume, 1994) ISBN: 0452272319

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

This book is quite different from Bryson's usual fare. Here Bryson steps out of his usual travel and language focus to write about science. The product is an interesting combination of the social history of science, biographies of famous scientists, and discussion of significant scientific discoveries in very accessible language. What science does Bryson cover, you might ask? This is where "everything" comes in to the picture. Bryson has chosen a wide range of scientific discoveries, from working out the theory of evolution to discovering the size and shape of the earth. Mostly, Bryson focuses on the largest and smallest things in the universe. He looks at galaxies and volcanoes, but also DNA and atoms. Truly, this book is expansive. For the lay reader, it becomes clear that there's a tremendous amount of knowledge tied up in this book, and it's amazing just how much Bryson had to learn to write it. For the non-scientist, this book manages to create a sense of awe, wonder, and fear, all at the same time. Bryson does an excellent job of highlighting just how surprising and contingent the fact of our existence is, and how complicated it was to get here. He creates amazement as the reader is forced to consider almost unfathomable dimensions, both gargantuan and tiny. Contingency is clearly the most significant theme that emerges from the work. Bryson also paints an interesting portrait of the practice of science, scientific culture, and a sense of just how difficult and tenuous some conclusions are. While it's amazing just how much scientists have discovered, it's even more daunting to consider how much remains inconclusive. Overall, this is an extremely accessible discussion of some difficult topics, infused with Bryson's humor and style. It's a long read, but well worth the effort.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: The Sound and the Fury

I'd not read any Faulkner prior to picking up The Sound and the Fury, and I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this book. But I was also looking forward to getting some Faulkner under my belt, and this was my book group's selection, so I had added incentive. The metanarrative of this book is the decline of an old southern family in a tale told by three brothers: one disabled, one suicidal, one horrible. All of the brothers are obsessed with their sister Caddy, and their three narratives explain their lives through their thoughts of and interactions with their sister. Caddy's own decline, in the form of an affair and resulting pregnancy, fundamentally shapes the life of all the family members. Each member of the Compson household is afflicted in one way or another, and these afflictions collectively bring the family into a downward tailspin. I enjoyed reading this book, though it's difficult for me to explain exactly what makes it a classic. It might be the beautiful prose, it might be the deep complexity of the story, it might be the investment the reader must make in getting through it. While I'm certainly aware of Faulkner's importance to the modernist movement and his place in the literary canon, it's something else that makes this classic literature for me. I did think that Faulkner's evocation of the New South was masterful, and for those who've not studied the history of the New South, this is an excellent snapshot. By the time I'd reached the final section of the book I wanted to devour it all in one sitting. I'll be exploring more of Faulkner's canon in the years to come.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (Vintage, 1991) ISBN: 0679732241

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Review: Any Given Doomsday

I often feel lucky that I've been blessed with broad reading interests. I'll read a little bit of pretty much anything: fiction, non-fiction, you name it. That does not, however, mean that I enjoy everything I read, and unfortunately today's book just didn't do it for me. I had much higher hopes for this book than what were met. I enjoy the odd paranormal thriller, mystery, etc., but this book simply did not deliver. The premise of this book is that Elizabeth Phoenix discovers upon the death of her foster mother that she is now responsible for leading the worldwide fight against evils of all sorts. Vampires, demons, berserkers, they're all here. Theoretically, these might be the elements of a good story, but those elements are never actually drawn together into a good story. There's very little plot, and almost no character development. We know little about Elizabeth except that she was abused and abandoned in her past, and there's no discussion of how this has shaped her thoughts and her life. All we really hear from Elizabeth is her distaste for the new responsibilities that have suddenly landed on her shoulders. The lack of character development is magnified by the fact that the book is narrated in the first person, but there's absolutely nothing to the character who is the narrator. And then we have the content issues. This book is replete with gratuitous sex scenes that read more like a bodice-ripping romance novel than anything else. The descriptions of the sex scenes go on for pages. I'm just not interested in all that pulsing and throbbing. If I was, I'd read a romance novel. It's not just the fact that the book is full of sex, though. If that was the only problem, a reader could easily skim the sex scenes. The problem for me is that the book is full of sexual violence. I'm not really sure what gratuitous sexual violence is meant to accomplish. And the violence really is gratuitous. Sexual violence can have its place in writing if it works to tell a story or contribute to a larger theme. But when its just there, for no reason, it really serves only to be disturbing. Ultimately, I see little value in this heroine. She's described as kick-butt and no-nonsense, but she's presented as a victim who is only capable of giving in to her sexual urges, and can only accomplish her goals if she sleeps with a variety of men she'd rather avoid. I'm thankful to Librarything's Early Reviewers program for awarding me this book, but I'm sorry I didn't enjoy it more.

Lori Handeland, Any Given Doomsday (St. Martins, 2008) ISBN: 0679732241

Friday, October 31, 2008

RIP III Complete, with Review: The Female of the Species

This collection of short stories examines the capacity of women to do evil. Bringing us into the depths of horror, Oates's protagonists range in age, interest, and situation. We meet a six-year-old girl, a young nurse, a middle-aged fashionista, and an elderly woman dying in a nursing home, among others. What unites all of these women across their stories are the desperate personal circumstances in which they find themselves, and the realization that the only path out is a dark and disturbing one. As with much of Oates's work, this collection addresses the exploitation and marginalization of women in American society, yet it does so through horror and suspense. This is a deliciously suspenseful collection, excellent reading for a spooky October night.
And with this, I am finished with my RIP III challenge. It's been a great challenge- many thanks to Carl for hosting.
Joyce Carol Oates, The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (Harvest, 2007) ISBN: 0156030276

Monday, October 27, 2008

Review: All Families Are Psychotic

This novel tells the story of a dysfunctional Canadian clan that finds itself in Florida in 2001 to watch its only overachieving member take off as a member of the space shuttle crew. It's possible that one has never met a family quite as dysfunctional as the Drummonds. Their problems include AIDS, liver cancer, suicidal depression, thalidomide-caused birth defects, baby-selling, adultery, illegal prescription drugs, just to name a few. You wouldn't' think that a book about this much tragedy is funny, but indeed it is. In fact, this book is very funny indeed. It's nearly impossible to explain the plot without spoilers, so suffice it to say that the novel jumps back and forth between the family's past and present, showing that they've always had issues. This is a great book for when you need something laugh-out-loud funny. Coupland has a tremendous gift for the bizarre and absurd. When you're done, you won't think your life is quite so strange after all.

Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic (Bloomsbury, 2001) ISBN: 1582342156

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Review: The Lake of Dead Languages

This book has been blurbed as being comparable to Donna Tartt's Secret History, and indeed, there are some distinct similarities. Both books enter the world of New England private schools, particularly the world of classics students obsessed with their teachers. Both books involve students entranced by the rites of the ancients, and in both the students perform clandestine rites with tragic consequences. All of these similarities aside, the two books have different purposes. Goodman's novel follows Latin teacher Jane Hudson, a teacher and alumna of the Heart Lake school in upstate New York. Hudson had a horrible experience at Heart Lake, and when mementos from her past start washing up in the lake, she has little idea who or what could be responsible. Deaths and accidents in and around the school make it clear that Jane is being pursued by a malevolent force, and she is in real danger. And that danger makes this a gripping book. The story sucked me in quickly and held me to the end. Though I had determined the responsible party and the twist at the end before Goodman revealed it, the book was still engaging, and I couldn't wait to get to the end. In this book Goodman has woven a complex narrative with multiple layers of characters and relationships. The story jumps back and forth between Jane's past and present, and culminates when the two parts of her life collide. Suspense builds quickly in this book. Full of suspense and psychological intrigue, I couldn't put the book down. I'll certainly be reading other of Goodman's books soon. This was a great choice for the fall and for the RIP challenge.

Carol Goodman, The Lake of Dead Languages (Ballantine, 2005) ISBN: 034548715X

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Salon: Readathon Redux

I spent yesterday participating in the 24-hour readathon, hosted by Dewey at The Hidden Side of the Leaf. Having finally gotten some sleep, I can say that the day was a tremendous amount of fun. I loved hearing what everyone was reading, how they were doing, and knowing that I was doing the same thing as lots of other bloggers around the world. It was also nice because for once I didn't feel guilty about spending hours and hours reading. I also had the opportunity to be reader of the hour around 7pm, which was awesome, because tons of people visited my blog. Since I didn't get around to charting my final progress last night, I figured I'd do that today. So, here's how I did:

Books Finished:

Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic

Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life's Sacred Questions

Kaye Gibbons, A Virtuous Woman

Alex Boese, Elephants on Acid

Joyce Carol Oates, The Female of the Species

Admittedly I had started some of these already. I also read approximately 50 pages of Benjamin Lebert's Crazy, which I can't wait to continue.

So, all in all, I'd say that was a pretty successful readathon. I can't wait for the next one!

So Long, Farewell...

Well, I think it's time for me to hit the hay. I'm out. I'm way too tired to tally up everything tonight, so I think my accomplishments and reflections will make for a lovely Sunday Salon post tomorrow. Thanks to everyone, this has been loads of fun, and I'll definitely be around for the next one.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

RIP III mini-challenge

I'm pleased to announce that during this RIP mini-challenge I finished my last book for my RIP III challenge. I just finished Joyce Carol Oates's The Female of the Species, and earlier this week I also finished Carol Goodman's The Lake of Dead Languages. That puts me at four books, so I've finished. Now I just need to get the reviews up for Goodman and Oates.

And I'm also starting to get seriously tired and punchy. Definitely yawning at my computer.

I got cupcakes!

After making my top ten list, I decided I really did need some cupcakes, so this hour has involved a trip to the supermarket. I am now the proud owner of a nice box of 2-bite chocolate cupcakes, with garish orange frosting for Halloween. Just what I needed!

Because what you need right now is more books...

Have a look at Bart's Bookshelf. He's doing great book giveaways throughout the readathon. Go know you need another book.

Readathon: Hour 15

Top ten things the readathon has made me wish I had in my house:

1. A recliner
2. A hot tub (for when the whole thing's over)
3. A man (or woman, I'm not picky)servant to make me cappuccino
4. Voice dictation software, so that I could yell the blog posts out from the couch
5. Cupcakes....lots of cupcakes
6. A self cleaning kitchen so that I won't have to worry about doing the whole thing tomorrow (maybe #3 could handle that)
7. A more comfortable couch
8. One of those ambient noise machines, so that I could turn on a rainstorm in the background. Often the Pacific Northwest obliges in this one, but not tonight)
9. A spare pair of glasses
10. A big, fat Amazon gift card, so I could buy myself new books to reward myself for completing the challenge.

And now, back to the reading!

Readathon: Hour 14

I've now finished three books, yeah! The third book finished is Sue Monk Kidd's When the Heart Waits. It's a book that I'm reading for my 888 challenge, in the religion category. And now I'll be moving on to my new book, which I've finally selected. That would be (drum roll):

A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

And I'm off.....

Thank you to our cheerleaders

I just wanted to take a moment to offer a great big thank you to the cheerleaders who've been coming by and leaving such encouraging messages on my blog. You guys are the best.

I also wanted to take a moment and offer a shout-out to my blog designer. I've gotten lots of compliments on the blog design, which was done by Winged Cat Creations. Click on her name to head to her Etsy shop!

Thanks one and all-- now back to the books!

Readathon: Hour 13

I've finished a second book! Huzzah! I finished Alex Boese's Elephants on Acid, which is a non-fiction romp through the world of the truly bizarre experiments that have been done in the name of science.

And here's my answers for the library cat mini-challenge:

1. My closest library cat is at the Anacortes Public Library in Anacortes, Washington.

2. Dewey lives at the public library in Spencer, IA

3. The movie was Puss in Books

4. His full name is Dewey Readmore Books

I've really been wanting to read this book. Unfortunately, I am allergic to cats, so I can't really hang around library cats or have one of my own, but I'm dying to read about Dewey in IA.

Readathon: Hour 12

Here's my mid-point survey questionnaire

Mid-Event Survey:
1. What are you reading right now?
Sue Monk Kidd's When the Heart Waits

2. How many books have you read so far?
I've only finished one: Douglas Coupland's All Families are Psychotic

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?
David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames

4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day?
Not really, but I've not been reading the entire day- I didn't do the 5am wake up, because I can't afford to screw up my sleep schedule, nor can I give all of Sunday over to recuperating.

5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?
Not many- my mom called, but she called while I was eating lunch, and I blogged while we were talking.

6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?
It's actually much more fun than I thought. I figured it would be sort of fun, but it's really fun!

7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?
Not yet.

8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year? I'd start with a shorter book.

9. Are you getting tired yet? Not yet, but I didn't do the 5am wake up.

10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered? Not yet.

Readathon: Hour 11

So, we're nearly halfway through and I'm back at the reading. This hour I'm taking part in Sarah's mini-challenge: head outside and take a picture, and show us what you see. It's a nice little break from reading, that's for sure.

Here's my outside:

I'm running back to the couch to get back at it. I've got to pick a new book, and I've got a few from which to select. In my next post I'll let you know what I choose! I'm also going to make a nice cup of tea.

Readathon: Hour 8

I'm still plugging along through Douglas Coupland's All Families Are Psychotic. I should have this one done soon, which will be my first book completed during the Readathon- yay! My current progress is:

Pages Read: 226
Books Completed: nearly 1
Time spent blogging: about 2 hours
Time spent reading: about 4 hours

Checking In

Here's me, checking in for the first time this morning. I didn't quite make the 5am wake up call, but I've been here savoring my morning coffee and reading Douglas Coupland's All Families Are Psychotic, which is hilarious. This is the first Coupland I've read, and it definitely makes me want to read more.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My Poor Neglected Blog!

So, lately I've been run down by a nasty head cold, which means I've not been reading much and I've been posting even less. Thankfully, I'm much better now, and I'm raring to read and post. Most importantly, I'm gearing up for the 24-hour reading challenge. I already know that I can't do the full 24 hours. I'm going skating for a couple of hours in the afternoon, but I'll be spending a good chunk of my day at the books. We'll see if I can manage the 5 am wake-up!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: After the Dance

Carnival is one of the defining events of the Haitian year, and nowhere is it celebrated with more verve than in the seaside town of Jacmel. The Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat never had the opportunity to attend carnival. Thus, as an adult, she returns to Haiti, to Jacmel, to experience what she missed in childhood. This book is an account of Danticat's trip back. This is a travel essay, but at the same time, it's so much more. After the dance is a travel narrative, a memoir, and a history, of Haiti and of the carnival. A beautifully-written homage to the carnival, the book spins out in multiple directions, telling stories, and full of descriptive imagery. This is quite a short book, and given all of the things the book tries to do, it doesn't do any of them completely. Instead, we get snatches and tidbits of histories and memories, and the book is a pleasure to read. Danticat uses Carnival and its activities as metaphors to discuss larger events and issues in her own and Haiti's past and present. This is a book one should read to get a taste of Haiti. It's not necessarily comprehensive, but it paints a brilliant picture.

Edwidge Danticat, After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (Crown, 2002) ISBN: 0609609084

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: Sailor Girl

This book tells the story of a confused college student who spends her summer working on freight liners on the Great Lakes. Kate, our protagonist, has gone to the boats to earn money, but she's also gone to escape her life: her seemingly too perfect sister, her parents' disappointment at her desire to become an artist, and an abusive boyfriend. On the boats Kate finds things that trouble her, like the rigid hierarchies, and the rampant sexism. But she also finds a substitute family, a group of people who care for one another in their own way. And Kate also finds danger. The aforementioned abusive boyfriend comes from the crew of her first boat, and Kate ultimately finds herself in more danger than she can possibly imagine. This is a book that tells an engaging story, but even more, this is a book about environment. Olson takes her reader to the lakes and their boats. We feel the storms, the waves, the tedium of the locks, and the residue cargoes leave behind. This is a world I didn't know existed, and Olson paints a brilliant picture. Kate is a spunky, likable heroine, and she lives in a richly-created world. Olson creates a true sensory experience. The publisher, too, has created a sensory experience, as this is one of the most beautiful books I've had the pleasure of reading and holding. The text includes photographs and is printed on thick, textured paper. The inside covers are printed with color maps of the Great Lakes region. A pleasure to hold and a pleasure to read.

Sheree-Lee Olson, Sailor Girl (The Porcupine's Quill, 2008) ISBN: 0889843015

This book review was made possible by Mini Book Expo for Bloggers. Thanks!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Wild Nights!

I am a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates. I encountered her through reading contemporary fiction. First, I picked up her bestseller, We Were the Mulvaneys. I followed with Middle Age: A Romance. As I've explored her canon I've been amazed at how diverse and productive she is. Oates has published so much, in so many genres; it's truly impressive. When I saw this book on the new releases shelf in the library I had to check it out. From here I'm sure I'll be looking more closely at Oates's horror books; The Female of the Species currently resides in my TBR pile. And here's my review of Wild Nights!

This short story collection examines the last days and nights of five prolific American writers, from Poe to Hemingway. Together these five tales describe five eminent writers on the brink of despair and madness that culminates in their deaths. The stories vary in the extent to which they depart from realistic portraits of these authors' deaths. While Oates's treatment of Hemingway's death could conceivably be a factual rendering, those of Poe and Dickinson are far more fanciful, and depart from the historical record. Together, these stories create a riveting and unusual collection. Because the reader knows from the outset that each of these tales ends in death, the narratives flow with significant dramatic tension. From the beginning of each story the reader gets a sense of how each author will meet his or her end. As they move toward this preordained conclusion tension builds for the reader, as he or she discovers just how his or her assumptions will play out. Oates does an excellent job of adopting the voice and persona of each of the writers in question. Each story has its own flavor and style. Hemingway's story reads with the stark prose one might expect from the man, and Poe's narrative reads like a nineteenth-century Gothic tale. Overall, this was a very enjoyable read, one that showcases Oates's remarkable versatility, and reaffirms her place as a master of psychological suspense.

Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights!: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway (Ecco, 2008) ISBN: 0061434795

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Salon: The Can't Finishes

I'm currently in the middle of a book that I think I just can't finish. This is a rarity for me. I'll read just about anything, and I generally just can't leave books unfinished, even if I don't like them. The book in question is my new Early Reviewer book, Any Given Doomsday by Lori Handeland. I was looking forward to it because I enjoy a good thriller every now and then, especially at this time of year. I'm about 2/3 through, and it's reading much more like a bodice-ripping romance novel than a thriller. There's only so much pulsing and throbbing that I can take. There's also a lot of sexual violence, which I'm finding disturbing. This is the first really bad review I'm going to have to give in the ER program. I've done mediocre reviews for sure, but I'm just not able to grasp on to anything here. I'm going to finish the book, because I need to review it, but I find myself taking more and more frequent breaks from reading it.

So, for discussion, what about you? When you get a really bad book do you force yourself to finish, or do you drop it in favor of the next one? How often do you find yourself in possession of a book you just don't like?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review: Evil under the Sun

Hard to believe, with all the books I read, that I've never read an Agatha Christie before, but indeed, I have not. This was my first, and I can certainly see why Christie is the world's most-published novelist. If there's one thing Christie can do, it's tell a good story. And that's precisely what she does in Evil under the Sun. I can see why readers find Christie's work compelling; she draws her readers in quickly, with a large cast of thickly-described characters and a vivid sense of surroundings. Evil under the Sun brings us to a seaside resort, where a group of holiday-makers, including Christie's famous Inspector Poirot, find themselves attempting to deal with a broad range of personalities. Likely the most abrasive of all is the beautiful and capricious socialite Arlena Marshall. When she turns up dead in a remote part of the beach, it becomes Poirot's calling to determine her murderer. The resort's island location makes it unlikely that anyone outside the hotel could be responsible. Thus, Poirot must discover the murderer in his midst. Everyone, it seems, had a motive. Yet everyone too had an alibi. The answer turns out to be far more complicated than anyone had anticipated. Christie's gift is clearly to tell a gripping story. While there are no great lessons on morality or statements on the human condition within this it is certainly entertaining, enjoyable, and just a bit scary.

Agatha Christie, Evil under the Sun (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2006) ISBN: 1579126286

Also reviewed by Kate of What Kate's Reading. See the review here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Herding Cats!

Here's another challenge I just have to join; it's based on a fantastic idea. Plus, this might just be the best reading challenge name, ever. May I present, 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats, OR tl;dr. The challenge is hosted by Bottle of Shine, and goes like this. Everyone submits a list of ten books they love. The list is compiled, and everyone reads four new books from the list. So, this challenge introduces us to other people's favorites.

It was a bit of a challenge putting the list together, but I've put together ten books I love. Without further adieu, my list is:

1. The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
5. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
6. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
7. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
8. Beloved by Toni Morrison
9. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
10. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I'm all excited to go check out others' favorites.

Naming Conventions Challenge

Yay, a new challenge! This one sounds like lots of fun. Since it's a little complicated, I'm going to quote directly from Maria of Reading My Way Through Life (our host).

1) Write down your first name (or whatever name you usually go by)
2) Do any or all of the following (i.e. do 2a and/or 2b and/or 2c):
2a) For each letter, pick an author whose last name starts with that letter.
2b) For each letter, pick an author whose first name starts with that letter.
2c) For each letter, pick a book that starts with that letter.
3) Books can be cross-overs from other challenges, but each book can only be used once in this challenge. Authors may be repeated though.
4) The challenge lasts one month per letter of your name
5) Sign up by commenting to this post.

The books can be read in any order and the list changed at any time during the challenge.

So, my name is Laurie, which means my challenge is going to last six months. I'm definitely going to do 2c, and if I have time, I'm going to attempt 2a, and possibly 2b. Once I get into names, U is totally going to be my downfall. So, I'm all in and ready to go. I'll keep my progress updated here.

Here's what I'm thinking for 2c:

L: Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
A: After the Dance by Edwidge Danticat
U: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mays
R: Rebecca by Daphne du Marier
I: I Like You: Hospitality under the Influence by Amy Sedaris
E: Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

And we'll take it from there.

Review: Songs in Ordinary Time

This novel tells the story of the down-and-out Fermoyle family. Living in Vermont in the 1960s, Marie Fermoyle and her three children live in poverty and desperation, for more money, more security, and more affection. Marie Fermoyle, a hardened cynic, is so desperate for all of the above that she falls victim to the wiles of a traveling con man who appears one day at her door. As a relationship between Marie and her visitor develops, the Fermoyle children are blatantly aware that their mother is being fleeced, but the emotional distance of all the family members makes it difficult for any of them to communicate or to trust one another. As Marie falls deeper under her now-boyfriend's spell it is the Fermoyle children who feel this lack of communication most acutely. The most difficult character in this book is Marie Fermoyle: cold, cynical, and emotionally abusive towards her children, Marie is clearly a woman who has been deeply wounded and is now striking back, albeit at the wrong people. In this book Morris has crafted a deeply complex narrative with fantastic character development. Truly, she has created a whole world in this Vermont town. The characters' lives are richly interwoven with one another, and actions by one reverberate to affect the whole. This is a deeply moving and engaging novel. It is a long book, but it never felt too long. I was deeply engaged in the story, and spent whole days reading this book to finish it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Second Post from Me Today

You're hearing from me again today because I've decided this evening that I must join yet another challenge. My new challenge is the 2nds Challenge, hosted by Thoughts of Joy. Here's the official word:

WHO: Anybody

WHAT: Read 4 books by authors that you have only read one other

WHERE: Mister Linky will keep track of monthly books read here on "Thoughts of Joy..."

WHEN: September, October, November and December, 2008

WHY: Because we love to read...why else?

So there we have it. When I started going through my TBR pile I realized just how many books fit into the 2nds category for me. Here's my list, but I can't promise I'll stick to it exactly. I'm planning:

1. Barn Blind by Jane Smiley (I've read Moo)

2. After the Dance by Edwidge Danticat (I've read Breath, Eyes, Memory)

3. Alentejo Blue by Monical Ali (I've read Brick Lane)

4. Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison (I've read Bastard out of Carolina)

I've got many, many more authors who I may substitute: A. Manette Ansay, Chris Bohjalian, Zadie Smith, Adriana Trigiani, Augusten Burroughs, Jacqueline Mitchard, and that's just to name a few.

So, we'll see how this one goes. If you'd like to join just click on the icon!

A New Challenge

I've decided it's time to join a new reading challenge, and I've chosen the Second Canadian Book Challenge (eh?). Between 1 July 2008 and 1 July 2009 I'll be reading thirteen books by or about Canadians. Sounds fun, some of my favorite authors are Canadian, like Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. It also seems fitting since I now live so close to the border that I hop over to BC rather frequently, and get myself to Vancouver as often as time allows. Thus far I'm 1.5 books into my thirteen, and unlike so many reading challenges where I already have a list a mile long before I even start, I'm going to be freer with this one. I'm going to let myself explore and pick up whatever looks interesting.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Salon: Where I Went This Week

This was not a big reading week for me, as I spent most of it out in the woods. I attended a writing workshop at the North Cascades Institute this week, and spent most of it on the Institutes's campus in North Cascades National Park. I'm not sure my words will adequately convey how sublime the scenery is, so I've posted some pictures below. Suffice to say, it was beautiful. The Institute is located in the Cascades, on Diablo Lake. I was surrounded by mountains, trees, and the most amazing lake I've ever seen. The lake's water is a deep, intense turquoise, created, I'm told, by an organism that grows in glacial water. I'm not really the outdoorsy type, but I'm thrilled I got to see the lake and spend some time there. I'm also glad to be home in the comfort of my own bed.

Travel aside, this week I finished a new ARC that I just received: Something Like Beautiful by asha bandele. The book is bandele's memoir of family and depression. It tells the story of how she overcame depression in prose that's beautiful and straightforward at the same time. My review will follow on here, but given that the book isn't going to be published until February 2009, I may write it and hold on to it for awhile.

And now, what's everyone's been anticipating, here are more pictures:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Review: The Lost Continent

Bill Bryson created a name for himself as a travel writer with Notes from a Small Island, his tale of road travel around England. In The Lost Continent Bryson does the same for the United States as he did for England. Notes from a Small Island: part humor, part travelogue, narrates Bryson's road trip across the United States and back again. Reminiscing about the automobile vacations of his youth, Bryson gets in his car and drives in search of small-town America. Bryson's trip lacks strict itinerary, and with frequent stops in small towns across the country, it is certainly a meandering trip. The narrative is written in classic Bryson style, with frequent diversions to explain the origin of many of life's oddities, and with constant sideline commentary. As is usually the case with Bryson, the narrative is illuminating, amusing, and shows Bryson's sense of adventure. It was a pleasure to read. Yes, Bryson is frequently critical, but it's important to note that he's an equal-opportunity offender. Wherever he goes he brings his decidedly sarcastic wit, but he also balances criticism with admiration. This is not a book with a weighty message about humanity or morality, but it is a fun read to pick up and put down at leisure. The ability to dive in and out is one of the beautiful things about this book; one can enjoy it and put it aside at will, and it takes little time to become reengaged in Bryson's prose.

Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America (Harper Perennial, 1990) ISBN: 0060920084

Monday, September 8, 2008

Review: Wife in the North

I was lucky enough to get this book from Librarything's early reviewer program, and I'm thrilled I did. This book is journalist Judith O'Reilly's account of her family's move from London to the Northumberland countryside. A devoted city girl, O'Reilly is married to a Northumberland man who dreams of going back, so she decided to grant his wish; she agreed to move north for two years. But for O'Reilly life in the north is hardly a dream. She misses her London life, lacks close friends in her new home, and finds that everything, from her neighbors's dress to local pastimes is a world apart from what she knew in London. Culture-shocked, O'Reilly begins writing a blog about her experiences. Those blog entries comprise this book. I'd never read a book comprised of blog entries, but I found that the format worked surprisingly well. Blog entries give the reader a sense that he or she is jumping into the middle of someone else's life, much more so than just about any other format could. And the reader does get a sense of the ins and outs of O'Reilly's life. We read about her relationship with her husband, her son's troubles at school, and O'Reilly's deepest fears about being a good parent. Lest this sound like too much of a downer, I assure you it is not. O'Reilly is humorous, and she's willing to bare her soul on her blog in a pleasantly self-deprecating fashion. Her story is interesting, and I couldn't wait to get to the end to see what they would decide to do at the end of two years (she won't tell you until the epilogue!) Ultimately, this book combines some of the best features of the memoir and the travel narrative, as O'Reilly clearly approaches Northumberland as an outsider, and it's interesting to see how she interprets her experience through the lens of place. The book offers an intimate picture of a family and a marriage, and shows the ways in which people define home. When I got to the epilogue the final decision was what I had anticipated, and it's interesting that O'Reilly's words illustrate the direction the family is headed, even if she could not see so at the time she was writing the blog. Overall, a very enjoyable read.

Judith O'Reilly, Wife in the North, (Public Affairs, 2008) ISBN: 158648639X

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Salon: The Challenge Bug

I have recently discovered the joy of reading challenges, and I've discovered that there are many, many more of them in the book blogger community than I'd ever thought. It all started with me signing up for a few reading challenges on Librarything. I started with the 50 Book Challenge: read fifty books in a calender year. The 50 book challenge was my gateway drug. I then joined the 888 Challenge: read eight books in each of eight categories. This was quickly followed by the Dewey Decimal Challenge and its cousin, the Library of Congress Classification challenge. These are more long-term projects that involve reading something from each number of the Dewey Decimal System, and each category in the LC catalog. As I've gotten more into blogging and visiting other people's blogs, I've discovered that there are loads of reading challenges out there. I've decided to join several more. This week I joined the RIP III challenge, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. This is the perfect seasonal challenge. It involves reading a certain number (you choose, 1, 2, or 4) of scary books between now and Halloween. I've joined the Book around the States Challenge, reading a book set in each state of the union plus DC. I've also got myself in line to join The Second Canadian Book Challenge: read thirteen books by Canadian authors by next July. I've also just discovered and plan to join up with 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats. This challenge requires every participant to compile a list of ten books they love. These lists are compiled into one giant reading list and every participant then reads four books that are new to them. There's a great long and eclectic list from which to choose. I've got several more challenges in the hopper too. I'd join all of them today, except I need to blog about each of them and five posts in a day by yours truly is a little bit much. You'll see much more blogging about reading challenges in the coming weeks. So, how about you? Are you involved in reading challenges? Which are your favorites? Want to pimp a challenge you're hosting? That's cool too; I'm always looking for new ones!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

My Challenges: RIP III

Another challenge I've just joined is the Halloween-spirited RIP challenge, that's Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge to you. This challenge focuses on mysterious, scary, gloomy, suspense ridden books: pretty much everything that speaks to the tenor of the Halloween season. There are several different versions, depending on how many books one wants to read. I've chosen Peril the First, in which I'll read four spooky books between now and Halloween.

Part of the fun of this challenge is putting together the list of potential reads. Every participant decides on a pool of books from which he or she will draw. Links to all of the pools are posted on the challenge website.

I've more or less put my pool together, here it is:

Jess Walter- The Zero
Carol Goodman- The Drowning Tree
Joyce Carol Oates- Wild Nights!
Joyce Carol Oates- Bellefleur
Joyce Carol Oates- The Female of the Species
Peter Straub- The Hellfire Club
Patrick Suskind- Perfume
Ruth Rendell- The Crocodile Bird
Ruth Rendell- Vanity Dies Hard
Karen Novak- Five Mile House
Christine Wicker- Lily Dale
Marilyn Johnson- The Dead Beat
Agatha Christie- Peril at End House
Agatha Christie- Curtain
Agatha Christie- And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie- Easy to Kill
Agatha Christie- The Murder at Hazelmoor
Agatha Christie- Evil under the Sun
Patrick McGrath- Asylum
Frank De Felitta- Audrey Rose

So, a combination of fiction and non-fiction, everything from murder mysteries, to psychological horror, to non-fiction books about morbid topics- like a town that talks to the dead. I'm deliciously excited. I could have added more to the list, but decided that this was more than enough- I do only have to pick four, after all.

Interested in joining this challenge? Just click on any of the challenge images, and they'll take you there. Just looking for some great seasonal reads? Click on the pictures- you'll find the list of pools. There's loads of choices. And many thanks to Carl, who's hosting the challenge and made these kick-butt icons.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Review: The Insomniac's Best Friend

Being an insomnia sufferer, I've been intrigued by this book ever since I saw it in the UK. It was the cover, and its clever drawing, that first attracted me. Having now acquired and read a copy of the book (mostly in the wee hours of the morning when I can't sleep) I have to say I've been disappointed. Brown has set out to write a book that tries to be many things: a memoir, a catalog of remedies, a discussion of theories of sleeplessness. As so often happens in these cases, the book doesn't really manage to do any of the above tremendously well. It provides a little of all of the above, but most remain unsatisfying. Brown herself is an insomnia sufferer, and thus, she speaks from experience. She is not afraid to give her personal evaluation of products and methods, noting what worked for her and what did not, but she is also always careful to note that what worked for her is not necessarily going to be the best for others. That said, it is important to recognize that Brown's approach is decidedly pro-complementary therapies, and she has little use for sleeping pills. Introducing the reader to new complementary therapies that he or she might not have yet considered is likely the book's most significant contribution, and Brown has taken great care to provide a comprehensive appendix of remedies, specialists, and resources for insomniacs. What I found most difficult to accept about this book, however, is that one of Brown's main contentions is that one of the best things an insomniac can do is to release their anxiety about not sleeping. To a point, that is certainly correct. It's hard to sleep when one is anxious about not sleeping. But Brown seems to take this notion a step further, suggesting that if people give themselves permission to not try to live up to an 8 hours/night standard, this will help alleviate much of their mental anguish. But insomniacs aren't upset or anxious about not sleeping because they're not living up to a stated ideal. Rather, people know just how miserable they'll be the next day if they don't get a certain amount of sleep, and giving oneself permission to not sleep is not going to help that. In sum, people who are looking for new alternative and non-Western approaches to dealing with insomnia will find a good catalogue of remedies here. Those who want to consider drug therapies along with complementary treatments may be better served elsewhere.

Lynda Brown, The Insomniac's Best Friend (Thorsons, 2004) ISBN: 0007163851

Monday, September 1, 2008

My Challenges

Reading challenges are a significant and fun part of the book world, and the book blogger world in particular. I've managed to enroll myself in a series of challenges since getting more involved in the book talk world, and I'm going to highlight some of them over the next couple of weeks. Today I'm starting with my very first challenge, the one that got me interested in reading challenges generally. That's the 50 Book Challenge that I found on Librarything. The principle is very simple: read fifty books over the course of a year. I started with it last year, and I was unsuccessful. It seems strange to me know, but I didn't have a whole lot of reading time last year. This year I'm doing much better. I'm up to thirty-five books thus far, so I should surely make it. Other people are doing larger challenges: 75 or 100 books, but I'll aim for fifty first. If I reach that goal this year, I may go for more.

In honor of that challenge, today I'm reviewing one of the books I read for that challenge: Floating in My Mother's Palm by Ursula Hegi.

This is a short novel that in many ways reads more like a collection of essays. It's a series of short vignettes about the people who live in a small German town in the 1950s. The narrator is a teenage girl, born just after WWII, and much of the novel deals with the consequences of war for the various townspeople. This is a town populated by a truly eclectic cast of characters. Hegi does an excellent job of delving deep into and developing each of her characters and their relationships to one another. This is the same town that was the focus of Hegi's novel Stones from the River, which is set in the same town in the interwar period and WWII. Some of the characters appear also in Stones, some do not, and they don't necessarily occupy the same places in each book. Trudi Montag, the central character in Stones from the River is far less sympathetic and far less interesting in this book; here she appears to be little more than the town gossip. From publication dates it appears that Hegi wrote this book before she wrote Stones from the River, though I read them in the opposite order. The characters and life of the town are far more fully developed in Stones, though character development is still clearly Hegi's forte, even in this book. For those interested in Hegi's work, I recommend reading Stones first. Had I not had the background I did from Stones, I think I would have found this book less interesting.

Ursula Hegi, Stones from the River (Vintage, 1990) ISBN: 0679731156

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Salon: Labor Day

It's hard to believe it's Labor Day already. September? How did that happen? Unfortunately, the weather seems to be cooperating with the idea that it's no longer summer, though the sunshine is beautiful. In any case, as it's chilly, today was just as good a day as any to spend reading. Today I've been switching back and forth between books. As school is starting soon, I've been working my way through Robert Orsi's Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Words People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, which I've assigned this quarter. Orsi uses 20th c. American Catholicism to examine how religious people develop meanings and connections to the spiritual world, and simultaneously comments on how scholars should and can approach studying these issues. It's quite an engaging read and interesting book; I think it should prompt some interesting discussions. It also touches on a number of very current issues in the historical profession: from disability history, to lived religion, to the history of children.

For fun I've been reading Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear. It's a look at how the media completely distorts the public perception of what the real dangers and problems are in society, by focusing in a few key scare stories, and making no attempt to back up their reporting with fact. It's interesting, and it definitely demands we look at the media critically. I've read about 3/4 of the book, and I'm hoping to finish it tonight. Lots of it we already know: the war on drugs does nothing to address the situations that lead many people into drug use. The chances of being carjacked are REALLY small, and so on. My review will be forthcoming on here.

And I've got a review for today. To celebrate the last day of August, I'll be reviewing Judith Rossner's novel, August, a tale of therapy, relationship crisis, and summer vacation.

This novel tells two parallel stories: that of psychotherapist LuLu Shinefeld, embroiled in a mid-life crisis, and one of her clients, Dawn, a young artist and college students who is in a constant state of crisis. The stories of these two women are played out in a series of chapters which alternate between Dawn's therapy sessions and Lulu's life, which consists of a recently broken marriage and an attempt to make an old fling into something more permanent. Both women find their lives unravelling, and men are at the center of both women's problems. Lulu is having trouble negotiating the dating world, and Dawn is trying to deal with her obsessions for various men, including her former (male) psychotherapist. Both women struggle with family issues, too, as Dawn tries to reconcile her feelings about her adoptive and biological parents, and Lulu tries to deal with her children's unhappiness with their mother's new life. Overall, this was an engaging book. Rossner is an able storyteller, and I found myself drawn back to find out where the plot would go. But as many storytellers do, Rossner's characters seem to stray from the believable at times. Dawn is now what one might call a sympathetic character. I'd call her whiny, annoying, and sometimes scary in her obsessions. The title, August, comes from the month each year that Lulu takes off for vacation, and this is when much of both characters' development happens. It's when Lulu takes off to the Hamptons, and is forced to think about her relationships and personal life. It's also the time each year that Dawn dreads; she believes herself to be unable of coping without a therapist nearby (and she's probably right). Despite the issues previously mentioned, this was still an enjoyable read, and it easily kept my attention.

Judith Rossner, August (Mariner, 1997) ISBN: 0395860067

Monday, August 25, 2008

Now on the Shelves

Today I'm reviewing a book that I was lucky to receive from Library Thing's Early Reviewers program. I have quite a lot of women's fiction in my library, so I can understand why I was a good match. The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton is a book about female friendship and life in the middle of the twentieth century. After I wrote my impressions on Library Thing I got a lovely message from the author herself, who is also on Library Thing (which means she's cool- at least in my world.) We had quite a nice discussion about what she was doing with the book, and I'm now pleased to post my review here. As an added incentive to read this book- when my mother visited me recently she pulled this book out of the *ahem* many books I have stored in the guest room, and she stayed up late reading to finish it. She came of age during the same period as the main characters in this novel. Without further adieu:

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

It is a rare thing to read chick lit with an explicitly feminist message, but that's precisely what one gets from Meg Waite Clayton's The Wednesday Sisters. The novel tells the story of five women, all young wives and mothers, who become friends in suburban San Francisco in the late-1960s. All five have aspirations and dreams, which for many of them focus on writing. Thus, the five friends form a writers' group, and the novel tells the story of their efforts to support one another in meeting their goals within the confines of late-1960s expectations of young women. In this Clayton has created a good and engaging story, one with developed characters and which easily retains the reader's interest and sympathy. One of the larger goals of this novel is clearly to explore women's lives in a time of tremendous change and upheaval. The five women are clearly placed in time-- they watch the moon landing, and they attend an anti-war rally. Where the book was most interesting for me was in its treatment of second wave feminism, looking at how the growing movement shaped the lives of these five women. The book opens in 1967, before the myriad transformative events that will shake the world in 1968. What strikes the reader, and where Clayton does an especially good job, is in showing how white, suburban America in 1967 looked far more like the 1950s than what most of us associate with the 1960s (tie-dye, drugs, bra burning, and the like). But the changes do begin to happen, and the Wednesday sisters do not remain untouched. The book makes clear that the pace of the changes with which we credit the 1960s was sometimes slow, and that for many people, ideas had to change before the realities of their daily lives did. Most importantly, this books highlights some of the limits of feminism (and the other radical changes of the late-1960s). My one significant criticism is that I didn't care for the way in which the story was told in retrospect with Frankie, the narrator, offering 21st century commentary on things she thought and did in the 1960s, offering side notes like "Of course we thought differently then." Just letting the characters be and exist in the 1960s would give them more complexity, and also highlight the limits of change. These women have their flaws. They have racist ideas. They have strong ideas about how families should be structured and the duties of husbands and wives. I'd prefer to just watch these things exist, unfold, and see how they changed, rather than getting presentist commentary. Overall, though, I enjoyed this book. It's a great summer read, particularly for the daughters of these 1960s women who are now young mothers, wives, writers, and businesswomen.

Meg Waite Clayton, The Wednesday Sisters (Ballantine, 2008) ISBN: 0345502825

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Salon: The Perfect Weather

Normally I am first in line to complain about the weather in the Pacific Northwest. All that rain, grey sky, and chill get monotonous. It rains more or less non-stop from the end of October through May, and June is iffy. The payoff, though is the summer. In a good year it can be sunny, clear, and beautiful every day in August and September. Unfortunately that does not appear to be the norm for this August. We had a couple of beautiful weeks, but we've now slipped back into the cold, grey rain and fog. The weather stinks, but it is good for one thing: reading. I really believe there's no better environment to curl up on the couch with a good book than when it is cold and rainy outside. The sound of the rain is a soothing sort of white noise, and with the house warm and cozy, with a cup of tea, it's pretty much my ideal reading environment. So, that's precisely what I did today, and I read a whole book. Granted, it was only 160 pages, but it's still a book from the TBR pile that I've now completed. The book I read was Anna Quindlen's Imagined London. It's basically a travel narrative in which Quindlen discusses how the real London relates to the literary city, as it's been chronicled in 500 years of literature. It was a bit slow-going at first, as it begins with a stream-of-consciousness narrative, and the real thrust of the book is the last chapter, wherein Quindlen gets into the real literary criticism. My review will follow on here in a few days. I generally enjoyed the book, but it definitely requires some knowledge of London (either literary or real) to be of any sort of interest. So, I feel like I've accomplished something today. Not bad for a Sunday.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Need a Free Book?

Book bloggers tend to be pretty awesome people. They're well read, they love books, and they want to share that with the world. They also offer some excellent contests and giveaways, and today I'd like to highlight a few that have come across my screen recently. Blog giveaways generally require very little from you, usually some sort of comment or response on the blog. It's a great way to get connected to other book bloggers. And hey, who doesn't want a free book?

Carp(e) Libris is giving away a copy of The Painter of Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein. The Painter of Shanghai is a fictionalized account of the life of painter Pan Yuliang. To enter, leave a comment on the post explaining what you know, think, or find interesting about Chinese art and culture. To get there, just click on the book cover, above. You can also be entered by subscribing to the blog. And be sure to check out the rest of the blog- it's a nice, eclectic mix of books, and I could stare at the banner all day. I have to admit, blog design is something I totally can't do, but fully admire. A well-designed blog is just so visually pleasing. (Speaking of, look for a post on that forthcoming- I've been wanting to showcase beautiful blogs for awhile.)

Book Room Reviews is currently running a contest with a fantastic prize: a copy of Mia King's book, The Sweet Life, as well as Hawaiian chocolate and biscottis. All this comes in one awesome gift basket. This one is most certainly worth investigating. The prizes for this contest were generously donated by the author, Mia King. In addition, she's agreed to answer questions on the blog. This is quite the event. Other very cool things about the blog: note the adorable little characters (book worms?) that serve as avatars for the comments. Also, I clicked on her full-body avatar on the left, and discovered a wonderful, fun new website: Design-her gals. I could (and did tonight) spend far too much time playing around designing different versions of myself. Start playing here:

Finally, Allison's Attic is offering a copy of The 19th Wife on her blog. All you have to do is leave a comment on her post. While you're there, make sure you check out Allison's awesome self-portrait. I want to know where she got her giant tome. Click on the book cover to get to the blog!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Self-Portrait With Ghosts by Kelly Dwyer

Self-Portrait with Ghosts tells the story of a woman, Kate, and her daughter, Audrey, who are forced to cope with the the suicide of their brother/uncle Luke. The story is told in alternating chapters, told in the present via Kate/Audrey, and in flashback via Luke. These flashback chapters explain Luke's life and what leads to his suicide. What emerges from this is that Luke is desperately, almost hopelessly depressed, and the rest of the family is plagued by problems too. The result of Luke's suicide is that it ultimately brings the family together, particularly Kate and her estranged sister Colleen. Clearly the saddest character in the book is Luke, who is extremely depressed, to a level that anti-depressants cannot help. He seems, in short, to be wired differently in a way that is incompatible with life. Luke is presented as the kindest and least flawed character. In Dwyer's presentation it's almost as if Luke *has* to die. He's the saintly sacrifice that mends his family's wounds. Luke is kind, he's quiet, he gets along with all of his family members, he's generous. These are all things of which the rest of the family falls short. The irony in the story is that Luke's calmness and kindness are what allow the family to stay divided. His moderating influence preserves the divide. Ultimately, I'm struggling to find the larger point of this book. There's a great deal of sadness, some heartfelt family moments, but there didn't seem to be a larger takeaway. While engaging enough to read, it's not the sort of book that left me thinking about it afterward.

Kelly Dwyer, Self-Portrait with Ghosts (Berkeley, 2000) ISBN: 0425176967