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

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Salon: At Off Hours...

This is my first Sunday in the Salon, as it's only in the past couple of weeks that I've been really working on getting this book blog thing going. Me being me, I managed to choose one of the busiest Sundays to try and squeeze in quality reading time. Today will be spent moving new furniture into my house, so this morning has involved a lot of moving of old furniture to make way for new furniture, and running to the grocery store for ingredients for the dinner I'll be cooking the friends who are so kind as to help me. I'm a trooper though, and I've managed to squeeze some reading into all of that. Most of my Sunday Salon reading this week happened in the wee hours of the morning. Last night I stayed up until about four reading my early reviewers book for Librarything- Wife in the North by Judith O'Reilly. It's a great book and a really fun read. It's the memoir of a die-hard urbanite who moves to the countryside in the north of England. I'll talk about it more when I review it, but I can fully identify with O'Reilly, having recently moved far away from the urban areas I love. I'm not sure I'll be able to get much more reading done today, but that's fine. I got a good chunk of Wife in the North done. And hey, new furniture is always a good thing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

I received this book through Library Thing's Early Reviewers program, and I was pleased to be selected to review it. Since I began reading I've struggled greatly with what exactly I think of this book, and even more, what rating to give it. Brand's work tells the story of four twenty-somethings living in Toronto negotiating the sometimes tragic details of their lives. There are elements of this book that are very, very good. The way Brand sets the scene in Toronto and its suburbs, in the present and thirty years earlier is excellent. Brand also creates some incredible characters who exist with a reality and depth that is admirable. Brand is a good writer- while perhaps that should go without saying for published fiction, that's certainly not always the case. But with the good comes the bad, too. Parts of this book did not impress me nearly as much. While Brand does create some very impressive characters, there were others who were under-developed, and seemed to have little purpose in the overall work. Oku and Jackie, in particular, and even Carla, to an extent, were marginal. Tuyen was far more complex and interesting than any of the others. This book is not a plot-driven one. It is very much character-driven. Brand is clearly trying to get at some larger issues. The book is about identity, about how people construct their identity and how it is constructed for them. On one level this book is about multi-culturalism in Canada, and what it means to be a Canadian of color. But even more (and connected to that) this book is about how family shapes identity. Each of the main characters is significantly shaped by tragedy in family life. Tuyen is shaped by the loss of her brother, Carla by her mother's suicide and brother's problems, Oku by his difficult relationship with his father, and Jackie by the decline of her parents' Toronto neighborhood. This is a saga about parents, children, and siblings, and how these people play as much of a role in the formation of the self as anything else. Interestingly, all of the main characters are rebelling in some way against their families, abut their rebellions serve only to underscore how deeply they are shaped by their family experiences. Ultimately my opinion was divided on this book, hence the 3. I admired some things, but disliked others, and would have liked more attention to plot and the ending.

Dionne Brand, What We All Long For (St. Martin's Griffin, 2008) ISBN: 0312377711