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