Thursday, December 31, 2009

Historical Fiction Challenge

I have a lot of historical fiction in my TBR vortex that I've not read To add to the fun of reading it, I've decided to join the Historical Fiction Challenge at Royal Reviews. I'm going in at the Curious level- committing me to three historical fiction books over the course of the year. If I do more, then power to me. I just received Star of the Sea by Joseph O'Connor, and Sleep Pale Sister by Joanne Harris, so I think those two are definities, and I've got plenty of others to choose among. Roll on the new year!

What's in a Name Challenge 3

I had a lot of fun doing the What's in a Name Challenge last year, so I've decided to sign up once again for this year. This year the categories are:

A book with a food in the title: Clockwork Orange, Grapes of Wrath, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
A book with a body of water in the title: A River Runs through It, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, The Lake House
A book with a title (queen, president) in the title: The Murder of King Tut, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lady Susan
A book with a plant in the title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wind in the Willows, The Name of the Rose
A book with a place name (city, country) in the title: Out of Africa; London; Between, Georgia
A book with a music term in the title: Song of Solomon, Ragtime, The Piano Teacher

I'm not sure what I'll pick yet, though possibilities include:

Five Quarters of the Orange
The Piano Lesson
London Holiday

And others- who knows? I'm someone who likes to choose books as the mood strikes me.

18th and 19th c. Women Writers Challenge

Doing the Victorian Challenge last year I discovered that I enjoy 19th c. literature far more than I was anticipating. To keep the ball rolling, this year I've decided to join the 18th and 19th c. Women Writers Reading Challenge, hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. I'm not entirely sure what I'll choose, likely something from the Virago Modern Classics, and perhaps some Jane Austen (since I've read none!) If I decide to head into the 18th c. it will likely be with Sarah Scott's Millennium Hall. I'm looking forward to participating!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2nds Challenge

This year I'll be participating in the 2nds Challenge, hosted by Royal Reviews. I've read lots of new authors this year, and I'm definitely excited to read more of their work. I've decided to go in at the curious level, reading four authors for the second time this year. I can always work my way up if need be. Some of the authors I'm considering include:

Carol Shields
Elizabeth Berg
Joanne Harris

Obviously, this is still a work in progress, but I'm excited to join!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pub Challenge 2009 Wrap-Up

I finished my Pub Challenge for 2009. Actually, I had technically read nine 2009 books by summertime, but I'm just getting around to doing the wrap up now. My new books for this year included:

Christina Sunley, The Tricking of Freya
Jackina Stark, Tender Grace
Warren St. John, Outcasts United
Lisa See, Shanghai Girls
Mavis McCovey, Medicine Trails
Gillian Flynn, Dark Places
Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean Learns to Drive
Janet Seskin Charles, Moonlight in Odessa
Jeannine Cornillot, Family Sentence
Sara Shephard, The Visibles
Hyatt Bass, The Embers
Mei-Ling Hopgood, Lucky Girl
Meredith Weiss, Tide, Feather, Snow

And there's a few others I haven't gotten reviewed yet. All in all, I got to read some great new books this year. Shanghai Girls, The Tricking of Freya, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, and Moonlight in Odessa were all excellent. I also got to read some interesting non-fiction, including several memoirs. There was really only one loser in the entire bunch, and I've thoroughly enjoyed this challenge.

Bibliophilic Books Challenge

I love books about books, reading, and writing, so this challenge seemed like a natural. I've got hordes of these books in my home, and hopefully this challenge will get me organized about actually reading them! I'm hemming and hawing right now about which level to join at. My choices are:

Bookworm: Read three books
Litlover: Read six books
Bibliomaniac: Read twelve books

I'm deciding between Bookworm and Litlover right now. I should probably go in at Bookworm, as I can always do more. I'm definitely looking forward to starting. Roll on the New Year!

Chunkster Challenge

I'm excited to be participating this year in the Chunkster Challenge- an effort to get those very loooong books read. Qualifying chunksters are adult (no, not that kind of adult) books over 450 pages. I've got several in the hopper that I've been meaning to read, so this challenge will hopefully make me get at them. I'll be participating at the lowest level to start: The Chubby Chunkster. That's three chunksters over the course of the year. Right now I'm planning on:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
East of Eden
The Crimson Petal and the White

This might change, but probably won't. If I can handle the low-level chunksters this year, I'll perhaps move up next year. Now I have to decide which one to dive into come February 1.

Thriller and Suspense Challenge

Having looked over my reading for the past year, it's pretty surprising just how many of the books fit in the thriller and suspense category, broadly speaking. Thus, I've decided to join the Thriller and Suspense Challenge for next year. The rules are to read 12 books in the genre over the coming year, which will hopefully not be a problem. In the spirit of how I read (choosing on a whim) I'll not be making an advance list, but I'll be posting and reviewing once the new year starts.

GLBT Challenge

This challenge seemed a natural for me, as so many of my beloved Virago Modern Classics were written by lesbian or bisexual women. I'm choosing to go in at the Lambda level, for a start, requiring me to read four GLBT books in 2010. Likely I can do more, but I want to actually finish my challenges in the coming year. Most of my choices likely will come out of the Virago Modern Classics, and thus, most will be late-19th and early-20th c. choices.

Marple-Poirot-Holmes Challenge

There's nothing quite like hunkering down with an Agatha Christie on a weekend afternoon, and staying on the couch until the whole thing is read. That guilty pleasure has brought me to a new challenge: The Marple, Poirot, and Holmes reading challenge. The requirements are to read two Miss Marple, two Hercule Poirot, and two Sherlock Holmes mysteries in 2010. The Christies will be no problem, and this will be my first foray into Holmes- that's a deficiency I certainly need to rectify. I'm not picking in advance for this one- I'll read whatever strikes me at the time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Colorful Reading Challenge

It's now the season for me to sign up for many more reading challenges for next year than I will ever be able to finish, so I submit my first: The Colorful Reading Challenge. The requirements are simple: nine books, with nine different colors, in a year. I'm not entirely sure what I'll be choosing, but I'm thinking about:

Blood Orange by Drusilla Campbell
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
Violet Clay by Gail Godwin
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

I will most certainly be adding others, but that's a starting point.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Green Books Campaign: Medicine Trails by Mavis McCovey

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 100 bloggers are reviewing 100 great books printed in an environmentally friendly way. Our goal is to encourage publishers to get greener and readers to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books. This campaign is organized by Eco-Libris, a a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

This memoir tells the story of Mavis McCovey, a Karuk medicine woman and health care advocate. It also tells us much more than the story of McCovey offering broad discussion of her life and land. The result is a fascinating look at Native American spirituality, community, life and labor in northwestern California. Stretching from the early-nineteenth century, we learn the long and broad history of McCovey's family. As the subtitle suggests, McCovey is a woman who has lived in many worlds: through her family, in which her ancestors married and raised families with European partners, to her own marriage, in which she relocated to her husband's Yurok community. Perhaps most importantly, McCovey has also occupied the world of the medicine woman, a role for which she was singled out in childhood, and trained from a young age. By no account has Mavis McCovey had an easy life, physically or emotionally. After losing her own parents at age six, McCovey also lost two of her five children. Work is a constant theme in this memoir, and we see all of the residents of McCovey's community working, and working hard, almost constantly. As a spiritual leader, McCovey has hardly been absent from this labor, and her spiritual leadership is well-grounded in a hardworking community. The tremendous wealth of information on the process of becoming a medicine woman is surely one of this book's strengths. As a woman who lives in many worlds, McCovey does an excellent job of highlighting for the reader the spiritual differences among the communities in which she has lived, showcasing for the reader the significant variety in Native American religious practices, even in close geographic proximity. This book will likewise be valuable to those interested in women's studies, as McCovey reflects on her role as a medicine woman, and as a wife, daughter, and mother in the Karuk and Yurok communities. This text is narrated by McCovey, literally, in that it was told to the anthropologist John Salter (McCovey's co-author), who offered annotations. Salter has presented McCovey's words as they were told to him. This presents certain benefits, clearly in that we hear directly and mostly unmediated from McCovey. It also presents challenges. As a spoken history, the style of narration is somewhat different from what most readers may be accustomed to- this is a book that sometimes begs to be read out loud, to offer full appreciation of the style. In sum, this is a very interesting book, which offers information not necessarily available elsewhere. Blurbers described this book as a "definitive text," and I would agree. I would use this book in the classroom without hesitation. McCovey's story has taught me a great deal.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: Murder at Hazelmoor

A murder in a tiny Dartmoor village in the dead of winter sets the stage for this classic Christie whodunit. Several had a motive, few had an opportunity. The most likely suspect is quickly imprisoned, but his fiance remains unsatisfied with the law's conclusions. Determined to clear James Pearson's name, Emily Trefusis sets off with intrepid newspaper reporter Charles Enderby to seek out the circumstances of Major Treveylan's murder. As with all of Christie's books, we get plenty of atmosphere as the plot unfolds in the Dartmoor countryside. Here we see the deepest depths of winter. This novel has all of the elements of a juicy, quick read. The plot and suspense build as we follow Emily on her quest for answers. This is classic Christie- a bit of brain-fluff, for sure, but engaging and well-written.

Agatha Christie, Murder at Hazelmoor (Putnam, 1987) ISBN: 0396090133

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: Easy to Kill

It's easy to kill if no one suspects you, and in the situation Luke Fitzwilliam has wandered into, that seems to be the case. A series of deaths has mostly gone unnoticed-- unfortunate accidents, they seemed, but not to everyone. Lavinia Fullerton has suspicions and premonitions, but she is run down on her way to alert the authorities. After hearing Lavinia's story retired police office Luke Fitzwilliam decides to do a bit of investigating of his own. He finds a small town with a variety of eccentricities. In some ways, this novel follows the typical Christie pattern: murder, a variety of suspects, and an unsuspected conclusion. This particular Christie has more of an element of danger, however, which adds excitement. We actually get to see some action, not just the detective revealing his or her conclusions at the end. Christie has also been successful in underlining the fact that apparently, it is remarkably easy to kill (or at least it was in the days before DNA evidence and whatnot.)

Agatha Christie, Easy to Kill (Pocket Books, 1945) ISBN: 0671811282

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: Jewels

I must admit, I am captivated by jewels: their shine, their brilliance, their color. Thus, I was excited to read a history of jewels. Finlay's is a social history, examining how human beings have constructed the value of brilliant minerals. This is not a comprehensive study. Finlay has chosen a series of case studies, the research for which took her all over the globe, from Australia, to Russia, to Sri Lanka, to the American southwest. This is quite an interesting book, and it certainly does show that these stones that human beings so treasure have no inherent value. This is evident in the changing fortunes of so many stones, which have variously fallen in and out of favor. It also becomes clear through the course of Finlay's work, that stones have, and do, cause a tremendous amount of human suffering. Indeed, in the long history of gems there has been much more misery than fortune. Finlay's history is clearly narrative in nature. She is concerned with telling some of the most interesting stories behind the jewels. It is not a book that analyzes the larger social forces behind many of these changes. Still, this is an interesting book. Finlay gained access to many places most people cannot. She travelled to some of the most unforgiving parts of the world in search of the people who mine, cut, and sell valuable stones. Any jewelry-lover will likely find this book engaging.

Victoria Finlay, Jewels: A Secret History (Random House, 2007), ISBN: 0345466950

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Dark Places

Libby Day, the sole survivor of a murderous massacre that killed her family, has spent the rest of her life trying to avoid that night. Her brother is imprisoned for the crime. Libby has become a dysfunctional adult, and having exhausted her trust fund, finds herself in need of money. Her rather unorthodox solution is to investigate the night of the murders funded by the Kill Club, a group of crime junkies. In the process Libby is brought into contact with all the horrors of that fateful January night. In the process Libby finds herself reevaluating everything she thought she knew about the crime. She also digs deeper than she ever anticipated and finds herself coming too close to a murderer still on the loose. This was a gripping story. It kept me invested from start to finish. The mix of thriller and literary fiction was refreshing- I like a good thriller, but I also want good writing, and this book definitely has both. Flynn offers us plot development, fully rounded characters, and enough suspense to keep the reader on edge.

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places, (Shaye Areheart, 2009) ISBN: 0307341569

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: Red Pottage

This 1899 novel, the story of friends Rachel West and Hester Gresley, provides biting satire of the gender and class conventions that governed late-Victorian England. Set against a trio of painful love stories, Rachel and Hester learn the inconveniences and heartbreak of love. Rachel loves an adulterer, and Hester, a writer, loves her new book, whose manuscript consumes all of her time and energy. These pursuits are set against particular Victorian settings: Hester in the vicarage home of her self-satisfied, traditional, high-church brother, and Rachel in the stately homes of rural Middleshire's minor gentry. Both friends feel acutely the emotional and physical restrictions of their situation. None are able to understand Rachel and Hester's friendship, a deep, emotional attachment formed outside the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. Guiding the plot is what is perhaps one of the most ridiculous displays of masculine bravado: a suicide pact between the two lovers of Lady Newhaven. Cholmondeley is biting in her criticism of Victorian society. Somewhat different from other Victorian satirists, she relies upon plot rather than explanation. Cholmondeley doesn't tell us why we should see absurdity in a particular situation; she relies on plot to do that. Written at the very end of the Victorian era, we start to see the seeds of change in gender relations. The very biting quality of Cholmondeley's novel suggests coming change.

Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage, (Penguin, 1986) ISBN: 1406845612

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: Velva Jean Learns to Drive

In the mountains of western North Carolina, in the 1930s, Velva Jean Hart lives with her extended family in a community rich in folk tradition and seemingly isolated from the outside world. Velva Jean Dreams of one day going to Nashville to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. But Velva Jean's community is not one that people tend to leave. Velva Jean is limited by her age and family situation. With her mother dead and father run off, she is left to the restrictions of her older sister. With age and marriage Velva Jean's dreams of Nashville fade, but she gains a new desire- to learn to drive. This novel follows Velva Jean from childhood into young adulthood. At every turn it seems that Velva Jean is forced to push her dreams aside. Her story is set in Appalachia during the Depression, and we also see the first signs of outside intrusion into these previously cloistered communities. The Blue Ridge Parkway is about to be cut through the mountains. Even if it does not cut through their village, the new road will affect the lives of all around it. This was an engaging book, with a complex plot line and characters. A wonderful read.

Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean Learns to Drive (Plume, 2009) ISBN: 0452289459

Friday, August 21, 2009

Review: The Visibles

This novel examines a girl's attempts to come to terms with parental abandonment. By thirteen Summer Davis's mother had run off without a trace, and her father was descending into serious mental illness. Summer quickly becomes the adult in a family spiralling out of control. There's not much that I found surprising or unusual about the plot of this book. It is, in fact, quite predictable. Summer's troubled parents shape ways in which she approaches school, career, and relationships. The plot proceeds just as one might expect. The twist Shepard adds to this particular story is Summer's fascination with DNA. She is first introduced to the concept soon after her mother leaves, and Summer spends much of her young adult life pondering the nature vs. nurture debate in light of her particular situation. I found this theme to be contrived, however, as it is only loosely woven into the narrative, and it added little value and effect to the plot. While I found Shepard to be a good writer, I wished the book had been more imaginative.

Sara Shepard, The Visibles (Free Press, 2009) ISBN: 1416597360

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: Olive Kitteredge

What a character- Olive Kitteredge is loud, bossy, and decisive. In her old age she swears and complains. Strong-headed, but with her own sort of compassion, Oliver is an institution in her small Maine town. This novel, told in a series of stories, details the lives of Olive, her family, and those around her in Crosby, Maine. The great strength in this book is in its central character. I've never seen another character quite like Olive. From the blurb on the back I was expecting a sort of stock, cantankerous old lady, but that's not Olive. It's hard not to love and loathe Olive at the same time. Through this book we see how the exigencies of life can chip away at as solid a vessel as Olive Kitteredge, and that's both disturbing and reassuring at the same time.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteredge, (Random House, 2008) ISBN: 0812971833

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: The Embers

Some dysfunctional families draw readers in, and make them engaged in the story. Then there are the literary dysfunctional families who are simply annoying. The Aschers, the focus of Bass's novel, are decidedly in the latter category. Throughout the book I was struck by what a bunch of miserable, negative, self-absorbed people the Aschers seemed to be. Basically, this is a book about self-centered, neurotic people who experience tragedy, which in turn makes them more self-centered and miserable. A big part of the problem is that this book is longer than it needs to be. One simply gets sick of the Aschers' navel-gazing. The book seemed repetitive, with the same sentiments repeated. If the book had been cut down by a third, it would likely have been stronger. This is not a book based upon plot, rather, it is meant to be an investigation of the interior life of a family. The problem is, it's very difficult to pull that off with characters such as these, and in the absence of plot, the reader is left with little else.

Hyatt Bass, The Embers (Henry Holt, 2009) ISBN: 0805089942

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review: Lucky Girl

Mei-Ling Hopgood was adopted from Taiwan as a baby- this is her memoir of reconnecting with her birth family two decades later. Unlike many adoptees Hopgood never really wanted to know more about her birth family. She happily embraced the culture of the American Midwest, her adoptive parents, and her two brothers. As a young adult Hopgood discovered that her Chinese family had been looking for her. Unsure of what she was getting into, Hopgood dug deeper, and discovered she had a large family in Taiwan- birth parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, and a brother. And so she met her birth family. After an exciting honeymoon period, Hopgood was confronted with a whole host of uncomfortable questions she had never anticipated. Her birth mother's submissiveness, her birth father's clear preference for sons over daughters. Coming to terms with these things is the substance of Hopgood's memoir. A written record of nearly ten years spent working out the complicated relationship with her Chinese family, Hopgood has written an engaging tale. There are many good memoirs concerning adoption and immigration issues. I'm not certain that Hopgood's offers much above and beyond the others, but is certainly a strong choice for those who wish to read such a memoir. Both well-written and compelling.

Mei-Ling Hopgood, Lucky Girl (Algonquin, 2009) ISBN: 1565126009

Victorian Challenge Wrap-Up

It's official! I completed the Victorian Challenge! I read four books, two written during the Victorian period, one during the Edwardian period, and one in the 1940s. My final list was:

Charlotte Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family
Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

It was important to me that at least some of the book I read were actually written in the 19th century. Victorian literature has always daunted me, so tackling some of it at the source was a significant reason why I undertook this challenge. My favorite book of the challenge was Oliver Twist. I didn't find any of these books unpalatable, but my least favorite was likely Lark Rise to Candleford. Looking at my choices, it's perhaps a bit unfair of me to pick favorites. Oliver Twist is by most critics' assessments a work of great literature, and Lark Rise to Candleford makes no pretences to literary greatness. It's a very descriptive book, in modern parlance we might call it 'cozy.' The greatest surprise of the challenge was how easy I found it to engage Dickens. I had always been daunted by his works. This is the first I read seriously as an adult, and I found it a very rewarding experience. I will likely dig deeper into his canon. The least Victorian of these selections was All Passion Spent. I selected it based on the back cover synopsis, which suggested that the book was entirely about the Victorian period. As it turns out, it's about half and half. Overall, this has been a very rewarding challenge experience. If it happens again next year I will surely participate, and my goal will be to select and read only books written during Victoria's reign.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: All Passion Spent

Lady Slane spent her entire life as a politician's wife, raising six children. In the wake of her husband's death she finally has time and space to attend to her own desires. At age eighty-eight Lady Slane chooses to move to her own home, and surround herself with persons of her own choosing. And what Lady Slane chooses to do is to reminisce about her life, from her marriage in 1860 to the present day. Lady Slane's children presume that their mother has descended into madness, but she holds her ground, refusing to become the doddering widow her children expect. In this novel we learn Lady Slane's history: her thwarted dreams of becoming an artist, her love for her husband, and the restrictions incumbent on Victorian political wives. The book culminates as Lady Slane faces an awakening of unexpected passion. This is a dark and contemplative novel, though there are elements of comedy as well. The Slane children all fit into comic stereotypes, and perform their allotted roles to the point of ridiculousness. These comic elements are necessary, they allow Lady Slane to be sensible, rather than cruel, in cutting herself off from her children at the end of her life. Lady Slane's long life spans the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and if the hallmark of the Victorian era was change, than Lady Slane is certainly a good model thereof. She lived through modernization, the growth of empire, and in her reflections we see the long span of her life.

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent (The Dial Press, 1984) ISBN: 0385279760

Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Oliver Twist

I've always been intimidated by Dickens, having heard so much about his legendary wordiness and trenchant prose. This was my first attempt to seriously read Dickens, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how readable this book is. I did notice Dickens's wordiness for approximately the first two pages, but after that I was drawn into the story. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Dickens writes with a witty sarcasm- so much for the humorless Victorians. The story of a desperately poor orphan, Oliver Twist offers a deep and complex plot, and plenty of emotional engagement. It's hard not to feel sympathy for suffering young Oliver who, by his own admission, "hasn't a friend in the world." This novel is a book about morality, and is clearly a work of social criticism. Dickens reserves his criticism not for the wealthy, who might seem the obvious target, but for social strivers. Those attempting to raise their social standing, such as the sycophantic Bumble, and the criminal miser Fagin receive the sharpest pricks of Dickens's pen. The truly wealthy are the kindest characters in the book; they are the ones who rescue Oliver and show him true kindness. Dickens kept my attention throughout this novel, I will definitely be exploring more of his canon.

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (Wordsworth Classics, 1997) ISBN: 1853260126

Friday, June 26, 2009

Review: Shanghai Girls

This novel is a family saga, crossing two continents and nearly thirty years. Pearl Louie and her sister, Mae, were born and raised among the Shanghai elite, but with the arrival of Japanese invasion and the start of WWII, find themselves sold to Chinese-American husbands. They cross the Pacific to begin a new life with unknown relatives in Los Angeles. The novel covers Pearl and Mae's efforts to make new lives for themselves in Los Angeles, and to come to terms with their new family. Pearl discovers a world of contradictions in Los Angeles. She begins to develop an American identity, while living in a country prejudiced against her. Always critical of her mother's old-fashioned superstition, Pearl finds herself drawn to traditional ways as she faces the challenges of raising a family. While there are some triumphs for Pearl, Mae, and the rest of the Louie family, there are also many sorrows. See's ending for this saga shocked me- it was certainly not the ending I was anticipating. Overall, this novel offers a complex and engaging plot, and brought me into the world of Chinese Americans in the middle of the 20th century. Through See's work we go deep into the innermost recesses of the lives and thoughts of the Louie family. See has written a complicated epic- a story of much sorrow, but also of persistence.

Lisa See, Shanghai Girls, (Random House, 2009) ISBN: 1400067111

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: Children of My Heart

A novel of a young teacher in the depression-era prairies, Roy tells the stories of children from the desperately poor families of rural Manitoba. The stories are told by the protagonist, a young, unnamed teacher, who teaches at an isolated village school. Roy presents children heavily laden with the burdens of poverty, adult concerns, and adult responsibilities. It quickly becomes clear what a significant role a caring young teacher plays in the lives of these children. In many cases she is the only adult who has the luxury to treat her pupils as children. The protagonist retains youthful enthusiasm in the most trying of circumstances, until she is faced with a new kind of trial: a budding romance with a troubled teenage student. Mederic, the son of a distant father and an absent mother, is desperately in need of attention, and his young teacher is desperately in need of companionship. When she tries to reach Mederic's mind a clear affection develops between them, and this budding relationship offers few good solutions. Roy's novel is rife with sadness, but also with a sense of persistence. The desperate poverty of the 1930s immigrant prairie communities is brought into stark relief by Roy's prose; written in a lyrical style, she paints a dramatic picture.

Gabrielle Roy, Children of My Heart (McClelland and Stewart, 1979) ISBN: 0771075987

Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Tide, Feather, Snow

In the late 1990s Miranda Weiss moved from the continental US to Homer, Alaska. This memoir chronicles Weiss's first two years in Alaska, her relationship to the land, her boyfriend, and the difficult decision of whether to stay in Alaska. Weiss had always been fascinated with Alaska, and she had worked in the wilderness before, in remote areas of national parks. But none of this prepared her for the realities of Alaska. In this memoir Weiss weaves together discussion of the natural wonders and dangers of Alaska along with her own experiences of her new life. The dramatic tides, salmon migrations, and persistent dark of winter all make for more interesting writing than one might expect of a memoir that is heavily focused on climate and weather conditions. For those of us in the lower forty-eight, some of the conditions in Alaska are likely shocking. Weiss knew more than a few people who lived without running water and indoor toilets by choice. Weiss had to ski a half-mile to and from her car in the dead of winter, donning a headlamp. Most of us can't imagine this sort of life- I surely could not. Weiss also discusses the attitudes and assumptions of Alaskans- putting high premiums on time resided in the state. Alaska has always had a reputation as the last frontier, and Weiss's memoir proves that it is just as susceptible to the sort of mythology that has characterized other American frontiers. Perhaps significant is the myth of self-sufficiency. Weiss notes that a desire for simpler lives and self-sufficiency has drawn many to Alaska, but Alaska also has more federal government involvement than just about any other state, likewise, the resettlement of Americans from other states in Alaska means that record amounts of supplies have to be flown in to the state. The contradictions are interesting, and Weiss is clearly attuned to them. It took me a few chapters to get into this book, but it ultimately drew me in. I knew very little of Alaska and I found Weiss's descriptions engaging. She does an excellent job of conveying the extremes and dangers that shape everyday life in Alaska.

Miranda Weiss, Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska (Harper, 2009) ISBN: 0061710253

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: The Blue Notebook

This is a deeply sad book, and an engrossing book too. The story of a child prostitute in Mumbai, Bartuk was sold into slavery by her father, and taken from her family's countryside home to Mumbai's red light district. On the 'Common Street' that becomes Bartuk's home, the children are kept in cages barely large enough for movement. They are given barely enough food to sustain life. Most horrifically, they are expected to have sex with a dozen or so men every night. It is difficult to overstate the horrors of the Common Street, and Bartuk escapes the horrors of her life by writing in her diary, a blue notebook she must keep hidden. It would be easy to become engrossed in this book merely because of the shock value. Certainly the conditions are horrific, more so because Bartuk and her friends are composite characters based on children Levine met during travels in Mumbai. But there is more literary merit to this novel than just shock, and Levine has produced a compelling protagonist and engaging plot. Bartuk's writing and quick mind sometimes disguise her youth, but the reader is constantly reminded of her age by the series of euphemisms she has developed to refer to anatomy and sexual activity. The reader is intimately aware of the precariousness of Bartuk's situation, and one in which the reader is given no definitive ending. This seems appropriate, as Bartuk's life is so precarious, so too is her fate. This novel is not just a work of literature, it is also a call to action. Bartuk is only one of many, and the author makes clear his intention to donate proceeds to children's charities. Levine has crafted a moving and unforgettable character; her story is one that will not easily be forgotten.

James Levine, The Blue Notebook (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) ISBN: 038552871X

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: Small Island

Small Island tells the tale of two couples, one English, one Jamaican, whose lives interweave in surprising ways during and in the years following WWII. Queenie and Bernard Bligh are Londoners; Queenie is left behind when Bernard leaves to fight in India. Gilbert and Hortense Joseph are Jamaican. Gilbert comes to England to fight with the RAF, and in Gilbert prim and proper Hortense sees a ticket to the life in England of which she's dreamed. Fate first brings the two couples together, but this chance meeting cements their lives forever. Levy's novel switches among its four main characters in a series of chapters that span three continents. We hear from Queenie, Bernard, Gilbert, and Hortense. All of the characters find themselves dealing with the effects of war: Bernard and Gilbert as soldiers, Queenie in the midst of the London bombings and possible widowhood when Bernard disappears. For Hortense wartime cements her desire to create an English life and identity. But war also brings significant lessons on racism, empire, and what it means to live on a "small island," whether British or Jamaican. Levy does a good job portraying the horrors and deprivations of war. She moves easily among four very different characters, in different places. This is an accomplished saga of two families and their wartime experiences.
Andrea Levy, Small Island (Picador, 2004) ISBN: 0755325656
Orange Prize, 2004

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: Dancing Girls

In this short story collection Atwood explores the mindset of women in a variety of situations. From an isolated grad student to an expectant mother, to a severely disabled girl at summer camp, these stories find women in deceptively ordinary situations, each with a slight twist. This collection is comprised of stories written early in Atwood's career, and that is clearly reflected in the details. Several stories focus on academic environments, with graduate student characters. The protagonist in the collection's namesake, "Dancing Girls," a Canadian graduate student in Cambridge, certainly brings to mind Atwood's own time at Harvard. Together this collection explores the expectations that follow young women in the late-1970s: sometimes restrictive, sometimes depressing, always present.

Margaret Atwood, Dancing Girls, (Bantam, 1985) ISBN: 0553341154

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: The Tricking of Freya

Every summer of her childhood Freya Morris travels from her Connecticut home to the Manitoban resort town of Gimli. Gimli, an Icelandic-Canadian settlement, is home to Freya's entire maternal family. In Gimli Freya is immersed in the Icelandic culture her mother has neglected in their Connecticut life. Most appealing to Freya is time spent with her eccentric and troubled Aunt Birdie. As Freya grows older she learns Icelandic language and culture from Birdie. She also learns that Birdie is mentally ill, and can hurt those she loves on a whim. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book. I knew nothing about Icelandic literature and myth, and I learned a great deal from this book. I also knew very little about Iceland, and Sunley's descriptions of the landscape are rich and evocative. She clearly illustrates Iceland's primordial landscape-- one of volcanic plains, geysers, and glaciers. Sunley also does an excellent job creating an Icelandic community in Canada. Again, I knew nothing of Icelandic migration to Canada, or of Icelandic enclaves in the prairies. While I was able to predict the plot's twist long before it was revealed I still found the book to be both engaging and enjoyable. It brought me into a world of the unknown.

Like I Need More

I need to add more reading challenges to this blog approximately as much as I need to receive a kick in the teeth, but I'm easily tempted. I can be swayed to add on a reading challenge for all reasons including: sounds cool, I need to read more books on that topic, and my personal favorite: that's a mighty pretty icon. Thus, I am pleased to announce my latest reading challenge: the Southern Reading Challenge, hosted by Maggie Reads. To quote the host:

You may choose to read any style of Southern book such as Appalachian tales, Civil War sagas, Gothic myths, Grit lit, and heart-wrenching biographies. Click here for ideas. Just as long as you read three (fiction or nonfiction) between May 15th and August 15th.

So, three southern books by August 15. Got it. I lived in Virginia for seven years, and it definitely occupies a special place in my heart. Right now I'm considering:

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Florida)
Rita Mae Brown, Outfoxed (Virginia)
Gail Godwin, Evensong (North Carolina)

This is, of course, all subject to change.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: Outcasts United

Clarkston, Georgia: an Atlanta suburb, and a resettlement community for thousands of refugees from some of the most war-torn parts of the world. Outcasts United is the story of a youth soccer team (three teams, really) comprised of Clarkston's newest young residents. The teams, the Fugees, face nearly insurmountable odds. The players and their families have found themselves torn from home, in a foreign environment, with few resources. Backbreaking work schedules, few resources, and shell shock all haunt the resettled families of Clarkston. But many of the children from these families share a love of soccer. Under the direction of a dedicated coach, Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian woman looking to find her niche in the United States, the Fugees create a team, against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Fugees lack equipment and practice space, they also face significant opposition from the longtime residents of Clarkston, including the mayor and city council. Clarkston is clearly a town in transition, and one that is having a hard time handling that transition. In telling the story of Clarkston and the Fugees, St. John has crafted an engaging narrative that wraps hope and seeming hopelessness into a story in which its nearly impossible to not root for the kids. Throughout the book St. John remains sympathetic to all of the parties in the book. It's easy to cheer on the kids; the longtime residents of Clarkston are less sympathetic. Still, St. John does an admirable job of trying to understand the myriad of problems Clarkston's mayor, in particular, tries to manage as he deals with a growing population with diverse needs. This is a story about a community, but it is also important to note that this is a story about a soccer team too. For those who are not terribly interested in soccer (such as myself), I did find there to be quite a bit of discussion of the sport- the plays maneuvers used during the games. This I did not care for quite as much, and found myself thumbing forward a few pages for most of the in-depth discussions of game time. That said, there is still much here to interest the general reader of literary non-fiction. I was taken with the Fugees' story, and I am certain many other readers will be too.

Warren St. John, Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town (Spiegel and Grau, 2009) ISBN: 0385522037

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review: A Fine of 200 Francs

This is a series of stories about the men and women of the French resistance. Triolet secretly published this book during the war, and thus is not merely a chronicle of, but also part of the actual fight against Nazi occupation. Triolet tells stories of men and women who found themselves, either by choice or necessity, engaged with the resistance movement. Given the subject matter, it likely comes as no surprise that these are haunting stories. They are extremely atmospheric: cold, hunger, uncertainty, all are omnipresent in these tales, and are vividly presented to the reader. While these sensory experiences are so vivid, other things have been normalized. Some privations have been so normalized that they pass with minimal comment. Because this was published during wartime by the underground press there are elements of wartime culture Triolet never fully explains. While these must have been self-evident in 1944, they are not necessarily so in 2009. That said, this was a very interesting look at the day-to-day operations of the resistance movement.

Elsa Triolet, A Fine of 200 Francs (Virago, 1986) ISBN: 0140161341

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Review: Generation X

This book was supposed to be the defining statement of a generation. That said, I enjoyed it less than some of Coupland's other work. This is the story of disaffected twenty-somethings who've found that life has little to offer them except escalating home prices, creeping commercialism, and what one can only describe as middle-class ennui. So, they escape to the desert, work minimum-wage jobs, and entertain one another telling stories. All of the stories highlight the emptiness that defines the characters' lives. I'm not entirely sure why I found this less fulfilling than other of Coupland's works. Perhaps it's because I was born at the tail end of Generation X, so these sentiments were hardly revolutionary to me. Perhaps the nearly twenty years that have passed since its first publication have seen the sentiments assimilated into mainstream culture (irony noted.) Whatever it is, I have enjoyed other of Coupland's works far more.

Douglas Coupland, Generation X (St. Martins, 1999) ISBN: 031205436X

Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Unless

This book is the story of a mother's despair when she discovers her daughter has chosen to leave her comfortable, suburban existence and live on the street. Reta Winters is devastated to discover that her daughter Norah is spending her days on a Toronto street corner holding a sign that says "goodness." Her nights are spent in a shelter. Unless enters the interior world of a mother. We learn all of Reta's thoughts; what we learn very little of is Norah herself. Norah is arguably the most interesting character in the book. Instead we get Reta, reminiscing and thinking about all of the elements of her life, her marriage, and her children. Reta has spent her professional life translating the works of French feminist philosopher Danielle Westerman, and writing a chick lit novel of her own. We hear quite a bit about both the novel (which has a sequel in progress) and Westerman. This is far too much for a fictional philosopher whose contribution is never all that well explained, and novels are not especially interesting. Ultimately, Shields never really made me care about any of the characters except Norah, of whom I consistently wanted to hear more. This is one of those book where I suspect there are deeper things going on with the writing, but I simply couldn't engage enough to really investigate them.

Carol Shields, Unless (Random House Canada, 2003) ISBN: 0679311807

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: Dragonwell Dead

I should start by stating that I am clearly not the intended audience for this sort of book. I read this book for the "tea" category in my 999 Challenge. This is the first book I've read in the "cozy mystery" genre, and everything about it was just a bit too cute for my taste. Much of the plot was highly improbable. The basic plot involves tea shop owner Theodosia Browning trying to figure out why a local orchid aficionado dropped dead immediately after winning a rare specimen at an orchid auction. There's not much else to say about the plot, so I'll get on to the elements I found unbelievable or troublesome. First, the prose is chock-full of description that seems to serve little purpose. Second, there's really no character development. The characters are entirely one-dimensional. Third, the elements of the story and completely implausible. What police chief allows a random civilian to drop off key evidence in a homicide investigation to him at her convenience? Finally, all the extraneous elements of the story are just a bit too perfect. Everything is the best and the nicest.- the nicest tea shop, the most popular bed and breakfast. The tea shop has an unflappable chef who can always make just the most perfect pastries. All this saccharine is more than a little tiresome. Nowhere have I seen a discussion (and an extensive discussion, at that) of a community of small businesses that suffer from none of the concerns endemic to business owners. Ultimately this was a quick read, but I got little out of the experience.
Laura Childs, Dragonwell Dead: A Tea Shop Mystery (Berkley, 2008) ISBN: 0425220451

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review: Lark Rise to Candleford

Written in the 1940s, this semi-fictional account of the Oxfordshire villages Lark Rise and Candleford looks back at the 1880s, a time of transition in the English countryside. Work, social relationships, home life, schooling- all of these things changed in the last years of the 19th c. Thompson examines these changes through the story of Laura, a girl who comes of age in the 1880s and 90s. But truly, in this work Laura's story takes a back seat to description. Thompson is clearly using this book to capture a lost world, and the book includes whole chapters describing the countryside and the traditions of its people. The writing is almost anthropological. While the description is interesting, and it is a very easy read, I found myself longing for more plot, more discussion of what happened to Laura. I also found that the book seemed to romanticize what must have been, by all accounts, grinding poverty. That said, the descriptions Thompson offers are engaging and vibrant, and the book is a quick, and dare I say, relaxing, read.

Flora Thompson, Lark Rise to Candleford (Crown, 1984) ISBN: 0140074546

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review: Tender Grace

Take an unimaginative plot, add clunky writing, and the result is a book that is very difficult to read for extended periods. That's precisely what we have here. Widow Audrey Eaton is having a hard time dealing with the death of her husband Tom. Two years after his death she is still staying in the house watching hour upon hour of television. To try and deal with her grief she decides to take an extended trip west. Along the way she meets some "interesting" characters and starts to notice some "tender graces," as she calls them, which gradually reshape her outlook on life. The book is written as a day-to-day account of Audrey's trip. Though this is a slender volume, it was extremely difficult for me to finish, as it suffers from several significant flaws. First, the plot is entirely predictable. Throughout the book I knew exactly where the story was going. Second, the characters in the story were entirely unbelievable. Audrey and Tom Eaton are apparently people without flaws (unless you count grief as a flaw, which is all the character development Stark allows Audrey). They produced perfect children, and have perfect friends. It's difficult to invest much sympathy or interest in characters like these. Third, the writing is clunky and awkward. The prose is littered with pop culture references, including, but not limited to, Stacey and Clinton of What Not to Wear, Law and Order, and more. The prose is generally sophomoric in tone. Ultimately I couldn't recommend this book. There must be better fictional accounts of grief than this.

Jackina Stark, Tender Grace (Bethany House, 2009) ISBN: 0764205757

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Compass Points Challenge

And another! I loved the sound of this challenge, so I've decided to add this one in too. Running from March 1 through August 31, 2009, the rules are as follows:

Between March 1, 2009 and August 31, 2009, you must read one book each with a title echoing the four main compass points: North, South, East, and West. These can be from any genre, fiction or non-fiction but they must have the word north, south, east, or west in the title.

Here's what I'm thinking thus far:

North: By the North Gate by Joyce Carol Oates
East: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
South: Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France by Nicholas Delbanco
West: West with the Night by Beryl Markham

These are, of course, subject to change.

Classics Challenge

I've decided to join the Classics Challenge because, quite frankly, I need to read more of them. The rules are as follows:

Classics: We love them, we hate them, now we are going to challenge ourselves to read more of them.

**Choose Your Level
1. Classics Snack - Read FOUR classics
2. Classics Entree - Read FIVE classics
3. Classics Feast - Read SIX classics

I will be going for the classics snack, as I am not entirely sure how much of an appetite I will have, and at least one of my choices is quite long. Here's what I'm thinking about:

John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

This list is, of course, subject to change.

This whole event goes from April 1-October 31, 2009.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: The Culture of Fear

This book focuses on the sort of public media scares that have, and continue to, grip the American public. It argues that not only are these episodes of mass hysteria completely unfounded, they are actively detrimental to the American population. From fears of car-jacking and plane crashes to those of silicone breast implants and unwed teenage mothers, Glassner uncovers significant evidence that these threats were grossly overblown, even in the face of hard countervailing evidence. So, that raises the question of how these non-issues become the basis for widespread fear. On this Glassner is clear. He places the blame squarely on the media and lobby groups. The frequency and the tone with which the media presents scare stories leads to their power and proliferation. Glassner certainly shows the existence of significant scares, and offers compelling evidence that many of these were overblown. As for Glassner's second contention, that these fears are actively hurting Americans, his claims are not uniformly sound. One of the strongest parts of this book is Glassner's discussion of the ways in which unreasonable fears perpetuate racism against young black men. Many are well aware of the failures of the heavily-funded war on drugs, and how the conditions of poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity are completely ignored. But some of Glassner's claims are just as far-fetched as the media events he studies. Claiming that airline crash hysteria is dangerous because people who might fly would otherwise engage in the more dangerous activity of driving is specious at best. The bulk of this book is a series of topical chapters on various hysterias. In his conclusion Glassner addresses the question of why Americans are so susceptible to these scares. Here, Glassner points to one of the phenomena that has defined the lives of Americans in the second half of the twentieth century: celebration of the culture of experts. Each of these scare campaigns gained legitimacy through public pronouncements made by those who appear to be knowledgeable experts. Each of these campaigns has loud, publicly-oriented experts of its own. And experts seem reliable. Herein lies the danger. Professionalization began in the United States in the 19th c., as practitioners in certain fields sought the hallmarks of professionalism: standards, limited entry, national organizations, and peer review. In the wake of WWII, as American culture celebrated higher education, especially science, Americans came to respect, even celebrate the culture of experts. They sought experts to analyze and improve all areas of their lives. The very standards of education and professionalization suggested that expert opinion was trustworthy, that it was best. This very trust has allowed for the manipulation of the American public. In a culture in which expert opinion is revered, and the very fact of expert status suggests qualification, it becomes difficult to determine what is reasonable trust and what is not. In seeing Glassner's conclusions, it becomes clear that one of the problems is surely too much news. With 24-hour news channels, programs like Dateline on television every night of the week, all of this airtime has to be filled with something. This creates an atmosphere ripe for exploitation. This book certainly made me think, however, I suspect Glassner might be preaching to the choir. People who are reading academic sociology are likely not the same people who drink up hours of sensationalist news without a second thought.
Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic, 2000) ISBN: 0465014909

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review: Knockemstiff

This collection of short stories details the lives of the residents of the southern Ohio town of Knockemstiff. A working class region of Appalachia, each story details the life of one of the residents of Knockemstiff. What these people share is few opportunities, a world full of frustrated violence, and the hope-crushing realities of poverty. There's much that's depressing about Knockemstiff, Ohio. Characters with good hearts repeatedly find themselves trampled by others' greed and violence. Knockemstiff is a tough and lonely town, and yet, this is a collection of stories well worth reading. Pollock's characterizations are deep and complex. This is a world foreign to many of us, but one effectively created by Pollock.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: Sloth

This book is one of seven in a series on the seven deadly sins. Originating in a series of lectures, Oxford University Press has published them. This volume consists of Wendy Wasserstein's musings on sloth. Written as a parody of a self-help book, Wasserstein tells us that sloth is the new route to health and happiness. This is a funny book. Wasserstein is a comic talent, and she shows it here. Wasserstein mocks the impulsive culture of diet and self-improvement, but there is a serious side to her critique as well. In her last chapter, Uber-Sloths, Wasserstein dishes out some directed criticism at people who do a whole lot of nothing. The people who race from gym to group to meeting to engagement, enjoying none of it, and all for the sake of being so important as to be busy. This book is a quick read that made me laugh, and also made me nod in agreement.
Wendy Wasserstein, Sloth (Oxford, 2005) ISBN: 0195312090

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review: Crazy

These autobiographical novel recounts the school days of young Benjamin Lebert: disabled, facing his parents' divorce, failing out of school, and shipped away from his native Munich to boarding school. We see Lebert's coming of age and dealing with the trials of adolescence in boarding school. Lebert shares the loneliness of boarding school life with his fellow students, and they quickly form intense bonds. The book puts in stark relief all the hopes and fears a world of teenagers can produce. Ultimately, this is a touching look at teenage life.

Benjamin Lebert, Crazy (Vintage, 2001) ISBN: 0375409130

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

This is an utterly bizarre and tremendously enjoyable read. This novel follows a summer in the lives of professional idler Ebin Willoweed and his family: the perennially unhappy and tyrannical Grandmother Willoweed, the family servants, and Ebin's three children, including the daughter who is clearly the product of her mother's affair, as she is half black, and Ebin Willoweed is not. One might think that this forms the storyline, but it does not. Hattie Willoweed is completely accepted by family and community. Her mother's infidelity adds a layer to the already dysfunctional antics of the Willoweeds. The real story is miserable plague, which follows close on the heels of a flood. As villagers become horribly ill then commit suicide in fits of fury, it becomes clear that something strange is afflicting the town. Comyns recounts for us what happens to the undeniably bizarre Willoweeds in a bizarre set of circumstances. The consequences are bittersweet and surprising. I stayed up late reading this book- it really kept my attention, and I read it all in one sitting.

Barbara Comyns, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Penguin, 1987) ISBN: 0140161589

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review: Tea: The Essence of the Leaf

If you're at all "in" to tea then you probably already know most of the information contained in this book. This is a basic primer on tea: how it's grown, processed, prepared, and enjoyed. Scattered throughout this information literary passages relating to tea, recipes that incorporate tea, and absolutely beautiful photographs. Indeed, the photographs are essential to enjoyment of the book. I would recommend this book to someone who's just gaining an interest in tea and wants a one-stop source for basic information. Tea aficionados will likely find little they don't already know, though the recipes do sound good, and I'm planning to try some of them.

Sara Slavin and Karl Petzke, Tea: The Essence of the Leaf (Chronicle Books, 1998) ISBN: 081181632X

Monday, February 2, 2009

Review: The Clever Woman of the Family

This book has many of the elements of a classic Victorian novel. There's the long-suffering, nearly saintly invalid. There's a helpless widow, and there's a buffoonish curate. And most importantly, there's an independent-leaning woman whose spunk and desire for knowledge make her foolish. In Yonge's novel we enter the world of Rachel Curtis, the so-named "clever woman," who loves to read the latest tract on educational theory, and hopes some day to put them into practice for the benefit of local youth. But Rachel is also a provincial daughter, and there are few opportunities for an independent and knowledge-hungry woman in the provinces in 1865. Rachel disagrees strongly with women acting flighty and foolish for the benefit of suitors or the clergy. What Rachel values is substance, but she finds little of it in her provincial surroundings. Those around Rachel see her as arrogant and foolish. When Rachel is finally given the opportunity to put her theories into practice, the consequences are more devastating and far-reaching than anyone could have imagined. As I began this book I presumed it was a comedy of manners, but as I got deeper in, I discovered that the book is more than that. The themes are much darker, and consequences more surprising than that. Yonge has drawn some compelling characters in this novel, but there were parts of this story that fell flat. Rachel's mother is the fussiest of Victorian ladies, and we see just how limited that lives of Victorian women like Rachel were. Rachel's ultimate fate will likely not surprise most modern readers, but getting there takes twists and turns I certainly wasn't expecting.

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family (Penguin, orig. pub. 1865, 1986) ISBN: 014016149X

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Tea Bliss

I read this book for my 999 Challenge, as I have a tea category. Tea isn't just my favorite beverage, it's become a passion. I love trying new blends and harvests, expanding my tea palette. Thus, I'm excited to read more about tea. I began my tea reading with Theresa Cheung's Tea Bliss: Infuse Your Life with Health, Wisdom and Contentment. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Possibly the most important thing to state for potential readers of this book is that this is not a book about tea. Rather, it's a self-help book that's masquerading as a tea book. There's precious little information about tea in here, but more on that later. The basic premise of the book is that ideas and principles of tea can be used to affect positive change in your life. Each of these principles comprises a chapter (or "nourishing blend" to use the author's lexicon) and is linked with a similar principle that one can apply to one's life. Some of them sort of work, for example, not all tea should be brewed with boiling water is paired with the idea that living in a constant state of stress is toxic. Other of the principles, however, seem to bear little resemblance to the tea principle in question. Make sure each cup you serve has the same taste and temperature doesn't seem to bear a strong resemblance to seeking balance in life. And that particular point leads to one of the larger issues in the book. There are a wealth of inaccuracies and misinformation concerning tea in these pages. In a number of cases the author states things that are wrong or unresearched. Making sure each cup of tea has the same flavor every time? Most frequent drinkers of green and white teas are well aware that these teas stand up to, and indeed are expected, to go through multiple steepings (particularly if brewing with a gaiwan), and the entire point of the multiple steepings is that the flavors change slightly with each. A number of other examples are found in the health benefits of tea chapter. The author refers to rooibos as "the only naturally caffeine-free black tea." Sorry, but no. Rooibos is an entirely different plant. It does not come from the Camiellia Sinesis plant; it is not black tea. Or what about "lemon tea," which the author describes as "mainly sugar with tea solids." Ummmmm, does she mean Nestea? Seriously? In a book about making and enjoying tea? She refers to it as energizing, in a chapter on tea and health no less. At this point I've started to wonder how much of the issue is bad writing, and how much is lack of knowledge. I suspect there's some of both. The author's bio indicates that she has written other self-help books, but there's not much I can praise on the self-help side either. Most of the suggestions are basic, standard, self-help filler (the challenges and disappointments give life texture, seek balance, etc. etc. etc.) In sum, the tea theme is never well-wedded to the self-help content of this book, making it seem contrived at best. The research, factual, and writing problems only add to the more fundamental problems. The one positive thing I can say about this book is that the pictures are beautiful, but beyond that, there is little to recommend here.

Theresa Cheung, Tea Bliss: Infuse Your Life with Health, Wisdom, and Contentment (Corgi, 2007) ISBN: 157324211X

Cross-posted to the 999 Challenge Blog

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Review: A Virtuous Woman

Gibbons's novel, a novella, really, is the story of a southern woman's relationships and the profound effect she has on those close to her. Born to a privileged family, Ruby Pitt enters first a disastrous, then a profoundly loving marriage. Though these relationships move her squarely into the working class, we see that love triumphs over class, status, and lineage. Told in alternating chapters by Ruby and her husband, Jack, at the time surrounding her early death from cancer, the book relates the history of Ruby and Jack's relationship. This is not a plot-driven, so much as an emotion-driven book. A beautiful, quick read, I couldn't help but feel deeply for Ruby, and especially for Jack.

I read this book as part of the 2008 2nds Challenge. I'd previously read Sights Unseen, which is still my favorite, but this was an enjoyable read too.

Kaye Gibbons, A Virtuous Woman (Vintage, 1997) ISBN: 0375703063

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review: Hidden Carolinas

Here we have a new edition of Catherine O'Neal's Hidden Carolinas, one of Ulysses Press' Hidden travel series. Moving from western Carolina east, and then south, this book covers both North and South Carolina. This is a comprehensive travel guide, in that it covers lodging, attractions, restaurants, shopping, driving routes: a bit of everything that might concern the traveler. That said, the book focuses heavily on attractions. Indeed, this is a guide that is unapologetic about uneven coverage. There is more on North Carolina than South Carolina, and far more on the western portion of NC than the eastern. Unsurprisingly, I found the section on western NC to be the strongest. The guide also has a clear focus on outdoor activities, in keeping, on assumes, with the 'hidden' theme. The 'hidden' theme means coverage of essentially, what one might expect- hidden gems and attractions that don't draw huge crowds. These listings are included with more popular attractions. Clearly, this is a smart move, as most people are not looking to buy multiple travel guides for a particular region. Thus, coverage in this guide is good, though it clearly weighted towards certain things. The one thing that might keep me from buying this guide is the fact that it's printed on newsprint-like paper, in black, white, and green. There are approximately fifteen pages of photos at the beginning of the book, but in travel books I prefer photos throughout, in the chapters that describe the places in question. Overall, this is a solid travel guide. I'm not sure that much distinguishes it from other guides, but it gets the job done.

This book was received through Mini Book Expo for Bloggers. Thanks to Ulysses Press.

Catherine O'Neal, Hidden Carolinas (Ulysses, 2008) ISBN: 1569756384