Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: The Mapmaker's Wife by Robert Whitaker


Subtitled A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon, this is not the sensationally lurid read that it might appear. Using the story of Isabel Grameson Godin, the gently reared South American wife of a French geographer who makes a treacherous and seemingly impossible journey through the amazon to re-join her husband on the other side of the continent as a frame, this is actually far more about the political and scientific basis for the expedition for which Jean Godin worked than it is about Isabel's journey.

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a time when highly respected scientists argued over the shape of the earth and how to measure latitude. In the 1720's this very debate was raging though and the most respected scientists of the day chose sides, defending their positions virulently. Did the earth bulge at the poles and cinch in at the equator or did it bulge slightly at the equator and how in the world could either of these theories be tested? Enter the French Academy and the team of geographers they assembled and sent off to what is now Ecuador in an effort to map the region and prove the shape of the Earth decisively.

Whitaker details the scientific background and the political climate both in Europe and in South America as backdrop to the story of the La Condamine expedition. This takes up a large chunk of the book, as do the methods and actual events of the expedition. Aside from in the opening chapter, it is only late in the tale that Isabel and her determination to rejoin her beloved husband enter into the recounting.

The scientific expedition is quite interesting itself and incredibly impressive given their meticulous and still accurate measurements but I thought I was going to be reading a book with the bulk accounted for by the true tale of a gently bred woman's impossible trek through the dangerous amazon. When Isabel became the focus, late in the book, this is what I found but her story, perhaps from lack of historical textual evidence, only makes up a tiny portion of the narrative.

Ironically, having recently read of Teddy Roosevelt's trip down an amazon tributary (see The River of Doubt), the natural history of the area and its flora and fauna struck me as repetitive. This is not a fault of the book itself, but rather of the strange synchronicity of my reading. Unfortunately it did impact my enjoyment. I also found myself having to re-read some of the scientific sections of the story because my head clearly checked out in the midst of them. Perhaps a more scientifically-minded reader would have been riveted but I must admit to a bit of boredom and the desire for a tad bit more summarizing. Well-written and historically accurate though it was, I had hoped for a more engrossing narrative of a different sort.

Giveaway: Day 2


Welcome to day #2 of the BookNAround giveaway week and today's book up for grabs: The $64 Tomato by William Alexander. I dug around in my own personal stacks to find today's book. And since I am sending it myself, this one will be open to folks all over the globe.

Here's amazon's take on this book:
When the author of this hilarious horticultural memoir plants a large vegetable garden and a small orchard on his Hudson Valley farmstead, he finds himself at odds with almost all creation. At the top of the food chain are the landscaping contractors, always behind schedule, frequently derelict, occasionally menacing. Then there are the herds of deer that batter the electrified fence to get at Alexander's crop, and the groundhog who simply squeezes between the wires, apparently savoring the 10,000-volt shocks. Most insidious are the armies of beetles, worms, maggots and grubs that provoke Alexander, initially an organic-produce zealot, into drenching his entire property with pesticides. He braves these trials, along with hours of backbreaking labor and the eye-rolling of his wife and children, for the succulence of homegrown food. He also manages to maintain a sense of humor, riffing on everything from the ugliness of garden ornaments to the politics of giving away vegetables to friends. Alexander's slightly poisoned paradise manages to impart an existential lesson on the interconnectedness of nature and the fine line between nurturing and killing.

In order to enter yourself in the giveaway for this previously enjoyed book do any or all of the following:

Leave a comment on this post.
Become a follower (or remind me that you already follow).
Blog or twitter about this giveaway and leave me a link.
Make sure to leave a way for me to contact you.

One lucky winner will be chosen on July 10th.

And since this is now two non-fiction books in a row, check back tomorrow for a fiction giveaway. Happy entering.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Lemonade stands


This lemonade stand phenomenon might just bankrupt me. I don't know if it's just that we live in the perfect neighborhood or if it's the entrepreneurial kiddie version of gracious, Southern entertaining genes but lemonade stands seem to spring up every few days around here. I have taken to not giving up my change at stores so I have some on hand for the ubiquitous 50 cent pure sugar lemonades I have to purchase on my trips in or out of the neighborhood. With what I've spent on single, sticky drinks so far, I could have bought stock in Country Time and seen a return on my investment (ok, maybe not a return in this economy but it would seem to be a good choice in my long-term stock portfolio given the sheer amount being bought here for purposes of the lemonade stand).

Why might you ask, am I forking over money each and every time I pass a stand? Well, with three children of my own, there's a darn good chance that one of the three is involved in the small business opportunity and if I don't support friends and family, who will? Furthermore, it keeps them out of my hair since school's out. Besides, how many hours can you really spend at the pool before you have second degree burns? According to W., who did burn himself this badly already this year, that number is somewhat under six hours a day. Given that we currently have more than 12 hours of sunlight, this leaves more than 6 hours during which time we should be avoiding the pool. Besides, paying my kids for lemonade is far less costly mentally than plunking them in front of the tv for 6 or more hours a day.

I have enjoyed hearing about all the things that the money earned at these stands will finance. Some have been charity events. Two of my three children helped at the stand benefiting the Humane Society (total donation made: somewhere in the neighborhood of $30). All three of my children helped with the stand that benefited the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society when I was fundraising for my marathon last year. There have been other cancer fundraisers as well.

Today's lemonade stand was something else entirely though. It was one straight out of my childhood: strictly benefiting the children running it. And yes, one of my greedy, little, capitalist offspring was involved. Actually, it was designed to help fund the building of a clubhouse (will believe that when I see it) and the greedy one was sucked into service at the stand by the promise that he will be a charter member. This is all the more appealing because T. is only 7 and the other boys are 11 and 12. T. would do just about anything he can physically pull off in order to be included with the older boys. I figure it's a fair trade though as the older boys get appealingly cute slave labor, which is especially good when you are trying to sell something, and then are saddled with his frank, extremely chatty, and literal self whenever they play outside forever hereafter. Plus it kept him busy and the tv off. Win, win. Totally win.

Even better, by the time I drove home (after promising to buy lemonade on the return trip since I was running late to take R. and another little dancer to lunch between their rehearsals), they had run out of lemonade and I was spared a syrupy sweet drink, at least for today.

Review: Perfection by Julie Metz


Is it shallow of me to admit that I was first attracted to this book by the simply gorgeous cover? I hope not given that Metz is a graphic designer who designed her own book cover. The exposed stamen and pistil against the blood red tulip petals turn out to be very evocative of the book itself, subtitled "A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal." The story of Metz's marriage and discovery of her husband's infidelities after his unexpected death, this is indeed Metz's life laid open to scrutiny.

Opening with husband Henry's death from a pulmonary embolism, the reader follows Metz as she wades through the fog of sudden widowhood and learning to parent a young child alone. She puts off dealing with the realities of having lost the husband she loved so deeply, instead trying to reach for life and vibrancy. This works until she is ready to tackle Henry's life, when she is drawn up short, discovering that he was a serial cheater, having had numerous affairs throughout their marriage. As she works through her rage at this discovery, she discovers something even more damaging. Henry's longest standing affair was with a friend of Metz's and the mother of their daughter's best friend. Six months after Henry's death, still processing the demise of her husband and the marriage she clearly didn't know as well as she thought she did, she must also face this betrayal by a close friend. She searches out as many of Henry's former mistresses as she can, wanting to understand her own marriage through the lens of their relationships with her lost boy husband.

Metz is brutally honest about her reactions to news of Henry's infidelities and she doesn't sugar coat her feelings about the women, especially her former friend, who chose to take Henry into their beds. She rages and screams and acts out and starts to understand what made Henry who he was. In several surprising cases, not only does she reach out to these former mistresses, but she comes to actually like them, developing a sort of friendly relationship with them herself. She doesn't absolve Henry of his wrongs nor does she absolve the women, but her seeking and ultimate forgiveness are necessary for her to move on in her life.

This memoir is raw and moving and loaded with uncomfortable feeling but it is all the more powerful for that. There is no sense that Metz has downplayed events to make herself look better, just a sense of forthrightness and honesty. There were definitely parts that left me uncomfortable with Metz's choices (her affair with a friend soon after Henry's death being one instance) but without having experienced not only the loss of a spouse but the loss of everything that was once believed to be true of my life makes it harder for me to judge her actions. This reads like the best stories: unexpected and fascinating and it is only when you stop to remember that this is someone's life, and lived painfully at that, that you feel a sense of guilt for being so caught up in the twists and turns. But you will find yourself caught up in both the carnage and the renewal. A wonderful, fast-reading, completely engrossing find for this memoir fan.

Giveaway: Day 1


As promised, here's the giveaway for a good seven days of giveaways here on BookNAround. In honor of the upcoming movie: Hatchette is allowing me to give away five copies of Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. I read this last year (when I was in a reviewing slump, I might add so no review for it) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am looking forward to seeing the movie and am pleased as punch that I can offer five of you who haven't yet experienced this entertaining read a chance to read the book as well. Sorry, movie tickets will not accompany your book should you be one of the lucky winners.

For those you who don't know the premise of this fun narrative non-fiction book, here's amazon's blurb:

Julie & Julia, the bestselling memoir that's "irresistible....A kind of Bridget Jones meets The French Chef" (Philadelphia Inquirer), is now a major motion picture. Julie Powell, nearing thirty and trapped in a dead-end secretarial job, resolves to reclaim her life by cooking in the span of a single year, every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child's legendary Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her unexpected reward: not just a newfound respect for calves' livers and aspic, but a new life-lived with gusto. The film is written and directed by Nora Ephron and stars Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl Streep as Julia.

And now for the rules:

US and Canada only
No PO Boxes
One entry for commenting on this post.
One entry for following me.
One entry for blogging or tweeting this giveaway (be sure to let me know you've done this by posting a link).
Winner will be chosen the morning of July 9th (provided my plane gets in on time).


Come back tomorrow for Giveaway: Day 2. And as added interest, tomorrow's giveaway will be an international one from my own stacks.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading This Week?


I haven't participated in this meme hosted by J. Kaye at J. Kaye's Book Blog before but have seen it through the weeks on others' blogs. I thought I'd play along this week and see if it inspires me to get through some of the longer lingering books in the "in progress" pile so I don't have to post about them again next week. We'll see if it works for me or not!

Books I completed this week are:

The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell
The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand
How Perfect Is That by Sarah Bird
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Napoleon by Gideon Defoe
Time Stops For No Mouse by Michael Hoeye
Ooh La la! by Robin Wells

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner
As Sure As the Sun by Anna McPartlin
A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird
Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
Instances of the Number 3 by Salley Vickers
What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin
The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale
Divided Lives by Elsa Walsh

Reviews posted this week:

Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Looking After Pigeon by Maud Carol Markson
The Cat Who Covered the World by Christopher Wren

I have 12 books still awaiting review (including this past week's six books). Seeing these lists (have I mentioned I love making lists?!), it's no wonder I am behind. I read 6 or so books a week and yet only write 4 or fewer reviews. Hmmmm. Must work on this! With luck, next week will have a better ratio--and not because I stop reading entirely.

Monday Mailbox


I know we're leaving on vacation soon and in the interest of trying not to spring the shocks on the car, it's probably a good thing that this past week added very little to my piles! I did still get a few to add a little weight to the ole minivan though.

How Perfect Is That by Sarah Bird
I discovered Sarah Bird many years ago so I was thrilled to be offered this book for a blog tour. Look for my review soon! From amazon:
In the latest from seasoned Texan social satirist Bird (The Flamenco Academy, etc.), Blythe Young's recent divorce from Trey Dix has left her outside the protective bubble of Austin's high society. As her catering business goes broke and the IRS starts to chase her down, Blythe seeks a haven at Seneca House, the housing co-op where she lived 10 years ago during college. There, she must face Millie Ott, one of many friends Blythe shucked off in a frenzy of social climbing. Once portly Millie is now slender and, as a perfect foil for Blythe, also saintly: she delivers aid to the homeless by way of a tandem recumbent bike (which Blythe names the dorkocycle). At Seneca House, Blythe tries to make amends with people she's stepped on, to avoid the IRS, and to kick both a lingering drug habit and an addiction to scamming people into helping her out. She slowly starts to wins over the affection of her housemates until one of her unthinking decisions brings potential ruin on the co-op's financial well-being. The result is a laugh-out-loud addition to Bird's long line of estrogen-fueled dramedies.

Hollywood Is Like High School With Money by Zoey Dean
As a former nerd in high school myself (anyone from my high school years wanting to comment and disagree is welcome to do so-- ::sound of crickets chirping::--yeah, I expected that), I thought this was an inventive sort of premise. From amazon:
Dean delivers another pop artifact in her latest riff on the Gossip Girl generation, this time dressing up the goings-on with a very Devil Wears Prada vibe. Landing a job as second assistant to Iris Whitaker, a Metronome Studios hotshot, sounds like a dream come true for Ohio native Taylor Henning, who naturally wants to make it big in Hollywood. But this fish out of water needs to learn quickly how to swim with the sharks, as Iris's first assistant, Kylie Arthur, would prefer she drowns. Thankfully, a fairy godmother appears in the fierce form of Quinn, Iris's 16-year-old daughter, who suggests Taylor follow her surefire high school rules: fake it till you make it; speak up in class; make one cool friend; and realize lunch is a battleground. But there are unforeseen consequences for Taylor, who remembers some age-old advice just in time. It's a slick little novel: catty, glitzy and just mean enough.

The Texicans by Nina Vida
This is a bit different than my normal reads but when the author offered it to me, something about it intrigued me. Amazon describes it:
Vida's luminous, dramatic seventh novel finds Joseph Kimmel, a Missouri school teacher, heading to mid-19th-century Texas to claim his recently deceased brother's belongings; he's left for dead when his horse is stolen. Across the plains, after her Texas Ranger husband dies fighting Comanches, Aurelia Ruiz takes refuge at a Comanche camp and adopts their ways. Henry Castro, a Frenchman with dreams of creating an Alsatian-immigrant–populated town in his own name, not only rescues Kimmel but marries him off to Katrin, an unattached white √©migr√© whom a Comanche leader had espied and wanted for his own. The newlyweds head off to create a distinctive ranch, one that welcomes members of the Tonkaway tribe, Mexicans, escaped slaves, free African-Americans and others in distress. Affairs of the heart are never neglected in Vida's novels (Goodbye, Saigon, etc.), and Kimmel soon finds himself enraptured when he meets the beautiful Aurelia, just as a posse of xenophobic ranchers wreak havoc on the ranch. This radiant work of historical fiction—vibrantly atmospheric and emotionally dense—spans 12 years in the lives of many engaging characters, who come to life on every page.

As always, if you'd like to check out the goodies that other people found in their mailboxes, check out The Printed Page where Marcia kindly hosts this meme every week.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Salon: The true start to summer and well traveled books


When does summer start? Does it start when the calendar hit June 21? Does it start when the pool opens on Memorial Day? Does it start when the temperature hits 70 or 80 or 90? Does it start when the bus disgorges the kids for the last time? For me, these are all harbingers of summer but summer truly starts for me when we head to our cottage up north. And heading on vacation always brings the book lover's biggest dilemma. Which books should be tucked into the crannies in the suitcases?

In my case, I am lucky in that I generally don't have to be too picky. We drive to the cottage and I set up my own little summer library in the drawers and under my bed and happily pull from this stash all summer long. But this summer there's a wrench in my usual plans. Because of R.'s dancing schedule, we will only have about 6 days at the cottage before she and I will have to come home for more rehearsals and Nationals. We will drive up, as usual, so I can stuff as many books into the minivan as the shocks can absorb but when she and I come home, we will be flying and the airlines do that mean and nasty checked bag fee (I won't even mention the overweight fee but sheesh, don't they know that books are heavy? I mean, duh!) so I'm facing a dilemma of financial proportions. Color me grumpy. We will be heading back to the cottage eventually so I don't have to bring everything home on the first swing.

The problem, and non-book folks will never relate to this, is that I want to take all of my intended summer reads with me on the first trip north so that I have all the choices I want that first week. But then I have to bring enough books back with me to keep me occupied during the 2-3 weeks I'm back here (not that my home library--minus the summer reads--isn't extensive enough to offer many a delightful diversion during that time but that's not my plan) and I'd prefer they be books I've earmarked for summer reading plus they have to fit in a carry-on bag or I have to fork over money to get them home. Oh to have such a silly, non-essential worry in your life, right? But it is perplexing to me.

I know that all review books will be heading north with me and any books I finish will be returning with me on the first trip but beyond that I am undecided what to take with me, what to leave, and what will be going up, coming back, going up, and coming back. Want to know a secret though? The hours I have so far spent pondering this have all been pretty darn enjoyable. Completely unproductive but enjoyable anyway.

And while I have made and re-made my travel lists, I did some more wonderful traveling through some books that no longer need to be considered for this vacation. This past week I watched in amusement when a pig unearthed a corpse in an Irish garden and everyone seemed to have a motive for doing the decedent in but a blarney tale explaining why the murderer was someone else. I witnessed the effects two drowning deaths had on a group of friends in Nantucket. I stood by as a former Austin socialite learned what real friendship is all about. I aarrr'ed with the Pirate Captain and his crew as he and Napoleon tried to outdo one another at every trun. I thought about a dashing mouse aviatrix and the sinister mystery surrounding her disappearance. And I was a voyeur on a movie set in New Orleans' fabled Storyville as the film's prim historian and its dashing director made movie magic of their own.

Check back tomorrow as I start my week of giveaways. It'll be at least a book a day to celebrate summer vacation (and to lessen the list of potential books needing to travel with me).

And finally, what marks the start of summer for you? Leave a comment on this post and you can have an extra entry on the upcoming giveaway of your choice.

Review: The Cat Who Covered the World by Christopher Wren


Wren was an editor at Newsweek when a co-worker trying to find homes for kittens offers a bottle of Scotch with each kitten. Looking for an appropriate Christmas gift for his young children, the kitten sounded good, especially accompanied by a bottle of Scotch. And so Henrietta, a tiny ball of grey Siamese fluff went to live with the Wren family. But instead of staying in the relatively stationary job of editor, Wren jumped at the chance to get back in the writing trenches and become a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. This led to posts in far-flung places around the world and to questions about what to do with the family pet on these postings.

Wren, who claims to not be much of a cat person, was against taking Henrietta on their travels but his wife and children overruled him and so Henrietta became a globe trotting cat, living in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa, and Johannesburg and visiting numerous other places. This book is the tale of some of Henrietta's exploits in these foreign places. She smoothed the Wren family's arrival in many places, inspiring customs agents to expedite processes that could have stranded folks unaccompanied by a pet for hours or days. She charmed important political players and enjoyed more freedoms in certain closed societies than her human family did.

The book was simple and generally sweet but very superficial. Wren mentions some of the major political upheavals that he must have covered only in passing, ostensibly because this is Henrietta's story, but a general accounting of a cat's usual day contains a bit less excitement than I was perhaps expecting given the world traveling nature of the author. I understand that Henrietta was a special cat and I dearly love my own dog beyond reasonableness but I'm not certain that there's really a book to be written there, and not just because she's never lived overseas. Wren does intersperse his tales of Henrietta's strolls about Moscow, her being lost for months in Cairo, catching rats in many of their posting, and other such adventures with short bits about other reporters who have cats. Maybe it's that I'm really not a cat person or that I never met Henrietta (since apparently everyone who met her was captivated by her) but I found the book to be a bit lacking in feeling. It was definitely a smooth read but nothing memorable really stuck with me. Good (or great) for cat lovers, it might be lacking depth for anyone else not captivated by cats.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Review: Looking After Pigeon by Maud Carol Markson


The summer that Pigeon is five, her father leaves, her mother moves the family in with her heretofore never mentioned brother, and Pigeon loses the ability to trust that the people she loves will be there for her when she needs them. Narrated by adult Pigeon, who is writing down her recollection of the summer in hopes that it will explain and heal her trust issues, this is a poignant and well-done story of a little girl too young to fully understand the changes to her family but old enough to internalize them forever.

Pigeon is significantly younger than older sister Dove and older brother Robin. Her charming naivete fits her age but in some ways she's also mature beyond her years. When the family moves into Uncle Edward's beach home, Pigeon latches onto her handsome and utterly appealing uncle as a father substitute, not understanding that Edward is not only completely unprepared to take on a family and live up to his promises but that he is struggling with his own identity. In addition to Pigeon's yearning for either or both her father and her elusive uncle, she watches her mother and her siblings as they grow, change, and adjust to the loss of their previous lives. When her mother brings home a new boyfriend and subsequently falls under the thrall of a shyster evangelist, her limited attentions toward Pigeon cease almost entirely.

And so five year old Pigeon is essentially on her own, watching as her sister works her first job, falls in love, and has an affair, listening as Dove confides in her. She sees her young brother Robin sink into the fortune-telling business with a woman who offers him more attention than he is receiving at home. And she learns through benign neglect that even family cannot be counted on, especially when they are all wrapped up in the disappointments of their own lives.

The book is a slim one but the length belies the depth. Markson has touched on issues of parenting, love, family, and childhood in her slight novel. Her touch is light and despite the potential for this to be just another dysfunctional family novel, it isn't really. The elements are there but Pigeon as narrator keeps the feel light. And though the novel is framed by adult Pigeon, the bulk of the story is of her fifth summer, the summer that formed so much of her personality and beliefs, and therefore from her childish, innocent perspective. This is an easy, quick read but one that will make the reader consider the unintended effects of the adult world on children. The writing, the feel of the story, and the endearingly naive and at the same time precocious narrator combined to make this an unexpected story. I rather enjoyed it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Everything Austen Challenge


I haven't officially signed up and posted about a reading challenge in a long time, not that I don't continue to sign-up and follow along with many in my own un-official sort of way. But I had to be good and do the official thing for this one since I adore Jane Austen and can almost always be guaranteed to buy a book if there's an Austen connection (I do draw the line at the Zombies book though--just can't do the undead no matter how many raves the book gets, sorry). I even toyed with the idea of designing my own Austen challenge earlier in the year but since nothing ever came of it, I was thrilled to see that Stephanie at Stephanie's Written Word stepped up and put one together. And here's me happily hopping on the bandwagon. The goal is to pick 6 Austen-themed things and enjoy. This can mean reading Austen's originals, Austen sequels or Austen-inspired books. It can also mean watching films based on Austen's work. The challenge runs 6 months (July 1-January 1) so there's loads of time to complete the challenge. I personally am grabbing 6 books from my own tbr for the challenge although I may re-watch Pride and Prejudice ::swoon:: again or rent Becoming Jane, which I had fully intended to see when it came out in theaters and never managed. But I want to definitely do 6 books as well, especially since my TBR mountain contains whole veins of appropriate books. So here's my tentative list:

1. Seducing Mr. Darcy by Gwyn Cready
2. Mr. Darcy’s Daughters by Elizabeth Aston
3. Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton
4. Darcy’s Passions by Regina Jeffers
5. The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James
6. Me and Mr. Darcy by Alexandra Potter

For more information on the challenge, to sign up, or to see other Austen-themed suggestions, click on The Everything Austen Challenge.

How to get my son to believe this?


Michael Buckley, the author of the Sisters Grimm series of books that R. loves (note to self: really must read at least the first in the series to see what is so engaging about it), is coming out with a new series of books for boys (Sept. 09) that will likely be right up W.'s alley. It is called NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society and stars some nerdy kids whose attributes make them James Bond-esque. Totally W.'s thing. And in today's special edition Shelf Awareness, Buckley says something that I wish I could make W. believe. When speaking on the seed for the idea for the book, Buckley said "I went to my 20th high school reunion [and] noticed that all the popular kids were out of shape, miserable and divorced. The nerds had become amazing people--running companies, married to supermodels, they went on amazing vacations. I thought, I wish someone had told me in fifth grade that this is how it would turn out, that your day in the sun is coming." I suspect it's not the telling that is important but the getting that poor bullied fifth (or sixth in W.'s case) grader to truly believe in Buckley's comment or a scaled down version--no supermodel wives here please. I'm the best looking woman in my son's life at the moment and have no desire to end up being the frumpy, dumpy mother-in-law to some gorgeous, otherwordly beauty but that's neither here nor there. One quibble about the title of the book. I get that this is a cutesy play on words but can a truly nerdy child who is engrossed in the book take this into school and not suffer the emotional scarring a good bullying causes? My guess is no. Love the concept and will be buying W. the book when it comes out but will hope like crazy that he leaves it at home and chooses something else to read at school.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie


Shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize, this is just the latest amazing novel by Shamsie. Years ago I read Salt and Saffron by her and was utterly captivated. So when the opportunity came along to review this newest book, I couldn't pass it up.

The three-part story of Hiroko, a Japanese woman who survives the Nagasaki blast, this is a sprawling novel spanning four countries, two continents, and modern wars. Opening in Nagasaki before the dropping of the atomic bomb, Hiroko lives with her father and visits her love and fiance Konrad, a German ex-pat who has come to Nagasaki after being told by his half-sister and brother-in-law that he, because of his German heritage, was unwelcome in British controlled India. But when the bomb falls on Nagasaki, Konrad and Hiroko's father both die and she is marked forever by the embroidered design from her kimono, carrying the burnt shadows of the title on the skin of her back for the rest of her life.

After the war, Hiroko travels to Delhi, India to find Konrad's sister and the Indian boy he spoke of so fondly, the one whom he placed in his brother-in-law's law office, Sajjad Ashraf. While living with Elizabeth (Ilse) and James Burton, Konrad's sister and brother-in-law, Hiroko and Sajjad fall in love, despite their disparate backgrounds. They elope against the backdrop of the withdrawal of the British from India and then find themselves barred from returning to Sajjad's beloved Delhi by dint of their having been out of the country during the Partition and Sajjad's Muslim faith. They make a life for themselves in Pakistan, raising a son, as their lives continue to criss-cross with the lives of Elizabeth Burton and her son Harry. This time, it's not the bomb that shadows their lives but the mujahideen and their fight.

And finally, after tragedy strikes Hiroko once more in Pakistan, she travels to the US where the Burton and Ashraf families again become irretrievably intertwined. And again Hiroko is shadowed by war, this time by the powerful unrest in the Middle East and her own fears when her adopted country of Pakistan becomes a nuclear nation.

As always, Shamsie's writing is astonishing and her characterizations are complex and full. She never mutes the horror of the tragedies that befall Hiroko but she doesn't sensationalize them either, using them to underscore the cost of war in human terms. She tackles morality, racism, and human nature and yet she weaves these themes together into her story so effortlessly that they do not stand out screaming their importance but instead subtley push the reader to consider his or her beliefs and prejudices, especially in this modern age. The novel is haunting and powerful and well-done. She's captured terror, both inflicted and received while she's also rendered the humanity and dignity of those who live their everyday lives with the shadows of terror on their skin, in their minds, and in the actions around them. A brilliant novel, this is one that all readers should add to their lists.

As a side note to those on budgets: this has been released as a paperback original, a trend I'd love to see more of by publishers.

Monday, June 22, 2009

And another one bites the dust


It is getting rather costly having a certain houseguest here. The latest casualty since the-one-to-remain-nameless took the finish off the toilet seat trying to clean it up: the toaster oven. It had a long and distinguished run (was a wedding present after all) but it was no match for our well-meaning but slightly scattered house guest. After all, heating things up and toasting them is what it was intended to do, correct? And unless we anthropomorphize it, a toaster oven cannot be expected to realize when a plastic plate is mistakenly slid into its maw. Besides, the plate clearly bore the cinnamon raisin bread that needed to be toasted. I just hope the happy home-wrecker didn't eat the toast after annihilating the toaster and the plate. Ahhhhh, the smell of melted plastic in the morn. ::sigh::

Review: Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton


When I first read the description of this book, it sounded very much like a girl meets boy and they fall in love sort of book, albeit through the modern convenience of telephones. Not that I have any problem with girl meets boy and they fall in love. I read quite a few books where this is indeed the basic plot. But this is only the plot here in the very strictest of senses. What Thornton has done instead, is to write a lovely, delightful novel focused more on the journey than on the presumed outcome. And that was a happy surprise.

Mina is a single mom who works at a insurance company's call center. Her younger sister, who is still a teenager, lives with her since their mother move out and in with her boyfriend several years ago. Mina's daughter is an avid bookworm who is struggling with her peers. They are all sort of treading water in their own lives and while Mina is trying to be the best mother and sister she can be, she is a bit overwhelmed.

Peter is a widowed Cambridge geography professor with two young daughters. He has a pretty good, strong network of friends but he's still lonely and as the only parent, a bit at a loss when it comes to shepherding his twins through some of the inevitabilities of childhood.

When Peter crashes his car into a tree stump, Mina is the one who fields his insurance call. For each of them, there's something different about the person on the other end of the telephone and when Peter has a second accident, he specifically asks for Mina to handle his claim. She copies down his number and follows up his call center call with a call of her own. And a warm, supportive telephone friendship springs up. They use each other as sounding boards for whatever is going on with their children, with Mina's sister, and so much more. Their conversations offer them a sense of belonging, the chance to help and be helped, and to add a bit of spark to someone elses' day. Could they, after all they share, be just what each needs in life?

I expected the phone relationship to be a much smaller part of the story than it is. Peter and mina's relationship is unhurried, mature, and wide-ranging. And while it doesn't always go smoothly, it is a deeply felt, well-imagined, truthful relationship like we should all have with the dear friends and loved ones in our lives. Thornton has created two characters who are as human as characters can be. They are comfortable and easy and the sorts of people I'd love as friends. And once I realized that this was not a novel in a rush to have the characters meet and become a couple, I abandoned myself to the slow and pleasing pace.

The plot ambles along, drawing the reader in as both the everyday and the out of the ordinary punctuate Peter and Mina's lives. There is just enough conflict to keep the novel from becoming too treacly but still stay true to the characters as they are drawn. The final climax is well-timed and leaves the reader fairly certain of and contented by the knowledge of what happens after the last page is turned.

Crossed Wires is original and charming, well-written and captivating, deeply-felt and sincere. The echoes of the numbers one and two, both in Peter and Mina's single-parenthood but also in the people of Mina's daughter and Peter's twins, resonate and challenge the reader to consider notions paired and alone. I thoroughly enjoyed all of it and will definitely be searching out more of Ms. Thornton's work in hopes of capturing the magic she's offered in this novel.

Monday Mailbox


It has been a slower week here on the books through the mail front, which I desperately needed since I am feeling a tad overwhelmed. Not only am I behind on book reviews and have more than enough sitting here for me to read before it joins the overdue review pile, but I'm also trying to recover from my in-laws' visit, prepare for a friend's overnight visit, get my grandmother ready to fly out and prepare us to leave on the first of our short and interrupted vacations this summer. Color me just a tad bit busy. Fewer books coming in, therefore, helps to lessen the stress slightly! Of course, since I feel a quiver of excitement when the packages arrive, I do still appreciate whatever has arrived during the past crazy week. Last week's goodies include:

Stand the Storm by Breena Clarke
From Amazon: Like her first work of historical fiction, Stand the Storm weaves together the tale of an African American family struggling to cope in a white world. Although this novel takes place a few generations before River, Cross My Heart, it packs an equally powerful punch. Despite its horrors and violence, Stand the Storm is a surprisingly uplifting love story about men and women attempting to free themselves from bondage. Critics praised the emotional depth of Clarke’s characterizations and her compelling portrayal of life in a city that discriminates against its African American inhabitants. They diverged slightly on the quality of the writing, but the memorable cast of characters—primary and secondary—as well as the humane story more than made up for any flaws.

Last Light Over Carolina by Mary Alice Monroe
From Amazon: Every woman in the lowcountry knows the unspoken fear that clutches the heart every time her man sets out to sea. Now, that fear has become a terrible reality for Carolina Morrison. Her husband, shrimp boat captain Bud Morrison, the only man she's ever loved, is lost and alone somewhere in the vast Atlantic fi shing grounds, with a storm gathering and last light falling.

As the action unfolds on this one terrifying, illuminating day, Carolina and Bud Morrison look back across thirty years of love and loss, joy and sorrow. Carolina walked away from a well-to-do upbringing to marry Captain Bud Morrison. She embraced his extraordinary lifestyle by the sea and the customs of a historic shrimping village. Yet lately, hard times and the loneliness of long separations have driven them apart -- and driven her to make a mistake that threatens to shatter their once-unbreakable bond forever.

When Bud Morrison is overdue at the docks, the close-knit community rallies together to search for one of its own. But Carolina knows that it is their love that must somehow call him home, across miles of rough water and unspeakable memories. And she swears that if she is given one more chance -- for love and for forgiveness -- nothing will ever take her from this man's side again.

In Last Light over Carolina, Mary Alice Monroe once again explores a vanishing feature of the southern coastline, the mysterious yet time-honored shrimping culture, in a convincing and compelling tale of an enduring marriage.


Passegiata by G.G. Husak
From Amazon: Ms. Husak’s memoir of travels to Italy with her husband will appeal to those who love travel in general and Italy in particular. Their journeys are both personal and universal. From their first shared trip to Italy in 1993, which marked the first of their empty nest years, their annual passeggiata reflects the shift in their lives through the next decade. On their spring pilgrimages to major tourist centers, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples, they develop appreciation for Italy’s art, music and architecture. Wandering together along out of the way paths in tiny hill towns and seacoast villages, they explore breathtaking scenery. By traveling light and learning the vagaries of Italian life, they have become Italian in spirit. The book provides many practical hints on how to travel like the locals, reminding us that even novice travelers can learn valuable lessons from immersion in another way of life, and that one’s companion can be an essential part of the pleasure of a journey.

As always, if you'd like to check out the goodies that other people found in their mailboxes, check out The Printed Page where Marcia kindly hosts this meme every week.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Salon: Wandering through books


Like last week, this week I did some more lovely wandering through books. I finished my travels through the dangerous South American rain forests with the gently reared wife of a French geographer. I went on a year's teaching exchange to America with a young British woman, not suspecting the effect it would have on my relationship with my boyfriend or on my life in general. I helped make matches for folks at an Indian Marriage Bureau. I suffered through WWII in Warsaw, living through terrifying times at the Warsaw Zoo. And I found a soul mate with a Regency-era Countess who fled her abusive husband.

There are an incredible amount of books on my bedside table with bookmarks already inside them, just waiting to take me on my next voyage of the imagination. Some of them will likely be finished by the time next Sunday rolls around and others will staill be waiting to transport me back into their worlds as other books take precedence, drawing me in and refusing to let me go until the last page is turned and the satisfied sigh after an adventure well-appreciated is heard.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See


I resisted reading Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan when it was all the buzz. I did eventually cave though and, surprising even myself, enjoyed it so much that I have since managed to buy or otherwise get my hands on everything Lisa See has written. So it was with great anticipation that I waited for my copy of Shanghai Girls to arrive in the mailbox. Solid premise, lovely cover, author on whom I totally have a crush. Thank heaven this lived up to the hype I created in my own head!

Pearl and May Chin live a modern, well-to-do life in Shanghai with their parents. They both pose for authors as "beautiful girls" who appear in calendars and product ads but their glamorous lives are about to change when they discover that their father has sold them as wives to two young men returned to China from America in order to pay his increasingly onerous debts. The girls are unwilling but have no choice despite the fact that Pearl is in love already and May is to be married to a boy not only not old enough for marriage but also not completely mentally sound. But instead of meeting their new husbands enroute to America as planned, the girls intentionally miss the boat, stranding themselves in a Shanghai about to be torn apart by war. As these formerly pampered girls move through China, trying desparately trying to find a way to go to America and join their previously despised husbands, they not only encounter hardships and horrors but their own personalities form and evolve, presaging their future relationships to each other and with others in their new "American" family. Once in America, bound by an immense secret, the sisters face the reality not only of their husbands' family but also the reality of being Chinese-American in the US.

See has evoked beautifully the isolation of the Chinese in Los Angeles and the racism that surrounded their secure enclave. She has created two characters who are flawed but sympathetic and very real. Pearl narrates the story and so it with her that the reader feels the most empathy but the final denouement shows that perhaps Pearl hasn't been the most reliable narrator when recounting her interactions with her sister through the years. There is much to pity in both women's lives and yet they both fought successfully for survival while staying honest to their passions. The characters of the husbands are not quite as well limned but that can be excused because of Pearl's point of view narration. I actually did happen to know a bit about this time in America's history and in our treatment of emigrants from the Far East but See's picture of the time reinforced all I had once learned. And since I suspect that many people aren't aware of this true history, it will be a fascinating (if shameful) lesson for most readers. The writing is crisp and lovely and the story is engaging. I liked this one very much. I'll definitely be reading more of Ms. See's work in the future.

Cleaners


I always feel some guilt when the cleaners come. For starters, it costs a lot for me to pay other people to do what I could very easily be doing. I hate doing it, but I am certainly capable. At the same time, while it seems an expensive luxury, I know that it is really not a very good wage for the cleaners. Lazy and exploitive, that's me.

The other day, I looked completely ridiculous mincing around the house in my tennis skirt all sweaty and gross (can't shower after my lesson if they are scrubbing the shower, now can I?) while two other women made said house presentable. Am I really this person? Murphy's Law helped me out, keeping me from being totally spoiled and indolent.

Almost as soon as the cleaners left, W. took and ate popcorn in the basement, scattering it far and wide. Then someone who will remain nameless had a massive accident in two bathrooms (!) because smearing the toilet seat in just one would be underachieving. Next T. got out a bottle of carbonated, flavored water, spilling it across the newly wiped counter tops, down the cupboard fronts and splashing it all over the floor and refrigerator before dumping it down the heating vent. Finally, R. decided to eat the last remnants of cereal out of a box by upending it into her mouth instead of a bowl, sprinkling Golden Grahams crumbs all over the portion of the kitchen floor not yet covered by effervescing water.

In short, I paid to have my house cleaned spotlessly and was left with white popcorn flecked carpet, half a kitchen awash in sticky water (how bad is it that it glooped down the vent too?), the other half crunching with crumbs underfoot, and two bathrooms fit only as Superfund sites. Money well spent, wouldn't you say? I got to stimulate the economy and do all the cleaning I love so very much. Ain't life grand?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead


The back cover copy of my ARC (Advance Reading Copy) says that Colson Whitehead is "one of the most acclaimed writers in America." This could indeed be true but I had never heard of Whitehead before although in browsing his previous books, I do recognize one of the titles. Does this mean I'm completely out of the loop or is it more indicative that his books are not generally books that I pick up on a whim. If the latter, after reading this one, I can say that they still probably won't be on my "must acquire list." This particular book, billed as his Autobiographical Fourth Novel, intrigued me when I read the plot synopsis distilled down to teaser form but it never grabbed me the way I had hoped.

This is a classic coming of age novel set in Sag Harbor, the African-American neighbor to the Hamptons. Benji Cooper and his brother Reggie are in their teens during the summer of 1985, the summer that their parents allow them to be out at their summer place without any adult supervision during the week. Benji and Reggie have always been a unit but this momentous summer sees them become two very different and separate people even while they still share the same peer age group (they aren't twins but close) and friends. The book follows Benji, the more cautious and thoughtful brother as he tries to be the voice of reason (when the boys cook up schemes like shooting at each other with pump BB guns), gets a job (which forever kills his desire for ice cream), looks on as his friends land two of the only girls around, and just generally goes about being a kid with one year of his exclusive, majority white prep-school high school behind him.

Benji is a good narrator to introduce the unique entity that is Sag Harbor because, in a sense, he is an outsider in the all-black community despite his ethnicity, trying hard to negotiate the things he thinks others just instinctively know. Throughout the summer, he comes to understand that everyone is at sea as he is, especially in the foreign country that is teenage-dom. He is mocked for some of his preferences: stealing Cokes from a party because he is trying to fend off having to drink New Coke, leaving the radio on the lite FM channel and other such social faux pas. And he must navigate the tensions swirling in his own family. With his new and not always entirely welcome severing from being "Benji 'n Reggie" and his parents barely seeming to tolerate each other, Benji clings to the known in this summer community where he's spent every summer of his life. There are also a few scenes with Benji at his school or interacting with his school friends but they are a much smaller portion of the book than his Sag Harbor time and they are only tangentially connected as the two worlds never meet. Spanning just the one summer, the book doesn't really have a grand climax, more a series of smaller ones, ending with the end of summer and everyone leaving to resume their lives in the city.

Since my family has a summer place that has been in the family forever, a place that defines us as much as any other place on earth, I was looking forward to reading this, thinking there would be some similarities. And there were a few. But they were fewer than expected. Did I not really relate to Benji because he is male and African-American and I am neither? I don't know. I suspect that we actually have more in common than not (cautious, clinging to the expected and to tradition) but for some reason, I just didn't connect with his character. It took me a very long time to be engaged enough with the book to resist putting it down at every opportunity. The writing was good and the premise should have captured me but somehow, Sag Harbor and I just missed each other. Ultimately I couldn't get past the somewhat disjointed chapters/scenes, the wordiness, and the heavy nostalgia. I'm sure others will have better luck but I'm just lukewarm about it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fun bookish links


In my travels around the internet lately, I have found a couple of fun bookish type links. Mostly I was looking for the summer reading lists that everyone and their grandmother puts out at this time of year but since they are easy to find on google, I haven't included links to any of them.

Instead, feast your eyes (and I do mean feast) on the children's book inspired cakes you can see on this Cake Wrecks entry. I know which birthday cake I want for next year!!! I do so love The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are.

All bookish type people know just how quickly you run out of good book shelf space. My own bookshelves are so groaningly full that people inevitably comment on the sheer number of books. Well, look at the bookshelves here and people will talk about the shelves as much as about the books. I covet the second set personally, but only because those New England states are too small to get a reasonable amount of books in them.

Occasionally there's a question that goes around the internet about which authors or book characters you'd like to have over for dinner. The Washington Post took a different spin on this question and asked authors which fictional character with whom they'd like to spend a day at the beach. The answers and reasons may surprise you (and may change who you want to invite over for dinner the next time you answer this hypothetical question). I have to say I continue to think Christopher Moore is the schizzle after reading his answer (his books aren't too shabby either). Check out all the choices in this article.

Book blogger Fyrefly created a google run Book Blog Search Engine which allows you to type in a book title and receive a list of reviews from many different book blogs. Lest you think I am suggesting this because this blog is included (it is), anyone can submit a site to be added as Fyrefly wants to make this as comprehensive as possible. It's a cool idea and makes it less important to wade through some of the less than helpful reviews posted at amazon when you want to see if a book is up your alley or not.

And finally, I know I'm late to the party here, but I just discovered Book Blips which allows people to vote up good, recent book entries around the internet. It is just another in the handy tools that enables you to see what other book addicts are surfing through each day or to nominate your own entries for consideration (who ever would do that?!).

Monday Mailbox

Holy cats it's been a busy week for my overworked mailbox. I have started finding books in the mailbox, at the front door, in the garage on top of the clutter of our shoes, and propped against the closed garage door. I can't decide if this means that our mailman is a relative of the Easter Bunny and is having fun hiding the books or if he's just forgetful about where to stash things when the mailbox is just too crammed full to take another item of mail. I'd say I think he should start hiding the bills so we don't have to see them but it'd be hard to read in the dark when they turned our electricity off for non-payment of the bill, now wouldn't it?!

The Big Steal by Emyl Jenkins
This came from the folks at Algonquin Books. I am not a huge mystery reader but everyone should break out of her reading rut once in a while, right? And this one sounds fun and death-free, which makes it perfect (and not nightmare inspiring--which is key for me) as a choice to dip into mysteries.

Dragon House by John Shors
This came directly from the author and I am definitely looking forward to it since I enjoyed (and recommend) his Beneath a Marble Sky, which I read before our trip to India. He really captures place nicely and so I happily anticipate my armchair journey to Vietnam and into the lives of Vietnamese street children.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
This one came through a Shelf Awareness offer. Dunant's Birth of Venus was a good read and this latest book, set in an Italian convent that is home to one unwilling novitiate, sounds delicious.

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
The read for next week's Picador Twitter bookclub, this one could really challenge me. I'll have to see later if that's a good thing or a bad thing!

Cornfield Heiress by E.
Sent to me by Author Marketing Experts, this book sounds like one wild ride. And it's authored by someone who can only use her initial as identification? Wonder just how scintillating this is going to get?! (Actually, the author's name is Errollynne Peters, which I discovered after just one measly Google search so I suspect she's not really trying to hide much of anything.)

Caenus and the Quiver of Artemis by Christopher Ledbetter
This came directly from the author, who I had cheerfully mistaken for a boy I used to know many years ago. It probably would have been too perfect for me to have known the author as a child. But I am pleased to have the chance to read his book, even if he isn't who I thought he was. It will be another one that is a bit of a stretch from my usual reading but I'm hoping to share it with W. and to get the 12 year old boy perspective on it as well. And since it is more along the lines of what he reads, I'm hoping he's willing to share this experience with me.

Vanishing by Candida Lawrence
From Unbridled Books, this is a memoir to feed my current memoir appetite. The fourth memoir by this author, I will have loads more to look forward to if I enjoy this one as much as the blurb suggests I will.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama
A cross between Jane Austen and Alexander McCall Smith but set in India? The marketers certainly knew how to push my buttons, didn't they? I am looking forward to this one with a glee that is practically illegal.

Perfect Life by Jessica Shattuck
A LibraryThing Early Review book, I am fascinated by the premise of the book. An ex-boyfriend donates sperm and agrees to forfeit parental rights only to reappear in everyone's life. The potential here is enormous! And on a purely shallow note, I love the cover, even if it is another in the currently popular headless/partial headed bodies series.

A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand
From Valerie at Hatchette, this one is one that I'm hoping my book club might be induced to read. It sounds like perfect summer fare (play on title is only partly intentional).

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
A LibraryThing Early Review book (although already released), I enjoyed Strout's Amy and Isabelle years ago and am curious to see what she does with this novel as well.

As always, if you'd like to check out the goodies that other people found in their mailboxes, check out The Printed Page where Marcia kindly hosts this meme every week.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Salon


Last week was a crazy week with school ending, dance recital, and parties of all sorts. And when I feel too overwhelmed by the hamster wheel that is oftentimes my life, I reach for a book and head off to find a quiet corner. Reading grounds me. It takes me far from stresses, good or bad, everyday or extraordinary. Some days it really is the only thing that keeps me sane. And so I laugh as I get ready for bed when my husband plaintively asks after a very long day, "Are you going to read?" I suppose that watching tv is the wind-down equivalent for many people but I've never been much of a watcher. I have always lived mostly in my own imagination and in the words of the wonderful authors who offer me glimpses into their imaginations. There are few better places to be, in my opinion.

I wish my children would find this same sense of happiness between the covers of books and while I think that sometimes they do, I also wonder at their insistence that they don't want to. Has my constant reading inadvertantly caused a backlash by them? Experts all say that children need to see that their parents read and mine certainly have that but it hasn't followed that they submerse themselves and for that I am a little saddened. Yesterday at dance recital #3 of the day, in the 45 minutes to half hour before the show started, I looked up from my book and turned to my young ballerina. Overly made-up and costumed, she had curled into her seat and was completely engrossed in her book. A little oasis of calm in a sea of complete pre-show chaos. She must be mine after all.

Because of the stress of the week, I have been book hopping again and so this past week, I have visited the beach with a girl whose father abandoned his family, roamed the globe with a foreign correspondent's cat, faced the newly revealed truth of a serial adulterer with a distraught widow, fled an abusive husband only to meet a soul mate, made friends with a late husband's mistress (ironically this could be said to be true of two books this week--one fiction and one non-fiction), and traveled back in time into Peru to map longitude and latitude and answer conclusively the shape of the earth. Wonder where I'll go this week?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Sunlight on the Lawn by Beverley Nichols


The final installment of Nichols' delightful Merry Hall trilogy, this is as charming and witty and thoroughly satisfying as the previous two books. It flows seamlessly from the other books, offering the reader yet more of Nichols' humor, eccentric neighbors, and blooming garden. Miss Emily and Our Rose have a nuclear style tiff; Nichols endeavors to build a mountain, moving it dirt pile by dirt pile from a local mountain onto his property; a massive balustrade is tumbled willy-nilly into the garden; and so much more happens here. I must admit I finished this book with a melancholy sadness wrapped around me, not only for knowing that I was finished with such a warmth inspiring series, but also to know what the forward tells me about Nichols' final years. So reader be warned, do not read the forward first. It properly belongs as an afterward when you are already mourning the end of your journeys to Merry Hall. As with the others, I highly recommend this book. Now excuse me while I scavenge around for more of Mr. Nichols' works.

Review: Crazy For the Storm by Norman Ollestad


This book has been getting scads of publicity and lots of raves recently. I read it before all the reviews came out and I'm still baffled by the over the top plaudits it has received because I thought it was a decent read but not an overwhelming wow. Is it thrilling? Yes. Will it keep you reading? Probably. But there was something missing in it for me.

The story of little Norman Ollestad's amazing survival after a plane crash that ultimately killed everyone else on board, including Norman's father, and left him stranded on a mountain during a terribly snow storm, this is also the story of the early years of Norman's life as his father pushed him to become a surfer and a skier who pushed the envelope. The memoir alternates chapters between the life he shared with his mother, her boyfriend, and his father and the hours, moments leading up to and after the crash as he fights for survival. As Norman has drawn his childhood (the crash happened when he was only 11), I felt only anger and annoyance towards his parents.

His mother seemed to put her abusive boyfriend ahead of her son and his father was more interested in creating a "boy wonder" who excelled at his father's chosen sports than about the emotional well-being of a young child. Ollestad's love for these flawed parents is there in the book but what really stood out for me was that he spent a lot of time unhappy or terrified or neglected when with either of his parents. Of course, ultimately, his father's child-rearing method (push said child hard and relentlessly until the child attempts whatever simply to avoid being called a coward) helped Norman muster up the strength to make it down the mountain to safety, knowing his father and the pilot were dead and after seeing his father's girlfriend slide to her death too. So perhaps I am being too harsh in judging the scenes Ollestad has chosen to write about here. But I do know that I would have been pretty darn resentful of my parents for their treatment of me had the book been mine, rather than his.

As far as the story itself goes, it is pretty thrilling, edge of your pants. The alternating chapters are written differently, evoking either the feeling of a descriptive and haphazard childhood or the short, stacato adreneline bursts of the crash and its aftermath. And sending the reader from one extreme of writing to another just with the turn of the page helped to amp up the thrill factor. It is a story that no one should have had to live but Ollestad's writing has captured some of the dislocation and terror that he must have felt coming down that mountain. And I appreciated the final chapter, detailing his return to the crash site and his own handling of his young son with fair reflections on his father's parenting of him. I felt there was something destructive, intense and controlling in the daredevil father he's captured in these pages, something that made his death at a relatively young age inevitable. But not liking many (all?) of the people who made up his early life, I had a hard time caring too much about their terrible fates, a failing that is even more callous given that these are not characters but real people. I don't know whether the fault for this lack of connection is in the writing or in me personally. Did I read on avidly, despite knowing the outcome of the crash before even opening the first page (it's given away on the cover)? Yes. Did I feel gutted and drained when I finished reading it? No, I just felt detached and relieved to be finished. Adventure junkies will likely thrive on the adreneline rush this book provides while the more sedentary (or cowardly like me) might find themselves dismayed by the interpersonal relationships as presented here and wish for a bit more than the book delivered.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Monday Mailbox


This past week saw a number of new books come into my house, only a small portion of them through the mail. But on the off chance my husband reads my blog, I'm not going to admit to all of my new purchases (you can always check LibraryThing for my recent activity if you really want to know how unrestrained I was in the bookstore), instead only admitting to the books that arrived via USPS and UPS. Of course, I know he actually looks at the bills rather than the ever present stacks, but at least when books arrived via mail, I can act surprised and innocent. So this is what arrived last week:

Viva Cisco by Patrick Shannon
This came thanks to Bostick and has intrigued my youngest son, who chooses all of his books by the cover. Obviously parrots rock his world.

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark
This is going to be a book tour book later in the summer. And speaking of covers, I am a total sucker for covers that have books or bookish related images on them.

Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper
I'm more a dog person than a cat person but having once had a lovely cat named Peek-a-Boo who only had one eye (yeah, sarcastic people should never be allowed to name pets), this story of a feisty, blind kitten made my wishlist.

This Lovely Life by Vicki Forman
Memoirs have really drawn me lately and despite my own failings as a mother, I still like to read about other, better parents.

The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand
This one might possibly be a bookclub pick later in the year so I'm trying to get ahead of the game.

As always, if you'd like to check out the goodies that other people found in their mailboxes, check out The Printed Page where Marcia kindly hosts this meme every week.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Technology and kids

Yesterday, W. wanted to buy something on the internet. Being completely unrealistic parents, we have not yet presented him with his own credit card (hell's bells, we actually disabled texting on his phone due to excessive charges, evil parents that we are) and so he has to present each purchase to us, argue its worth, and fork over the money before we consent to ante up our credit cards to the cause. After much stress (by him) over whether we would allow him to squander his money, we ultimately decided that he could waste $10. He hauled his rear up to his piggy bank and came back downstairs clutching two sweaty $5 bills in his hand. Little brother T. stood watching the whole transaction. And when W. spread the money out flat, T. turned to me (wheels turning in his savvy little brain) and asked, "Where does he put the money? In the printer?" God bless the child, he thought our computer worked like an ATM (although when he's seen us putting money *in* the machine is a question).

Review: Presumption by Julia Barrett


I know I've harped on my adoration of all things Jane Austen and my inability to leave well-enough alone, eschewing all but the originals on here before and this is another instance of me happily reaching for an Austen sequel. This time the obsession paid off nicely though as the writing team who comprise author Julia Barrett have crafted a novel similar in scope and tone to the original Pride and Prejudice, if somewhat lacking in plot originality.

Many of the characters from P&P make appearances here although they re-enact the original with different characters in the leading roles. Georgiana Darcy is faced with two very different suitors and she must determine which is the honorable man and which the charlatan. Having repented of her youthful folly with Wickham, she is determined not to offer her heart to the wrong man, only occasionally confiding in sister-in-law Elizabeth as she navigates the potential pitfalls of courtship. The plot unfolds in ways that keep it true to Austen's own future vision of her characters as laid out at the end of Pride and Prejudice but getting to that ending parallels, extremely closely, the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

I didn't go into this expecting Austen. No thinking reader would. And the authors who write as Barrett are neither of them Austen. But they have done a creditable job in setting the stage and evoking the language of the time. They have not strayed too far from the comedy of manners that defined Austen and while I would have liked to have seen more of Elizabeth and Darcy's life together, it is perhaps more fitting that they turned their authorial lights on Georgiana instead. There are moments where it seems that beloved characters act out of character from the original and that can be disconcerting indeed but for the most part, they've created an entertaining sequel to one of the most beloved books in the English language.

Sunday Salon: Coming to the end


With the end of the school year looming ahead of us, we are all exhausted here. It's liking knowing the end is in sight has made us extra cranky, extra over-scheduled, and extra tired. And by us, I mean kids and parents both. The run up to the final day of school has me wondering why on earth we just can't cut things off early since it seems terribly unlikely there's any learning of any sort going on in these last few days. Call me a curmudgeon and all but why on earth must we waste days doing field day and parties and the like instead of just finishing up the end of year tests and then being completely finished, sleeping in late and playing outside and splashing in the pool. I mean, the last day (week) of school in old timey books didn't have this useless, whip-the-kids-into-a-frenzy, non-academic time appended to it. Anne of Green Gables took a bouquet of flowers to Miss Stacey and that was that.

I know that harkening back to the halcyon olden days is a complete fallacy, but they are still quite appealing from the vantage of one who has had more and more trouble this past week getting kids out of bed for another worthless day at school. Even worse than the grumpy, whiny, tired kids though, has been this mama who has found that the gerbil wheel she's treading as school finishes seems to go faster and faster. I can't read because of the overwhelming commitments, many of which I volunteer for grudgingly only because of the guilt I feel if I don't. I'd far rather be tucked up with a book as the kids splash in the pool or excavate the yard for earthworms or build lego cities on the rare rainy summer days. Do I love field day? Not at all. (And as a child I would have preferred to be allowed to stay in the library and read rather than participate in invented, quasi-athletic games on some of the hottest days of the school year too.) Do I love end of year parties? Also not at all. How do I feel as I face Miss R.'s 5th grade graduation? As if this is a ridiculous event manufactured at a time when no celebration is necessary. What are all of these kids doing next year? Going to more school. Of course, I also understand that being stroppy about this stuff is completely and totally hypocritical since I still have my award for best reader in 6th grade which was given out at my own 6th grade ceremony yonks ago. (I read 356 books that school year! How impressive is that accomplishment?!) But as much as I kvetch about it, I do attend this stuff, perhaps so that there's one fewer thing for my kids to blame me for at the therapist, and it is a choice I make freely. School events over reading time. Because in the end, I know that this is the end, at least until August. And shortly I'll have plenty of time to settle in with my books and the imaginative worlds and people contained therein. Maybe I'll even revisit Anne Shirley and PEI and the time so long ago now when this craziness around the end of the year didn't exist.

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