Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay was mentioned at Stuck in a Book.

Caught By the Sea by Gary Paulsen was mentioned at Library Chicken.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

It's 1986 and Gilman has just graduated from college. Instead of getting a job right away, she and a casual friend from college decide to embark on an around the world backpacking trip starting in China, which had been newly opened to Western travelers. In addition to having a rosy, glorified idea of what a year spent backpacking in foreign cultures would be like, the girls didn't even know each other nearly as well as one might have expected, nor did they consider how traveling together would be in actuality. The eureka moment that led them to their trip went from being inspired and spontaneous to be being scary and unplanned.

Gilman faces homesickness almost as soon as she and Claire touch ground in Hong Kong, wanting nothing more than to cash in her return ticket and head home immediately. But Claire talks her out of it and they fall in with a fellow backpacker, Gunter, as they apply for visas and tickets into China. Once on board ship, they meet an assortment of other Westerners and a Chinese man, Jonnie, who makes it his priority to introduce them to Shanghai and his own hometown in hopes that they will help him with the American Embassy in Beijing. Even with the kindness of strangers, Susan and Claire soon find out that they have romanticized China and that they are in fact, uncomfortable both physically and emotionally. The crowds and being stared at highly distresses Claire, a child of the suburbs while Susan is a bit more blase about the experience, even while she still wants to go home.

The experiences these two young women experience as they move around China are surreal, being interrogated by the military police, wandering without a map through a city not officially open to Westerners, escaping from a hospital and a doctor waving a rusty syringe, and so on. Their experiences are clearly not usual, not even for backpackers who like to hold "one-upmanship" conversations. But they also met some wonderful people as they moved around. The fellow backpacking community came off as generally charming and freewheeling. But ultimately the culture shock was too much for the girls and while one deteriorated physically, the other deteriorated mentally so that it became imperative that they get out of China.

As the saying goes, Truth is stranger than fiction, and that is certainly proved by this book. In the beginning, this seems like a simple travel narrative about two girls post college who intend to sightsee and meet boys around the world. But then the surreal starts to creep into the narrative and tension starts to build as the journey descends into waking nightmare. Gilman deftly handles both her own and Claire's experiences, never whitewashing the interactions of either of them. She has to imagine many of Claire's feelings towards her but recognizes that her antagonism and annoyance with Claire is probably equally felt towards her by Claire. The personal, friendship and relationship, is clearly a large portion of the book but there are also interesting insights into how we react to other cultures and to being "the other" in them. There are hints of the political, especially knowing that Tiananmen Square was still to come and September 11 was far in the distance but as befits a memoir of backpackers in 1986, Gilman doesn't delve too deeply in the political situation of which both she and Claire can't have been overly cognizant. This is, though, more than just a travel narrative. Yes, there is humor and new experiences. But it is also a look into the challenge of travel and surviving another culture and of a descent into instability that colored everything. I do enjoy this type of book and think fans of travel narratives that haven't been prettied up to be guide books will enjoy this was well.

The author's bio from her website:

Writer, journalist, inadvertent humorist.

Background: Made, born, raised in New York City

Career: Author of three nonfiction books, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara (see bookshelf). Have contributed to numerous anthologies, worked as journalist, and written for New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms., Real Simple, Washington City Paper, Us magazine among others. Won New York Press Association Award for features written on assignment in Poland.

Areas of specialty: politics, women’s issues, cultural criticism, arts, satire.

Television: Appeared twice on “The Today Show” for promotion of books as well as ABC World News; WGN-America; WCAU-TV "The 10!" in Philadelphia; "AM Northwest" on ABC in Portland, OR; NBC affiliates in New Haven & Seattle; “Connie Martinson Talks Books";“The Iyanla Show"; “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”

Radio: Review books for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Co-host "Bookmark," a monthly book show on World Radio Switzerland. Have done commentary for World News Radio in Washington, D.C. Guest on dozens of radio shows across U.S. and Australia, including WNYC's “Leonard Lopate Show,” WGN in Chicago, Pacifica Radio in Berkeley, the Buzz in Portland, the Kim Wilde Show, ABC Radio Australia "Breakfast Club," ABC Radio National "Life Matters," ABC Canberra "Sunday Brunch."

Fiction writing: Short stories published in Ploughshares, Story, Beloit Fiction Journal, Greensboro Review, Virginia Quarterly Review; awarded VQR's 1999 Literary Award for short fiction.

Sordid past: Worked as Washington D.C. speech writer and as staff writer for Member of U.S. Congress.

Not-so-sordid past: Columnist for now-defunct HUES magazine and NYPerspectives newspaper. Taught writing and literature at University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. Also: cocktail waitress, legal aid, food service worker, inept receptionist.

Education: University of Michigan (MFA in Creative Writing), Brown University (BA in Literature), Stuyvesant High School.

Writing teachers: Nicholas Delbanco, Charles Baxter, Al Young, Rosellen Brown, and last, but most pivotally, beloved Frank McCourt (RIP). I learned volumes from all of these great writers and bow before them. I bow before all teachers, in fact. (Don't get me started on how under-appreciated and underpaid they are...)

Fun facts: As said child, I was forced to learn Transcendental Meditation (see “Love and the Maharishi” in Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.) Afraid of clowns and puppets. Kicked out of Betty Owen Secretarial School.

First literary influences: The three Johns: Steinbeck, Updike, and Cheever. Also Dorothy Parker, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger -- the usual 20th century local suspects.

Funny, but... I never set out to write books that made people laugh. My main love has always been literary fiction, and the first book I completed (which has yet to be published) was a collection of serious short stories. However, even with my darkest work, people would always tell me that parts of it were funny. This annoyed me because I aspired to be an American Dostoevsky with Breasts. But in 1999, I took a writers' workshop at the Bethesda Writers' Center. The first story I submitted was a heartbreaking tale of a man's addiction, which impressed the class. The second was an absurd story about mistaken identity full of Jews, Rastafarians, and dental hygienists. To my great irritation, the class liked this one infinitely more. After class, a man pulled me aside. "I have to tell you," he said. "My wife has been battling breast cancer. I read her your story last night, and it was the first time in two years she really laughed. You've got a gift. Please don't ignore it. Not everyone can make a sick woman laugh in her hospital bed." That's when I finally saw the merit in my own, lurking smart-ass and stopped fighting it.

Advice for aspiring writers: Don't do it. If you're good at anything else besides writing -- and you have a modicum of passion for it -- spare yourself. The majority of any writer's life is spent in complete isolation, staring catatonically at a blinking cursor, then rewriting each sentence fifteen thousand times in what is essentially a codified form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Perversely, if you do this often enough and are successful at it, people will tell you that your writing "is so simple -- it sounds just like you talking" and that they, too, now are thinking off "taking a few months off" to write a book. Better to become a process-server, a bartender, or a taxidermist if you're that masochistic.

Visit Susan Jane Gilman's website and blog. (She's really quite funny.) And make sure to read her other books: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and Kiss My Tiara.

Thank you to Miriam at Hachette Books for sending me a review copy of the book.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New futility

Have you heard about this Zumba thing? This Latin dance exercise-a-ma-jobber? Have you done it? I tried it today. And let me tell you, it just highlighted reasons I swam for so many years. Clearly coordinated movement on land is not high on my list of accomplishments.

So I agreed to try it out with a friend, pleased by the knowledge that with a class at 10:30, I could go back to bed after getting the kids to the bus at 6:55am. What I didn't take into account was that my lazy self would sleep until 10:20 and then have to fly pell-mell to the class. Luckily the instructor seemed to be functioning on casual time as well and the music just started as I walked in. Now while R. dances, I've never claimed to be the source of her rhythm. (Of course her father is even more definitely not the source either but that's an interesting phenomenon we won't get into here.) And this class quickly showed me that the two (maybe only one) rhythmic bones in my body are solely responsible for keeping me on my feet. They are not willing, nor able to keep my different body parts from flailing madly in different directions, making a mockery of the instructor's fantastic dancing. I couldn't have looked more hectic and uncoordinated if I had been trying to make fun of her. But it's definitely an interesting exercise concept.

The room is so crowded that it is easy to hide out in the back in the corner. But the room is so crowded that it is hard to find one person who seems to know what she's doing and just follow her because I sure as shooting couldn't see the instructor. Oh, and the twirling around stuff and changing directions we seemed to do constantly? Just made me lose sight of my good example. Not to mention that it made me dizzy and I spent a lot of time facing the wrong direction, with the entire class coming towards me as I stood rooted in place. When you haven't figured out what the heck direction you should be facing, you are clearly no longer hiding out in the back corner. Now you are the dipsy doodle crashing into people who have a clue. And everyone in the entire room can see how out of sync and confuzzled you are. Well, not the entire room. Good thing it was crowded enough that only 50 people could see me making an idiot of myself instead of all 100.

I was sweating like a pig when I was finished. Of course, getting me to sweat is like shooting fish in a barrel and given that I spent a good portion of the class looking completely confused by the elaborate steps we were supposed to be doing, I'm not sure how great my actual workout was. Yes, seriously. There I stood like a numb nuts, catching flies in my open mouth as I tried to process the complicated combinations and whatnot that the instructor never called out to us (not that having them called out would have improved my obviously rhythmless ineptitude, mind you). Everyone else seemed to instinctively know what we were doing and to be at least decent at it. Me? I was still stumbling into people, excusing myself, and hoping not to break any parts--mine or others'.

At one point the instructor commented that something was "muy caliente." This was the point that I realized I am more likely to learn Spanish faster than I am to learn Zumba. And although I know what muy caliente means thanks to W.'s school Spanish book's glossary, in this case I'm just sure what it really translates to is: "This is going to really stump that poor clodhopper in the back row who can't even manage to shimmy or jiggle in time to the music because this next bit is faster than Usain Bolt." And really, it was so far beyond my talents that it was ridiculous. Again though, everyone else seemed fine with it, including the 70 year old woman who could out shimmy me every day of the week and twice on Sunday. (I beat her at the jiggling thing though but only because my flesh jiggles automatically when I exercise, occasionally managing to be on beat simply because of the odds involved.)

The real sign of just how dreadful I was at this though was that when the class was over, another woman came over to me and patted me on the shoulder consolingly as she tried to show me how in the heck you do the last combination I totally flubbed. She admitted that it was a little hard because it was two combinations together and that that complicated matters. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I couldn't pull off one combination, nevermind two. And as for arms and legs moving in concert and then independently, well that is totally beyond me too. I'm still trying to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. She did tell me that I would eventually pick it up if I just keep coming to class. I suspect she talked to me because she wanted to see my face, making it easier to avoid having to dance near me if I come again.

I am pleased that I managed to stay upright the entire class given that when I first emerged from the pool, I could trip over a curb in the wilderness. Running has helped me a bit with that problem. And I have to say, running is way, way, way easier than this Zumba stuff. Unless you are Phoebe from Friends, you can likely run. As Zumba proved, I will never be a candidate for Dancing With the Stars. And if they did a housewife version, I would be laughed off the island before I even got both feet on terra firma. Will I do it again? Maybe. I want to know how long it takes to lose the self-consciousness? Because the klutzy inability to groove has been carefully cultivated not only for my entire lifetime but is centuries old encoding on my genes. My ancestors clearly never had to dance for their dinner or their line would have died out long ago.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

I fell in love with Thrity Umrigar's The Space Between Us when I read it several years ago and was quite excited to see that a new book of hers was being released. This is a very different story than that one was though, a look at Indian/American relations on both a global and a personal level.

Frank and Ellie, two Americans from Michigan, have moved to rural India after the unexpected and breathtaking loss of their seven year old son Benny. They hope that with Frank's acceptance of the head position at a progressive, liberal-minded multinational company's factory in Girbaug, India they will start to heal themselves, face their grief, and save their suffering marriage. What happens, in fact, could never have been predicted. Over the two years since Benny died, Frank becomes deeply emotionally attached to Ramesh, the young son of his and Ellie's housekeeper and cook. Ramesh is a smart child who faces no future in the small village, both because of the lack of opportunity and because his parents are a mixed marriage, Hindu and Christian, and therefore not accepted by the community. Ramesh thrives under Frank's interest and tutelage while Ellie is made terribly uncomfortable by Frank's growing obession with the boy she sees as usurping the space Benny would have occupied had he lived. Aside from Ramesh, Frank does not much like India, tolerating it as best he can. Ellie, on the other hand, is thriving in this totally foreign culture, helping out in the village by teaching and counseling the women. Her humanitarian impulses remain unchecked while Frank turns more cynical, exposed as he is to the underbelly of the business world.

Umrigar not only develops the personal angle in this story but she also focuses in on the impact of business and globalization on both the haves and the havenots. The workers at the factory are not only being paid barely subsistence wages, but the villagers are also angry that HerbalSolutions is treating the girbal trees they have come to see as their birthright as private property all because the corrupt and distant national Indian government has leased the trees to the company. When a worker, the local union man, dies after police roughing him up, things get tense. And there's no easy answer here given the general good character and responsibility of the company set against a way of life they didn't know they were disrupting. Neither the company nor the villagers are entirely in the right but there is certainly a fairly pervading sense of American might making right, even amongst the most liberal when their backs are against the wall.

Umrigar ratchets up the tension throughout the novel so that the reader knows a big explosion is coming and that nothing good can come of it. But she manages to use Frank's increasing instability to bring the novel to a shocking conclusion, one that offers no easy answers for those who live and work in the global world. Right and wrong, intrinsic morality and gross disappointment thread through both narrative arcs here. Ellie and Frank's grief for their lost son is palpable and the growing menace of life in Girbaug seems to take on a life of its own so that the reader is compelled to turn the pages faster and faster wanting to escape the desperate sadness and yet needing to slow down and keep the ending at bay for a little longer. Frank and Ellie are a bit black and white as characters but Edna and Prakash make up for that, being more multi-faceted. The business situation with all its complications, stresses, looming troubles, and cultural misunderstandings rings quite true. Umrigar has written a book that will linger in the reader's mind for a long time. Those who are as fascinated by South Asian literature as I am will definitely want to pick this one up.

Check out Thrity Umrigar's website for more information about this and her other books.

Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for sending me a review copy of this book. Be sure to visit other tour stops for this book and see how their views and mine match up (or don't):

Monday, February 1st: Literary Feline
Wednesday, February 3rd: Devourer of Books
Thursday, February 4th: Red Lady’s Reading Room
Tuesday, February 9th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Thursday, February 11th: Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, February 15th: Lit and Life
Wednesday, February 17th: Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, February 18th: Booksie’s Blog
Wednesday, February 24th: Dreadlock Girl Reads
Thursday, February 25th: Book Chatter and Other Stuff

And you can listen to an interview with Thrity Umrigar at Book Club Girl on March 23rd.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

This book is the first in a series about 5 poor little Jewish sisters living with their loving parents in New York City prior to WWI. It is very much a gentle middle grade story, told episodically with only the slenderest of threads keeping it from being related short stories. There is a charm to the novel but it is one that is hard for an adult who doesn't already have fond reading memories of it to pick up and enjoy thoroughly. The historical situation is interesting and the little girls are lovely. The easy introduction of Judaism was natural and likely somewhat exotic when it was published. It seems to me that our world and our experiences are a bit more global now than they were and so it loses a bit of the novelty factor, at least for me and for my non-Jewish but always inquisitive children. Children who enjoy reading about their counterparts in the past will enjoy this series of vignettes and will probably get some good imagination exercising in as they put themselves in the place of these sweet, sunny little girls. Adults may find the excessive cheer and always happy outcomes a bit much but it will appeal to them too if they want an hour or so of sheer, unsullied escapism.

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

This meme is hosted by Sheila at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books. For some reason I had trouble sitting down to read much this week. I am blaming my obsession with the Olympics. I love to watch the competition and the human interest stories. I wish I had had the talent and the drive to be so gifted. Of course, having been a swimmer for so many years, I never would have gone to the Winter Olympics even if I'd been that good but they fascinate me anyway. Maybe I know just how impressive these athletes are since I was the one who used to sit down on the backs of my cross country skis when I had to go down hills, much to the chagrin of the cross country ski coach in high school (I was only on the team because they needed warm bodies, not because of any skill and certainly not because of my fearlessness!). So the Olympics have siphoned away much of my reading time and likely will continue to do so until they end.

Books I completed this week are:

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Great Lakes Nature by Mary Blocksma (this is going to take me all year as I read her year's entries on the corresponding days of this year)
Admit One by Emmett James
The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

Reviews posted this week:

The Return by Victoria Hislop
Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger
American Daughter by Elizabeth Kendall
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Monday Mailbox

My kids are so jaed by books arriving in the mailbox anymore that they sort of toss the packages at me with a scornful "Another book" comment. Luckily I am not jaded since each and every arrival still makes me happy as a pig in stink. I was definitely a happy little piggie this past week. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

A Rather Charming Invitation by C.A. Belmond came from Megan at Penguin/NAL.
The third in a series, I have the prior books for this one so I was tickled to be offered this installment. Even better for my readers, I have two copies of this book to give away as well.

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier came from Leah and the author.
I love books with academics as characters and this one not only has that, it also focuses on switching colleges, moving into a rickety Victorian home, and leaning to rely on the important people in life. In terms of enticing, this one has already hit it out of the park for me.

The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison came from Caitlin at Simon and Schuster.
The story of a young woman and her aunt and the family they create together, I suspect this one has a lot to say about appearances and depth. There's something so sophisticatedly appealing about the cover too, don't you think?

Magnolia Wednesdays by Wendy Wax came from Joy at Joan Schulhafer Publishing and Media Consulting.
The tale of an investigative reporter who quits her job, relocates to Atlanta, and writes articles about being an outsider, I can't wait to see where this one goes. We moved to Atlanta (from the north) when I was a freshman in college so I know all about being an outsider there although also being pregnant and examining the subject from the vantage of a ballroom dance studio is a bit outside my realm of experience.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana

Stephanie Saldana went to Damascus on a Fulbright scholarship to study the Jesus of the Qu'ran. She wanted to learn Arabic and read the Qu'ran in the original. She had lived in the Middle East before but Syria was new to her. The course of this memoir takes place over her Fulbright year, a year in which it wasn't easy to be an American in Syria as we were deeply into the war in Iran, a year in which she found herself trying to escape her broken heart and the seemingly cursed history that plagued her mother's family, a year in which she searched for God in the quiet of a monastery in the desert and the winding streets of the Christian area of Damascus, in a women's mosque, and in her own heart.

This memoir is very introspective and thoughtful. Saldana examines closely her life before moving to Damascus. She tries to look at her past failures in love objectively and to understand what she craves in her life. Retreating to a monastery for a month of silence and soul searching, she wrestles with whether or not she should commit to God and become a nun. After the month is over, she must re-immerse herself in not only Damascus city life but life at home in the US and ultimately make the decision whether or not to finish her Fulbright year as well as if she has truly been called to become a nun. But everything about her priorities changes when she returns to the monastery and falls in love with a novice monk. While she studies the Qu'ran with a respected teacher, learning the different but similar versions of scripture found within, she must also wait and see what path her own life will take, practicing a calmness, a resoluteness, and a patience that help her to come to terms with so much else in her life.

Well written and affecting, this is an openly honest and challenging story. Saldana has taken a long journey to know herself, to learn about a different culture, and to recognize and appreciate real love. She has drawn a vibrant and fascinating Damascus and has captured the multiple inhabitants, from the older man who adopts her as a granddaughter to the Iranian refugees humanly and with affection. The spiritual journey portion of the book was, to me, the weakest part of the book but I suspect that conveying the mystical in words for others is not an easy task. However, because this was a major portion of her narrative, it needed to draw me in more than it did. I found myself more interested when her journey involved other people, the Sheikha, the Abbot at the monastery, Frederick. And her reflections on her life prior to arriving in Damascus, her family's personal history, her vivid painting of Damascus itself and the people therein, and the love story all carried me along. This would make for a good book club book for those bookclubs which don't shy away from spirituality and will interest anyone with a fascination for the Middle East.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Review: Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

This was one of my book clubs' book for this month and I have to be honest, I was not looking forward to reading it at all. Books dealing with slavery are always painful and I find them hard to read in February, the greyest, bleakest month of the year. How ridiculous to moan about the weather making me feel not prepared for a desperate book, no? Certainly my life is pretty cushy and the main character, stolen from her homeland and sold into slavery, facing hardship and horror, should have had it so easy, right? But I felt that way, resistant to the book. So it's a good thing that book club obligated me to read this because it really was a marvelous read and certainly one that is fantastic for book clubs.

Aminata Diallo is eleven and on the verge of becoming a woman. She helps her mother catch babies in their village and neighboring villages. She is pretty happy and generally doted upon by her parents. But one evening, returning from delivering a baby, she and her mother are set upon by strange men and Aminata is stolen, her mother killed. As she is forced past her village, she witnesses her father's brutal death as well. After a three month trek, she arrives at a slave trading post on the coast and ultimately embarks on a slaver journeying to America, specifically South Carolina. This book covers Aminata's, called Meena, incredible life. From a free young girl in Africa to a slave in the southern US and ultimately a free woman in the north who chooses to use her incredible intelligence to carve out a life for herself both in the US and Canada and back in Africa and to become a potent symbol for the abolitionists in London. The scope of the novel is immense but it works. In focusing in on one main character, Hill has personalized history that makes us uncomfortable, history that we've forgotten, and history that we choose to forget or to ignore.

Meena is an amazing woman and she is incredibly gifted, learning languges like a sponge, picking up monetary systems, and practicing midwifery and some natural medicine in order to increase her value. Slavery is portrayed brutally, although Aminata, while suffering it, certainly doesn't have the appalling existence that some slaves did, thanks in large part to her skill in becoming whoever her current master wants. She faces the heartbreak common to slaves where family is torn from her and friends who have become a makeshift family themselves also disappear forever. Her desire for someone to know who she is, what her experience is, and to see into the truth of her soul is agonizing.

Highlighting the issues of survival and identity, strength and love, trust and despair, this book never shies away from the true horrors of existence as a slave and even as a free black woman dependent on the duplicitousness of the white community that wants to use her. Hill has written a marvelous and historically important book. My only quibble with it was really at the end when an unbelievable coincidence changed the tone of the book a bit abruptly. Aside from that, the writing was engrossing and Aminata was a wonderful character. Even as thick as the book is, it takes no time at all to be so comsumed by the plot and characters that you'll have a hard time putting it down. Highly recommended reading.

Incidentally, in Hill's native Canada, this was titled The Book of Negroes. For some reason, the publisher felt compelled to change the title here in the US but the replacement title does reflect the story very well.

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

The Disengagement Ring by Clodagh Murphy was mentioned at Bookfan.

Secret Son by Laila Lalami was mentioned at Bermudaonion's Weblog.

Firsts by Wilson Casey was mentioned at Book End Babes.

Men and Dogs by Katie Crouch was mentioned at Bibliophile by the Sea.

The Heights by Peter Hedges was mentioned at Bibliophile by the Sea.

My Ridiculous Romantic Obsessions by Becca Wilhite was mentioned at Bloggin' 'bout Books.

Secret Daughter by Shilpa Somaya Gowda was mentioned at Bibliophile by the Seas.

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker was mentioned at The Book Case.

All the Nice Girls by Joan Bakewell was mentioned at Dovegreyreader Scribbles.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: American Daughter by Elizabeth Kendall

The oldest of six children, Elizabeth Kendall was born when her mother was barely into adulthood herself and became not just a mirror of her mother but a miniature version, complete in almost all ways. She was the one of her siblings who was closest to her mother, as confidante, helper, and friend, despite their difference in age and their putative relationship as parent and child. This tightness was shattered when Kendall was in college and her mother was killed in a car accident with Kendall driving. Many years on, realizing that despite her deep emotional bond with her mother and the idea that she was her mother's twin, Kendall needed to go back in her history and find out who the woman she'd revered for all those years really was. This book is the result of her own memories, her siblings' memories, and interviews with friends and family, reconstructing Betty Kendall as she was then, in the process finding out who Elizabeth Kendall is now.

Kendall starts her tale with her mother's death and then travels back in time to the night her parents met, covering their courtship, early marriage, and family life, including her mother's atypical breaking out of the role of young society matron confered on her by family, position, and class. Betty Kendall was the daughter of socially prominent St. Louisans, as was her husband, and she started her marriage trying to fit into the prescribed role of the day as a young married woman. As time passed and children were added to the family, Betty started to explore the world beyond her marriage with the volatile, mercurial Henry, volunteering for the St. Louis Association for Retarded Children (Kendall's youngest sister Faith was brain damaged) and joining the civil rights movement. As Betty grew and matured into her life, Elizabeth grew into hers as well.

As much a social history of the changing roles of women across some of the most turbulent years of the twentieth century as it is a history of Elizabeth Kendall's particular mother, this makes for interesting reading. The writing here is introspective and Kendall certainly takes many opportunities to examine her own perceptions about her late mother and their relationship. Certainly an exploration into her lost mother, I sometimes found it a challenge to stay engaged in the story. Perhaps I am of the wrong generation, taking for granted so much of what was clearly hard fought in the years following WWII but somehow this didn't have the emotional resonance I would have expected. It is technically well written but the spark that would make it stand out head and shoulders above other biography/ memoirs of its type was missing for me. Despite this, I would certainly recommend this to readers interested in women's history, the personal versus the public and those curious about mother daughter relationships during changing times.


I made one of my children cry this morning before school. Of course, the reason that I made him cry kept me up all night tossing and turning and fighting off nausea. I don't think we can have the rescue dog we were adopting and the whole situation makes me sick to my stomach. (Those not animal inclined might want to quit reading now.)

I did a lot of searching before settling on a cute, special needs schnoodle at a rescue near my parents' house. According to the website, he was about 2, 15-18 lbs., altered, blind and surrendered by a breeder. I called and talked to the woman in charge of the shelter and she told me he was sweet, good with kids, and had, until recently, been with a foster family so was working on housebreaking. She didn't add anything else about the dog. I knew a blind dog would take some extra effort but I was completely willing to do it. I put in an application and made my donation and he was ours. The only hitch was getting him to us. In the end, we decided that my mom's groomer would pick him up, groom him as he was certain to need it, and get him to my mom. Then mom would keep him for a couple of days before coming up here to visit with us, bringing our new boy with her. I have been getting daily updates since he was picked up. He was frightened (to be expected) and not housebroken at all (not thrilled about having to start from scratch but do-able). He's not 15-18 pounds, he's more like 25. That's a pretty significant difference when we wanted a small dog but I was willing to overlook that too.

Each day there was one more thing to report that was not as represented with this poor guy. But last night was horrible and almost certainly means he's going back to the shelter, no matter how much it breaks my heart and that of my kids. Not only was he left with no shot records (supposed to be current on shots) but he's *not* neutered. He's not just blind; he's deaf and almost entirely toothless. He's not just under 2, he's more like 7 or possibly older if the blindness is caused by cataracts from old age. And the deal breaker? He's not a schnoodle but a cockapoo. Now I realize that shelter dogs are very frequently a mix of unknowns but I chose this guy because he was a schnoodle surrendered by a breeder. My husband is allergic to dogs but can tolerate non-shedders. Schnauzers and poodles (hence the schnoodle) are both non-shedders. Cocker spaniels are not non-shedders and therefore cockapoos still shed. Certainly a breeder would know the parentage of their dog, right? And the rescue group has quite a few other schnoodles *and* cockapoos listed on the site so clearly they know there's a difference.

It makes me sick to my stomach that the rescue place lied about the dog just to get him out of there. And I guess if I was a better person, I would take him anyway, despite their lies. But I can't. It's a health issue for my family. And it's breaking my heart for my kids, and for me, and most of all, for this poor frightened dog who has had no stability in his life and has just experienced less thanks to the rescue's misrepresentations. Now I'm going to go crawl back in my bed, nurse my sick stomach, and cry a little for all of us.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Library Loot

Hold onto your hats people! I actually went to the library and checked a book out. I know, if the obnoxious amount of snow pounding the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states hadn't already convinced you that the apocalypse was starting, me checking a book out of the library is likely to do so. I never use my local library. I mean never. But W. needed some references for a project on which he's working so we dutifully headed off. As a side-note, my sweet digital native child wondered aloud why he had to use books in addition to the internet for his research when everything he ever wanted to know about Mozambique, Madagascar, and leprosy could be found, in appalling technacolor (and if you think leprosy is bad in the black and white I vaguely remember from my own history books back at the dawn of time, you should see it in full color ::gag::) right here on the WWW. But books he needed so to the library we went. And even I couldn't resist one of the books on the display shelves. Although I'm already stressed to know I have to return it.

Just look at it, isn't it pretty? And enticing? And really, I'd rather own it than have to return it but since the library wants it back and since the last book I checked out from them I did end up having to buy after it sank on the boat this summer, I probably shouldn't push my luck, should be good, read it and return it to them intact and unswollen from water damage.

In any case, amazon describes The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia thusly:

Addonia's bold debut is more compelling as an indictment of the repressiveness of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism than as a love story. In 1979, Naser's mother arranges for him and his brother, Ibrahim, to be smuggled from a Sudanese refugee camp into Jeddah and the care of a fundamentalist uncle. Naser learns to despise and fear the hate-mongering local imam, merciless religious police and powerful men who lust after boys with impunity. He never stops feeling homesick for his mother and her friends or frustrated by the Saudi's strict segregation of the sexes, and when a young woman drops a love letter at his feet, he's quickly smitten. The girl he calls Fiore (flower) is bold, passing him notes and wearing pink shoes to be recognizable in her abaya. Addonia's prose, unfortunately, loses credibility when he describes their passion. Both lovers risk public flogging or even execution, but neither doubts their relationship's correctness. The consequences they fear are of daring to love in a society dominated by hatred of foreigners, nonbelievers, women and often of love itself. Addonia's troubling revelations make for thought-provoking reading.

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger

Jonathan Cobb is taking a sabbatical year from the private boys school where he teaches, kayaking the Allagash River and following in some of the footsteps of Thoreau when he first sees Mary Fury, a biologist, corvid expert (that's crows and ravens to those of us not scientifically inclined), and university professor. Neither one of them expected to find the love of their life at the ranger station before putting into the river but they have an immediate connection and seem somehow to recognize each other. Mary is on the river to connect with the Chungamunga girls, young girls who go down the river together, learning and growing and taking a break from the potential or certain medical horrors in their futures.

As Cobb and Mary fall deeper and deeper in love during their trip down the Allagash that summer, they share their deepest souls with each other and Mary confides that she herself is a Chungamunga girl, "eternal on this water." Far from scaring Cobb away, the idea that she could eventually develop Huntington's Disease serves to make Cobb fold her into himself that much closer and when they finish their river run, their connection together takes them to Indonesia and Yellowstone and home to New Hampshire until they face their final reckoning.

The book starts out with the ending first so readers already know that they will require many tissues as they read this beautifully rendered novel of love and nature and the devastation of disease. The prose here is gorgeous and Monninger has skillfully interwoven the natural world with that of man. Mary's crow stories, grounded in myth and in science, are captivating. Cobb's fierce desire to be a caretaker to Mary and to a student who so clearly needs him is strong and yet gentle. The characters are both good souls but Monninger manages to give them enough goofy, loveable foibles that they don't come across as cookie cutter or false. The concept of the Chungamunga girls is fantastic and almost makes the reader wish to be one too for the romance and the experience and lifelong comraderie save of course, the uncertain and often limited diagnosis each of the girls face once they come off the river.

The love story between Cobb and Mary unfolds naturally and never feels manipulative, despite being so immediate. Instead the reader feels privileged to witness such a powerful, encompassing love, one that extends beyond Cobb and Mary and willingly includes and enfolds each of the people who have touched their lives in some way. The presence of the Chungamunga girls and the sleeping giant of Mary's potential Huntington's disease (her father died of it) offer up commentary on mortality and the ways in which human beings view death, the ways in which we can allow illness to dictate lives, or how we choose to not give disease, any disease large or small, that kind of hold over us. This is an incredibly powerful, moving, and simply gorgeous book. Brimming with a tender, compassionate love story and the grandeur of nature, this is one not to miss.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: The Return by Victoria Hislop

My knowledge of the Spanish Civil War comes solely from reading Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls many years ago and while there are certain scenes from that novel that remain vivid in my memory, it doesn't, perhaps, form the most coherent and complete view of that war. But aside from a brief mention of Franco, his Fascists, and their officially undeclared (but well known) sympathies during WWII, this was a bit of history that was mostly absent from any history classes I took in school. So the chance to read a book that would fill in some educational gaps was appealing to me. Victoria Hislop's The Return offered me just that opportunity.

A weekly escape from her bloodless marriage, Sonia's salsa class becomes of prime importance in her life. So when her best friend Maggie joins her, subsequently booking a girls' vacation in Granada in order for the two of them to take more lessons and to celebrate Maggie's birthday together, Sonia defies her increasingly distant and potentially alcoholic husband's wishes and jumps into the vacation with gusto. While in Granada, she meets an elderly man who runs a cafe there and who offers her intriguing tidbits about the Spanish Civil War and the history of the city. When the vacation ends, Sonia reluctantly returns to her stultifying life in London. But Maggie, free-spirit that she is heads back to Spain and the freedom and joy she found there. And eventually Sonia, suffocating in her loveless marriage, is drawn back to Granada as well, returning to the cafe and the elderly man who promises to tell her more. He narrates, for the bulk of the novel, the fascinating story of the Ramirez family, one family among many who suffered and were split apart by the Civil War. Mercedes was a spirited and amazing flamenco dancer. One brother was a firm believer in Franco and the fascists while another fought hard for the Federalists. And yet a third was apolitical but was a homosexual and therefore a target of the Nationalists. While the Civil War played an enormous role in the story, this was very much a love story as well, familial love, filial love, and passionate love as well.

The story of Mercedes and her brothers and their eventual fates makes for fairly riveting reading. The framing device, using Sonia and the elderly barrista in the modern day to contrast with the strife and struggle of the past, works well. But the frame also offers a chance for a very predictable but incredibly unlikely coincidence and the author isn't strong enough to resist this easy and unbelievable ending. The tale of Sonia's marriage, set against Mercedes' all-consuming love for Javier before having it torn asunder by war helps to clarify things in Sonia's mind and drives home the power of true love. Hislop doesn't shy away from vividly depicting the soul-sucking effects of war and the way it destroys people both physically and emotionally. This is a dramatic and mostly compelling read and those who enjoy historical fiction will find themselves engrossed in the historical world os the Spanish Civil War even if the modern day frame is less compelling and a little too obvious.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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

This meme is newly hosted by Sheila at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books. I read a bit and reviewed a bit both this week. I still feel like I'm busily playing catch-up though. In addition to reviews, this week will include a giveaway (see previous post if you are curious what book that will be) so be sure to check back frequently and see when I manage to get it posted. :-)

Books I completed this week are:

The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet
The Return by Victoria Hislop
Eternal on the Water by Jospeh Monninger
American Daughter by Elizabeth Kendall

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Great Lakes Nature by Mary Blocksma (this is going to take me all year as I read her year's entries on the corresponding days of this year)
The Bread of Angels by Stephanie Saldana

Reviews posted this week:

Dog Years by Mark Doty
Viva Cisco by Patrick Shannon
The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek
The Naked Duke by Sally MacKenzie
Inside the Postal Bus by Michael Barry
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Eternal on the Water by Jospeh Monninger
American Daughter by Elizabeth Kendall

Monday Mailbox

As if to make-up for the very slow week last week, quite a few books came my way this past week. For a while there I had more books than there were days of the week. Crazy! I think I invited this nuttiness by suggesting last week that the slowness might actually help me get caught-up. But if taunting the review book fairy nets me more wonderful books in my mailbox, remind me to try it every week! This past week's mailbox arrival:

Eternal on the Water by Jospeh Monninger came from Sarah at Simon and Schuster for a book tour.
I am a sucker for anything with water on the cover or in the title. This story of an enduring love begun on a river and now facing a terrible tragedy is completely appealing on so many levels.

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott came from the publisher via Shelf Awareness.
Who doesn't love Anne Lamott's writing? And Lamott writing a novel about a seemingly perfect teenager who is lying to her parents as the siren song of drugs and alcohol pull her under can only be great.

Corked by Kathryn Borel came from Anna at Hachette.
I am no oenophile. As a matter of fact, I don't really like wine at all but I am fascinated by the idea of it and by the idea that learning about it could bring this father and daughter closer together. And I'll be having a giveaway for this one so be sure to check back and enter to win.

Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show by Frank Delaney came from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A sprawling vaudvillian novel of Ireland. Need I say more?

The Writing on My Forehead by Nafisa Haji came from the pulisher via TLC Books Tours for a book tour.
An American teenager of Pakistani descent uncovers family secrets when she goes over to Karachi for a family wedding, changing the entire direction of her life. Billed as a novel about family and choice and what defines us, this sounds completely delicious.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet

As the title might suggest, this is a very graphic memoir, by turns equally salacious and detached. The critics found it highbrow, claiming it is a feminist statement and a reimagining of feminine sexuality. Personally, I thought it was more likely to be a case of the emperor having no clothes. A memoir detailing Millet's sexual life, from her childhood fantasies to her participation in group orgies and swinging to her open marriage, this is open and unashamed. But it is also deadly dull. Yes, a book about sex that makes you want to die a little, and not in the way of la petite mort.

I found it a little (okay, a lot) disturbing that Millet claims that some of her earliest memories are her sexual fantasies about group sex. It certainly makes one wonder what sorts of things a child her age had been exposed to in order to know enough to have these vivid and detailed fantasies at such a young age. The casualness of the sexual encounters surprised me, including the complete lack of worry about mundane things like protection or disease (condoms are mentioned once while male partners' proclivities for seeing others' bodily fluids and contributing to them are mentioned as if unprotected sex is par for the course. Obviously clap was a common occurrence as she mentioned alternative outlets when she was suffering from it. And there was never a thought for the significant others of some of her more frequent partners, only a few of whom (the significant others, I mean) are mentioned as participants in the casual, free sex world that Millet inhabits. Obviously this is not a book for the squeamish or the prudish. The language used in the book, whether as a choice of the translator or true to the original, is fairly slang-y and confrontational but ironically, even the shocking use of casual terms for sexual organs and actions can't save this book from snoozeville.

Millet tries to draw some parallels to the art world in her discussion of space and number and in her description of scene but it all falls flat. This particular edition contains an afterwod where she tackles the criticism that her writing about something so personal is detached and unengaging, suggesting that those who make this criticism are missing the point. But her argument that the only way to write about or observe sex is in a detached manner, even if the author is the person indulging in it herself, rings false. As a matter of fact, it suggests that sexual encounters with Ms. Millet are probably fairly unemotional, unfulfilling experiences all the way around, despite her assertion that she is complimented all the time on her prowess. But technical prowess doesn't always equate to satisfaction. And this book proves it. Technically adept writing-wise, the reading offered no satisfaction, emotionally or intellectually. Oh, and color me a prude because the repeated graphic depictions of entangled bodies indulging in group sex, flashed kaleidoscopically throughout the text, first horrified me, then numbed me, and finally bored me to apathy. And I've just recently read there is a sequel either in the works or recently published. I plan on turning a blind eye to what I suspect is more intellectual masterbation (ironic given that it is over group and free sex, eh?) in book form.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review: Inside the Postal Bus by Michael Barry

I saw this book at the local charity shop when I went to drop off 9(!) paper grocery bags full of books and thought of a friend for whom I wanted to buy it. And because I am one of those kinds of friends, I read it first, of course. Written by a member of the US Postal professional cycling team, this is a combination memoir of the 2004 season (when Lance Armstrong won his record sixth Tour de France) and a bit of insight into what it's like to be on one of, if not the premier, cycling teams in the world.

I know next to nothing about cycling as a sport. I think the last time I went out for a ride on a bike, it had a banana seat. Not that that dates me or anything. But when I clip my cycling shoes into the pedals of the spin bikes (it's been months since I even did that), it makes me feel all fancy and professional. Ha! But I was curious about the life of a professional cyclist and thought this book would be a great opportunity to learn more. Barry discusses daily life on the team and talks about his team mates' accomplishments. He shares the grueling training regimen of a professional cyclist and the tactics and adrenaline-fueled race efforts that are such a major portion of their lives. The heady races around Europe (where the majority of the races take place) both powered by their own legs and the races on flights and by bus just to get to the races are described in detail. And each of the bigger races is broken down and analyzed in great depth.

If a reader is a cyclist, this attention to detail is probably fascinating. On the other hand, for those of us who only don bike shorts to go workout at the Y, the detail is exhaustive and a bit excessive. I think the book is intended to reach a non-specialist audience but it doesn't quite make it. The writing is often choppy and jumps from topic to topic. It founders a bit organizationally. There's little information about the author himself, which perhaps led to my feeling unconnected to the book. More personal information both about Barry and about any or all of his teammates would have been nice. And I don't mean of the expose sort. Entertaining anecdotes about things that happened on the bus, between roommates, at meals, etc. which told a bit about the personalities of the friends and competitors would have added immeasurably to the enjoyment factor here. There was some interesting information about the way that each team works, their strategies, and what it takes to ensure that a team's leader will win a big race. But the interesting information was overshadowed by a blow by blow recitation from each big race. By the time we reached the end, I had no doubts that the overall actions of the peloton and the groupetto would be much the same in each race and I didn't need to read about it repetitively. This book had the potential for so much more. I know Barry is a world class cyclist, riding with the best of the best, and in love with his sport. But who he and his teammates are in terms of human interest? Well, that's not in here and I for one wish it had been. Recommended for the hard core cyclist only.

Review: The Naked Duke by Sally MacKenzie

Yes, romances are fairly predictable. Yes, they follow strict conventions. Yes, they almost inevitably have a happy ending (we romance readers demand it, you know). But that is no excuse to use the most tired plot twists in what would otherwise perhaps be a decent story. In other words, I am sick to death of the bad guy kidnapping the heroine. I mean, if this sort of thing went on in the Regency as often as romance writers use it to add conflict into their novels, well, it's a miracle any young miss stayed out of the nefarious clutches of the baddies for more than an hour at a time. Please, authors, I am begging you, no more kidnappings! Constant abductions are making a mockery of the genre. Okay, with that off my chest, on to the actual book (which sadly, does indeed use the kidnapping ploy).

Sarah Hamilton has come to England upon the death of her father, intending to go to her uncle, the Earl of Westbrooke, whom she has never met. She ends up at an inn near the Westbrooke family home, without any belongings and being refused a room at the inn when she is taken under the wing of a drunken nobleman who shows her to "her" room. Exhausted from her journey, she climbs into bed, only waking in the morning to find herself in bed with the Duke of Alvord and being gawped at by quite a few people. Upon finding out who she is (and discovering that the drunken nobleman who ensconsed her in the Duke's room is her cousin, the current Earl of Westbrooke), James, the Duke offers to marry her. But Sarah is an American through and through and has republican ideas and a distinct distrust of titles and the aristocracy. She does, however, agree to be the James' houseguest and accompany his sister through her season. Meanwhile James has determined to marry her and sets himself up to court her, until his evil and nasty cousin threatens Sarah, much as he'd been threatening and actually attempting to murder James for years. So between Sarah's reluctance to marry into the hypocrisy and entitlement of the ton and James' desire to save her from his terrible cousin Richard, questions arise about whether or not the two of them will overcome the obstacles and end up together.

While parts of the storyline are fine, there are enough cliched and heavy-handed bits to detract from the overall. Cousin Richard is so angry and bitter about not being the Duke that he is completely stereotypical and not one ounce of goodness can be found in him. He enjoys sex with women only through rape and murder (and the scene that gives the reader this insight into his soul is very graphic) and has a longtime male lover through whom we are supposed, I think, to understand that he was once a decent human being whose anger has warped his soul to madness. And yet this isn't believable given his actions. Our hero, James, is nice but certainly not one to inspire heartfelt sighs. He is a virgin, certainly unlikely for a romance hero, but even this is a bit off given that he has never, until meeting Sarah, been interested in sex. He's thirty for pete's sake. And he's been completely *asexual* all that time, just waiting for the right woman to awaken his desires? Just a little far-fetched. Sarah is ridiculously wed to her notion that the aristocracy is all terrible contrary to what she witnesses and without reference to the fact that she is indeed one of the aristocracy herself as a result of being the Earl of Westbrooke's cousin. But despite her supposedly being an intelligent character, this never occurs to her at all.

Yes, there are significant problems in this romance but MacKenzie does take a darker tone than is usual in the genre and perhaps her desire to combine the darker with the lighter, more usual fare, helped to create some of these problems. As this is a debut novel, I'd be curious to see if these dichotomies and flaws are melded more seamlessly and smoothed over better in the later books in the series. I do already own the rest of the series and so will eventually read it otherwise I'd probably say that this is one I'd be more inclined to borrow from the library than anything else.

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah was mentioned at S. Krishna's Books.

The One to Watch by Shane Watson was mentioned at Snowbell Jewelry.

Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show by Frank Delaney was mentioned at Savvy Verse & Wit.

I'm Sorry You Feel That Way by Diana Joseph was mentioned at Beth Fish Reads.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review: The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek

The four Haas siblings had anything but a normal childhood, growing up the children of a once famous playwright and a cult actress, mostly neglected as their parents pursued their own dreams and desires. Told in four main sections (a fifth smaller section narrated by their mother closes the book) as Amy, George, Finn and Kate move into adulthood and on with their lives away from the dysfunction that reigned supreme throughout their childhood, the novel illuminates who they have become and why.

Amy wants, more than anything, to be normal and to have a normal life. George is searching for love and the acceptance that no one aside from Amy ever offered him. Kate has shut herself off emotionally and in lieu of a relationship, drives herself through her high-powered legal job. And Finn, the least likely to make waves when they were younger, is drinking himself into an early grave. None of the four is undamaged by their unbringing. But each of the four is also struggling to overcome and to learn the happiness they were never taught as children watching their parents lash out at and destroy each others' lives with carelessness, apathy and disloyalty. Through it all, none of the siblings is capable of severing connections entirely. Each retains a shred of love for their parents and for each other which manifests itself throughout the years covered in the novel in surprising ways.

Although there is no physical abuse, the scars of the characters' early lives are still raw and visible. And that makes this book sad in tone and emotionally draining. And yet, despite this almost despairing sense, there is hope in the fragile family connections they retain and in their developing abilities to make a new, stronger family for themselves amongst those who accept and love them in the end. The writing here is fluid and smoothly sweeps the reader along. The characters, flawed and pitiable as they all are, are entirely sympathetic. We are given more about Amy and George than about Kate and Finn but perhaps their aching for love and normalcy in their lives is more resonant than the workaholism and alcoholism of Kate and Finn would have been. The story was not full of action and fireworks but was quietly emotional and relentless and true to life. And yet there was a lost and wandering, a sense of melancholy to the tale that burrows into the reader, keeping the pages turning in hopes of finding out that these characters find some happiness and sense of peace for themselves in the end.

The final section of the book, narrated by Marilyn, the mother of these four bent not broken siblings, was much more hopeful than the sections narrated by the siblings but it was almost a bit too hopeful given her absence and neglect from their lives to that point. Certainly her remorse at what she recognizes she's had a large hand in doing to her children is earned and their continued slight wariness in her presence feels authentic but without understanding how she has come to face her past transgressions, it seems so different from the rest of the book that it makes a bit of an awkward fit.

A complex stew of modern day family, dysfunctions, and the things that keep us bound, however tenuously, this is a gripping, gut-aching story and one that will keep you thinking long after the last page is turned.

Be sure to visit author Robin Antalek's website to read an excerpt or learn more about the author.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and Harper Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.

This review is a part of a TLC Book Tours blog tour.

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