Wednesday, February 29, 2012

book review: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachen.

The backstory: The Last Brother is a finalist in the 2012 Tournament of Books.

The basics: This story of Mauritius during World War II is the story of Raj, who was nine years old in 1944, and his unlikely friend David, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia who was imprisoned on the island after being turned away from Palestine.

My thoughts: This novel has so many things working in its favor. The setting of Mauritius was captivating, and I learned about the island's history. It's a lost story of World War II few are aware of, and the imprisonment of European Jewish refugees was fascinating and harrowing.

Unfortunately, all of these positive attributes were undone by the way Appanah chose to tell the story. The novel opens with Raj, who is seventy years old. He is retelling the story of his childhood, but the narration was an awkward blend of present tense and past tense. I wish Appanah would have used a split narrative instead. Seeing the events of 1944 through Raj's eyes at the time would have been more interesting. It's clear to the reader Raj was ignorant of the war, religion, and death camps. Instead the story was told through an awkward mix of Raj's memory sixty years later and his perceptions as a child. This narrative structure impacted the flow and pace of this novel, and I distracted from the story. Instead of being swept away by this intriguing setting and tale, I was focused on why I wasn't enjoying it and thinking of its construction.

The verdict: Despite a strong premise, the narrative style distracted and bored me. It's a wonderful story at its core, but I didn't like the storytelling, and the style hindered my enjoyment of this quiet novel immensely. Just as telling: I didn't make note of a single passage in this novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: February 1, 2011
Source: interlibrary loan

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Last Brother from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, February 27, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 7

Welcome to Week 7 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and the pace is perfect. (Missed the first six weeks? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfive, and six.)

My thoughts: Chapter 7, entitled "As Long as Grass Grows or Water Runs," focuses on the removal of Native Americans from land east of the Mississippi River. This chapter was depressing, which is becoming a theme. Again, I felt somewhat familiar with the material. As someone who grew up in Kansas, I was surrounded by geography named for Native Americans and attended schools named Tecumseh and Pawnee. Still, some of the more gruesome details were new to me.

What, or rather who, struck me most during this chapter was Andrew Jackson. Until this point, even as the rich white settlers took over, there have been elements of humanity. I had trouble seeing anything good or human in Jackson.

I also only highlighted three passages in this chapter. One of them was this most depressing story:
"This was appealed to the Supreme Court, and in Worcester v. Georgia, John Marshall, for the majority, declared that the Georgia law on which Worcester was jailed violated the treaty with the Cherokees, which by the Constitution was binding on the states. He ordered Worcester freed. Georgia ignored him, and President Jackson refused to enforce the court order."
I'm still enjoying this book immensely and am glad to have the accountability of reading it each week. I will say, after seven weeks of reading, it is a bit discouraging to only be twenty percent completed. After sneaking a peak at the table of contents again, I'm encouraged to see so many upcoming topics that interest me. I've always been more interested in modern U.S. history, so I hope the sometimes monotonousness of these early chapters recedes as we move forward.

Are you reading along? How are you feeling about the pace and our progress?

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version is only $2.99 until March 5!) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Some Questions (and Answers)

There's been a meme of questions going around the book blogosphere. It involves questions, answers, rules and tagging. Perhaps you've seen it around? Both Melissa at The Avid Reader's Musings and Emily at The Alcove tagged me. I don't like the traditional rules, so I'm picking and choosing from both of their questions. Feel free to play along!

From Melissa:
How many times have you moved?
A lot. Twenty-one times by my count. Seriously! While I can credit my parents with letting me finish second grade in my third elementary school, most of those are on me. I've moved eight times since I finished college (and yes, I did attend two different colleges and took a year off, so I moved a lot in college too.) Did I mention Mr. Nomadreader and I lived in four states during the first two and a half years we dated? (In order: Georgia, Arizona, Iowa, and New York for those playing along at home.)

What movie should win the Best Picture Oscar this year?
I've only managed to see three of them, but thus far, I'm rooting for The Descendants. It explored the human condition beautifully. It was smart, funny and deeply moving.

Do you have a dream job? What is it?
Short of my fantasy job of getting paid to read, watch movies and travel, I have my dream job in the real world. Life is good:-)

Favorite Girl Scout cookie?
As I love to remind my husband, "I'm not much of a dessert person." But Samoas are delicious.

Guilty pleasure TV show you watch?
Oh so many: Revenge, Ringer, The Lying Game, The Real World/Road Rules Challenge (even though they just call it The Challenge now), Teen Mom (1&2), Big Brother (not every year) and Khloe and Lamar. But I watch a lot of PBS documentaries too!

What question do you hate it when people ask you?
Where do you see yourself in ten years? Seriously, people, has technology not told us we have no idea? My job didn't exist ten years ago. My blog didn't exist ten years ago. Etc.

Your favorite pet you've ever owned?
I had goldfish a few times. I'm not really an animal person.

What's the first book you remember reading?
I have no clear memory, but I do remember reading the first book my mom told me I couldn't (hi, Mom!) I somehow scored a copy of Playing with Fire, the third Sweet Valley High book. I think I was in second grade. I remember being shocked at some things, but I couldn't tell my mom, and I could only read at school when I finished my work early.

What's your favorite drink? 
Just one? If by favorite you mean drink most often, then I'm quite fond of Trader Joe's Vinas Chilenas Sauvignon Blanc Reserva (it's only $3.99!) I tend to go through phases of favorites. In terms of cocktails, I'm a martini drinker, and I love inventing new drinks with fresh ingredients. My usually adventures involve muddling an herb (cilantro, basil, or sage.) with fresh citrus and adding gin. In terms of traditional favorites: a Manhattan on the rocks and a dirty gin martini with Maytag blue cheese stuffed olives always work too.

What's one thing on your Bucket List?
I should write them all down at some point. Most, not surprisingly involve reading and travel. I want to read all of the books longlisted for the Orange Prize. I want to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners. I want to read the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. I want to go to Asia. I want to see as much of the world as I can.

From Emily:
Speaking of tag . . . what was your favorite playground game as a child?
I loved this ridiculous version of tag called Television Tag. I don't remember the precise rules, but I know my knowledge of television shows meant I didn't have to run around as much.

Do you reread books? Why or why not?
Not often. I re-read two books last year. Both were by Robert Ellis, and I wanted to re-read the first two in the series before the third one came out. I do plan to re-read  American Wife this year (my review.) I loved it so much when I first read it three years ago, and I call it my favorite book. I want to see if it can withstand a re-read and if my tastes have changed in the last three years!


What’s your favorite place to get books? Second favorite?
Digital review copies from Edelweiss and NetGalley rock my reading world. Second favorite: Kindle loans from my public library. I prefer to read on my Kindle, so anything I can do to make it cheaper to do so is good with me.

What literary character would you like to take out to coffee?
Alice Blackwell from American Wife. I adore her, and I want to meet her in real life. She fascinates me completely.

What’s your favorite odd food combination?

I put anchovies in just about anything. I love them. I love canned anchovies and snack on them straight from the tin. I love the fresh white ones. They are delightful with almost anything.


When you were a kid, you wanted to grow up and be a ____________.
A librarian. Seriously. I don't think I meant an academic librarian at the time, but one old family friend commented on my parents' Christmas letter a few years ago that I always talked about becoming a librarian when I was a kid, and I became one.

Pancakes or waffles?
Pancakes! Honestly, I rarely eat them because I usually fix eggs and bacon or fruit with oatmeal. But when I do eat pancakes...

Share one random fact about yourself we don’t know.
I don't like syrup. Instead, I spread butter, sprinkle fresh sugar, then add heavy whipping cream (not whipped cream; in liquid form.) I've been known to use half and half or soy milk in a pinch too. It's a central Kansas farm tradition (or so my family says.) Regardless, it's delicious!

Have more questions for me? I'll do my best to answer them here next Saturday. Leave them in the comments, email them to me, or tweet meNow that I'm done. I can make up my own rules, right? If you you'd like to answer any of all of these questions, in the comments or on a blog: consider yourself tagged. 


As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, February 24, 2012

film thoughts: The Help

The backstory: Although I wasn't a huge fan of The Help as a novel (my review), I was eager to see the film, which is nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

My thoughts: While I liked the film a little more than the novel, I'm still not a big fan of this story. I think it's difficult to comment on a film's pacing when you've read the novel (and found it slow), but I think pacing is still an issue in the film, even though it's a lesser one. Similarly, I found the book to be too long, and I also felt the film was too long. I found the plot of the novel telegraphed from the beginning, and the problem was still present in the film. I will say, however, the acting was quite good, and I did find myself being swept away by the performances, while Stockett's use of language never blew me away.

Much of the press, particularly during this awards season, has been on Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Both gave fine performances, but Jessica Chastain's performance was the only one worthy of an Oscar. She had the most interesting character, and she gave the most interesting performance. In the novel, I found many of the character's rather one-dimensional, and that problem lingered in the film and dampened the performances of Davis and Spencer. Chastain managed to make her character fully three-dimensional, and she blew me away.

Ultimately, what bothered me most about the film was the ending. For me, the really interesting story is what happens after The Help is published. How does the community react? How do daily lives change? Do things change? The crux of the film is the maids telling their story, but a the story isn't enough for me. I want to know about the impact of the story. There are snippets of it, but I wish the film began when it ended. Toure posited earlier this month that the ending is preposterous and the men of Jackson "would have killed several of these maids." Perhaps my biggest problem with the story, in book and film, was how false it rings for me. There's a place for idealism and change, but grounding historical fiction in actual history is important too.

The verdict: Needless to say, I think the film is undeserving of its Best Picture nomination, but I did appreciate the large cast and the acting performances. Jessica Chastain's performance alone makes the film worth watching, and I will be rooting for her to win on Sunday night.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 146 minutes
Release date: It's on dvd now
Source: library

Want to see it for yourself? Buy The Help from Amazon on dvd, Blu-Ray or a digital copy.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

book review: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

The basics: The Gillespie of the title refers to Ned Gillespie, a Scottish painter whom Harriet, the I of the title, befriended many years before when she visited the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888. Now in 1933, Harriet is almost 80, and she realizes no one has written a book about Gillespie, so she will tell his story.

My thoughts: This book swept me away from the first lines. To this reader of modern fiction, the voice of Harriet, our intrepid and delightful narrator, truly hearkens back to the setting of the novel. Harris combined period authenticity with modern sass, and I adored it:
"A preposterous name, and it occurred to me that, perhaps, she had made it up. I went on to ask a few questions about her family, and her reactions continued to be guarded. She told me that her parents were dead. I did manage to get a little more out of her. To my mind, it all sounds like a fairy tale. She claims to have grown up in a tiny cottage beside a well; her father was a shoemaker, and her mother, a washerwoman. Tempted to ask: 'And your grandparents--were they elves?' I managed to restrain myself, just in time."
Most of the action in this novel takes place in Harriet's retelling of events beginning in 1888, but there are sections intermixed of what's happening as she's writing in 1933. I found both storylines fascinating, but what surprised me is how my perceptions of both changed as the book went on. What begins as a charming, quirky period piece became an increasingly dark mystery. This shift makes it quite difficult to discuss this novel without spoiling pieces of it.

Favorite passage: "We may have the vote now, and win Pulitzer prizes, and fly solo across the Atlantic, and these days, a female artist with a family might well earn a good living from painting, but in the privacy of the doctor's surgery, we are still made to feel insignificant, aberrant, even unnatural."

The verdict: I loved this novel, and I was sad when it ended. I want to spend more time with Harriet's quirky, fascinating tale. Gillespie and I was a compelling read filled with historical detail, fascinating characters and beautiful writing.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 528 pages
Publication date: January 31, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Gillespie and I from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.) Want more reviews? Check out the full tour schedule.

Learn more about Jane Harris: visit her website, Facebook page, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Loving the Des Moines Life: Diavolo

Last Saturday night Mr. Nomadreader and I attended the first of the three-part Dance Series at the Des Moines Civic Center. I'm a huge fan of dance, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to see some of the best dance troupes without leaving Des Moines. One of the best parts about living downtown is being able to walk to cultural events. Because it was Saturday night, we decided to stay in and prepare a few small courses rather than be pressed for time at a restaurant. Unfortunately we gobbled up our goodies before I thought to take a picture, but we enjoyed the meal so much we'll be making all the pieces again soon. I contributed a tuna ceviche. I make it about once a month, and each time I vow to actually write down the recipe, as I tweak it a little bit every time. Mr. Nomadreader contributed our other monthly favorite: filet mignon carpaccio topped with freshly shaved parmesan cheese, arugula and drizzled with truffle oil. He also made delicious monkfish nuggets, which were lightly dipped in a panko tarragon batter. The meal was almost as divine as the dancing, which you really must see for yourself.



I was blown away. Mr. Nomadreader had to shush because I could not stop whispering "wow" as they continued to astonish me with their strength, grace and creativity. After the show, the dancers came out and answered questions from audience members who wished to stay. It was interesting to hear their diverse backgrounds and see how much they enjoy talking about what they do.

Convinced? See where Diavolo is touring next. Live in Des Moines? Don't miss out on the next two Dance Series performances: Royal Ballet Winnipeg dancing Moulin Rouge and Parsons Dance.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

book review: Fall Back Plan by Leigh Stein

The basics: Esther, a recent Northwestern theater graduate, is jobless and carless, so she moves back in with her parents in the Chicago suburbs. (I adored this description of the suburbs: "The stillness of the humid night was punctuated only by the sounds of car engines cooling in the parking lot, and the sprinklers on the lawns of the surrounding houses along the streets named after trees that do not grow there.")

My thoughts: When I first heard about this novel, it was billed as a "quarter-life crisis novel." While I understand where that moniker comes from, I don't think it suits this novel. There were a few passages, however, that do make a case for Leigh Stein as the voice of those in their early-to-mid-twenties: "I wanted whatever was going to happen to have happened already, so I could email my friends and tell them about it."

Esther is a delightful, quirky, smart, and sad young woman. Her vision of life after college has not materialized:
"Before college, when I’d imagined my social future, my life at twenty-two, I’d pictured a small group of brunette women who were all my best friends, and our bearded boyfriends who all hailed from Portland, in a room together, drinking red wine and discussing Brecht’s influence on Godard, or the merits of Joyce. What page are you on in Ulysses? Oh, 500 and something. Keep with it. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the Latin parodies in Episode 14! Anyone up for another game of Bananagrams?"
The beauty, honesty and pain of this novel are exemplified by how that paragraph continues:
"But after four years of college, I was exhausted by ideas, and secretly relieved to live at home because there were so few expectations. I liked being with Jack and Pickle because everything we did together, everything we ever talked about, was unambiguous and fell into one of four categories: Sex, money, drugs, violence."
Esther finds herself hanging out with Jack and Pickle, two friends from high school who dabble in community college, video games and partying. Her parents find her a job baby-sitting for friends of theirs who recently lost a baby. The characters of Amy, the troubled mother, and May, the four-year old she spends her days with. The mix of these worlds is particularly stunning. Throughout this novel, there is a beautiful tension between humor and the darkness of reality:
"I couldn’t believe I now had a job. My job was going to be playing with a four-year-old? Part of my brain immediately attempted to calculate the amount of money I’d get to spend on screenwriting books after I paid my parents rent, part of my brain said, You’re stoned, about to go on a drug run, and someone is going to trust you with their small child, and part of my brain cast me as Mary Poppins in an adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick."
While I utterly enjoyed this novel and was sad when I finished it, I think if I had read it even a few years ago, I would have shouted-from-the-rooftops-loved-it. It has little to do with my age and more to do with where I am in life. I'm mostly settled into a nice urban apartment with my husband. We just bought a new car. I have a tenure-track job at an awesome university. This blog serves as a voice to my small corner of the literary blogosphere. Still, the frantic, "who am I?", "where am I going?"--literally and figuratively--questions are not that far behind me. Even if they were, Stein drew me into Esther's world, and it's a quirkier, funnier version of reality; thankfully it still has the hallmarks of everyday life as its anchor.

Favorite passage: "Apparently, no one ever grew up to be noble and brave and wise. Apparently, this was just a lie perpetuated by children’s book authors. Thanks, Frances Hodgson Burnett! High five, Louisa May Alcott! Now, at twenty-two, I finally knew the truth: In another twenty years I would still be depressed and apathetic. I would still be waiting for that turning point, the one that comes in books and plays, where the hero has to step up and risk it all. Apparently, in life, there is no such thing. In another twenty years I would just be a heavier, more nearsighted, more clumsy version of the girl I was now, except that I wouldn’t even be allowed to read Teen Vogue, because I would be seen as either mentally ill or as a pedophilic lesbian."

The verdict: The Fallback Plan is a delightful novel filled with humor, wisdom, heart and pain. Leigh Stein is a talented writer I'll be keeping an eye on.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2012
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Fallback Plan from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more Leigh Stein? Full Stop has an AWESOME interview with her this week. Leigh also has a blog. Plus you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, February 20, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 6



Welcome to Week 6 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and the pace is perfect. (Missed the first five weeks? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefour, and five.)

My thoughts: Chapter 6, entitled "The Intimately Oppressed," focuses on women's roles and the beginnings of the women's rights movement. I majored in women's studies in college, and I already adore many of the key players in this chapter. What I found most interesting in this chapter was how Zinn placed the early women's movement within context of the rest of the book:
"Putting all women into the same category—giving them all the same domestic sphere to cultivate—created a classification (by sex) which blurred the lines of class, as Nancy Cott points out."
It's a fascinating concept, and one I had not thought of earlier, even though it sounds quite obvious in retrospect. In this sense, it becomes much more difficult to treat women the same way blacks, Native Americans, and even poor white people were treated.

I was also intrigued by this notion of women in education:
"Middle-class women, barred from higher education, began to monopolize the profession of primary-school teaching. As teachers, they read more, communicated more, and education itself became subversive of old ways of thinking. They began to write for magazines and newspapers, and started some ladies’ publications. Literacy among women doubled between 1780 and 1840. Women became health reformers. They formed movements against double standards in sexual behavior and the victimization of prostitutes. They joined in religious organizations. Some of the most powerful of them joined the antislavery movement."
With women overseeing the care and education of children, boys and girls, there were fascinating consequences. I was thrilled to see literary double among women, but I wish Zinn had shared what those rates were.

I found this chapter fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed feeling smart for knowing so much of this chapter already. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the excerpts from early American feminists in Voice of a People's History of the United States this week. I've also been listening to Amy Ray's first solo album, Stag, incessantly since I read this chapter. I wrote a paper about her song "Lucy Stoners" in college, and the entire album takes me back to my college apartment, where I first read so many of those original writings and speeches.

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version is only $2.99 until March 5!) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

book review: The Silent Oligarch by Christopher Morgan Jones

The basics: At its simplest, The Silent Oligarch is an investigative thriller about Russian corruption and money laundering. Webster, a journalist turned private investigator, is hired to look into a notoriously corrupt Russian businessman and his lawyer.

My thoughts: The Silent Oligarch is an immensely readable thriller. It didn't keep me on the edge of my seat, but I was intrigued by it and appreciated the pace at which it unfolded. I was most impressed with how Jones could tell a complicated story with many players in a relatively straight-forward manner without me confusing characters.

What kept this novel feeling less like a thriller was the alternating narration. Webster, a journalist turned investigator with numerous international connections to call upon, and Lock, the lawyer, took turns telling their stories. Seeing corruption from both sides made this story much more human, which took away from the suspense somewhat, but I appreciated the nuance to this approach. Jones tells this story from the perspective that Russia is corrupt on every level:
“Every Russian is corrupt according to his station in life. If you are a schoolteacher, you sell grades. If you are a fishmonger, you give the best fish to those who can do something for you in return. Malin expected to be a mid-level technocrat taking a few million a year from the odd opportunity here and there. But he has managed to make himself a player and now it’s hundreds of millions, maybe billions.”
Despite all I have read about corruption in Russia, the optimistic idealist in me wonders if its really true for every single person. At times this sense of corruption seemed almost too neat and tidy. After reading (and enjoying) Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (my review) last year, I found many similarities in theme and tone, but Snowdrops was both a more subtle, devastating and ultimately more intriguing novel for me. To dismiss The Silent Oligarch, however, would not be fair, as it is not trying to be Snowdrops. Both have merits, both are debut novels by British writers who worked in Russia.

Favorite passage: “No crime was ever discovered in Russia unless someone more powerful than you wanted to hurt you.”

The verdict: The Silent Oligarch is an intelligent thriller that examines Russian corruption from the inside and the outside. Jones is a talent to watch, as he told a complicated, thrilling story in an incredibly accessible way. Recommended to fans of political thrillers and international thrillers.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: January 19, 2012
Source: publisher, via TLC Book Tours

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Silent Oligarch from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

To learn more about Christ Morgan Jones, visit his website. Also, check out the full tour schedule.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

film review: The Artist

The backstory: The Artist is nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Director. It's already won Best Picture at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Critics Choice Awards.

The basics: Set in 1927, The Artist is the story of George Valentin, an enormously famous silent film star. It traces George's fate as talkies begin to dominate the film industry.

My thoughts: I took many film courses in college, and I've sat through more silent films than I wish I had. (While there are some that stand up to my modern viewing sensibilities, most I would have preferred to see clips from.) I think even those only familiar with silent films in the abstract aspect will understand their conventions in this film and enjoy the seemingly inside jokes about silent films.

I hoped The Artist would move beyond its conventions and provide a modern take on silent film. I hoped it would explore the human condition in a meaningful way. It didn't, but despite these misgivings, there is a lot of good in this film. Jean Dujardin was amazing. He embodied the era in pose, facial expressions and tap dance. Berenice Bejo was every bit his equal, expect in screen time. The two had chemistry, humor and were delightful to watch. While the acting was excellent, the most interesting part of the film was how it played with sound. The few scenes in which the film stepped out of the confines of being a silent movie were inventive and inspired, but they were ultimately overshadowed by the film's predictability that rendered it mostly ordinary.

Where the film stalled, however, was in its storyline. Once the stage was set (and the first hour of the film is excellent), it took the humor, joy and pain and turned authentic emotion into melodrama. It didn't work for me, but I am clearly in the minority.

The verdict: Despite a strong premise, ultimately The Artist was too predictable and melodramatic to allow its excellent acting to truly shine.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 100 minutes
Release date: it's in theaters now (see where it's playing near you)
Source: I paid to see at the Fleur Cinema (for only $6.50--I love Des Moines!)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

book review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

The backstory: We Need to Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize in 2005.

My thoughts: If you happened upon me on Twitter while I was reading it, you're probably surprised I not only finished the novel but ended up loving it. About a third of the way through, I bean to struggle mightily. Although I found Shriver's writing was gorgeous, the action was quite slow to build. As I bemoaned to Lu at Regular Rumination (who hated it), she admitted the ending was almost interesting. It, as well as my love for So Much for That (my review) and how many trusted friends loved this novel, convinced me to keep reading. Soon, something intriguing happened, and I was hooked again. I devoured the last half of the novel and haven't stopped thinking about it since I finished it a month ago.

We Need to Talk About Kevin gets billed as a 'school shooting novel,' 'the novel that will make you not want to have kids,' or 'a study of nature versus nurture.' None of those catchphrases do it justice, however. It's a deep character study of Kevin, but more so of Eva. When the novel lulled in the first third for me, it was because I was an impatient reader, ready for the action to catch up with what I knew. The novel is written in a series of letters from Eva to her husband. The title indicates this action, yet I always (erroneously) assumed the title was something people, i.e. principals, guidance counselors, and teachers, kept saying to Eva. The reader learns early on that Kevin is in prison and has a notorious reputation, which Eva has too: "I’m not sure what got into me, but I’m so tired of this. It’s not that I have no shame. Rather, I’m exhausted with shame, slippery all over with its sticky albumen taint. It is not an emotion that leads anywhere."

As Eva writer to her husband, she slowly works her way through their marriage and Kevin's life. The level of honesty and emotion Eva shares is devastating and authentic:
"Besides, much as I crave anonymity, it’s not that I want my neighbors to forget who I am; I want to, and that is not an opportunity any town affords. This is the one place in the world where the ramifications of my life are fully felt, and it’s far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood."
One of the questions of the novel is the responsibilities of motherhood and how they differ from parenthood. As a childless person, I read this novel with utter fascination and relished Eva's frankness:
"We’d agreed that whether we became parents would be “the single most important decision we would ever make together.” Yet the very momentousness of the decision guaranteed that it never seemed real, and so remained on the level of whimsy."
I adored this book for two reasons: Shriver's writing and Eva's rawness. She bears her soul, the flattering and the unflattering, the guilt, the doubt, the joy and the questions, for the reader. As a character study of a mother, it's fascinating. As a character study of a woman, it's illuminating and inspiring, and it's an intriguing tale of marriage.

Favorite passage: "In the particular dwells the tawdry. In the conceptual dwells the grand, the transcendent, the everlasting."

The verdict: Despite struggling with early parts of this novel, I came to love it. Shriver is a lyrical writer who has created fascinating, troubling characters. The slow parts kept this novel from perfection, but it is still nothing short of brilliant.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 432 pages
Publication date: March 31, 2003
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy We Need to Talk About Kevin from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository, or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Then check out this interview with Lionel Shriver on life without kids and the film adaptation. It's fascinating.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, February 13, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 5


Welcome to Week 5 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and the pace is perfect. (Missed the first four weeks? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothree, and four.)

My thoughts: Chapter 5, entitled "A Kind of Revolution," addresses the distracting impact of war on the lower and middle classes and the Constitution. This chapter is filled with cynicism and provides haunting parallels to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the current state of Congressional elections.

Here are some snapshots of (correct, in my opinion) cynicism:

"Ruling elites seem to have learned through the generations—consciously or not—that war makes them more secure against internal trouble."

"In short, as Francis Jennings puts it, the white Americans were fighting against British imperial control in the East, and for their own imperialism in the West."

Under the illusion of the mandate that all must serve in the Revolution, in reality there were two ways to get our of military service: finding someone to replace you or paying a fee. While not surprising, this reality was incredibly disheartening. Again, this chapter seemed quite similar to those that preceded it, but when the focus shifted to the genesis of the Constitution, I found it quite intriguing.

The discussion of the politics behind the Constitution more fascinating than depressing, which was incredibly refreshing: "The Constitution was a compromise between slaveholding interests of the South and moneyed interests of the North." I realized I had maintained some of my childhood enthusiasm for the Founding Fathers and the Constitution when I was surprised to think of it as a document of compromise. Even now, with every legal decision based on Constitutionality of a law, it's hard not to revere it as a guiding document.

It is a fascinating document, and this passage resonates powerfully still today: "The Constitution, then, illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity."

I thought the last chapter was a watershed chapter, but it seems next week will be more of a departure as the focus shifts to women. I'm excited to see how Zinn tackles the issue next week.

Favorite passage: "We see then, in the first years of the Constitution, that some of its provisions—even those paraded most flamboyantly (like the First Amendment)—might be treated lightly. Others (like the power to tax) would be powerfully enforced."

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version I have seems to no longer be available, thus vindicating my habits of impulse Kindle shopping!) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Salon: It's good to be home

It's been a quiet week around here, but after this amazing weekend, I finally feel like I'm back in a groove for reading, blogging and relaxing.

Reading:
I expected February to be a hectic reading month, but it has been even more hectic than I imagined. As a judge for the Indie Lit Awards in the Fiction category I'm busy reading the finalists, but I can't share my thoughts on those titles with you until the winner is announced in early March. You all know part of the joy I find in reading is sharing the books with friends, so I'm grateful for the discussions with my fellow judges in the meantime!

I'm also serving as a juror for Elle magazine's Reader's Prize for the May 2012 issue. With their publication schedule, I'm submitting my reviews this week. The titles I've read for them are The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan, The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler, and The New Republic by Lionel Shriver. It's been fun reading these three titles, and I'm eager to see how my fellow jurors will rank them. I'll be posting my reviews closer to their publication dates in late March and early April.

I'm also thoroughly enjoying The Silent Oligarch by Christopher Morgan Jones and Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. I'll be reviewing both for TLC Tours in the next two weeks. After all of these commitments, I'm really looking forward to a few weeks of leisurely reading before the Orange Prize longlist is announced! I've been working on my predictions for this year's longlist too, so look for those in early to mid-March.

Blogging:
Given these time-sensitive review commitments, I anticipated the blog looking a little lighter this month, but I hoped to be able to read some other things in addition to review titles. So far, it hasn't happened, but I do still have a couple of lingering reviews from January. Both books were excellent, but I still find myself grappling with them. I plan to review both We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein this week.

Relaxing:
I also realized how much I miss going to see films. Since we moved to Iowa last summer, I've been to the theater only three times. Some of my absence is due to the beautiful flat screen television we bought when we moved (Mr. Nomadreader refused to move the big-backed television across the country again, and I welcomed the excuse to get rid of the old television!) It is wonderful to watch tv shows and films in HD at home. But it's film award season, and there are so many films I'm eager to see. Yesterday I went to see Best Picture front-runner The Artist, and I'll be reviewing it Wednesday. Today I'll also be watching The Help from the comfort of my own couch. I wasn't wild about the book (my review), but I have a feeling I'll enjoy the film move than the book. I'm hoping to continue this pattern each week: one film in the theater and one at home.

I'm looking forward to a day of reading, film watching and relaxing. What are you doing this Sunday?

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, February 6, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 4

Welcome to Week 4 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and the pace is perfect. (Missed the first three weeks? Check out my posts for weeks onetwo, and three.)

My thoughts: Chapter 4, entitled "Tyranny Is Tyranny," feels like a watershed chapter. Its focus is on the Declaration of Independence and its wording.The opening line of the chapter sets the stage perfectly: "Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire."

What I found most interesting in this chapter was the discussion of the rights that come from owning property, and, in particular, voting. It's a clear extension of the class system. I found myself thinking of how this country would look if that were true today. I would never have been able to vote in an election. Would it make me want to own property? Perhaps. I find the very nature of property taxes fascinating. As a life-time non-property owner, I find it interesting that in most places property taxes fund schools and libraries. I'm a huge user of public libraries, and aside from fines I've paid, my taxes don't support them. Thinking of our public libraries and public schools, two tools for bridging equality, being funded through property taxes gave me pause. While I don't think owning property is necessarily a measure of class, particularly depending on where you live, it is heartening to think of those who are able to own property provide necessary public services through their property taxes.

Overall, this chapter felt very much like a continuation of the last two. I didn't have many new thoughts regarding it's content. It moved forward in time, but the theme of income inequality was the focus. It seems Zinn is setting the stage for the next big movement in history, as 1776 is a crucial year.

Favorite passage: "And how could people truly have equal rights, with stark differences in wealth?"

Intrigued? There's still time to join us! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version I have seems to no longer be available, thus vindicating my habits of impulse Kindle shopping!) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sunday Salon: On the comfort of reading

This week has been a whirlwind of emotions and movements. Two weeks ago, Mr. Nomadreader's grandmother went into hospice. One week ago, she passed away. After a cross-country drive, this weekend has brought the happiness and joy of being with family as well as the sadness of saying goodbye. This morning, as I lounged on the couch at my mother-in-law's home reading a novel that will likely not make my best of 2012 list, I realized this novel will linger longer than many because it's the one I happened to be reading this particular weekend, and I love it for that.

I, like many of you, find immense comfort in reading. I love fiction that challenges me, that exposes me to new places and ideas, that make me marvel at imagination or use of language, and novels that make me feel things. Reading is a large part of my life, and it's a large part of my everyday routine. This weekend I've realized there is the comfort in the routine, and this weekend in particular, I probably don't want to read a truly amazing book; I'm not emotionally capable of reading some novels. I wanted something a little lighter, a little more comforting, yet one that still examined human relationships and the impact of death, love, and the decisions we do have control over. The Red Book, through serendipity, proved to be perfect.

I'll post my formal review of The Red Book closer to its publication date of April 3, 2012, but today it happens to be a novel I read on a very personal, emotional weekend. I can picture myself smiling when I come across it unexpectedly on someone's bookshelf five years from now. This book and I shared something special, even though its specialness had little to do with the book itself. The Red Book comforted me this weekend, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Tuesday, as we'll take this 1200-mile journey back to our current home, I'll be curling up Wild Thing, Josh Bazell's sequel to Beat the Reaper (my review). When I pre-ordered it for my Kindle months ago and noted it released on our anniversary, I pondered many scenarios of when I would read it and what that day would hold. This one never crossed my mind, but now the thought of reading Wild Thing aloud to Mr. Nomadreader as we drive across the country seems perfect, especially as I recall us sitting on the couch of our screened-in porch almost two years ago as he read Beat the Reaper and I read a book on planning a destination wedding.

Now tell me: are there books you associate with a certain time or memory because you happened to be reading it then?

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

book review: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

The backstory: Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize. It's also this month's selection for Book Club (hosted by Jen at Devourer of Books and Nicole at Linus's Blanket).

The basics: Running the Rift is the story of Rwanda in the 1980's and 1990's, told mostly through the eyes of Jean Patrick. We meet Jean Patrick and his family when he is a young boy with a gift for running. Through Jean Patrick, Benaron explores the Tutsi/Hutu conflict over several years.

My thoughts: As I began to read this novel, I initially thought it was nice, but a little slow. As I read more, I realized I was reading it through the eyes of a modern person somewhat aware of recent Rwandan history. While it does seem slow if you have an idea of what is coming, I appreciated that Benaron began the novel in a place of relative normalcy for her characters.

For much of the novel, Jean Patrick comes off as optimistic (at best) or utterly naive (at worst). I think assessing him in those terms is far too limiting. Thinking of him as a character of this unprecedented time, it becomes much more muddled. Because the readers see the world through Jean Patrick's eyes, there are some clues we can pick up that he may not. Similarly though, there were some clues I was more alarmist than necessary. Even in times of atrocity and genocide, there were moments of grace.

Although I knew some about the recent Rwandan conflict, I realized I knew very little about the rest of its history:
“Be proud,” Uncle said. “Your heritage is the heritage of the mwamis, the Tutsi kings. If it weren’t for the Belgians and their meddling, we might still be ruled by the mwami today."
"Some were born here, some are the children of refugees, born in Uganda or Tanzania. Every time Hutu massacre Tutsi, more Tutsi flee the country. It wasn’t just in ’seventy-three, when our grandparents were killed. It started in ’fifty-nine with the first Hutu uprising when the mwami, King Kigeli the Fifth, fled. Then again in ’sixty-three and ’sixty-seven. No one wants to live in exile forever. And if you opened your eyes, you’d see it could happen again, is happening again.” He slapped the newspaper open and gave it to Jean Patrick."
“Ubwoko? It means ethnicity.” “Ah, Jean Patrick, you are mistaken. It was the Belgians who gave it this meaning. Before colonial days, the Kinyarwanda word ubwoko meant only clan. We had no word in our language for ethnicity.”
These bursts of historical knowledge enhanced the story, and I appreciate that Benaron established the characters first, the setting second, and third she brought in historical details. I learned a new vocabulary reading this novel, but I never forgot what a word meant or had trouble understanding the language of running or Rwanda. The slow builds, of character, setting, history, and action, made this tragic, haunting novel a very smooth read.

Favorite passage: "Your hope is the most beautiful and the saddest in the world."

The verdict: This novel is haunting. The slow exposition began to read almost like a thriller by the end. Jean Patrick is a character in fascinating times, but it was the supporting characters I was most enchanted with. At times I wished these characters could take a turn narrating, but ultimately, it took restraint to tell the story of a people and place through a single person trying to figure out what was happening.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Running the Rift from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!