Thursday, March 29, 2012

book review: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The backstory: The Forgotten Waltz is on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: Gina recounts both how she fell in love with her ex-husband and how she came to cheat on him with her current husband.

My thoughts: This novel was my first experience with Anne Enright, and her writing enraptured me from the beginning. She has a way with observational detail I adored:
"I end up talking to a woman who is sitting beside a plate of chocolate Rice Krispie cakes and working her way through them in a forgetful sort of way. They have mini-marshmallows on top. She goes to pop one in her mouth, then she pulls back in surprise. 'Ooh, pink!' she says."
In such an observational novel, it's difficult to separate Enright's writing from Gina's observation, and I loved both. For the first half of this novel, I was utterly enthralled and bemoaned never having read Enright before. As the novel progressed, however, my adoration became more measured. Gina skillfully articulates her foibles in love, and I enjoyed her perspective and humor. I couldn't help but think, though, that neither man was anywhere near worthy of her. I couldn't understand what led her to marry Conor, and I couldn't fathom why she cheated, even in an unhappy marriage. Neither man came across as particularly charming, intelligent or passionate. I was moved enough by Enright's writing to believe their unlikability was intentional:
"If love was a kind of knowledge then he could not love me, because he hadn't the faintest clue."
Despite my lack of adoration for the men, there were still passages that made me want to believe in one of these troubled relationships:
"You can never catch the moment when it happens, but it always does: that split second when awkwardness flowers into intimacy." 
This novel is filled with adultery and its impact on spouses, siblings, and children. The star of this novel, however, is Enright's writing and perhaps her exploration of theme.

Favorite passage: "I feel that the world might be better it it was run by girls who are nearly twelve, the ability they have to be fully moral and fully venal at the same time."

The verdict: As a story of Gina, I adored it. As a novel, however, the male characters didn't come through for me, and I wished for one of them to shine. Regardless, Enright's writing is top notch, and this slim novel is worth reading.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 244 pages
Publication date: September 26, 2011
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Forgotten Waltz 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!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

book review: The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen

The backstory: The Grief of Others is longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

The basics: Chronicling the lives of the Ryrie family, The Grief of Others begins in the present with the death of its newest member, an infant who lived only a couple of days. Then John's daughter, Jessica, conceived in college, shows up pregnant and alone because her mother has kicked her out. The novel jumps back and forth a few times to depict the events and better understand the present and how they all got to this place.

My thoughts: Leah Hager Cohen writes with guts, and she's a strong writer. It's impressive to have a baby die in the opening pages of a novel and it not seem utterly depressing:
"He was a he, too, astonishingly—not that anyone expected him to be otherwise, but the notion of one so elemental, so small, carrying the complex mantle of gender seemed preposterous, the designation “male” the linguistic equivalent of a false mustache fixed above his infant lip."
She also introduces some of the key tensions in these opening pages: Ricky, the mother, knew their child would be born with no chance to survive more than hours or perhaps a few days. She chose not to tell her husband John because she feared he would make her do what the doctor suggested: terminate her pregnancy. What I found initially fascinating were Ricky's reasons: they weren't religious or political. She simply followed her gut. This portrait of a clearly troubled marriage was intriguing: preparing for your grief while not giving your husband the same chance. It was a promising beginning.

I knew from the table of contents that The Grief of Others would let us glimpse the Ryries at different times in their lives. While I enjoyed it, and I certainly preferred it to a traditional narrative arc that would have ended with the death of a newborn, the structure ultimately felt gimmicky. Perhaps because Cohen chose to have so many people narrate this novel it left it without a clear focus. The duality of Ricky losing a baby as Jessica appears pregnant also felt heavy handed. Cohen explores some intriguing themes of parenthood and losing children, but I never got so absorbed in this novel I thought it was real. The characters never really came alive for me. As an exercise in theme and writing, it just wasn't enough.

Favorite passage: "Who ever knew what it would take? It was always unexpected, she was learning, the thing that smote your heart, always something untranslatable, irreducible, something that refused to come through in the retelling, so that you felt the absurdity of it increase each time you tried to parse it.The moment that caused your chest to expand, the moment your shortness of breath let you know you had fallen for somebody new."

The verdict: Despite strong writing and interesting characters, The Grief of Others fell somewhat flat for me. Ultimately, the novel's flow felt forced rather than organic there wasn't enough of a payoff for me to love it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: September 15, 2011
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Grief of Others 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!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

book review: The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

The backstory: Originally written in 1998 and rejected by publishers, Lionel Shriver's The New Republic still feels like a modern, contemporary novel.

The basics: The New Republic is a satire of terrorism, which sounds preposterous, but Shriver manages to be witty, evocative, informative and engaging. Corporate lawyer Edgar Kellogg decides he wants to become a journalist. With little experience, he lands an interview at a national newspaper. Against the odds, he gets a job covering Barta, an invented peninsula off of Portugal that has a newly active homegrown terrorist group. The reporter who had been covering it, Barrington Sadler, has gone missing. The job is Edgar's until Barrington returns.

My thoughts: Despite having read and enjoyed two of Shriver's earlier novels, We Need to Talk About Kevin and So Much for That--which made my top 10 of 2010, I was somewhat apprehensive about The New Republic. Would it really be good enough to publish now when it wasn't in 1998? Or was the publisher simply banking on Shriver's fame, which is much larger, both commercially and critically, than it was then? I was relieved to enjoy the satire so much I was frequently laughing out loud. Shriver's humor isn't one that will appeal to everyone, and some will likely find it appalling.

Perhaps more important, some may find this novel incredibly dull. It's a novel about terrorism and journalism with very little action:
"Toby figured your law skills would transfer to journalism: interviewing, library research, writing up cases."
As Edgar, and by extension the reader, know nothing about Barba, there is a deluge of information. I found it fascinating to see Edgar research this country and people, but I also teach college students how to conduct research for a living. I frequently contemplated how I could incorporate parts of this novel into my courses.

What will really affect if you like or dislike this novel, however, is Edgar himself. He is both likable and unlikable. He has more self-esteem but strong self-awareness:
"Edgar's biggest concern about his own character was that he wasn't original. He didn't know how to become original except by imitating other people who were." 
This lack of self-confidence shapes the events of the novel in many ways. While some readers may not relate, this satire straddles just the right amount of reality to both hilarious and prescient.

Favorite passage: "Her far-flung general knowledge, for instance, translated neatly into superficiality: she could discuss anything for five minutes and nothing for half an hour. When she professed strong views about new Freud biographies at parties, she'd read the reviews. She subscribed to all the right magazines but only skimmed the pull-quotes, and in movies concentrated primarily on the credits."

The verdict: Lionel Shriver's sardonic wit takes center stage in this inventive and funny novel of terrorism, journalism and international life. The New Republic is at times joyously preposterous, but the underlying wisdom and cynicism shine through and make this delightfully funny novel not only entertaining, but also informative and intriguing.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: March 27, 2012 
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The New Republic 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, March 26, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 11

Welcome to Week 11 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and I'm finding the pace deligtful. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. This week is a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight and nine, and ten.)

My thoughts: Chapter 11, entitled "Robber Barons and Rebels," focuses on industrialization, the corresponding shifts in populations, and the rise of workers rights. On a personal note, there is something guilt-inducing about reading about the rise of the workers rights movement while on a blissful nine-day paid staycation.

Here are my favorite tidbits and trivia from this (long) chapter:
  • I'm oddly fascinated by population shifts: "Between 1860 and 1914, New York grew from 850,000 to 4 million, Chicago from 110,000 to 2 million, Philadelphia from 650,000 to 11⁄2 million."
  • A nice summation of this chapter (and book as a whole): "And so it went, in industry after industry—shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies."
  • The Supreme Court was frightening: In 1886 alone, "the Court did away with 230 state laws that had been passed to regulate corporations."
  • There were people paying attention and making sense, like Henry George: "His book Progress and Poverty argued that the basis of wealth was land, that this was becoming monopolized, and that a single tax on land, abolishing all others, would bring enough revenue to solve the problem of poverty and equalize wealth in the nation."
  • "It was a time when revolutionary organizations existed in major American cities, and revolutionary talk was in the air." I have trouble imagining what that would look like today.
  • A dirty truth about immigration: "There were 51⁄2 million immigrants in the 1880s, 4 million in the 1890s, creating a labor surplus that kept wages down. The immigrants were more controllable, more helpless than native workers; they were culturally displaced, at odds with one another, therefore useful as strike-breakers."
  • "The year 1893 saw the biggest economic crisis in the country’s history. After several decades of wild industrial growth, financial manipulation, uncontrolled speculation and profiteering, it all collapsed: 642 banks failed and 16,000 businesses closed down. Out of the labor force of 15 million, 3 million were unemployed."
As interesting as this chapter was, the best connections I found to this book were in a very different place this week. I'm also a big fan of NBC's reality show (and the only network, prime time show to regularly feature librarians!), Who Do You Think You Are? where famous people research their genealogy. As I tell Mr. Nomadreader, the fact that it's celebrities has little impact on me, I would watch anyone research genealogy on television. Regardless, I was watching Reba McEntire's episode this week, and she sought out to find which of her ancestors were the first to arrive in the United States and when they arrived. The answer was quite fascinating, as they were able to trace her family history quite far back. For Reba, her ancestor arrived as an indentured servant at the shockingly young age of 9. It was a tragic beginning, but he did go on to be a large landowner with (correspondingly) a large number of slaves. What I found particularly compelling, however, was how each ancestor mentioned was straight our of this book. It's giving me a larger framework of history, and it makes Who Do You Think You Are? even more fascinating.

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) 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!

Friday, March 23, 2012

book review: Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear

The backstory: Elegy for Eddie is the ninth Maisie Dobbs mystery novel. Here are links to my reviews of the first eight books: Maisie DobbsBirds of a FeatherPardonable LiesMessenger of TruthAn Incomplete Revenge, Among the Mad, The Mapping of Love and Death, and A Lesson in Secrets(There may be some minor spoilers from earlier novels in this review.)

The basics: Elegy for Eddie opens with several of Maisie's childhood friends seeking her help. Their mutual friend Eddie has been killed in a factory accident, but they believe he may have been murdered.

My thoughts: Reading a Maisie Dobbs novel feels like hanging out with an old friend. It's comforting, interesting, and engaging. After reading the first eight books in this series last year, it was so refreshing to once again have Maisie back in my reading life. While I've enjoyed all of the Maisie novels, The Mapping of Love and Death was my favorite for two reasons: it's mystery was intriguing and historically moving and its balance of the mystery with developments in Maisie's personal life wad perfect. It felt like a new direction for the series too. It was the first Maisie novel to make me cry. Elegy for Eddie is the second, and I love it for many of the same reasons. I applaud Winspear for both sticking to what works and taking chances. It's easy for series to grow static, but I love that Winspear pushes time forward and allows Maisie to grow and change. It's one reason I think this series works best read in order, but I do think the novels could work well as stand alones. They work better in a series because, for me, this series is more about history and character development than it is about the mystery.

Favorite passage: "She knew from experience that following even the most innocent passing, something always came to light that was not known before. Thus she would have to tread with care, for she knew that in her desire to be of service to men she considered to be the giants of her childhood, it would be easy to interpret the inexplicable as something more insidious."

The verdict: Elegy for Eddie is the best Maisie Dobbs novel yet: Winspear keeps getting better. She continues to amp up the ominous future while striking a lovely balance between the mystery and Maisie's personal life.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: March 27, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Elegy for Eddie 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!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

book review: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

The basics: Arcadia is the story of a central New York commune. It begins in the 1960's, but it stretches into 2018. It's also the story of Bit, the narrator. He was the first child born to Arcadia.

My thoughts: As I sat down to read Arcadia, I expected the story of an Ithaca, New York-inspired commune in the 1960's. I got that, but Groff delivered much more too. Although this novel is firmly grounded in realism, it exhibited many of the traits of a dystopian novel. There was a sense of world-building among the Arcadians. They shared the ideals, but they had to find ways to made ideals reality.

I also didn't expect the novel to be narrated by Bit, who is five years old when it begins. I didn't particularly like Bit as a character, but I didn't dislike him either. His narration worked. I enjoyed seeing the world through Bit's eyes and mind. The open nature of Arcadia ensures there are not doors closed to him because of his age. While he does not understand all that happens around him, he does describe it well.

As I read, I found some fascinating comparisons to Room by Emma Donoghue (my review.) Both feature a young boy narrating. Both boys have no real knowledge of what the 'outside' world is. Neither really understands how unusual his childhood his. Both are exposed to adult situations early in life. There are major differences too. I didn't find Bit's voice as precocious. There were times I forgot he was narrating and the story took over. In many ways, Arcadia is Room on a larger scale. It tackles a bigger set of characters, a larger time span and deeper issues:
"It seems a give-and-take, you know? Freedom or community, community or freedom. One must decide the way one wants to live. I chose community."
I adored this novel, and it was so much more than what I expected. Groff's prose is beautiful, but not self-consciously so. It seamlessly moves the action along; it doesn't disrupt. The large cast of characters manages to exist outside of cliche; they all felt real. The themes and ideas of this novel will stick with me as long as the memorable cast of characters will. I'm awed by how much Groff played with the tension between utopia, dystopia and reality.

Favorite passage: "It isn’t important if the story was ever true. Bit manipulates images: he knows stories don’t need to be factual to be vital. He understands, with a feeling inside him like a wind whipping through a room, that when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories, we are losing ourselves."

The verdict: Lauren Groff not only manages to cover fifty years in less than three hundred pages, she manages to do it while also playing with genre and exploring the nature of community and freedom. The result is this magnificent novel that is at times realistic, utopian and dystopian. Thankfully, at all times it's beautifully written and totally absorbing.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 289 pages
Publication date: March 13, 2012
Source: publisher

 Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Arcadia 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!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

book review: There but for the by Ali Smith

The backstory: There but for the is longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

The basics: Ali Smith imagines a man comes to a dinner party as a guest of another and stays. He takes salt, pepper and his silverware to their guest room, where they then begin to slide narrow food under the door to him.

My thoughts: While the set up to the story is intriguing, it immediately begs many questions. Why not break the door down? Why not call the police? Smith addresses these issues with some success, but it's safe to say practicality may not be the point in this hyper-realistic novel. I felt it to be both in the real world and outside of it, and this tension was fascinating.

This novel is split into four sections: There, but, for, and the. Each section is wildly different in tone and character, but they do all form a somewhat cohesive whole. The first section was perhaps my favorite, as it sets the tone for the novel. It's an introduction into the world of this novel, which felt both real and unreal at times:
"Imagine the relief there’d be, in just stepping through the door of a spare room, a room that wasn’t anything to do with you, and shutting the door, and that being that. There’d be a window, wouldn’t there? Were there any books in there? What would you do all day? What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour after hour of no words. Would you speak to yourself? Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start to mean in every direction, all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant? Would your own silence make other things noisier? Would all the things you’d ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you?"
Did Ali Smith just make me think fondly of going to a dinner party and locking myself in a bedroom? See, she's brilliant. One of the best parts of this novel was the experience going on inside my own head as I read it. 'What is she doing?' I'd think. 'How will this section come back around.' 'Ah....' It's a curious novel, and it's one I have a hard time thinking of in parts now that the parts have formed a whole. It's smart. It's funny. It's wise. It's curious. There's an air of loneliness and sadness at times too. This novel is both so many things and so few, and it's one that must be experienced for itself.

Favorite passage:  "Google is so strange. It promises everything, but everything isn’t there. You type in the words for what you need, and what you need becomes superfluous in an instant, shadowed instantaneously by the things you really need, and none of them answerable by Google."

The verdict: While I am undeniably in awe of Ali Smith and this work of literature on a critical level, I must confess I don't actually love it on a personal level. I was more intrigued with the idea of what she was doing as a writer. It's a fascinating meta novel, but it's one I'd only recommend to serious readers fascinated with construction and unique ideas of what a novel can be.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: September 13, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy There but for the from 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!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

book review: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

The backstory: Silver Sparrow, the third novel by Tayari Jones, is the winner of this year's Indie Lit Awards for Fiction. It is such a joy to finally tell you all how much I loved this novel. As a judge for the Indie Lit Awards, I've been under a gag order until the winner was announced, and it was killing me to not share this novel with you, even before we all voted it the winner. Also, for the first time in my organized reading life, the novel I wanted to win from the shortlist won. It's a nice feeling.

The basics: This novel tells the story of James Witherspoon's family in 1980's Atlanta. Witherspoon is a bigamist with two wives who each have one daughter.

My thoughts: I adored this novel from the beginning. It begins with Dana narrating. Dana's mother married James when she became pregnant, even though she knew he was already married. Dana has always known of her father's first wife and first daughter, Chaurisse. As a teenager, she has to wait on Chaurisse, who does not know Dana exists, for everything, from her summer job to her choice of school. Her life has an element of pain and heartbreak to it, but I was moved by her perspectives on life:
"I think about the world and the way that things take place and in what order. I am not one of those people who believe that everything happens for a reason. Or, if I am, I don’t believe that everything happens for a good reason."
When thinking about the book, it might be easy to dismiss James as a bad man and Dana's mother as a fool for sleeping with a married man. Jones never takes the easy way, however, and this deep character study has so many layers of tragedy mixed with understanding:
"Love can be incremental. Predicaments, too. Coffee can start a life just as it can start a day. This was the meeting of two people who were destined to love from before they were born, from before they made choices that would complicate their lives. This love just rolled toward my mother as though she were standing at the bottom of a steep hill. Mother had no hand in this, only heart."
One of the most intriguing things in this novel is the exploration of James. He's not the type of man I think of as a bigamist. He has a stutter. He wears glasses. He's not the charismatic charmer or egotistical man who thinks he has a right to more than one woman. Within the confines of his world, he thinks of himself as deeply honorable. I don't condone his behavior or its impact on these four women, but Jones does make a case for understanding each side of the story, and that is what makes this novel great.

When the novel switches narration to Chaurisse, I was sad to leave Dana, but I ended up enjoying her perspective just as much. I didn't expect to like or understand Chaurisse, but I did, which a testament to the writing and character development of Tayari Jones.

I confess to having a special affinity for coming of age novels set in Atlanta, as I lived in the city from the ages of 11 to 20 (and then a few more years in my 20's). There were quite a few instances of special connection I felt when Jones described particular places in the city. These references may sneak past you if you don't know the city, but I treasured these small moments and being able to picture Dana and Chaurisse in specific, real places.

Favorite passage:  "There’s only so much that you can chalk up to coincidence. I believe in the eventuality of things. What’s done in the dark shall come to the light. What goes up comes down. What goes around comes around. There are a million of these sayings, all, in their own way, true. And isn’t that what’s supposed to set you free?"

The verdict: I loved everything about Silver Sparrow: the characters, the writing, the pacing, the themes and the setting. This exploration of a family continues to move me. While it's very much a story of these six people, its also deeply symbolic of its place, community and time.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 353 pages
Publication date: May 24, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle (it's only $8.83!)

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

Want more Tayari? Follow her on Twitter, visit her website, and read her blog. I particularly recommend her blog post on the importance of contraception and the difference it plays in the lives of Dana and Chaurisse.

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, March 19, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 10


Welcome to Week 10 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and I'm finding the pace deligtful. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. (Missed the earlier posts? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfivesixseven, and eight and nine.)

My thoughts: Chapter 10, entitled "The Other Civil War," focuses on the rights of renters and property owners. It opens with the Anti-Renter movement that sprung up in the Hudson Valley over the rampant wealth of landowners, who often had a legal right to the timber and other resources on the land. The scope of their control was massive:
"The tenants paid taxes and rents. The largest manor was owned by the Rensselaer family, which ruled over about eighty thousand tenants and had accumulated a fortune of $41 million."
The anti-rent movement grew quickly and they had some success:
"The farmers had fought, been crushed by the law, their struggle diverted into voting, and the system stabilized by enlarging the class of small landowners, leaving the basic structure of rich and poor intact. It was a common sequence in American history."
In the bigger picture, I was fascinated by two things: the timidity of the Supreme Court and Andrew Jackson's pioneering use of liberal rhetoric. The Supreme Court opted not to get involved in the 'big' issues; it left those to Congress and the President. I was most struck by this unevenness in the checks and balances system. Clearly, it was a system designed in name only, but it is heartening to know of the progress the Supreme Court allow in the future. Zinn writes of Jackson:
"Jackson was the first President to master the liberal rhetoric--to speak for the common man. This was a necessity for political victory when the vote was being demanded--as in Rhode Island--by more and more people, and state legislatures were loosening voting restrictions." 
I was also intrigued by the shifting demographics of the United States:
 "Now there were canals, railroads, the telegraph. In 1790, fewer than a million Americans lived in cities; in 1840 the figure was 11 million. New York had 130,000 people in 1820, a million by 1860."
There was also a reminder of why I love historical fiction and its ability to tell the untold stories:
"The full extent of the working-class consciousness of those years--as of any years--is lost in history, but fragments remain and make us wonder how much of this always existed underneath the very practical silence of working people."
Yet the chapter ends on an unsurprising somber note:
"In 1877, the same year blacks learned they did not have enough strength to make real the promise of equality in the Civil War, working people learned they were not united enough, not powerful enough, to defeat the combination of private capital and government power. But there was more to come."
Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation again next Monday!

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, March 18, 2012

Sunday Salon: Spring Break!

Happy Sunday everyone! Mr. Nomadreader had yesterday off (a very rare occasion), and we had a lovely day of eating, drinking and celebrating with friends. The only downside is I managed to read just 22 pages of Lauren Groff's new novel Arcadia. I'm already enchanted by the characters and setting, and I'm hoping to finish it today.

I have a big reading week ahead of me too. One of the perks of having twice as much vacation time as Mr. Nomadreader is the luxury of reading staycations. It's Spring Break this week, so I took the whole week off and hope to read all day almost everyday. My focus is still the Orange Prize longlist. I've read seven of the twenty books so far and am really enjoying my reading. I'm waiting on four to arrive from the UK, but I have the rest ready to read this week in case they don't arrive yet. I'm hoping this week will help me meet my ambitious goal of reading all twenty before the shortlist is announced next month. Even if I don't, having nine days off of work (counting the weekends) is a wonderful luxury!

Also coming up this week: the announcement of the Indie Lit Award winners! Look for the announcements Tuesday. I'm thrilled with the winner and runner-up we chose in the Fiction category and cannot wait to share the good news. I'll be posting my reviews of the shortlisted titles in the coming weeks too. I've had a wonderful time being a judge this year. As wonderful as it has been to discuss these five titles in depth with my fellow judges, I'm eager to discuss them with all of you soon too!

Around the book blogosphere, there are two major upcoming events to take note of: Dewey's Read-a-thon and Armchair BEA. I've enjoyed participating in both events in the past. This spring's Dewey's read-a-thon will be Saturday, April 21st. I'm sad I won't be able to participate, as I'll be throwing a baby shower for one of my best friends and spending the weekend with my college friends who all live too far away! If you'd like to volunteer for the read-a-thon, you may sign up here. Sign ups for readers will come in the next few weeks. The dynamite folks behind Armchair BEA, which I prefer to attending BEA, are hoping to make this year the biggest year yet and are already spreading the word about activities. All the details are here. I attended BEA and the first Book Blogger Con in 2010. It was a wonderful experience, but it was a very expensive week. I don't think I'll be attending again anytime soon, unless the rumors of a Chicago BEA become true.

Now tell me: what are you up to on this beautiful Sunday? What book is currently rocking your reading world?

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, March 16, 2012

book review: The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

The basics: The Beginner's Goodbye, Anne Tyler's nineteenth novel, is the story of Aaron and his wife Dorothy. After Dorothy dies, she visits Aaron.

My thoughts: The novel's first line introduces the reader beautifully to this quirky novel: "The strangest thing about my wife's return from the dead was how other people reacted." It clearly established what this novel isn't: a tearjerker about the death of a spouse, although it is tinged with sadness at times. While it is an examination of a marriage, it's more of a character study of Aaron, with his love for Dorothy being one of his defining characteristics. Aaron is also partially crippled and has been since childhood. He works with his sister, Nandina, at a publishing house whose emphasis is on publishing writers who will them to do so and their successful series of "Beginners" books.

Aaron's career serves as both a nice tie-in to the novel's title and an intriguing forum to pose questions about life and love. The minor characters who choose to pay to publish their own work in the belief their story is particularly powerful allow Aaron to ponder the ordinary versus the extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed this musing: "Why was it that so many men viewed their military service as the defining event of their lives?"

The Beginner's Goodbye is an interesting book, and it's one I was thoroughly engaged by while reading. It's not, however, a book I think I like very much. While there are certainly things I liked about it, particularly it's offbeat sense of humor coupled with its gentle examination of widowhood, it never came to be a complete work for me. In many ways, I think Anne Tyler is treading new ground here. It's a difficult novel to classify. She united many seemingly disparate classic novel traits in this short novel, but it didn't feel whole to me, despite my enjoyment of so many of its parts.

Favorite passage: "I used to toy with the notion that when we die we find out what our lives have amounted to, finally. I'd ever imagined that we could find that out when somebody else dies."

The verdict: This quirky novel was an interesting, quick read, but its meandering made it seem underdeveloped. Overall, it was an intriguing concept and well-written, but it ended up being quite ordinary. Still, I appreciated its wit and meditations of love and death.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: April 3, 2012 
Source: publisher

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

book review: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

The basics: In the late night hours after the wedding reception of Matt and Carmen, who is pregnant, a car full of high guests leaves the rural house where the reception was held to return to the hotel. Olivia, a mail carrier dating Carmen's brother Nick, drives. Also in the car are Alice, Carmen's sister; Maude, Nick's sister; and Tom. The car strikes and kills a ten-year-old girl.

My thoughts: While I expected this novel to be dark given its subject matter, I was pleased Anshaw focuses more on the characters first and the effects this night had on them rather than the direct aftermath. This novel is not a story of grief; it's a story of how that night changed the course of three siblings.

From the early pages Anshaw shows she can write both about the characters and about all of us at once:
"Some of the time when she talked to Matt, she felt like she was in a movie scripted by lazy screenwriters. The two of them were still generic characters in each other’s stories. Girlfriend/boyfriend. Bride/groom. Wife/husband. But maybe that’s all that marriage was--you fell into a groove already worn for you. You had a place now. The music had stopped and you’d gotten a chair."
Carry the One is exactly the kind of character-driven novel I love. It's short (less than 300 pages) and it seamlessly covers twenty-five years of experience for three characters. Time moves forward, and she gives clues about how much time has passed without feeling the need for time and date headings. In a novel this good, the dates don't matter; the changes, both small and large, that truly change these characters are what matters.

As I read, I found myself thinking of Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home (my review). Both are Midwestern family sagas, but while I respected Thompson's characters, I devoured Anshaw's and her careful observations of them. In Carry the One, there was a recurring cast of characters I enjoyed, but I was glad she focused on the three siblings. Even more so, I could not get enough of Anshaw's writing and wisdom.

Favorite passage: "Maybe, Maude would speculate, when she'd finished school she should move to New York for awhile, to wring as mach as she could out of modeling. Or she should move to LA to see if she could break in to movies. Her fascination with hypothetical versions of herself was bottomless."

The verdict: I read Carry the One compulsively and loved every word of Anshaw's writing.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: March 6, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Carry the One 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!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

book review: The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard

The backstory: The Pink Hotel, Anna Stothard's second novel, is longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize. At 29 Stothard is the youngest writer on this year's longlist.

The basics: The Pink Hotel is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl from London who sets off to Los Angeles when her mother, who left when she was three, dies. Her mother and her husband own the pink hotel in Venice Beach.

My thoughts: When I sat down to read The Pink Hotel, I knew little about it. The cover led me to believe it was a light, vacation romp and perhaps a romance of sorts. Instead, I was delighted to discover an absorbing, gritty portrait of the unnamed narrator and her search for herself in her mother's memory. I was mesmerized by Stothard's portrait of Los Angeles and its inhabitants. The spunky heroine arrives during her mother's wake, which is really more of a rave. She sneaks up to the apartment at the top of the hotel where her mother lived. She takes off with a suitcase filled with some clothes and documents.

This novel is a beautiful exploration of a main character who has little idea of who she is, but she is bright, thoughtful and observant: "It sometimes seems that men and women are born to be a particular age. David was meant to be in his twenties. I’m meant to be fifteen, maybe. Children are allowed to be perplexed, but adults are judged on how well they mould to the world around them and how well they connect. If you’re no good at connecting then you’re a failure." Layers of mystery run through this novel, as the narrator reaches out to people who knew her mother in the hopes they can tell her more about Lily, her mother. None of them knew Lily had a daughter. Lily was fourteen when she gave birth and hasn't been in England since she was 17. As our heroine uncovers more secrets, even more emerge. Her path was never clear, but this novel's narrative flow was as lovely as it was winding.

The Pink Hotel exemplifies why I love the Orange Prize so much and strive to read its longlist each year. I had not heard of this book or author, but now I'm rooting for its inclusion on the short list.

Favorite passage: "The bravado of those conversations scared me, though, because no one told the truth. I don’t think it was their fault, though. I think the truth is actually very difficult to know about. It’s as hard to tell the truth as it is to see it in other people."

The verdict: Stothard mesmerized me from the very first page of this novel. I so enjoyed the day I spent with this novel and the girl with no name. It was a sexy, sad, bittersweet adventure through Los Angeles, but more importantly, it was a shocking and illuminating portrait of a lost, troubled young girl trying to find herself, understand her mother, and simply live her life.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 300 pages
Publication date: April 18, 2011
Source: I bought it for my Kindle (it's only $8.17)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Pink Hotel from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Also check out Anna Stothard's website, blog 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!

Monday, March 12, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 9


Welcome to Week 9 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and I'm finding the pace deligtful. Note: we've switched to posting every other week instead of every week. (Missed the first seven posts? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfivesix and seven.)

My thoughts: Chapter 8, entitled "We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God," focuses on expansionism, a trend in recent chapters, with an emphasis on the Mexican-American War. As a reader, I must say, I'm losing a sense of time in this book. It's not told in a strictly linear manner, and the themes are often the same in the book as a whole. I'm embarrassed to say knowing Polk is the President does not clue me in to which year it is. I do appreciate, however, when Zinn emphasizes the shifting demographics rather than years: "Whereas in 1830, 1 percent of the population of the United States was foreign-born, by the Mexican war the number was reaching 10 percent." What was most notable in this chapter to me is how much time Zinn spends quoting others. As I read on my Kindle, frequently an entire page was made up of direct quotes. I'm curious if that's a trend that will continue as we move forward in time to periods where better records were kept and more primary source material may be available. Ultimately, Zinn sums up this war succinctly: "It was a war of the American elite against the Mexican elite, each side exhorting, using, killing its own population as well as the other." The biggest surprise of the chapter--its title is not just Zinn's cynicism shining through; it's a quote from a newspaper justifying the war and ceding of New Mexico and California because the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million.

Chapter 9, entitled "Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom," focuses on slave rebellions, the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and racial violence after the war. It's a particularly dark chapter from it's first paragraphs: "With slavery abolished by order of the government--true, a government pushed hard to do so, by blacks, free and slave, and by white abolitionists--its end could be orchestrated so as to set limits to emancipation." This chapter began as a return to earlier discussions of slavery in this book.  For all of the harrowing aspects of this chapter, I appreciated that Zinn mentioned some of the positives, including the strength of slave marriages and family ties. He asserted "music, magic, art, religion, were all ways, he says, for slaves to hold on to their humanity." Deep in this long-term strategy is the truth that can bind us all together: our humanity and how we find ways to connect with one another even in the darkest times. It's difficult to read this book and truly confront the horror of our history, and somehow these small details provide hope.

One of the most intriguing parts of this chapter was Zinn's treatment of Lincoln: "He opposed slavery, but could not see blacks as equals, so a constant theme in his approach was to free the sales and to send them back to Africa." I also didn't realize how bloody the Civil War was: "600,000 dead on both sides, in a population of 30 million." It's a big enough number on its own, but in the context of a small country, it's even more illuminating.

All in all, this chapter was excruciating to read and left me in tears throughout most of it. Given it's dark tone, the chapter ends with an intriguing quote from W. E. B. Du Bois and Zinn's pontification: "Was Du Bois right--that in that growth of American capitalism, before and after the Civil War, whites as well as blacks were in some sense becoming slaves?"

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Salon: On my 5th Blogoversary

I've never been one to celebrate my blogoversary. This blog has been a slow evolution into what it is now: a book blog focusing on literary fiction, literary prizes, and a scattering of thoughts on films, television, food and the awesomeness of Des Moines. I didn't start this blog with the intention, or even any notion, of what it would become. There's something about turning five, however, that has me reflecting on how I got to this point. As I'm guessing none of you were around five years ago, I thought I'd share some memories of who I was and what this blog was to illustrate how much has changed.

1. My first post was Tuesday, March 13, 2007. I posted three times that day. One was about books! I listed the seven books I'd read so far and rated them on a scale of one to four. There were no reviews. Oh, how things have changed!

2. My fist comment came on May 21, 2007. The first comment from someone I didn't know in real life came on June 11, 2008. My first comment from a book blogger (J Kaye) was on November 17, 2008. The first comment from someone who still comments here was Diane from Bibliophile by the Sea on October 8, 2009  (on my review of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol.)

3. When I started this blog, I was working in an office during the day and waiting tables at night. I was applying to 18 graduate programs in library science. I had a lot of time to spend in front of a computer. I read a ton of newspapers, blogs and magazines. I thought it would be fun to share the most interesting things I found for my friends who didn't sit in front of a computer with nothing to do for seven and a half hours a day.

4. I wrote a lot about sports and television. I grew up dedicated (some would say obsessed) with Kansas basketball. In college, my brother and I traveled to wherever they played in the tournament. It meant spring breaks in cities like Dayton, Ohio and Birmingham, Alabama. I went to two Final Fours. I chose not to study abroad in college because I would have had to miss part of the Kansas basketball season. Its my biggest regret in life (and I didn't even go to college at Kansas!) I've stepped away from sports for the most part, largely because I realized how few hours are in a day, days are in a year, and years are in our lives, and I'd rather spend time reading novels, watching movies and traveling.

5. Mr. Nomadreader was then nomadreaderboy. We'd been dating for 1 year, 1 month and 6 days. I first mentioned him on the blog on March 27, 2007.

6. I was very conscious of not revealing my name (first or last). I was exclusively nomadreader. I've loosened up about that too.

7. I was living in Atlanta. Remember when I said I'd moved 21 times in my life? I've moved four times since I started this blog.

8. If you'd told me five years ago I'd be a judge for the Indie Lit Awards (then non-existent), a member of the National Book Critics Circle, tweeting with authors I admire, and regularly reading over a hundred books a year, I don't know how I would react. Part of me would be ecstatic, part of me grateful, and part of me would be relieved. At twenty-six, I was happy in so many ways, but I was still finding my way professionally and seeking my voice. This blog brings me joy. I love reading, and I love sharing my thoughts on books with all of you who take the time to read and respond. The biggest surprise from my five years of blogging is perhaps the most personal: I consider nomadreader part of who I am, and all of you play a part in that too. Thanks for reading.

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, March 7, 2012

The 2012 Orange Prize Longlist: A U.S. Reader's Guide

The wait is over, friends, and the Orange Prize longlist is here! How well did my predictions hold up? I correctly guessed six of the twenty novels and had another four on my longer list of 59 novels. Many of the ones I wasn't familiar sound absolutely fabulous. This list spans the globe, and I'm looking forward to diving into my longlist reading!

The ones I've already read:

The ones available in the U.S. now:

The one coming soon to the U.S.:
  • Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (September 12, 2012)
The ones we hope find their way to the U.S.:
  • On the Floor by Aifric Campbell
  • The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki
  • The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy
Biggest joy: Ann Patchett's much deserved nomination for State of Wonder, my favorite read of 2011. It also means my three favorite novels have all been longlisted for the Orange Prize--the streak is still alive! Also, will Ann Patchett be the first woman to win the Orange Prize twice?

Debut novels count: only 5 this year

Want to know more? The official Orange Prize announcement is here.

Now tell me: which book should I read first? Which book are you most excited to see included?

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