Monday, April 30, 2012

book review: Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

The backstory: I enjoyed Rosamund Lupton's debut thriller, Sister (my review), when my book club read it last summer, and I was eager to read her follow-up.

The basics: When a fire breaks out during Sports Day at the elementary school where her son, Adam, attends, Grace realizes her daughter Jenny is still inside and rushes in to save her. Soon, Grace and Jenny are both unconscious in the hospital, but they work together in their out of body experience to figure out who started the fire and why. Also on the case is Grace's sister-in-law, Sarah, a police officer.

My thoughts: I expected Afterwards to be a very different novel than Sister, but I was still surprised just how different Afterwards was. It's not fair to compare these novels simply because they were written by the same author, but given my disparate levels of enjoyment and the differences between their quality, it is somewhat inevitable. In fact, I might have abandoned this book if I hadn't been fascinated by Sister.

While there is a mystery and a sense of imminent danger at the heart of Afterwards, it is far too buried under Grace's narration, which constantly reminds the reader how strong a mother's love is and which buries observations under the redundancy of her emotions. As the novel went on, my eyes started rolling at every passage about motherhood. I'm not a mother, but if and when I am, I hope I won't singularly define myself as one as Grace does. I hope I can ponder other things and not need to constantly think about how much I love my children. Perhaps I'm being unfair, as in  that situtation--one child unconscious and another shutting the world out--how could you not feel helpless and want to do something instead of being hooked up to a respirator? Although realistic, this single-minded narration was dreadfully boring and obscured the mystery, which on its own was quite intriguing. If reading a book about the strength of a mother's love entices you, then you will love this novel.

At the heart of my issues with this book is certainly my dislike of Grace, which steadily increased throughout the novel. I longed for Jenny to get to share the narration. As a seventeen-year-old girl, her perspective would have been a welcome change, and I think it would have added a layer to the mystery. How honest was her ghost with her mother? It was also frustrating Jenny could not remember the events directly before the fire, which would have solved much of the mystery early. As Grace droned on about a mother's love, Jenny held the answers, and I think her perspective would have been more interesting.

While the concept of out of body-ness is taken as a given in this otherwise realistic novel, it felt natural and provided some interesting observations about life:
"The problem with being "out of body" is that you don't need to take a breath for new sentences and so there are no natural physical pauses."
These moments were intriguing, and while I accepted the conceit of Grace and Jenny roaming the grounds of the hospital while their bodies were unconscious, as the novel wore on, my skepticism grew. Lupton opted to focus so much more on the relationships than the mystery, and by the time novel got to its twists, some of which were more surprising than others, I didn't really care. I no longer thought of these characters as people and had lost my faith in Lupton's story.

Favorite passage: "And the sum of our marriage was bigger than our differences."

The verdict: Despite an intriguing premise Afterwards was hindered by its length and single-minded focus on the boundlessness of a mother's love. Beneath it all, there was an intriguing mystery, but by the end of the novel, I cared more about finishing ir than if there would be one more twist.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: April 24, 2012
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours and Net Galley

Want to read it for yourself? Buy Afterwards from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.) Not convinced? Check out other stops on the book tour. Swapna loved it.

Learn more about Rosamund Lupton: visit her website or 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!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 16

Welcome to Week 16 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and as someone who would rather read fiction, I'm still finding the pace a delightful way to sprinkle in some non-fiction. 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 not a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check them all out here.)

My thoughts: Chapter 16, "A People's War?," focuses on World War II.  In this chapter Zinn addresses the notion that WWII was a people's war. Wars have been prominent in other chapters of this book, so it was interesting to explore if World War II was different. Were the people as united for the war privately as they were publicly?

I'm typically somewhat cynical, particularly when it comes to politics, and I initially  thought some of Zinn's cynicism was oversimplification:
"Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery during the Civil War; their priority in policy (whatever their personal compassion or victims of persecution) was not minority rights, but national power."
While it is not disputed that the direct impetus to enter the war came from Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, and likely that attack would have drawn the U.S. in at any point, the collective events and atrocities before the attack are still significant, and I wanted to think Zinn dismissed them too easily. By the end of the chapter, however, I was convinced. Ultimately, isn't war about not thinking of people equally? Is it possible to support  a war and not have an emotional disconnect? Roosevelt knew millions of Jews were being killed, but they weren't significant enough to enter the war for.

As someone who leans toward pacifism and isolationism, I struggle with these issues. The United States has failed to intervene when we've known thousands of people are being killed. As an increasing isolationist, I think there are strong arguments for not intervening, and the overwhelming domestic problems and soaring deficit are particularly compelling ones. I can justify not fighting those wars, but I cannot justify the wars we have chosen to fight. While part of me thinks World War II was a war worth fighting, it's harder to believe that knowing the reasons I would have fought for weren't the ones compelling our leaders to enter.

I have long been fascinated by conscientious objectors, and I would likely be one if our country ever made an equal, non-sexist military draft. In World War II, there were three times the number of C.O.'s as in World War I. Most startling: "of every six men in federal prison, one was there as a C.O." Perhaps even though this was worth fighting in some ways, it was so close to World War I that there was an understanding of the realities and atrocities of war.

Other startling statistics that shouldn't be startling: "one nighttime fire-bombing of Tokyo took 80,000 lives. And then, on August 6, 1945, came the lone American plane in the sky over Hiroshima, dropping the first atomic bomb, leaving perhaps 100,000 Japanese dead, and tens of thousands more slowly dying from radiation poisoning." These attacks were devastating and unnecessary. As J. Muste said in 1941 "the problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?"

Something in this chapter struck a deep, emotional chord with me, and I cried as I read much of this chapter. It's the kind of chapter that takes my fascination with history and utterly depresses me because I lost more faith in humanity as I read it. The closer this book gets to the years of my life, the more sad it makes me at how far we haven't come. The chapter ended with the Cold War, which I studied extensively in school, and the Korean War. I think it's fitting I already planned to spend my day reading Toni Morrison's new novel, Home, about a black Korean War veteran and his difficult re-entry to racist society.

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 (or at all!) Keep up with the read-a-long hosts at Fizzy Thoughts and Life...with Books!

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, April 28, 2012

Elsewhere on the web: There I am!

This spring has been a hectic one, and it's pulled me away from the blogosphere at times. Here are some of the things I've been up to:


Elle magazine Reader's Prize
Each month, Elle selects fifteen readers, sends them three books, and has each reader rank them and comment on each one. I participated years ago in the non-fiction category, but it was so much fun to participate in fiction this spring. Fiction and non-fiction alternate months, and then at the end of the year, all of the fiction judges will read the monthly winners and crown a grand champion. It's a book tournament all its own. Our picks appear in the May 2012 issue (it's also online), but I read them all back in February. The titles were: The New Republic by Lionel Shriver (my review), The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan (my review), and The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler (my review.) I didn't know how the votes turned out until I received my issue on my Kindle Fire last week. It was a thrill to see consensus; the majority ranked these three novels the same way I did:

Drake Blue magazine
Working as an academic librarian, very little of my job involves talking to people about fiction. When the marketing office approached me to take part in their 'Pick 5' books column for the spring magazine, I was thrilled to share some of my favorite reads with the Drake community. Fitting with the name of this blog, I was given the theme of 'books that take you away.' At the top of page 11, you'll find my picks:

Regular blog readers won't be surprised by my picks:

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (my review)
If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (my review)
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey (my review)
Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel (my review)
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (my review)

These books are all among my favorite reads of the last few years, but I picked them for this feature because of how strongly they evoke their places, from those I have no desire to visit except through books, those I hope to see one day, and the one set in a place I knew little about before reading. 

American Library Association Emerging Leaders project
This year I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the American Library Association's Emerging Leaders. As part of the program, each person joins a team and works on a project. I was thrilled to get my first choice project: creating a new blog for the Reference and User Services Association. Along with my four fellow team members, I'm writing for our blog Chasing Reference. We've been posting for three weeks now, and it's been so fun to see how we all have different approaches (collectively our team includes a public librarian, medical librarian, community college librarian, a large public university librarian, and me--a medium private college librarian) but share the core values of providing user-centered library services. Our posting schedule is Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Everyone contributes to Friday posts, and in the individual rotation, we each post about once every three weeks. We'll be presenting a poster session at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Anaheim in June.


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, April 27, 2012

book review: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The backstory: Train Dreams, originally published in The Paris Review in 2002, was published in book form last year. It was one of the three finalists for the un-awarded Pulitzer Prize this year.

The basics: "Robert Grainer is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime." (from the publisher)

My thoughts: I'm starting to think Denis Johnson and I just don't get along. After not loving his most recent novel, Nobody Move (my review), I was actually looking forward to Train Dreams so I could see why everyone seems to love him. Sadly, I liked Train Dreams even less than Nobody Move.

I settled into my couch with a glass of wine expecting to read this 128-page novella in a single setting. It took me two days, and it wasn't because I wanted to savor it; I simply failed to connect with it on any level. As I read, I found my mind wandering endlessly. Johnson's writing is good, but it didn't engage me. I didn't find myself pondering passages or marveling at sentences. I found the writing perfunctory, but also somewhat abstract, as the narrative was far from linear. Some will love this style, but I found its meandering distracting, and it distanced me from the narrative. I can love simple, descriptive writing, and I often love nuanced, challenging prose, but I found Johnson's prose dull.

This novella centers on the character Robert Grainer, and while I loved the setting of the west and the expanding railroad, I never connected with Robert. As a character, he never felt real to me. As wonderful as the setting was, I never had the moment of magic that made it feel real and made me forget I was simply reading and not experiencing.

The verdict: While Johnson is a talented writer, this novella seemed interminable. I can appreciate, from a clinical point of view, why it's a good work, but it isn't one I enjoyed, liked, or would recommend. Perhaps one day I'll read a Johnson novel I like. Until then, I begrudgingly agree with the Pulitzer Board: Train Dreams didn't deserve to win.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: August 30, 2011 
Source: library


Want to read it! Buy Train Dreams 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!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

book review: Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

The backstory: Painter of Silence is on the 2012 Orange Prize shortlist.

The basics: Set in Romania in the 1950s. Painter of Silence is the story of Augustin, a deaf mute found on the steps of the hospital with no identification. Safta, a nurse, recognizes him from her home in Poiana, where Augustin's mother worked as a cook for her family.

My thoughts: Georgina Harding's writing grabbed me from the opening lines of this novel, and there is a sense of mystery that continues throughout. The story seamlessly moves back and forth in time between Poiana and Iasi, as well as between Safta and Augustin. Initially, I was quite drawn to Augustin during the flashbacks to his childhood. By showing how teachers responded to the deaf mute boy, Harding urges the reader to both identify with Augustin and imagine how to communicate with him, as he has no knowledge of sound or language.

As the title implies, Augustin is a talented artist. What he lacks in language, he makes up for with phenomenal visual recall and art. His ability to replicate minute details of past places is particularly moving because of the war's devastating effect on Romania.

Favorite passage: "I know, that was the war, and it’s not the war any more and nobody’s fighting now but there are casualties everywhere, here in the park. It’s just that you can’t see the injuries any more. You can’t see but they’re there. The wounded, the shell-shocked, the amputees missing pieces of themselves."

The verdict: This novel has an insistence to it, as Harding's beautiful writing takes the reader on a journey through Romania before, during and after the war and into the mind of a man who has only art with which to communicate. The non-linear narrative flows beautifully and allows the reader to understand both these characters and their world more deeply. It would be a worthy Orange Prize winner.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: September 18, 2012 (it's out in the UK now)
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Pre-order Painter of Silence from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (no Kindle version yet.)

Bonus buy: Spy Game, an earlier novel by Georgina Harding, is currently only $1.99 for the Kindle.

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, April 23, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 15


Welcome to Week 15 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 them all out here.)

My thoughts: Chapter 15, "Self-Help in Hard Times," continues the theme of economic inequality through the Great Depression. In many ways, this chapter feels the culmination of much of this book.

One of the things I enjoyed most in this chapter were the excerpts from writers at the time who were trying to draw attention to the issues. Zinn included excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes and Sinclair Lewis.

There were far more moments of astonishment at the downright ignorance, or intentional lies, coming from the leaders:
"Herbert Hoover had said, not long before the crash: 'We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.' Henry Ford, in March 1931, said the crisis was here because 'the average man won't really do a day's work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. There is plenty of work to do if people would do it.' A few weeks later he laid of 75,000 workers."
 Zinn covers the Great Depression, the New Deal and leads up to the beginning of World War II. I'm finding as I know the history of this period better that there are fewer surprising things. Having read up to this part, however, does provide added context to this period.

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.

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, April 19, 2012

book review: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

The backstory: Foreign Bodies is on the 2012 Orange Prize shortlist.

The basics: Inspired by The Ambassadors by Henry James, Foreign Bodies is the story of Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged divorced English teacher living in New York City. The novel opens in 1952 with a letter from Bea's estranged brother Marvin asking her to go track down his son Julian, who has jetted off to Paris.

My thoughts: I haven't read The Ambassadors, but Ozick swept me into this world immediately. I had an instant reaction to Marvin's haughtiness and condescending nature and thus was immediately drawn to Bea. There's an element of fantasy here too. Yes, Bea must uproot her life to jet off to Paris, but she gets to be in Paris in 1952. The setting entranced me more than it did Bea, which was a refreshingly realistic perspective. Ozick describes the idealized Paris of this time comically:
"They were mostly young Americans in their twenties and thirties who called themselves "expatriates," though they were little more than literary tourists on a long visit, besotted with legends of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein."
This novel is not a lighthearted one, and it's not a typical travel novel either. Ozick tackles difficult issues of class, sexism, family and war:
"They were Europeans whom Europe had set upon; they wore Europe's tattoo. You could not say of them, as you surely would of the Americans, that they were a postwar wave. They were not postwar. Though they had washed up in Paris, the war was still in them. They were the displaced, the temporary and the temporizing. Paris was a way station; they were in Paris only to depart from Paris, as soon as they knew who would have them. Paris was a city to wait in. It was a city to get away from."
A colorful variety of characters emerge in this novel, although Bea remained my favorite. It's a testament to Ozick, however, that such an American novel can include these searing truths about Americans too:
"The ground was scorched, the streets teemed with refugees, and these Americans were playing at fleeing! As if they had something to resent, to despise, to scorn, to run away from! As if they weren't the lords of the earth."
Foreign Bodies reads like a classic novel rather than historical fiction. It is so much a product of its setting, I had to continuously remind myself it was only published in 2010. It's noteworthy, too, because every article mentioning Ozick and the Orange Prize emphasized her age: 84. She was alive in 1952, but it's still impressive to so firmly set a historical novel in another time that even the language feels authentic.

Favorite passage: "She thought: How hard it is to change one's life. And again she thought: How terrifyingly simple to change the lives of others."

The verdict: There's a darkness and honesty about human deviousness present in this novel. Ozick is a masterful writer, and while this novel's action was a bit uneven, it is an excellent novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 272 pages
Publication date: November 1, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Foreign Bodies 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, April 17, 2012

book review: Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner

The backstory: When Jennifer Egan listed Butterfly's Child as her favorite read of 2011, I knew I wanted to read it.

The basics: In Butterfly's Child, Angela Davis-Gardner imagines what happens after Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly. (The novel opens with a synopsis of the opera.) Butterfly's child, Benji, goes to the United States with his father, Pinkerton, and his father's new wife, Kate. They live on a small Illinois farm.

My thoughts: I knew nothing about Madame Butterfly going into this novel, but I found the premise fascinating aside from the opera: a half-Japanese half-white boy witnesses his mother's suicide, leaves Japan with his father and stepmother, both of whom are essentially strangers to him. To seem proper, the Pinkertons claim they are adopting the boy, but Benji knows the truth. What follows, initially, is a haunting portrayal of life on a Midwestern farm at the turn of the century. Benji longs for Japan. Pinkerton longs for a life not on the farm. Kate longs for a child of her own and intellectual intrigue. In truth, it was quite depressing and rather tragic. Blessedly, Davis-Gardner is an excellent writer and moved the story along by writing mostly in small vignettes. The scope of this novel is immense, and the more I read, the more intrigued I became by these people.

Favorite passage: "What we imagine never happens, does it?" he said. "But some things are far superior."

The verdict: I loved this novel, and it's difficult to discuss its brilliance without revealing certain details, so I will say this: Butterfly's Child is structured like its own opera, and the interlude is purely majestic. Act three is a show-stopper. Davis-Gardner takes these characters on a marvelous journey, and I loved every minute of it. The book captivated me from the beginning, but it got better with each page.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 363 pages
Publication date: March 8, 2011
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Butterfly's Child 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, April 16, 2012

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize

Congratulations...Jennifer Egan? She is still the current Pulitzer winner, it seems. I have been eagerly awaiting the announcement of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for months (and rooting for Ben Lerner's amazing debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, to win.) When the winners were announced, however, the Pulitzer Board declined to award the Prize for Fiction, but they did name three finalists (typically there are one winner and two finalists.)

I jokingly said on Twitter, "Are they saying it's a three-way tie or that they all suck?" The more I think about it, though, the more I do want to know. Are these three finalists all equally deserving? Are none of them deserving? Was it a hung jury? Is one (or maybe two) of these titles so egregious someone wouldn't budge to ensure there was a winner? As KatieANYC rightly pointed out on Twitter, "By not awarding the fiction prize, the #Pulitzer committee has guaranteed that the absence of one award will overshadow those they granted." Instead of celebrating the excellent contributions to journalism and the arts, we're talking about the perceived shortcomings of all American fiction writers.

I got to thinking--is not awarding a prize good for American fiction? I refuse to believe there are not worthy titles. In fact, I believe that there are far more than three titles worthy of the Pulitzer. I prefer the approach the Man Asian Prize took this year: increasing the number of novels on its shortlist because there were that many who deserved it. Regardless of why the Pulitzer board declined to give an award, today no longer feels like a celebration of American literature, and that makes me sad. Here are the three finalists:


Finalists:



Train Dreams by Denis Johnson(Kindle version)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Kindle version)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Kindle version)

I read Swamplandia!, Karen Russell's debut novel, the day it came out. I've been meaning to read Denis Johnson's novella Train Dreams since it came out, and I've had it checked out of the library since Christmas. I hope to sneak it in this week--it is only 128 page, after all. I have no real interest in The Pale King because I haven't read any other David Foster Wallace (for shame, I know) and would only want to read an unfinished novel by a writer I already adored.

Now tell me: what do you think about not having a winner? Will you be reading the finalists?


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!

A People's Read-a-long: Weeks 12, 13, & 14

Welcome to Week 14 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 not a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight and nineten, and eleven.) After getting off track, I'm caught up and will now return to my weekly Monday posts (I hope).

My thoughts: Chapter 12, entitled "The Empire and the People," brings us into the 20th century, where my knowledge of history is much stronger. This chapter, however, focuses on the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War, which I realized I knew very little about. The themes of war as a unifying force is once again apparent. The focus is really on the growing international power of the United States as it continues to expand geographically and economically.

Here are my favorite tidbits and trivia from this chapter:
  • "The idea of an 'open door' became the dominant theme of the American foreign policy in the twentieth century. It was a more sophisticated approach to imperialism that the traditional empire-building of Europe."
  • "The [Spanish-American] war brought more employment and higher wages, but also higher prices."
  • The more I learned about the Spanish-American War, the more I became convinced we shouldn't call it that. Yes, the fight was between Spain and the United States, but it wasn't fought in either country and doesn't get to the heart of what the war was about. It seems at the very least we could call it A War Over Cuba.
  • The Philippine-American War, which I confess to never having heard of, should be more well-known, if only for its brutality. As one "British witness said: 'This is not war; it is simply massacre and murderous butchery.'"
  • The chapter's conclusion sets the stage beautiful for what is coming: "The 'patience, industry, and moderation' preached to blacks, the 'patriotism' preached to whites, did not fully sink in. In the first years of the twentieth century, despite all the demonstrated power of the state, large numbers of blacks, whites, men, women became impatient, immoderate, unpatriotic."

Chapter 13, "The Socialist Challenge," addresses the rising "class anger that came from the realities of ordinary life."

  • One delight in this chapter was Zinn's exploration of the political leanings (and writings) of authors, including Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. While the political leanings of Upton Sinclair are well-known, I was surprised to hear about Jack London being a Socialist.
  • The statistics of workplace safety are shocking: In 1904, "27,000 workers were killed on the job." In 1914, "35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents and 700,000 injured." Is it any wonder people were willing to risk so much when they had so little to fight against these practices enabling the rich to get richer?
  • I was shocked to see only "3 percent of the Socialist party's members were women in 1904." By 1913, however, "15 percent of the membership was women." For such an egalitarian movement, I hoped it would have had more gender equity, but of course, membership does not include all ideological supporters.
  • I love this exchange between an eighty-year-old Susan B. Anthony and Eugene Debs: "Give us suffrage, and we'll give you socialism." "Give us socialism, and we'll give you suffrage."

Chapter 14, "War is the Health of the State," focuses on World War I. It also marks the half-way point of this book, as my Kindle crossed 50% while reading it.
  • Again, I found myself fascinated by statistics of atrocity: "ten million were to die on the battlefield; 20 million were to die of hunger and disease related to the war."
  • Amidst the great tragedies of World War I, I kept imagining Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford, both nurses during the war. 
  • The Espionage Act of 1917 is frightening legislation and makes he Patriot Act look tame. It "was used to imprison Americans who spoke or wrote against the war." 900 people went to jail for violating the Espionage Act. 

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.

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, April 12, 2012

book review: The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene

The backstory: The Last Time I Saw Paris was on this year's Indie Lit Awards shortlist.

The basics: Fleeing New York City and a husband she doesn't love, Claire calls in a favor to travel to Paris in 1940. When she arrives, she realizes how dire the situation is there, but she perseveres, even without proper documentation, and vows to survive the war in Paris.

My thoughts: I seem to be reacting more strongly to covers lately, and I love this one for the way it captures the story: it's Paris, it's passion, and its colors are enhanced, which represents that although this novel is historical fiction, it's been turned up a few notches toward fantasy. While The Last Time I Saw Paris is firmly grounded in its time and place, I still found myself suspending belief, and gladly, because I was so enjoying its journey. It's certainly not the historical fiction of Helen Dunmore. Yet Lynn Sheene's version is compelling, escapist and action-packed. It's also not for the faint of heart.

While Sheene doesn't shy away from some of this era's more brutal moments, particularly the ruthlessness of the Nazis, she certainly indulges quite a few fantasy-filled moments. I must confess: more than one scene made me blush while reading in public (I don't know how people read racy scenes on public transportation without their faces giving them away!) As Claire becomes more entrenched in her anti-Nazi work, I was transfixed by the rebel forces. While I never feared for Claire herself (within this novel, it seemed she was safe), I did fear for others. My heart raced. I felt the trepidation and danger. I could not put this book down.

I'm not a reader who seeks out romance or thrillers, yet this novel could be classified as both. It's also historical, and while I would stop short of calling it literary, it was immensely readable and enjoyable. I didn't write down any passages, but I was never distracted by the writing or dialogue either, which is no easy feat. It was a vehicle to tell a fast-paced story, and I gobbled it up.

The verdict: The Last Time I Saw Paris is an unexpectedly sexy spy caper that transported me to war-torn Paris with its vivid action, deep emotion and a fast-paced plot. If you're in the mood for a captivating, all-consuming, escapist read, then this novel is perfect, as long as you're willing to suspend belief just enough to invest yourself in this delightful story.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 370 pages
Publication date:  May 3, 2011
Source: publisher


Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Last Time I Saw Paris 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, April 11, 2012

book review: Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney

The backstory: Dance Lessons was shortlisted for the 2012 Indie Lit Awards. It was our runner-up.

The basics: After her husband Fintan dies in a sailing accident on Martha's Vineyard, Boston prep school teacher Ellen travels to the village in Ireland where Fintan was raised to uncover why he claimed to be an orphan.

My thoughts: Based on the cover and title, I expected this novel to be about Irish escapism. I assumed a woman would go on holiday and meet a Viking-esque man who gave dance lessons. The reality of this novel is quite different, and I hope its second place finish in the Indie Lit Awards will compel more readers to take a look at what this novel really is. Ultimately, it's a novel about love, family, and the what it means to be home.

While I would stop short of describing this novel as a mystery, it is a knowledge journey as Ellen yearns to understand her husband better and examine the state of their marriage at the time of his death. Much of this novel's joy is seeing its events unravel slowly. I was grateful to know nothing about its plot when I began to read. I will say, while Ellen's journey was not unexpected, her discoveries did surprise me. This story had a depth of emotion, painful and joyful, and Ellen's journey is far from a romantic vacation.  As the novel progresses, other characters begin to narrate as well, and this change provided more insight into Fintan's history, but I was always most engaged when Ellen was front and center in this novel.

The verdict: Dance Lessons is a beautiful exploration of the ties that bind us together, be it legally, emotionally, or by blood. Ellen's journey was a fascinating one, and I enjoyed experiencing the village of Gowna through her eyes as she encounters intriguing characters and uncovers Fintan's history.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 261 pages
Publication date: March 30, 2011 
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Dance Lessons 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, April 10, 2012

book review: The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

The backstory: The Translation of the Bones is on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist. Francesca Kay's first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the 2009 Orange New Writers Award.

The basics: Set in a small Catholic church in Battersea, this novel features a priest and the three women who volunteer to clean and care for the church: Mrs. Armitage, Stella Morrison, and Mary-Margaret O'Reilly, a somewhat simple and somewhat disturbed young woman of deep faith and a questionable grip on reality.

My thoughts: This novel opens with Mary-Margaret feeling a religious urge to deep clean Jesus on a cross in a side chapel. She injures herself while cleaning him and believes the statue bleeds and looks at her. Kay presented the four main characters well in the beginning, and this crucial scene, which forms the basis for the novel, leaves the reader wondering what exactly did happen to Mary-Margaret and where her reality connects with our shared reality.This scene sets the stage for many questions of faith and belief the novel explores.

The character of Mary-Margaret fascinated me. The reader learns more about her, and her housebound mother, as the novel goes on. It's clear all is not quite well either of them, but the realities of their lives unfold slowly, and I was fascinated by the lives of both women, their relationship with one another, and their views of the world. Simultaneously, Father Diamond, Mrs. Armitage and Stella also narrate, and we glimpse inside their worlds. When Mary-Margaret shares her experience with her nurse at the hospital, the church becomes a tourist destination as Catholics flock to the site of a perceived miracle.

I confess: if I were given this book to read without knowing the author, I would assume a man wrote it because I had such trouble connecting with Mrs. Armitage and Stella. I often had to remind myself which one was which because I didn't think either woman was particularly well-developed or likable. I fully admit my bafflement with modern Catholics plays into this feeling, but I also think Kay intended the reader to react this way. These characters all play around their ideas of faith, reality and belief. For me, the behavior of Stella and Mrs. Armitage were more confusing and baffling than that of Mary-Margaret. This perspective raises some fascinating ideas about religion:
"Mrs. Armitage glanced at her. As a rule she was rather scornful of the conspicuously devout, the supplicants who knelt in front of statues with their hands clasped and their lips moving; they made her think of the Pharisees, strutting through the temple."
Kay has created an intentionally disarming world, and while it is critical of the church, it is also understanding. This duality was always shrouded in an air of mysteriousness. The story will feel incredibly different based on which character the reader most identifies with. These events all unfold during Lent, when it's tradition to cover the statues. The tourists, uninterested in actually worshiping in the church but longing to witness the miracle of a bleeding statue, irk Father Diamond, who takes to locking the church to keep them out. His actions are both hypocritical and completely understanding in the situation. Again, how closely the reader see this situation impacts her perspective.

Reading this novel during Lent was particularly moving, but I still couldn't get behind its ultimate lack of clarity. As Stella and Mrs. Armitage continued to be featured equally with Mary-Margaret, whom I wish would have been more of the novel's focus, it became clear a unifying experience would bring the trio together at the novel's end. I wanted Kay to explore the novel's themes more. This novel felt underdeveloped at times, although I do believe that was Kay's intended restraint. Many of these issues are addressed in Jodi Picoult's novel, Keeping Faith. Perhaps because that novel still resonates with me, this one didn't feel as fresh.

Favorite passage: "When in doubt we turn to Shakespeare. So much safer than the Koran or the Bible."

The verdict: While I was fascinated by Kay's themes in this novel, it never really came together for me in a satisfying way. Her writing is lush, her setting was intriguing, but the uneven characters hindered my enjoyment, and, ultimately, diminished her strong theme and story.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 222 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2012
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Translation of the Bones 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, April 9, 2012

Monday Salon: Where Has My Reading Mojo Gone?

Happy Monday morning! Things have been mighty quiet around here lately, and I confess: I have lost my reading (and blogging) mojo. I hope to be back to normal soon, but in the meantime here's why I haven't been reading much lately:

  • Allergies. I'm not sure what it is I'm allergic to, but it is much more prevalent in Iowa than it was in New York. Even after taking Friday off work last week, I slept twelve hours a day all weekend. It's been cutting into my reading time pretty severely. I used to get up to read for an hour in the morning. Now I just aim to make it out of bed in time to get to work. I used to read for 2-3 hours after work. Now those hours are going to sleep.
  • The gym. I'm not blaming the gym, but I am making it a priority. I'm going every single day, no matter what. I've made it sixteen days in a row, and for now I'm focusing on getting in the routine of every day. I'm surprised how much I'm enjoying it, but it does cut into my reading time a bit.
  • Work. I usually spend my lunch hour reading, but I haven't actually taken a lunch break since before Spring Break. Things may not calm down until after finals. At an academic library, the last month of the semester is always chaotic and exciting. 
  • Television. I confess: I'm spending more time watching tv than reading. My brain is allergy-fried, and television soothes it more than reading. I've managed to watch all of the episodes (to date) of Awake, The Killing, and Smash in the past week. I loved the first episode of Scandal. I'm finally making a dent in the ridiculous number of PBS documentaries and series saved on my DVR too (the Margaret Mitchell episode of American Masters is particularly fascinating--and Pearl Cleage, my favorite author, makes an appearance!)
We're nine days into April, and I've finished only one books: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick. It's 250 pages long, and I started it in March (my review is coming this week.) I'm enjoying Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner immensely and hope to finish it in the next few days. My package of Orange longlisted books not yet published here finally arrived from the UK, and I'm eager to dig into those titles. Otherwise, I hope to catch up on The People's Read-a-long this week too. 

With next week's literary bonanza, I must get my reading mojo back: Monday (April 16th), the Pulitzers are announced. Tuesday (April 17th), the Orange Prize shortlist is announced. I hope to be back to my usual reading, blogging and blog visiting soon. Until then, I hope you're faring better with allergies than I am!

Happy 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!

Friday, April 6, 2012

book review: The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

The basics: The Red Book is the story of Clover, Addison, Mia and Jane, who were roommates Harvard, graduated in 1989 and continue to be friends, even though their lives are scattered across the country and the world. The novel takes is name from Harvard's Red Book, a tradition that every five years, before the reunion, where alumni craft an autobiographical essay of their life and current contact information. Set in 2009, these women reunite with their families for their twentieth reunion.

My thoughts: The novel opens with the actual Red Book entries of these women. I appreciated that introduction, and I think it helped keep them all straight, particularly when their spouses and children were also all introduced. There were times I doubted that these four women would actually be friends, but I think that's the the best thing about college friends: you become close with those you wouldn't later in life. Close proximity is a good thing.

Surprisingly for a book seemingly about friendship, I found its focus to be love, marriage and adultery. These four women are the crux of the story, but their different marriages highlight these themes. Kogan's writing shined at times:

"They had mythologized their origin story from its inception (high school sweethearts, the chance meeting, rekindled love) to the point where now, two decades later, it only made for compelling fiction, if barely."

Where the novel began to fall flat, however, was with how literal some of the characters felt. As each new section featured more Red Book pages, these superfluous details reminded me of the stories I used to write in middle school when I kept a sheet of paper with the name of the real people I described and what I'd changed their names to for this story. These minor characters felt real but not authentic. I imagined them as actual people, but the characters weren't well-developed, and they didn't add as much to the story as they distracted from the already large cast of characters.

Favorite passage: "Look, if there's anything worthwhile that you can take away from your mother and my story it is that humans need love. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity. And they'll endure extraordinary circumstances in order to get it."

The verdict: This tale of four college roommates included a plethora of other characters from their lives then and their lives now. Despite this broad cast, it was easy to keep the characters straight. While I wish some would been more developed and less one-dimensional, the ultimate lessons of friendship, love, life, marriage and death were moving, if sometimes overwrought.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 347 pages
Publication date: April 3, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Red Book 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, April 3, 2012

book review: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The backstory: The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller's first novel, is on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the life of Achilles through his best friend Patrocles.

My thoughts: I read The Iliad in high school, but it's safe to say I remember few of the details. I am by no means an expert in ancient Greece, so I was pleasantly surprised Madeline Miller made this novel both entertaining and easy to read while offering the reader insight into ancient Greece. The story begins when Patrocles is a boy, and I enjoyed seeing him grow as the novel went on. In many ways, this novel is a tender coming of age and love story; it's also set against the Trojan War. While I remembered some things about the Trojan War, I was mostly not familiar with the life of Achilles, and particularly the last half of the novel kept me in suspense.

Madeline Miller has a gift for metaphor: "Her face was like quicksilver, always racing to something new." Her writing manages to be both modern and rooted in ancient Greece. The characters and setting came to life with her words, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed this novel. I expected to enjoy it, as this tale has been told for centuries, but I anticipated it being more challenging and confusing because I was not terribly familiar with the story.

Favorite passage: "He paused, now, considering. I love this about him. No matter how many times I had asked, he answered me as if it were the first time."

The verdict: The Song of Achilles is a delightful and intriguing tale of coming of age, romance, friendship and war.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: March 6, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Song of Achilles 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!