Thursday, March 31, 2011

book review: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's WivesThe backstory: The Secrets Lives of Baba Segi's Wives is one of the nine debut novels on the 2011 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: As the title implies, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives is indeed about the four wives of Baba Segi, a wealthy Nigerian businessman. His fourth wife, Belonle, has a college education, which is a concern for the other three wives.

My thoughts: Although the reader is treated to the inner mind of all four wives, the main character is the fourth wife, Bolanle, who narrates about half of the chapters. I identified most with Bolanle too, who felt like an outsider because of her education and displays an astounding amount of tolerance and patience for how she is treated.

This novel is filled with both a yearning for softness and a gritty, raw hardness of reality. At times it is quite graphic about sex and violence, but it never felt sensationalist; it was authentic. I was fascinated by the characters and the events in the novel, but I never marveled at the construction of a sentence. It's certainly well written, but I would stop short of calling the writing literary. The magic is in the story and characters rather than the construction and language.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was engaged as I read it. I have a fascination with polygamy (well, not enough to watch Sister Wives, but enough to adore Big Love.) As a fan of Big Love, there were times when I was amazed at parallel storylines.

Fun literary fact: Shoneyin is married to the son of Wole Soyinka.

Favorite passage: "Only a foolish woman relies heavily on a man's promises."

The verdict: The Secret Lives of Babi Segi's Wives is a fascinating glimpse into modern polygamy in Nigeria. It's a fast-paced novel with remarkably fleshed out characters. Despite enjoying the story and characters, I would stop short of calling it prize-worthy. I will be eager to see what Lola Shoneyin does next.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: July 1, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Treat yourself! Buy The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (available in hardback, paperback or Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine to highlight an upcoming release you can't wait to read.

My pick this week is Next to Love, the upcoming novel from Ellen Feldman. I read Feldman's recent novel, Scottsboro, when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009. It was one of my favorite reads of 2010, so I was thrilled to hear Feldman has a new novel coming out in July.

There's very little information about it yet, but Feldman's website offered this snippet: "When men go off to war, the lives of women and children change forever."

The publisher lists it as a historical family saga.

The only other information available is this glowing quote from Stacey Schiff: "a powerful, haunting, deeply ambitious novel about love and war, impeccably executed, impossible to put down."

Next to Love will be published by Spiegel & Grau on July 26, 2011. You can pre-order it from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon. It's also available on the Kindle.
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Monday, March 28, 2011

graphic memoir review: Special Exits by Joyce Farmer

Special ExitsThe backstory: Entertainment Weekly named Special Exits one of the 10 best graphic novels of 2010.

The basics: Special Exits is a memoir of Joyce Farmer's experience caring for her aging parents as they struggle to care themselves in their Los Angeles home, which is in an increasingly run-down neighborhood.

My thoughts: I have been having incredible luck with graphic memoirs lately. I was utterly enchanted with Special Exits from the beginning and was sobbing into my coffee as I finished before work one day. Farmer tells the story with immense restraint. Lars and Rachel descend gradually into old age. Initially, they are too shy and proud to ask for the help of Laura (Special Exits is a memoir, but it's unclear precisely who Joyce is, but I assumed she is Laura). It's a subtle shift of power as Laura realizes how much Lars and Rachel need her.

As I read this book, which is as beautifully illustrated as is it hauntingly told with accompanying prose, I could not help but think of my parents and husband's parents growing older. No matter where Mr. Nomadreader and I settle down (and many who know us question our ability to settle down geographically given our nomadic histories), we simply won't be able to care for all of our parents as they grow older. I found it deeply affecting, but only partly because I wondered what I would and could do in the same situation Laura finds herself. It's a testament to Farmer that I was as emotionally effected imagining myself as Lars and Rachel.

The verdict: Special Exits is an emotionally raw and unflinchingly honest look at growing older and self-reliance. It's a deeply personal story, but it's a universal one sure to appeal to readers of all ages.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: December 6, 2010
Source: my local public library

Treat yourself! Buy Special Exits from Amazon, an independent bookstore, or the Book Depository.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Friday, March 25, 2011

book review: The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love: A NovelThe backstory: The Birth of Love is longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize.

The basics: "The year is 1865. In Vienna, Dr. Ignasz Semmelweiss has been hounded into an asylum by his medical peers, ridiculed for his claim that doctor's unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. In present-day London, Bridget Hughes juggles her young son, husband, and mother as she plans her home birth. Somewhere in 2153, in a world where humans are birthed and raise in breeding farms, Prisoner 730004 is on trial for concealing a pregnancy." (from the publisher)

My thoughts: Jackie warned me this novel had no plot, but I also knew both she and Andi loved it, so I was intrigued, as my taste tends to be somewhat similar to both of theirs. They are both mothers, so I was curious how I would react as a non-mother. The short of it: I loved it. I find it fascinating Kavenna chose to have two of her four narrators be men. For me, it was the perfect bridge to allow men and non-mothers entrance into a novel about childbirth. I found myself initially enjoying the experience of Brigid in 2009 London the most, but her story carried so much more meaning betwixt the historical and futuristic glimpses into motherhood. The soft tension between Brigid and her husband was poetic:
"Worst of all, Patrick kept praising her; he said he didn't know how she managed it all. He was trying to encourage her, though it made her feel alone, too, that her experience was untranslatable, obscure to him."
There were times Kavenna went (intentionally) meta, and I loved it:
"Men are unlikely to read a book about childbirth. It's unfortunate, but there's not much to be done. Women just might, but they'll be put off by your obscure doctor. And the title, too--the title is rather awkward." But he didn't want to change the title. "It sounds like a dreary symbolist novel," said Sally. "And this rambling narrator, who seems mad himself. It's as if you want to talk about everything, in one book. You can't talk about everything in one book. It's boring and it bores the reader."
This passage, in reference to the male novelist who has just written a historical novel about Semmelweiss delighted me. Initially, I was surprised by the fourth storyline not mentioned in the summary, but I quickly grew to love this stand-in for the author herself.  As I sat in my new reading nook while Mr. Nomadreader sat on the couch playing video games, I compulsively read passages to him I thought he would enjoy. Ironically, I think he would like this book as much if not more than I did because of his love of both science and its history.

The meta continues: "It's a good novel, I'm not saying it isn't a good novel, but it has no market." I admit, a novel about childbirth did not initially grab me, but the idea of a novel about childbirth in 1865, 2009 and 2153 moved this novel near the top of my Orange Prize reading list. It's a brilliant premise, but it's true there's not much plot. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but I am recommending it to quite a few friends.

Favorite passage: The appropriately summative: "Pregnancy was an exercise in optimism; having children was an eager assertion of optimism against all the dangers inherent in life, the tragedy that lurked constantly, at the edge of joy."

The verdict: The Birth of Love is a riveting examination of childbirth, mothering and humanity throughout history. It's scope is impressive. It was compulsively readable, fascinating and thought provoking.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: April 13, 2010
Source: I bought it for my Kindle.

Treat yourself! Buy The Birth of Love in paperback from an independent bookstore, The Book Depository, or Amazon. It's also available for the Kindle.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On lending e-books

It's no secret I love my Kindle. If I could afford to only read on my Kindle, I would. When lending books for the Kindle became an option, I made a Google document with all of the books I owned that could be lent and shared it with all of my friends and family who also had Kindles. I liked the idea of sharing books, as I've never been one to hoard books I've read (books I have yet to read are a different story. My bookshelves tell a different story about me: the books I think I want to read someday but never seem to.) 

My Google document just got blown out of the water by ebookfling.
The concept is simple and similar to Paperback Swap: lend a book, get a credit. Borrow a book for a credit. I chose to manually list my Kindle books with them, but you can also import your library. I have several books I want to read soon (mostly the Orange Prize longlist), and I won't loan them until I've read them. Not all Kindle books are loanable of course, but when you add a book to your wishlist it shows up with "lending disabled" in red, which is helpful. You can browse for books currently available to be borrowed as well as keep a wishlist of items you want to be notified when they become available. The lending guidelines are still incredibly strict: you may lend a book only one time and only for fourteen days. Many publishers do not allow their e-books to be lent (thanks to Macmillan and Scholastic who do!).

There are other websites offering similar services (Lendle and Booklending are only for the Kindle). It will be interesting to see if one begins to dominate the market. 

How do you loan your e-books to friends?

I am not affiliated with nor am I receiving compensation for this post. I think they provide a fantastic service.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

book review: The Seas by Samantha Hunt

The Seas: A NovelThe backstory: The Seas is on the 2011 Orange Prize longlist. It's also the shortest book on the longlist, so I started with it.

My thoughts: Imagine you are Samantha Hunt. Your debut novel, which was published in the U.S. in 2004 and mostly forgotten gets a new life with its publication in the UK last year. Then it gets nominated for the Orange Prize, two years after your second novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. It's a lovely story, and I was looking forward to reading this "modern retelling of the little mermaid story."

I am not a reader drawn to fairy tales. I'm drawn to strong writing and strong characters. The Seas was hard to read because although the writing was strong the characters were not. I did not attempt to summarize this novel because it slowly unfolds over time. Our unnamed narrator gives more details as time goes on, but she remains mysterious. I'm tempted to call her an unreliable narrator, but I 'm not convinced that's entirely the case. She sees the world differently; she thinks she's a mermaid. To others, however, she is a sad, strange girl afflicted with mental illness. I'm still not sure where reality and magical realism ultimately end in this book, and I'm quite sure that was Hunt's point.

To that end, many will love this novel. It dances around reality and fantasy without ever being firmly in both. There are some truly lovely passages that gave me hope for this book early on:
"Don't forget that the ocean is full of everything except mercy."
There were also initial portrayals of characters I adored:
"My mother is regularly torn between being herself and being my mother."
And bits of whimsy to delight:
 "He tells me about an idea he has for an opera where all the gods of all the religions of the world battle it out in song."
Ultimately, it didn't work for me. What began as peculiar honesty from our intriguing narrator and ventured into magical realism and a scientific approach to the reality of what we see quickly became flat and dull despite my enjoyment of Hunt's language. At times, I sensed this novel began as several short stories she somehow stitched together because the chapters are inconsistent lengths and all uniquely titled.

Favorite passage: "I am worn out by desire for him like a girl in some book."

The verdict: In the end, I didn't quite buy into the characters or the narrative. Despite Hunt's somewhat ironic assertion that "details make a story even as unbelievable as mine believable," neither the details nor the narrative made this novel believable, yet it couldn't compel me to suspend belief and enter its world either. Just as our narrator thinks she is a link between the ocean and earth, I felt trapped between two realities in this meandering story.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 208 pages
Publication date: October 3, 2004 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it for my Kindle (for only $2.99!)

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sunday Salon: Moving

Happy Sunday Monday, everyone! Things have been a bit quiet at the blog here because Mr. Nomadreader and I moved into our very own apartment for the first time. Yes, after five years together, we've always managed to live with (fantastic) roommates, housemates or our parents; it was time to strike out on our own. Yesterday, we moved the furniture and are happily settling into our lovely apartment. We were blessed with gorgeous spring weather yesterday; it was 60 degrees and sunny. Today? Yes, it's snowing again.

I am so in love with our apartment. My favorite part: a reading nook off the living room where we're putting two chairs. I will spend so much time in the overstuffed one reading with my feet propped up on the ottoman. Soon, I will return to my reading of the Orange Prize longlist and be writing reviews with all of thoughts. I'll post pictures of it soon enough (once I find the box with the camera in it, perhaps.) Packing and moving has severely cut into my reading time, reviewing time and time to visit other blogs, but I'm hoping things get back to normal this week.

The Seas: A NovelI've been reading The Seas by Samantha Hunt, which is on the Orange longlist. I like it. When I'm reading it, I'm engaged (although more with her writing and than the characters at this point). When I'm not reading it, I don't find the urge to pick it up instead of packing (and now unpacking), so I'm not making as much progress as I would like. I'll reserve my final judgment until I finish it, but I hope to have a review of it up later this week. 

In the meantime, I'll do my best to get back into a reading and blogging groove. Happy Sunday Monday!

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Friday, March 18, 2011

On Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss

The backstory: Despite really disliking Mockingjay, the third novel in the Hunger Games series, I've been following the movie news quite carefully. The casting of Katniss (and Peeta and Gale) is crucial. When news broke yesterday that Jennifer Lawrence had been cast, I was deeply saddened. She's not the right choice, and her casting worries me.

My thoughts: This morning, Entertainment Weekly posted an interview with Gary Ross, the film's director, calling it the easiest casting decision of his life. He responds to critics who think she's too old (Lawrence will turn 21 in August; Katniss is 16 in the first book):
"First of all I talked to Suzanne extensively about this. Suzanne saw every single audition. And not only did Suzanne not have an issue with Jen’s age, she felt you need someone of a certain maturity and power to be Katniss. This is a girl who needs to incite a revolution. We can’t have an insubstantial person play her, and we can’t have someone who’s too young to play this. Suzanne was incredibly adamant about this. Far from being too old, she was very concerned that we would cast someone who was too young. In Suzanne’s mind, and in mine, Katniss is not a young girl. It’s important for her to be a young woman. She’s a maternal figure in her family. She’s had to take care of Prim and in many ways her mother since her father’s death. She’s had to grow up pretty quick."
Here's why they're both wrong: the power of this book is in the age of Katniss. The Hunger Games are so terrifying because the contestants are between 12 and 18. Seeing actual teenagers fight to the death is very different than seeing people in their early twenties. It's the difference between the gritty rawness of Degrassi versus the equally entertaining but often less compelling Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill (shows I watch and love). When I watch Degrassi (the original Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High, or early seasons of Degrassi: the Next Generation), I constantly think, "but they're so young." A similar phenomenon continuously compels me to watch 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom 2. Seeing teenagers face adversity (sometimes overcoming it and sometimes failing miserably) is harrowing. Seeing adults pretend to be teenagers is entertaining.

(Gary Ross & Jennifer Lawrence)
Image Credit: Albert L. Ortega/PR Photos;
Lester Cohen/
The casting of Jennifer Lawrence concerns me because I think it waters down the message of the books. I don't read very much young adult fiction, but I was inspired by Katniss partly because of her age. A sixteen-year-old girl inspiring a revolution? Yes, please! Sadly, it seems a lot more plausible than a twenty-one-year-old doing it. There's a broad range of youthful idealism between sixteen and twenty-one.

I don't doubt that Lawrence will be good in the role; she gave a powerful performance of a 17-year-old character in Winter's Bone, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. The critical distinction: her performance was strong, but I didn't realize she was supposed to be seventeen until the middle of the film. In many ways, her character was similar to Katniss. She was a maternal (and arguably paternal) figure to her younger siblings. She hunted their food. She lived in a life and death world. She was strong, brave and somewhat heroic.

I don't care that her physical description is so different than how Katniss was described. I don't think her hair color matters. I do, however, think her age does.

The verdict: The age of Katniss is an undeniable part of The Hunger Games, and I worry the film just lost some of its authenticity and power. I was rooting for Hailee Steinfeld, who is only 14. She was unbelievably convincing in True Grit, and she can believably play a 16-year-old. The films will still make money. They will still introduces millions to the books. They will still be entertaining. They simply won't be the films I hoped they would because they won't really be about teenagers anymore.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The 2011 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 seven of the twenty novels and had another three on my longer list of 34 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:
Room: A NovelA Visit from the Goon SquadGreat House: A NovelThe Invisible Bridge (Vintage Contemporaries)Swamplandia!
The ones available in the U.S. now:
Lyrics Alley: A NovelThe Pleasure Seekers: A NovelThe Memory of LoveThe Seas: A Novel
The Birth of Love: A NovelThe Tiger's Wife: A NovelThe Secret Lives of Baba Segi's WivesAnnabel: A Novel
The ones coming soon to the U.S.:
Jamrach's Menagerie. Carol BirchThe Road to Wanting. Wendy Law-YoneRepeat It Today With TearsWhatever You Love. Louise Doughty

  • Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (also available on the Kindle) -- coming June 14, 2011
  • Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty -- coming in April 2011
  • London Train by Tessa Hadley (also available on the Kindle) -- coming May 24, 2011
  • The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone -- coming in April 2011
  • Repeat It Today With Tears by Anne Peile -- coming August 1, 2011
The ones we hope will find their way to the U.S.:
Grace Williams Says It Loud. Emma HendersonThe Swimmer
  • Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson
  • The Swimmer by Roma Tearne
Biggest Surprise: The omission of Linda Grant's new  novel We Had It So Good. I'm still eagerly awaiting its US release next month.

The 20 Under 40 ladies are well represented! Nicole Krauss, Tea Obreht and Karen Russell all made the list. I'm planning to re-read Great House for the longlist.

Debut novels galore: Nine of the twenty novels are debuts, which is wonderful. I'm looking forward to discovering so many new authors.

Want to know more? The Guardian has a wonderful gallery with summaries and reviews.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?

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!