Monday, January 30, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 3

Welcome to Week 3 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and the pace is perfect. (Missed the first two weeks? Check out my posts for weeks one and two.) I'm still thoroughly enjoying this read-a-long. This week I even took Jill's advice and snagged a copy of Voices of a People's History of the United States, which is collection of primary source documents organized around the chapters of A People's History of the United States. I'm not reading all of them, but I'm dipping into the ones that most interest me. It's adding another fascinating layer to this book.

My thoughts: Chapter 3, entitled "Persons of Mean and Vile Condition," deals with the class system in the colonies. More specifically, Zinn addresses how class was impacted by the existing class system of Britain and how it shifted to include Indians, slaves, (white) servants, and former servants. I'm deeply concerned at what I see as our current class system in this country, and this chapter was fascinating and disturbing to see how long we've faced these problems:
"A historian who studied Boston tax lists in 1687 and 1771 found that in 1687 there were, out of a population of six thousand, about one thousand property owners, and that the top 5 percent—1 percent of the population—consisted of fifty rich individuals who had 25 percent of the wealth. By 1770, the top 1 percent of property owners owned 44 percent of the wealth."
In the last chapter I was fascinated by the difference in behavior between freed slaves brought to the U.S. and those born here. This chapter offered a similarly eerie glimpse into the behavior of freed servants:
"The first batches of servants became landowners and politically active in the colony, but by the second half of the century more than half the servants, even after ten years of freedom, remained landless. Servants became tenants, providing cheap labor for the large planters both during and after their servitude."
The illusion of America as a place to start fresh is once again dissected in this chapter as Zinn looks at who these people were before they came to the United States:
"The servants who joined Bacon’s Rebellion were part of a large underclass of miserably poor whites who came to the North American colonies from European cities whose governments were anxious to be rid of them. In England, the development of commerce and capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s, the enclosing of land for the production of wool, filled the cities with vagrant poor, and from the reign of Elizabeth on, laws were passed to punish them, imprison them in workhouses, or exile them."
Perhaps the most damning (and incredibly fascinating tidbit) about America not being an idyllic land of opportunity is this one: "Parliament, in 1717, made transportation to the New World a legal punishment for crime. After that, tens of thousands of convicts could be sent to Virginia, Maryland, and other colonies."

In the midst of a presidential campaign, where the rhetoric of liberty and equality are thrown around my candidates able to self-finance a campaign, I witnessed eerie similarities to the behavior of the ruling class in colonial times. The cynic in me came out strongly as I read this chapter and bemoaned how little has changed.

Favorite passage: "Those upper classes, to rule, needed to make concessions to the middle class, without damage to their own wealth or power, at the expense of slaves, Indians, and poor whites. This bought loyalty. And to bind that loyalty with something more powerful even than material advantage, the ruling group found, in the 1760s and 1770s, a wonderfully useful device. That device was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality."

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

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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Salon: January book club recap

My book club met this week to discuss One for the Money (my review) and Cleopatra, which I managed to read all of 6 pages of (I do want to read it, but I'm thinking of doing a chapter a week read-a-long after A People's Read-a-long is over because it is a dense book.) We had some nice discussions at a local coffee house. I most enjoyed the Cleopatra discussion, even though I had not read most of it. One interesting tidbit: we all agreed we'd never thought of Cleopatra as a mother before, but we were surprised it hadn't occurred to us that she had children.

As is often the case, we spend as much time talking about what else we're reading and what we want to read for next time as we do the books selected. We had so much fun this time, in fact, that we picked three books for March!
  • Room by Emma Donoghue (my review): Room was my favorite read of 2010, so I'm thrilled someone else suggested it. 
  • Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (my review): I suggested Secret Daughter because I adored it when I read it last year, but more importantly, I think the other group members will really enjoy it. I'm eager to discuss this one too.
  • Running Away to Home: Our Family's Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters by Jennifer Wilson: Jennifer Wilson is a Des Moines author, and as the descriptive subtitle lets you know, this family decides to take a family sabbatical to Croatia. There's certainly the local factor that intrigues me, but I'm also fascinated by taking a family sabbatical. I confess to thinking of travel as something I loved when I was single, continue to love to do with Mr. Nomadreader, but I can't imagine traveling in that way once we have a child. I'm looking forward to sharing in their journey.
Look for my review of Running Away to Home in March. Until then, 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!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

book review: What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: I first read Pearl Cleage's debut novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in 1997. I remember the day I picked it up at the library, filled with excitement that my favorite playwright had written a novel. I had ridiculously high expectations, and Pearl exceeded them all. She's my favorite author, yet I haven't read any of her work in the past three years. This year, I'm going back to the beginning to re-read (and then read) her novels in the order they were published.

The basics: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is the story of Ava, an HIV-positive black woman who sold her hair salon in Atlanta to get a somewhat fresh start in San Francisco, away from the string of men she's slept with. She decides to spend the summer with her sister Joyce in Idlewild, Michigan.

My thoughts: Although I read What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day almost fifteen years ago, I still remember the last line of the novel. It's my favorite last line of a novel. Despite its lingering memory, I realized I remembered little else about the novel. It was magical to read one of my favorite novels again, seemingly for the first time.

Initially, I was struck both by how brilliant Pearl Cleage is and how timeless this novel is. If I didn't know it was written fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have a clue:
"It almost doesn't matter what black community you go in now the problems are exactly the same. The kids are angry. The men are shell-shocked. The women are alone and the drugs are everywhere."
This novel tackles big issues and its focus is on the African-American community in particular. When Ava arrives in Idlewild, she's surprised to hear there's a crack epidemic: "I shouldn't have been surprised. Crack is an epidemic with a life all its own, just like AIDS. Small-town living doesn't save you anymore."

Ava and Joyce are an intriguing pair of sisters. Joyce, who has lost her husband and two children, maintains a realistic optimism about saving people:
"Joyce is good at this kind of stuff. She went into social work in the first place because she really believes that people want to take care of themselves and their children, and if they're allowed to do that with some dignity, everything else will fall into place."
Ava, meanwhile, has a more cynical edge. She's impressed her sister can maintain positivity and optimism to try to effect real change, but she struggles with a desire for vengeance too.

There is an underlying tragedy in this novel that haunts me. The world needs more people like Joyce. The world needs more novels and films to address the issues of our contemporary life. Still, there's hope and, more impressively, joy. Pearl Cleage celebrates life, love and goodness, but she doesn't shy away from the tragic realities of AIDS, crack and violence.

Favorite passage: "Most of the people up here think it's still 1958 and we're dealing with some high-spirited youngsters who are just sowing their wild oats. They can't see that this is something new. This isn't a phase they're going through. This is how they are. They don't know anything. They're selfish and mean and mad all the time."

The verdict: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day shows no signs of age. It's as relevant than when it was first published. It's a brilliant novel and an astonishing debut novel. Whether on stage or page, Pearl Cleage is a master storyteller, and I'm continuously astonished she's not better known, more often read, and heralded as one of the great literary talents. This novel is a contemporary American masterpiece.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: December 1, 1997
Source: I bought it for my Kindle 

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day 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, January 25, 2012

book review: One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

The backstory: One for the Money was one of my book club's selections for January.

The basics: The first in Janet Evanovich's wildly popular Stephanie Plum series, One for the Money introduces Stephanie, who was recently laid off by the lingerie company she worked for as an orderer. With bills piling up, Stephanie decides to try working for her cousin, a bounty hunter, to locate an old fling, Joe Morelli, an ex-cop and current fugitive wanted for murder, so she can collect the $10,000.

My thoughts: Originally written in 1994, One for the Money is starting to show its age somewhat. Stephanie's clothes are horribly dated. At one point she bemoans being down to her last pair of bicycle shorts. Fashion quibbles aside, I'm always fascinated to read mysteries set in earlier technological times. Car phones abound in this novel. For me, a technophile, the thought of chasing bad guys without a cell phone or car phone is truly terrifying, and in this novel the lack of access to technology heightened the fear.

As a character, Stephanie is interesting. She's at a tough time in her life, and her financial situation came off as quite contemporary. Faced with no leads in a field she'd worked in for years, she was running out of money and selling her possessions to pay her bills. For a novel partly established as realistic, Stephanie's family serve as a comic relief. I've heard these novels described as funny; I'm inclined to call them quirky. I never laughed out loud, but I did enjoy the cast of characters. Part way through the novel, I was compelled to look up the cast for the film version. It felt somewhat like the cast of characters on a television show. It reads like a series novel. Rather than setting up the personal relationships, they're firmly in place so the focus is on Stephanie and her work life.

Favorite passage: "Pride seemed out of place. Sorrow didn’t quite fit. There was definitely regret."

The verdict: I enjoyed One for the Money while I was reading it, but I doubt I'll be compelled to pick up the next one in the series. It's a fine novel, but ultimately it seemed forgettable.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 288 pages
Publication date: August 26, 1994
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Buy One for the Money 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, January 24, 2012

book review: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Translated from the Spanish by Carol and Thomas Christensen.

The backstory: 
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel's first novel, is one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

The basics: Told in monthly installments interspersed with recipes, Like Water for Chocolate, is the story of the De la Garza family in the Mexican revolution and filled with magical realism of love and cooking. The narrator is the great-niece of Tita, and the novel's focus is the life of Tita, the family's youngest daughter.

My thoughts: I first read Like Water for Chocolate in high school and utterly adored it. Re-reading it fifteen years later, I still enjoyed it, but the magical realism of love's positive and negative effects lacked the dramatic resonance it held for me as a teenager. It is the tradition of Tita's family that the youngest daughter may not marry and must spend her life serving her mother. Tita is enraged, angry and in utter agony when she learns her fate will be to care for her mother rather than live with Pedro, the love of her life. Pedro decides the best course of action is to agree to Tita's mother's wishes and marry Tita's older sister so he can still be near her.

Part of the magic of this novel is its ability to make its actions seem real. Magical realism at its best is emotional, authentic and believable. As I try to describe it, it can sound farcical or contrived, but Esquivel infuses this novel with true emotion. It's deceptively simple, which is why I loved it in high school. It is an accessible novel with young adult crossover appeal, but as an adult re-reading it, I see the novel differently. I think of it as a whole more now; I see the stories of each member of the family rather than drowning in Tita's emotional plight.

Favorite passage: "From that night on she would love him forever. And now she had to give him up. It wasn't decent to desire your sister's future husband. She had to try to put him out of her mind somehow, so she could get to sleep. She started to eat the Christmas Roll Nacha had left our on her bureau, along with a glass of milk; this remedy had proven effective many times. Nacha, with all her experience, knew that for Tita there was no pain that wouldn't disappear if she ate a delicious Christmas Roll. But this time it didn't work. She felt no relief from the hollow sensation in her stomach."

The verdict: While Like Water for Chocolate lacked some of the emotional resonance I recall feeling when I read it in high school, it's still an excellent novel of magical realism. It's a novel that evokes the senses and ties each to emotion.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: September 6, 1992
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Like Water for Chocolate 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, January 23, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 2

Welcome to Week 2 of A People's Read-a-long! I'm still thoroughly enjoying this read-a-long. It's incredibly easy to keep track of reading one chapter a week. I even managed to keep up while being away at ALA Midwinter most of this week (I'm coming home tonight...hooray for  plane reading time!)

My thoughts: Chapter 2, entitled "Drawing the Color Line," focuses on slavery and its origins in the United States. I found this topic illuminating, depressing and simultaneously fascinating and difficult to read. Having read and enjoyed Property, Valerie Martin's Orange Prize-winning novel of slavery earlier this month (my review), I found myself connecting the dots between Zinn's history and the story of Manon in 1828 Louisiana.

What I found most interesting in this chapter was the role of racism. When I think of slavery, I think of racism, but Zinn outlined this distinction: "In the early years of slavery, especially, before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while while indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation." It makes sense of course, when you think of who the early settlers were: "many of them were skilled craftsmen, or even men of leisure back in England, who were so little inclined to work the land that John Smith, in those early years, had to declare a kind of martial law, organize them into work gangs, and force them into the fields for survival." As I pondered this obvious idea I hadn't thought of before, I was reminded of Ann Weisbarger's phenomenal debut novel The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, where a black couple become homesteaders in South Dakota's Badlands (my review). Many of their neighbors bailed when times got tough, or tougher, there were other options. Times were indeed tough for the early settlers: "The Virginians of 1619 were desperate for labor, to grow enough food to stay alive. Among them were survivors from the winter of 1609–1610, the “starving time,” when, crazed for want of food, they roamed the woods for nuts and berries, dug up graves to eat the corpses, and died in batches until five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty." Slavery was their answer.

I find it fascinating that this notion of survival prompted slavery. It's a sign of the complicated nature of human relationships that slavery prompted racism. I imagine slaveowners let themselves begin to believe slaves were different so they could find a way to try to live with their actions. Justifying human behavior is a fascinating idea, and this chapter was filled with troubling justifications that begin to seem almost understandable in the times but still reprehensible to a thinking person:
"There may have been a kind of frustrated rage at their own ineptitude, at the Indian superiority at taking care of themselves, that made the Virginians especially ready to become the masters of slaves."
It's an uncomfortable chapter to identify with the positions of both slaves and owners, but it's an important one.

Favorite passage:  "Slaves recently from Africa, still holding on to the heritage of their communal society, would run away in groups and try to establish villages of runaways out in the wilderness, on the frontier. Slaves born in America, on the other hand, were more likely to run off alone, and, with the skills they had learned on the plantation, try to pass as free men."

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

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

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Salon: First thoughts on the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

The National Book Critics Circle, of which I am a member, has announced the finalists for its 2011 awards. None of the five titles I voted for made the cut, but it certainly is an exciting list!

Open City by Teju Cole
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (my review)
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (my review)
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

I've read two of the five finalists already. I'm glad to see Jeffrey Eugenides make the cut, as I think The Marriage Plot is a wise, delightful novel. It's certainly one that appeals to book critics, given all of its overt literature references! It had plenty of hype, but the critical acclaim has been somewhat lacking on prize lists. While I thought Edith Pearlman's story collection Binocular Vision peaked too early (it's first story was it's best), I'm not surprised to see this National Book Award finalist here. As readers of this blog know, I greatly prefer novels to short stories, and this bias may be evident in my uneven reaction to this acclaimed collection of stories.

The three I have yet to read are all on my TBR already. Open City is one of the Tournament of Books contenders, and it's near the top of my TBR pile. Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child made the Booker longlist and the Tournament of Books field. Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia made Entertainment Weekly's Top 10 of 2011, and I hope to make time for it soon too.

It's easy to focus on what's missing from this list, but I'm choosing to see it as a sign of how many excellent novels were published in 2011. None of these titles are a huge surprise; they've all appeared on another prize list or Best of 2011 list. With the Pulitzer list still to come, I'm still hoping Ben Lerner's majestic Leaving the Atocha Station can make an appearance on its list.

I'll be reviewing the three remaining titles in preparation for the March 8th announcement and bringing you my prediction (and personal preference) before the winner is officially announced.

Now tell me: which title do you think will win the National Book Critics Circle Award? Which one are you rooting for?

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, January 19, 2012

book review: Property by Valerie Martin

The backstory: Property won the Orange Prize in 2003.

The basics: Set in 1828 Louisiana, Property focuses on Manon Gaudet,the bored, unhappy wife of a slave owner who has fathered the oldest child of Sarah, a slave, and continues to sleep with her. The two women hate one another, and they both hate Mr. Gaudet.

My thoughts: Manon is a fascinating character. It would be too easy to say she's not likable, as truly, her life was wretched. Martin sums up Manon's temperament brilliantly: "feeling thoroughly bored and aggravated by the whole business." It applies to so many situations. Still, as wretched as Manon's life is, she is a slave owner of some privilege. She is married to a man she despises and now lives in the country, which she is not too fond of either. Her relationship with Sarah is tenuous and fascinating, and it brings out Manon's cruelness. Despite her lack of love for her husband, Manon harbors jealousy of Sarah in some way. Sarah's relationship with Mr. Gaudet frees Manon of some obligation, for which she is grateful, yet she never manages to see Sarah as a teammate of sorts, united against an evil man.

Favorite passage: "After that everything happened quickly, thought it felt as if time itself had fallen open like a book, and each new impression was completed, even recollected, before the next began."

The verdict: Property is a gritty novel. It provides a glimpse into life on a Louisiana plantation in 1828, and it's not pretty, for slaves or owners. I was haunted by the proliferation of evil and utter lack of humanity. It's a powerful novel, and while I had certain expectations for a novel of slavery, Property both fulfilled the expected and transcended it. Martin is a talented writer, and there were several surprises, in both timing and action.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 196 pages
Publication date: February 18, 2003
Source: library

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

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, January 18, 2012

I'm Dallas bound for ALA Midwinter!

Tomorrow after teaching my first class of the semester I'll be off to the airport to catch my flight to Dallas for this year's American Library Association Midwinter Conference. I was blessed to be chosen as one of ALA's 2012 Emerging Leaders this year, and I'll meet my fellow ELs and begin work on our projects, which will culminate with a poster presentation at ALA's Annual Conference in Anaheim in June.

As you might imagine, my schedule is already pretty full with meetings, but I do want to take some time to see Dallas. I'd love to hear your suggestions of things (preferably near the conference center or easily accessed by public transportation) to do while I'm there and places to eat. So far on my list are the Public ArtWalk Dallas and the Sixth Floor Museum. And I'm always looking for suggestions of good food. Give me your best Dallas recommendations!

If any of you are going to be there, send me an email. I'd love to meet up!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

book review: The Odds: A Love Story by Stewart O'Nan

The basics: Art and Marion's marriage is failing. They're giving it one last-ditch effort by spending a romantic weekend in Niagara Falls, where they also plan to gamble their way back to financial solvency.

My thoughts: The Odds: A Love Story is not the kind of love story fans of Nicholas Sparks would enjoy. It's a real love story, filled with miscommunication, disappointment, blame and exhaustion. O'Nan balances the whimsy of beginning each chapter with a set of odds related to its content with the increasingly depressing vision of Art and Marion's marriage. O'Nan gradually reveals the details of both how dire their marriage and financial situation are, as well as how it got there. More importantly, however, O'Nan seamlessly uses both Art and Marion as narrators. The reader comes to understand the marriage, and it becomes clear neither Art, Marion, nor the reader truly understand it from all perspectives.

Favorite passage: "You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole—like the world, or the person you loved."

The verdict: The Odds is a quirky, fun, realistic portrayal of a modern marriage on the brink of financial ruin and divorce. Its biggest strength are the characters of Art and Marion, who are remarkably well-developed as individuals in this short novel. It's a travel novel, a character study, and a love story, but all three are firmly grounded in reality and resonate with wisdom and genuine emotion.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 192 pages
Publication date: January 19, 2012
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Odds: A Love Story from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version).

Now tell me: The Odds: A Love Story was my first Stewart O'Nan novel, but it certainly won't be my last. Which of his novels should I read next?

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, January 16, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 1

Welcome to Week 1 of A People's Read-a-long! So far I'm thoroughly enjoying this read-a-long. It's incredibly easy to keep track of reading one chapter a week. I may not post every week, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts and a couple of my favorite passages from Chapter 1 this week.

My thoughts: It's rare to find a non-fiction book without an introduction, and consequently, chapter 1 read like a combination of an introduction and a first chapter. Zinn provided context for his view of understanding history as he told the story of the first chapter: Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress. I appreciate Zinn's view of reading and understanding history as a modern person: "My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality."

I'm fascinated by how different societies, past and present, viewed gender. In chapter 1, I learned Iroquois societies were matrilineal. Furthermore, Zinn quotes historian Gary Nash, "no laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails—the apparatus of authority in European societies—were to be found in the northeast woodlands prior to European arrival." A French Jesuit priest who observed the Iroquois in the 1650's noted: "No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers. . . . Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common." Learning these things about Iroquois society initially made me horrified at the actions of Columbus. As I began to challenge myself to think like Zinn, however, and placed myself in the viewpoint of both groups at that time, I was struck how scared Columbus must have been to encounter a society so totally different than his own. I can marvel now, but wouldn't I have been frightened by our differences if I were with Columbus?

I also was fascinated by the reactions of those at Vera Cruz when a Spanish armada arrived. When "a bearded white man came ashore, with strange beasts (horses), clad in iron, it was thought he was the legendary Aztec man-god who had died three hundred years before, with the promise to return--the mysterious Quetzalocoatl. And so they welcomed him, with munificent hospitality." It's a chilling story of looking at history from both sides, gathering perspectives, and ultimately, I think, understanding tragedy. I consider myself somewhat of a history buff, but after reading Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and Columbus scholar, "retraced Columbus's route across the Atlantic." It's a fascinating prospect of experiential learning and understanding. Would the inverse be possible? Could we retrace the steps of those whom Columbus destroyed upon arriving?

The verdict: I'm thoroughly enjoying A People's History of the United States and am eager to read chapter 2. 

There's still time to join in! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version I have seems to no longer be available, thus vindicating my habits of impulse Kindle shopping!)

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, January 13, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy winner

Last week I announced a fabulous contest to win a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy giveaway. To enter, I asked people to name their favorite spy book or film. Here's the list, in order of number of responses:

Jason Bourne
James Bond (with one vote for Casino Royale in particular)
Hunt for Red October
The 39 Steps

Jason Bourne and James Bond dominated the preferences of contest entrants!

And the two winners of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy giftpacks are...Melissa from An Avid Reader's Musings and Lisa! Congratulations!

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, January 10, 2012

book review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

The backstory: Bel Canto won the Orange Prize in 2002. Ann Patchett's latest novel, State of Wonder, was my favorite read of 2011. In 2012, I'm reading all of her backlist, beginning with Bel Canto.

The basics: In a South American country, the vice president hosts a birthday party for a Japanese businessman to entice him into building a factory in their country. Mr. Hosokawa has no intention of building a factory there, but attends because Roxane Coss, his favorite opera soprano will perform for his birthday. When terrorists arrive to kidnap the president, who did not attend, they are instead left with many other hostages.

My thoughts: Ann Patchett and I clearly share a fascination for how people react in extraordinary situations and the depth of humanity. In Bel Canto, the terrorists are as human as the hostages, and I found myself illogically rooting for them at times. In many ways, this novel is the story of Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane Coss, but Gen, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, stole the book. Gen is Japanese but fluent in numerous languages: "Sitting alone in his apartment with books and tapes, he would pick up languages the way other men picked up women, with smooth talk and then later, passion." Most importantly, he was able to translate for all of hostages. The hostages were an intriguing motley crew of people from around the world. Through Gen, they found ways to communicate. A shared love of Roxane's singing transcended language and provided unity.

Favorite passage:  "Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. Don’t you think? It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.:

The verdict: Bel Canto is a wonderful, thought-provoking, invigorating novel that examines the humanity in all of us. It is a fascinating story of hostages and captors, but it's also more. This novel is a celebration of the arts and the human spirit.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: May 22, 2001
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

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

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, January 9, 2012

Announcing the 2011 Indie Lit Award shortlists

The 2011 Indie Lit Award fiction shortlist:

Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney
Cross Currents by John Shorts
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene

The 2011 Indie Lit Award shortlists were announced this weekend, and I can't wait to start reading the titles that made the  fiction shortlist (for which I am a judge this year). It has everything I look for in a shortlist: a book I've read (The Night Circus), a couple of titles I've been meaning to get to (Cross Currents and Silver Sparrow), and two titles that are new to me (Dance Lessons and The Last Time I Saw Paris.) There's an impressive variety of settings in these novels: Scotland, Thailand, just about everywhere, Atlanta and Paris. I'll be reading these titles over the next two months and discussing their merits with my fellow judges. I won't be posting reviews on these titles until the winner and runner-up are announced in mid-March.

Now tell me: which title are you most excited to see on this year's shortlist? 

The shortlists for the other categories are available on the Indie Lit Awards web site.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, January 6, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy giveaway!

Since I first saw a trailer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy last month, I've been eager to see it, so I was thrilled to be asked to host a giveaway in conjunction with its national release today. The film, based on John le Carre's novel, is set in 1973. It's a Cold War spy caper involving the MI6. The cast includes Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Dencik.

Here's the trailer:

Two winners (U.S. only) will receive:

  • a copy of the book with movie tie-in cover (below)
  • a t-shirt
  • a Post-It note cube
  • a voice recorder pen
For more information about the film:


Note: I received the featured gift pack in exchange for hosting this giveaway. The gift pack is valued at $43.

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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

Jill at Fizzy Thoughts and Jenners at Life...with Books are hosting A People's Read-a-long for Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I've been meaning to read this book since 1997, when I saw Good Will Hunting. Instead of reading the book, however, I proceeded to see the film six times in the theater and many, many more times once it came out on video (and then dvd.) It's one of my all-time favorite films. Mr. Nomadreader and I own both a print copy and a Kindle copy, and we're both going to participate!

The read-a-long is my kind of sensible one: it starts Monday, January 16th, the federal holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapter 1 is due that Monday. Each Monday thereafter, a chapter is due. The read-a-long will finish Monday, July 9th with the 25th chapter.

I swore off read-a-longs last year when I failed at Anna Karenina, but I think non-fiction will work better for me. I like to read at my own pace with fiction, but I'm much happier with arbitrary stopping points and goals for non-fiction, which I rarely read to begin with.

I haven't decided if I'll post about the chapter each Monday or not. Jill will post every Monday and those posts will serve as discussion posts for those so-inclined. My tentative plan is to share 1-3 things I learned in the chapter on Mondays. I hope I can convince Mr. Nomadreader to share his thoughts (or his 1-3 things too).

Want to join in? Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version I have seems to no longer be available, thus vindicating my habits of impulse Kindle shopping!)

As an affiliate, I receive a 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, January 5, 2012

graphic novel review: Watchmen by Alan Moore

The backstory: Watchmen is on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

My thoughts: When I sat down to finally read Watchmen, I knew very little about the actual plot. In the first few pages, I had little idea what was going, but soon I began to understand how the characters and scenes fit together. I read a fair number of graphic novels, but Watchmen made me slow down my reading in a way no other graphic novel has. There is so much detail in each box, and the shifting of perspective is cinematic and intricately detailed.

I was also impressed with the character development. Between each chapter, there was a multimedia section to offer context. There were excerpts from an autobiography of one of the characters, news articles and other 'found objects.' I was fascinated by this unexpected mix of materials, and it brought a richness to the characters that continued into the graphic novel sections. As someone married to a comic book fan, I caught numerous funny and smart references to superheros, but I'm sure there were countless more I missed. Those who are familiar with superheros will find many inside jokes, but those who aren't will still be wowed by the story itself.

I expected to sit down and read Watchmen in a few hours, but instead it took me six hours. As I read, I was enchanted. My mind was engaged, and I was curious to see not only what would happen, but how the characters would end up. The last chapter was my least favorite, which lessened my enjoyment somewhat overall, but it's still a graphic novel I admire, enjoyed and recommend.

The verdict: Watchmen is a classic. As I read it, I was wowed by the complexity of the story, the detail of the art and the timelessness of both.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 436 pages
Publication date: September 1986-October 1987 (serial)
Source: I bought it

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, January 4, 2012

book review: The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

The basics: The World We Found is Thrity Umrigar's fifth novel. It's the story of four best friends, Nishta, Laleh, Kavita and Armaiti, who went to college together in Bombay in the late 1970's. Armaiti left for graduate school in the U.S., but when she is diagnosed with a brain tumor, her one wish is for her three friends to make the journey to visit her in the U.S.

My thoughts: The characters in this novel grabbed my attention immediately. Despite introducing so many characters in the first few pages, I never struggled to differentiate among them. The four women and their friendship are the crux of this novel, and I appreciated that Umrigar told the story in the present day while offering glimpses of the past. This novel also offers an impressive breadth of Indian history, from the demonstrations of liberal college students in the late 1970's to the Hindu/Muslim riots of the early 1990's to the state of religious attitudes today. While these issues play a strong role in the novel, they are not its focus. It's a novel of friendship, and these events impacted these women and their friendship, but the novel itself is not political.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me in this novel was how the supporting characters shined. Each woman had at least one supporting character who was remarkably well developed and three-dimensional. The scope of characters in this novel is impressive, and I so enjoyed the time I spent with all of these characters.

Favorite passage: "What she had believed was indignation or rage or a deep intolerance for injustice came down to this: she was irreducibly in love with this bewitching planet, this thrilling life, this heartbreaking species she belonged to, with its capacity for stupefying destruction and breathtaking magnanimity."

The verdict: The World We Found is a glimpse into modern day life in India through the lives of four women who were best friends in college. It's a novel of friendship and the things that both impact it and those that cannot dampen it.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 306 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2012 
Source: publisher

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

As an affiliate, I receive a very, very 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, January 2, 2012

2012 Reading Goals & Plans for January

2012 Goals

As I look back at my Best of 2011 and Best of 2010 lists I'm struck again and again by the number of new-to-me authors I've discovered in the past two years and how much I love their work. I've been doing a nice job reading new releases by these authors, but this year I want to focus more on reading the backlists of authors I've enjoyed in the past. I'm not swearing off new releases, debut novelists or new-to-me authors by any means, but I want to make time for the authors I already love too. I'm aiming to read at least two books a month by authors whose work I've enjoyed in the past. My first priorities are the backlists of Ann Patchett, whose latest novel State of Wonder was my favorite read of 2011, and Pearl Cleage, who has been my favorite author for fifteen years, yet I haven't read any of her books in the last three years. I'll be reading or re-reading all of Pearl Cleage's novels, as well as several of her plays, this year.

1001 Books to Read Before You Die
Last year I made a ridiculous goal to read all of the pre-1700's books in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. I failed miserably. After rethinking this goal, I'm going easier on myself. If this project is going to take 40-50 years, I don't want to save some of the titles I'm most excited about until the end. I'm aiming to read at least 24 titles from the list this year, but I'm giving myself free reign to pick the titles.

Orange, Booker, Pulitzer and Bellwether winners
One of my goals before we have a baby (not anytime soon) is to have read the Booker and Pulitzer winners from 1980 (the year I was born) until the present and all of the Orange Prize and Bellwether Prize winners. I know my reading habits will change immensely when we have a baby, but at the very least I hope to manage to read these three or four winners each year, as they're my favorite awards. This year I'll be reading the winners from 2000 to the present. Given the titles I've already read, it leaves me with 9 Pulitzers, 11 Bookers, 9 Oranges and 6 Bellwethers. I anticipate reading the Booker and Pultizer winners from the 1990's in 2013 and the winners from the 1980's in 2014.

The 2012 Prize Lists
As always, I'll be eagerly awaiting the announcements of finalists, longlists, shortlists and winners of the literary prizes. I may not attempt to read each and every title if they don't interest me, but I will still focus my reading on prize lists during several months this year.

January plans
I'm thrilled to be participating in Orange January again this year. I'm planning to make a dent in the remaining winners. I'm determined to at least read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and Property by Valerie Martin.

I'm also eagerly awaiting tomorrow's release of Naomi Benaron's debut and Bellwether Prize-winning novel Running the Rift. I've pre-ordered it for my Kindle and cannot wait to get started. I think it could be a contender for this year's Orange Prize too.

Other titles I hope to squeeze in this month: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage (re-read), Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (re-read and 1001 selection), Watchmen (1001 selection), Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, The Silent Oligarch by Christopher Morgan Jones, One for the Money by Janet Evanovich (book club), Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (book club), and Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Most of all, though, I want to read what I feel like reading and feel proud of what I'm reading. I don't want to over-schedule my reading. Now tell me: what are your reading goals this month and year?

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, January 1, 2012

The Best of 2011

The Top 14
As I sat down to make my list of favorite reads of 2011, I ended up with a top 14. Last year I lucked into a top 10, but I also read about twenty more books this year, so that makes sense. I don't like to set an arbitrary number of titles for my Best of the Year list, so here are my favorite reads of 2011 (all are books I read in 2011, but not all were originally published in 2011.)

14. The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan (my review)
A love story told through dictionary definitions sounded so interesting I had to try it, even as I doubted how it would work as a novel. It worked beautifully and brilliantly, and it was a surprisingly emotional read.

13. Untold Story by Monica Ali (my review)
Untold Story was one of the titles I was most excited to read in 2011, as I adore literary fiction about real people. Monica Ali's imagination of what life would like today if Princess Diana had faked her own death was a suspenseful, character-driven novel I could not put down.

12. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (my review)
Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was the first books I read in 2011. It transported me to Vietnam and offered a beautiful, harrowing depiction of both the country and the war through the eyes of photojournalist Helen Adams.

11. Repeat It Today With Tears by Anne Peile (my review)
Anne Peile's debut novel, Repeat It Today With Tears, was longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize, and I wish it would have made the shortlist. Peile puts a human, understandable spin on a daughter's half-consensual affair with her father (he didn't know she was his daughter, but she sought him out.) It was riveting and never veered toward the salaciousness this topic so easily could.

10. Small Wars by Sadie Jones (my review)
Small Wars snuck up on me, but ultmiately Sadie Jones wowed me with the patience she had to tell the story of Hal and Clara. The novel is set in the the 1950's British-occupied Cyprus, and seeing the varied perspectives of Hal, a major in the British army, and Clara, his young wife struggling in a foreign land, was fascinating and beautiful.

9. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (my review)
Ann Weisgarber's debut novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, is a powerful look at the life of Rachel and Isaac, African-American homesteaders who settled in South Dakota's Badlands in the early 1900's. It was a hard life, but Rachel was one of my favorite characters of 2011.

8. Next to Love by Ellen Feldman (my review)
Ellen Feldman made my Top 10 of 2010 for her historical novel, Scottsboro, and Next to Love is just as good. It's the story of three young friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, and how they deal with their men away during World War II, as well as the lingering impact of the war after it ends. It was a rare treat to see a novelist tackle both the war and its aftermath with the same characters, and Feldman told it beautifully.

7. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (my review)
Jonathan Dee's Pulitzer-Prize finalist novel The Privileges is the story of Adam and Cynthia Morey. It opens with their wedding and follows them through four different times of their marriage. It's a fascinating family saga of their love and increasing privilege, and it has the wisdom and observation for a novel much longer than its 288 pages.

6. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (my review)
Tom Perrotta is my favorite author, and it's no surprise I adored his take on the Sudden Departure, when many people suddenly vanished. Perrotta focuses this novel on what happens after. How do those left behind cope emotionally, spiritually and in every day life?

5. The First Husband by Laura Dave (my review)
Laura Dave is another of my favorite authors, and her latest novel once again takes on the theme of modern romantic relationships and their complications. Dave has a gift for character development, and Annie and Griffin are no exception. It was a joy to see them fall in love and try to manage their lives and careers, Annie as a travel columnist and Griffin, a chef set to open his own restaurant in his hometown.

4. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (my review)
The Sense of an Ending won rightly this year's Booker Prize. The novella is a brilliant and moving take on time, memory, age and friendship. It's one I will re-read in 2012 and perhaps every year because it's breadth is particularly impressive given it's 176-page length.

3. The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein (my review)
Sarah Braunstein's debut novel The Sweet Relief of Missing Children earned her a spot on last year's National Book Award 5 Under 35 list, and it's the best debut novel I read this year. I'm still in awe of both her writing and how she weaved seemingly disparate storylines and characters in this beautiful, haunting narrative.

2. We Had It So Good by Linda Grant (my review)
I'm still shocked Linda Grant's latest novel failed to make either the Booker or Orange Prize longlist because it is one of the year's best novels. The story of Stephen, a son of immigrants who was raised in Los Angeles. When he earns a Rhodes scholarship to England, his parents remain baffled why he would leave the country they worked so hard to make his home. It's a beautiful character-driven family novel about roots, marriage, and hard times. Grant's writing is beautiful, and I'm convinced she's among the best contemporary British novelists.

1. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (my review)
For those who read my blog it should be no surprise to see State of Wonder number one. It's the only book I rated six stars out of five. Patchettt completely blew me away this literary tale of adventure, love, life and friendship. She's a masterful writer and storyteller, and I've vowed to read her entire backlist in 2012.

Breaking down the Top 14
Last year, my top featured all female writers and all authors I'd read for the first time. I'm glad to see a bit more diversity in this year's list! My top 14 featured 4 men and 10 women. Five of the titles were from prize lists (and several others are possibilities for the upcoming National Book Critics Circle, the Orange Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize.) Four were debut novels. Three were authors I've read before, while 11 were new-to-me authors.

The year in reading
2011 was another incredible year of reading for me. With each year I focus more on reading, choosing books and discussing them through my blog, I get to know myself better as a reader and end up picking better books for me. Looking back on the 108 books I read in 2011, I rated 14 of them 5 stars (about 13%), which seems about right; 2 of those were re-reads (Note, not all of the 5-star reads made the Top 14 list.) I rated a whopping 34 of them 4.5 stars (about 31%), which shocked me. I rated 35 of them 4 stars (about 32%). Only 22 of the books I read were rated less than 4 stars (about 20%). I'd like that number to be lower, but with my emphasis on prize lists, many of those are titles I think are quite good, but I simply didn't care for them (i.e. The Tiger's Wife.)

Affiliate statistics
The three books I sold the most copies of through my affiliate links this year were The First Husband by Laura Dave (a title I posted both a Waiting on Wednesday and earned a spot in this top 14), State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (another title I posted both a Waiting on Wednesday and earned the top spot in my top 14), and In the Last (a book originally published in the 1960's, and one I only gave four stars to!) I sold three times as many Kindle books as print books through my Amazon links. I still have yet to sell a single item through IndieBound or The Book Depository, but I'm also not as diligent about placing links in reviews. To those who take the time to purchase books through my affiliate links, THANK YOU! This year, I made a total of $54.04 in Amazon credit, all of which was used to purchase more Kindle books to review here!

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!