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Showing posts from February, 2012

book review: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

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Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachen.

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

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

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

Unfortunately, all of these positive attributes were undone by the way Appanah chose to tell the story. The novel opens with Raj, who is seventy years old. He is retelling the story of his childhood, but the narration was an awkward blend of present tense and past tense. I wish Appanah would have used a split narrative instead. Seeing…

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

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

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

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

I also only highlighted three passages in this chapter. One of them was this most depressin…

Some Questions (and Answers)

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

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

What movie should win the Best Picture Oscar this year?
I've only managed to s…

film thoughts: The Help

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

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

Much of the press, particularly during this awards season, has been on Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Both gave fine performances, but Jessica Chasta…

book review: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

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

My thoughts: This book swept me away from the first lines. To this reader of modern fiction, the voice of Harriet, our intrepid and delightful narrator, truly hearkens back to the setting of the novel. Harris combined period authenticity with modern sass, and I adored it:
"A preposterous name, and it occurred to me that, perhaps, she had made it up. I went on to ask a few questions about her family, and her reactions continued to be guarded. She told me that her parents were dead. I did manage to get a little more out of her. To my mind, it all sounds like a fairy tale. She claims to have grown up in a tiny cottage beside a well; her father was a shoem…

Loving the Des Moines Life: Diavolo

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

book review: Fall Back Plan by Leigh Stein

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

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

Esther is a delightful, quirky, smart, and sad young woman. Her vision of life after college has not materialized:
&qu…

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

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

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

book review: The Silent Oligarch by Christopher Morgan Jones

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

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

What kept this novel feeling less like a thriller was the alternating narration. Webster, a journalist turned investigator with numerous international connections to call upon, and Lock, the lawyer, took turns telling their stories. Seeing corruption from both sides made this story much more human, which took away from the suspense somewhat, but I appreciated the nuance to this approach. Jones te…

film review: The Artist

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

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

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

I hoped The Artist would move beyond its conventions and provide a modern take on silent film. I hoped it would explore the human condition in a meaningful way. It didn…

book review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

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

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

We Need to Talk About Kevin gets billed as a 'school shooting novel,' 'the novel that will make you not want to have kids,' or 'a study of nature versus nurture.' None of those catchp…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the illusion of the mandate that all must serve in the Revolution, in reality there we…

Sunday Salon: It's good to be home

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

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

I'm also serving as a juror for Elle magazine's Reader's Prize for the May 2012 issue. With their publication schedule, I'm submitting my reviews this week. The titles I've read for them are The Red Bookby Deborah Copaken Kogan, The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler, and The New Republic by Lionel Shriver. It's been fun reading these three titles…

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

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

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

What I found most interesting in this chapter was the discussion of the rights that come from owning property, and, in particular, voting. It's a clear extension of the class system. I found myself thinking of how this country would look if th…

Sunday Salon: On the comfort of reading

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

I, like many of you, find immense comfort in reading. I love fiction that challenges me, that exposes me to new places and ideas, that make me marvel at imagination or use of language, and novels that make me feel things. Reading is a large part of my life, and it's a large part of my everyday routine. This weekend I've realized there is the comfort in the routine, and this weekend in particular, I probably…

book review: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

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

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

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

For much of the novel, Jean Patrick comes off as optimistic (at best) or utterly naive (at worst). I think assessing him in those terms …