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Showing posts from April, 2012

book review: Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm typically somewhat cynical, particularly when it comes to politics, and I initially  thought some of Zinn's cynicism was oversimplification:
"Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the…

Elsewhere on the web: There I am!

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


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

book review: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

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

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

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

I settled into my couch with a glass of wine expecting to read this 128-page novella in a single setti…

book review: Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

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

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

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

As the title implies, Augustin is a talented artist. What he lacks in language, he makes up for with phenomen…

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

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Welcome to Week 15 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and I'm finding the pace deligtful. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. This week is a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check them all out here.)

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

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

There were far more moments of astonishment at the downright ignorance, or intentional lies, coming from the leaders:
"Herbert Hoover had said, not long before the crash: 'We in America t…

book review: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

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

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

My thoughts: I haven't read The Ambassadors, but Ozick swept me into this world immediately. I had an instant reaction to Marvin's haughtiness and condescending nature and thus was immediately drawn to Bea. There's an element of fantasy here too. Yes, Bea must uproot her life to jet off to Paris, but she gets to be in Paris in 1952. The setting entranced me more than it did Bea, which was a refreshingly realistic perspective. Ozick describes the idealized Paris of this time comically:
"They were mostly young Americans in their twenties and thirties who called themselves "expatriates,&…

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

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

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

My thoughts: I knew nothing about Madame Butterfly going into this novel, but I found the premise fascinating aside from the opera: a half-Japanese half-white boy witnesses his mother's suicide, leaves Japan with his father and stepmother, both of whom are essentially strangers to him. To seem proper, the Pinkertons claim they are adopting the boy, but Benji knows the truth. What follows, initially, is a haunting portrayal of life on a Midwestern farm at the turn of the century. Benji longs for Japan. Pinkerton longs for a life not on the f…

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize

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

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

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

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Welcome to Week 14 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and I'm finding the pace deligtful. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. This week is not a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfivesixseveneight and nineten, and eleven.) After getting off track, I'm caught up and will now return to my weekly Monday posts (I hope).

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

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

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

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

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

book review: Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney

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

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

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

While I would stop short of describing this novel as a mystery, it is a knowledge journey as Ellen yearns to understand her husband better and examine the state of their marriage at the time of his death. Much of this novel's joy is s…

book review: The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

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

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

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

Monday Salon: Where Has My Reading Mojo Gone?

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

Allergies. I'm not sure what it is I'm allergic to, but it is much more prevalent in Iowa than it was in New York. Even after taking Friday off work last week, I slept twelve hours a day all weekend. It's been cutting into my reading time pretty severely. I used to get up to read for an hour in the morning. Now I just aim to make it out of bed in time to get to work. I used to read for 2-3 hours after work. Now those hours are going to sleep.The gym. I'm not blaming the gym, but I am making it a priority. I'm going every single day, no matter what. I've made it sixteen days in a row, and for now I'm focusing on getting in the routine of every day. I'm surprised how much I'm enjoying it, but it does cut into my read…

book review: The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

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The backstory: The Red Book was longlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.

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

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

book review: Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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

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

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

Madeline Miller has a gift for metaphor: "Her face was like quicksilver, always racing to something new.&…