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Showing posts from May, 2012

book review: I Wish I Had a Red Dress by Pearl Cleage

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The backstory: Pearl Cleage is one of my favorite authors, and this year I'm reading and re-reading all of her novels is the order they were published. I Wish I Had a Red Dress is her second novel, and it features the same setting and some of the same characters from her first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (my review). I read this novel when it was first published in 2001, but I remembered little about it.

The basics: I Wish I Had a Red Dress is the story of Joyce, the older sister of Ava, who was the narrator of What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Joyce is a former social worker who now runs the Circus, a gathering place for young, black women in Idlewild, Michigan. These women are almost all teen moms.

My thoughts: If you begin to read I Wish I Had a Red Dress and have not read What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, the first ten pages might do you in. Joyce rolls through her tragic back story with such speed, you might wonder what story is left to tell.…

book review: Long Gone by Alafair Burke

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The backstory: Long Gone is Alafair Burke's seventh novel but her first stand-alone novel.

The basics: In New York City, after a chance meeting at an art gallery, Alice Humphrey has just landed the perfect job of running a new art gallery. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, teenager Becca Stevenson has started keeping some secrets from her mother. Lastly, FBI agent Hank Beckman can't stop following the man he holds responsible for his sister's death, even though it may cost him his job.

My thoughts: As you can see from my summary, this novel opens with three different narratives. Although it's clear the storylines will intersect sooner or later, I still found myself jotting down a character map as I read. In this novel, Alafair Burke left enough clues about little things to alert the readers to connections before these connections were made more formally. Remembering the details (or referring to the details on my character map) of characters led to some thrilling moments as I rea…

Sunday Salon: Orange Prize picks, prediction and thoughts

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The much-anticipated announcement of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction winner will be on Wednesday. As you likely read earlier this week, this year will be the last the Prize is sponsored by Orange. Many in the U.S. were surprised to hear that Orange is even a company. Linda Grant, who won the second Orange Prize for When I Lived in Modern Times (my review), wrote a beautiful response in The Guardian this week. Although Orange has sponsored the Prize since its inception in 1996, a private benefactor donates the prize money. It's a relief to know "if a new sponsor can be found, all that will change is the name – and what matters is not what the prize is called, but what it represents." Readers of this blog know I'm a both a fan and advocate for the Orange Prize. My initial sadness at the news of Orange's withdrawal has been tempered by the support. While the Prize will likely soon have a new name, it will live on. I do, however, hope the shortlisted authors can e…

book review: The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki

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The backstory: The Flying Man, Roopa Farooki's fifth novel, was on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: The novel opens in 2012 with Maquil composing a letter shortly before his death, then jumps back to his childhood and moves chronologically through his life.

My thoughts: It's a bold move to begin a novel at the end, and Roopa Farooki mostly succeeds. Maquil is an intriguing character. As he moved around the world, the reader gets a taste of New York, Paris, Cairo, Lahore, Hong Kong and more. At the crux of Maquil is a particularly fascinating notion: few could pinpoint his ethnicity or origin. Were he a blond-haired blue-eyed man, his story would be quite different. His complexion and hair allowed him to be both insider and outsider. His gift for language allowed him to fool most anyone.

My favorite aspect of this novel, however, was seeing Maquil's failures. In stories of grifters, they are so often shown in a dazzling light. Although somewhat light overall, The F…

book review: Run by Ann Patchett

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The backstory: After loving State of Wonder (my review), I set out to read all of Ann Patchett's books.

The basics: Run is the story of the Doyle family: Bernard, an Irish Catholic ex-mayor of Boston, his deceased wife Bernadette, their adult son Sullivan, and their two adopted college ages sons, Tip and Teddy, who are biological brothers.

My thoughts: I'm beginning to think Ann Patchett is my soul sister. Her writing reaches me deeply, and I've adored everything she's written. It was a special treat to read Run, the novel of hers I knew the least about going in. Although I had the framework of two of her novels and one memoir, I didn't know what to expect. Run isn't as universally loved as some of her other works, so I was particularly curious to see how it measured up.

Admittedly, Run started off slowly for me. It took two chapters to really get into the heart of the story, but once it happened, I was hooked. One of the things I love most about Patchett's w…

Sunday Salon: ALA planning

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Happy Sunday, everyone! The last few months have been incredibly hectic, and I'm really looking forward to a calmer work life this summer. My reading has picked up, and I'm enjoying not having a backlog of reviews to write too! I finished Ann Patchett's Run last night and am spending my afternoon and evening today with Roopa Farooki's The Flying Man from this year's Orange Prize longlist. I'll be reviewing both later this week.

In just over one month, I'll be heading to Anaheim, California for the American Library Association's Annual Conference! I'm really looking forward to the trip for a number of reasons: As I've mentioned before, I was blessed to be chosen as a 2012 ALA Emerging Leader. Anaheim marks the culmination my group's project. All of the Emerging Leaders teams will be presenting Friday, June 23. It will be my first presentation at a national conference, and I'm particularly glad it happens on the first day so I can relax fo…

book review: Alice by Judith Herman

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Translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

The backstory: Alice was shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

The basics: Told in five sections, Alice offers five glimpses of its titular character. In each section, there is also a death.

My thoughts: Given the short length of this novel (160 pages), I intended to read it in a single setting. After I finished its first section, however, I wanted time to ponder. I ended up spreading out this slim volume over five days: one for each of its sections. Some describe this book as linked stories, and while I suppose that is technically true, it read like a character-driven novel. Alice is the focus of each section, even though the sections are named for the person who dies. As the theme of death becomes more clear (the first character was on death's door as the novel began, while the second character was unexpectedly ill), the argument that Alice is a novel becomes stronger. Taken individually, the focus can be on …

book review: Perla by Carolina De Robertis

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The basics: When a mysterious figure arrives at Perla's home in Buenos Aires, she must confront Argentina's Dirty War, the role of her parents in it, and what it means for her.

My thoughts: When I began this novel, I was immediately struck by the power and beauty of the writing. De Robertis writes with strength and smoothness. Her words commanded the page and transported me into the world of Perla. The line between reality and magical realism was not immediately clear, which helped draw me into this fascinating world even more quickly. I soon discovered I cared more about the journey of Perla than where magical realism began.

In many ways, Perla is a coming of age story. The novel is largely told in flashbacks as Perla and this mysterious houseguest talk she revisits childhood memories for clues of what was really happening in Argentina. Perla's journey is both personal and an doorway into a fascinating and troubling piece of Argentinian history.

Favorite passage:  "The…

book review: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

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The backstory: The Sealed Letter, originally published in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, was released in the UK last year and was longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize.

The basics: Tracing the troubled marriage and divorce trial of the Codringtons, The Sealed Letter is the story of women's roles in marriage and life in 1860's England. Emily Faithfull, a first wave feminist belovedly referred to as Fido, is a dear friend of Mrs. Codrington and finds her personal and professional reputations compromised in the ensuing drama.

My thoughts: After reading and utterly adoring Room (my review), I was curious to read Emma Donoghue's historical fiction and see how it compared. I was immediately captivated by the setting, London in 1864, and with Fido. Donoghue is a wonderful writer of character descriptions: "What in another woman would strike Fido as hyperbole has in Helen Codrington always charmed her, somehow. The phrases are delivered with a sort of rueful merriment, as if by an…

book review: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

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Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry.

The backstory: Diego Marani's debut novel, New Finnish Grammar, was originally published in Italian in 2000. The translated edition is on the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist.

The basics: (from the publisher) "One night at Trieste in September 1943 a seriously wounded soldier is found on the quay. The doctor, of a newly arrived German hospital ship, Pietri Friari gives the unconscious soldier medical assistance. His new patient has no documents or anything that can identifying him. When he regains consciousness he has lost his memory and cannot even remember what language he speaks. From a few things found on the man the doctor, who is originally from Finland, believes him to be a sailor and a fellow countryman, who somehow or other has ended up in Trieste. The doctor dedicates himself to teaching the man Finnish, beginning the reconstruction of the identity of Sampo Karjalainen, leading the missing man to return to …

book review: I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

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The basics: I Am Forbidden, the English language debut of Anouk Markovits, is the story of four generations of a Hasidic Jewish family. Their story begins in Transylvania before World War II, but then spreads to Paris and contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

My thoughts: While I didn't know quite what to expect from this novel when I sat down, I did not expect to finish the novel before getting up. I did not expect to postpone dinner three hours so I could keep reading, and I certainly did not expect to be enchanted by Hasidic Jewish tradition. I would stop short of calling I Am Forbidden a thriller, but it was certainly a thrilling read.

What I found most remarkable in this novel was how well Markovits explained the religious traditions and customs in a way that made them understandable despite their rigidity. The characters, particularly Atara and her adopted sister Mila, shaped my thoughts on opinions on this religion as they grew up and found the words for understanding their o…

book review: Tides of War by Stella Tillyard

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The backstory: Tides of War, the first novel by historian Stella Tillyard, is on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: Set in 1812-1814 against the Peninsular War, Tides of War jumps back and forth between the battle lines and the lives of three women in London who cope with their husband's absences in different ways.

My thoughts: Had I not known Tillyard was a historian, I think I would have figured it out quite quickly. The opening scene of Tides of War is a delight: the reader meets Harriet, the somewhat precocious new wife of James, who is about to depart for war. Harriet is more concerned with science and experimenting, both of which her father introduced her to, than with domestic details. I was utterly engaged with Harriet and was excited to see her grow and develop. Far too soon, however, the action shifted to new characters and details. Tillyard introduces a plethora of characters quickly, and coupled with the excessive detail, the characters and plot get somewhat mud…

A People's Read-a-long: Week 17

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Welcome to Week 17 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 a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check them all out here.)

My thoughts: Chapter 17, "Or Does It Explode?" focuses on the civil rights movement. Zinn opens the chapter by backtracking in time to the early 1900s and tracing the artistic output of black people: "a society of complex controls, both crude and refined, secret thoughts can often be found in the arts, and so it was in black society." It was a delight to read the beautiful words of so many black poets and writers and ponder the distinctions between jazz and blues music as political messages. After reading Half Blood Blues (my revie…

book review: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

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The backstory: Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan's second novel, is shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize, and won the 2011 Giller Prize.

The basics: Mostly set in Nazi-occupied Berlin and Paris, Half Blood Blues is the story of a young German & American band, the Hot-Time Swingers. Their most talented member, a black German, is arrested and dies in custody. One recording of the band, survives, however, and Hiero becomes a cult hero.

My thoughts: Early in this novel, Sid and Chip travel to Europe in 1992 to see a documentary about the band. Using a documentary about the characters was a brilliant way to condense their story early on:
"Of course, the recording’s cult status had to do with the illusion of it all. I mean, not just of the kid but of all of us, all the Hot-Time Swingers. Think about it. A bunch of German and American kids meeting up in Berlin and Paris between the wars to make all this wild joyful music before the Nazis kic…

book review: Cross Currents by John Shors

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The backstory: Cross Currents was on the shortlist for the Indie Lit Award for Fiction this year.

The basics: Leading up to the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami on the Thai island of Ko Phi Phi, Cross Currents explores the island through its inhabitants, a three-generation family with two children who run an island hotel, and tourists, young American traveler Patch, who is soon joined by his brother, Ryan, and Ryan's girlfriend, Brooke.

My thoughts: The novel opens with an author's note about the tsunami and how it inspired him to write about this island he had visited and loved before. He wanted the world to understand this island before its devastation. What I found surprising given the author's note at the beginning was at what point in the novel the tsunami occurred: not until the novel's final pages. The author's note impacted my expectations of how this story would be told, and ultimately it left me disappointed and wishing Shors saved his author's n…

book review: Home by Toni Morrison

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The basics: This novella, at its simplest, is the story of Frank Money, a black Korean War veteran and his reacclimation into a racist, divided society. More specifically, it's about Frank's journey back to the rural, poor Georgia town he hoped he'd never return to.

My thoughts: What I loved about this book from its first pages was realizing with this book, the simple is also the complex. I'll confess: Toni Morrison used to intimidate me. Looking back, I think I tried to read her on my own far too young. I picked Song of Solomon off a summer reading list when I was fifteen, and I'd never read anything like it. I knew I wasn't really understanding it. It was the kind of novel I needed someone to teach me or talk about with me. Instead, I let all of her other works intimidate me too. I'm so glad I picked up Home because it reminds me of how different a reader I am at 31 than I was at 15. It also truly introduced me to how much I enjoy, emotionally and intellec…

May 2012 goals

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I've fallen out of the habit of writing monthly goal posts this year, largely because there's been a disconnect between when I read books and when I can post about them. I think I'm finally back on track, have my reading mojo back, and I'm completely caught up on reviews (the last two will post later this week!) With almost three months until the announcement of the Booker Prize longlist, I'm hoping to make progress on my 2012 reading goals I've been neglecting.

Here's what I hope to read (and review) in May:
finish my Orange Prize reading: I'm currently reading Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, which will be my last title from the shortlist. Then I'll finish the seven lingering longlist titles. I hope to have them all completed and reviewed before the winner is announced May 30th. This year's shortlist has been stellar, and I've been enjoying the longlist too. I'm looking forward to having read all twenty titles for the first year ever…