Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary RoadRevolutionary Road by Richard Yates
1961, 463 pages

I've let this go too long before reviewing it and can't come up with a good summary, so I'm going to cheat this time and use the blurb from the back of the book:
In the hopeful 1950s, Frank and april Wheeler seem to be a model couple:  bright, beautiful, talented, with two young children and a starter home in the suburbs. Perhaps they married too young and started a family too early. Maybe Frank's job is dull. And April never did see herself as a housewife. Yet they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But now that certainty is about to crumble. 
I decided I wanted to read something by Richard Yates after Rachel at Book Snob reviewed several of his books earlier this year. I picked Revolutionary Road because I've seen the movie, and I like reading the books movies are based on. When my copy arrived via bookmooch I was a little daunted, both because Yates' books are supposed to be pretty heavy and because my copy is pretty thick.

Once I picked the book up, it proved to be a really quick read because of Yates' great writing, the strong characterization, and the compelling plot. The writing drew me in and I was completely engrossed, despite the fact that I knew where the story was going from seeing the movie. I don't know if this makes any sense, but the writing sort of reminded me of John Steinbeck (one of my favorite authors) -- the way Yates intersperses descriptions of aspects of the time, the tone of the book, and the way he handles his subject matter. Here's an example of what I mean:
How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button-down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet! There were endless desperate swarms of them, hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds. (p164)
I really liked Yates' writing style. I enjoyed his descriptions, as I mentioned above, but also the tone and the characters felt very realistic. Yates really shows how the characters operate as the reader observes the disintegration of Frank and April's marriage. Although at times the characters are portrayed ironically, at the same time there were aspects that were sympathetic. Here's one excerpt that I really identified with:
I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere, [...] people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic superpeople, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I'd suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I'd been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they'd know it too. I'd be like the ugly duckling among the swans. (p353)
The subject matter, obviously, is not exactly cheerful. The book follows Frank and April as they plan to move to Paris, where April will work in order to give Frank a chance to find what he was really meant to do, and as these plans fall apart. Yates really takes us into the minds of the characters - how Frank and April hold themselves above their surroundings, how their neighbors react to their unconventional plan to move to Paris, etc. Here's an example from Frank's point of view that really shows the attitude of Frank and April at the beginning of the book:
It simply wasn't worth feeling bad about. Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were. (p27)
I feel like I'm not really doing this book justice. It is by no means a light read, but it is wonderfully written and compelling. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a great work of literary fiction to read, and definitely plan on picking up something else by Yates soon (or as soon as my TBR pile slims down a bit...).
[...] if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone. (p426)

Monday, May 3, 2010

April Wrap Up

Ack, April was definitely a tough month for me - I only managed to read 4 books! Still, I'm really happy that I managed to finish Searching for Pemberley and Revolutionary Road, both of which were long-ish but really satisfying reads.

In other news, due to moving apartments over the weekend and an overdue vacation planned for this coming weekend, not much reading/blogging has been getting done lately, so posts might be sparse over the next week or so (especially since I've made the executive decision to take a complete vacation and leave the laptop at home). On the bright side, two five-hour airplane rides = lots of reading time!

Books read in April:

1. Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn
2. Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen
3. The Guest House by Barbara K. Richardson
4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (review coming soon)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

In My Mailbox (5.2.10)

In My Mailbox is hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. Head over there to see what everyone else received this week!

Whiter Than SnowI received Whiter than Snow by Sandra Dallas this week for review. Here's a summary from Goodreads:

From The New York Times bestselling author of Prayers for Sale comes the moving and powerful story of a small town after a devastating avalanche, and the life changing effects it has on the people who live there.

Whiter Than Snow opens in 1920, on a spring afternoon in Swandyke, a small town near Colorado’s Tenmile Range. Just moments after four o’clock, a large split of snow separates from Jubilee Mountain high above the tiny hamlet and hurtles down the rocky slope, enveloping everything in its path including nine young children who are walking home from school. But only four children survive. Whiter Than Snow takes you into the lives of each of these families: There’s Lucy and Dolly Patch—two sisters, long estranged by a shocking betrayal. Joe Cobb, Swandyke’s only black resident, whose love for his daughter Jane forces him to flee Alabama. There’s Grace Foote, who hides secrets and scandal that belies her genteel fa├žade. And Minder Evans, a civil war veteran who considers his cowardice his greatest sin. Finally, there’s Essie Snowball, born Esther Schnable to conservative Jewish parents, but who now works as a prostitute and hides her child’s parentage from all the world.

Ultimately, each story serves as an allegory to the greater theme of the novel by echoing that fate, chance, and perhaps even divine providence, are all woven into the fabric of everyday life. And it’s through each character’s defining moment in his or her past that the reader understands how each child has become its parent’s purpose for living. In the end, it’s a novel of forgiveness, redemption, survival, faith and family.

That's it for me this week!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Guest House by Barbara K. Richardson

Guest HouseThe Guest House by Barbara K. Richardson
2010, 216 pages

After witnessing a car accident in which a biker is killed, Melba quits her job as a real estate agent and stops driving, relying on public transportation to get her where she needs to go. Melba befriends JoLee, who is trying to get a divorce from her husband Gene, who has absconded to Idaho with their son, Matt. Melba rents a room in her house to JoLee, and when Matt comes to visit for Thanksgiving, Melba quickly becomes the most stable adult in his life.

I liked the pace of this book - the plot moved along quickly and kept me interested. I also thought most of the characters were well developed - Melba, Matt, even JoLee and especially Gene. Some of the secondary characters weren't as well developed - I never managed to distinguish Melba's neighbors from each other - but the author really took me into the minds of the main characters, which was the highlight of the book for me.

It took me a little while to get into this book - I feel like I was bombarded with too many characters at first, and I never quite connected with Melba. Once I got into the book it was a quick read, but I still feel like I didn't connect with it on the level that I should have. I appreciated reading the voices of the different characters, but in the end this is a light read that didn't quite hit home.
Melba took the last batch of oatmeal cookies from the oven. She grated cheese, looked out the window and lost herself in the open, unrealized yard. She wondered why she'd ever traveled. When you held still and stopped traipsing around the world, the world came to you. She had tired of splendid sights, rich foods and customs that had nothing to do with her. Even movies, good movies, failed the test. Life was so good she couldn't make time for substitutions. Blind in the way we all are blind, Melba wondered how anyone else ever did. (p130)
I received a copy of this book for review from the author's publicist.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (4.27.10)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Glorious (Johnny Temple)This week's teaser comes from Glorious by Bernice L. McFadden. I'm only a few chapters in and already it is a very intense read, and I'm looking forward to getting more into it. Here's the teaser:

Was she still writing?  She was writing to keep a grip on life, the evidence of which was right there on the skin of her index and middle fingers--dark indentations she from the pencils she used. (p101)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Ranch WifePioneer Woman Cooks:  Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl by Ree Drummond
2009, 247 pages

This is a cookbook put together by the author of the popular Pioneer Woman blog, Ree Drummond. I was really eager to pick this up after I discovered Ree's blog. I've (successfully!) made a couple of recipes that I found on her blog, so I was excited to see what I'd find in a full cookbook of recipes.

I enjoyed reading through the cookbook - the recipes are interspersed with stories of Ree's life in on a ranch in Oklahoma with her husband and kids. The thing I love about Ree's recipes (both on her blog and in her cookbook), is that she takes pictures of every step in the process, so it's easy to tell whether or not you're on the right track (useful to a beginning cook like me).

In Ree's words, here are the types of recipes you can find in this cookbook:
All of the dishes in this book are very easy to prepare, and use widely available, simple ingredients. The dishes are not fancy, and they're certainly not low-cal. But they're always flavorful, hearty, and crowd pleasing. (p5)
I tried a couple of recipes from the cookbook -- the braised beef brisket was probably the most ambitious one that I chose, but I also tried to make the burgundy mushrooms (and failed when I halved the recipe but failed to lower the cooking time... doh!), and I successfully made the basic breakfast potatoes. The brisket and potatoes were good, but overall the recipes in this book were a little too time-intensive and meat centered than I usually cook. What I'm looking for in recipes these days is easy and quick to prepare, and healthy/light, and this cookbook isn't really geared towards that. Regardless, I'm glad I gave it a chance, since I am a fan of Ree's blog, but I can't really comment on the quality of the recipes since it's not really my style of cooking.

Sidenote -- apparently there's also talk of making a Pioneer Woman movie based on Ree's story. Woah!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

In My Mailbox (4.25.10)

In My Mailbox is hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. Head over there to see what everyone else received this week!

These books actually came to me over the last couple of weeks, but since I haven't done an In My Mailbox post in a while, I thought I'd post about them now. I received two books in the mail, and I'm really excited about both of them!

Fireworks over ToccoaI received a copy of Fireworks over Toccoa by Jeffrey Stepakoff from the publisher. I've been wanting to read this one, since I've seem some great reviews of it. Here's a summary, from Goodreads:
Lily was married for just days before her husband was sent abroad to fight in WWII. Now, he and the other soldiers are returning, and the small town of Toccoa, Georgia plans a big celebration. But a handsome and kind Italian immigrant, responsible for the elaborate fireworks display the town commissioned captures Lily's heart and soul. Torn between duty to society and her husband, and a poor, passionate man who might be her only true love--Lily must choose between a love she never knew and a commitment she'd already made.
The PostmistressThe second book I received is The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, which I won from a giveaway hosted by Stacy at A Novel Source. I've been wanting to read this one ever since I first heard what it's about, so I'm so glad to have won a copy. Thanks Stacy! Here's the summary from Goodreads:
Filled with stunning parallels to today's world, The Postmistress is a sweeping novel about the loss of innocence of two extraordinary women-and of two countries torn apart by war.

On the eve of the United States's entrance into World War II in 1940, Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, a small town on Cape Cod, does the unthinkable: She doesn't deliver a letter. In London, American radio gal Frankie Bard is working with Edward R. Murrow, reporting on the Blitz. One night in a bomb shelter, she meets a doctor from Cape Cod with a letter in his pocket, a letter Frankie vows to deliver when she returns from Germany and France, where she is to record the stories of war refugees desperately trying to escape.

The residents of Franklin think the war can't touch them- but as Frankie's radio broadcasts air, some know that the war is indeed coming. And when Frankie arrives at their doorstep, the two stories collide in a way no one could have foreseen. The Postmistress is an unforgettable tale of the secrets we must bear, or bury. It is about what happens to love during wartime, when those we cherish leave. And how every story-of love or war-is about looking left when we should have been looking right.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Up in the Air (Movie Review)

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham travels around the country, hired by cowardly managers to handle the firing of employees. A seasoned traveler, Ryan spent 322 days traveling last year, which means that he had to spend 43 "miserable" days at home in Omaha. Ryan derives pleasure from his elite status when he travels, so when he's called back to Omaha and learns that young upstart Natalie Keener has introduced the idea of virtual firing, his way of life is challenged. Ryan asserts that Natalie doesn't truly understand the nature of his business, and that you can't perform this job virtually. Ryan's boss lets Ryan have a few more weeks of travel to show Natalie the ropes of how he does his job. In the meantime, Ryan is involved in a relationship with Alex, who is also "turned on" by elite status and connects with Ryan when their layovers overlap.

One of the most poignant moments of this movie for me was a conversation between Ryan and Natalie, wherein he tells her that he doesn't spend any money unless it contributes to his frequent flyer miles, with the goal of reaching 10 million miles, which only six people have every accomplished before. Natalie wonders if he's planning a trip to Hawaii or somewhere to use all those miles, but Ryan says that the miles themselves are the goal, to which Natalie replies that if she had that many miles, she'd go to the airport and just pick a place and go.

That's just one example, that I probably butchered in trying to retell, but it's only one of many brilliant moments in this movie. The acting was fantastic all around - Anna Kendrick as Natalie and Vera Farmiga as Alex -- and, it goes without saying, George Clooney as Ryan Bingham ;) But more than that, the movie as a whole was well done and powerful, and my attention was captured from the beginning credits all the way through to the end. I really related to the character of Natalie, as I'm of a similar age and place in life right now, but I also enjoyed the scenes between Ryan and Alex - in fact, I think Alex might have been my favorite character, because Vera Farmiga's acting was excellent.

Coming in, I expected this movie to be good, but it definitely exceeded my expectations. If you haven't seen it yet, go rent this movie - I'd recommend it to anyone, period.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen

Searching for PemberleySearching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen
2009, 473 pages

World War II is over, and Maggie Joyce, reluctant to settle down in her small hometown of Minooka, Pennsylvania, sets her sights abroad and ends up working in London. One weekend, Maggie and a friend leave the city and visit Montclair, which is rumored to have been the home of the real-life Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. As Maggie unravels the similarities between Jane Austen's characters and their real-life counterparts, she forms a deep friendship with Jack and Beth Crowell, who know more about the basis for Austen's story than they initially let on, and ends up entangled in a love story of her own - torn between her American former-pilot boyfriend, Rob, and the Crowell's too-good-to-be-true son, Michael.

I added this one to my wishlist after reading a review by Anna at Diary of an Eccentric. Another Austen spinoff, I really liked that this one used Austen's characters as part of a (more) modern story, rather than trying to retell it or give a prequel/sequel. The premise of this story is that the characters of Pride and Prejudice were based on real people, and the real story behind Austen's novel is revealed through letters and diaries as Maggie makes her way through post-World War II England.

I enjoyed reading about life in England during this time period; the details Simonsen provides about Maggie's life in London, and even what it was like during the war through the histories of other characters, was very interesting and one of my favorite aspects of the book. I also thought that the characters were all really well developed and easily sympathized with their stories. Simonsen is a good writer and does a good job of developing relatable characters.

The action of this book is derived from learning about the true history of the story of Pride and Prejudice and from learning the backstories of the characters moreso than on actual plot action, especially for the first two thirds of the book, and although it sometimes got tiresome having so little action in the present, overall I enjoyed reading about these characters and their observations of life in England during and after both World Wars.

On the other hand, it was a little jarring that both the "true" story of Pride and Prejudice and the histories of the main characters were never told in chronological order. In some cases this made sense - the history behind the marriage of Jack and Beth Crowell isn't something they'd tell a stranger - but other times it was confusing and felt contrived, especially the order in which letters from the characters in Pride and Prejudice were revealed. It was also sometimes hard to keep all of the characters straight. Simonsen includes a list of the characters from Pride and Prejudice matched to their "real" counterparts in Searching for Pemberley, but it was still hard to keep all the names straight, including the characters in the present.

Overall, I think this is one of the better Austen spinoffs and I enjoyed reading Maggie's story and observing life in post-World War II England. The strengths of this book were the writing, the setting, and the character development, and in some ways I think the Pride and Prejudice aspect almost took away from this. I could have read a book just about Maggie, Rob, Michael, and the Crowells in post-World War II England, although the diary excerpts and letters did appeal to the Austen fanatic in me. Bottom line - I'd recommend this one for its characters and setting, but with the warning that it's not particularly plot-heavy and can feel like it's rambling at times.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (4.20.10)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
Guest HouseMy teaser this week comes from Guest House by Barbara K. Richardson:
"If you were smart--" Ellie said, but Melba wasn't. Melba was tired of smarts, tired of playing to win. Anyone could win. She wanted to sink into the bones of things. She wanted her life to matter. (p89)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (updated edition)Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
2000, 312 pages

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain takes the reader through his career in the restaurant industry, from his days as a dishwasher to running his own kitchen in New York City. I finished this one a couple of weeks ago and never quite got around to reviewing it, so this is going to be a short review since it's not as fresh in my memory anymore...
Writing and making television, no matter what some whining dipshits may tell you, is easy. Cooking is hard. Any author who gripes about the "pressures" of celebrity, the "difficulty" of being "on" all the time, or the travails of "the road" has clearly never worked a busy grill station. (p307)
Bourdain's writing is really entertaining, and his adventures in the food industry are very interesting to read about. The foodie in me loved reading about the inner workings of a restaurant, and I loved reading about different aspects of working as the kitchen as Bourdain moves of the ladder from lowly dishwasher to, eventually, having his own kitchen. Sometimes I was a little disoriented because the book isn't always told in chronological order, and towards the end it felt like the book was rambling a little rather than coming to closure, but overall it was a very enjoyable read. I'd recommend this book for Bourdain's entertaining writing and for the behind the scenes look at what it's like to work in a restaurant. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite sections of the book, when Bourdain works for "Bigfoot" at a restaurant in New York:
Bigfoot understood--as I came to understand--that character is far more important than skills or employment history. And he recognized character--good and bad--brilliantly. He understood, and taught me, that a guy who shows up every day on time, never calls in sick an does what he said he was going to do is less likely to fuck you in the end than a guy who has an incredible resume but is less than reliable about arrival time. Skills can be taught. Character you either have or don't have. (p96)
As a side note, not long after finishing this, some friends and I went out to a nice dinner in Boston's North End, and I definitely had this book in the back of my mind... as I read the menu I remembered Bourdain's statements, such as chicken is on the menu for people who don't know what they want, vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent, etc., and I was definitely thinking about what might be going on in the kitchen during our meal.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Returning from my mini-hiatus

You may have noticed that things have been pretty quiet around here for the last couple of weeks... I lost a little bit of my blogging momentum lately, partly from things getting busy in real life and partly from needing to strike up a better balance between reading/blogging and everything else. When I first started blogging, I was reading a book a week, but over the last few months I've picked up the pace, reading 2 or 3 books a week, and while I've really enjoyed becoming exposed to some great books through blogging, I also became a little fatigued by reading so much (I didn't even think that was possible!), and as a result I've been reading the same book for the last two weeks (Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen), which isn't a reflection on the book itself so much as my own need to slow down a little.

Anyway, I think I've finally gotten through my hump and am planning to resume pick up my blogging schedule this week :) This is just a quick note to explain the mini-disappearance, and to let you all know that I'm looking forward to catching up on reading blogs this week!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn

Mrs. Somebody Somebody: FictionMrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn
2009, 199 pages

Set in the industrial New England town of Lowell, Massachusetts, Mrs. Somebody Somebody tells 10 intertwined stories of its residents, from post-World War II to the present.

When I picked up this book, something about the writing immediately drew me in, and I really enjoyed the first story, Mrs. Somebody Somebody, from which the novel takes its title. Although it was by far the longest story in the book, I was really interested in the story of Stella, a mill worker who dreams of someday becoming Mrs. Somebody Somebody and owning her own salon. Stella is drawn into the middle of the mill's struggles over unionization and provides a revealing window through which to view the struggle. Winn's writing is interesting and enjoyable, and was the highlight of this book for me.
Mrs. Somebody Somebody was exactly who I wanted to be. The way some kids grow up knowing they want to be mayor, want to have their name in the book of history, I wanted to wear a white dress and a ring that said I was taken care of. It was all mixed up with my hankering to live better, to have pretty things, to be glamorous. I wanted that Mrs. title like it was what I was born for--a want that settles into you when you are very young and grows as you grow. (p17)
Unfortunately, none of the subsequent stories drew me in as much as the first one. I liked some more than others, but overall the concept of short stories connected by the same location ultimately failed to really come together for me in this book. Part of me feels like maybe I didn't pay enough attention after the first story to really grasp the stories' overall connection, but overall I just have lukewarm feelings toward this book.
How a quarry cutter's daughter gets screwball ideas could be a whole other story.  The happy accident--how my nose and eyes landed in a nice arrangement, how my lips came to be a fashionable shape--had a lot to do with it.  People have always been pleased to look at my face and figure. Anywhere I'd gotten, I'd gotten because of my looks. But being a looker can make you think you might be something special.  Let me tell you, you're not. You may have the finest eyes in the world, long dark lashes, lovely shape and color, but it's what those eyes see that counts. Mine were blind, blind.

Glamour and LOOK magazine showed me better ways to live. I loved those glossy pages of beautiful women, all those brides who looked like they knew the secrets I would learn. I never doubted that I could be one of them. Not for a second. Those days the world was my mirror. Nothing but shiny surfaces to give me back myself. Wherever I looked, there I was. (p9)
 I received this book for review from LibraryThing. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (4.6.10)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
Searching for PemberleyThis week's teaser comes from Searching for Pemberley by Mary Lydon Simonsen. I've had this one on my shelf for a while and I'm happy to finally get a chance to read it!

Walking down the long drive, I could hear the sound of carriage wheels and horses' hooves as they made their way up the hill, carrying couples to a night's entertainment. Welcoming them was Elizabeth Darcy, dressed in an elegant but simply ivory-colored Empire dress, while Fitzwilliam Darcy was outfitted in clothing made popular by Beau Brummel:  jacket, waistcoat, neckcloth, breeches, and high leather boots. (p11)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

March Wrap Up

A bit belated, but here's a wrap up of my reading this month:
  1. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  2. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  3. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  4. Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
  5. what the world will look like when all the water leaves us by Laura  van den Berg
  6. Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas
  7. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  8. Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie
  9. Balancing Acts by Zoe Fishman
  10. Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond (Review Coming Soon)
  11. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (Review Coming Soon)
Wow, looking at that list, I definitely read a lot more this month that I thought I had when I sat down to write this post. Things have sort of slowed down over the last week, as work & other things have gotten busy, but overall I'm happy about my reading in March - I branched out to read a mystery and a book of short stories, two genres which I generally don't read much of, and enjoyed the experience. Fair warning - posting here may continue to be slow over the next week as I continue to try to dig myself out of this hole I seem to be in.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Balancing Acts by Zoe Fishman

Balancing ActsBalancing Acts by Zoe Fishman
2010, 368 pages

Charlie, Bess, Sabine, and Naomi reconnect at an informal 10-year college reunion in New York City. Charlie is there to recruit students for her fledgling yoga studio, and Bess, Sabine, and Naomi, all intimidated by and uninitiated to yoga, agree to a six-week class. As the class progresses, so does the friendship between these women as they all struggle to overcome obstacles in their personal and professional lives.
Bess, Sabine, and Naomi were all standing awkwardly in the middle of the studio, clutching their mats with apprehension. Charlie was suddenly sure that they hadn't looked much different fourteen years earlier, arriving at college with their suitcases and shower caddies--their clothes smelling of Mom's detergent. Their nervousness was endearing, but Charlie had to nip it in the bud now, if she expected them to get anywhere in that morning's class. They only had six weeks, after all. They had to let go. (p65)
I read a review of this book a couple of weeks ago from Heather at Book Addiction, and soon after I was at the bookstore trying to pick up some light reads, and I bought this one on an impulse. The story of four women in their thirties finding friendship and overcoming obstacles in their lives was pretty much what you'd expect from a chick lit novel, but there were a few aspects that I liked about this one.

It took me a while to connect with the four main characters in this novel, and even at the end I feel like the four women weren't as well developed as they could have been. Despite this, after a slow start I did become invested in their stories, partly because in each of these women's situations I found something I could relate to, whether it was Naomi's fears about her health, Sabine's struggles to return to writing in addition to her full time job, or Bess's reluctance to move across the country to be with her boyfriend.

I also enjoyed the focus on yoga. This book definitely made me want to get myself in shape and go to a yoga class! I thought the writing could be corny sometimes, but overall I enjoyed reading these women's stories, and would conditionally recommend it to fans of chick lit.
"Yoga is about surrendering to a sense of flow and internal rhythm," Charlie explained. "You connect with your inner being to flow more successfully on a physical level. You are evolving inside in order to evolve outside." (p191)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In My Mailbox (3.28.10)

In My Mailbox is hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. Head over there to see what everyone else received this week!

I've put myself on library probation, and actually ended up returning a couple of  books unread this week, which I hate to do but feel like is necessary. Regardless, a few books arrived in my mailbox this week, all of which I'm really excited to get to.

Still AliceI won a copy of Still Alice by Lisa Genova from Kay at My Random Acts of Reading. Thanks so much Kay!! Here's the blurb from the back of the book:
Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she's a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life--and her relationship with her family and the world--forever.

At once beautiful and terrifying, Still Alice is a moving and vivid depiction of life with early onset Alzheimer's disease that is as compelling as A Beautiful Mind and as unforgettable as Ordinary People.
Having had a family member die of Alzheimer's, this is a book that I think is really important for me to read and I'm glad to finally get my hands on a copy! 

Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food, and Healing in ItalyKeeping the Feast by Paula Butterini arrived this week from Bookmooch. I've been wanting to read this one since the first reviews came out - I'm really developing a taste for foodie memoirs, and this one sounds like a really inspiring read! Here's a summary from Goodreads:
A story of food and love, injury and healing, Keeping the Feast is the triumphant memoir of one couple's nourishment and restoration in Italy after a period of tragedy, and the extraordinary sustaining powers of food, family, and friendship.

Paula and John met in Italy, fell in love, and four years later, married in Rome. But less than a month after the wedding, tragedy struck. They had transferred from their Italian paradise to Warsaw and while reporting on an uprising in Romania, John was shot and nearly killed by sniper fire. Although he recovered from his physical wounds in less than a year, the process of healing had just begun. Unable to regain his equilibrium, he sank into a deep sadness that reverberated throughout their relationship. It was the abrupt end of what they'd known together, and the beginning of a new phase of life neither had planned for. All of a sudden, Paula was forced to reexamine her marriage, her husband, and herself.
Guest HouseI also received a copy Guest House by Barbara K. Richardson for review from Anne Staszalek at The Book Report Network. The first chapter is available online at the author's website, and after reading that I decided this was a book I definitely want to read. Here's the blurb from the back cover:
Driving home from work on a summer afternoon, Melba Burns witnesses a nightmare collision. She abandons her car, quits her job, and stops driving. The wreck ends Melba's desire for success at any cost; she retreats into her beloved old farmhouse yearning for a simpler peace. But peace has never met Melba's stunning to roommate JoLee Garry, a magnet for messes and trouble. JoLee brings a series of unexpected guests who transform Melba's solo life into something different, darker, and richer.
Glorious (Johnny Temple)Finally, I also received a copy of Glorious by Bernice L. McFadden for review from the author. I heard great things about her previous novel, Sugar, so I'm looking forward to reading her latest novel. Here's the blurb from the back cover:
Glorious is set against the backdrops of the Jim Crow South, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights era. Blending fact and fiction, Glorious is the story of Easter Venetta Bartlett, a fictional Harlem Renaissance writer whose tumultuous path to success, ruin, and ultimately revival offers a candid and true portrait of the American experience in all its beauty and cruelty.

It is a novel informed by the question that is the title of Langston Hughes's famous poem:  What happens to a dream deferred? Based on years of research, this heart-wrenching fictional account is given added resonance by factual events coupled with real and imagined larger-than-life characters. Glorious is an audacious exploration into the nature of self-hatred, love, possession, ego, betrayal, and, finally, redemption.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

Appointment with DeathAppointment with Death by Agatha Christie
1938, 214 pages

I've been wanting to try reading mysteries for a while, and I figured what better way to start than with the 'Queen of Crime' herself, Agatha Christie. I picked this one up on an impulse in the bookstore, mostly because I liked the setting and thought the plot sounded interesting.

In this book, Christie's beloved detective Hercule Poirot is on vacation in Jerusalem, and during his first night's day he overhears part of a conversation in which someone says, "You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?" Not long after that, Poirot is asked to look into the murder of Mrs. Boynton, the controlling matriarch of her family, who by all accounts is better off dead. Poirot perserveres in his investigation regardless, and in time virtually everyone comes under suspicion for the murder of Mrs. Boynton.

I didn't quite know what to expect coming into this novel. I think I may have watched a few too many procedural tv shows, where the story starts off with a body being found, and the investigation takes center stage. In this book, Christie spends over 80 pages setting the stage before the murder even takes place, and where Poirot was barely featured. I was surprised by this and, as I was reading, almost wished that the murder would happen already, since you know who's going to die before you even open the book. After finishing the book, I can see why this build up was important and understand why it's there. But I'm curious - is this long buildup before the crime typical of mysteries? Just trying to manage my expectations ;)

Anyway, I really liked the premise of this book - the question of whether Mrs. Boynton deserved to die, and the fact that virtually every character has some motive for wanting her dead. The resolution was a surprise to me, but it made sense in hindsight and I really liked the way it played out in the end.
"There is no doubt that her death was--how shall we put it?--beneficial to the community. It has brought freedom to her family. They will have scope to develop--they are all, I think, people of good character and intelligence. They will be--now--useful members of society! The death of Mrs. Boynton, as I see it, has resulted in nothing but good."

Poirot repeated for the third time:

"So, are you satisfied?"

"No." Dr. Gerard pounded a fist suddenly on the table. I am not 'satisfied," as you put it! It is my instinct to preserve life--not to hasten death. Therefore, though my conscious mind may repeat that this woman's death was a good thing, my unconscious mind rebels against it! It is not well, gentleman, that a human being should die before his or her time has come." (p102)
This book definitely makes me want to pick up some more mysteries in the future. The jury is still out on whether I love Agatha Christie's mysteries - I thought this one was enjoyable, but not quite what I expected.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
2009, 290 pages

In 1942 Seattle, twelve-year-old Henry Lee is the only Chinese student at Ranier Elementary. Proud of his son's "scholarshipping," Henry's father forbids his son to speak anything other than english at home, despite the fact that neither of his parents understand him, yet at the same time forces Henry to wear a button that says "I am Chinese." Henry is lonely and picked on, until one day his world brightens when Keiko, a Japanese girl, starts at Ranier. Henry and Keiko become friends, despite Henry's father's aversion to all things Japanese. Henry and Keiko's friendship becomes more complicated when Keiko's family is "evacuated" along with the entire Japanese population of Seattle.

In 1986, Henry is still getting over the recent death of his wife, Ethel, when he hears that belongings of Japanese families that were evacuated during World War II have been found in the Panama Hotel. Henry quixotically searches these belongings for an old record that he and Keiko had shared, all the while trying to cross the rift that exists between him and his son, Marty. 
Henry stared in silence as a small parade of wooden packing crates and leathery suitcases were hauled upstairs, the crowd marveling at the once-precious items held within:  a white communion dress, tarnished silver candlesticks, a picnic basket--items that had collected dust, untouched, for forty-plus years. Saved for a happier time that never came.

The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten. (p6-7)
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet alternates between telling the story an adolescent Henry's war years with his later life in 1986. What really amazed me about this book is how Ford manages to tell the story of the Japanese evacuation, of the struggles between generations in immigrant families, and of the friendship between Henry and Keiko, with each story ringing true to the reader. All of the elements in this novel - the Oscar Holden record Henry searches for; his meeting of Ethel, who he marries; even the bullies who pick on Henry mercilessly - all fit together seamlessly in a touching story.

Ford creates an unexpected cast of characters that works in the context of this novel. I loved Sheldon, the African American saxophone player who acts as a big brother to Henry, and Samantha, the Caucasian fiance of Henry's son, Marty, who impresses her future father-in-law with a mastery of Chinese cuisine. I read this book slowly, over the course of a week, but I savored every page and enjoyed Ford's writing, which brings these characters to life and is artful and beautiful. Take this example:
Henry squinted, allowing his senses to adjust to the daylight and the cold, gray Seattle sky that filled the paned windows of the Panama Hotel lobby. Everything, it seemed--the city, the sky--was brighter and more vivid than before. So modern, compared with the time capsule downstairs. As he left the hotel, Henry looked west to where the sun was setting, burnt sienna flooding the horizon. It reminded him that time was short, but that beautiful endings could still be found at the end of cold, dreary days. (p76-77)
This book also tells an important story - that of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This is one of the darker moments in American history, and it was heartbreaking to watch Keiko's family as they were "evacuated," despite the fact that her family was more "American" than Japanese, and that Keiko was born in the U.S. Keiko's frustration at seeing those of Japanese heritage taken away and her family's strength as they are forced to leave behind their entire life is touching.
Keiko halted and looked at Henry. She looked down at his button, the one his father had made him wear. "You are Chinese, aren't you, Henry?"
He nodded, not knowing how to answer.
"That's fine. Be who you are," she said, turning away, a look of disappointment in her eyes. "But I'm an American." (p60)
Another aspect of the novel that really rang true for me was its depiction of the relationship between first generation American Henry and his immigrant parents. Henry's father demands that he speak only english in their home, despite the fact that this essentially renders Henry unable to communicate with his parents. Henry is torn between two worlds - not American enough to fit in at Ranier Elementary, but not fitting into Chinese culture either. This experience is echoed to some degree by Keiko's experience, as well as Henry's struggle to be understood by his own son, Marty.

This book is definitely a worthwhile read, and I would recommend it to practically anyone. It is well-deserving of all the praise it's been getting and is a very memorable book.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (3.23.10)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (updated edition)I am currently reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. This book is really interesting and so far, and I'm enjoying Bourdain's style of writing. Here's my teaser:
Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. (p70)
Kind of harsh, huh? The former vegetarian in me grimaces, but the rest of me chuckled ;)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Enlighted Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is DoneEnlightened Sexism:  The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Done by Susan J. Douglas
2010, 334 pages
Enlightened sexism is a manufacturing process that is produced, week in and week out, by the media. Its components--anxiety about female achievement; a renewed and amplified objectification of young women's bodies and faces; the dual exploitation and punishment of female sexuality; the dividing of women against each other by age, race, and class; rampant branding and consumerism--began to swirl around in the early 1990s, consolidating as the dark star it has become in the early twenty-first century. Some, myself included, have referred to this state of affairs and this kind of media mix as "postfeminist." But I am rejecting this term. It has gotten gummed up by too many conflicting definitions. And besides, this term suggests that somehow feminism is at the root of this when it isn't-it's good, old-fashioned, grade-A sexism that reinforces good, old-fashioned, grade-A patriarchy. It's just much better disguised, in seductive Manolo Blahniks and an Ipex bra. (p10)
In Enlightened Sexism, Susan J. Douglas argues that the through the combination of "enlightened sexism" and "embedded feminism," the media and popular culture conceal the very real need for continued feminism - the very idea of which having become almost a dirty word. In embedded feminism, tv shows and the media present women in power as fait accompli, leading women to believe that feminism is part of the cultural landscape and hiding the fact that there still exist many disparities between women and men in this country. Through enlightened sexism, women continue objectified and exploited in popular culture, but the viewer is meant to watch with irony, as Douglas explains:
This is the knowing wink:  guys are so dumb, such helpless slaves to big breasts, and the female display is, in the end, so harmless, that a feminist critique is not necessary. Therefore, the objectification of women is now fine; why, it's actually a joke on the guys. It's silly to be sexist; therefore, it's funny to be sexist. (p13)
Douglas writes in a conversational tone that immediately pulled me into her writing and kept me interested. Not having read much nonfiction lately, I expected this to be a tough read for me and was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite to be the case - for the most part, I was constantly engaged by Douglas's writing and managed to finish it over the course of a weekend.

I also enjoyed reading the examples she cites of movies, tv shows, and popular culture in which embedded feminism or enlightened sexism are at work. Having watched or at least heard of many of the examples that she gives, I was intrigued by her analysis of them. To be honest, I'm not sure if I would have enjoyed this book as much as I would have if I wasn't so familiar with all of her examples - I did lose some interest when the chapters focused on aspects of the media I wasn't as familiar with. Her chapters also tended to be example-heavy, and more than once I wished that she would give fewer examples and make her point sooner.

This book definitely got me thinking more about feminism, and the role that it plays in my life. It's not something I've really considered before, and I'm definitely watching tv shows and movies in a new light now. Overall, I'd say that this book is illuminating and well-written, but be wary before picking it up if you're not completely interested in the subject material.

Note:  I received a copy of this book for review from Goodreads First Reads. 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reading Funks and Spontaneous Book Buying

It seems that every time I read a really good book, it's hard for me to choose what to read next. Whatever I pick will most likely suffer in comparison to what I've just finished, so it's hard to get motivated to pick up something new.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetIn other words, after finishing Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet on Friday (and loving it - review coming soon!), I spent almost all of yesterday procrastinating on picking what to read next. My aversion to reading something new was only compounded by my growing pile of library books with looming due dates. Especially since I didn't really feel up to reading any of the library books sitting on my shelf right now. I ended up running to the bookstore and splurging on some impulse buys. At long last, an Agatha Christie mystery (Appointment with Death - my first Christie mystery!) succeeded in capturing my attention and getting me reading again.

I realized that I hate the pressure of having to read library books by a certain date - especially new releases that I can only check out for one week. I am very much a "moody" reader - I can pick up a book and not be able to get through it if the time isn't right, and a week later I'll pick the same book up and read it in a few days. The pressure to read library books before they're due stresses me out, especially since my frequent bouts of binge-requesting means that I end up with waaaay too many books coming in at once.

The point of this post? I want to take some of the pressure off in terms of reading. I want to try to avoid ending up with tons of library books to read, such that I  ignore what's already sitting in my shelf or feel too guilty to buy new books. Does that make sense? Basically, I want to have more freedom to pick up whichever book on my shelf I feel like reading at the time, without having to worry about when I need to read something by. Or to pick up a book at the bookstore and read it right away, if I want. This means I'm going to try to reign in my library requests for the time being... we'll see how that goes.

Sorry for the rambling post. In book related news, I should have reviews for Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford up this week. I also picked up these books at the bookstore yesterday during my impulse book-buying spree:

Appointment with DeathThe Collaborator of Bethlehem: An Omar Yussef MysteryBalancing Acts

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (Movie Review)

Alice in Wonderland

Alice is at an outdoor party, and becomes distracted by a rabbit wearing a suit, who she follows down the hole to Wonderland. However, Alice does not remember her visit to Wonderland as a child, and those around her become convinced that she is "the wrong Alice," while Alice believes that she is in a dream. Alice reignites her friendship with the Mad Hatter, and reluctantly becomes drawn into the rivalry between the Red and White Queen.

I have to admit, I'm not sure if I've ever seen the original Alice in Wonderland, and when I tried reading the book a few years ago, I got stuck on the part where she drinks the from the bottle that says "Drink Me," so I was almost completely ignorant going into the movie, having little knowledge of the original story.

 I saw the movie in 3-D, and I almost wish I hadn't. This may sound silly, but I spent a large part of the movie trying to figure out what was in 3-D and what wasn't, which means that I didn't become particularly invested in the story. For the most part I thought the movie was just ok... I was expecting something weird, as one would from the combination of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, and the movie was definitely what you would expect in that regard.

I did enjoy any scene featuring the chesire cat - I'm not quite sure why but he was definitely the highlight of the movie for me. I also thought that Helena Bonham Carter did a great job as the Red Queen. My friend that I saw the movie with absolutely hated Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, but I was more amused than bothered by her acting. Then again, I was also cracking up during the big fight scene, so go figure.

One thing the movie did was make me want to try reading the book again. I'm not quite sure what happened to the copy I was reading a while back, but I feel like now that I know more about the story and characters, I might be more motivated to keep reading. Overall, I'd say this is a movie to rent rather than see in the theaters, and definitely not worth it for the 3-D.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

what the world will look like when all the water leaves us by Laura van den Berg

What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Uswhat the world will look like when all the water leaves us by Laura van den Berg
2009, 205 pages

what the world will look like when all the water leaves us is a book of short stories by Laura van den Berg. The stories are set in locations ranging from Boston to the Congo, from Paris to Madagascar. In eight stories, van den Berg's heroines deal with loss, disappointment, and other obstacles.

Despite the fact that this was a book of short stories, van den Berg quickly establishes her characters and their worlds in each. For example, in the opening paragraph of goodbye my loveds, I was amazed at how quickly she established an atmosphere and character, immediately making me interested in the story:
My brother entered my room at dawn. He wanted to show me the hole outside our building. I got out of bed and he drug me through the blue-black light of our basement apartment. He was twelve, although most people thought he was younger. I didn't tell him I was already awake, lying on my back and gazing at the ceiling, trying hard to return to sleep until my alarm sounded, trying hard to be normal. (p34)
Laura van den Berg is a fantastic writer. Several times when reading this I paused to reread something and savor her writing. Her writing is lyrical and natural, and I loved the way she uses images to convey the emotional state of the characters. Take this example (the narrator has lost her parents and has become the sole caretaker of her brother):
One section of the store consisted entirely of antique maps. I liked to find maps of the places my parents had been and study the geography, imagining them crossing the blue lines of the Kalambo River in Tanzania or climbing the brown peaks of Mount Abu in India. The phone rang. I ignored it at first, then realized it might be my brother and answered. It was Denver, calling to tell me the hole in the street was actually a tunnel that led to the other side of the world. (p41)
All of the stories in this collection are incredibly touching. When I finished the first short story in the book, where we must be, I was really touched and had to put the book down and let it sink in before reading any more. In most of the stories, van den Berg's heroines are coping with some form of loss, and van den Berg does an amazing job of portraying the emotions of her characters yet ending each story on a hopeful note. It's been a few days since I finished reading this, and most of the stories still stick out to me individually.

I will say that, reading this book exclusively over the course of a week, the stories began to feel repetitive midway through. I think that be my own fault though - perhaps my mistake is attempting to read all the short stories in a row. Do you all tend to read a book of short stories exclusively all at once, or intersperse it with other things? As a newcomer to short story collections, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and would definitely recommend it for van den Berg's writing and characters. It has definitely served as a great reintroduction to short fiction for me!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (3.16.10)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetMy teaser this week is from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. I haven't actually had time to start this yet, so it's a teaser for me as well!
Keiko cut him off. "No, this is for taking me to the Black Elks Club with you."

"And almost getting us thrown in jail," Henry muttered sheepishly.

He watched her purse her lips and consider that comment, then dismiss his concern, beaming at Henry. "It was worth it." (p111)
This came up on the first random page I turned to - I think it's so sweet! Can't wait to get started with this book, I've heard so many great things about it!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

NefertitiNefertiti by Michelle Moran
2007, 463 pages

With the death of Egypt's crown prince, Tuthmosis, his brother Amunhotep is the new heir to Egypt's throne. However, Amunhotep has his own ideas about the future of Egypt, and Queen Tiye, who is currently ruling Egypt by default, hopes for him to take a Chief Wife who will be able to temper his dangerous ideas. Into this steps the irresistible Nefertiti, who convinces the Queen that she can play that role. Mutnodjmet, her younger sister, observes as Amunhotep and Nefertiti together try to build their own version of Egypt, displacing the old gods to worship Aten, the sun. Lacking the grand aspirations of her sister, Mutnodjmet struggles to help her sister maintain her role all the while searching to fulfill her own happiness.

I absolutely loved The Heretic Queen, so I could hardly wait to start reading Nefertiti when it arrived from the library. I was excited to revisit the world of Ancient Egypt that Moran so convincingly creates, and once again I was not disappointed. This book is full of interesting characters - Queen Tiye and Ipu (Mutnodjmet's body servant) immediately come to mind as background characters who I nonetheless enjoyed - and Moran's writing succeeds in portraying an Ancient Egypt that is realistic and relatable.
"You can't change the desert. You can only take the fastest course through it. Wishing it's an oasis won't make it so, Mutnodjmet." (p128-9)
Just as I enjoyed watching Nefertari navigate Egyptian politics in The Heretic Queen, I eagerly followed her mother, Mutnodjmet, in Nefertiti. It is very easy to sympathize with Mutnodjmet, who is in many ways a foil to her sister. Unlike Nefertiti, Mutnodjmet does not seek power, and finds a niche for herself through her knowledge of herbs and cures. She finds a similar spirit in General Nakhtmin, who desires a quiet life. When Mutnodjmet's relationship with General Nakhtmin interferes with her family's agenda, Mutnodjmet is forced to choose between the two, and I enjoyed watching her character develop throughout the book.
"Be careful here, my lady. Let history forget your name. For if your deeds are to live in eternity, you will have become exactly what your family wants you to be." (p136)
The character of Nefertiti was also well-crafted and interesting to read. At times Nefertiti seems to be driven only by her quest for personal power, to the detriment of Mutnodjmet and others. However, Nefertiti is a complex character brought to life by Moran, and though I didn't always like her, I was intrigued by her portrayal. Her climb to power in some ways mimics that which Nefertari undergoes in The Heretic Queen, but Nefertiti's motives and ambitions are very different. Take this example:
"I play the goddess to the people!" she cried. "I play the savior of this kingdom when masses of Egyptian soldiers want to revolt and are stopped only when I can convince them that Aten has spoken through me and assured them of prosperity. I am the one who must hold the puppet strings in this play, and only father"--her lower lip began to tremble--"only Father knows how hard and tiring that is." (p316)
As a tangent, I know that I read this book out of order - it was both written and takes place prior to The Heretic Queen. It was interesting to get to know characters that, without ever actually being introduced, had had such an impact in the world of The Heretic Queen. Having read Heretic Queen first, I wonder if my impressions of both novels may differ from someone (I'm sure many of you) who read the books in the proper order. For example, I thought that the scope of Nefertiti was much greater than that of The Heretic Queen, but I think that I related to the characters more in The Heretic Queen. Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet were both complex characters and I quickly became invested in Mutnodjmet, but I didn't root for her quite as much as I rooted for Nefertari in the next installment. I wonder if those who read the books in their proper order might disagree.

At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed Nefertiti. It was easy to become invested in the characters and story, and I voraciously devoured every page. I may have to make myself wait longer before picking up Moran's latest novel, Cleopatra's Daughter, as when I finish that, I'll have run out of things to read by her!
"Have I offended you my lady?"
"Yes, you have."
"I'm sorry. I shall be more careful in the future. After all, you will be one of the most dangerous women at court."
I stopped walking.
"Privy to the secrets that viziers and priests are paying spies very handsomely to procure."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Information, Lady Mutnodjmet," hes aid, and he kept walking toward the stables.
"And what do you think information can do?" I called after him.
"In the wrong hands," he replied over his shoulder, "it can do anything." (p74)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In My Mailbox (3.14.10)

In My Mailbox is hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren.

I (hopefully) have learned my lesson about library requests. (What am I saying? I'll never learn my lesson...) So, nothing from the library this week, but I did receive a copy of Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction

That's it for this week... looking forward to seeing what arrived for everyone else!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench: A NovelWench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
2010, 290 pages

Set in the U.S. in the early 1850s, this book tells the story of Lizzie, Sweet, Reenie, and Mawu - slaves who go on vacation with their masters to Tawawa House, a resort in Ohio renowned for its water. All four women are mistresses to their masters, who don't bring their wives along for the trip. Not far from the resort lies a hotel for freed blacks, and a visit there broaches the idea of escape among the slaves, each of whom have their own motives for running or staying. Lizzie, the centerpiece of the novel, struggles with the decision of whether to stay out of her love for her master, Drayle, and for her children, who are still on the plantation; or to run away to freedom.

This book tells an important story about the history of slavery in the U.S. From each of the women's stories, we learn about a different aspect of the cruelty and heartbreaking nature of slavery. I don't read much fiction about slavery, so although technically I knew about the kind of stories this book tells beforehand, it was still eye-opening and heartbreaking to read about it in this book, when I was invested in the characters and frustrated by their fates.

Lizzie, one of the slaves, is the central figure in the novel. We follow her through three visits to the resort in Ohio and also learn about the history of her relationship with her master, Drayle, and watch the changing status of Lizzie's children on the plantation. Although I found Lizzie a little hard to relate to and didn't quite understand all of her decisions, the her relationship with Drayle and her struggles with the decision of whether or not to run away is a very important part of the book.

Overall, I would say that this is a good book but not a great one. I'm glad I read it because the story that it tells is an important one, but I didn't love the story and characters for their own sake.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid SunsA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
2007, 372 pages

For me, there's nothing that quite rivals the feeling of picking up a favorite book, opening it to the first page, and reembarking on a journey that I know will captivate and move me. Yes, I know what's to come, but I find something extremely comforting in re-immersing myself in the writing and a story that I know and love.

That feeling of comfort is exactly what happened from the minute I opened A Thousand Splendid Suns to the first page. A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favorite books, and I took advantage of the Flashback Challenge to give myself an excuse to reread it. The reread proved that this book very much deserves its place as one of my favorites. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns takes place in Afghanistan, and tells the intertwined stories of two very different women - Mariam and Laila. These two women live in Kabul and survive the war that surrounds them as the communist regime falls and, ultimately, the Taliban gains power. This book offers a window into the effects of the war and shows how the Taliban regime affected the scope of these women's lives.

Mariam grows up outside of Herat, Afghanistan. She lives with her mother in a village outside of the city, visited once a week by her father, Jalil, who, while kind to his illegitimate daughter, keeps her separate from the children of his three wives. Despite this, Mariam loves Jalil and looks forward to his visits, to the chagrin of her mother.

Laila is born in Kabul as the communist government takes control in Afghanistan. All her life, Laila has lived next door to Tariq, her best friend, who lost a leg when he stepped on a mine in his childhood. As she reaches adolescence these feelings develop into something more. Meanwhile, Laila's mother allows depression to overcome her after her two sons leave to fight in the war, and Laila is the one who takes care of her father. A teacher, Laila's father is determined that Laila should get an education.
I know you are still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now, he said. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You're a very, very bright girl. Truly you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if it's women are uneducated, Laila. No chance. (p103)
We are introduced to these two women separately, and watch as they are forced to grow up and as their lives become intertwined by the war. For me, it is Mariam's story that really gives this novel its compelling and powerful edge. As much as I love Laila's story, and I do, it is Mariam's life that I find utterly heartbreaking, and that moves me to tears at the end of the novel. Take this quote, for example:
At the time, Mariam did not understand. She did not know what this word harami--bastard--meant. Nor was she old enough to appreciate the injustice, to see that it is the creators of the harami who are culpable, not the harami, whose only sin is being born. Mariam did surmise, by the way Nana said the word, that it was an ugly, loathesome thing to be a harami, like an insect, like the scurrying cockroaches Nana was always cursing and sweeping out of the kolba.

Later, when she was older, Mariam did understand. It was they way Nana uttered the word--not so much saying it as spitting it at her--that made Mariam feel the full sting of it. She understood then what Nana meant, that a harami was an unwanted thing; that she, Mariam, was an illegitimate person who would never have legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance. (p4)
I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone. It's heartbreaking yet hopeful, and provides a window into the recent history of Afghanistan. Hosseini's writing is beautiful, and this is a story that I will come back to time and time again.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (3.9.10)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves UsThis week's teaser comes from what the world will look like when all the water leaves us, a collection of short stories by Laura van den Berg. I can't remember the last time I read a book of short stories, but the two I've read so far in this book have both been really powerful, so I'm looking forward to reading the rest. Here's my teaser - I actually stuck to two sentences this week, yay!
Since then, he'd come to believe in magic, in making the unknowable knowable. I viewed him with equal doses of fear and admiration. (p43)
For some reason, the phrase making the unknowable knowable appeals to me... I keep rolling over the words in my mind.

    Monday, March 8, 2010

    The Arrival by Shaun Tan

    The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan
    2006, 128 pages 

    To be honest, I'm not quite sure how to review this book. I've never delved into the realm of graphic novels before now, and The Arrival isn't exactly your typical graphic novel anyway:  told exclusively in pictures, Tan relies on his images to tell his story, rather than words.

    Outwardly the story of an immigrant leaving his family behind to move to a new country, Tan mixes the very real feelings of a new immigrant with a fantastical world that contains just enough of reality to be heartbreaking and just enough fantasy to convey the strangeness of arriving in a new country.

    Reading a story comprised entirely of pictures was a new experience for me, and it required some effort on my part. At several points I had to skim backwards to really understand the story that was being told, and I hadn't expected the fantasy elements coming in. However, Tan's artwork is amazing and you can see the effort he put into every detail of the story - even two pages devoted entirely to the sky during the protagonist's journey.

    I definitely gained something from reading this book, and would recommend it to any fan of graphic novels, but with the proviso that if this is your first exposure to the medim (as it was mine), it might be a bit jarring at first.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010

    In My Mailbox (3.7.10)

    In My Mailbox is hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren.

    Eurg, I think I may need to temporarily place a moratorium on library requests. I had five books come in this week, in addition to the five from last week! This may not seem like a lot to those amazing readers to read a book a day, but I'm lucky if I get through 2 or 3 books a week. I'm so excited about these though, so without further ado, here's what came in from the library this week:

    Wench: A NovelNefertitiHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetWhat the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves UsDon Quixote (Penguin Classics)
    • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez:  I've been intrigued by this one ever since I first heard about it, so I was so excited when my request finally came in! This one is due back in a week, so expect a review sometime soon!
    • Nefertiti by Michelle Moran:  I decided that, despite all the other reading I want to do, I simply could not wait any longer before picking something else up by Michelle Moran. I absolutely loved The Heretic Queen, so I have high expectations for this one!
    • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford:  This is another one that I've heard nothing but good things about and was super ecstatic when I found out my library request had finally arrived. Can't wait!
    • What the World Will Look Like when All the Water Leaves Us by Laura Van Den Berg:  I've always had a patience problem when it comes to short story collections - I lose interest midway through because there's no overarching plot to keep me invested. However, lately I've been thinking I should give short stories another try, and when I heard about this one from Heather at Book Addiction it sounded too good to pass up!
    • Don Quixote by Cervantes:  I've always wanted to read this, and since it's on the list of books for the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge I finally have an impetus to get through this 1000+ page monster. I have a feeling this is going to be a long-term project...
    I also received Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglass courtesy of Goodreads First Reads program:
    Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is Done

    Now here comes the dilemma... what to read first??

    Saturday, March 6, 2010

    The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

    The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and OdysseusThe Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
    2005, 199 pages

    Almost everyone knows the story of Homer's The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus spends years trying to return to his home of Ithaca after the Trojan War, and how in the meantime his wife Penelope holds off the suitors who are trying to force her to marry one of them. When Odysseus finally returns, he kills all the suitors and also hangs twelve of Penelope's maids who had been sleeping with them. In The Penelopiad, Atwood gives a voice to Penelope and to her twelve maids that were killed by Odysseus.
    He told me once that everyone had a hidden door, which was the way into the heart, and that it was a point of honour with him to be able to find the handles to those doors. For the heart was both key and lock, and he who could master the hearts of men and learn their secrets was well on the way to mastering the Fates and controlling the thread of his own destiny. (p57-58)
    This is a short book, less than two hundred pages, in which Penelope narrates the story of her life from the grave. The narrative shifts from Penelope in the afterlife to Penelope narrating her life to the maids interrupting with their perception of what happened. While Penelope tells her story chronologically in prose, the twelve maids interrupt with "The Chorus Line" - wherein the they tell their side of the story through poems, songs, and skits.  I really enjoyed this structure, and the chapters "told" by the maids were the highlight of the book for me.

    Otherwise, I couldn't quite connect with Penelope, and because I couldn't connect with her character, the story didn't come across as powerfully as it should have. Other than the parts featuring the maids, I feel like the story didn't add much to the myth of The Odyssey. It's interesting in that it's told from Penelope's point of view, but I didn't find anything novel or compelling when Penelope "sets the record straight." Because I never really became invested in Penelope's version of the story, I didn't really gain much from this retelling.

    I feel like this review is sounding more negative than I really mean it to - I did enjoy this book and am glad I read it.  The maids' sections really made the book for me, and even though I thought the retelling as a whole was somewhat lackluster, it was still a worthwhile read.
    Under the old rules only important people had marriages, because only important people had inheritances. All the rest was just copulation of various kinds - rape or seductions, love affairs, one night stands, with gods who said they were shepherds or shepherds who said they were gods. Occasionally a goddess might get mixed up in it too, dabble around in perishable flesh like a queen playing at milkmaids, but the reward for the man was a shortened life and often a violent death. Immortality and mortality didn't mix well:  it was fire and mud, only the fire always won.

    The gods were never averse to making a mess. In fact they enjoyed it. To watch some mortal with his or her eyes frying in their sockets through an overdose of god-sex made them shake with laughter. There was something childish about the gods, in a nasty way. I can say this now because I no longer have a body, I'm beyond that kind of suffering, and the gods aren't listening anyway. As far as I can tell they've gone to sleep. In your world, you don't get visitations from the gods the way people used to unless you're on drugs. (p23-24)