Thursday, August 30, 2012

Quick Thoughts: Books You Need to Read

All three of these books earned 5 star ratings from this picky reader.

Alias Grace
Margaret Atwood

Let's start with the one I read back in January (eep!): Alias Grace. Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite living writers, fictionalizes the tale of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada who is convicted of murdering her employer. I love Grace, the unreliable narrator, the "alienist" doctor intent on finding out the truth about her crime, and the Canadian frontier setting.

I wish I'd written my thoughts when the book was fresher in my mind, but it was not to be ;-) It was very good, that I clearly remember!

Anne Of Green Gables
Lucy Maud Montgomery

 I absolutely loved the Anne series when I was growing up. That Anne girl, with her endless, exhausting supply of energy, her determination to make the best of whatever life threw at her, her fiery red hair, worked her way into my heart. I'd been wanting to re-read Anne of Green Gables for some time, hoping it would provide a much-needed comfort read. Happily, it did not disappoint. Anne and the other characters were just as charming as they were fifteen years ago when I first met them. Montgomery's descriptions of Prince Edward Island have lodged themselves deep in my imagination, making me ever hopeful that I'll one day get to see the White Way of Delight for myself.

Brother, I'm Dying 
Edwidge Danticat

This is Danticat's story of her two fathers, who were also two brothers. As perhaps you would expect from a writer, there is a theme focusing on the importance of words running throughout this memoir. Her uncle depends on his words as an orator and preacher, then loses them completely when surgery removes his voicebox. He relies on compulsively jotted notes to detail the activities around him. Danticat listens to the stories of the elder women in the family and is taught about life, and about death. She struggles to find the words to communicate with her parents, who have left her and her brother in Haiti as they try to prepare a place in New York.

The end, of course, is heartbreaking. What else would you expect with a title like Brother, I'm Dying? There is hope though, and life, and beauty.

Okay, which one are you going to read first? 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Classics Giveaway Winners Announced!

Gold medal US Olympic Soccer Team. Hey, you're a winner, too!
Last week I posted a classics giveaway, and today I'm announcing the winners. Thanks for everyone who participated. Go classics readers! Winners, be on the lookout for an email so you can send me your mailing address.

Melisa won Bleak House
Jenna won Things Fall Apart
Beth won A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Jillian won The Painted Veil
Reading Pleasure won Anna Karenina
Bex won The Bell Jar
Allie won Rabbit, Run (it probably helped that she was the only won who wanted it!)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Quick Thoughts

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
Christopher Moore

Supposedly a comedic re-imagining of the gospels, but I'd argue that there's really not that much actually re-imagined. I was going to write a long ranting review of this book, but I just cannot muster the energy. Just for starters, there is an incredibly infuriating rape scene. Plus, your typical rank misogyny and racism. I am so over comedy that seeks to uphold and reinforce existing systems of privilege rather than help dismantle them.

The Good Muslim
Tahmima Anam
The Good Muslim
Covers the rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh as experienced by one family.

There was nothing really terrible about this book, and I know a lot of people have really liked it, but it just wasn't for me. I couldn't connect with any of the characters, and there wasn't really much going on plot-wise, until the rushed-feeling climax. It kind of reminded me of Thrity Umrigar - lots of internal dialogue, focus on female characters, South Asian setting. Unfortunately, I'm not really much of a fan of hers, either - but if you are, maybe this book is for you. I didn't realize that it is actually the second in a series, so perhaps reading A Golden Age before this one would have at least helped me appreciate the characters a bit more.

(On a side not, when Zaid goes to the madrasa, it reminded me of clients who think their driving on a suspended license charge is no big deal, until they get sent to jail. It's like, wow, this is NOT GOOD.)

The Sense of an Ending*
Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending
I have the feeling that if I'd sat down and read this in one sitting I would have had a completely different reaction to it. I loved the first portion that I read. I was completely wrapped up in this remembering of the past. I put it down, went to bed, and when I picked it up next the magic was just gone. The more I read the less I liked it. The concept is good - what is memory? who am I? who are these people I once knew? - but not particularly original. So basically - meh.

*Sent to me by the publisher

Have you read any of these? Think I've got it all wrong about your favorite book? Feel free to tell me about it :-)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Classics Giveaway

I'm currently participating in a couple classics reading challenges. One is just this year, and one is a longer term project.

I noticed that many of the participants have chosen the same books, and some of those books are ones that I've read, and are currently sitting on my shelves, taking up space for new things I could be reading. That means one thing - a giveaway!

Get your choice of the following books:
  • The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham
  • Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  • Rabbit, Run, John Updike
  • The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

Here's what you have to do:
Comment on this post, telling me which book you'd like AND telling me how to contact you should you win.

Here's what you can do: earn extra entries by following me on twitter and/or tweeting about the giveaway.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Hanging of Angelique

The Hanging of Angelique
The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal
Afua Cooper
"Slavery is Canada's best-kept secret, locked within the national closet. And because it is a secret it is written out of official history. But slavery was an institutionalized practice for over two hundred years. ...Canada may not have been a slave society - that is, a society whose economy was based on slaves - but it was a society with slaves."
Canadian slavery was certainly something I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. I was always taught that Canada was the promised land for slaves in the US, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act. Afua Cooper's groundbreaking book dispels that myth.

She focuses her narrative on one young enslaved woman, christened Marie-Joseph Angelique, who was accused of setting her mistress's house on fire and, as a result, burning down much of Old Montreal. Cooper is sure to put Angelique's story in context, explaining how slavery was an integral part of Canada's foundations.

Cooper does not shy away from placing blame on Angelique. In fact, the idea that this was a purposeful act, borne of the frustrations and chafing of the slave system, is central to her thesis.
"Did Angelique set the fire? Your guess is as good as mine. No one saw her light the spark that started the blaze. All the evidence was circumstantial. But I believe she did set it."
When Angelique set the blaze, she acted willfully, deliberately. She was not a woman to sit idly by and quietly bear the harsh hand she was dealt. Throughout her life she rebelled, through acts large and small. Her final act of rebellion ended up even bigger than she had probably anticipated.

Want more like this? Try:
  • Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Another slave narrative from a woman with Dutch ties.
  • Assata Shakur, Assata. A 1987 autobiography from another resistor that clearly shows the struggle continues.
  • Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. The fictional retelling of a famous Canadian murder case. In this case, the accused is servant girl Grace Marks.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Favorite Classic

Over at The Classics Club blog (which is an outgrowth of Jillian's Classics Club idea and project), there is a monthly discussion question related, of course, to classic literature. This month the participants are asked:

What is your favorite classic book? Why?

I may have mentioned before that I hate choosing favorites. And a favorite classic? That's made even more difficult because I tend to further subdivide "classics" into other, more manageable categories - English, American, modern, ancient, world lit - how to choose?

So my choice is more like "a" favorite classic. And I'm going with Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

It was one of four books I had to read the summer before 11th grade AP English. It was the first book that I remember really struggling with - what was all this nonsense going on? I don't get it! Them, at some point, it just clicked, and I was in love. I felt like I was let in on a little secret, one that you had to work for. That was the first time that happened with a book, but not the last. Others since then have been Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

What books have made you feel that way? 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Dovekeepers

Book cover of The Dovekeepers, featuring a young Jewish girl wrapped in a white dress and headdress with two doves sitting on her shoulders
The Dovekeepers
Alice Hoffman

From the first, it's apparent that Alice Hoffman has spent time researching this book. She attempts to bring to life the time of Jewish resistance to Roman rule in the first century CE, culminating with the siege on Masada.

She focuses on the women in the community, handpicked by Shirah, the Witch of Moab, to tend the fortress's doves. Four of the women narrate sections of the novel. Unfortunately, they all sound the same. I love a book that successfully handles multiple narrators, but here it just doesn't work. A third person narration, with a focus on the four women in turn, probably would have been a better choice.

I did love how she presented a part of early(ish? I'm not a scholar) Judaism that has been pretty well covered up - and had all these rebellious women. I love a good rebellious woman character. Her presentation of the fortress of Masada was really interesting. I never realized it was a retreat for King Herod, and would thus have all the trappings royalty would have demanded. It was pretty cool to think about turning it into a stronghold for rebels.

On the whole, though, I didn't love the book. Much of it felt overwrought, and it dragged on and on. I mean, it's set in Masada. I know what's bound to happen, but I felt like I was reading 450 pages just to get to the action. Still, worth reading for the good parts.

Want more like this? Try:*
  • Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra, A Life. While focused on Cleopatra (duh) this book offers a different perspective on her contemporary, Herod, and his desert kingdom.
  • Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book. Judaism through time, as illustrated by the travels of an ancient manuscript.
  • Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess. I haven't read this one yet, but I am excited to learn about this aspect of Judasim. I always thought it was a monotheistic religion from its beginning. 
*All book links are to the Indiebound affiliate program.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Salon: Fried Chicken and Books

This weekend, the hubby and I went out to dinner with another couple. They'd never been to this restaurant, but I assured them this place had some of the best chicken wings in town. (We were in that I-need-another-beer-and-some-bar-food-kinda-mood.) This got us talking about some of the places to get some really good food in town.

One of my favorite places is this cute little soul food restaurant in an area of town that's not got the best reputation. The restaurant's been there for decades, and in recent years it's gotten a facelift, along with other businesses on that block. I've never felt unsafe going there, and they have really good fried chicken, cornbread, collard greens, lima beans - all that stuff I just love. So I go there, and on many occasions I've sung it's praises to people I work with. I've managed to make a few converts ;-)

However, some people give me a hard time, look at me suspiciously, and wonder why I like to go to "the hood" to eat. I just smile and tell them I'll go wherever there's good food.

So anyway, my friend tells me that she's tried one of the fried chicken places in the neighborhood in question, and she didn't like it. I tell her I'll take her to the place I like. Then she says, with a little smirk on her face, "I think you go there to prove a point."

I gave her my usual answer. Good food rules.

But here's the thing - she's partly right. I do go there, and other places like it, and then talk about it, on purpose. I want to show people (mainly other white, middle class people like myself) that's it's really okay if they go to black owned businesses. If they let black people cook their food. That even when the young black guy at the rib place gets arrested and shows up in court for some stupid possession charge that yes, I'll still eat where he works. (Can you imagine not eating where potheads work? There's not a restaurant around not staffed by people who smoke weed.)

So what does this have to do with books?

I approach my reading in the same way. I do thoughtfully seek out books from people of color. When I like them, I sing their praises. When I'm at the salon, talking books with the manicurist, I'm sure to tell her I'm reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I'm enjoying it. She's never heard of it, so I tell her how it's set in Florida, it deals with the 1928 hurricane, etc. She tells me that A Land Remembered is one of her favorite books. It's also a book set in old Florida. I don't make a big deal out of the fact that Their Eyes is by a black woman. It's just a good book, plain and simple. (Well actually, it's a great book, but that's for my upcoming gushing review.)

But there are so many good books that don't get the credit they're due. Or someone reads one book by a Harlem Renaissance author back when they were in high school, didn't like it, and now doesn't ever want to tray another one.

It's like not liking the friend chicken at one restaurant and then never going to try the place next door. It's just waiting there, ready to knock your socks off.

Books links are affiliate links to 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Minding My Manners

Emily Post on Entertaining
Elizabeth L. Post

I've had this book on my shelves for ages now, and have done little more than flip through it. I'd read the first chapter. "Party Planning" and decided it was so out of the realm of anything I could see my self doing that I put it down without a second thought.

But you know what? Despite the dreadfully stuffy bits, this could actually come in handy. Not that I plan on hosting a formal six course dinner party any time soon. However, it demystifies some of the impenetrable fog of secret Greenwich WASP code that surrounds these events.

It's also got good tips on how to manage logistics of say, a beach picnic. Or a buffet lunch. It has pointers on housewarming parties vs. open houses (who knew?).

Honestly, it was almost fun to imagine myself in some of the less probable circumstances: How do I treat the servants? (politely, but not with familiarity). Can I leave before the President of the United States does? (absolutely not). Must I used engraved invitations when I have a reception for my Senator? (ha!).

Anyway, give it a try, even if it's just to remember that your water glass is the one on the right.
Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads, is a weekly blogging event open to anyone with a food related post to share. Do check out what this weekend's other participants are stirring up!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Picture of Me

Top Ten Tuesday is host each week by the lovely bloggers over at The Broke and the Bookish
This week's task is to pick the 
Top Ten Posts On Your Blog That Would Give The BEST Picture of YOU 
as a reader and a person

Welcome! This is where I introduce myself and my blog, so I hope it gives a pretty good picture of me. I *am* trying to get better at the book snobbery - and think I'm making progress!

Books Meet Art at the Brooklyn Museum My nerdy side reveals itself.

Books Through Bars Hey, I do criminal defense.

Audiobook Success with Toni Morrison This is what happens when I'm just in love with a book. Not must beyond YOU MUST READ THIS. READ THIS, NOW. What can I say? Words fail sometimes.

Lord Help Us What happens when I really do not like a book. Like, REALLY don't like it.

Best of 2011, Thoughts on 2012 In which I get all contemplative.

New York, New York A tribute to some of the best books featuring the Big Apple.

In Which I Discover Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Pin It, Do It, Take 1 I get crafty!

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Characters I feel a list a favorite characters says a lot about myself.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Some Quick Thoughts

Every Last One
Anna Quindlen

At work, we have a book exchange box. I pulled this one out of it awhile ago, as I've been wanting to give Anna Quindlen another try. I read Blessings several years ago, and thought it was okay, but nothing special. However, I've read some short nonfiction from her and really like it a lot.

Well, I think I'll stick to her nonfiction. Every Last One was... fine. Tragic, which certainly appeals to me. But there was a distance between the reader and the Mary Beth, the narrator, a buffer, that meant that I never really felt a true connection with her. She has trouble connecting with the other people in her life, too.

There is a lovely piece near the beginning where Mary Beth describes the breathing patterns of each of her children. Their sounds while sleeping mirror their personalities while awake. I am fascinated by idea of what makes a person uniquely "them," even as they sleep.

So, not a bad book, but just not worth raving about.

Rula Jebreal
This is a book that could have been really good. Hind, a young, Arab woman in Jerusalem finds 55 orphaned or abandoned children, victims of the violence erupting in the city. She changes the course of her life to serve this children and the many more like them that are sure to appear. She leverages her considerable connections to keep them housed, fed, and as safe as possible.

The book is divided into parts, each part focusing on one of the female characters. Miral, of course, is one of them, a girl sent to Hind's orphanage and school after her mother dies. Her father is at a loss as to what do do with Miral and her younger sister. He trusts Hind to look after them and educate them, and he does his best to see them as often as possible.

Unfortunately, the tone never seemed to change, so all of the women just blended together for me. Further, just like in Every Last One, there was a distance between the characters and the reader. In fact, in the first chapter, I thought perhaps I was reading a journalist telling of an event that was going to set up the "real" action of the book. Nope. And then I realized the book was written by a journalist. I have  not had much luck with journalists who write novels.

Here's a thing I like about blogging: it forces me to think about why  a book didn't speak to me. Here are two decent books, ones I'm sure many people would like, but they weren't for me. And in writing about them, I realize that despite the vastly different settings, time period, etc, the problem I had with both of them was that I could not connect with the main characters. I don't have to like the main characters of the books I read, but I do have to get them.

What is a must for you when you read? Characters? Plot? Writing? Something else? Share in the comments.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

July in Review

4th of July Seattle
4th of July Seattle
Wow! It seems July just absolutely flew by. I managed to complete 6 books, plus I'm about halfway through with The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. So far, so good. I'm enjoying a glimpse into a much more ancient Jewish culture than I've previously read about. It really makes me want to pick up The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai

6 books total
3 fiction                50%
3 nonfiction          50%
5 female authors  83%
0 translated           0%

Unbelievable. For whatever reason, this is two months in a row that I haven't read any books translated into English (does all the Olympics watching count for anything?!). I'm going to have to focus on that for August. Unfortunately, most of the books laying around, waiting for me to pick them up and read them, were written in English. I'd love any recommendations for easy to locate books in translation.  Leave any suggestions in the comments!