Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reading Lolita in Tehran

by Azar Nafisi
New York : Random House, 2008 (originally published 2003).

Azar Nafisi bookends her memoir with stories of her special class, a group of women who met at her house to talk about texts that were forbidden. Together they read Nabokov and Austen, Gatsby and Daisy Miller. In the middle is Nafisi's memories of involvement in the '70s revolution, teaching in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Islamic Republic taking away more and more freedoms.

I first read this book about ten years ago, and when I was looking for a new audiobook I thought it was a good time for a reread. Since the first time I read the book, my own knowledge of Iran has improved, and I've read another book or two that is covered in the text. There are four parts divided into several chapters; the chronology is confusing at best, and very often Nafisi chooses to forgo quotation marks. This was less noticeable in the audio, when I could tell from the narrator's voice who was talking, but it was frustrating to read. I enjoyed some of Nafisi's and her students' comments about the literature I've read, but now that I'm reasonably sure I won't read the others, I was less enthralled with the books I hadn't read and how she draws parallels or contrasts with her and her students' lives. And really, it was much less about the books than what I remembered. Nafisi writes much more about her personal experiences, and changes information about the students to protect their privacy (an understandable choice, but one which nonetheless kept me wondering what was "made up" and what was "real"). Recommended if you're interested in Iranian memoirs and literary criticism.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Paris Review Interviews, IV

edited by Philip Gourevitch
Picador, 2009.

The fourth collection of author interviews printed in The Paris Review contains sixteen interviews, including those with William Styron, Jack Kerouac, E.B. White, P.G. Wodehouse, Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robison, and more. The interviews are organized in chronological order, with the oldest published in 1954 and the most recent in 2008, just a year before this collection was printed.

The interviews are done in a variety of styles, from multiple meetings with an author to a live interview in front of an audience; in all cases, the authors are allowed to review the interview and edit, clarifying points before the interview sees print. This makes for a unique blend of artistry between the interviewer and author, as the conversation ranges from thoughts on writing and reading to politics and life in general. The type of writing the author is known for is identified at the beginning as "The Art of Fiction" or "The Art of Poetry," for example, and the interviewer frames the interview by outlining the writer's life and describing where they met and the conditions of the interview itself.

I received this book for my birthday three years ago. I started reading it immediately, but slowed down when I reached the fourth interview, that of E.B. White. He was identified as a writer of essays, while I only knew him as the author of Charlotte's Web and the other children's books. I thought I'd read his entire oeuvre has a child. So, before I read the interview, I had to first read a book of his essays. I didn't stop to read any other author's works before reading their interviews, but I was most interested in those of authors I've read. I loved Maya Angelou's, which was the one done in front of an audience. I was intrigued by the personal look into Marilynne Robinson's life and work, having read her three fiction titles. Though I expected to enjoy the authors I was familiar with, I was surprised at how much I was interested in the interview with Stephen Sondheim, as he talked about the art of writing musicals. There is such a variety of authors and opinions in here, that I can confidently say there's something for anyone interesting in authors and the writing process.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

by Bill Bryson
New York : Doubleday, c2010.

Bryson lives (lived?) in a former rectory in England, and one day had the idea of going through every room in the house and researching the history of something related to that room: trade for the kitchen, food for the dining room, sex for the bedroom, etc. What follows is a social history much in the same vein as A Short History of Nearly Everything was for science, ranging all over the place in topic but surprisingly coming back around with interesting connections to mid-19th century England and some of the amazing changes going on in simply living during the Industrial Revolution.

At 452 pages (not counting bibliography and index), this is the longest and most dense book that I've read for my library book discussion, but I'm glad I persevered. It's an entertaining popular history using primarily secondary sources with, as Bryson is known for, many tangents, humor, and interesting tidbits thrown in for good measure. Unlike many of his books, At Home is on the denser side of pop history. There is a lot of information thrown into this book, and I found myself forgetting what I'd read before and being surprised when a name later in the book carried a reference to a previous chapter, something that you'd think might happen less in a book that ranges over such diverse topics as sex, food, trade, childhood, and more. Except for this fact, each chapter is rather disparate in subject to the extent that you could get away with skipping to the parts you're most interested in and not losing much context along the way. Bryson is sometimes criticized for not having notes; this book has them, albeit online instead of in the text. His extensive bibliography ensures the possibility of follow up for any subject that may particularly catch your fancy.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power

by Louisa May Alcott
E-book from Project Gutenberg

When the Coventry family hires Jean Muir as a governess for the daughter, Bella, Jean goes on to charm everyone in the household, except for Bella's brother Gerald and his cousin Lucia. These two can't shake off the idea that Jean is not quite what she seems.

I read every Louisa May Alcott children's book that I could get my hands on when I was a teenager, including her lesser-known ones, such as Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and An Old-Fashioned Girl; but I never read her Gothic novellas or the novelizations of the newspaper stories that made her money. I'm rectifying that now, and this book - a free e-book - is my first foray into that part of her writing. This is more of an early example of a thriller than a mystery or Gothic novel per se, but it's an engaging story that keeps the reader in suspense to the end.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Mysterious Howling

by Maryrose Wood
New York : Balzer & Bray, 2010.

At age 15, Miss Penelope Lumley, recently graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, is on her way to her first position as a governess. When she arrives at Ashton Place, she is shocked to learn that her young charges have been raised by wolves!

It's hard to describe this story without making it sound silly. It is silly, but it's also cleverly poking fun at tropes in children's literature and it's an entertaining story whether you catch the references or not. Because of this, it works well as a story for both children and adults to read - if it's your first story about wild children and governesses, great, and if it's not, you'll chuckle along with the narrator even more knowledgeably. It's smart without feeling didactic; I was amused by the explanations of irony, for example, and the use of poetry was fun without feeling forced. I'd be hard-pressed to tell you if I preferred the audio or the book, since the former is superbly read by Katherine Kellgren, while the latter includes illustrations from Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

His Majesty's Dragon

by Naomi Novik
New York : Del Rey Books, c2006.

Laurence is happily serving the navy, but a routine capture of a French ship turns into much more when a dragon egg is found and recovered for Britain. When the dragon hatches and needs to be harnessed, Laurence's life takes an unexpected turn and he and the dragon, Temeraire, find themselves serving in aerial warfare instead.

This is the first book in a series of alternate history set during the Napoleonic War, with dragons. The world-building is great, as we get details of the aerial corps, their training, and the dragons' way of thinking, as well as military action. The characters - both human and dragon - are fabulous. Duty means a lot to Laurence, and it comes out in action and word. Temeraire is a combination of innocence and intelligence while not being afraid to speak his mind, which makes for some humorous conversations. This is one series I have a lot of fun recommending.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Fellowship of the Ring

by J.R.R. Tolkien
Ballantine Books, 1973 (originally published 1954).

This is at least my seventh time reading The Fellowship of the Ring. It's been about seven years since I last read it, and I'm a much different reader than I was any of the previous six times I've read it. I've read many more books, become a more critical reader, and have read especially broadly in the fantasy genre.

I'd forgotten how incredibly slow - dare I say plodding - is the pacing. One hundred pages in, Frodo has barely left the Shire. Two-thirds of the way through, he's in Rivendell and they're still debating what to do with the Ring. After fifteen years, the memory of the movies is more fresh in my mind than the first time I read the book and was waiting with bated breath to find out who or what the Black Riders were, and if they would be successful in finding the Ring. The old-fashioned, archaic language and resulting clunky dialog (how often can one think "Frodo son of Drogo" without cracking a grin or rolling eyes?) is exactly what I would criticize in books I read now.

But despite its faults, I love this series. I love the hobbits. No one but Gandalf seems to expect much of them, least of all the hobbits themselves. They love the small comforts of home, and can't imagine anything better than putting up their feet with some good food and pipeweed (amend that last to "a good book," and I'd be right there with them). And it's just because they love home so much that they do what they must to protect it. They are not heroes. They're just regular folk who, seeing a need to combat evil, do their best, even though they can't know the final outcome. It gives me hope that, if push comes to shove, maybe I could do the same. And that is why clunky dialog, archaic language, poetry, slow plot and all, I will read these books another seven times.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Peter Sis
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Using simple pictures with little color to great effect, Peter Sis tells his story of growing up in Czechoslovakia when the country was behind the Iron Curtain. Ostensibly for children, the book doesn't hold back from exploring the complexities of living under a Communist regime. The author shows how he was brainwashed as a child and told what to draw, and follows him through his teenage years when he awakened to much of the censorship and control going on around him.

This book is an excellent example of the way in which a story can be powerfully told in graphic form. The Introduction and Afterword serve as the text that grounds the story in history - both the general history of the Cold War, and Peter's personal history as he eventually leaves his home country behind. The images make up the bulk of the story, giving a bird's eye view as we very quickly go through twenty or so years of Peter's life and in how small the elements of the illustrations are. Most of the illustrations are black and white, except for the red of Communist flags and the colors of Peter's art. Clips from his journals serve both to move the story along through time and to give readers a fuller view of what's going on in Peter's life, including such things as the music that influenced him and photographs from his childhood. This is a really excellent, rich story that I highly recommend.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Yankee Spy in Richmond

diary by Elizabeth Van Lew
edited and with an introduction by David Ryan
Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, 1996.

Elizabeth Van Lew lived in Richmond, Virginia, and was educated in the North. She believed slavery was wrong and was loyal to the Union, giving much of her life and inheritance in furthering the Union cause. In particular, she spied and gave information on troop movement and supplies, and worked to better the conditions and protect escapees from Libby Prison. This is her wartime diary, incomplete at least in part due to her own vigilance in getting rid of evidence that could have incriminated her.

I first heard of this when reading my LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Mary was a former slave at the Van Lew residence, and was instrumental in Elizabeth's and Thomas McNiven's spy network. Unfortunately, perhaps due to Elizabeth's care in destroying documents or the way the diary was buried for years, very little mention is made of anything connected to Mary Bowser, and only a little more is included of Elizabeth's own spying (primarily letters inserted that have innocuous messages on their face, but a request for information once heat and acid is applied to the document).

The Introduction pretty much covers the most interesting parts of the diary, and it's hard to follow what happened because it's such a truncated account. You do, however, get a window into the mindset of Elizabeth Van Lew, who saw her work as being loyal to her country (rather than her state), and definitely saw the point of the Civil War as ending slavery. She was appalled by the treatment of Union soldiers. She had deep convictions and her behavior mirrored what she believed, even though it made her extremely unpopular in her hometown. The inclusion of letters at the end, both by and about Elizabeth Van Lew, round out the picture of her life. Recommended if you're interested in the historic time period or place.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

I Can't Complain: (all too) personal essays

by Elinor Lipman
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Ever since I read The Inn at Lake Devine in 2009, Elinor Lipman has been one of my "go to" authors when I need some light and fun fiction. So when I saw she'd come out with a book of essays - many of them previously published in various newspapers/periodicals - I had to check it out.

These thirty-one essays composed of broad subjects - family, writing, love & marriage - are truly delightful reading. She's funny one moment and making a thoughtful point the next, and even though she's in a different season of life than I am, her observations made me laugh and cry. I could completely relate to "No Thank You, I Think," in which she talks about why she now says "no" to some invitations. I, too, sometimes want to say "no" just to sit at home and read, and it was nice to know that someone else can not only admit it, but says so with aplomb. In one section, she talks about many aspects of being a writer, from looking for (and providing) blurbs, to the anxieties and frustrations involved in being the author at an event. Her essays about her husband, from a Coupling column she wrote regularly as the "long married" woman, were funny and heartwarming. A highly enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys humorous essays or getting to know a favorite author.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Before Freedom, When I Can Just Remember

selected and edited by Berlinda Hurmence
Winston-Salem, N.C. : J.F. Blair, c1989.

During the Great Depression, one of the Federal Writers' Project activities was locating former slaves and interviewing them. The resultant collection of these oral histories has been microfilmed by the Library of Congress, the Slave Narratives, which make up seventeen volumes (10,000 pages) of material. In this volume of a publisher's series of the oral histories, twenty-seven of these narratives of former slaves have been chosen giving a range of views on slavery in South Carolina.

The introduction by Belinda Hurmence is worthwhile reading before diving in to the interviews. She mentions that many former slaves talk positively about their experiences, and offers a few ideas on why this is so - looking back on the past often gives us a rosier view, the Great Depression, and the fact that a black person is being interviewed by a white person all probably had an impact to varying degrees on what the former slave would say about his or her experiences. Even so, when you read between the lines about how a master might treat his slaves, a person's memories of being sold or parents being whipped, it's heartbreaking no matter what the person says about their master being kind or "not hardhearted."

The interviews are taken from various places around the state of South Carolina, including the islands, and covers the experience of field hands and house slaves, men and women, who were children during the Civil War. I'm not quite sure why the editor decided to shift things chronologically, however, because I think that the way someone says something and the order they put it in gives it a meaning on its own, regardless of the actual chronology of events. Even so, I found these interviews a fascinating exploration of slavery from those who experienced it themselves; this is worthwhile reading for any student of American history.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Perilous Gard

by Elizabeth Pope
New York : Scholastic, Inc. 1993.

When her sister Alicia thoughtlessly sends a note to Queen Mary about how abominable the castle where Princess Elizabeth is kept, her sister Kate is exiled. She is sent to the remote Perilous Gard, where she soon finds out that the gruff but kind Sir Geoffrey and a young man named Christopher Heron have a secret. Some of the people of the castle seem afraid to tell her too much, and only reference Those in the Well with a bit of awe. Kate can't help but get involved, whatever Christopher Heron may tell her!

This was a Newbery Honor book in 1975, and it's too bad it's not better known because it's a really enjoyable book, and didn't feel dated at all. This was the sort of book that I hesitated to put down at the end of my breaks at work, and wanted to pick up whenever I had a free moment. The plot is generally compelling, as the tension builds and time is running out. Those of the Well had a deliciously creep other-worldliness to them. Kate's as strong a character as some heroines of modern fantasy. She and Christopher were fabulous characters, and I enjoyed their banter. I would unhesitatingly read it again.

A word on the cover: I've included the cover that was on the copy I read, but in my opinion it's awful. Clearly no one in the department that worked on it had read the book or Kate would not have that sort of desperate heroine look about her.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


by David Almond
London : Hodder, 1998.

Michael and his family have recently moved to a house that needs a lot of work, when his baby sister is born early. Meanwhile, he finds a man who seems little more than skin in bones in the broken down garage, and together he and his new friend Mina try to help him - but who is he, and what is he?

Some books are easy to read, review, and move on. This is not one of them. Skellig, though short, is one of those stories that lingers as you think about the characters and writing and events. Michael realistically feels a little bit of jealousy but also deeply cares about his sister. Mina is homeschooled and proud of it, and she's so sure of who she is that you can't help but love her. And Skellig... well, he's a bit of an enigma. He's a being that can't be explained in just a few words. In fact, I feel like I should really reread the book before I try to make any further pronouncements. I was left smiling and just a bit unsettled, in the sense that I couldn't quite wrap my brain around the story without thinking some more.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Into the Looking-Glass Wood

by Alberto Manguel
San Diego, CA : Harcourt, 2000.

I was first introduced to Alberto Manguel's essays through The Library at Night, an homage to libraries private and public, and a rumination on reading including philosophy, history and literary criticism. Into the Looking-Glass Wood is similar in erudition and style but, much like the book from which he takes its name, its topics are all over the place. In this, you will see more of the man and perhaps a little less of the reader.

Libraries and books are my passion, so naturally I feel more drawn to a book where every essay is about that, and one theme builds on another in a natural progression. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy this collection: "St. Augustine's Computer," a rumination on the tension between books and technology, is worth the price of the book alone, and "Taking Chesterton at His Word" caused me to download a few of that author's books on my e-reader to rectify the fact that I've read nothing by G.K. Chesterton. It simply means that, as a different person with different interests from Manguel's, I was less than enthralled with some essays that had very little meaning or interest for me, personally. Another reader may appreciate more than I the essay on erotic literature or would have read Richard Outram to more ably connect with what Manguel had to say about him. So though I found it to be a mixed bag, I can fairly confidently recommend it to readers of books about books with the suggestion that there's something for everyone, and it's worthy of thought and discussion long after reading.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ballistics: poems

by Billy Collins
New York : Random House, c2008.

In this book of poems, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins ruminates on the everyday, love, divorce, solitude, and more.

The poems are free verse with two or three lines per stanza and hardly a rhyme, but full of succinct and memorable images such as in "Divorce":
Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.
It's not dense, but it's not simple, either, as I ponder the layers of meaning in the imagery. Some of his poems are playful, such as "Adage," which begins,
When it's late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it's a little more complicated than that.
He then proceeds to pick apart love and adages, and cleverly turn their meanings to his purposes. Every now and then, he captured a feeling that I instantly understood but could never put into words, such as a reaction of sorrow and guilt "On the Death of a Next-Door Neighbor":
The harmony of this house, not his,
might be missing a voice,
the hallways jumpy with the cry of the telephone --
This was my first collection of Billy Collins' poems, and won't be the last.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Girl in the Glass

by Susan Meissner
Colorado Springs, CO : WaterBrook Press, 2012.

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

Margaret has always dreamed of going to Florence, and her dad promised her nonna that he would bring her there someday. At the age of thirty, Meg is still waiting for her father to take that trip, though her parents are long divorced and he isn't known for following through on her promises. While working for a travel publisher, one of the writers in Florence sends Meg some chapters of a book that his neighbor, Sofia, has written. Meg is entranced by the book, in which the woman claims that she is a Medici, and one of her ancestors speaks to her through the art in Florence.

I've liked the two novels I've read by Susan Meissner - The Shape of Mercy and The Girl in the Glass. They're technically Christian fiction, but there's no real "message" and the Christianity isn't heavy-handed, so I would easily recommend her books to people who enjoyed gentle reads and didn't mind a brief mention of God and/or prayer. This story was full of peaks and valleys for me. I enjoyed the writing and descriptions, especially of Florence and its art. I enjoyed the memories of Nora Orsini, the Medici ancestor that Sofia hears, interspersed between chapters purposefully. I had a harder time with some of the plot points that were revealed later in the story, mainly because some revelations stretched my credulity and I personally had a hard time reconciling explanations from the beginning of the book with those revelations at the end. Still, it was a captivating enough story that I want to go visit Florence and read more about Renaissance history and the Medicis.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

No Crystal Stair

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Minneapolis, MN : Carolrhoda Lab, 2012.

Lewis Michaux grew up in Newport News, Virginia, the son of a black man who worked hard to own his own business and a mother who birthed sixteen children - twelve living - and struggled with depression. He got in some trouble as a youngster, but was inspired to start a bookstore in Harlem in the 1930s that sold books by and about black people and became a cultural center known for visitors such as Malcolm X and others.

The subtitle bills this book as "a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux." The story is told in snippets, sections of it told by various people - Lewis, his parents, his brothers, his wife, bookstore visitors both historical and imaginary - and includes photographs of historic people and quotes from FBI files. It's a unique format for a compelling story. Being separated into small segments like it is, and covering several years, did mean that I got only glimpses of who the characters/people were like, and I sometimes wasn't clear on when things were happening.

I hadn't heard of Michaux before, but I loved his drive to provide books and education to his people. He seems like a really dynamic guy, and reading this, I was kind of sad that he was long gone before I was borne. The title comes from the Langston Hughes poem that begins, "Well, son, I'll tell you: / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. / It's had tacks in it, / And splinters, / And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor -- / Bare." This certainly seems to suit Michaux's life, as he went from barely making ends meet to becoming one of the truly respected men in his neighborhood. I really loved the quoted poetry and mentions of the books in his inventory; it added a lot to the story and made me want to read more. The bibliography at the back and notes on the text gave me some great sources to start with, and was really impressive for a fictional book.

This book was the winner of School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books, and while I'm still a little sad that it beat Code Name Verity, which was one of my favorite reads last year, I am glad that this prompted me to read it.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


by Rachel Hartman
New York : Random House, 2012.

The forty year celebration of the treaty between humans and dragons is approaching. When Prince Rufus is found killed dragon-style (he was decapitated), the tentative peace is on shakier ground than ever before. Seraphina, working as the assistant to Viridius, the head of music and composing at the castle, has a secret of her own that may shatter her life and the peace of the realm if it ever gets out.

I found this book tough to put down. The world-building is fabulous. The situation with the dragons is really inventive, and I loved how the dragons think so very logically, as well as the details about how they take human form within the city. I really liked how important music was. Seraphina was a sympathetic and complex character, and I enjoyed being in her head through the first-person narration, as well as her interactions with other characters, particularly Princess Glisselda and Prince Lucian.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor
New York : Scholastic (not sure what year my copy was published - the original is 1976).

Cassie Logan and her brothers Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man are growing up in Mississippi. The Logans are a strong family, working hard to make ends meet and pay for the land, which they're fortunate to own since most of their neighbors and friends are sharecroppers. This year will be a trying one for her as she deals with night riders and her father being gone to work on the railroad during the Depression.

I'm having a hard time summarizing this book because it's so much more than the plot. It's about a loving family, and a girl's growing up as she deals with racism and injustice. Cassie's a feisty heroine that you can't help but root for, and the other characters - her mother Mary, her grandmother Big Ma, her father, and more - are vividly portrayed. Though I was often upset by what happened, this is such a rich book that I didn't want it to end.

The audio is masterfully read by Lynne Thigpen, and included comments by the author on the final CD that explain a little about the story's origins.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lost in Shangri-La

by Mitchell Zuckoff
New York : HarperCollins, 2011.

A plane crash in New Guinea during World War 2 leaves a few survivors in a remote valley nicknamed "Shangri-La." The natives, rumored to be cannibals, have been isolated from the modern world and may have never seen a white person before. Meanwhile, back on the base in Hollandia, military personnel have a hard task before them in figuring out how to rescue the injured survivors.

Journalist Mitchell Zuckoff brings together interviews, one of the survivor's shorthand diary, military documents, photographs, and more to tell the story of the survivors and the native people involved in this fascinating tale of survival and rescue. He incorporates detail without sacrificing the pace of the narrative, and clearly made the effort to include the natives' perspectives of the events: he isn't writing from an anthropological perspective, but he strikes me as presenting a balanced view.

This was my second time reading it, and it was just as interesting to read as it was the first time.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

by Jean Lee Latham
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1983 (originally published 1955).

Growing up in Salem in the young United States, Nathaniel Bowditch is fantastic at figures but indentured at a young age. Instead of fulfilling his dream to go to Harvard, he must "sail by ash breeze" and teach himself everything he wants to learn.

I first read this Newbery award-winning book for school, and I loved it enough to read it multiple times afterwards. I haven't read it since childhood, however, so it was interesting to reread with an adult's eyes. I loved Nat and his notebooks as he learned new things, and I can relate to his desire to have the answers be right. On this reread, I found that as an adult I understood the conversations between characters - especially what's left unsaid - much more fully, and I'm not just talking about the vague references to salty language! I also had not picked up on how the author takes pains to use short sentences and, if not explaining something outright in the narrative, has characters explain some things about sailing or navigation so that children readers would be able to follow along. This last fact is the main reason I wouldn't bother to reread this book again (except, perhaps, as a read-aloud to young children), but I will be looking for another biography to read on Nathaniel Bowditch.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare
(originally published in 1600)

In this Shakespeare comedy, we have two pairs to keep track of: Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Bernadick. Hero and Claudio seem well on their way to matrimony until Don John, the bastard brother of the prince Don Pedro, decides to make trouble and break them up. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Bernadick seem more interested in trading barbs than anything else, but their friends decide to set them up and make them fall in love.

While this play doesn't have many recognizable one liners that are constantly quoted even once we've forgotten they're Shakespeare, I found myself wondering why Much Ado wasn't one of the plays I studied in high school or college. Because for just pure fun, and funny moments, and witticisms galore, this has suddenly become one of my favorite plays. Plus, it's fairly accessible - I truly barely needed the notes, and it's been a few years since I've read Shakespeare. It's worth reading just for the (very minor) characters of Verges and Dogberry, the witless malapropists. Why haven't I read this before now?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

by Lois Leveen
New York : William Morrow, c2012.

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

As a child, Mary lives with her mother as slaves to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. When Bet, the daughter of her mistress, buys all the slaves and frees them, Mary's parents have to make difficult decisions about their future. Her father is still a slave for another master working as a blacksmith, and her mother doesn't want to leave him. Mary has an opportunity to go to school in Philadelphia, but that may mean leaving her parents behind forever.

I received this as an Early Reviewer book far too long ago, and I'm really unsure why I put it off so long. This book reads almost like a memoir of Mary, from the time she was a child through the end of the Civil War. It's really well done historical fiction, including a lot of period details without too many extraneous research details thrown in. Mary and Bet Van Lew were real people, and I was really interested in a lot of the extras included at the end, with photographs from Richmond and references to some of the books Leveen used in her research (I could have used a bibliography instead of footnotes to the historical note, but I'll take what I got to read further). Mary is a great character, and I enjoyed the way in which the varying beliefs about what was necessary to end slavery or to win the war was explored through the characters' motivations.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Book that Changed My Life

edited by Diane Osen
New York : Modern Library, 2002.

This collection of interviews with fifteen National Book Award winners and finalists highlights the award-winning books and investigates the books that influence these writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The interviews are with James Carroll, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Charles Johnson, Diane Johnson, Philip Levine, Davis Levering Lewis, Barry Lopez, David McCullough, Alice McDermott, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Linda Pastan, Katherine Paterson, and Robert Stone, and are organized alphabetically by last name. All of them are followed by a list of the author's books through 2002 (when this book was published), and all but one include a list of works that influenced the author, some of which are usually mentioned in the interview.

I appreciated the variety of authors and their approach to writing represented in this collection. I started making a list of all the books mentioned at the end so I could see which titles are mentioned repeatedly, and I added a few of the authors to my ever-growing TBR list. My enjoyment of these interviews was slightly hampered by the fact that I've only read books by three of the authors highlighted (Katherine Paterson, David McCullough and E.L. Doctorow) and had only read the award-winning book for one (The Great Gilly Hopkins). Some of the questions deal with the winning or finalist book, and little care is taken to prevent spoilers, making this a difficult way to discover a new-to-you author. Diane Osen has clearly done her homework by reading the entire oeuvre of the interviewed author as well as the books that influenced them; this comes through in the interviews positively in that she's able to ask very interesting, probing questions, but on the flip side it's more challenging for the reader who doesn't have that same background to follow along with the answers. A mixed bag, but I'm glad I read it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Butterfly Mosque

by G. Willow Wilson
New York, N.Y. : Atlantic Monthly Press, c2010.

Willow becomes intrigued with Islam while a college student. She takes Arabic, moves to Egypt to work as a teacher, and quietly converts. Then, she meets a young man named Omar and falls in love.

This memoir of an American convert to Islam is as complex as Willow's (or, when you think about it, perhaps anyone's) identity. She thinks deeply about a lot of things, reflecting on the variety of Muslim beliefs, what makes a terrorist, and the attitude of the West towards Islam, all while telling her very personal story. The first half of the book, when she talks about her courtship with Omar, was the smoothest part of the read for me. While I'm a Christian, I could relate to the way she talked about her faith and her assurance in it. The rest of the book is less fluid, a string of occurrences I had trouble placing in time, and started to feel more like a lecture than a memoir. I disliked her tendency to say "even the most liberal," which seemed to suggest that someone of a conservative persuasion couldn't possibly see a Muslim as anything but a terrorist, while the liberals at least tried to understand, even if they didn't always get it right. Of course, it's a complex issue, and I certainly can't argue with her personal experience. I found it eye-opening and compelling reading, and am very much looking forward to reading her first novel, Alif the Unseen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Froi of the Exiles

by Melina Marchetta
Somerville, Mass. : Candlewick Press, c2012.

The second book in the Lumatere Chronicles, which began with Finnikin of the Rock.

Queen Isaboe and her consort, Finnikin, are establishing themselves in Lumatere, while the former exiles and those left behind pick up the pieces of their lives. The kingdom of Charyn, who invaded them, is still a great threat though it is under a great curse: ever since the birth of the Princess Quintana, no one has been able to have a child. Quintana herself has prophesied that the "last shall birth the first," which resulted in all last borns being marked and watched; however, no one knows if this is a true prophesy or the ravings of a madwoman. Froi, one of the exiles returned with Finnikin and Isaboe, is commissioned to assassinate the king of Charyn, still a threat to Lumatere.

"Finnikin" was Melina Marchetta's first fantasy book, and - though I liked the story - it showed. Froi of the Exiles still has a lot of tropes and some predictable plot directions, but I liked Froi's complex character and found this to be a much smoother read overall. Of course, that could be partially my bad memory talking too, as I found the beginning an exercise in reacquainting myself with the characters and their situations because I'd forgotten so much about the first book. I enjoyed the continued world-building, the pacing of the story, the characters of Froi and Quintana and the Lumaterans - such as Lucian - that we revisit and see in a new light. Fans of Graceling will find much to enjoy in this trilogy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


by Terry Pratchett
New York : HarperCollins, 2012.

Dodger was poor but managed to get by in Victorian London, until the night that he stopped two men from beating up a woman - and perhaps worse. Charlie Dickens and his friend Henry Mayhew see the altercation and intervene on the woman's behalf. Charlie employs Dodger to find out exactly who is out to get the girl, whom they call "Simplicity," and Dodger finds his comfortable (and comparatively safe) life turned upside down.

At first glance this may seem a departure from Pratchett's other books, but it has all of his sly wit and philosophical bent coated in humor. I kept expecting certain aspects of Dickens' works, only to be confounded by that same "fog" of people's expectations clouding the truth. Dodger is a fun character, a scalawag that you can't help but root for as he navigates both London's sewers and politics to protect a young woman.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Etiquette & Espionage

by Gail Carriger
Little, Brown, 2013.

Sophronia has been causing mayhem at home and her mother, at her wit's end, sends her to finishing school. But even before she arrives - when they're attacked by flyawaymen who want a prototype, to be exact - Sophronia discovers that Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is much more than just your average finishing school. Besides teaching young ladies to curtsy and behave decorously, a werewolf and a vampire are teachers, and lessons include such things as fighting (with knife, umbrella, or parasol) and the finer arts of poisoning.

If you're familiar with Gail Carriger's Soulless series, then you have an idea of what to expect in narrative voice and humor. The only clue that this is intended for young audiences is the age of the protagonists and the absence of sex (well, there's one indirect reference to it). There were parts when the action flagged, but most of the time it was a fun romp as Sophronia and friends wreak havoc and try to save the day by finding the prototype that a fellow schoolmate has hidden.

Monday, April 15, 2013


by Marilynne Robinson
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2008.

Jack Boughton is coming home. He's always been the odd one out in a large family, yet his father, Reverend Boughton, and the rest of the family couldn't help but love him and worry about him. Now, after twenty years' absence, he returns to Gilead and his father and his youngest sister, Glory, who has also returned home and is now caring for their aging father.

Many of the events of this story are also told in the companion book, Gilead, which I read earlier this year and loved. Either book can be read first. Home is primarily from Glory's perspective, which makes the portrait of Jack different if no less poignant than Reverend Ames' musings in Gilead. Your heart breaks for the boy - and man - who feels that he is past all redemption, who expects that behind every loving word is a rebuke. The brother-sister dynamics between Jack and Glory as they dance around and try not to insult each other is spot on. I couldn't help but compare and contrast this story with the parable of the prodigal son, though exactly who is the prodigal in Home could keep a conversation going for a long time.

Friday, April 12, 2013


by Oliver Sacks
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

In his newest book Oliver Sacks, a practicing physician known for such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia, turns his attention to hallucinations. While in popular culture we tend to think of hallucinations as being psychoses and in the realm of insanity, he focuses primarily on the sort of neurological disorders that sane people have. In fact, hallucinations may not be as odd as we think - haven't we all felt like there was someone behind us, or heard our name even when no one was around?

Primarily organized around types of hallucinations - visual, aural, parkinsonian, phantom limbs, etc. - the book is a fascinating blend of history and case study. Perhaps I was most fascinated to discover the types of hallucinations that I've had, mostly as a child, when I was in that state between sleep and wakefulness and "saw" someone by my bed or in my room. There are other, less common, hallucinations explored, too, and I really enjoyed when he brought up the results of fMRI scans done during hallucinations. The connections between what one experiences and what goes on the brain intrigues me, and I'll definitely be looking to read some of Sacks' earlier works.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Sparrow

by Mary Doria Russell
New York : Ballantine Books, 2004 (originally published 1996).

On Earth in 2060, Father Emilio Sandoz has returned from a failed mission a broken man; no one knows exactly what went wrong when he and a small group of friends went into space to make contact with aliens. The narrative goes back and forth in flashbacks to the past and the narrative present, as Emilio's Jesuit superiors try to get the full story.

Nothing is simple about this tale. It's about first contact, yes, but it's also about humanity and family and what happens to faith when we're absolutely broken. Even the secondary characters are fully rounded, complex human beings, and I was absolutely drawn in to their stories. This is a stunning, heartbreaking, beautiful book that I can't recommend highly enough.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Travels with Charley

by John Steinbeck
New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Penguin Books, 1997 (originally published 1962).

Right from the beginning, Steinbeck admits to always having a bit of wanderlust and a desire to travel. This particular trip is brought on by his realization that, for all his writing about America, he hadn't actually been outside his small corner of it for some time. So, he buys a truck specially made for his trip, equipped with everything he will need (ie., booze), takes his trusty poodle Charley, and hightails it out of New York on a cross-country trip.

This is a short book that contains much to think about. You might think that reading about a trip taken over fifty years ago would have little to say about our country and Americans today, but you would miss a lot if you focused on that aspect alone. Steinbeck recounts specifics of his journey and conversations with individuals, yes, but this is also a rumination on the human spirit - particularly the American spirit. The book has many passages that are even more relevant today than they were then (his thoughts on change, the growth of cities, and regional speech differences come immediately to mind). Steinbeck's journey is as much a quest and a window into his own internal world as it is a discovery of his country. His observations are witty, often humorous, and always thought-provoking. I found myself lingering over a sentence or paragraph here and there, wanting to draw out my reading experience instead of just finishing the book quickly and ticking it off. Whether you enjoy travel narratives, a book group choice, or just plain good, descriptive writing, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Days of Blood & Starlight

by Laini Taylor
New York : Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012.

*** Second in series warning - possible spoilers for Daughter of Smoke & Bone***

The battle between seraphs and chimaeras continues, the war taking on new heights as each side escalates the violence, drawing further and further away from Akiva and Karou's dream of peace. Indeed, now that Karou's memories are intact, even peace between the former lovers appears impossible. Can any hope be found in the midst of desperate war?

Laini Taylor crafts a fine story. I can only figure out some of her plot twists, and Akiva and Karou's struggles to deal with betrayal and do the right thing are compelling. Nearly every chapter left me hanging, needing to turn pages instead of put the book down. An entertaining read that will leave fantasy fans impatient for the next book.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Under the Never Sky

by Veronica Rossi
New York : HarperCollins, 2012.

Aria lives in the Pods, where the "real" is gray and everyone's hooked up to Smarteyes that allow them to visit the Realms, a sort of immersive Second Life. Peregrine is an Outsider, one of those whom Aria's people believe to be savage and wild, living in a world that they cannot survive in. When Aria loses contact with her mother, she ventures outside the Pods with friends and finds out that everything she knows about the Outside is wrong.

Shifting back and forth between Aria's and Perry's points of view, the reader gets to see each character's preconceptions change as they travel together and learn about each other. Because most of the action takes place on the Outside, we don't really see much of Aria's world except through her memories and the quick glimpses of technology for the portions that take place in the Pods. If you've read a lot of young adult dystopias, you may not find the plot directions all that surprising, but this is a fast-paced story with two characters I couldn't help but root for. I would hand it to teens who are impatient for the next book in the Divergent series.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


by Marilynne Robinson
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Reverend John Ames nears the end of his life in Gilead, Iowa in 1956, and begins writing reflections for his young son to read after he dies. He touches on family, faith, and much more, meandering as old people will from one subject to the other. Throughout, we see a lovely picture of a man who is the son and grandson of preachers, lived through two world wars, and yet loves this messed up world.

I'm not sure I can adequately describe the sheer pleasure of reading this book. It's more of a character study than a plot-heavy book. The writing is poetic, lyrical, and thought-provoking whether one happens to share John Ames' faith or not. The narrative flow from subject to subject felt completely natural to an old man thinking of one thing after another, with the start and stop of many days of sitting down to write as long as he could manage each day, yet it was perfectly crafted, not one word wasted. I was sorry to leave Gilead behind.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

by Thomas Foster
New York : Quill, c2003.

Ever had an English class where you wondered, "How on earth does the professor come up with this interpretation stuff?" Though Thomas Foster himself is a college professor, he clearly remembers what it was like to be a high school or college undergrad reader. In short chapters, he engagingly and clearly explains some of the motifs, symbols, and patterns one can look for and expect when reading.

I truly wish that I had read this informative and entertaining book when I was in college. I was an English major, but I didn't buy a good fourth of what I wrote in my papers, feeling like I was reading too much between the lines. The main issue for me was "How could the author have possibly meant ---- or been reacting to ---- ? How do you know?" I never felt that my English professors answered this satisfactorily, but in one chapter, Foster does: since stories are, at their core, interconnected, an author may have read (and reacted to) one book that was informed by a previous one. Even if the author never intended the connection to the original story, his or her writing has indeed been affected by it because of that later book the author meant to refer or react to (I'm not explaining this very well, but trust me, Foster does).

I may never read quite like an English professor (I think it would take multiple readings of any text to do so). But, his attitude that it's OK to enjoy the story at its most literal level and not pick up on every nuance or have exactly his interpretation made me think that I could be a better reader than I have been, and has inspired me to read more texts that take a reader's effort to fully appreciate.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Violinist's Thumb

by Sam Kean
New York : Little, Brown and Co., 2012.

Sam Kean, the author of The Disappearing Spoon, a book about the periodic table of elements, now turns his attention to genetics and evolution. In The Violinist's Thumb, he takes a non-technical approach to recounting the history of genetic inquiry and the various information we can learn about ourselves through our DNA. Covering Mendel to Watson, viruses to hominids, and throwing in many a funny story to boot, Kean writes an entertaining look at many aspects of genetics.

Though at times I found his approach a little too basic and I wished greatly for footnotes. At times, Kean seemed to gloss over potentially complicated discussions, making me wonder if he was oversimplifying here and there in the interest of narrative clarity. More than once, he stepped on my religious toes whilst trying to be funny. But for the most part, this is an engaging account about a fascinating subject. Kean does a good job of taking what could potentially be a very difficult, dry, or technical topic and making it accessible. His real-life historical examples of crazy experiments or historic people with genetic disorders add vivacity and relevance to the various topics he covers.

Oh and by the way, there's an Easter egg in the text that I had incredible fun trying to figure out. Good luck!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dandelion Wine

by Ray Bradbury
New York : Avon Books, c1999 (orig. pub. 1957).

I didn't realize until I started my best of 2012 list that I'd forgotten to post a review at all. I read it back in August, but thought I'd shoot a little summer into the midst of my winter posts:

In the summer of 1928, Doug and Tom Spaulding experience all the full life that summertime brings, from making dandelion wine with their grandfather to new shoes to discovering that old people have amazing stories to tell.

I've never read another book that so perfectly captures the feeling of summer as a child, when school is out and there are no responsibilities, when you can have lazy days or full ones, and you make discoveries about yourself and others. Countless times I wanted to write down a passage, but didn't when I realized that, just like a summer's day, if you took the words out of the story, out of the context, and looked at a sentence or two alone, it just didn't have that same feeling or essence anymore. It was beautiful, but suddenly only a shadow and memory of itself. Green Town is a sleepy mid-western town based on the one in which Bradbury himself grew up, and we get to know many of its inhabitants. If I were to identify a main character, it would be twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding, though the tone of the book is so nostalgic that I would not call it a children's or teen book. I will definitely be returning to Dandelion Wine when I need a dose of summer again.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Elegant Universe

by Brian Greene
W.W. Norton and Co., 2003.

Relativity and quantum mechanics both help us understand the universe, but in some cases the equations involved don't play nice and come up with nonsensical answers. Superstring theory (or string theory for short) is a "theory of everything" that attempts to better explain the universe. The gist of the theory is that instead of particles (electrons, quarks, etc.), the smallest units are, in fact, vibrating one-dimensional strings. In The Elegant Universe, Greene expands on the basics to explain in fairly non-mathematical language what the possible ramifications would be.

I admit, I probably would not have been able to finish this book if I hadn't had help from an engineer. I never took physics in school, though I'm fascinated by the subject and have read a handful of popular science books on the topic. In the first few chapters, Greene details what has gone on in physics before, from our changing understanding of gravity, to special and general relativity. In chapter 5, he switches gears and lays out the basics of string theory. Chapter 7 on gets more and more speculative as Greene explores supersymmetry, black holes, how 10 dimensions could exist, and more. He is a definite proponent of the theory, and is not always clear about what is a core part of string theory or what is a fun mathematical possibility within the theory. Still, it was entertaining to read and a mind-stretching experience. I will be very interested in seeing what the next decade brings to the search for a theory of everything.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club

by Will Schwalbe
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Will Schwalbe's memoir is a unique tribute to his mother, Mary Anne, a strong woman who worked tirelessly to help others, and who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One day during her chemo treatment, Will asked, "What are you reading?" So the two-person book club was born, as Will and his mother discuss books they both read over the course of Mary Anne's treatments.

The books are just a starting point for larger discussions of life, courage, love, and so much more. Each chapter is the title of a book, whether the book they're discussing or one that thematically ties into the subject of the chapter. Will intersperses memories of the past with the treatments and his mother's decline, painting a picture of a really wonderful woman I feel I came to know - just a little bit - through her son's eyes. The book is sweet but not saccharine, sad but hopeful. I plan on sharing it with my own mother to discuss with her.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Look Back... And a Look Ahead

Every year, I like to reflect back on my reading year and start planning - just a little - for the year ahead.

In 2012, I read 109 books. Since I started keeping track of my reading, this is the smallest number I've had, but it's also the first year that I have worked a full-time job. I also spent much of the beginning of the year reading nonfiction for a state award, which cut drastically into my reading time from January through May. So all in all, I'm pleased with the number.

My favorite new-to-me books of the year are (in order read): The above list includes three nonfiction books and four children's/YA titles. I read two of them for my library book club.

Here are a few "just because" awards:

Added the most to my TBR list - Among Others by Jo Walton
Pure geeky fun - Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My favorite authors still surprise me - Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones
Must recommend to everyone, now - The End of Your Life Book Club by William Schwalbe

Finally, as promised, a look ahead. I don't like to plan out too much of my reading ahead of time, but I have two goals for the coming year:
  • Read more of my own books
  • Read at least 6 new-to-me Shakespeare plays
  • Read either War and Peace or Middlemarch

Let's see how I do in 2013!