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.