Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Why, If Not the Wherefore, of What I'm Reading in January

I thought I’d take a moment to share why I’m reading the books I am (see the sidebar) because sometimes knowing the reason behind what someone is reading can be fascinating, like exploring a person’s bookshelf and finding that it’s annotated.  (This book is a gift from my mother.  This is a book I’ve read more than ten times and still want to read again.  This book I keep for future reference even though I did not enjoy it the first time I read it.  Etc.)   So here is a peek into the reasoning behind the choices of books I’ll be reading to start my 2014. 

Structuring Your Novel by K M Weiland

I’ve followed Weiland’s blog for ages, longer than I can remember, more or less.  I say “more or less” because at times I have been more focused on my writing than reading about writing, hoping to figure out the one elusive element that was keeping me from experience writing success.  (How do I define success?  People wanting to read what I write, other than my blog.  My not giving my talent away but actually being able to pay some bills with what I honestly earn.  That’s what I’m hoping to achieve before I die.) 

Once upon a time, my Aunt Frances said that I have great ideas but I don’t know how to write.   This contradicted the many people who praise my writing—my characters, dialogue, description, etc.  I spent years puzzling this criticism, not sure what this means.  Seriously.  Years.  Asking Frances directly was impossible.  For one thing, she didn’t say it directly to me and probably wouldn’t remember if I asked her directly that she’d said it at all.  For another, she has a reputation for being hurtful, even vicious, and I didn’t want to open myself up to her possibly saying something that would cut me to the quick. 

I am one of the very few family members she has not disabused and I’d like to keep it that way.

Eventually, I realized what she meant.  Good ideas + interesting characters + well written exposition + engaging dialogue do not necessarily add up to a well-told story.  Surprisingly enough, there are not a lot of books that really teach you how to tell a story.  Oh sure, there are many books out there that purport to do so but, from my experience, it ends up being about creating strong characters and tight dialogue and not much at all about pacing and the actual structure of writing a novel (or story) itself. 

Naturally, when I saw Weiland’s book offered on goodreads.com, I not only immediately recognized the author’s name but I immediately requested it.  Truth is, my expectations were low. I’ve requested several books on writing from goodreads and not received a one.  I’m super excited about having this book and am going to put its advice to use as I try writing a new novel. 

Better Body Workouts for Women by Dean Hodgkin and Caroline Pearce

I’m absolutely determined to make strength training a part of my daily exercise.  But I find it dreadfully boring.  I’ve written about this several times in my blog so I won’t go over it again here.  Suffice it to say, it’s hard for me to feel motivated to do it consistently and, as a result, I’m still trying to find something that works for me. 

Then I had the opportunity to request an ARC of this book and I jumped at the chance because the focus is on women’s fitness.  The timing was too perfect.  I’ll probably have to modify a few of the exercises but that is not unusual.  I’m curious to see how well this book’s recommended routine will fit into my life.  And I’ll be writing more about my exercising in the upcoming weeks, I’m sure.

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher K Germer

My intention for 2014 is to focus on compassion and acceptance, both of which are so fundamental to fully experiencing and appreciating life.  I have to admit, I’ve been unusually hard on myself the past year. I’m not used to feeling about myself as I do right now.  Also, I’m alarmed by some of the things I hear my mother say.  She calls herself stupid.  A lot.  My mother is not stupid.  She worked hard to put herself through nursing school while raising me.  She worked and fought and she eventually graduated with honors.  She also calls herself ugly and fat and things I don’t even think to call myself.  But I wonder where this self-loathing chatter began, knowing it is rooted in her self-talk.  Did her frustration with not meeting personal goals and repeated failures lead her to denigrate herself in her own eyes?  Am I only now hearing her speak aloud what she’s been thinking for years, maybe even decades? 

I don’t know.  I do know that I don’t  want to talk about myself the way she talks about herself.  I also know that I used to think and feel far more lovingly towards myself than I do now.  I certainly don’t want to pass this along to my children or to Bibi.  I am dedicating this year to focusing on acceptance and compassion for this reason.  However, I’ve noticed that finding books on compassion is easy; finding books on acceptance is not.  If you can recommend any books, I’ll make sure to ask for them for my birthday.  I’ve read one, Radical Acceptance, which I did not find radically helpful.  But I’m definitely open to suggestions. 

Fourth Comings by Megan McCafferty

This is the fourth book in the Jessica Darling series.  If you’re wondering how or why I skipped book three because I’ve obviously written reviews for the first two books in the series I assure you I have not skipped the third book.  I just haven’t written my review for it yet.  That’s coming.  I assure you. 

Suffice it to say, I liked the third book enough to pick up the fourth book and put it on my "currently reading" list.  It's flawed but I'll share more about how and why I feel it's flawed in my review. I don't want to get ahead of myself.  I'm already all over the place with this blog post as it is, don't you think?

Last but not least . . .

The New Atkins Made Easy by Colette Heimowitz
I posted about why I am aiming to add more protein to my diet over in my other blog so I won’t repeat myself here.  I had an opportunity to request temporary access to this book through netgalley and received it today.  I’m hoping to find some recipes that will support my new dietary goal.  I’m not looking for miracles; I’m just looking for ways to reach my daily caloric goal without having to suffer through overwhelming piles of food.

I’m not a big fan of fad diets but I do love food and I loooove trying new recipes.  In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that when I write my review for this book I’ll be writing about the recipes we tried and what Rob and I both thought of them.  I am hopeful that I’ll also be able to say that I feel like I have more energy and am reaching my daily caloric goal.  Again, I write about this more fully in my other blog but if I can eat what I need to eat without forcing myself to eat massive amounts of food, no matter how delicious I may find them.

In January I’ll be posting one book review a week, on Mondays.  That will be my bare minimum.  In February, depending on how many books I’ve read in January, I’ll continue posting reviews on Monday, only.  If I read more than I expected to in January, I’ll post a “bonus” book review on some random  Wednesday.   And you can look forward to some movie reviews on Fridays.  At least I hope you will look forward to them.  You’re welcome to not find them worthy of your anticipation.  I’ll do my best to make the reviews somewhat engaging. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Reading Commitment for 2014

I’m giving myself a new reading challenge, which I prefer to think of as a commitment rather than a challenge.  After all, the word challenge is fraught with implication.  Of course, so is commitment, but I digress.

In previous years, I’ve done a reading challenge where I would read 15 books in a year, books culled from my impossibly large collection of books.  The idea was to read it or get rid of it.  And it worked, to a point.  It pretty much stalled out when I was studying for the CPC exam.  I realized I needed to be more aggressive in trying to read my books.  Which is why last year I had a new goal—I would read only books from my personal library.  I even created a Pinterest board for all of the books I could and should read in 2013. 

That didn’t work very well either.  For one thing, I was still studying for the CPC exam and most of my reading time was consumed with reviewing anatomy, medical terminology, etc.  It was a lot of exhausting reading.  For another, I was given new books to read.  The temptation of new and/or borrowed books was simply too much.  And I didn’t even read as many books as I normally do because of all the studying I was doing.  *sigh*

Anyway, I’m trying it again this year but with a twist.  My Reading Commitment for 2014 will go like this:
  • Read one new book a week, preferably one in my collection right now.
  • Read one book a month above and beyond the weekly book. 
  • Get rid of two books, whether read or unread, if I do not do 1 & 2 at the end of each month.

Now here’s the cool part (or I think it’s cool, anyway). 

I am going to give away books, sometimes to people I know but sometimes right here on this blog.  You’ll want to keep an eye out for the reviews of books I’ve read to know what/if a book is going to become available.  I am very careful when reading my books so most will show little to no sign of being read.  However, if I receive a book in poor condition, I can vouch for how it will be when I am done with it.  I’ll do my best to be careful as I'm reading but I'll be honest about the book's condition when I offer it up.

And you can read some of the books along with me.  I’ve added a new page (see the tab above) and have already shared links to each of the monthly books I’ll be reading.  I’m going to try to mix it up a bit, choosing books of different types as much as possible.  Because these books will be a part of my existing collection, I’m not sure it will reflect the full spectrum of my reading choices and/or tastes but it won’t be the same type of book month after month. 

Anyway, that’s my Reading Commitment for 2014.  If I do the bare minimum, I’ll have read 64 books (52 weekly books and 12 monthly books).  If not, if I fail, I’ll have at least rid my shelves and my life of 24 books.  I have a feeling I’ll do better than only 24.  Then again, I thought I’d read more than I did in 2013 so you never know.   

Will you be doing any reading challenges this year?  

Monday, December 23, 2013

As Sweet as Honey by Indira Ganesan


As Sweet as Honey by Indira Ganesan is a novel set on an island in the Indian Ocean, focusing on the story of Meterling who falls in love with an Englishman.  Beautifully written, the prose reads almost like poetry—evocative, delicate, and even elegant.  Through the protagonist, the conflict between colonialism and nationalism are explored although not fully realized. 

The novel is divided into three parts.  All three are told through Meterling’s niece Mina.  However, the second part can only be imagined by Mina because she is not immediately present for this part of Meterling’s story and it is this part that gives way to magical realism.  However, this is not used to especially good effect.  The end result feels more manipulative than narratively necessary.  Certainly, this novel is not nearly as magical as Roy’s The God of Small Things.  Absolutely not as politically provocative as Roy’s War Talk.  Except for Meterling, we never come to know any of the other characters and even what we know about her is open to debate because the reader never knows if Mina’s descriptions are actual or her own interpretation.  Perhaps that is Ganesan’s intention, to use the unreliable narrator to cause the reader to question everything.

I wanted to read this novel because, according to the description, the author is “likened to Arundhati Roy” (hence, my comparing Ganasen’s writing to Roy’s) so I expected to especially like this one.  Unfortunately, I don’t anticipate that I’ll remember much about this novel a year from now.  None of the characters were interesting enough to be truly memorable.  This is one of those books I wanted to love but barely even liked.  If not for the elegance of the prose, I’d not commend it at all.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Downward Dog by Edward Vilga


Downward Dog by Edward Vilga is a novel about a man who is his own worst enemy.  A womanizer who revels in his “bad boy” image, he is on the outs after taking some professional risks and letting his personal mistakes destroy everything.  His only solace is in his yoga practice which he is not above exploiting to get another woman, or two, into his bed.  But he’s beginning to realize that his choices have consequences beyond his professional reputation and maybe he’s beginning to feel remorse. 

If this description sounds derivative of Shampoo, don’t let that deter you.  Vilga himself is fully aware and even uses a quote from the movie as an epitaph to this charming novel.  And don’t let the title and the presence of yoga be the reason you would avoid this novel.  Sure, the author intersperses the story with descriptions of some yoga poses but these are written from the protagonist’s perspective and some of the characterization Vilga creates in these non-traditional explanations of the asanas is commendable. 

The main character being the exception, most of the other characters are cliché, two-dimensional.  This is not unusual for this type of romance novel.  It’s a light read, something that doesn’t invite a lot of thinking; yet I found myself caring for the protagonist, even when I knew what was coming, what personal disclosures some of the extra characters would inevitably make, and could easily see what mistakes the main character himself was making and where they would inevitably lead.

But I don’t think the author’s intention is to break the mold and he writes a novel that fits in nicely.  Unfortunately, he was incredibly careless with his editing.  And I’m not talking about mistakes only an English major would recognize.  I’ve helped edit manuscripts and one of the elementary pieces of advice I give to any writer is to read your writing aloud.  You will hear mistakes in structure, like repetitive words, noun-verb agreement (or lack thereof), and other obvious and careless errors.  I am surprised he would allow these mistakes to get through to a draft that would be published, frankly.  I assume he will make the time to fix the more egregious ones. 

Yes, in spite of this I’m going to give this novel 3 stars, mostly because, in spite of this, I did keep reading.  It was a fun and easy, the type of book to take on a vacation.  Hopefully, Vilga will respect his craft and his audience enough to at least read his manuscripts aloud before publishing them.  Better still, I hope he hires an editor who can polish up his prose, correct syntactical errors, clarify the vague pronoun references, and point out where a careful read through would clean up so many careless mistakes.  If he chooses not to do so, I don’t know how many fans of this novel will follow him through more books.  I know Vilga can do better because I love his other book but, if going the self-publishing route results in a poor final product, I don’t know how long even I will be able to recommend his books. If this sort of sloppiness is unforgivable in your eyes, skip this novel or hope for a revised (or new and improved) edition.  After all, that is one of the advantages of self-publishing.

Full Disclosure: Edward Vilga gave me a copy of this novel to read and I emailed him after doing so, offering my suggestion to read the novel aloud.  However, I never heard back from him, which is a shame.  I think I could have helped him polish up this and any future manuscripts to near flawlessness.  Whether he hires me or someone else, I hope he invests in a good editor.  My biggest complaint about writers who choose to self-publish is that there is an implied carelessness that is a direct consequence of "ugly baby syndrome" where even a talented writer, someone who is typically careful, allows careless mistakes to get through to the final draft.  You can see this all over my blog, where I make a weak word choice (how many times did I use "careless" in this blog post?) or edit part of sentence which results in the whole sentence being a syntactical mess.  That's because I haven't revised these posts; they are raw and I like it like that.  But when a writer self-publishes, the reader assumes that there was some editing done.  I could blabber on more about why all of this matters; however, that is beyond the scope of this review.  Still, Edward Vilga, if you should happen to read this review, you know where I can be found, and I'll be happy to read your next manuscript before you self-publish.  I think my editorial services are worth the investment and I know my prices are fair.  

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mr Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater


Mr Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater is a book I remember fondly from my childhood.  However, I didn’t remember much about it and I wanted to reread it before giving it to Bibi.  In fact, the only thing I remembered is that Mr Popper receives a penguin in the mail.  How he received a penguin, why anyone would send a penguin in the mail, I could not recall. 

This is a cute story about a man who is obsessed with the South Pole.  Barely able to make ends meet to support himself, his wife, and his two children, Mr Popper is settling into his slow season as a painter when a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep.  Much to his surprise, there is a penguin in the package.  When the news that he has a penguin reaches the media, a zoologist sends him a second penguin.  Soon, the home is overrun with penguins and chaos ensues.

I can see why I liked this story when I was a child.  It is quaint, an easily forgettable confection.  It doesn’t stand up well to time, frankly.  For very young readers, it might be fun.  Perhaps reading about Admiral Richard Byrd, the various continents, how introducing animals to new environments upsets the ecosystem, or even watch March of the Penguins to use this cute albeit dated novel as an opportunity to learn something that’s more rooted in truth and reality. 

I do hope Bibi will like it, seeing as how I picked up a copy at the library book sale.  It’s unfortunate that some things we loved from our childhood can’t retain their charm when revisited.  There is a back-story to this novel of which I was unaware as a child.  Apparently the husband started the novel but had a stroke and couldn't finish it.  His wife took up the challenge of revising the book after it had been turned down by two publishers.  There's something poignant about knowing that, because of her efforts, this children's novel became a Newbery Honor winner.  And the ending of the novel has another layer of meaning that only adults who are aware of the back-story will appreciate.  Nonetheless, I rather wish I had not reread the novel, myself, and just let myself hold onto the vague memory of this book being one I enjoyed as a child.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Different Kind of Christmas by Alex Haley


A Different Kind of Christmas by Alex Haley is a novella that takes place before the start of the Civil War and focuses on the moral growth of Fletcher Randall, the son of a plantation owner.  Fletcher’s father is a senator, well-respected and esteemed within his North Carolina community.  Fletcher himself is struggling, going to school at Princeton, teased by the other northern students, and unable to make friends until some Quakers approach him with an opportunity to spend a weekend with their family. 

Much of this novella seems to be focused on teaching and informing rather than telling a story.  Because Fletcher is a college student, the author contrives to explain the reality of the Underground Railroad experience, its history, and the risks people took to help free the slaves.  I couldn’t help but feel that the book is like a history lesson and not emotionally driven.  Fletcher’s conversion to feeling sympathetic for the slaves seems an abrupt change.  He does some research and there’s no internal debate, no resistance, no emotional struggle.  Turning on his family’s traditions would take more time, especially considering the dangers and loss that would inevitably result from such a sharp and uncompromising departure.

For the reader who knows little to nothing about the Underground Railroad, the significant role Quakers played in helping slaves get to the north, this book may be informative but I’m not sure that information is more important than telling a good story when writing fiction.  For someone who did such a powerful job of sharing history through a strong story, as evidenced in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and, of course, Roots, this novella was a disappointment.  And for the reader who is looking for a sympathetic, even schmaltzy seasonal story, this book will still be a disappointment.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Acorn by Yoko Ono


Acorn by Yoko Ono is hard to describe but I shall do my best.  It reminded me, in some ways, of a series of koans that invite the reader to meditate upon the truth.  In another way, the very short essays are an invitation to play, suggesting the reader experiment with how we relate with our world, our home environment, how we experience our senses, and more.  Intermixed with the very short pieces are images created by Ono herself, simple pointillism abstract forms which, like the written selections, seem to inspire a slowing down to reflect even when the image is evident in form, recognizable.

There is something both whimsical and profound about these pieces.  Some of them border on self-help but not in the cliché way that so many books present a formulaic way of being.  “Cleaning Piece I,” for instance, suggests a ritual that would be healing.  Yes, many of the ideas are childlike but there are so many sages who have suggested that being childlike is the way to greater wisdom. 

Yoko Ono isn’t giving any answers.  She isn’t even asking questions.  She’s opening doors. Walk through and you will find your own questions, your own answers, your own wisdoms.  I have no doubt whatsoever that anyone who read this book closely, although it’s simple enough to skim, will experience profound personal and spiritual growth.  It’s a treasure chest and what you’ll find inside is the best part of yourself. 

I’m sorry that the copy I read was only a loan.  This is a book I would love to own, to read over and over again, to share with others.  A pure and simple joy to experience because this is not a book on merely reads and that is what makes it sublime. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent


Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood  by Leah Vincent is a memoir by a young woman who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home.  When she is sent to Manchester, England from her home in Pennsylvania, it is with the intention of following in her older sister’s footsteps.  From an all-girl seminary to marriage to motherhood, the author’s path is clearly defined by generations of tradition.  But you know she is going to stray from the traditional path because you’re holding a book in your hands, the type of book no Yeshivish follower, especially no woman in that faith, would write.

Vincent’s story is sometimes harrowing.  When she dares to correspond with a boy, the experiences of a first crush are endearing.  That she holds no goals beyond marriage and motherhood is unsurprising but, when the letters she wrote are found, what follows becomes so much more than surprising as the young girl is set adrift in consequence, settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, and left to fend for herself.  Watching her try to navigate a world so unlike her own, making choices that are often self-destructive and quite alarming, makes this memoir a difficult one to read.  In fact, it should come with a trigger alert (for self-injury and rape). 

Alarming as her story is, it is impossible to put down.  I devoured it and felt drained afterwards. Yes, as often happens, the final chapter is rushed, zipping into the “future” before returning to the more linear “present” of the story.  It allows the reader closure but I’m not sure it was necessary.  Still, I know a lot of people want that closure and how Vincent lets the reader know what comes after this part of her story ends is nicely handled. 

I did not grow up in a religious household.  As a result, I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of someone leaving their spiritual community—whether by choice or through force.  In Vincent’s case, especially, having grown up in an extremely sheltered community, it is hard to imagine how challenging being cast out can be.  But one does not have to imagine because Vincent candidly shares everything, without shame, without compromise.  Yes, it’s brutal to read and worth every word.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty


Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty picks up on the story of Jessica Darling several months after the previous novel, Sloppy Firsts.  The novel starts in the summer with Jessica participating in a special program for gifted children and carries through to her graduation from high school.  During this time, she learns more about herself, her friends, and continues to miss her best friend Hope, although perhaps not as desperately as she had in the first novel.

My main complaint with this novel, besides its predictability, was the character of Gladdy, Jessica’s grandmother.  We’ve seen this woman before—the quirky grandparent who speaks in a stereotypical fashion, who is more flirtatious than her hormone driven granddaughter, and who cloaks her wisdom in weirdness.  This character shows up so often as to be an obvious cliché and, given the unique voice McCafferty was able to give to Jessica, I was disappointed in the lack of originality.  The grandmother’s role in the story is likewise predictable but, to explain things further would lead to spoilers.

The rest of the characters are mostly two dimensional.  They don’t change at all from the first book although one or two do emerge as somewhat more layered.  Too few, however.  With two books, how hard would it be to flesh out some of the secondary characters and develop them?  Maybe I’m being spoiled by George R R Martin but it isn’t enough to have characters running around on the page.  Main characters need to be fully realized—Jessica and Marcus live up to this—but so do some of the other people surrounding them.  Jessica’s family members are all flat and unchanging.  The sister remains narcissistic, the parents continue to be mostly cyphers.  And even Hope is an enigma, never coming to life even though she inspires the protagonist to try to fill the void her absence has created.   

There are other characters that deserve to be explored but clearly the author didn’t feel the same.  I do like Jessica.  I care about her and want to know what’s going to happen next.  But if the next book is rife with clichés and the characters remain mostly two-dimensional, Jessica’s charm may wear thin and not be strong enough to keep this reader committed through two more books.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmine by Shohreh Aghdashloo


The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmine by Shohreh Aghdashloo is a memoir by an actress who is perhaps most known for her role in 24 and being nominated for an Academy Award for The House of Sand and Fog.  The book begins in the present tense but shifts into the more traditional past tense form that memoirs typically use.  Her writing voice is precise, with spare use of metaphor, focusing on the broad details of her life experience.

Born in Tehran, Iran during the reign of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into a middle class family.  She is loved and nurtured by her parents, has friends and brothers, while she matures into her own goals and desires.  When the Shah is deposed, life in Iran changes, forcing Aghdashloo to flee her homeland.  Before she leaves, however, she experiences the power of being on the stage, first as a runway model.  She is a successful actress in her own country and her move to London is only a temporary stall in her acting career.  While in England, she learns English and goes to college where she studies political science, to have a better understanding of the events that had occurred in her homeland.

Her main loves—acting and politics—play a major role throughout her life and inform much of her biography.  She never sinks into despairing stories of her hardships, leaving the reader to feel she’s led a somewhat charmed life.  But leaving behind her family can’t have been easy, starting over in a new country, eventually moving to yet another country, trying to start a business with other immigrants from Iran, etc.  Whatever stress or sorrow she may have experienced during these times is not her focus.  Instead, she reveals herself as a passionate and proactive individual who did not let her circumstances keep her from pursuing her dreams. 

Through her life’s journey, she realizes that she does not have to choose between her two loves but can fuse the two, taking on acting roles that address her political knowledge, using the stage to share her story, the more universal story of the immigrant trying to start over in a new country, to bring the story of her nation to an audience that may never realize that not all Iranians are the same, let alone not all Middle Easterners.  Her insistence not to accept a role as a stereotypical terrorist is understandable so, when she accepts the role on 24, it seems contraindicated and her reasoning is not well explained.  Nonetheless, if Aghdashloo isn’t fearlessly candid in her writing, she is candidly reserved and it is an interesting book to read for those unfamiliar with the Iranian political movements of the 60s and 70s. 

There is a reading group guide available.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde


First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde is the fifth of the Thursday Next novels.  The premise is easy enough.  Thursday Next has the ability to cross over between the "real" world and the book world, leaping in and out of fiction and nonfiction, to fix narrative problems, correcting mistakes, and more.  And, often, the story is quite amusing.  Who wouldn't find it funny to imagine that Jude the Obscure was once the "most rip-roaringly funny novel in the English language" (41).  Okay.  Perhaps someone unfamiliar with Thomas Hardy but it's Fforde's love of literature, his ability to play with the canon, and the quirky worlds he has created that make the series so much fun.  

I loved the fourth book and was looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, I would have to say that I like it about as much as I did the third, which was not very much. I can set aside the author's peculiar penchant for repetition, explaining more than once in this novel alone why the Bookworld is not as vivid as the Outworld.

The pacing of this novel seems to be especially off.  The story starts very slowly.  I can easily see why the person who loaned this to me said they were unable to finish it.  When the pace finally starts to pick up, it is suddenly dropped again, slowing down so much that I would imagine many people lose interest before completing the novel.  I wish I had been so lucky because, once the action picks up again and things start happening, there is a clear conclusion before the narrative continues, leading up to a cliffhanger ending.

I have said many times I do not especially like cliff-hanger endings, especially when they are unanticipated.  None of the previous four novels ended in such a blatant manner.  I have appreciated and even enjoyed the series more so than not.  However, the author’s erratic talent makes me question the quality of the series overall.  Two have been especially delightful, one charming if flawed, and now two have been a let-down.  There are other series that offer weaker books, where the author doesn’t quite live up to the strength of previous works (e.g.  the Discworld books, Dragons of Pern, Wheel of Time).  Unfortunately, Fforde seems to be more weak than strong, in the end, and I may read another Thursday Next novel if it were recommended to me but I would not go out of my way to seek it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

House and Philosophy ed by Henry Jacob and William Irwin


House and Philosophy:  Everybody Lies edited by Henry Jacoby and William Irwin is another in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series which I have enjoyed, some volumes in the series more than others.  This one is not my favorite of the series.  Much of this may be due to the book being published before the television show was completed, forcing the various writers to resort to the same few episodes, leaving the same ones referenced over and over again.

However, I think the greatest weakness of this particular volume lies more in the character Gregory House himself.  It seemed inevitable that many of the essays would be rooted in classical Greek philosophy, Socratic thought, and Aristotle arrogance.  That this book seemed to fall into this trap is disappointing, even if it is unsurprising.  That is why the few essays that dare to explore other philosophical thought and relate it to the series seem to rise so far above the rest.

 “House of Sartre: ‘Hell is Other People’” by Jennifer L McMahon, “Is There a Daoist in the House?” by Peter Vernezze, “Love:  The Only Risk House Can’t Take” by Sara Protasi are the essays that especially stand out.  This is not to suggest I did not enjoy any of the classical approaches.  Melanie Frappier’s “’Being Nice is Overrated’: House and Socrates on the Necessity of Conflict” was as insightful as any of the others. 

It can be challenging, when a subject matter lends itself so naturally to specific interpretations.  Not unlike, I would imagine, the challenge of interpreting the Bible from a Taoist perspective.  However, a more balanced approach to a topic is something to which I have become accustomed in this series and I was understandably disappointed in this volume as a result.  Interesting in spite of its limitations.  Given that these books are presumably written for fans more than philosophers or those interested in philosophy, the book will undoubtedly disappoint because it is not inclusive enough.  For the philosophy minded who are inclined to relate their ideals with contemporary culture, this book will be mildly interesting albeit ungratifying.

There are better books in the series, some reviewed in this blog.  I would recommend those before reading this book.  And then, don’t read this one unless you truly appreciate the show and want to explore it from a different angle.  Otherwise, read another book or watch the show.  I enjoyed it, yes, but I didn’t love it. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson


Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson is a memoir by a blogger who has honed her voice brilliantly.  She manages to be self-deprecating without being self-defeating, humorous even when sharing horrific experiences, and unabashed in sharing her personal quirks. 

I read this memoir because my son was reading it and as soon as I started it, I had a hard time putting it down.  Lawson establishes the overall tone of the memoir in the introduction where she offers no apologies and even dares the reader to stop before reading any further.  If in reading the introduction you find the tone off-putting or even peculiar, you probably should heed her warning and stop reading.  Seriously.  You may not believe much of what follows but you should trust Lawson in this one thing because the wit and weirdness will not end until the last page.  Unless of course you read the acknowledgements and the “About the Author” which she wrote herself.

I loved it and finished it before my son.  I found parts of it so funny that I read them aloud to anyone who would listen.  I could hear myself saying some of the things she said and I swear some of her arguments with her husband sound a lot like my own with Rob.  And this in spite of the fact that her childhood was so unlike my own.

But let’s be honest—Lawson’s childhood is unlike anyone’s.  It isn’t hard to imagine that there is something darker going on beneath the surface.  It’s been said that there’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy and Lawson manages to make her childhood so amusing it almost becomes enviable.  You almost want a father who collects road kill for taxidermy purposes and get your hand stuck . . . well, I’m trying to avoid spoilers so I can’t offer specifics.    Suffice it to say that some things are best left to the imagination and, yet, she makes it all sound like so much fun even when you know there’s no way you would want to live the experience yourself.   Maybe you would want to have drinks with Lawson and her husband, hang out together, compare Chicago style pizza with New York style pizza and argue which is the better. 

New York, definitely.  Hands down.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig


Zen and the Art ofMotorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M Pirsig is a semi-autobiographical novel that was ubiquitous when I was growing up.  Originally published in 1974, it was one of those books everyone had on a shelf.  It defies direct and simple description.  It is a road trip novel in which a father and son take a motorcycle and hiking/camping trip.  It is also a philosophical novel in which the narrator describes what he believes about life, about how we learn and understand things, how technology is encroaching upon society, and more, much of it rooted in having a motorcycle and the maintenance of it. 

Thoughtfully told, Pirsig gradually reveals layers of himself and his story without the use of foreshadowing or blatant cliffhanger chapter endings.  While each chapter leads to the next, it is easy, sometimes even necessary, to stop and think about the finished chapter.  In this way, the novel is also a sort of meditation and an invitation to reflect on what is said.  The novel is clearly rooted in the Platonic ideals of Socratic thought but Pirsig is not merely reiterating Greek philosophy so much as defining one of his own. 

I can easily see why and how this novel became so influential and I regret reading it without someone else.  I think a book group would enjoy discussing this novel and its wealth of ideas.  I would have loved to discuss the philosophy with others as I was reading it.  Unfortunately, I read it alone and I know I did not delve into it to the degree it deserves.  Perhaps someday I’ll reread it with someone else because this is one of those rare novels you know you must read again if you hope to glean all of its treasures.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Legends 3 edited by Robert Silverberg


Legends 3 edited by Robert Silverberg is the third and presumably final volume in the series and features stories by Robert Jordan, Ursula K LeGuin, Tad Williams, and Terry Pratchett.  I’ve said that the previous two books are a wonderful way to sample each writer’s style and know whether or not you want to read an entire series of fantasy novels.  When one considers how long so many of these novels can be, the opportunity to read a short novella rather than suffer through an entire novel is ideal.

This collection begins with “New Spring” by Robert Jordan which is the novella that eventually was fleshed out to the full length novel I read (and reviewed).  For that reason, I chose not to read this abridged version.  The novel is still shorter than any of the other novels in the Wheel of Time series and this novella is shorter still.  The characters introduced in this novella are pivotal to the series but not necessarily primary players so this short story serves as a lovely prelude to the series as a whole. 

Ursule K LeGuin’s “Dragonfly” is a part of her glorious Earthsea series.  The tone of the story is as evocative as her full length novels.  LeGuin’s narrative is poetic and delicate while being powerful, even mythic.  There is a quiet power to her prose, a particular cadence that makes her stories stand out from the others brilliantly.  I adored her Earthsea novels and this story was an enchanting addition.

“The Burning Man” by Tad Williams was my least favorite story and made me less inclined to read the Memory,Sorrow, and Thorn series.  The author’s style did not appeal to me, the voice sounded false, the way a rehearsed speech can sound too precise.  I didn’t not feel myself emotionally drawn into the story, and I felt nothing for the protagonist.  The “surprise” twist was so obvious that I knew what would happen long before it came to fruition on the page.  Altogether, a disappointment.

Last but absolutely not least is “The Sea and the Little Fishes” by Terry Pratchett.  I’m very fond of Pratchett’s Discworld novels and some of my favorites are about the witches so it was inevitable I would enjoy this perfect little taste of his sardonic stories.  I laughed, more than once, aloud, appreciating the events as they unfolded, delighting in both the familiar and surprising.  Reading Pratchett is always a joy and this story was no exception. 

I encourage anyone who is wondering what fantasy series they should read next to read any of the Legends books rather than to commit to reading thousands of pages of stories, especially if you are the type who must finish something once it is started.  I can’t imagine suffering through so many pages and, if you would like to avoid such a fate, reading one or more of the novellas will allow you a window into the world each writer creates, his or her narrative tone, and make a more educated choice.  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty


Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty is a young adult novel, the first in a series, about Jessica Darling, a young girl whose best friend just moved away.  Trying to adjust to life without her friend is difficult as she tries to navigate school.  She’s on the track team and one boy has a crush on her but it isn’t the boy she has a crush on herself.  Her older sister is getting married and the three girls she hangs out with are not especially kind to one another, let alone to her. 

Then things get really messy.

I didn’t just read this book; I devoured it.  Through journal entries and letters to her best friend, Hope, the reader the heart of Jessie, her aspirations and her dreams.  The novel begins in January and ends with the upcoming New Year.  Warning, don’t read this book if you can’t easily lay your hands on the next book because it does have a cliffhanger ending.  Yes, I do not like cliffhanger endings.  I think it’s lazy and suggests the author’s lack of faith in the story.  For whatever reason, in this case, it works well enough that I can begrudgingly respect the choice McCafferty made.


I definitely enjoyed the story although I had some issues with the slut-shaming and, towards the end something happens that is not completely unexpected.  The protagonist’s reaction, while contextually understandable, is distasteful, to say the least.  I’m curious to see, as Jessica Darling matures, how her perceptions will change.   I hope they will change for the better, that the things I found off-putting will prove to merely be the immature response of a young girl trying to make sense of her confusing world.  Regardless, I am hooked enough to read at least one more book in this five book series.  Unfortunately, my public library doesn’t have any of the other books in the series except for the fifth one so it may take me a while to get around to the next one.  I really hate cliffhangers.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Come August, Come Freedom by Gigi Amateau


Come August, Come Freedom:  The Bellows, The Gallows, and The Black General Gabriel  by Gigi Amateau is a young adult novel based on the true story of a slave who plotted a rebellion in 1800.  The author draws on historical events beyond those immediately occurring in Richmond, Virginia, inserting within the novel documents from the period to complement the narrative.

Through the eyes of Gabriel, the reader witnesses the suffering experienced under slavery.  The novel begins with Gabriel’s birth on July 4, 1776, an obviously auspicious day for all Americans except those born into slavery.  The experiences that lead to Gabriel’s eventual need to lead an uprising are told in sparse, occasionally beautiful prose.

Telling the story, rather than showing it, is a violation of one of the most basic rules of writing.  It may have been a conscious choice on the author’s part.  Should a novel written for young adults be explicit in describing the abuse experienced under slavery?  Are young adult readers ready to read explicit descriptions of whippings, beatings, and rape?  If Amateau’s intention was to protect her reader’s from the brutality of truth, is she doing a disservice to history?  Her audience?

In my mind, the answer is a resounding yes.  I read Roots by Alex Haley when I was 15.  While I might not go so far as to suggest that a novel written for young adults should be quite as graphic as possible but to gloss over a subject is to not give it due respect and the American history of slavery deserves to be respected and given full weight.

As a result, the novel lacks an emotional strength it could have easily attained with one or even two more honest scenes. It would have shown a justified faith in the audience.  Young adults are not merely eager to be treated like adults but are often ready to be treated as such.  Reading a novel that treats them with respect will empower them to mature into more sophisticated reading material, giving them the intellectual resources that will carry over into making lifelong decisions.

In the end, this is a good story which lacks emotion, passion, and uncompromising truth. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Love is a Dog From Hell by Charles Bukowski


Love is a Dog From Hell by Charles Bukowski is a poetry collection by a man who made a name for himself writing poetry that is blunt, unforgiving, and from the perspective of the non-academic, the most common of common men.  I was familiar with his name and may have come across a poem or two in a collection or magazine but this is my first time reading a collection of his work.

It will probably be my last.  Technically, I like the poetry.  It’s accessible, with moments of emotional profundity, few and far between those may be.  Early on in this collection, I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable as I read each poem.  My impression was that Bukowski dislikes women and this misogyny began seeping from the page leaving a distaste in my mouth.  In “quiet girls n gingham dresses…” he writes “all I’ve ever known are pill freaks, alcoholics / whores, ex-prostitutes, madwomen”  and he titles another piece “the insane always loved me,” blaming the women in his life for not being normal as he celebrates his own promiscuity, relating his numerous one night stands even as he laments his getting older and losing his sexual and charismatic power over women much younger than himself.  In another poem, he describes a friend who says “she needs someone to beat her” to which Bukowski, or his poetic persona, responds with “I’m no good at beating women” (“long shot”).  Rather than refute the recommendation as unacceptable, Bukowski simply says it’s not something he is good at doing. 

What woman, I wonder, would find it pleasurable to read such stanzas as this one, from “melancholia”?:
I should have kicked the redhead
in the ass
where her brains and her bread and
butter are
at . . .
Vulgarity in poetry is not something new or even averse to me.  Reading of cocks, sweat, shit, and cunts is something modern poetry has done with intention, to pull poetry from its elevated literary position and make it relevant to the masses.  But sexism is tasteless and more vulgar than mere sexuality can ever be.  I considered the possibility that Bukowski was writing from a particular persona that is not truly his own.  After all, the title of the collection itself suggests something to that effect—the poet is not merely a dog but a dog from hell.  So I suffered my way through the entire collection with no expectation that the façade, if it were indeed a façade, would ever fall away. 

After I read the book, I did a quick search and found this video clip in which Bukowski is talking with his wife.  To find it I googled “Charles Bukowski misogyny” and there is some debate among some readers saying he was not because his apparent misogyny is merely the author’s pushing societal boundaries.  It’s hard to agree with that, after watching this exchange.  His wife calls him an idiot, and this is obviously as unacceptable as what he does later.  Judging from his poetry, however, this one incident caught on film is not unique, merely a manifestation of Bukowski’s real feelings toward women in general.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Miss Anne in Harlem by Carla Kaplan


Miss Anne in Harlem:  The White Women of the BlackRenaissance by Carla Kaplan looks at the implications and influence of white women who, after World War I, were eager to have new experiences.  At a time when such ideas as primitivism and the social movement in America, striving for welfare reform and equal rights, it seems inevitable that some women would find their way into Harlem.

Kaplan lays a foundation of the difficulties she had in researching the subject because the appellation “Miss Anne” was used ubiquitously, applied to any and all white women who were inserting themselves within the African-American community.  There is an insult implied in the name, similar to calling someone an “Uncle Tom.”  Further, she lays a foundation for the deeper implications of what these women were doing.  Far from being welcome within the community, these well-meaning women were seen as a threat, with good reason.  A white woman’s reputation would be compromised if she were perceived as having sex outside of marriage; it would be completely destroyed were she to be exposed as having sex outside her race.  Families would disown these daughters, the public would vilify them, and, in the end, regardless of their hopes and expectations, the community into which they tried to inculcate themselves would never fully embrace them.

Most of the book is taken up with the stories of four specific women, each with her own agenda.  Sometimes well-meaning, their naiveté led to mixed results.   Josephine Cogdell gave up everything to marry George Schuyler, seeing her daughter’s musical talent and intelligence as proof the white race needed an infusion of other genetic material to thrive.  There was no awareness of self-contradicting philosophy in denying there’s a difference in race and lauding the benefits of interracial interaction.  Nancy Cunard’s interest in engaging with other races was more seemingly altruistic but blatantly manipulative as she endowed a select group of African-American artists with financial support.  Her generosity did not come without strings and, when anyone did not conform themselves to her expectations or dared to produce something that did not align itself with her philosophy of race, she cut the person off completely.  Fannie Hurst, the author of the novel that inspired Imitation of Life, and Annie Nathan Meyer were both authors whose works explored the “reality” of the African-American experience.  Many Caucasian authors were writing about Harlem and slavery, with more or less success while often failing to be emotionally or psychologically accurate, allowing clichés and stereotypes to inform the stories, offering little insight.

Kaplan’s thoroughly well-researched book offers insight on every page while still reading like a novel.  She does not attempt to use creative non-fiction, imagining dialogue about which she could know nothing.  Nonetheless, it’s difficult to put the book down, and I found myself devouring it, only pausing long enough to explore the numerous endnotes and to seek out extra material online.  I was even able to find audio recordings of songs mentioned in the novel and images of paintings by artists online and added the 1959 film Imitation of Life to my Netflix queue.  This is a fascinating book, one I highly recommend.

Monday, September 30, 2013

TVNHLoP: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson


The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates:  Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson is the first in what will be a trilogy or series of novels. I don’t know.  What I do know is that this is a cute book and it does not rely on a cliffhanger to drive the reader to keep exploring the world the author created. 

In this first novel we’re introduced to Hilary Westfield who wants to be a pirate.  She applies to the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates (VNHLP) but they reject her off-hand because she is a girl.  To make matters worse, they take the initiative to have her enrolled in Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies.  This does not deter our young heroine and adventures ensue.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be cute, appropriate for its intended tween audience.  But like the protagonist, tweens often want more and I don’t know that this novel shows signs of promising more.  That doesn’t mean that the next novel and however many more there may prove to be won’t be fulfilling.  After all, Lemony Snicket has managed to write a series of novels that do not deviate from the established narrative arch of the first novel but manages to sustain itself for thirteen books.  Predictable though they may be, they do succeed.  So this series could prove to be equally successful.  But the Series of Unfortunate Events is darker than this novel and tweens appreciate being trusted with such themes as death, abuse, violence, and such. 

So cute works but can it sustain?  I don’t know.  I couldn’t help but think of Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett where a young girl shows interest in becoming a wizard although there are no female wizards and must stand athwart of the Unseen University and earn admission to be properly trained.  Pratchett’s novels are wry, written for adults.  Some parents might not want their tween to read his novels but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to encourage my tweenagers to read as many of the Discworld books as they like.  And there are many of them.

Still, I confess, I didn’t immediately fall in love with J K Rowling either after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  This novel will probably be condemned to comparison.  There are certain similarities.  Both novels have a foot in both a world like our own (with a reference to Shakespeare and others) and a world unlike our own, one infused with magic, although these worlds are not as separated in this novel as they are in Rowling’s.  Carlson also has three young friends who join together although in her world there are two girls and one boy in the trio.  Unfortunately, there are clear indications, when this novel is compared with the other, to suggest that this author doesn’t have the same writing strength.  Whereas Harry’s friends each served a clear purpose in working through the final conflict in the novel, Hilary’s friends serve mostly as sidekicks with her working through all of the conflicts she faces.   They serve merely as secondary and mostly flat characters but, it is possible, they could prove to be more complex and interesting as the series continues to be published.


Hopefully, the characters will grow as the series grows.  Hopefully, the narrative will mature with the reader and each of the novels in the series will prove to be more sophisticated.  This was a cute novel and I enjoyed it enough to hope for more in the upcoming novels.  However, I don’t know that I’ll go out of my way to seek them out.  If I happen upon the next one, I might give it a go.  You never know.    

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bibi's Bookshelf


Baby Penguins Everywhere! by Melissa Guion is visually adorable.  An adult penguin is alone and she sometimes feels lonely.  Until one day she finds a magician’s hat floating in the water.   Before she knows it, one by one, baby penguins come out, some with juggling balls and chains of scarves—all of the paraphernalia a traditional magician would use.

As much as I love the illustrations, the story is a bit too “on the nose” for me.  The lesson meant to be learned by the little reader, or the child hearing the story, is that sometimes mommies want to be left alone.   But it is so blatant.  It seems more like a book an adult wants a child to like more than a book children will innately like.  Where the Wild Things Are wasn’t a book that adults liked but children loved it.  They still love it after so many years.  And adults now remember it from their own childhood with fondness.  I cannot imagine that this adorable book will have the same sustainability because of the overly obvious moral message. 

The Art of Miss Chew by Patricia Polacco is a story inspired by the artist/author’s own experience in school and the encouragement and support she receives from two teachers—one who recognizes the young girl’s artistic talent and another who realizes the learning struggles she is having.  Both go out of their way to get her the help she needs.  

I mostly loved the book but I have to confess that some of the grammatical errors annoyed me.  I realize that I can be a bit of a “Grammar Nazi” and I do try to be forgiving when I am reading most books but I am less forgiving when it comes to a children’s book.  Little children love to have stories read to them over and over again.  When a book has careless and obvious grammar errors, I dread the thought of a child having these mistakes read repeatedly.  Perhaps I am being irrational but I truly do prefer very precise language in children’s books.

Having said that, I also have to admit that the story brought tears to my eyes.  It touched my heart.

Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare by Patricia Polacco is a story about an older brother who loves hockey and a younger sister who loves ballet.  The two have a typical sibling rivalry and one day dare one another to see how hard other’s extracurricular activities can be. 

This is, of course, a common trope often seen in situation comedies on television.  What elevates this from the typical is that this story is inspired from Polacco’s own experience.  In real life, the two benefited from a mother who encouraged each child to participate in the other’s life by going to games and recitals.  And this strong bond is hinted at throughout the story and infuses what could be a trite experience into one that is infused with love.  Although the conclusion is a bit too contrived, I still enjoyed this picture book and wish Bibi had a chance to have it read with her. 
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