Friday, February 27, 2015

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is a coming-of-age novel about two friends, Elena and Lila.  The girls are growing up in Naples during the late 50s in a poor community and the novel overflows with a remarkable cast of characters. 

The novel is told by Elena whose relationship with Lila is passionate and complicated.  They are both very intelligent, often pushing one another to strive for more, to be better than the other.  Poverty holds one of the girls back from furthering her education and, as their lives digress, their lifestyles gradually change.  In spite of this, the two girls find an anchor in one another and are really their best with one another. 

The other people who make up the community—the neighbors, the other children in the school, the teachers—all add flavor to the central story.  And there are a lot of secondary characters.  In the beginning of the book is a list of all of the characters, but I never had to refer to it because each stood out on his or her own.  And I want to know more about them.  The conclusion was so good it made me gasp.  It also left me gasping for more. This is the first in a trilogy of novels.  I am adding the next two books to my birthday wish list.  I won’t hold my breath but it would be nice to have the next two books because I do want to know what happens to Elena and Lila next.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Love Volume 1: The Tiger


Love Volume 1:  The Tiger by Frédéric Brrémaud and Frederico Bertolucci is a graphic novel that has no words, except for an epigraph at the beginning and at the end.  Visually the story is beautifully illustrated and is a simple day in the life of a tiger who, upon waking, seeks to find food and protect his territory from other predators.

I found myself rooting for the tiger even as I cringed at the possibility of his capturing some poor creature.  Then again, I also found myself holding my breath as I turned the page, hoping he would not make a kill after all.  There’s something to be said for a wordless story that can evoke so many, and conflicting, emotions.  There are some amusing moments and the story occasionally digresses into side stories about some of the other creatures that inhabit the same area as the tiger.

There are also ironic moments where one prey escapes only to be captured by another, smaller predator.  Ultimately, this graphic novel is a testament to how all things are interconnected.  Yes, this is a circle of life type of story but it’s told with humor (which will appeal to younger “readers”) and honesty (for the adults).  Interesting and worth checking out. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Master Cleanse Made Easy by Robin Westen


The Master Cleanse Made Easy:  Your No-Fail Guide to Feeling Great During and After You Detox by Robin Westen is a well-written discussion of how to properly ease into a fasting cleanse with a focus on the classic Master Cleanse. 

Westen begins the book discussing why one might need to do the Master Cleanse (MC).  She lists the various types of toxins we experience in our daily, from the foods we eat to the air we breathe.  Each of the chapters concludes with a quiz which is not too difficult but will also help the reader determine how well the material is understood.  This is especially important in later chapters.

The chapters then move through what the MC is, how to get ready for it, what to expect, etc.  Each chapter builds on the other and even carries the reader past the 10 recommended days for the cleanse.  I was pleased to read Westen admit that, whatever weight is lost during the MC, you can expect to put the weight back on when you stop doing the cleanse (37).  I’m not sure I buy some of the claims made, such as the one on page 38 about breathing being a means of assimilating protein without ingesting it but this is one of the few claims I found beyond the limits of my belief. 

But Westen does not encourage the reader to use and abuse the MC by doing it for too long or too frequently.  Ten days and ten days only is her recommendation.  In getting ready for the MC, she recommends certain things, from lymph massages to saunas to sugar scrubs.  (She even includes a recipe for making your own sugar scrub.)    Then, during the MC, she recommends gentle exercise, journaling, and other practices that will complement the physical aspects of the MC with mental and spiritual aspects.

Once the ten days have passed, Westen suggests how to gently move back into eating “real” food again and she includes a few recipes.  This is where the full benefit of a cleanse will be experienced as the reader can learn how the body responds, or even reacts, to different foods. 

I was very well pleased with the overall presentation of this book but what about the Master Cleanse itself?  It only makes sense that, to give this book a complete review, I should do the MC myself.  So I’ll be starting the cleanse tomorrow and blogging about my experience in my regular (not review focused) blog.  You'll find that here.  Follow along with me on my ten day journey.  I have a feeling I’m going to need a lot of encouragement!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton


The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is a collection of Wharton’s short stories that span her entire writing career. Almost all of the stories take place in the titular city and occur at a time when society was in flux.  In these stories, as in her novels, Wharton writes about characters who are stuck in the traditional roles and expectations of the time and those who live outside of society’s approval.  But because society is not static, it is the static characters who seem the most unhappy while the ones who dare throw caution to the wind find pleasure and even acceptance.

It is impossible for me not to compare this collection with Willa Cather’s and the differences are worth mentioning.  While Wharton seems stuck in her themes and stylistically continues to mimic the writing of her time, Cather took creative risks not found in Wharton’s stories.   What Wharton does so well in her novels, seems almost claustrophobic when condensed into a short story.  Perhaps this is because Wharton does limit most of her stories to New York and New York society while Cather wrote about the western expansion.  The two women were practically contemporaries, with the influence of Henry James is especially apparent in Wharton’s works, for better or worse.

Reading about Wharton’s New York is fascinating for me. She writes about neighborhoods with which I am familiar, places I grew up, but generations before my time.  Through these stories, I see the familiar through a new lens, appreciate how much has changed while recognizing how some things haven’t.  The rich get richer and the poor . . . well, not much has changed, really. 

Yet, for women in particular, much has changed and, with the last story in this collection, “Roman Fever,” gives the clearest hint of how things are changing for women.  Perhaps, with more time, Wharton would have found a strong short story voice.  I still love her novels and I liked her short stories well enough.  Enough to want to read more of her novels.   With that said, there are a few I will likely reread ("The Portrait" and "His Father's Son" come immediately to mind). 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Death Cure by James Dashner

The Death Cure by James Dashner is the third book in the Maze Runner series.  Still trying to avoid spoilers on this so forgive my vague review.

The third book carries some of the characters from where they were left in the previous novel into a still larger world.  The dangers remain as real as before, forcing the characters to take greater risks. I found myself getting very frustrated with one of the characters even as my anxiety for all of the characters grew.  Nonetheless, I slowed down my reading pace, which isn’t easy to do with these books.  They really are hard to put down.  It is not as tightly written as the previous two books but it is still a very compelling read.  The conclusion, I confess, was not as satisfying for me as was the final book in the Hunger Games.

There is a prequel to the series and I am tempted to read it.  If anyone who’s read it wants to leave a comment, please do so.  I’m curious. The person who recommended the series to me hasn’t read it. I also apologize for the brevity of this review but, to avoid spoilers, I erred on the side of saying less so I would not say too much. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty

Serenity:  Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty picks up where the movie Serenity leaves off and is an essential addition to anyone who is a Browncoat.  But anyone who hasn't watched both the television series Firefly and the film and read Shepherd's Tale as well as the stand alone comic about Wash may be somewhat lost.  You might get away with not reading the final two but if you haven't watched all of the above then too much will be lost.

In other words, this graphic novel is for the fans out there who will love the story, the inside jokes, the references that root this story in the well defined 'Verse of the television series and movie.  Some of the self-referential moments are purely visual.  

I mention that the references are occasionally visual because the thing I liked least about this graphic novel is the artwork.  Don't misunderstand.  It is good.  I showed it to both my daughter and my husband and there was a consensus.  The artwork is good but vague.  It's difficult to recognize the very familiar characters.  Having read a few other graphic novels from the Whedonverse, I can say that most of the characters are recognizable, not necessarily in each and every panel but most of the time.  So it was a bit disappointing to find myself struggling to tell whether Mal or Simon was talking in one panel or even a whole page.

Still, the story more than makes up for whatever lack there is in the visuals. There are familiar characters from the television series, one in particular that thrilled me.  To say anything more, would to give away too much. I'm avoiding spoilers as best I can.  Suffice it to say, fans of the show and movie will have a great time with this graphic novel in spite of its cliffhanger ending. 

ARGH!  All of the previous graphic novels have not been a part of an ongoing story.  So yes, I am disappointed even as I'm sitting on the edge of my seat eagerly awaiting the next collection.  Hurry up, Whedonverse (Zack, Joss, Greorges Jeanty, Favio Moon, et al). Your Browncoats are eagerly awaiting the next installment!

Monday, February 16, 2015

X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabbaz


X:  A Novel by Ilyasah Shabbaz is a fictional account of the early part of Malcom X’s life as told by his daughter.  The novel is specifically targeted for a young adult readership.  I wanted to read this novel, and am so glad I did, because ages ago I read The Autobiography of Malcom X ages ago out of curiosity, having heard so many mixed messages about the man.  This was before the wonderful movie by Spike Lee, just to give you an idea of how long ago this was.  Comparing the two books is inevitable.  Fortunately, this novel lives up to all my expectations, give or take a few flaws.

The novel begins with Malcolm Little, living in Harlem, New York in 1945 and running from the threat of someone who thinks he is owed money.  Almost immediately, there are hints of the poetic moments that pepper the novel.   After the prologue the novel shifts back in time and forward and back again.  Eventually reaching where the novel began, in 1945, and moving even further forward into his story ending in 1948.  By not telling the story in a chronological manner, the author does a brilliant job of showing how the events of the boy inform the actions of the man. 

I was hooked from the beginning.  Although I knew the man’s story, from having read his autobiography, this young adult novel immerses the reader in the emotional turmoil of growing up as Malcolm did, during the Great Depression. Knowing his childhood struggles makes some of his later choices.  The curious reader will want to know why Malcolm is on the run as well as how he moved from Lansing, Michigan to Manhattan.

The final chapters seem to be a bit rushed, the final chapter in particular.  And there is one rather confusing error regarding Seventh Day Adventists but the average reader will not notice it. (They do not worship on Sunday so Malcolm and his family could hardly enjoy a Sunday meal after service.  Instead, they would be there on a Saturday.)

Tragically, so many of the societal issues that dictate Malcolm’s life are still too present in our society.  Reading about how white society uses intimidation and discrimination to keep the African-American community from progressing sounds too familiar and contemporary.  We may have made some progress but we’ve hardly left these things behind, as recent events have proven.  The book has a list of “Further Reading” books that include other young adult novels as well as classic books from Ellison, Wright, and Baldwin.  An excellent novel I hope finds a home in classroom curricula across our still racially conflicted country.

As soon as I finished reading this novel, I wanted to reread the Malcolm X’s autobiography.  If a generation of young readers find themselves wanting to learn more about Malcolm and are inspired to read further, great!  I would love to think a new generation of people will read his own words.  The novel has

Friday, February 13, 2015

Small Victories by Anne Lamott

Small Victories:  Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott is a compilation collection of new with "old" essays.  If you've read all of Lamott's essay collections, you may find yourself reading something that's familiar.  I know I found myself revisiting some stories from Lamott's life that I had read before.

It is interesting to see how the new is merged with the old, how common themes in the author's life seem to thread the disparate stories into a collection that works cohesively even as the chronology weaves through time.  One essay will have Lamott lamenting the vagaries of being 60, sharing about being a grandmother, and a later will have her a single mother, still young and trying to make sense of herself and the world.  

I admit; I took great comfort in seeing how the confusion of youth, though tempered, never fully fades away. I know I've praised Lamott's works before and I won't stop now.  However, to be fair, I will say that I took exception to something she says in "Matches," an otherwise charming piece about dating in the modern age.  Her experiences are not far removed from my own and those of my friends who have tried online dating.  In this essay she says that "most of the women" she knows don't want to have sex.  I wish she knew the women I know.  Yes, some of the women I've worked with don't seem to enjoy sex (which says a lot about the men in their lives) but almost every woman I know enjoys sex and enjoys it frequently.  Some even wish they could have it more often.  

I don't have to agree with Lamott to enjoy and even delight in her stories, in her skill at elevating a simple personal experience and make it something profound and universal.  Lamott is a master story teller and there is much to learn from reading her essays.  I love her humor and always shall.  Liberal in her politics and her Christianity, she may not be everybody's cup of tea but she's mine each and every time.  Yes, even when I don't necessarily agree with everything she says or believes.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner


The Scorch Trials by James Dashner is a sequel to The Maze Runner and I could hardly wait to get around to reading it.  To avoid spoilers, I am not going to write much that’s specific, so if this review seems vague, I do apologize.  I’ll put spoilers in a separate post and you can follow the link to the spoilers if you like.

I described the first novel in this series as relentless and I was surprised that Dashner was able to maintain the same momentum as in the first novel.  It is nearly impossible to put this book down.  You can’t help but want to know what will happen next.  The characters are more fully developed as new characters are introduced.  Who to trust, who will survive, makes this a compelling novel and I can easily see how it will be a success on the screen. 

Be warned. As soon as you start this book, you better have the third book on hand.  You won’t want to wait to read the third and final book.  I know I couldn’t wait, and yet, I had to because this series is so popular the library didn’t have a copy on hand.  Eventually, I was able to borrow it from the person who recommended it to me.  I enjoyed the novel very much.  I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoyed The Hunger Games. It’s almost impossible not to compare the two (young adult novels that take place in a dystopian future society) and this one manages to hold its own in very good company.  

The above is spoiler free.  If you have read this novel and/or don't care about spoilers, I post-dated some of my thoughts here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bibi's Bookshelf: The Book With No Pictures by B J Novak

The Book With No Pictures by B J Novak is pretty much what the title suggests.  It's a book with only words, sometimes interestingly placed on the page, using different sizes and colors of fonts to add visually to what would otherwise be a boring book to look at.

This book is one of those that's great fun for kids because the words on the page has the adult reading all sorts of super silly things.  In fact, that's the whole point of the book.  What?  A book with no pictures?  Don't worry, kids!  You'll still have fun because watch the grown-up reading to you make weird noises and argue with what's written.  (The book actually has the reader arguing with what's on the page.)

I was not impressed.  Mo Willems does a brilliant job writing interactive type books which invite adults to read in silly and outrageous voices, all the while telling a delightful story.  I've seen my son read to my granddaughter from one of his books and it's magical.  While I'm sure my son could do a great job emoting effusively as directed by Novak, I doubt he would have nearly as much fun doing so.

Perhaps part of my disappointment is that I thought the book would invite children to use their imaginations, to show how words can create images in their minds, or even show how words can create sounds.  Instead, all this book does is make the adult reader look ridiculous and, while I don't have a problem with adults being silly for the amusement of a child (goodness knows, I've done it more times than I can count), if that's all the book has to offer, what's the point?  I have a strong suspicion that Willems' books will still be published 50 years from now while Novak's will be forgotten.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

365 Days of Wonder by R J Palacio

365 Days of Wonder:  Mr. Browne's Book of Precepts by R. J. Palacio is a sort of companion book for her novel, Wonder, which I read and enjoyed very much. One of the protagonist's teachers, Mr. Browne, gave the students monthly precepts that the students in the novel would discuss and eventually write a short essay about, explaining what the precept means to them.

This book is a collection of precepts, one for every day of the year.  (Unless it's a leap year, I guess, since there are only 365 days included.)

I didn't finish the book.  I was reading the precepts and I came upon one that was obviously misattributed.  On February 26th the author is lazy enough to share the following quote:
When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.
It took me all of five seconds to go to the Monticello website where they have a page devoted to spurious quotations attributed to Thomas Jefferson. There, I was not surprised to find the quote among the ones that Thomas Jefferson never said.

A quick look at the quote shows that this was first attributed to Jefferson in 1996 which probably explains why it sounds nothing like something an 18th century man would say.  (insert eye roll here)  The quote, in fact, makes its first appearance in 1923, quite a few years after Jefferson died and stopped writing quotable things.

I am hugely disappointed.  I don't understand why the author and publisher AND editor all were too lazy to research the proper attribution.  No doubt, many parents will happily give this book to their children. In fact, I was thinking of giving this book to a family friend who teaches and to my granddaughter.  Instead, I'll conclude this book review with an apropos meme and count my blessings that I didn't waste my time reading an entire book of potentially poorly researched quotes.


Monday, February 9, 2015

The Borgias by G J Meyer

The Borgias:  The Hidden History by G. J. Meyer is a thorough look at the notorious family that inspired two television series (one and two), a myriad of rumors, and more.  The author states in the introduction, "the Borgia story, when one pursues it far enough, turns out to be vastly different from what the world supposes and vastly more interesting than I myself had imagined" (xxvii).  It was my hope to find a book about the Borgia family that did not focus on only the salacious--the poison, incest, murders, orgies--something above and beyond the gossip.

Meyer's book fit the bill perfectly.  He doesn't avoid the gossip but there's no debating that his book is an apologist approach to his subject matter.  Yes, Cesare Borgia was notoriously brutal; his actions, if not completely excusable at least become understandable.  Italy, in the 15th century, was rife with feuds between city-states while trying to stop both France and Spain from invading.  So is it any wonder that Rodrigo Borgia, in his role as Pope Alexander VI would support all attempts to stop his enemies both within his homeland, some even within the Vatican itself, and beyond?

But if you're hoping to hear evidence of some of the most scandalous rumors, you won't find them here.  Instead, Meyer gives reasonable explanations for how the rumors started and makes it easy for the reader to accept that truth is often just as fascinating as gossip.  This is not revisionist history.  Instead, the truth is enough.

I found the quick rise to power that began with Alfons Borgia, who became Pope Callixtus III, reason enough for people to vilify the family.  Meyers does a brilliant job of putting events in a context.  Nepotism is not unique to Callixtus III's reign nor was it a guarantee that future generations would benefit.  Several men would be chosen to be Pope before his nephew, Rodrigo, would be selected.  All of the behind-the-scenes politicking, the maneuvering and back-stabbing, is intriguing but occasionally confusing.  Thankfully, there are maps and a timeline to help keep things from getting too confusing.

I was a bit disappointed that Lucrezia Borgia wasn't given more attention but it's understandable that there is less documentation about a woman's life than the many men's lives.  With historical figures like Louis XII and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella on the stage, it's hard to shine a spotlight on a beautiful woman who was little more than a political pawn but eventually earned the love of her people.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book enough that I would not only recommend it but I am now curious to read other books by the author.  His commitment to exposing the truth without giving in to lazy research and the ease of reiterating salacious gossip makes Meyer an author worth trusting.
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