Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun led me first to Wikipedia to get a little background on Biafra:
The Republic of Biafra was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria. Biafra was inhabited mostly by the Igbo people (or Ibo) and existed from 30 May 1967, to 15 January 1970. The secession was led by the Igbo due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria and the creation of the new country, named after the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south), was among the complex causes for the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.
That's Wikipedia's introduction to its section on Biafra. Half of a Yellow Sun, goes far beyond the dry facts. Adichie tells the story of the Igbo people, who were determined to establish a nation independent from Nigeria. The book starts before the civil war, when optimism is high and excitement fuels the people, and ends with the devastating defeat of Biafra.

The novel contains two intertwining stories: that of upper-class Olanna and her revolutionary husband, Odenigbo, and their houseboy, Ugwu; and that of Olanna's wealthy twin sister, Kainene, and her white lover, Richard. From lavish meals to roasted rats, Adichie follows the two families from the height of success to the daily struggle to survive.

Adichie is a phenomenal writer. Her language is lyrical, her descriptions rich, her dialog true. Her power to portray the images of Africa is astounding: the sights and smells of a country and its people are nearly palpable. The lushness of the first section of the book contrasts sharply and effectively with the starkness of latter two-thirds. We go from black party dresses to ripped rags, from a baby dressed in clean white linen to a little girl playing with shrapnel:
"Baby joined the thin children who ran around with their naked bellies wreathed in brown. Many of the children collected pieces of shrapnel, played with them, traded them. When Baby came back with two bits of jagged metal, Olanna shouted at her and pulled her ear and took them away. She hated to think that Baby was playing with the cold leftovers of things that killed."

This is an amazing book, haunting and memorable; a book that one cannot read without being staggered by the strength and will of humans to survive.

Other reviews of this book:
Caribous Mom
Jill at The Magic Lasso
Gautami at the Reading Room

(If you have reviewed this book and would like me to link to your review, please leave a link in the comments.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Sunday Salon: War-Torn and Carnival

It doesn't seem right to put those two words in the same phrase: war-torn and carnival. First, the carnival: there is a new one that is perfect for book bloggers, aptly named the Book Review Blog Carnival. You can peruse the first carnival here at I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book. There are 38 reviews in all, incuding one of mine. The next carnival will be coming up on October, so if you'd like to submit a review, follow the directions here.

Moving on to the "war-torn" part of this post. For the past two weeks I've been immersed in communities and individuals ravaged by war. I've reviewed The Cellist of Sarajevo, a sparse but immensely powerful novel about the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. I've just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's phenomenal Half of a Yellow Sun, which is about the three-year civil war in the late 1960s when the Igbo people seceded from Nigeria to form the independent nation of Biafra. I'll be reviewing this astonishing novel soon and looking for Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, which I've been told is even better.

This week I'm back in the south with Janet Beard's
Beneath the Pines. My friend Amy (my real friend Amy, not the My Friend Amy of Book Blogger Appreciation Week fame!) handed me this book a couple of days ago and said, "Read this! My son's first babysitter wrote it!" I was instantly skeptical because, well, I have no idea. I'm sure many fabulous authors were once just teenagers who babysat. But I was intrigued when I read the back cover and became immediately engrossed when I started reading it last night. Janet Beard is an excellent storyteller. I'm only a hundred pages into the book, but I'm enjoying it so much that I can't wait to head for bed so I can read for awhile.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #130: Weddings

Today's Sunday Scribblings prompt is weddings. The Scribblings are supposed to be about my writing, I know, but today I'm sharing my writing heritage instead. My father wrote this poem for my mother on their 50th anniversary. I can't think of a more beautiful tribute to weddings.

Always Twenty-One

You are still in my heart's eye that golden girl in white,
You're walking down the aisle
into my heart,
Still that lovely girl in white
coming to me down the aisle.

In my mind I know we've had these years together,
I know the storms we've shared,
the joys we've shared,
these many years we've shared—
And yet,
And yet you're still that golden girl in white
who's coming down the aisle
into my heart.

My heart's eye cannot see the years behind us,
My heart's eye looks on you and sees again
the golden girl you were
and still are in my heart,
My golden girl who's always twenty-one.

~James N. Cummins, 1998

I still cry every time I read it. As a footnote, my parents just celebrated their 60th anniversary last month, 8/8/08.

(Read more Sunday Scribblings on weddings.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

"It doesn't matter what the world thinks of his city. All that matters is what he thinks. In the Sarajevo of his memory, it was completely unacceptable to have a dead man lying in the street. In the Sarajevo of today it's normal. He has been living in neither, has tried to live in a city that no longer exists, refusing to participate in the one that does."

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a small book about 22 days in what became the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, a four-year sniper and shelling campaign against the citizens of Sarajevo by Serb forces. But this story begins on May 22, 1992, when 22 people in a bread line were killed in a mortar attack. The cellist—who on that day decided not to buy bread— then begins a 22-day memorial service, playing Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor each afternoon "into the mortar-packed, sniper-infested streets of Sarajevo."

The book alternates among the stories of four main characters trapped in their own city: the cellist himself; Arrow, a sniper of snipers; Kenan, a young husband and father who must cross the dangerous city twice each week to get water; and Dragan, a baker who just wants to cross a street in safety. They were once four ordinary citizens of an ordinary city. Now they are survivors in a war-ravaged city, struggling each day to navigate in a city in which people are gunned down as if they were game pieces, picked off one by one.

It is a small book, quick to read, about a very big subject: how the human spirit insists on surviving and creating some semblance of meaning when the world has spun out of control. Steven Galloway's writing is clean and spare. The effect is powerful. Galloway's images stick. His characters are in a constant state of trying to reconcile the past and the present: this was my life then, this is my life now:
"The absence of shelling is almost like music, and she imagines if she closed her eyes she could convince herself that she was walking through the streets of Sarajevo as it used to be. Almost. She knows that in the city of her memory she wasn't hungry, and she wasn't bruised, and her shoulder didn't bear the weight of a gun. In the city of her memory there were always people out at this time of morning, preparing for the day to come. They wouldn't be shut inside like invalids, exhausted from another night of wondering if a shell was about to land on their house."
This book is based on real events that happened just 16 years ago, when I was a young married woman, buying our first car and soon to be expecting our first baby. Sarajevo, Serb, Bosnia: words on the evening news. While I shopped for a new car, people exactly like me were dashing across intersections, fervently praying that they weren't a sniper's target practice that day, trying to figure out how this happened to their lives, and when it would all end.
"There is no way to tell which version of a lie is the truth. Is the real Sarajevo the one where people were happy, treated each other well, lived without conflict? Or is the real Sarajevo the one he sees today, where people are trying to kill each other, where bullets and bombs fly down from the hills and the buildings crumble to the ground?"
Read this book. It is devastating, but the glimmer of hope is powerful, and Galloway is a language craftsman and a beautiful storyteller.

Other reviews:
Natasha at Maw Books here
Wendy at Caribousmom here
Jill at The Magic Lasso here
(If you have a review, please post your link in the comments!)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Happy National Punctuation Day

In case you didn't know, September 24 is National Punctuation Day—certainly a blog-worthy day. I must admit that I didn't make comma cookies or semicolon cake today, but I would like to give the day a nod and reprint here my review of one of my own Life Books: Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

From March 20, 2006:

How could I not love an author whose rallying cry is "Sticklers unite!"? For I am a grammar stickler, and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss just makes me feel so happy! I love this introduction to the chapter "The Seventh Sense":
"Either this will ring bells for you, or it won't. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. 'Come inside,' it says, 'for CD's, VIDEO's, DVD's, and BOOK's.'
"If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don't bother to go any further. For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word 'Book's' with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated."

Obviously, to read a book subtitled "The Zero Approach to Punctuation," one would have to be somewhat of a grammar freak. And although I have tuned it down tremendously in the past couple of decades, the truth is that I used to find it almost impossible NOT to correct one's grammar.I used to get such incredible joy from my editorial days! How I LOVED to make those copy editor's marks.

And grammar classes in high school and college! I can't even express the pure joy in diagramming a sentence. (I am REALLY coming out of the closet now!) The satisfaction in a sentence well-diagrammed must be akin to the feeling a mathematician has at solving a big fat equation. It's all so strange, I know. It's what Lynne Truss calls "The Seventh Sense." She writes, "No one understands us seventh-sense people. They regard us as freaks. When we point out illiterate mistakes we are often aggressively instructed to 'get a life'...Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions."

I bet Lynne Truss is having a big party today.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Book Overload

This past week I had a moment that was rather foreign to me: I was overwhelmed with, even tired of, books.

Like I said, it was just a moment, a fleeting panic of the sheer number of books out there. Shelves closing in, bookcases toppling, and me in the middle of a room.

I think it all has to do with the enormous number of posts this week generated because of My Friend Amy's Book Blogger Appreciation Week. This was an amazing week-long event, and I have yet to visit most of the hundreds of book bloggers who participated in this extravaganza.

The sheer number of book bloggers—people like me, who breathe books—amazes me. And I am delighted with and curiously touched by our drive to share books. On the other side of things, I regularly come across people in daily life, whether in person or on blogs, who really never read. Who say, "I can't remember the last time I read a book."

Anyway, I did quickly recover from my momentary book exhaustion. This week I finished The Cellist of Sarajevo, which I've not yet reviewed, and gods in Alabama, which I needed after reading the Cellist. I finally reviewed Songs in Ordinary Time, which will definitely not make my Top 10 list this year. I've just started Chimamanda Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, which promises to be excellent.

I had fun this week with Weekly Geek's Quote Week. I didn't quite get seven quotes in, but contemplating book quotes again adds to the feeling of the vast world of book lovers.

(To join The Sunday Salon, click here!)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Weekly Geeks Quote #5

Here's a quote for Weekly Geeks Quote Week from author Herbert True. This one makes me really sad.

One half who graduate from college never read another book.

Reminds me of a college friend and fellow English major who admitted to me, and not shamefully, that she had never read a book all the way through college. Her boyfriend was also and English major. They took all their classes together, and he just told her about the books. I never understood the point. Why would one choose to be an English major, yet never read a book?

Quote #4 here.
Quote #3 here.
Weekly Geeks Quote #2 here.
Weekly Geeks Quote #1 here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Autumn Reading

btt button

Today's Booking Through Thursday asks: Autumn is starting (here in the US, anyway), and kids are heading back to school–does the changing season change your reading habits? Less time? More? Are you just in the mood for different kinds of books than you were over the summer?

A lot more and a little less, yes. My kids head back to school right here at home, so I do more reading to the kids. Our main curriculum is totally literature-based (shocking, I know), so I read outloud to them for a couple of hours most days (in addition to their regular nightly reading).

My own personal reading doesn't change too much. I rarely read my own books during the day, although I can sneak in 30 minutes at a music lesson. No matter what the season, my main reading time is at bedtime. The only difference in fall and winter is that I tend to fall asleep earlier and thus forego some of my prime reading time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Book Review: Songs in Ordinary Time

Can I just say that when this book by Mary McGarry Morris was finished, I was so happy?

I know. The burning question is: why did I continue reading this 740 page novel if I didn't really like it? Well, it's like this: During the first 150 pages, I wasn't truly committed to finishing the book. But I read just enough to be intrigued by the characters, and I read just enough that I had to know how everything turned out.

So what's wrong with the book?
* It was confusing. The chapters jump between the minds of about 16 different characters, and I'm not even sure that I'm exaggerating at all.
* It was depressing. Nothing good happens. Really, nothing.
* The characters were, for the most part, unlikeable. All of them, except perhaps the three kids. (But nothing good happens to the three kids; I'm telling you right now.)
* The title is misleading. This is no book of an "ordinary time," and no one is singing a song.

So why did I keep reading?
* Morris is a good writer in that her use of language is excellent. She is descriptive, creating wonderful scenes. Well, not wonderful as in "nice," but wonderful as in memorable. In fact, she's so good at making the story tangible that I felt grimy, sweaty, and desperate while reading the book.
* Although I didn't like any of the characters much, they were compelling enough to, like I said, make me want to find out what happened.
* Because I hate to give up on books. I probably need to see a therapist about that.

My advice: unless you want to be in reading agony or unless you enjoy being mired in depressing lives, skip it.

Weekly Geeks Quote #4

Today's quote for Weekly Geeks Quote Week:

There are books so alive that you're always afraid that
while you weren't reading, the book has gone and changed,
has shifted like a river; while you went on living, it went on living too,
and like a river moved on and moved away.
No one has stepped twice into the same river.
But did anyone ever step twice into the same book?

~ Marina Tsvetaeva, 20th century Russian poet ~

This quote is definitely related to my Day #2 quote. It always amazes me, upon re-reading books, is that what I took away from a book at 20 is so much different than what I glean at 30 and 40. I have determined that I am going to put myself on a strict re-reading schedule. I wonder if there is some kind of re-reading challenge floating around out there? I might be inspired to join.

Quote #3 here.
Weekly Geeks Quote #2 here.
Weekly Geeks Quote #1 here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Review: gods in Alabama

This was exactly the book I needed this week. Don't you love when that happens? I've been stuck in heavy reading lately—some because the subject matter is intense (The Cellist of Sarajevo, A Million Little Pieces)—some because the storyline is cumbersome (Songs in Ordinary Times).

gods in Alabama is Joshilyn Jackson's debut novel, published in 2005. I read Jackson's 2006 Between, Georgia about this time last year and enjoyed it. (Reading my review from last year, I am amused to see that I was also reading that Jackson novel after a very intense read!) Jackson does a fantastic job of capturing the quirkiness of the south without falling into stereotypes. She has a great sense of humor. I think that if Celia Rivenbark (Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank and We're Just Like You, Only Prettier) were to write a novel, her voice would sound very much like Jackson's.

The story here is of Lena/Arlene Fleet, an Alabama girl who fled her tiny hometown for Chicago. For ten years she's avoided returning home to her quirky southern family and the tragedies of her youth, including a murder, but at last her Chicago boyfriend forces her to return home to introduce him to her family or risk losing him.

This is a fast-paced book that weaves between past and present perfectly. This was one of those books that I read through in just a few hours, including a very late night. I am a great fan of southern literature, and I really needed this book, this taste of southerness, high school gone awry, and laugh-outloud moments. I'll definitely keep my eyes out for Jackson's newest book, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: An Interview with Heather of Heather's Books

Today is the day for Blogger Interviews over at My Friend Amy's amazing Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I have about six gillion new book blogs to check out from Amy's week-long extravaganza, and my interview partner, Heather, has one of those blogs! My job is to introduce you to Heather at Heather's Books. Below is my interview via email with Heather, and I loved this part of BBAW! I look forward to reading other interviews at the link above.

What does reading a good book do for you? Is reading an essential part of your life?
Heather: A good book will take me out of my world and transport me into the world created by the author. Reading is very essential to my life.

Do you have to read before going to sleep?
Heather: Every night without fail

How many books are in your TBR pile?
Heather: Oh wow let me think, at least 25

When do you do most of your reading?
Heather: At night during the school year, any time when school isn't in.

What is your favorite place to read?
Heather: The pool or in bed.

How many books would you say you read each year?
Heather: Wow, never really thought about it. This year so far I have read based on challenges that I have done at least 100.

Do you have any reading goals? Do you participate in challenges?
Heather: I didn't used to, but I have at least reading challenges at time going on.

What are the 3 most memorable books from your childhood?
Heather: The Boxcar Children, Anne of Green Gables, it is a toss up between the Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins/High

What books might be in your Top 10 list of favorite books ever?
Heather: The Three Fates by Nora Roberts, Pearl Jinx by Sandra Hill, The Book of Mormon, Acheron by Sherrilyn Kenyon, Dark Celebration by Christine Feehan, Safe Harbor by Christine Feehan, Emma by Jane Austin, Johnny Tremain, The Chesapeake Bay Series by Nora Roberts, The Secret by Julie Garwood

What are the best books you've read this year (but not necessarily published this year).
Heather: I tend to read series and I have read a lot this year so I am going to go by series.
Nalini Singh's Psy/Changling Series
Pearl Jinx by Sandra Hill
NAtural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
To Die for an Drop Dead Gorgeous by Linda Howard
The Royal Pain by Mary Janice Davidson
Dark Lover and Lover Unbound by J.R. Ward
Gena Showalter's Lords of the Underworld series
Kresley Cole's Immortla's Series, Christine Warren's Series
Fangs but no Fangs by Kathy Love
Getting what you want by Kathy Love
Over Hexed by Vickie Lewis Thompson
Safe Harbors, and Turbulant Seas by Christine Feehan...
okay those are some of the best ones from this summer.

What is your favorite genre?
Heather: I tend to stick to Romance books in my personal reading time and I read all genres under that, however if my husband has a really good book that he raves about I will give it a try.

If you have children, what are some of their favorite books?
Heather: The Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan, Harry Potter (of course), anything with dragons, Fablehaven, Captain Underpants ( i have boys), I'm sure there are more but I can't remember them off the top of my head.

Do you read while you eat?
Heather: Of Course

Do you wear reading glasses?
Heather: I wear glasses all the time

Why did you start a book blog? How often do you post?
Heather: I started blogging as a way to keep track of the books that I have read and if I liked them or not. I try to post as soon as I finish a book so that I don't have a large pile of books on the desk to blog about.

What do you like most about the book blogging community?
Heather: The various books and authors that I have discovered and would never have read.

Who are some of your favorite bloggers?
Heather: The ladies over at Book Binge, The Reading Romance Challenge, Cindy Reads Romance, Aunt Rowena sez, The Forgetful Fairy, My Friend Amy, Nalini Singh's Weblog. I have a slew of others that I read however that would take up a ton of space. Almost all of them are on my blog.

If you haven't yet, be sure to check out all the good stuff going on an Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Weekly Geeks Quote #3

"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!"

~Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

My quotes today for the Weekly Geeks Quote Week are inspired by my newest nearly fluent reader. Duncan at seven is reading better every day, and it is such a joy to sit beside him as he progresses and gains confidence in his reading ability. I remember hearing from people that one of the biggest joys of homeschooling came at the moment when you realize "My child can read, and I taught him/her!" I must admit I scoffed at that because I didn't teach my oldest to read, as he went to public school for kindergarten and first grade. (Of course, we had been reading aloud to him since literally the day we brought him home from the hospital.) I didn't feel as if I'd really missed anything. But…I did teach my next two to read at home, and, indeed, I find tremendous joy in knowing that I helped open up new worlds for them by teaching them to read. A bit of patting oneself on the back, to be sure.

And since today he was reading Arnold Lobel's Mouse Soup, I thought I'd include this Lobel quote, too:

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky.
My pile of books
Are a mile high.
How I love them!
How I need them!
I'll have a long beard
By the time I read them.
~ Arnold Lobel ~

Weekly Geeks Quote #2 here.
Weekly Geeks Quote #1 here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Challenge Challenged

At last, this week, I'm nearly caught up with reviews, and I've finished a book that was plaguing me for nearly 2 weeks: Songs in Ordinary Times. I was so happy to finish that book! I picked up The Cellist of Sarajevo as soon as I finished the book above, and I have just a couple of chapters left in that. Sitting in my library bag to read next are a light read, Joshilyn Jackson's Gods in Alabama, and a heavy read, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun.

I need to pay more attention to my challenges, including the Life Books Challenge that I am running here. Only a handful of people have signed up thus far, but I've found lots of books to add to my TBR list from their choices.
* Here's my own list. I've since remembered titles that I should have included, of course!
* Becky at Becky's Book Reviews has a long list here. From her list I am going to add The Girl With the White Flag.
* Jessi at Casual Dread has a list of 10 books. From her list I'm going to add one that I can't believe I've still never read: Like Water for Chocolate.
* Sandy at Falling Like Rain has several I've never heard of, including this one that I'm going to put on my list for World War II reading later this year with my kids.
* Washwords also has a list up, but right now her blog page won't load. I'll have to check that out later!

This is an on-going challenge. Most of the challenge is not in the follow-through reading but in the thinking of your own life books: the books that, in some aspect, define you. I'd love to read some more lists!

I haven't read anything for the New Classics Challenge, although I did try to find The Road at our library, and I've added just a couple of titles to the Books Around the World Challenge. I suspect I may be challenge challenged. What happens is that … I just forget. I am more strongly motivated by my own TBR list than by anything else! Whittling away on that is enough of a challenge.

Weekly Geeks Quote #2

For today's quote for the Weekly Geeks Quote Week, I've picked this one from 18th-century French essayist Joseph Joubert:

"The great objection to new books is that they prevent our reading old ones."

I continually struggle with this pull between old and new. I have shelves and shelves of old favorites—books that I feel nostalgia for even glancing at their spines. Whenever I read a review of one of these books, I think, "I really need to go back and read that again."

But I so rarely do because there are so many new (to me) books. I am simultaneously weighed down and excited by the sheer enormity of books I've not yet read. Each year I make a promise to myself: I will re-read at least a few old books, sandwiched between all the new ones. Last year was a great re-reading year, as I taught American Literature and had to pick which classics to teach. On my list this year: Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men and Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Weekly Geeks Quote #1 here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Weekly Geeks Quote #1

This week's theme at Weekly Geeks is "a quote a day":

You may want to come up with a theme, such as favorite passages from books, author quotes, political quotes, quotes about books or reading, humorous quotes, whatever. Or you may not want a theme at all; maybe you just want to gather up seven assorted quotes that appeal to you. You may want to start each of your posts of the week with a quote, or you may want to give quotes posts of their own in addition to your regular posts. It’s all up to you!


"Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house."

My first quote is from Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century clergyman, abolitionist, and social reformer, and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe. I chose this quote because I've been all about bookshelves the past month or so. We've been rearranging living spaces, adding shelves, and organizing books. We are in the process of moving the majority of our books into one room and having something we've always wanted: a family library. We still have a long way to go, but it is lovely to be in a room lined with one's own books.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #128: Coffee

The strongest smell of my childhood is coffee. Our home was seeped in coffee. My mother's percolator gurgled gently all day. My parents drank endless cups of coffee. Anyone who came over drank coffee. Bridge parties, Welcome Wagon, church friends, Mrs. Natti from next door with her thick smoke and raspy voice. All these cups I smelled perched on the red vinyl-and-metal kitchen chairs or sitting halfway up the staircase.

My parents' skin smelled of coffee. All grown-ups drank coffee. My mother and father each took a splash of milk in theirs. Coffee breath, coffee grounds in the plants for fertilizer, coffee in the thermos for long car trips. My mother spilling coffee on her lap while my father drove, both helpless. What to do but keep driving, stained in coffee.

And then in college, suddenly, I am a Coffee Drinker. The transition to independence happens as quickly as a heavy white cafeteria cup and one pull of the coffee urn's lever. I, too, take only a splash of milk in mine.

Late nights we study with the endless pot of coffee at the local all-night restaurant until we all shake with caffeine and exhaustion. Our breath is bitter, our teeth coated with sludge. Still, we persist.

After college there is coffee on the front porch and coffee after dinner. We buy mugs everywhere we go: Don't Mess with Texas, Cafe Du Monde, Disneyworld. We buy a grinder and beans and pretend to be coffee connoisseurs. We buy handfuls of chocolate-covered espresso beans, revelling in this bit of luxury. At dinners out, we turn our coffee cups right side up. Yes, please, more coffee.

There is graduate school, in which he drinks pot after pot, and now coffee pours from his skin like sweat. I drink my two cups each morning, a splash of milk. And then there is an abrupt stop: I am pregnant. I will eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise. But plagued by headaches, I add back in just one morning cup. Just one, until the baby is born and I am back to two, until the next baby and the next.

Those babies were seeped in the smell of coffee, warm and brown. It is natural that by 14 that the oldest begins claiming his own morning cup, and the middle one surprises us by making the morning pot now and then. Now we say things in the evenings we didn't used to understand: "Is it decaf?" and "No, thank you, or I won't be able to sleep."

But in the mornings we are grateful. Two cups of coffee, a newspaper, a clean smooth table. A smell that is as familiar as the bump on my finger or the curve of his smile, a smell that is my childhood, my coming-of-age, and my children.

( Check out Sunday Scribblings for more coffee thoughts.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Book Review: A Million Little Pieces

As I've said a few times before, I love memoirs. But how should I feel about what is apparently an over-embellished memoir, with some episodes that just plain didn't happen?

Such was my state of mind when I began reading James Frey's controverisal 2003 A Million Little Pieces. I knew going into this that Frey went from Oprah's reading list (and thus, The New York Times Bestseller List) to The Smoking Gun's hit list in a matter of months. Apparently, a whole lot of James Frey's memoir didn't really happen the way he said it did.

But I liked it anyway. OK, this is not really a book you like. This is a hard book to read. Frey's mantra is: "I am an alcoholic, a drug addict, and a criminal." According to Frey, his drinking started at age 7, when he drank the dregs of wine glasses at his parents' parties, and escalated to pretty much constant alcohol and drug use by age 14. When the memoir begins he is 23 and about a day away from death, and on his way to an expensive rehab facility.

This is an ugly book because the subject matter is ugly. Even if Frey made up half the things in the book, he still lived a horrible existence. It is unfortunate that he felt the need to spice up his already hideous life by fabricating certain details; he really didn't have to do that. His writing is powerful, lyrical in its candid simplicity:
I want a drink. I want fifty drinks. I want a bottle of the purest, strongest, most destructive, most poisonous alcohol on Earth. I want fifty bottles of it. I want crack, dirty and yellow and filled with formaldehyde. I want a pile of powder meth, five hundred hits of acid, a garbage bag filled with mushrooms, a tube of glue bigger than a truck, a pool of gas large enough to drown in. I want something anything whatever however as much as I can.

I'm sorry that Frey didn't have the confidence and foresight to be totally honest in his writing. I hope he keeps writing, and I hope he has learned that he has enough talent himself without resorting to tale twisting.

I think I would recommend this book. It is not a pretty book in any form or fashion; in fact, the reader should be prepared for several graphic scenes and endless bad language. You certainly won't feel uplifted and happy after reading the book, but still: the raw emotions in Frey's writing maybe balance out the rest.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Plugging Away and On the List

I've just now finished reading the final 10 of last week's Sunday Salon. I have found it impossible to actually read all the posts in one afternoon anymore, so I've taken to reading 5 or day at various points throughout each weekday. I'm tempted to give up on the Salon because of the sheer number of posts, but I get such good ideas and read such interesting posts that I just can't.

I'm having an extraordinarily slow reading week, as I've been crawling along with Mary McGarry Morris's Songs in Ordinary Times. I probably should have stopped reading it a week ago because I don't particularly like the book, but I'm to the point where I have to find out what happens to the characters. I've invested too much time to quit.

This week I reviewed The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Blah.

Here's what I've added the past few weeks to my TBR list, gleaned mostly from Saloners:

Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway (Reviewed at The Bluestocking Society)
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Reviewed at Big A, Little A)
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo (Reviewed at Bookstack)
The Girls by Lori Lansens (Reviewed on Reading, Writing, and Retirement)
Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife by Irene Spencer (Reviewed at Maw Books)
Who Killed My Daughter by Lois Duncan (Reviewed at Nonfiction Lover)

I've got The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway waiting in my library bag to read as soon as I finish the interminable Songs of Ordinary People.

And that's what's happening this week at SmallWorld Reads! If you'd like to take part in The Sunday Salon, you can sign up here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

I read it, finally.

I was under-whelmed.

I am not sure why this book by Mitch Albom was such a big deal. I liked his Tuesdays with Morrie; it was a beautiful and touching tribute. But this one? It was just okay.

In case you are one of the other twelve people in the world who haven't read the book or seen the made-for-TV movie, the story centers on Eddie: his death, his life, and his first "day" in Heaven. The premise of the story is intriguing: what lives are intertwined with yours in ways you could never imagine? I was ready to be "wowed" by this book, with all the talk about it a few years ago. I thought it was going to be more along the lines of "It's a Wonderful Life": happy and redeeming. But it really wasn't. Unlike Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, Eddie isn't particularly lovable. He isn't revealed as to have profoundly affected anyone's life for the good. He's just a guy who traverses through life.

I read this book between two intense memoirs: The Liar's Club and A Million Little Pieces. I thought it would be uplifting—an encouraging filler. I should have picked something else.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Sunday Salon: August in Books

"Fairest of the months!
Ripe summer's queen
The hey-day of the year
With robes that gleam with sunny sheen
Sweet August doth appear."
- R. Combe Miller

Not only was August a month filled with lazy summer days at our home, but it was also a fabulous month for reading—due largely to a long vacation.

Books read and reviewed in August were:
Atonement (Ian McEwan)
A Death in the Family (James Agee)
Liars' Club, The (Mary Karr)
On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
The River King (Alice Hoffman)
Secret Between Us, The (Barbara Delinsky)
Serpent Handlers, The (Brown and McDonald)
The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall-Smith
Jimmy's Stars by Mary Ann Rodman

Books Read but Not Yet Reviewed
The First Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

Favorite of the Month:
A Death in the Family
(First Runner Up: Atonement)

Least Favorite:
The Secret Between Us

Where I Played
Weekly Geeks: Bookish Photos and Author Photos
The Sunday Salon: Lakes and Snakes and Reading Bliss
Sunday Scribbling: How I Met..., Observations, Ask, and Do I Have To?
And most Saturdays at Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

What Dr. H. Is Doing Right This Minute on His Vacation Day:
Assembling bookshelves (he's a good, good man)