Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: The Amateur Marriage

I have always been a huge fan of Anne Tyler. I remember the moment when I first discovered her, way back in a college lit class. The professor offered a summer reading list, and Dinner at the Homesick Restuarant was one of the choices. I liked the sound of that and made a mental note to read it. A few weeks later I noticed a friend reading that The Accidental Tourist. She asked me, "How do you pronounce this name, Macon--is is 'Ma(k)on' or 'Ma(s)son'?" I almost didn't read the book because of the uncertainty of the name pronunciation. I am strangely affected by words I can't pronounce easily.

Fortunately for me, I read The Accidental Tourist and then proceeded to read all of Tyler's past books and every single one since (except for her newest one, Digging to America. But that's on my TBR list.) The Amateur Marriage was familiar, as all Anne Tyler novels are, because Tyler's novels depict ordinary people living ordinary lives. Tyler's forte is delving into families and the various relationships involved in maintaining and surviving in a family: as an individual, a couple, a parent, a child, etc.

The Amateur Marriage is the story of a doomed marriage. Michael and Pauline slide into marriage almost by mistake, and they never manage to quite get the rhythm of a good marriage. They never quite click, never quite fall madly in love, never give each other exactly what they need. Sounds ordinary enough, maybe even trite, but Tyler is anything but trite. Her language is precise and smooth; her dialog is always perfect. The characters are wonderfully developed because you know people exactly like this.

As I often feel with Tyler novels, I wished for more. While Michael and Pauline are certainly the central characters, I wanted to know more about their children and grandson. I'd love another book or two devoted to these more minor characters. But so far Tyler has resisted taking any of her amazing novels and turning them into a loose series, and, really, I'm glad. She is perfect as she is.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: The Namesake

I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri in her newest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. My review of this stunning collection is here. It took me awhile to finally get to The Namesake (OK, it took me five months) although I had it in my actual TBR stack. Dr. H. got to it before I did and gave it a lukewarm review ("I liked it, but it wasn't fantastic"), so I wasn't in a huge hurry to get to it.

But I'm glad I finally did. The Namesake is Lahiri's first novel, and it doesn't hold a candle to Unaccustomed Earth; however, that collection of short stories was, as indicated in my review linked above, phenomenal. The Namesake dragged a bit and left me feeling sometimes wishing for more. Nonetheless, Lahiri's writing is excellent and her powers of perception amazing.

Gogol Gungali, the son of immigrants Ashoke and Ashima, despises his name. "Gogol" was a name indicative of neither his Bengali heritage nor his American birth. In fact, the name (which carries a story that he never hears until adulthood) was meant to be only temporary, until a better name was chosen, but Gogol goes through life being burdened by a name that hangs like a heavy chain around his neck. He obsesses about his name and eventually changes it.

The novel is essentially one of cultural identity, heritage vs. home, personal identity, and family ties. Big themes, but Lahiri handles them well and, for the most part, in a satisfying way. I think the novel works best in conveying the tremendous struggles in making a life in a new country, leaving behind deeply ingrained traditions and culture, as well as expressing the difficulties of the children of these immigrants.

Next on my list is Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. And although I've read so-so reviews, I'm also going to look for the movie version of The Namesake.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Christmas Books That Make Me Cry

The mark of a good Christmas book, for me, is that it makes me cry. We have a good number of children's books for Christmas, and I try to add a new book each year. We have some of the popular ones like The Polar Express and some silly but sentimental ones like Mercer Mayer's Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, starring Little Critter. Some of the books we give the obligatory seasonal read and then put back on the rack.

But I have my favorites. These are the books that, without fail, make me cry at some point. My voice catches, a child's head pops up and looks at me and says, "Mama! Are you crying again?" I can't help it.

1. The Tale of the Three Trees (retold by Angela Elwell Hunt): This book ties it all together—Jesus' birth, life, and death—in a simple but eloquent story. I get choked up on almost every page.

2. The Story of Holly and Ivy (by Rumer Godden): This one takes us a couple of reading periods to get through, but it is so well worth it. This is the story of an orphan who wants a grandmother, a doll who wants a home, and a woman who wants a family. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

3. The House Without a Christmas Tree (by Gail Rock): I loved this TV special when I was a kid, but I'm not sure I'd ever read the book until a few years ago when I picked it up at a yard sale. Now my daughter and I read this story annually of a girl who begs her father for a Christmas tree, and I always cry at the end.

4. A Wish for Wings That Work (by Berkeley Breathed): Is it weird to get weepy over a book about a penguin named Opus? I can't help it; there's something about Santa saying, "Ho, ho, ho, go!" to a penguin whose wings don't work that brings tears every time. Also, this was one of the books we bought for our oldest for his first Christmas, so it's extra sentimental.

5. The First Night (by B.G. Hennessy): This short book starts off with one of my favorite Bible verses: "And the World became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14) and proceeds to tell the birth of Christ in simple but poetic text. I especially love the rustic look of the paintings, done on butternut wood and shaped with a jigsaw. It's the simplicity of a birth—of a new life—that gets me every time.

And so those are my Top 5 favorite Christmas books. Do you have one that makes you cry? If so, leave a comment and I'll check it out!

* In other news, be sure to check out the Book Review Carnival that is just up at Maw Books. With over 80 book reviews to peruse, you're sure to find a few books to add to your TBR list! The next Book Review Carnival will be in 2 weeks; you can submit your review here.

* To join in The Sunday Salon, click here and start joining in!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Book Review: When the Emperor Was Divine

This is a small, unassuming novel, just short of 150 pages, but it is absolutely exquisite. This is Julie Otsuka's first novel, and I hope there are many, many more to come. Everything about this books is—dare I say it?—perfect.

The story is of a family—a girl, a boy, and a mother—who, like thousands of other Japanese Americans in 1942, must pack up all their possessions and become enemy aliens in a desert internment camp. Their father, a dignified businessman, had already been sent to a different camp for "dangerous" enemies, where his letters are heavily censored.

I have read several novels about the Japanese-American experience during World War II, and this is, without a doubt, the most powerful. (My review of Sandra Dallas's Tallgrass lists several of these books.) Otsuka's prose is stunning. She has a gift of giving the reader an unusual intimacy with each character with the briefest of words. The mother, for example (and this is just one of many short passages that round out the mother):
"It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck beneath the handle of a broomstick. She plucked out the feathers and set the carcass into a pan of cold water in the sink."

Otsuka knows when to give details (the pan of cold water in the sink) and when to leave them out (she didn't give the orange-and-white striped cat named Tippy who was the girl's favorite to the nasty neighbors next door in the white house). As a voracious reader, I admire and appreciate her clean and compact writing style immensely. I don't want to read extra stuff, but I appreciate the art of poetic details that add depth and impact—and texture.
"Always, he would remember the dust. It was soft and white and chalky, like talcum powder. Only the alkaline made your skin burn. It made your nose bleed. It made your eyes sting. It took your voice away. The dust got into your shoes. Your hair. Your pants. Your mouth. Your bed. Your dreams. It seeped under the doors and around the edges of windows and through the cracks in the walls. And all day long, it seemed, his mother was always sweeping. Once in a while she would put down her broom and look at him. 'What I wouldn't give,' she'd say, 'for my Electrolux.'"

A brilliant pairing of their life back in California with their life in the desert. There is so much power in what seems to be a simple passage. This isn't a novel full of plot and action; it is a heartwrenching novel in its lyrical prose and surface-level simplicity. This is a not-so-distant part of America's past that is quietly swept away, with a line or two in history books. If you know nothing of this episode in American history, I strongly urge you to take some time reading this book and others (listed in my Tallgrass review). Also, this book is totally appropriate for high schoolers studying American History.

Other reviews of When the Emperor Was Divine:
Natasha at Maw Books here
Rebecca at Reading Rants and Raves here

(If you've reviewed this book, leave a comment and I'll link to your review!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Book Review: Twilight

I'm in that "last person to read it" category here with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. And now I've read it!

Um, it was a fun read? I can see why teenagers like it?

I guess I'll just have to say that I totally don't get the Twilight phenomenon. I kept thinking that something amazing would happen as I was reading it. Isn't it supposed to be breathtaking and addictive?

I keep thinking that maybe I just need to be 25 years younger to appreciate this story of vampires with ethics and sex appeal, but I have adult friends who also love it.

What am I missing?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Book Review: The Echo Maker

I was drawn to Richard Powers' The Echo Maker not because it was a National Book Award Winner or a Pulitzer Prize finalist but because it is about a man who sustains a traumatic brain injury (TBI). I didn't read the novel for its prose or plot but, truly, to read about fictional character with a TBI.

I found Mark Schluter, the injured man, familiar in many ways. Six years ago my oldest brother sustained a TBI as a result of a bicycle accident. The days that followed were touch-and-go, and then the long process of rehabilitation began. My brother has lived on his own for at least 4 years now and seems remarkably well. Like Mark in the novel, my brother was quirky before the TBI; the injury exaggerated some qualities that were already there.

Powers certainly did his research. Here is something that I wrote on my other blog a couple of years ago about my brother:
"It's hard to describe what James is like now. Someone who doesn't know him well might not notice anything terribly odd. He may just seem a bit clumsy or distracted. You could even get used to him the way he is now. But truthfully, there is a whole person who was lost in the three short seconds it took for him to lurch off his bike and hit his head on the pavement. There was this brilliant, arrogant, selfish, generous, irritating, gentle, sharp-witted man who was my oldest brother--and now there is this brother who is like a broken statue glued back together."

I was startled, and strangely comforted, to read this echoing paragraph in The Echo Maker:
"Mark still limped and contusions still lined his face, but otherwise he seemed almost healed. Two months after the accident, strangers who talked to him might have found him a little slow and inclined toward strange theories, but nothing outside the local norm. … His days were laced with flashes of paranoia, outbursts of pleasure and rage, and increasingly elaborate explanations."

And so I came to this novel with an agenda. I read with a thirst for shared experience and illumination, and for that, the novel was satisfying. A short glance at the amazon.com reviews tells me that this novel is about the search for self, the destruction of an ecosystem coupled with a broken mind, etc. I was, frankly, distracted by myriad subplots. Woven throughout the book is a fight between wildlife preservation and urban development, and also a doctor's midlife crisis and fleeting fame. Powers' writing is beautiful, his prose poetic. The whole story of Mark was interesting enough, I think even to a reader who has no vested interested in brain injuries; however, the subplots were overbearing and tedious. Still I'm glad I read it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Blog Tour: The Raucous Royals, Day 3

On this final day of The Raucous Royals book tour, I'll just whet your appetite with a few more details about the book itself. I mentioned on day one that this books is subtitled: "Test Your Royal Wits: Crack Codes, Solve Mysteries, and Deduce which Royal Rumors are True."

These rumors are ones we've probably all heard:
* King Richard III murdered his nephews
* Queen Anne Boleyn had six fingers
* Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat cake."
* Catherine the Great was crushed to death by her horse
* and nine others.

But are they true or false? You'll have to read the book to find out.

Author and illustrator Carlyn Beccia has a fantastic website. I subscribed immediately. I was thinking that The Raucous Royals would make a great gift paired with some kind of card game, like Authors, that highlights various monarchs. I didn't find such a card game but I did find two other possibilities: Royalty word game and the Sleeping Queens card game. I also found a coloring book of Kings and Queens of England and a Queen Elizabeth paper doll.

If you missed the first two days of this blog tour, you can see them here:
Day 1: Introduction to The Raucous Royals
Day 2: Interview with Carlyn Beccia

And that finishes up this blog tour, brought to you by KidsBookBuzz.com and these bloggers:
01 Charger, the 160acrewoods, A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, Homeschool Buzz, Hyperbole, KidzBookBuzz.com, Looking Glass Reviews, Maw Books Blog, Never Jam Today, Our Big Earth, Quiverfull Family, Reading is My Superpower, SmallWorld Reads, SMS Book Reviews

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Blog Tour: The Raucous Royals, Day 2

I posted yesterday on the first day of The Raucous Royals book blog tour about how much we loved this book at our house—especially my 11-year-old who isn't a big history buff. Today I am excited to be able to present an interview with Carlyn Beccia, author and illustrator of this wonderful book. Isn't she adorable? I'm quite sure I'd love to have coffee with her; perhaps she'll be doing a book-signing out my way sometime! And then maybe we could go get a pigeon-blood facial together...

Read on to learn a bit more about Ms. Beccia and The Raucous Royals:

SmallWorld Reads: Thanks for taking time to do this interview. I have to tell you that your book The Raucous Royals is a huge hit in our house, especially with my 11-year-old daughter. She really likes to know about authors, and she has helped me to compose these interview questions. But before we start, could you tell us a little bit about yourself-maybe some tidbit that isn't included on the book jacket of The Raucous Royals?

Carlyn Beccia: I have a daughter too. She is now 1 years old and is already exhibiting her royal stature in our household. I went into labor with her on November 16th…I had JUST finished the book. My doctor thought I was a bit nutty when I told her that the baby had to wait until November 17th to be born because that was the day that Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England. So you could say that I get a little too excited about the royals sometimes.

SWR: Could you tell us a little about what inspired you to write this book?

CB: Sure. I hated history as a kid. I know everyone says that but I REALLY hated history. I once got my 5th grade history teacher so mad that she told me, “I was going to hell in a handbasket.” I asked her – “what is a handbasket? And why would someone go to hell in one?” I was honestly curious.

She sent me to the principal for being fresh.

It was not until after college that I realized handbaskets collected the heads of the guillotined royals during the French Revolution. I thought…if only my teacher had told me this juicy tidbit of history, instead of cursing me out, then she might have got me to listen to her lecture on the French Revolution. Instead, all I remembered were the rumors: Marie Antoinette said let them eat cake. Napoleon was short. Anne Boleyn had six fingers. Catherine the Great had a thing for horses. I completely missed the real people behind the rumors. All those court intrigues, love scandals, murders and follies committed – those are the stories that I wanted to tell in The Raucous Royals. Too many text books leave the juicy details out. Readers need to learn about the blood-stained handbaskets too. I believe that history’s less heroic moments can be taught in a responsible way.

SWR: You are quoted as saying on the book jacket that one "discovery led to another rumor, and then another." Were there other rumors you discovered along the way that you did not include in this book?

CB: Yes, so many royals did not make the cut. I continue to debunk rumors and myth on the blog.

I am featuring Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, this month. Catherine was believed to have a talent for poisoning people. It was rumored that she had a cabinet full of poisoned rouge, poisoned apples and poisoned gloves that hurried many enemies to a painful death. It is true that Catherine had some strange things in her cabinet. She was big advocate of using pigeon blood to improve her complexion and she kept a vile of goat’s blood and the metals from her alchemy charts handy, but she didn’t have any poisons.

She also hung out with some dubious soothsayers, seers and astrologers. She was friends with Nostradamus whose quatrains supposedly predicted the death of her husband, Henri II. She also employed the Ruggieri Brothers who were known for their expertise in the Black Arts.

In one legend, Cosimo de Ruggieri brought Catherine before an enchanted mirror in a magic chamber of the Chateau of Chaumont. He told Catherine that the number of times her sons’ faces circled the mirror would foretell the length of their rule. Her oldest son, Francis II, circled the mirror one time. Next, Charles IX’s face appeared and his face circled 14 times. He was followed by Catherine’s favorite son, Henri III, whose face circled 15 turns. But then Catherine’s sons disappeared from the mirror and Henri Prince of Navarre suddenly appeared. He was son of Antoine de Bourbon (a Bourbon prince and of a different family). His face circled the mirror 22 times. All of this came true. The Valois line (Catherine’s family) died out with Henri III and they each reigned for the number of times predicted in the magic mirror.

This tale makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up! Who couldn’t resist repeating it? Forget Snow White. Meet the real evil step-mother… We can imagine how these stories of Catherine as a sorceress earned her the reputation as the “The Black Queen.” We have to remember that predicting a king’s death was treason in the 16th century.

SWR: I think the debunking that most surprised me was that Louis XIV really did bathe regularly! I remember reading a history book to my children just two years ago that he only bathed a few times in his life! Why do we get so mixed up? Why do these myths continue, in spite of evidence to the contrary? Do we as humans just thrive on exaggeration and aberration?

CB: That’s a really good point. I wanted this rumor to be true! It certainly makes for a better story. I think it is human nature to only repeat the shocking stuff.

SWR: Which rumor that turned out to be false surprised you the most?

CB: I was convinced that Richard III killed his nephews and no one was going to tell me any differently. He was guilty and that was it. But as I dug deeper and deeper, I found there was simply not enough evidence to convict him. Readers will have to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusions, but I personally think he was innocent.

SWR: How did you do your research for the book? How long did it take you to write the book?

CB: I started researching The Raucous Royals in 2005. It took about 2 1⁄2 years to research, write and illustrate.

SWR: You say on page 14 that "a rumor usually starts small and grows." I found it very appropriate for this age group (or for any age group, really!) to see how damaging to a person's reputation that a bit of exaggeration can be. Did you intend for your book, in any way, to be a cautionary tale?

CB: Yes, but I hate heavy-handed lessons. I do hope that the message is subtle. Rumors obviously spread much more quickly today. And I see students relying way too much on the Internet to do their research. That’s why I made sure to include some tips on how to research a rumor in the back of the book.

SWR: My daughter and I were wondering if you have thought about writing a similar book about United States presidents and/or leaders. Have you come across any good fodder for such a book?

CB: I have thought about it. There are certainly tons of examples of Presidents behaving less than presidential, but you won’t see me writing a book pointing out Lincoln’s flaws. There is something about presidential follies and scandals that does not sit well with me…especially in our celebrity focused culture. We need our heroes. We already don’t have enough of them. I am the type of person that gets teary eyes when I hear the National anthem! My dad was a big army guy and he really instilled a sense of pride in all things American. I know that is grossly hypocritical to say it is ok to poke fun at royals, and not our presidents, but I guess I am a typical conceited American in that respect. So although I would love to see that kind of book out there and would endorse it 100%, I am not the right person to write it. My writing style is too sarcastic for the subject to come off in a respectful manner.

What I would like to do is take the supposed worst presidents in history and give them a positive make-over. I am reading a fascinating book right now, called An American Lion about Andrew Jackson. I always had a low opinion of Jackson due to how he dealt with the Cherokees. But again, the truth is more complicated.

SWR: How much time do you spend daily working on writing projects? What can we look forward to next?

CB: I spend more time researching then writing. The writing is actually pretty quick.

My next book is called, I Feel Better with a Frog in my Throat (title pending) and will be released in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin. The book features the most bizarre and grossest cures doctors have used throughout history - leeches, maggots, ground up mummies, unicorn horns and occasional frog slime. I am presently practicing painting blood stains on aged paper. Fun stuff!

I appreciated Carlyn's great interview, and I can hardly wait to read her next book! I can already say for sure that my youngest son will devour it!

Stay tuned tomorrow for a final wrap-up of The Raucous Royals, and check out more interviews at other stops on
the tour!
01 Charger, the 160acrewoods, A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, Homeschool Buzz, Hyperbole, KidzBookBuzz.com, Looking Glass Reviews, Maw Books Blog, Never Jam Today, Our Big Earth, Quiverfull Family, Reading is My Superpower, SmallWorld Reads, SMS Book Reviews

Monday, December 1, 2008

Book Blog Tour: The Raucous Royals

When The Raucous Royals arrived in the mail, it was immediately intercepted by my 11-year-old daughter, and I didn't even get a chance to flip through the pages until the next day. Subtitled Test Your Royal Wits: Crack Codes, Solve Mysteries, and Deduce which Royal Rumors are True, this book for middle readers by Carlyn Beccia enthralled my daughter.

I should mention that my daughter doesn't particularly enjoy history in general, but Beccia has hit upon the perfect antidote for kids who tend to turn up their noses at history books: weird and disturbing rumors about famous people.

These famous people all happen to be royalty with hundreds of years of rumors following them. Who hasn't heard that Napoleon was short or that King Louis XIV only bathed three times in his life? We are told—or read— these things at some point in our lives and assume they are true. Who would make up such things?

Beccia serves up a dose of reality in this book. She lays out the rumor, presents the facts, and then encourages the reader to draw his/her own conclusions based on the evidence. Her illustrations are fabulous and her text funny and very readable. There is nothing dry about this history book.

I've got more to say about The Raucous Royals, including an interview with Carlyn Beccia, coming up tomorrow. Until then, you may want to check out some of the other stops at the tour!
01 Charger, the 160acrewoods, A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Cafe of Dreams, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, The Friendly Book Nook, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, Homeschool Buzz, Hyperbole, KidzBookBuzz.com, Looking Glass Reviews, Maw Books Blog, Never Jam Today, Our Big Earth, Quiverfull Family, Reading is My Superpower, SmallWorld Reads, SMS Book Reviews