Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book Review: Sarah's Key

Although it began with an abandoned book and then one I barely made it through, January has ended up being a phenomenal book month. First there was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, then The Other Side of the Bridge, and now Titiana de Rosnay's wonderful Sarah's Key. How can the next 11 months compete?

Sarah's Key tells the story of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, as she does research for an article about the virtually unknown 1942 round-up (called the "Vel d'Hiv incident") of French Jews by the French authorities. Jarmond is horrified to discover that these 13,000 men, women, and children were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz. During her research she finds that her in-laws have a link to one of the Jewish families, and her investigation reveals a terrible discovery.

Alternating chapters with Julia's modern-day story is the story of Sarah Strazynski, a 10-year-old Jewish girl in 1942. Sarah attends school, wears pretty clothes, and takes piano lessons as most of her French friends do and hasn't the slightest idea why she must wear the yellow star upon her clothing—and why that makes her different. One summer day her world is shattered when her family is torn apart by the Vel d'Hiv. Sarah's courage and resourcefulness save her for awhile.

Ultimately the two stories intersect and become one. de Rosnay is a wonderful writer. Her characters are crafted well and she envokes compassion without ever being sentimental. After reading this I'm curious as to find out more about Vel d'Hiv and also to find more books by de Rosnay.

Other Reviews of Sarah's Key:
Gautami at the Reading Room here
She Is Too Fond of Books here
Caribous Mom here
A Reader's Respite here

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: A Short Guide to a Happy Life

Anna Quindlen's little book is, indeed, short. I read it in about 15 minutes. It's a sweet book that probably started as a blog post and morphed into a tiny, happy book with photos. This is good, practical advice to find treasures in every day life. Like this:
I think of [my life] in all its small component parts: the snowdrops, the daffodils; the feeling of one of my kids sitting close beside me on the couch; the way my husband looks when he reads with the lamp behind him; fettuccine Alfredo; fudge; Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice. Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement.
I can totally relate to that. In fact, I try to do this once or twice a week (on my other blog) in a very tangible way by participating in Three Beautiful Things. I should do this everyday because I could certainly find a plethora of beautiful things in my daily life. Read this book when you need to be reminded of what really constitutes a life well lived, or buy it to give with a graduation or wedding present.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book Review: All Good Gifts

I've had this book by Kathleen Morgan on my TBR list for at least two, maybe three, years. I have no idea where the recommendation came from—somewhere in the book-blogging world. And it was just a fluffy, easy-to-read, happy-ending little book. I'd say actually that this falls under the "inspirational romance" category, and I do say that while blushing. I didn't know.

It's an old story. Farm girl turns into the big-city career woman. Father dies; she comes back to settle his estate and ends up falling in love with the ranch hand. Sometimes, though, old stories can be done brilliantly, like good brother vs. bad brother in Mary Lawson's The Other Side of the Bridge. But in Morgan's novel, the characters are predictable and the writing, well, not exactly inspirational. Bulging muscles, angular jaw lines, playful banter, and lots of being sheepish.

But this is exactly the kind of book to which I was referring in my review of The Other Side of the Bridge; it's the kind of book you want to sandwich between two outstanding books so you can have a breather between greatness.

If you need something very light and syrupy, this is a perfect choice. Otherwise, skip it!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sunday Scribblings #147: Phantoms and Shadows

It's been quite some time since I've taken part in Sunday Scribblings, but this week's theme—Phantoms & Shadows—is one of my favorites. Below is a poem that came to me after a vivid dream one night in which my dead high school boyfriend appeared, chilling me and breaking my heart all over again.



I kneel to you
in absolution: Forgive me, lover,
for I have sinned. It has been three days
since I last thought of you, over two months
since I spoke

your name out loud. I brought you
these flowers from my mother’s garden:
lavender, statice, Michaelmas daisies.
She still can’t remember

your name; I have stopped
reminding her. You used to come to me
in dreams; once, floating
outside a second-story window,
you beckoned. I stepped back,
then awoke, nervous and guilty.

For nine years
now I’ve carried the burden
of you like a secret child; I have not spoken
often enough of what it was to know
you. I can’t remember

your birthday—is it the third or the fifth? By now
your hair would be thinning and your mustache
thick. Your twin brother is heavy and dull;
You will never face his fate. He is like some cruel
computer-aged representation. It’s only his voice

that throws me, raspy and cracked,
like yours. And his lips.
I have had impure thoughts.

This is what your mother said to me,
here in this spot, as she handed me your casket’s
blue ribbon: you were the love of his life.
Have mercy on me,
I have never visited her, but the ribbon fit
nicely in the depths

of my wedding bouquet. Seven years now
I have been married to a man you
never knew, two children who look like

him. I must have forgotten
how, in the pain of afterdeath, I swore
I would name my son for you.

It’s all coming back to me now.
Your crooked teeth and bony knees.

~Sarah Cummins Small, copyright 1999

For more scribblings, go here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: The Other Side of the Bridge

I read Mary Lawson's Crow Lake two years ago (very short review here) and was mesmerized. I've had The Other Side of the Bridge on TBR list since then. As much as I loved Crow Lake (a lot), I am happy to say that Lawson's second novel is even better. I read this immediately after The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a wildly popular book right now (my review here). I wish I had read one not-so-good book between the two, because The Other Side of the Bridge was so outstanding that it did somewhat diminish my appreciation of Guernsey.

This novel tells the stories of brothers Jake and Arthur Dunn beginning in the 1930s, alternating with the story of teenager Ian Christopherson 20 years later. They all live in an isolated town in northern Canada, where some souls thrive and some shrivel up and must escape. Jake and Arthur are brothers with a Cain-and-Abel relationship. Lawson handles this familiar theme beautifully. Jake and Arthur are so fully portrayed that I could see them, and that is not always easy for me as a reader. Alternating chapters tell Ian's story, which intersects with the adult Arthur and his family. Ian is the son of the town's doctor and destined to become the third Dr. Christopherson.

Sometimes I finish the last few chapters of a book and feel as if the author was just tired of writing and wrapped things up too neatly, or not enough. One of the things that Lawson does so well is to tell these two stories, bring them together, provide closure, and never give the reader a sense of hurrying the story along. She is a stunning writer.

If you enjoyed the popular Crow Lake, you will love The Other Side of the Bridge. If you haven't read either, you are in for a couple of fantastic novels.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This book (with the very long title) by aunt/niece team Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows has been getting rave reviews throughout the book blogging community—and this is one bandwagon I'm jumping on. And don't let the title throw you; it sounds like one of those silly fluff books, but it really isn't.

The book is written as a series of letters, which was exactly the right choice to unfold this wonderful story of a writer searching for a subject, a war-ravaged island, and its inhabitants. It's London in 1946, just after World War II, and author Juliet Ashton begins corresponding with the residents of Guernsey. She is amazed to discover that the islanders spent the war under German occupation and had no contact with the outside world. During this time the Guernsey Literary Society was accidentally formed, and Juliet seeks out their stories through a series of letters. Eventually she visits the island, and the story continues there.

While it is true that much of the novel is predictable and wraps up so very nicely, I really didn't care. The writing is wonderful, the characters rich and distinctive, and Juliet's voice is fabulous. I knew absolutely nothing about the German occupation of Guernsey during WWII; in fact, I knew nothing about Guernsey at all prior to reading this book. I think an excellent sign of historical fiction, however light it is (and this book does have some tragic moments), is that it makes the reader want to explore the topic at a deeper level. And, of course, I think all readers want to travel to Guernsey upon finishing the book!

After having two book flops to start off the year, I was thrilled to find this book at our library. While it is early in the year, I imagine that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will end up on my Top 10 list for 2009.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Library Loot

There's a fun new weekly going on over at The Striped Armchair called "Library Loot." The idea is to post your library haul each week (or each time you visit). I don't necessarily go to the library every week; I'm more of a biweekly library patron. But we did go yesterday, and here is what we checked out:
My America, Corey's Underground Railroad Diary: Freedom's Wings; Message in the Sky; and Flying Free
Meet Addy and Addy Learns a Lesson
Alec's Primer by Mildred Pitts Walter
The Wagon by Tony Johnston
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson
Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson

We are finishing up our slavery unit next week. We've already read Uncle Tom's Cabin (an abridged version), Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman, and If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad, so I wanted to finish off with some picture books. Oh, we also went to the library's winter book sale while we were there, and I found Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom, so we'll read that this week, too.

I didn't get any books for myself because I already have three checked out. I've read two but haven't yet reviewed them here. Both were fantastic: Mary Lawson's The Other Side of the Bridge (stunning) and the much-praised Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (excellent). I'm currently reading Kate Morton's All Good Gifts, which is rather sappy.

And that's our week at our library! Visit other library finds, or participate yourself, at this week's Library Loot.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review: Kitchen Confidential

Subtitled "Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," this book by chef Anthony Bourdain has been sitting on my TBR shelf for close to a year. Maybe even more. After discarding my first book of 2009 because it was so tedious, I decided to delve into one that came highly recommended by both my husband and our friend Dad2Three. Also, the cover promises that it's "unique…mesmerizing."

Sorry, boys. Bourdain's tales of his life as a chef pretty much did nothing for me. It's hard to like a memoir when the author's voice is so unlikeable. I didn't like Bourdain's writing style and I don't really care about how rich people eat. I think I could write a much more interesting book about working at Shoney's.

And that's all I have to say.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: The Secret to True Happiness

Cheesy title, I know. I would probably never read a book with this title except that I received this signed copy to review—and I always read review copies. But hopefully the title of Joyce Meyer's newest book will attract readers less persnickety than I, because it is well worth it.

I do not usually read books "like this." I don't read self-help and I rarely read "Christian living" books, unless I'm reading specifically for a Bible study. I so dislike books fluffy best-sellers like The Prayer of Jabez and Don't Sweat the Small Stuff that I have built up an aversion to the genre in general. I've heard great things about Joyce Meyers for years now, but this is my first encounter with her—and I applaud her.

Her approach is straightforward. If you want true happiness, stop whining and start enjoying. Stop comparing yourself to other people, stop being self-focused, stop being so dramatic, and start enjoying your everyday life. The root of unhappiness, she says, is self-centeredness.
When we are self-centered, we expect people around us to exist for our benefit. We think they should work to keep us happy, do what we want, and put us first. And by all means, they should never do anything to irritate us, frustrate us, or inconvenience us. … The overwhelming majority of the unhappiness, upset, and frustration we feel comes from not having things we want or from having to deal with situations we don't want. When our personal desires are not being met, we fall into discontent—and this is selfish.

This isn't an earth-shattering book. There aren't any magic tricks; it's just good, common sense laid out in a practical way with suggestions for getting over yourself and choosing, each day, to be happy.

I'd love to give this book away to someone. It's even signed by Joyce Meyer. ;-) If you would like a chance at winning this book, just leave me a comment and tell me something happy in your life.

**Addendum: Congrats to 1incollege1indiapers for winning this book! Hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Book Review: Sonshine Girls #1: Summer Secret

My daughter and I were excited to receive a review copy of the first in this series by Rene Morris. At eleven, my daughter is the perfect audience for this book, and she absolutely devoured it. The book centers on four 13 year-old girls who face typical struggles: friendship, bullies, a yearning for independence, learning self-sufficiency, facing identity and self-image issues, etc. But I love this book because it is totally clean and appropriate for my daughter. I don't want books that focus on drugs, sex, and crime among young teens; she'll get plenty of that later (much later). Right now the Sonshine Girls series, which has a strong Christian theme, is a perfect fit.

My daughter and I always have one read-aloud together book going in the evenings, but she couldn't resist stealing this one away to bed with her and reading it on her own. She had to fill me in on the details later. She is waiting patiently for the next books in the series to be published! If you know a girl who enjoys Anne of Green Gables, the Little House series, the Mandi series and the Christy books, she will love the Sonshine Girls!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Review of 2008

* I've listed all the books I've read here (adult books, anyway, and just a few children's books) at my 2008: A Year of Reading post. I read a total of 59 books (not including umpteen read-alouds to the kids). That's 10 fewer than I read in 2007. I think that is due to a few different occasions during which I forced myself to waste 3 weeks struggling through books that, in the end, I should never have started. These books were: Songs in Ordinary Time, The Way the Crow Flies, and The World Before Her. I don't recommend any of them. I also spent a few weeks on Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow . This, however, is well worth reading. It didn't make my Top 10 list because, frankly, the novel exhausted me. Read the review to find out why.

* I forgot to mention in the post linked above that I also read through the whole Bible this year. I haven't done that in many years, and I found it a wonderful experience. This time I used a different translation than the standard NIV (New Living), and that was fantastic. I am planning to read through again this year, following a chronological approach.

* I will not get sucked into tedious books this year. I've already discarded the first book that I began this year, Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love. After reading it for three nights and having no idea what was going on, I made the executive decision to toss it. If you've read this and can give me a compelling reason why I should continue, please do!

* I've started Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential instead as my first book of the year. It's been sitting on my bedside table for months and has finally gotten its chance.

* My TBR list has 170 books on it, including about seven I've added already this year. I'm enjoying reading (and adding from) bloggers' "Best of" lists on Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books. I read 27 books off my TBR list in this past year.

* I joined The Sunday Salon in January of 2008 with North Dakota and a Witch and have participated 29 times this year. My favorite TSS posts were: Reading with Children Part 1, Reading with Children Part 2, In the Mountains, and Lists and Pondering the Classics. I used to read each TSS post faithfully, but since the participant level has grown to over 200, I'm now skimming. Still, I enjoy this place of book talk tremendously. There is great comfort in the company of readers.

* In May I began participating sporadically in Sunday Scribbling. I wish I were more dedicated to this one, but unfortunately I find myself often stumped. My favorites: Curves, Nights, Guide, My Oldest Friend, Ghosts, Solace, Coffee, and Weddings. I need to do this on a more regular basis.

* I used to be fairly regular in Booking Through Thursday, although I have completely slacked off on this meme in the past couple of months. Flavor and Vocabulary are a couple of ones I like a lot, looking back at them.

* I've been a part in three tours at the Children's Book Blog Tour: Jimmy's Stars, This Is the Feast (Diane Shore), and The Raucous Royals. These were all superb books which I was honored to review.

* I try to post each week at Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books, and lately I've been part of the biweekly Book Review Blog Carnival.

This all keeps me reading and thinking about reading, and doing a little writing. I also keep a daily blog that focuses mainly on family life. This is my own little separate reading world here. Coming up in 2009? I probably won't enter any challenges besides the couple that I participate in half-heartedly now. I find that I am burdened by challenges, and so, as tempting as they are, I shall resist. My only goal, really, is to tackle that TBR list and relish books.

Friday, January 2, 2009

2008: A Year of Reading

2008 hasn't been a spectacular year of reading like 2007 was, but it was full of a number of excellent books, a few really bad ones, and lots in the middle. Click the titles for my reviews.

The Top 10
Broken for You (Stephanie Kallos)
Cellist of Sarajevo, The (Steven Galloway)
Death in the Family, A (James Agee)
Half of a Yellow Sun (Adichie)
I Have Lived a Thousand Years (Livia Bitton-Jackson)
Sky Isn't Visible From Here, The (Felicia Sullivan)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)
When the Emperor Was Divine (Julie Otsuka)
Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)

To Kill a Mockingbird and A Death in the Family are definitely the top books for the year, but I like to pick contemporary books, too (plus, I'd read To Kill a Mockingbird many times already). I'd have to say that, after those two: Year of Wonders and Half of a Yellow Sun were the best. Some observations about the Top 10: we have lots of war and death going on this year with Sarajevo, Biafra, WW2 (Japanese internment camp and the Holocaust), and the plague. In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird is the only really uplifting novel on the list. I'm not sure what that says about me, but there it is!

The Next 10
Atonement (Ian McEwan)
A Town Like Alice (Neville Shute)
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)
gods in Alabama (Joshilyn Jackson)
Horizontal World, The (Deb Marquart)
House at Riverton (Kate Morton)
Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
Peony in Love (Lisa See)
Winter Wheat (Mildred Walker)

Bottom of the Barrel
Appeal, The (John Grisham)
Blue Ridge (T.R. Pearson)
Five People You Meet in Heaven, The (Mitch Albom)
Secret Between Us, The (Barbara Delinsky)
Shattered Dreams (Irene Spencer)
Songs in Ordinary Time (Mary McGarry Morris)
Way the Crow Flies (Ann-Marie MacDonald)
World Before Her, The (Deborah Weisgall)

And The Whole List Itself (59 total fiction & nonfiction)


A Million Little Pieces (James Frey)
Beginning, a Muddle, and an End (Avi)
Five Love Language of Teenagers (Gary Chapman)
Horizontal World, The (Deb Marquart)
I Have Lived a Thousand Years (Livia Bitton-Jackson)
Liars' Club, The (Mary Karr)
Serpent Handlers, The (Brown and McDonald)
Shattered Dreams (Irene Spencer)
Sky Isn't Visible From Here, The (Felicia Sullivan)
Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank (Celia Rivenbark)
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (Philip Gourevitch)

And let's not forget…
Children's Book Reviews