Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Sunday Salon: November in Review

It's not been a fabulous reading month. I had to take at least 2 books back to the library, overdue, that I really wanted to read. I spent too much time on books that were only so-so or that I gave up on. I'm hoping for better things for December!

Read and Reviewed
Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes (YA): Review here
Chocolat by Joanne Harris: Review here
Children of the River by Linda Crew (YA): Review here
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie : Review here

Books Read but not yet reviewed:
Maus 1: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman

Books I Gave Up On
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: I enjoyed the first 50 pages or so, but ultimately I tired of it.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: I lasted about 5 pages. I was annoyed that someone who knew nothing about hiking could go out and buy all the equipment he could possibly want and need. I know so many people for whom hiking the Appalachian Trail is a lifetime dream; Bryson's "Hey, I think I'll hike the AT" seemed like a luxury pursuit to me. Anyway, John Krakauer is just soooo much better of this kind of writer.

Now Reading
Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Where I Played
Weekly Geeks: Top 10 Books Published in 2009
Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

Reading Related
Christmas Books That Make Me Cry

Exciting News
Anita Diamant commented on my blog!

And that's it for November. I'm looking forward to fabulous reading in December!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Weekly Geeks: Top Ten Published in 2009

The most recent Weekly Geeks challenge is to come up with a Top 10 of 2009 list. These have to be books actually published—not just read—in 2009. My choices were limited, as apparently I've only read six books published thus far in 2009. However, I will say that the first 3 will almost definitely make it to my own Top 10 books read in this year. (I only included four of the six 2009 books I read because the other two should absolutely not make anyone's lists of Top 10 books.)

1. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (my review here): This fantastic novel that stretches across several years and continents will most likely be my #1 book of the year.

2. Day After Night by Anita Diamant (my review here): Historical, World War 2 fiction.

3. Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dalls (my review here): Sweet, uplifting book but packed with interesting details about life in Colorado in the early 1900s.

4. The Outcast by Sadie Jones (my review here): Well-written debut novel, mostly post WW2.

This list will likely have at least a couple of additions before the year ends. I just started reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna last night, and I am anxiously awaiting my copy of John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River. Two of my favorite authors showing up at the end of the year: wow!

For more Top 10 Published in 2009 lists, check out Weekly Geeks.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Book Review: Road to Paris (YA)

While searching for books for our next Literature Circle class, I found this one by Nikki Grimes on the Coretta Scott King Book Awards list. Paris and her brother, Malcolm, have been in one foster home after another for most of their lives. When they are unexpectedly split up and sent to different homes, Paris is devastated. But while she aches for her brother, Paris finds comfort in her new foster home, in spite of the racism in the nearly all-white neighborhood.

Books about foster care can be risky for young readers. As readers, we expect "abuse" to be paired with "foster care," although this is an unfortunate reaction on our part. I'm sure we all understand that there are a multitude of excellent, nurturing foster families who strive to make a good home for kids; however, literature's portrayal (particularly in the memoir genre) of foster care is often harsh and cruel.

So, I was a bit skeptical that a book about a girl's escape from an abusive foster home would be acceptable (G-rated) reading material for 5th-8th graders. In The Road to Paris, however, Nikki Grimes manages to deal with a whole lot of hard issues in a quiet, matter-of-fact way. Yes, Paris's mother is an alcoholic who chooses men over her children, and the grandmother isn't a kindly old lady who will do anything for her grandkids; but neither are demonized. Grimes doesn't dwell on the abusive foster home from which Paris and Malcolm flee. Instead, she focuses on Paris's new life and her struggle to figure out where she, as a foster child and a biracial girl, really belongs.

Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Review: Chocolat

I have been meaning to read this book by Joanne Harris for, oh, 10 years, and at long last I picked it up at the library. I was prepared to be wowed. I was, instead, woefully underwowed.

So the story, for the other dozen people out there who haven't read this NY Times bestseller or watched the movie, centers on a sleepy town in France that comes awake when Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk come to town and open up a store that specializes in all kinds of chocolate delicacies. The conflict overriding the story is between Vianne, who is somewhat of a psychic, and Reynaud, the town's priest.

As I said, I really wanted to like this book. But ultimately, it fell flat for me. The characters seemed like ones I've seen in other books dozens of times: the kind old rebellious woman and her busybody, rich daughter. The stuttering boy and his overprotective mother. The priest with the secret past. The important man in town who beats his wife. The gypsies, who aren't really thieves but who are persecuted by the townspeople nonetheless.

Harris's writing is nice, although often a bit too flowery for my taste. I understand that the writing reflects the richness of the chocolate, but it was a little much for me at times. I began to crave Hemingway-esque simplicity.

And, strangely, I never craved chocolate throughout the whole book.

I am going to watch the movie. I have a feeling this might be one of the very few times I like the movie more than the book.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review: Children of the River (YA)

In trying to decide which book to read next for the high school World Lit/World Geography class I teach, I picked up Children of the River by Linda Crew. Recommended for grades 7 and up, the book tells the story of Sundara, a Cambodian refugee who fled the Khmer Rouge at age 13. She and her aunt, uncle, and cousins settle in Oregon; she doesn't know the fate of her parents and siblings.

The rest of the novel takes place four years later, as Sundara faces the challenges of being a proper Cambodian girl at home while falling in love with an American boy in high school. Besides feeling conflicted about her role, she constantly wonders the fate of her family back in Cambodia, fearing that they, like millions of others, have been slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge.

I really liked this book. It was well written, engaging, and honest and presented insight into the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. So, I gave it to my 16-year-old son to read to get his opinion. He called it "cheesy," "corny," and "unreadable." He did not, in fact, finish the book. I had a feeling he would say that. All the good qualities in the book—and there are many—cannot save it from being a young adult romance novel with little appeal to young men.

But for YA female readers: yes! Don't miss this one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Book Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Imagine, book lovers, a world in which all of your books were destroyed. In this novel by Dai Sijie, set during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, two young men—sons of intellectuals— are sent to a remote village in the countryside for "re-education." They are forced to become hardworking peasants, carrying buckets of excrement and working in the mines.

Their only solace is 19-year-old Luo's gift for storytelling, which captivates the villagers. Soon the boys are given the special privilege of viewing movies and then re-enacting the stories for the villagers. On one of these trips they meet a friend from the city and discover that he has a hidden treasure: a bag of forbidden Western books.

The young men manage to get their hands on one book by Balzac and devour it, repeating the story over and over again to the villagers and to their newfound friend, the daughter of the tailor. Luo soon falls in love with the seamstress—who falls in love with his stories—, and the trio set about to steal the rest of the banned books.

They read them over and over again until they can tell the stories by heart, and they continue to captivate the village with their storytelling, without revealing the source of the stories. This stash of literature sustains the young men as they endure their re-education and has a surprising effect on the villagers.

This is a quick and highly enjoyable read and reminded me to be thankful for the shelves and shelves of books in my home!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Sunday Salon: October in Review

Books Read and Reviewed
Dancing Under the Red Star (loved it)
Cowboy and Wills (give-away--leave a comment if you're interested!)
Day After Night by Anita Diamant (loved it!)
Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian (fantastic!)
The Outcast by Sadie Jones (pretty good)
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst (pretty good)
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (fantastic)

Not Yet Reviewed
Children of the River by Linda Crew (YA--story of a Cambodian refugee in America)
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (loved it)

Currently Reading
Maus 1: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman (wow!)

Up Next
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian

And Just a Little Writing…
Sunday Scribblings: First Kiss

How was your reading month?