Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: South of Broad

I'm squeezing in one last review of 2010 in between New Year's Eve appetizer courses. I had the luxury of reading for several uninterrupted hours the past couple of days and managed to finish one last book: Pat Conroy's South of Broad.

First of all, I should say that Conroy is a master storyteller. I'm just not sure that I liked this story. I was mesmerized by the first few sections, but it took so many bizarre twists and turns that I'm still kind of recovering.

The main action takes place in Charleston, SC, with a cast of eclectic friends including Toad, the narrator (who is the son of a Catholic nun), a pair of orphans, theatrical twins, two black teens in a sea of white, and a few Charleston high-society types.

Conroy spans about 30 years, covering everything from suicide to integration to socioeconomic prejudice to AIDs to child abuse to insanity and just about everything in between. And there's lots of graphic sex of all kinds (including rape and incest), blood, gore, and plenty of tragedy. I'm exhausted just thinking about the roller coaster I've been on with Toad and his friends the past few days. It was all just too much. Just one of the storylines could have made a great novel, but so many dramas mixed into one novel just makes chaos.

One question that kept rising to the surface as I read through the chapters was this: Does anyone really live like this? Is this actually reflective a real person's life? I just can't buy it.

Yesterday when I was about 1/8th of the way through the novel, I told my husband I loved it. Tonight, upon finishing, I say, "Good riddance."

Other Reviews of South of Broad
The Literate Housewife
Medieval Bookworm
Jen's Book Thoughts
Alison's Book Marks

Book Review: Tell Me About Orchard Hollow

I had absolutely nothing new to read and the library was closed for Christmas, so I borrowed this book by Lin Stepp from my parents' library stack. The novel is one in a series that takes place in the next town over from where I live, at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

It was cheesy, and I loved it. It's one of the most often told story lines of all: innocent girl marries bad man who cheats, girl meets good man, girl and good man fall in love. I didn't know I was such a sucker for a romance novel. I needed one in my life, I guess. It was fun reading a novel that takes place in my county. The author lives in Knoxville and teaches at a nearby college, so I guess she knows the area well. Her love of our beautiful place is evident.

There isn't anything award-winning about this novel. It's kinda silly and trite and really sweet, and it was exactly what I needed to read over Christmas weekend. I will probably even pick up the rest of her Smoky Mountain series at some point. If you live near the Smokies, you'll probably like it. If you like happily-ever-after books, you'll probably like it. If you're looking for great writing and profound moments, skip it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

End-of-2010 Book Survey

The Perpetual Page-Turner has a fun End-of-2010 survey going on. Click on the link to add your list.

1. Best Book of 2010: I went back through my list on my sidebar to look at all the books I'd given 5 stars.
Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)
Girl in Translation (Jean Kwok)
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
Mockingbird (Katherine Erskine)
My Name Is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)
Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Anne Fadiman)
Still Alice (Lisa Genova)

They are all amazing books, well worth the 5-star rating. But I think I'm going to have to pick Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation as my favorite. I just loved it.

2. Worst book of 2010? My only 1-star rating went to Devil Amongst the Lawyers (Sharyn McCrumb). I hate to give a Sharyn McCrumb book my worst book of the year because I truly love her mountain novels in general. But this one was actually painful to get through, and I kind of get a headache when I even think about it. Sorry, Ms. McCrumb.

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2010? Again, McCrumb's book was a big disappointment because I have loved her others so much.

4. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2010? I'm going to go with Picture Bride (Yoshiko Uchido). I picked this one up for about 50 cents and had no expectations. Never heard a thing about it. It was an excellent little novel that brought me to tears. I loved it.

5. Book you recommended to people most in 2010? Girl in Translation.

6. Best series you discovered in 2010? I've only been part of one series, and I must admit to loving it: Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books, beginning with One for the Money. I've only finished four of them so far, so I'll have plenty of those to plow through when I need something light and fun.

7. Favorite new (to me) authors you discovered in 2010? Elizabeth Strout, Lisa Genova, Jean Kwok.

8. Most hilarious read of 2010? Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) and Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers). Both are sharp and witty but also terribly poignant. Loved both of them.

9. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2010? Again, I'm going to the Absolutely True Diary. I'm not sure I would use the words "thrilling" for any of the books I read, but I had a terrible hard time putting down this Sherman Alexie novel/memoir.

10. Book you most anticipated in 2010? Last Night at Twisted River (John Irving). I always anticipate any new John Irving novel. I think this was the very first book I read this year.

11. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2010? Center of the Universe (Nancy Bachrach) Didn't like this memoir much, but I love the cover.

12. Most memorable character in 2010? Olive Kitteridge in Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

13. Most beautifully written book in 2010? My Name Is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)

14. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2010? In some ways, probably Beautiful Boy (David Sheff). This is the story of Sheff dealing with his son's drug addiction. Just having a teenaged son myself made this book especially memorable.

15. Book you can't believe you waited UNTIL 2010 to finally read? My Name Is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok). I've been meaning to read this for 23 years, since one of my good friends in college said it was her favorite book.

That's a quick review of this year's reading. Coming up in a few days, I'll be posting my Top 10 and the whole list. I look forward to reading dozens of these surveys at The Perpetual Page-Turner and adding a bunch more to my own TBR list!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Clicking the photo will allow you to see most of the residents of SmallWorld, who are all voracious readers.

Personal reading reminder for next year: the library closes on December 23. Ouch.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Reviews:Reading Janet Evanovich

So my sister-in-law has been telling me for years that I need to read Janet Evanovich. Then several of my friends confessed that Evanovich is their guilty pleasure and finally persuaded me to read the Stephanie Plum series. So yep, I started and I haven't yet been able to stop.

This is a pretty weird thing for me. I like the idea of a series, but I despise reading books 1 and 2 and then waiting years for book 3. I never get back to series like that, with the exception of the Ladies No. 1 Detective series. But I've got 15 years of Evanovich books to read, so I should be well occupied for awhile.

Except that, well, I'm getting a bit tired of Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter. The books are really fun and addictive, if you haven't read them yet. I've now finished One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Ready, and Four to Score. I'm ready for something deep and maybe even a bit troubling. Definitely something thought-provoking. So sometime in the next couple of days, before everything closes down for Christmas, I'm heading to the library with my TBR list.

And maybe I'll pick up High Five and Hot Six while I'm there. After all, if I'm going to sit around and eat Christmas cookies and Chex mix, I might as well read Janet Evanovich.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Fluff Reading and Traumatic Watching

* I've been immersed in Janet Evanovich these past couple of weeks. I'm on book 3 in her Stephanie Plum series, and while I'm enjoying the books tremendously, I'm going to have to take a break after this one and read something a bit more substantial.

* Besides The Sunday Salon, Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books and the Book Review Carnival are a couple of great places to find new titles. I add a few new items to my TBR list through those sources.

* We saw a book-to-movie today: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It was terribly disappointing for anyone who is a true Narnia fan. I will never understand why movies have to be such tremendous deviations from books. I just don't get it. On the bright side, my kids (10 and 13) did like the movie. We just finished re-reading the book on Friday, but they weren't traumatized by the movie like I was. I actually was envisioning myself ripping the screen to shreds. Then again, I've been reading this book for over 30 years. They've only heard it twice.

* Next on my list is Sara Gruen's Ape House. I've read a couple of bad reviews, so I'm not feeling terribly excited about it. But I sure did love Water for Elephants.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Sunday Salon: November in Review

Books Read in November
(click for review)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
Juvenile Fiction: When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park; Tangerine by by Edward Bloor; Crazy Lady by Jane Leslie Conly

Favorite Book of the Month
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Absolutely fantastic!

Books Read to the Kids
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

Up Next
I might spend all of December reading Janet Evanovich. I blame my friends Laurie, Sarah, and Rachel.

Movies from Books Watched
Like Water for Chocolate. I actually think I liked the movie better than the book!
Prince Caspian. So the first time I saw the movie, I hadn't read the book in probably 5 years. This time, we had just finished reading the book. Wow! We were all flabbergasted by the changes from book to movie.

Books Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner (our book club pick for January)
Left Neglected by Lisa Genova (reviewed at Lesa's Book Critiques)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: Abide with Me

It's 1959 in rural Maine. Reverend Tyler Caskey can't shake the shroud of grief that envelops him after his young wife's death, and his neglected little daughter is becoming the town's least favorite child. Throughout the first two-thirds of the book, the minister and his daughter are drowning and the townspeople, once adoring parishioners, begin to take a sort of glee in bringing about their downfall.

Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, is an absolute pleasure to read. I picked Abide with Me up at the library just as soon as I'd finished Olive Kitteridge, and I'll be heading back out to get Amy and Isabelle as soon as possible. She's that good.

Like Olive Kitteridge, Abide with Me is full of fascinating characters. Strout is one of those authors that has an uncanny knack of stripping away the excess and slapping the reader in the face with a dose of familiarity. Anyone who has ever gloated for even a second over someone's failure will feel a pang of shame when Strout describes the guilt of the townspeople after they've nearly gossiped their minister to death.

I was also terribly impressed with Strout's ability to get inside the head of Caskey as a minister. Caskey is always comparing himself with the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I found fascinating. Years (decades?) ago I saw the play The Beams are Creaking, about Bonhoeffer's life, so I found Strout's weaving of Bonhoeffer's theology with Caskey's thoughts pretty amazing. (That makes Abide with Me sounds like a heavy, theological novel, and it's not. I just found that part interesting on a personal level.)

I definitely enjoyed this one as much as Olive Kitteridge, although I think Olive Kitteridge is more memorable for me. Highly recommended.

Other Reviews of Abide with Me
Home Girl's Book Blog: "The story Strout tells is sensitive and unflinchingly true. The writing is (as always) careful, lyrical, and evocative."
World's Strongest Librarian: "Abide With Me is a melancholy book, shot through with moments of brilliant joy and truth."
Semicolon: "Ms. Strout apparently knows something about small town life and about being a pastor or a pastor’s wife, even though the blurb says she lives in New York City."
Mommy Brain: "The members of Tyler’s church are such a varied bunch, and in Tyler’s hour of need, they demonstrate some of the worst of human nature. But they also demonstrate some of the best."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review: Olive Kitteridge

I didn't know what I was getting into when I began reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. That's kind of what I do: I put a book on my TBR list because of a glowing recommendation or 12, and then I forget all details about the book, completely trusting myself that I want to read it. And so I had no idea that Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 individual stories that take place in the little town of Crosby, Maine, all linked by one formidable woman: Olive Kitteridge.

In many ways it's a modern-day Winesburg, Ohio, although a bit more cheerful, if my memory serves me right. I haven't read Sherwood Anderson's collection of linked stories in over 20 years, but I remember feeling rather depressed upon finishing. (Obviously, I'll have to go back and read this now.) Strout follows a similar formula in Olive Kitteridge. Each story is a slice of life of one character or family in Crosby, Maine: a young man about to commit suicide, a widow who discovers that her husband had an affair, an anorexic addict. Somewhere in the story his or her life crosses paths with Olive Kitteridge. Sometimes Olive just has a cameo, but often she plays a pivotal role in the story.

The stories encompass about 30 years, from the time Olive is a middle-school English teacher who terrifies most students, to her life as a widow, struggling to come to terms with who she was and is. In stories that feature other characters, we see Olive is a variety of dimensions: is she a hardened old witch, or a compassionate caretaker? Was she an abusive mother or an encouraging friend? If you've ever experienced that disconcerting feeling that comes when someone describes you in a surprising way—a way that you don't think about yourself—you'll appreciate the way Strout reveals the multi-dimensional Olive.

I've been saying this a lot lately (October and November have been great reading months!), but Olive Kitteridge will surely land on my Top 10 list this year. Beautiful writing, fascinating stories, and rich characters—it's all there. I don't always say this, but I'm glad this one won last year's Pulitzer.

Other Reviews of Olive Kitteridge
Babette's Book Blog
She Is Too Fond of Books
Home Girl's Book Blog
Gently Hew Stone
Peeking Between the Pages
Book Club Classics

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Girl in Translation

I sure do love the book blogging community. Probably 80% of the books I read are ones that I've found via another blogger's review. I read about Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation at Books and Movies just a month or so ago and added it to my TBR list. Often books sit on my TBR list for months or even years, but Girl in Translation happened to be on the shelves at the library.

I hardly put it down all weekend. (Well, except for when I was cooking, cleaning, taking kids places, doing laundry, lessons plans, etc. etc.) I absolutely loved this book. Jean Kwok is an extraordinary writer, and this story is unforgettable—and I don't say that very often.

Kimberly Chang and her mother have emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. At 11, Kimberly speaks a little English, but her mother neither speaks nor understands English at all. Kimberly's aunt "graciously" puts them up in a run-down, roach-and-rodent infested tenement without any heat. Kimberly begins attending school, and in spite of the language barrier, her teachers recognize that she is intellectually gifted.

For the next many years, Kimberly lives a double life: she is a star pupil by day, and a sweatshop worker in Chinatown by night. She perseveres in a school where she longs to fit in, just like any American teenager, but with the added difficulties of being an immigrant living in abject poverty. In the evenings at the sweatshop, she struggles with her aunt's outrageous jealousy as well as her passion for a fellow worker.

Everything about this book was excellent, really. I completely adored Kimberly and her mother and admired them, knowing that, while they are fictional characters here, people like them do exist and survive in real life. Kwok based much of this story on her own life. Girl in Translation will absolutely go on my Top 10 list of the year. Please read it!

Other Reviews of Girl in Translation
Books and Movies
Literary Life
Beth's Book Nook
Booking Mama
Word Lily
Reading Extravaganza
Big WoWo
Dogberry Pages

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: When My Name Was Keoko

"If a war lasts long enough, is it possible that people would completely forget the idea of beauty? That they'd only be able to do what they needed to survive and would no longer remember how to make and enjoy beautiful things?"

When My Name Was Keoko is a young adult novel by Linda Sue Park about a Korean family in Japanese-occupied Korea during World War II, told in the alternating voices of 10-year-old Sun-hee and 13-year-old Tae-yul. Korea has long been under Japanese rule when this novel begins, but a new order from the fascist regime seeks to strip them of their last bit of Korean identity: all Koreans must take new Japanese names. Already the people have been forced to give up their cultural symbols, language, and traditions. Sun-hee becomes Keoko and Tae-yul becomes Nobuo, but they remain fiercely Korean in their hearts.

What the siblings suspect and soon realize with both happiness and anxiety is that their beloved Uncle is a leader in the resistance movement. Although they are frightened of the repercussions, Sun-hee and Tae-yul do what they can do help Uncle and eventually Tae-yul risks his life for Korea.

This was a beautiful book. I had trouble sometimes with the alternating voices of Sun-hee and Tae-yul, but that was my own lack of concentration. The chapters are clearly labeled. The story is a powerful one, and I regret that I didn't use this book last year when teaching a literature circle on various experiences in World War II. I highly recommend this not only to the 10-14 year old "suggested reading audience," but to adult readers, as well. There is also a great bibliography at the end that includes several more young adult books about the Korean experience in WW2.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

In the creative writing class that I teach for middle schoolers, we have been discussing what makes a good character. The kids have all kinds of insights on this. Twelve and 13-year-olds are brutally honest. One young lady said that she will stop reading a book if she doesn't like the name of the character. Several others agreed.

Now while I won't go so far as to drop a book just because I don't like a character's name, I have to admit that this does bother me tremendously. All that to say, Joshilyn Jackson's book The Girl Who Stopped Swimming had one of those names: Thalia.

I know. I'm so petty, but that name just does something icky to me. Fortunately, Thalia's sister, the main character, has a name that I think is one of the most beautiful: Laurel. My daughter. So here's my own weird twist on the book. I hate the name Thalia, and I love the name Laurel, but neither name fit the characters in the book. For me.

So what does all this have to do with the actual novel itself? Well, when things like that are off, the whole book is off. For me. The story goes that Laurel is led by a ghost to find a girl's dead body in her swimming pool. The girl turns out to be her daughter's best friend, and then the hunt begins: why did the girl drown? What was she doing in their backyard at midnight?

While she investigates the drowning, Laurel has to call in her estranged sister, Thalia, for help. Thalia, an actress married to a gay man, constantly criticizes Laurel because she lives in an affluent community. Somehow this ties into their mother's people coming from the trailer park. That whole subplot was disjointed and squeezed into the story. I've read reviews that indicate this is a powerful novel about poverty, but I just wasn't feeling that. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina? Now that's a book about abject poverty in the South.

It wasn't a terrible book. I read it in about a day; it was riveting in spite of its flaws. But honestly, I was reading for plot, and in the end, I kinda went, "huh?"

I've read two other Joshilyn Jackson books and enjoyed them. In my review of Gods in Alabama I said, "Jackson does a fantastic job of capturing the quirkiness of the south without falling into stereotypes." (I could not say the same about The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.) My review of Between, Georgia, probably sums up what I'd say for The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: "I can't say I'd rush out and tell my friends, 'You must read this novel!' but it was a good filler between other novels."

Other Reviews of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

A Bookworm's World
Bermudaonion's Weblog
Blue Archipelago Reviews

Friday, November 5, 2010

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."

I was introduced to Sherman Alexie's poetry years ago in graduate school and thought he was amazing. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is his semi-autobiographical novel, written for young adults but totally loved by this older adult. (As far as that goes, I wouldn't recommend this to a very young adult. Lots of language, etc.)

This is the story of Junior, a genius with multiple medical problems born to heavy-drinking, impoverished parents on an Indian reservation. He is rejected everywhere he goes: by the rez community because of his weird looks and brains, and by the white community outside the reservation because he's, well, an Indian. Recognizing Junior's genius, his math teacher persuades him to go to Rearden, the all-white school outside of the reservation. Junior figures that he doesn't have anything to lose, so he agrees.

The next several years become a struggle of Junior trying to get to school every day (it's 22 miles away, and his father is rarely sober and his truck rarely works) and then surviving in school. Initially he is bullied and ostracized at Rearden and even more rejected at the Rez, where he is branded as a traitor. But with a tremendous sense of humor and the ability to find superhuman emotional strength and determination, Junior knocks down one obstacle after another.

Alexie is a the kind of author that had me laughing one minute and then tearing up at the next. Junior's life is something the vast majority of us can't possibly imagine, but he doesn't ask for pity—he's just telling it like it is. We know Junior immediately. Alexie is that good at immersing us in his world and allowing us to be in his head. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons sprinkled throughout the book add to that knowing of him.

I can't recommend this book enough. It will absolutely go on my Top 10 list of favorites for this year.

Some Other Reviews
The Book Smugglers: "A triumph in storytelling, filled with heartbreak but also so much warmth and I can’t recommend it enough."
Ramblings of a Writer: "The issues were treated with finesse, and issues of family, the individual and belonging added layers of wow-awesome-amazingness to this book."
The Book Lady's Blog: "What sets this book apart from the YA lit masses is that the author manages to tell a great story and explore themes about identity and culture that many authors shy away from."
Maw Books Blog: "teaches us not to be limited by our circumstances."
Brown Girl BookSpeaks: " Junior's quirky persona while coping with life and pursuing a permanent way off the rez through education provides a hopeful and uplifting tale for young people."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Sunday Salon: October in Review

Books Read in October
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: (Sherman Alexie) I haven't reviewed this one yet but it was fantastic.
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: (Joshilyn Jackson) I have about 2 chapters left in this one, and I stayed up way too late last night reading it!
Arctic Homestead: (Norma Cobb) The journey of a homesteading family in Alaska.
Breath, Eyes, Memory: (Edwidge Dandicat) Three generations of Haitian women battle tradition and painful memories.
Like Water for Chocolate: (Laura Esquival) Food, romance, magical realism—a fun book of the power of love and food.

Favorite Book of the Month
I think it's going to be Sherman Alexie's autiobiographical, young adult novel. Absolutely loved it.

Books Read to the Kids
The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Up Next
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Movies From Books Watched
The Last Song (don't judge me! I watched it with my teen-aged daughter, and I got a little weepy!)

Books Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal M. Omar (reviewed at Bookworm's Dinner)
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (Reviewed at S. Krishna's Books)
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (Reviewed at Books and Movies)
Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (recommended by a friend while waiting in a funeral line and by Stray Thoughts)
A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (recommended at Musings)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review: Arctic Homestead

I've had Arctic Homestead on my TBR list for years and finally got it through Paperback Swap several months ago. This is Norma Cobb's true story of homesteading in Alaska with her husband and five kids in the 1970s.

I'll admit to a fascination—not quite an obsession—with books about homesteading in Alaska. I'm not sure why; I truly don't think I have a hidden desire to survive in the wilderness, although taking a six-month sabbatical would be awesome. I loved Mrs. Mike and Into the Wild. I wasn't crazy about Jean Aspen's Arctic Son, and Cobb's Arctic Homestead was more reminiscent of Aspen's narrative. But Norma Cobb is (for the most part) a more cheerful narrator, whereas Aspen was annoying and whiny.

That said, I also found Cobb to be a completely unreliable narrator, mostly because of the stories of the family's relationships with other homesteaders or casual visitors. She is utterly paranoid and quick to point out other's faults. Norma and Lester were always right in whatever actions they took, and the "others" were always wrong, crazy, and/or sissies. Somehow that just didn't ring true to me.

Still, if you are reading this for the spirit of adventure and a longing for wilderness, it's an entertaining read. This would be a great book to curl up with on a long winter's night.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sunday Salon: YA Search

I'm searching again for the perfect books to read for my next literature circle for middle schoolers. The theme this time around is roughly "overcoming adversity." I know, that's a ridiculously gigantic theme. Initially we were looking at specifically at books which tell the story of a character overcoming a battle with illness. However, we are having a hard time finding books like this suitable for middle schoolers, so we've broadened our search to various kinds of struggles—racial, cultural, disasters, etc.

We'll use a total of three books. We are definitely going to do Peg Kehret's Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio. This is an awesome book that my kids have read over and over again.

We have some others up for consideration:
Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
by Laurence Yep
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine
Nation by Terry Pratchett
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Parks
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

My co-teacher and I will be reading through this list, hoping to find just the perfect books for our 6th-8th grade class. But I'm always searching for more ideas. Do you have a book that comes to mind that might fit this rather broad category? I'd love your suggestions!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review: Breath, Eyes, Memory

"I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head. Where women return to their children as butterflies or as tears in the eyes of the statues that their daughters pray to."

We've all had Haiti on our minds and in our hearts in this past year. Breath, Eyes, Memory takes us through the hordes of hurting Haitians to one small family: Sophie Caco, her aunt, her mother, and her grandmother. Sophie has been raised by her aunt and has no recollection of her mother, who went to the U.S. for work when Sophie was a toddler. Out of the blue for Sophie, her mother requests that she come live with her in New York, and Sophie has no choice but to go. She has no idea how dangerous living in Haiti is; she only knows that it is her home.

While the Haitian scenes in the novel are warm and colorful, the New York chapters are harsh and cold. Life is not good for Sophie in New York, and her relationship with her mother is confusing and strained. Sophie's mother begins revealing horrifying secrets, and ultimately causes Sophie to teeter on the edge between survival and utter dysfunction.

Edwidge Danticat is a lovely writer. With few words, she paints a vivid portrait of life in Haiti, both in its simplicity (ginger tea) and in its terror (rebel soldiers). This isn't an easy novel to read emotionally. The struggle of the Haitian people and of individuals trapped in a cycle of fearful tradition is not light reading, and some of the scenes are graphic, violent, and painful.

If you are looking for a happily-ever-after beach read, don't get this one. Otherwise, grab a copy and be prepared to be uncomfortable—but enriched.

Other Reviews of Breath, Eyes, Memory
Jenny's Books
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Things Mean A Lot

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review: Like Water for Chocolate

I missed this book by Laura Esquivel when it was all the rage some 15 years ago or so. The subtitle nearly says it all: "A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies." What a fun book.

Set in Mexico at the turn of the century, Like Water for Chocolate focuses on Tita, the youngest daughter of a traditional Mexican family. As the youngest daughter, she is expected to forsake love in order to stay at home and care for her aging mother. The dictator-mother insists that the love of Tita's life, Pedro, marry her sister Rosaura instead. Pedro agrees only because it means he'll be able to stay close to Tita.

The rest of the book involves lots and lots of cooking, which produces all kinds of interesting scenarios. Tita is a somewhat magical cook, and her food brings out the best and worst in the people around her.

Again, this is a fun book—one to read when you need something light but well-written. The element of magical realism is somewhat reminiscent of Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits, although Allende's book is on a completely different level. I look forward to seeing the movie, which I have on my Netflix queue.

Other Reviews of Like Water for Chocolate
Picky Girl
Nose in a Book
Dog-Eared Books
Linden's Pensieve
Jandy's Reading Room
Rebecca Reads
Bibliofreak Blog
Boston Bibliophile

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I am determined to get through more books this month than I did in September. That was pitiful! I started reading Confederates in the Attic, which has been on my TBR list for seven years (yes, really). It was very interesting but I could tell after the first couple of chapters that it would be slow reading, so I moved to Like Water for Chocolate, which has also been on my reading list for years.

I'm glad I switched, at least for now. Confederates in the Attic chronicles author Tony Howitz's journey across the south as he documents the continuing obsession with the Civil War. It's fascinating, but I wasn't quite in the mood for it. I do intend to return to this one soon.

I'm pretty sure most people have read or seen Like Water for Chocolate, but I must have been having babies then. I am loving the wonderful tale of Tita and her crazy Mexican family, and the movie is now on my Netflix queue.

That's what I'm reading on this chilly Monday.

Linked up with other Monday reads at Book Journey

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Sunday Salon: September in Review

It's been a slow reading month here in SmallWorld. I can hardly believe I've read just two books, but apparently, this is the extent of my September reading!

Books Read and Reviewed

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
The Devil Amongst Lawyers by Sharyn McCrumb

Favorite Book of the Month
Well, that's easy. The McCrumb book was terrible. The Miller book was fantastic.

Books Read to the Kids
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Currently Reading
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura EsquivelConfederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

To Be Read in October
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
The Land Remembers

Movies from Books Watched
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Books Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Gentle Rain by Deborah Smith (reviewed by Leah at Good Reads)
The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain (Reviewed by S. Krishna)
Far to Go by Alison Pick (Reviewed by Kristina at The Book Keeper)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Review: Blue Like Jazz

I've had Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz on my TBR list for a couple of years now, since my friend's daughter had to read it in high school and absolutely loved it. Subtitled "Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality," this is Miller's journey toward reconciling the distant, institutional God with the relevant, working, loving God.

Miller is a fantastic writer. The chapters are anecdotes in his journey that touch on significant components of Christianity, such as: Worship—The Mystical Wonder; Church—How I Go Without Getting Angry; Confession—Coming Out of the Closet; Community—Living with Freaks; Love—How to Really Love Other People; Jesus—The Lines on His Face.

I turned down the corners on a lot of pages. (I wanted to underline things, but I find it distracting when people do this and then I read the book after them, so I didn't because I know that Dr. H. will read this book soon.) Miller rambles a lot sometimes, but in his rambling, he has all kinds of simple but profound statements, like this one: "Too much of our time is spent trying to chart God on a grid, and too little is spent allowing our hearts to feel awe. By reducing Christian spirituality to formula, we deprive our hears of wonder."

And others that are just funny, like this: "Some of my friends have left their churches and gone Greek Orthodox. I think that sounds cool. Unless you are Greek. then it sounds like that is where you are supposed to go, as though you are a conformist.… If I were Greek, I would go to a Baptist church. Everybody there would think I was exotic and cool."

This isn't a deeply theological text. Miller is just trying to figure things out, to try to understand problems with the brand of Christianity that he'd been raised in:
"I had been raised to believe there were monsters under the bed, but I had peeked, in a moment of bravery, and found a wonderful world, a good world. … We were raised to believe this. If people were bad, we treated them as though they were either evil or charity: If they were bad and rich, they were evil. If they were bad and poor, they were charity. Christianity was always right; we were always looking down on everybody else."
He works though this in much of the book, and ultimately comes to realize the need to differentiate what is human tradition and failings and what is God's word.

This is a great read for anyone who struggles with the tension between what Christians claim vs. how we act. Again, this is not a theological text with passages of scripture referenced and footnotes; it's really one man's journey toward God.

Other, Much Longer Reviews of Blue Like Jazz
Mommy on Fire
Michael Krahn
Faith Based Blog
Convergence Review
Broken Masterpieces
Internet Monk

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: The Devil Amongst the Lawyers

I am a big, big fan of Sharyn McCrumb's ballad novels, which take place in the hills in Upper East TN and southwest Virginia. She Walks These Hills, my introduction to McCrumb novels, is absolutely magical. I love it and so many of the other books, which all have a current mystery set against a historic event. Southern legends, mountain stories, etc. Great books.

But this one. Oh dear. I can truly say that Devil Amongst the Lawyers is dreadful. If this had been my first Sharyn McCrumb book, I would never pick up another one. It's kind of like a handbook on what writers should not do: jump around; include a dozen flat, main characters; use every possible stereotype to describe your characters; make your dialogue stilted; throw in bits of information that you know about topics unrelated to the story; have the story itself be an abysmal mess; and make your reader want to actually rip the book apart.

Here is what I have to say. Please do not read this book. Ever. Instead, please read McCrumb's other fantastic ballad novels: She Walks These Hills, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, The Rosewood Casket, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Songcatcher, and Ghostriders.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: Whiter Than Snow

I was eagerly looking forward to Sandra Dallas's newest release, Whiter Than Snow. Like Prayers for Sale, Whiter Than Snow takes place in a small mining community in Colorado. At the beginning of the book, there is an avalanche, and we know that several children are trapped in it on their way home from school.

The novel then tells the background stories of various key players in the town, focusing especially on all the families of the trapped children. I'm embarrassed to say that it took me a few chapters to realize this. I read the first vignette and then wondered, midway through the next section, what had happened to those couples in the first chapter. (Sometimes it does pay to read the back of the book.) I enjoyed each character snapshot immensely once I figured out what was going on.

Ultimately, Dallas brings us back to the tragedy. She reveals in the first chapter that two of the children die, and we find out which ones—and how their families cope—at the end. The story was beautifully told, particularly in this last section when the townspeople cross all social lines and let go of past grievances to help each other. Sounds trite, I know—a story that's been told thousands of times in different ways. But still, it's a story that resonates and gives the reader that sense of the goodness in humanity. And we all need stories like that.

This isn't my favorite Dallas book by far; Tallgrass still holds that spot. But it's a quick, enjoyable read with some really good spots.

Other Reviews of Whiter Than Snow
Booking Mama
Life in the Thumb
Lesa's Book Critiques

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Sunday Salon: August in Review

Books Read in August
(click for reviews)

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall-Smith
Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Favorite Book of the Month
This was a superb reading month. Truly filled with excellent, enjoyable, thought-provoking books that I highly recommend. But The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman takes the prize for the best book of the month.

Currently Reading
Sharyn McCrumb's newest, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers: A Ballad Novel

To Be Read in September
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Confederates in the Attic
The Land Remembers

Books Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Ape House by Sara Gruen
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
Murder in the Name of Honor by Rana Husseini (Reviewed at Reading Through Life)
When We Were Orphans and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Room by Emma Donoghue

Reading to the Kids
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (multiple re-read)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Book Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is my introduction to Kazuo Ishiguro, and I have to say it was a fantastic introduction. I had no expectations and really had no idea what the book was about based on the jacket summary. And I'm not really going to tell you what it's about because the book relies heavily on the element of mystery.

The mystery is in the private boarding school, Hailsham, and its students. It all starts off in a familiar way: the narrator, Kathy, is reminiscing about her years in Hailsham, focusing in on a particular bullying incident and a special friendship. But the reader quickly understands that this is not an ordinary boarding school.

You know what? That's all I'm going to say. I like to be surprised by books. Ishiguro's prose is really perfect, so if you already know more about this book than I did, you'll love it just for his writing. But if you don't know, don't read any more reviews. Just go read the book. And after you read the book, you can look forward to the movie coming out soon. The trailer is here, but there are spoilers.

Other Reviews (without spoilers)
Shane Richmond
Blue Archipelago
S. Krishna's Books

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: Nectar in a Sieve

Hope, and fear. Twin forces that tugged at us first in one direction, and then another, and which was the stronger no one could say. Of the latter, we never spoke, but it was always with us. Fear, constant companion of the peasant.
(Nectar in a Sieve, Chapter 14)

I picked up Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve at my favorite used bookstore because I'd seen the title as one of Glencoe's free literature guides. I thought I might use it someday in the future when teaching World Literature.

Set in a rural village in India, this book (first published in 1954) follows the life of Rukmani, a peasant woman, and her family. Rukmani marries Nathan, a farmer she'd never met, at age 12 and begins a life of constant struggle mixed with periods of pure joy. She has a surprisingly good marriage, which is unusual in most of the novels I've read/taught for World Lit. Her husband doesn't abuse her, ignore her, or disrespect her.

In some ways this book reminds me of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. There is the continuous struggle of peasants to survive, the hopelessness of life in poverty. But there is more joy in Nectar in a Sieve—more hopefulness. My World Lit kids always complained that the books were so depressing, full of poverty and oppression. Of course we discussed the fact that this is how much of the world is, etc., and that they were all privileged—and rich— beyond comprehension to millions of people.

I loved this little book. It's the kind of book that I couldn't wait to get to every night. Markandaya's writing is beautiful, and the story of Rukmani was fascinating and engrossing. Highly recommended.

Other Reviews of Nectar in a Sieve
Reckless Reader

Life Wordsmith
Reading for My Sanity
Tattooed Books

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Transported by Reading

I'm losing myself in books this weekend out of necessity. We took our oldest to college yesterday, and I find that I can only cope by transporting myself out my real life and into a fictional one. :)

Most of last week, as he packed up to go, I was with a peasant family in India as I read Kamala Markandala's Nectar in a Sieve. Yesterday, while driving to and from the college (or rather, while riding in the car as Dr. H. drove), I read Alexander McCall-Smith's newest installment in the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, The Double Comfort Safari Club. In Botswana with the kindly Mma Ramotswe was just the right place to be when I felt the tears coming.

Today is a bright and beautiful day, but I'm planning to pretend that it's raining out so that I can justify a day spent reading and napping. I just started Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro last night. I honestly can't remember a single thing I read, so I'll have to start over today.

I also got three books in the mail from these amazing friends of ours who visited a few weeks ago: Blue Like Jazz, Confederates in the Attic, and The Land Remembers. All of these books were part of conversations at various points in their visit, and I'm eager to dig into those as soon as I finish Never Let Me Go.

And now I'm off to lose myself in reading.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

This book by Anne Fadiman has been on my TBR list for a couple of years, so when I saw it on my son's required reading list for college, I knew I'd have to snag it first. Fortunately, I finished it before he leaves tomorrow!

"The spirit catches you and you fall down" is how Lia Lee's mother describes an epileptic seizure—and Lia has many of them. Lia is the 13th child born to Hmong immigrants Foua and Nao Kao Lee and the first born in the United States. Her first seizure comes at age 3 months, when an older sister slams a door. (Her parents will remain convinced that this caused Lia's soul to flee and the mother continued to blame the older sister.) Lia's next seven years are documented here as a perplexing, frustrating, defeating mixture of cultural and language barriers, spiritual vs. medical, parent vs. doctor.

Along with the primary story of Lia's medical condition and the cultural clash, Fadiman provides a sturdy backdrop of the Hmong experience both historically and in the context of the U.S. today. The struggles that permeate Lia's story make sense when we have even a rudimentary understanding of the culture, spiritual beliefs, and ethical code of the Hmong.

Fadiman is an amazing writer. She manages to treat every person involved in this story with grace and respect. I came away from this with a huge respect for the doctors involved in this case, not because they did a great job (they didn't) but because (for the most part), they were willing and eager to learn from their mistakes. And one can't help but be in awe of the Lee family for many reasons, including the outcome of the book. But at the same time we wonder what might have happened if they had administered Lia's medicine correctly—or if she had never been treated at all.

I highly recommend this book. It's a fascinating and enlightening look into the immigrant experience in America today and the clash of two wildly different cultures.

Other Reviews:
Book Addiction: "This book utterly and completely fascinated me."
Sophisticated Dorkiness: "Anyone with even a passing interest in cultural differences, literary journalism, or stories that truly tug at your heart while still making you think should read this."
Book Nut: "what this book is, more than either of those things, is a testament to what happens when good intentions go bad because of cultural differences."
Tulip Girl: "thought-provoking and emotionally rewarding."
Dogear Diary: "Fadiman has written a fantastic book about the clash between two cultures met in the arena of medicine."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reading Miscellany

* I have 198 books currently on my TBR list. The problem is that I keep getting books, either from the library or the used book store, that aren't on my TBR list.

* Another problem: I forget to bring my TBR list with me to the library. Once I had a copy of it that I kept in the library back, but now I've lost that particular library bag.

* My son has been ordering his college textbooks on rather than buying them at the campus bookstore. That means he has a whole stack of books that are tempting me. How much would I love to take all my college courses again? Seriously, except for Earth and Space Science and BASIC computer programming, I think I'd take everything all over again gladly. And with 25 years of perspective.

* But I am reading his The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which actually is on my TBR list. I'm not sure what class this is for, but it's excellent. I'm about halfway through; I think I can finish before he leaves for college in a week.

* Yes, my oldest is leaving for college in a week. Blogging is a great distraction.

Hopping is happening at Crazy for Books

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: The Help

This is the book everyone's talking about, like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was in 2009. (Isn't The Help so much easier to say, though?) Funny, though: like the Guernsey etc., I initially avoided The Help because of its title. The Guernsey etc. sounded cheesy, and The Help sounded like self-help. Or The Shack. I was skeptical.

I had no idea that Kathryn Stockett's best-seller actually has to do with the help, as in "the servants." I'm a little dense sometimes.

I loved the book. I've heard it compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, and that's just taking it way too far, in my opinion. But it is excellent. Well written, poignant, never sappy, witty, and just plain readable.

So many bloggers have already reviewed this book. I don't have a whole lot to add to what they've said. I liked it. I think you should read it.

Other Reviews of The Help
The Book Lady's Blog: "The Help is addictively, compulsively readable. I couldn’t put it down. Stockett’s debut is well-written, and it is clear that she really understands Southern life and has made great efforts to understand what life was like for black women who served white families."
Patricia's Wisdom: "It is a woman’s novel in that it once again shows that when people can communicate and interact – band together they can create change and bring to light oppression, prejudice and racism."
Rebecca Reads: "In the end, I really enjoyed reading The Help (given I couldn’t put it down!). I didn’t think it was perfect, and I probably won’t ever reread it. Maybe because I went in to it with low expectations, though, I found it a satisfying, engaging read well worth the hype."
Write Meg: "An important novel that tackles Major Issues that still manages to be entertaining, lively, affecting and unbelievably moving? It’s a rare find, friends, and it gets my absolute highest recommendation."
Steph Su Reads: "What could have easily fallen into the clichéd ruts of Southern or black American history instead stands on its own due to its smooth writing and unforgettable characters."
The Book Whisperer: "It is worth every glowing review, every recommendation and every superlative ever written about it."
A Novel Menagerie:
"Ms. Stockett really forced me to think about not only what racial differences have done to our history, but to also consider women’s roles in American history. What stuck with me throughout my read is the truth that a woman’s heart and her love for others has nothing to do with the color of her skin nor the family she derives from."
Sensible Shoes: "The Help is not the great American novel and not particularly literary. Instead, it is an immensely satisfying, story-driven narrative. It is an airplane-book with heart. "
Maw Books: "I could not put this book down, I found myself at the stove with the book in one hand while flipping pancakes with another. At 464 pages, I almost wished it was another 300 pages long. I didn’t want it to end. I read non-stop. It was simply wonderful!"

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Sunday Salon: July in Review

Read and Reviewed
(click for review)
Mountains Beyond Mountains

My Name Is Asher Lev
Picture Bride
Elizabeth and Her German Garden

Favorite Book of the Month
Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev, without a doubt. But it was a great reading month, and all the books are highly recommended.

Currently Reading
The Help. Love it.

Tribute Reposted
Happy 50th to To Kill a Mockingbird

To Be Read in August
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Books Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson (mentioned at Books and Cooks)
My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira (Reviewed by at Bookworm's Dinner)

Movies-From-Books Watched
Ramona and Beezus, based on the series of Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. I loved, loved, loved this movie! Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: Elizabeth and Her German Garden

September 15th: This is the month of quiet days, crimson creepers, and blackberries; of mellow afternoons in the ripening garden; of tea under the acacias instead of the too shady beeches; of wood-fires in the library in the chilly evenings. The babies go out in the afternoon and blackberry in the hedges; the three kittens, grown big and fat, sit cleaning themselves on the sunny verandah steps; the Man of Wrath shoots partridges across the distant stubble; and the summer seems as though it would dream on for ever.

Published in 1899, this is the journal of Elizabeth von Arnim, cousin of Katherine Mansfield, through a year at her husband's estate north of Berlin. Elizabeth's life takes on a totally new dimension when she discovers this estate, her husband's second home. The grounds are in a state of disarray, and Elizabeth sets out to surround the castle with gardens. She goes from being a good German hausfrau and socialite to a master gardener.

The book opens with Elizabeth alone at the estate; with her husband and children ("the babies") back at their first home, she find absolute bliss in her solitude. She immediately sets out to tame the wild gardens and to simply revel in the outdoors. Eventually her babies join her there, and her husband, known as the Man of Wrath, comes occasionally. Very little is said about the inside of the estate, except that she dreads sleeping each night.

I can so relate to Elizabeth on so many levels. Her writing is poetic but witty, and she speaks about her garden with such joy and reverence. She is just a happy, grateful person—at least when she is free to be outdoors and do her own thing. She writes: "We were meant to be happy, and to accept all the happiness offered with thankfulness—indeed, we are none of us ever thankful enough, and yet we each get so much, so very much, more that we deserve." For Elizabeth to have to be a perfect hostess and attend operas, however, would be like me having to awaken at 6 a.m. and be at business meetings all day.

Elizabeth is constrained by the times, however, in a way that I am joyfully not. She is continuously frustrated by being a woman and having to abide by certain rules. She despises having nurses for her children, preferring instead to let them run wild in the gardens. She writes: "It is so nice without a governess that I would put off engaging another for a year or two, if it were not that I should in so doing come within the reach of the arm of the law, which is what every German spends his life in trying to avoid. … We are liable at any moment of receive a visit from a school inspector, who will inquire curiously into the state of her education, and, if it is not up to the required standard, all sorts of fearful things might happen to the guilty parents."

She yearns to do all the yard work herself but to do so was simply out of the question. "I wish with all my heart I were a man, for of course the first thing I should do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doing everything for my flowers with my own hands and need not waste time explaining what I want done to somebody else. It is dull work giving orders and trying to describe the bright visions of one's brain to a person who has no visions and no brain."

The book is so much more than Elizabeth's gardening journal. It is the story of a woman who seized a world for herself and her children, rather than allowing society to dictate her life. It's a book that embraces personal freedom and the joy that comes with going against traditional expectations.

Other Reviews
Girl eBooks ("One of the beauties of reading well-seasoned literature is that we modern women forget what life was like for women a hundred or more years ago.")
So Many Books ("A pleasant book, perfect for spring.")