Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book Review: The Center of the Universe

I am a big fan of memoirs. I'm also a big fan of lyrical writing, and not so much a big fan of dark humor, attitude, and heavy sarcasm. Those are important things to understand about me in the context of this book review.

I didn't love Nancy Bachrach's memoir of her bipolar mother, AKA The Center of the Universe. I didn't connect at all. It was emotionally disjointed for me, although very well written. For me, it lacked the element of poetry that creates—in me—empathy. This book felt wrapped in a hard outer shell, and I couldn't crack it. The pace was so fast and snappy that I couldn't always follow, and I tired of the Bachrach's cleverness within the first few chapters.

Do you see where I'm coming from? If you liked The Liar's Club (which I did not), you'll like The Center of the Universe. If you prefer lyrical memoirs like James McBride's The Color of Water, I wouldn't recommend this. It's all about what draws you, as the reader, in personally. It is difficult for me to connect with people in real life who are cynical and constantly clever, and this naturally carries over into my reading life. Again, Bachrach is a good writer, and the story is intriguing and unique in many ways.

For me, it's all in the presentation, and I missed the poet's heart of my favorite memoirs.

Other Reviews of The Center of the Universe
She Is Too Fond of Books

Confetti Dreams

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Book Review: Though Waters Roar

My mother is a voracious reader, and she often says, "You'll want to read this one" to me. I usually don't read them because she reads a lot of what I consider to be badly written Christian novels. Don't get me wrong—I think there are a few, or a maybe a couple, of excellent contemporary novelists who are writing Christian fiction: Francine Rivers and Jamie Langston Turner.

But somehow my mother seemed different about her promotion of Lynn Austin, so I read Though Waters Roar. This was a pretty good story of one woman's struggles in the early 20th century to deal with her alcoholic husband and his snooty, pampering mother. Austin tackles a few major issues in the novel: slavery, Prohibition, women's suffrage, and class inequality. Maybe that was part of my problem with the book—there was just too much going on. I was irritated with the two stories going on (Beatrice and her granddaughter, Harriet) and the abrupt switching between "present" (which was about 1920) to past (which was about 1900). Harriet's story was so unimportant to the novel that it stood out painfully as an ill-used literary device. Austin is actually a pretty good writer for her genre. Her writing style didn't want to make me pull my hair out and yell "no one would really SAY that!"

Yesterday I was at my parents' house, and my Dad was reading a Lynn Austin novel. He proclaimed it to be excellent and said that Though Waters Roar was not anywhere up to par with the other Austin novels he has been reading.

I might read another Austin novel and give her another chance, but I'm not rushing to the library.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Book Review: Maniac Magee (YA)

Last week we finished our World War 2 unit, and I was looking for something that took place in the second half of the 20th century. Something not too heavy, after reading about the Holocaust for several weeks. Maniac Magee popped out at me. I've had this book by Jerry Spinelli on my shelf for probably three years but somehow had never gotten around to it.

I'm so glad that we finally did. If I'd known about this book, I probably would have included it in the African-American literature circle that I taught this past year. Maniac Magee is the story of a boy without a home who becomes a legend in a small town that is vehemently racially divided. Maniac doesn't know that, as a white person, he should stay on the West End. In fact, Maniac doesn't understand the terms "white" and "black." He understands that some people offer love, books, and food—a home—and that's all that matters.

As Maniac roams the streets, he finds an eclectic mix of homes in the East End, West End, and at the city park. He encounters all kinds of prejudices and tries to untie the knot of ignorance that pervades the town's citizens. As he does, he becomes a hero and a legend. He can run faster and pitch harder than anyone else, and he has courage that's never been seen before in Two Mills.

My kids (9 and 12) loved this book. Spinelli has a poetic, jazzy kind of voice. His word combinations are surprising and refreshing—definitely a fun-to-read-aloud kind of book. In our home, this brought up a lot of discussion about segregation and racism. We had read William Armstrong's Sounder and Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry recently. Maniac Magee brought the problem of racial tension into the middle part of the century. (The time period isn't named, but I'd put this in the 1950s-70s.) I highly recommend it not only to help understand the ignorance that perpetuates stereotypes, but as a fun read. My nine-year-old wanted to read it again right away.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Book Review: A Season for Second Chances

I was completely prepared to not like this novel by Diane Meier for two reasons: the title and the cover. Both are basically trite and fru-fru. I even had an attitude for the first 10 pages or so that I was not going to like this book.

And then I realized I was liking the book. It's a smart, witty book about an uptight, practically friendless college professor whose cold exterior slowly melts when she impulsively moves from Columbia University to Amherst College. The close-knit community there welcomes Joy in spite of her bristly nature, and little by little, she allows herself to actually see people as more than just students or specimens. I had to crack up when she mused upon how friendly people were at Amherst vs. in NYC. How would a character like Joy react down here in the South, where people are really, really friendly? (I'm still adjusting 25 years out of New York.)

Meier's writing is smooth and her characters are well-rounded and interesting. The cast of characters includes professors with children, a real-estate agent, a group of hovering bachelors known as "the Coyotes," and Teddy, the genius of a handyman who restores Joy's crumbling Victorian house. I was terribly envious of all the changes taking place in Joy's house. I'd love to have a handyman who not only paints but picks out the perfect fabric and covers lampshades. My own house felt shabby and crumbling as her house transformed into something amazing.

Meier did a great job of capturing various facets of Joy's character and how her friends forced her out of isolation in a variety of ways. I loved a scene where her boss takes her clothes shopping and when she has a make-over. These aren't frivolous, chick-lit kinds of scenes. Instead, Joy is forced to confront her inner snobbery, realizing that she never wore make-up or dressed fashionably because she considered herself above such things.

A different cover and a snappier title would have hooked me from the beginning, but I'm really glad I discarded my inner snobbery and read the book.

Other Reviews of A Season for Second Chances
Book Girl's Nightstand
The Review Broads
Feminist Review
She Is Too Fond of Books
Linus's Blanket
S. Krishna's Books
A Nut in a Nutshell
Lesa's Book Critiques

FTC Full Disclosure - Diane Meier's publicist sent this review copy. But I liked it anyway.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Sunday Salon: April Wrap-Up

Books Read in April

(click on titles for reviews)
Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther
Queen of the Big Time by Adriana Trigiani
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Most Recommended
Well, of course Jane Eyre if you've never read it. Half-Broke Horses was fantastic.

Read to Kids
Tucket's Travels series by Gary Paulsen
The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum
True Stories of the Second World War by Paul Doswell

Now Reading
The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier

"Based on the Book" Movies Watched
The Devil's Arithmetic (based on the book by Jane Yolen)
Marley and Me (based on the book by John Grogan)
Westside Story (based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet)
Jane Eyre (partly watched, based on the book by Charlotte Brontë)
Kit Kittredge (based on the American Girl book)
Cheaper by the Dozen (1950 version, based on the book by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine G. Carey)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Book Review: Jane Eyre

I have no idea who J. Swartz is, but I love this quote: "Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death hath no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever." Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is, I firmly believe, one of those books that lives forever. I've recently had the pleasure of teaching Jane Eyre to my class of high schoolers, thus getting to read it again for probably the fifth time. I read it first in high school, again in college twice, and probably at least once since college. I wrote a fantastic paper on Jane Eyre once in college and was wishing I could have located it as I taught the class this past month. (Where is that box of college notebooks and papers, anyway? Harumph.)

About half of my students started out very resistant to reading Jane Eyre for whatever reason—a couple had read it before and disliked it, one or two just like to be ornery for the sake of being ornery. They started to come around a little in the first half of the book, and I'm happy to say that at the end, nearly all of them really enjoyed it.

So what makes Jane Eyre such a compelling read? I think that Brontë brilliantly combined a variety of techniques: Gothic horror and mystery, a tragic romance, a rags-to-riches story, and a dose of religious criticism (faith vs. hypocrisy). It's a smart book, and Jane is a smart character. There's not one bit of fluff about her, and we readers want Jane Eyre to succeed. There is something timeless about Jane, something that 17-year-olds and 40-year-olds and 80-year-olds today can still relate to,
regardless of gender.

We watched part of the Masterpiece Theatre version of Jane Eyre, and it is excellent. Class time did not allow us to watch the entire show, but my students begged for a movie night in the summer so that we can watch the whole thing.

I've been surprised at them number of adults I've encountered in the past month who have never read Jane Eyre. I thought everyone had read it in school. (I know. I reek of naivete.) I assume everyone knows the love story of plain Jane and ugly Rochester and the—well, no. I won't say it, because perhaps some of you out there have yet to read this classic. Please do.

And aside from the novel itself, here's another reason why I love Jane Eyre.

Other Reviews of Jane Eyre
Becky's Book Reviews
Pages of the Mind
Violet Crush
The Book Lady's Blog
She Reads Books
Lanier's Books