Sunday, January 31, 2010

Did Not Finish -- Quartet in Autumn

Quartet in Autumn Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

My online, book blogging friend, Jeanette, has a 50pg rule -- if you read 50 pages and are still unengaged in a book -- you can give up.

I instituted that rule with Quartet in Autumn. Except, I gave up at 35 pages. My reasons, it was only a 200 page book, so the ratio for pages read vs. total pages was about right.

I read Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, an loved it. Called it, "a quiet gem of a book." This, ugh, just didn't do anything for me. The cover said, "written with the wit and style of a twentieth-century Jane Austen." Jane Austen never wrote about 4 elderly office mates. If anyone has read this and wants to persuade me to give it another try, please do!

Book source: library copy

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review -- Sugar

Sugar Sugar by Bernice L. McFadden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pearl has had her heart ripped out after the murder of her daughter; Sugar has had her life ripped apart by choices made for her by others. Neither knows, until Sugar moves next door to Pearl, what life has in store for them both.

In my quest to find the alternative to The Help I’m trying to immerse myself in African-American authors, whose points of view lend more authenticity and credibility to the stories of African-American characters. I hit gold with Bernice L. McFadden’s, Sugar.

Set in the rural town of Bigelow Arkansas during the early 40’s-50’s, this gut wrenching novel hits you square in the jaw from the opening pages. Pearl’s daughter, Jude, has been found brutally murdered and raped on the side of the road. For the next 15 years, she lives in a vacuum left by Jude’s absence, but in the comfort of her stoic husband, Joe. Sugar, abandoned at birth to be raised by 3 sisters who operate a “whore-house,” is raised to become a commodity in the family business – a life no one should be subjected. When Sugar moves to Bigelow, the town is horrified. They ignore her, gossip about her and ultimately want her gone. Pearl takes Sugar under her wing and tries to give her a friend for the first time in her life and to recreate for herself what it would be like to have a daughter. When they both try to learn each other’s histories, they are surprised at what they find. Ultimately, Sugar’s relationship with Pearl and Joe puts her at risk with one of her “tricks”, and the results are devastating.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. It is brutal, graphic and gruesome. Life as a “whore” is ugly, filthy, and humiliating. Sugar’s life is not her own. She is nothing but a shell. But the love and friendship Pearl offers to Sugar, shows that there is a chance she can turn her life around. Ms. McFadden’s characters are multifaceted and alive, even if their circumstances show otherwise.

In the end, this novel will envelop you and break your heart, if only for the fact that I’m sure these experiences were the necessary evil for some women.

For the sensitive reader: No question, I would avoid this book. But for all others, go get a copy at the library now!

Book source: public library

Although, this was not one of my original selections, this book qualifies for my Women Unbound Challenge.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review -- People of the Book

People of the Book People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hanna Heath, a brilliant, young, ancient document expert, has been asked by a Bosnian museum to restore an ancient Jewish prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah. Through her conservation efforts, Hanna finds five clues to the lost history of this priceless artifact: an animal hair, a butterfly wing, a wine stain, a saltwater stain and a missing binding. Thus begins an intricate, CSI: 15th century, narration told by the brilliant, Geraldine Brooks.

When I read this a year and a half ago I wrote the following: "Geraldine Brooks is a genius when it comes to writing historical fiction. Her fictional account of the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah (Jewish prayer book) was brilliant. However, she was not nearly as successful with the flash-forward/present day narrative. And the Hollywood/Mission Impossible ending was really disappointing. All that said...I still loved the book and all her previous novels as well. She has become my new favorite writer."

Much of my opinion stands firm. I thought her individual stories about each of these various “clues” were outstanding. In fact, each chapter could fully be developed into a book of their own. The detail and research she brought to each time period was flawless – I felt like I was living in the Venice Jewish ghetto, or being persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition. But re-reading it for the second time, took away the magic I felt the first time around. The links between each time period were cloudier than I remember and left me more confused.

Her narrator, Hanna, although a proclaimed, wunderkind, comes off unprofessional when she hooks up with the Bosnia curator after their 1st meeting. The secondary storyline about Hanna, her mother, and her unknown Jewish heritage, just didn’t work for me. Oh, and her mother – what a piece of work! As I said above, Brooks, modern day voice and story line, just wasn’t as convincing or successful. And the ending – without giving away any spoilers – was a copout.

For the sensitive reader: this book was far more graphic than I remember. If you want to know about 19th century venereal disease – this is the book for you! Also the brutality against women is very detailed.

I initially gave this book 4 stars – now, I would give it 3 or 3 ½. I still love Geraldine Brooks (I recommend both Year of Wonders and March) and will read whatever she publishes in the future.

Book source: personal copy

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Book Group Night

We met for the 1st time tonight since Peggy died, and you know what? She was missed terribly, but we were able to continue on like she expected us to. We laughed at all the joy she brought to us over the years and the books she shared. And she added a special surprise for all of us – she passed along her most hated book – The Shack – to a fellow member, Becca. As Becca was reading it last night, she noticed Peggy left a “book mark” in the middle of the book. Well, it wasn’t a book mark – but Peggy’s final thoughts on the book:
The Shack: A best seller, touted as a "new Classic". What a disappointment! I expected a poetic parable or allegory, but it is just silly. It tries to answer too many of life's questions in an overly simplistic & bumbling fashion. The author uses trite, repetitive phrases, especially in the dialogue, that are just poor writing. He has Jesus continually grinning & chuckling. He claims to want to preserve the mystery of God while describing Him in such excessively common terms as to deny the reverence, nobility & majesty of God. I found it not only not charming but offensive & foolish. Did I mention I did not like the book?
Peggy Jones

Thank you Peggy for leaving us this final treasure. You will be with us always.

Our book this month was “People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks.” I was in charge of the discussion, and I hate to admit it, but I totally phoned it in. I am so overloaded at the moment I can barely get my kids ready for school in the morning, let alone try to prepare a descent book discussion. Luckily, there was enough to talk about in this book, that once the conversation started, I didn’t really need to do much more. However, I take my book prep very seriously – but tonight, I’m lucky I made it to our meeting at all. Thanks ladies for carrying me through this one!

This was the 2nd time I’ve read it. I LOVED it the 1st time – the 2nd time around wasn’t nearly as enjoyable. I think Geraldine Brooks is a genius when writing historical fiction. But the magic was lost on the re-read. I will post my review of POTB separately, after I get some much needed sleep.

Or next selection is

Skin and Other Stories

Skin and other stories by Roald Dahl. Other than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I haven’t read anything by Dahl. This is the perfect choice for me for February – SHORT! I’m going to be MIA over the next 5 weeks – my fundraiser/silent auction is consuming my life – but I see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

One Lovely Blog Award!

It’s been a downer week – Peggy’s death, her funeral, postponing book group because the thought of meeting without her was overwhelming – so when I got this:

I was overjoyed!

Thank you to Laura at Library of Clean Reads for granting me this wonderful award! It’s just what I needed to clear the gloom! Please visit Laura’s blog – she writes wonderful reviews and is extra vigilant about letting her readers know the content and character of each book.

I now have the honor of passing on this award to others in accordance with the following rules:

Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award, and his or her blog link. Pass the award to 15 other blogs that you enjoy. (Okay, so 15 can be a lot to come up with! Pass it on to as many bloggers as you can, up to 15. I'm passing it on to 10.) Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

And so, I pass this award on to these truly deserving blogs. I hope you will check each one of them out!

A Readers Journal
A Bookshelf Monstrosity
Amused by Books
Book Nut
Books Bloggin & Babes
Book Thoughts
Library Queue
Of Good Report
One Librarian's Book Reviews
My Round File

And now, I think I will treat myself to some kind of award worthy confection! Brownies anyone??

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Power of YES!

A year ago Monday, I was doing nothing more than my normal day of grocery shopping and errand running. When I arrived home I was greeted with a message on my answering machine that said this, “Melissa, I have an extra ticket to the inauguration, can you get here? Call me back soon!” This phone call came one day BEFORE the inauguration, so there wasn’t much time to decide (this isn’t a political discussion ladies, bear with me!). There were SO MANY reasons to say NO – too expensive, not enough time, no child care, DH would have to talk off days of work, scared of flying, yadda, yadda, yadda. But against my nature, because I live in the realm of caution and NO, I said YES! Or more importantly, my DH said YES, “you are going, the kids will be fine, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, we can pay for it later, there is a flight at 4pm – GO!” So, 3 hours after that life changing phone call I was on my way to Washington DC – and 24 hours after that, I was sitting in the grandstand behind Steven Spielberg, Leo DiCaprio and Arnold Schwarzenegger, watching the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States.

Over the course of my life, I’ve had very few opportunities to say YES in such a dramatic way – in fact I can count on two fingers the other times I’ve dropped everything and propelled myself into a YES moment. The first was a year after I graduated from college. I was working my first job as a receptionist (three cheers for answering phones!). One day, a woman walked into the foyer, who I interned for two years earlier in Washington DC. She was opening up a lobbying office for a telecommunications company and needed a legislative assistant and asked if I was interested. Ummm, YES! Three weeks later, my car was packed and I was moving into a group house I had never seen and living with two MEN I had never met (that didn’t settle too well with Dad).

The second occasion was, ironically, when the same lobbying office closed. I was two weeks from being unemployed and looking for a job, when a friend of mine offered me an unused ticket to Paris (this was LONG before 9/11 travel restrictions, where anyone could fly on a ticket without showing ID). Would I go? YES! I was getting a decent severance package, I certainly had the time and I’d never been! So, off I flew with my girlfriend for a week in Paris. Honestly, it was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Two days after I returned, I received a job offer and started the following week. Everything fell into place, despite my decision to be spontaneous. Fast forward 11 yrs to my opportunity of a year ago, and now I have a total of 3 truly YES acts in my life – without any negative consequences to my actions.

After my Inauguration YES, I resolved to apply YES more often in my life. I wanted to be more spontaneous! I wanted to have that “joie de vie” I felt after all of those decisions. I wanted to be a little less cautious – not reckless, not pray-less – but more willing to say YES and it be OK and enjoy the results. There are days I don’t leave the house, so grand spontaneous YES opportunities don’t often present themselves over laundry. However, in the past year I’ve said yes to things I normally would have said NO to immediately – and guess what? They’ve turned out OK. Earlier in the year, I was asked to be PTA Vice President at my kid’s school. Ahhh!! Definitely a NO moment. But I said YES. I’m now in the middle of PTA hell, but it’s good! I’m learning SO much, and I’ve had so many people help and come to my rescue, that it’s given me the confidence to know I can accomplish tough things. I was also offered a job! My dream job! As a part time librarian. Again, my initial reaction was, “NO, I can’t do this, I don’t have time, what about the kids, what if I can’t do it?” But I said YES, and so far, I’ve been able to manage it all – life is crazy – but it’s working (my house is a disaster, though!). On the flip side, I had the opportunity to see friends in Salt Lake this fall. I initially said YES, but my evil twin returned and I canceled. I was SOOO regretful after that.

I like the YES me. But it’s not the big YESs I need to worry about now – it’s the small YESs – the simple things like -- YES we can go to the park -- YES we can go get ice cream -- YES you can stay up late -- YES you can get the paints out even though I just cleaned the kitchen -- YES we can read one more book. I think if I start saying YES to the little things I will be blessed with more opportunities to test my new found YES nature.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mother Daughter Book Group

Can you see the disappointment on my face? Obviously not, but it’s there.

I think the Christmas break curbed the enthusiasm for our Mother/Daughter book group, considering we only had 3 moms/girls there tonight. Either that or it’s just one more thing families have to add to their already over-booked schedules.

In spite of our small number, the 3 girls that attended enjoyed themselves. Sarah, our book group leader prepared thoughtful, probing questions. They insisted the mothers not contribute, but it’s hard to sit quietly. I was hoping to talk about one of the themes – accepting people for who they are, but they were more concerned about falling in love with the Prince of Spain. That’s OK too.

I’m pushing forward with this endeavor – even if Daisy daughter and I are the last ones meeting. Because I think it's important and we are worth it.

Next book: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, by Maud Hart Lovelace

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review -- Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill (Betsy-Tacy) Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Betsy Tacy series has had such a nostalgic effect on me, I am secretly wishing I was 9 years old again and lived at the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is).

Our Mother/Daughter book group meets Tuesday for our third meeting – and our book choice was the 3rd of the Betsy Tacy series – Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.

I loved this one more than the other two. The first two in the series were essentially nothing more than a series of vignettes linked together as chapters. Over the Big Hill was actually a STORY about these precious friends. Betsy, Tacy and Tib have finally turned 10 – don’t you remember how monumental it was to have TWO numbers in your age? They hone their performing abilities, they try to marry themselves off to the future King of Spain, they save a friend from the bullies at school, they quarrel with their sisters and finally, they have a huge “American Royal” celebration.

I so appreciated the moral message Maud Hart Lovelace portrays in this novel – love and protect your friends, family and country – and don’t judge others. I hope my daughter picked up on these ideals! Ms. Lovelace so accurately portrays the frayed feelings little girls/sisters can get when they are at odds with each other. Although I don’t have sisters, I’ve had enough fights with girlfriends, and have now witnessed my daughter’s fallouts with her siblings, that their anxiousness was instantly recognizable and felt.

My daughter said, “I loved it! It was my favorite Bety-Tacy book. It was really funny when they fell in love with the Prince of Spain. And I liked that they all dressed up as Princesses and Queens.”

Sounds like a stamp of approval to me!

View all my reviews >>

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Book Group Loss

I’ve spoken openly about the love I have for my book group.

In a time and place when I felt bleak, worthless, and despondent, my book group, on more than one occasion, saved me from the brink. Not to mention, fed my very limited intellectual soul.

These women, who I would want in my “Red Tent,” are priceless.

I lost one of my book group members last night. Peggy was a charter member of our book group. Seven years ago when we started our Band of Sisters, Peggy, Chris, Mary Ellen, Virginia and Jane all sat in my living room, among others who have fallen by the way. We were fledgling little chicks in the beginning, not knowing what books to read, where to meet, or most importantly, what refreshments we should bring! But we found our way.

We have read over 70 books in our 7 years – and none of our discussions would have been the same without Peggy. She had a sharp wit and a razor tongue -- like a good New Jesery girl, afterall. If she didn’t like a sentence, a theme, a book, she told you specifically. Similarly, when she loved a book, she didn’t save her feelings. Without her we wouldn’t have known about Helen Colijn (Song of Survival), who survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp with the help of her fellow sisters and a choir that brought joy during such bleakness. She loved Lisa See’s novels – her favorite being Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Of it she said, “I am fascinated by the Chinese culture & was intrigued by the concept of a secret "women's writing" as a creative means of feminine creativity in a harsh, male dominated world.”

Peggy was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer in May. Her prognosis was terminal. She initially tried chemo to “buy her time.” But when chemo proved harsher for her than others, she stopped treatment and chose "quality over quantity." She lived the remaining months with her hair, but in much pain. Over those months, she only missed two book groups. Her bookish opinions were not dulled by the cancer ravaging her body. At a recent meeting, one of our members suggested reading The Shack. Peggy, having read the book before and in all her literary rage, replied, “I will not read that trash again!” Needless to say, it was voted down.

In the past week when we knew our time with her was coming to an end, one of Peggy’s last requests was that we book club members come read our book choice this month to her (People of the Book). It was not meant to be, as she was soon on morphine to keep the evil pain at bay. Yesterday I went to visit Peggy in her hospice room to tell her the book club was coming at 6pm to read to her. With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek (where Peggy’s often was), I told her, “Peggy, we are coming up here to read to you - - and we are reading The Shack, because we know it was your favorite book!” When we all arrived at 6:05pm, we were told Peggy had passed at 6pm. Leave it to Peggy to have the last word, and to prove to us how really terrible The Shack was as to choose death over us reading it to her.

I’m not sure book group will ever be the same without Peggy. But we will continue on, because Peggy would want us too. In April, I had her scheduled to pick a book (because I really thought that a book selection commitment would trump the cancer, silly me), so to honor her, we will read Lisa See’s latest novel, Shanghai Girls. In her last online review written in November, well into her illness, Peggy said, “Another Lisa See winner. Same cultural oppression, especially of women & working classes. I was not aware of the extent of the oppression the Chinese immigrants experienced from our government during the 1940's & 1950's; nor of the exploitation of their own people through the virtual bondage of the ‘paper sons’ practices. Interesting & enlightening.”

Peggy we hope to do the discussion justice without you – please help us out from your heavenly position, steer us in the right direction and guide us always. We will miss you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Review -- The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The correct title of this book should have been The Wordy, Convoluted, Confusing, Shipmates. I loved Sarah Vowell's previous book, The Assassination Vacation, she has a witty, sharp, writing style, but The Wordy Shipmates was all over the place.

Maybe I was at a disadvantage from my obviously inadequate public school education --but had NO idea going into this book who John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson or Mary Dyer were or anything about the Pequot Indian/Mystic Fort massacre – and whether these folks were puritans, separatists or non-separatists. I now know that Winthrop was a Puritan and the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that Senator John Kerry from MA is a descendant, and that GWB is descendant of Anne Hutchinson. Oh, and the Mystic Massacre – yeah, it was really BAD – those righteous Puritans set fire and killed about 600-700 unarmed Indians. But other than that – I’m still not sure if I am any the wiser or less confused.

I’m disappointed I didn’t like this more, since I’m a fan of Sarah Vowell (she is from Oklahoma after all), but this book didn’t do anything for me.

My friend Heather is an adopted New Englander – I think I will mail it to her to read so she can explain Puritan history me!

View all my reviews >>

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Penguin Classics Book Club

Penguin books has announced their classic book choice – it is:

Who Would Have Thought It? by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

Just add another book to my ever growing “to read” list.

I have NEVER heard of this book – have you?

I’m always thrilled to read women authors who have successfully written and had published books when it was a tough journey to do so. And from a Mexican-American author – kudos!

From Publisher’s Weekly:

The insights into class and race in this clever satire set during and after the Civil War give it a thoroughly contemporary feel. It is even more astounding, then, to learn that it was first published in 1872, and that the author was not even a native English speaker. Burton (The Squatter and the Don) was a Baja California native who married a colonel in the Union Army, and here she combines to good effect both solid insider information and her perspective as an outsider. Dr. Norval returns to New England from a trip west carrying more than luggage. While in an Indian camp, Norval rescued a ten-year-old girl, whose mother was a kidnapped Mexican woman desperate to return Lola to the girl's father. Lola is scorned both by the local gentry, who believe she is either black or Indian, and by the doctor's wife?at least until Dr. Norval reveals that she was accompanied by a lot of gold. When word of her wealth gets out, Lola is treated like a lady as the townspeople begin complex plans to get close to her and her money. The details are exquisite. Burton excels at picking names for these supposedly good Christians, from Mrs. Cackle to the Reverends Hackwell and Hammerhard. In short chapters with titles like "Potations, Plotting and Propriety," Burton details the intricate mess of love and proposals?both honest and contrived. A thorough introduction traces specific themes like the novel's precocious portrayal of women entering the public sphere, and footnotes lend helpful historical background. In the end it is the story that counts, though, and this is a fully entertaining read that stands on its own against much of today's fiction.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Throw Books Away!

Seriously – these books, tied in their cute pink ribbon, were in the TOSS pile at the library. Our branch is a collection spot for used books that patrons no longer want. We sell the “gently used” books at our quarterly book sales and use the funds for many of our library programs.

Louisa May Alcott’s treasures were deemed “unsellable” because of their age and were destined for the recycle bin. Oh no!! I LOVE old books – especially the ones with pages falling out and bindings in shreds. I have quite a collection of vintage books – including my grandmother’s 1st edition The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I could not let these eight gems go. I checked the inside pages and most of them are from 1936-39 and they belonged to Anne Elizabeth Findley. Thank you Miss Findley!

My new possessions include: Eight Cousins, An Old Fashioned Girl, Rose in Bloom, Little Women, Little Men, Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, Under the Lilacs and Lulu’s Library.

I’m afraid if I remove the pink ribbon – they may all fall apart!

On a personal note, I hope you will be patient with my blog and upcoming book reviews. Since the beginning of the year, my responsibility as chairman of my children’s elementary school PTA fundraiser has taken over my life. I’m trying to obtain silent auction items, write fundraising letters, sell tickets – you name it – and doing it in a very recessed economy where no one wants to donate anything to a non-profit. Because of that, my book reading has taken 2nd, even 3rd place on my priority list. I will be posting book reviews as much as my time allows. But I’ve realized more than once in recent weeks, I can’t do it all. So, for now, I will be wearing my fundraising hat, and hopefully book reviewer hat when this event is over in March.

At least I had my book rescuer hat on today!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2010 Reading Resolutions

I’m not much of a resolution person, but I do like to set reading goals for the year. I’m not going to set a number of books, because frankly, I don’t know what curve balls await me for 2010. I would like to read MORE than I did last year, but we will wait and see what happens. Sometimes quantity isn’t necessarily quality.

1. Finish all challenges: Since I’m still a relatively new book blogger, the world of book challenges is new to me. There are SO many challenges out there that are tempting, but I’m only officially participating in one – The Women Unbound Challenge. Surely I can finish the 9 books I’ve selected over the course of 11 months.

2. Read more local authors. This is an “unofficial challenge” – but I do plan on adding more Arkansas authors to my reading list. The one book I’ve committed to read is the juvenile novel, The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. I thought it would be fun to read aloud with my daughter. Also, I will be having an Arkansas author giveaway in the coming months in honor of my local literary masters, so be ready to imbibe yourself on some Arkansas literature.

3. Finish all book club books. Normally I don’t have a problem with this. In the course of 6 years, I can count on one hand how many books I haven’t finished. Still, I feel deprived when I get to book club night without completing the book. I regret not being able to participate in the conversation. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is going to haunt me until I finish. One day.

4. I will read one biography of a major historical figure. This is a carryover from last year. I had on my “to read” list John Adams by David McCullough. Oh, it’s soooo long! But I’m determined to complete it this year.

5. I will read a classic book that I've never read. This is a carryover too, but I think it’s a good one to have from year to year. This year my classic was Persuasion, which I hadn’t read before. . My 2010 goal is to read The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. I am an Okie after all.

6. Host or co-host a challenge or read-a-long. Leah at Amused by Books and I have talked tentatively about having a Wolf Hall challenge sometime in the future. We both received copies for Christmas and think having a reading buddy would be the motivation necessary to keep us reading such a massive tome.

7. Continue our Mother/Daughter book club throughout the remainder of this school year and the next. What a blessing this has been.

I think these are attainable, realistic goals. I better get started!!!