Friday, April 30, 2010

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien - Guest Review

272 pages
Published: originally 1990 by Houghton Mifflin
Source: I bought this one from Powell's Books

This one arrived at my house a couple of weeks ago and I was really excited to read it. But I knew it was going to be a couple of months before I could get to it so I loaned it to my dad who has kindly written this guest post for the book.

Synopsis from the publisher:
The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and of course, the character Tim O'Brien who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three. They battle the enemy (or maybe more the idea of the enemy), and occasionally each other. In their relationships we see their isolation and loneliness, their rage and fear.

The review:
I was not involved in the Vietnam War, but thought I had an understanding of it from the news reports I watched almost daily, from the films I've seen, and from books and magazines. After reading THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, I'm persuaded that my grasp on it was no better than slight. I knew how we got into it, I knew about the big battles, and I knew how it ended. I did not understand at all how it was from the perspective of the guys who fought it. I think I have a handle on that now.
O'Brien, who was there, begins with an extensive summary of---as the title suggests---the material things that his comrades carried into combat. Some of it was based on necessity, including dog tags, mosquito repellent, salt tablets, rations, water, and, of course, weapons.
Some of what they carried (humped) was partly a function of rank and/or field specialty, including the first lieutenant's compass, maps, and code books; the medics morphine, plasma, and surgical tape; and the radio man's PRC-25. It varied by mission: if the job was to destroy tunnel complexes, they carried blocks of pentrite high explosives, wiring, and detonators; if it took them into an area known to be heavily mined, they took turns humping a mine detector.
Personal individuality and superstition influenced the load. Rat Kiley carried brandy and M&Ms candy; Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had in his mouth for good luck a small, smooth pebble a girl back home had sent him; Dave Jensen included "a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia; Ted Lavender carried tranquilizers to get him through the day; Henry Dobbins wore his girlfriend's panty hose into combat "wrapped around his neck as a comforter."
O'Brien gives or estimates the weight (your flak jacket weighed 6.7 lbs, a Claymore anti-personnel mine "3.5 pounds with its firing device," your M-16 assault rifle 8.2 pounds with its full magazine) of most of the things the men humped so you can get a pretty good idea of how physically ponderous was the load they carried when they were in the field.
This is all so well and interestingly written that it escapes the feeling of mere cataloging. But I began to wonder how O'Brien could stretch it out to fill up an entire book and, if that's what he was up to, how long he could hold my attention with it.
Not to worry. He had much more important things to tell about.
How does it feel to always believe you should have been smart enough to have somehow avoided being sent to this dreadful place in which you are very apt to die? To carry inside you the terror of a night patrol, when it's so dark you can't even see your comrades and you walk in dread of getting separated in a hostile environment? To be unable to forget the mistake you made that cost a comrade his life? To come to believe your enemy has supernatural powers that can make him appear where you least expect him and make him invulnerable to your best shots? To play over and over in your mind the occasion on which you were assigned to climb a tree and throw down the various parts of a comrade who'd stepped on a land mine? To know you lacked sufficient courage to take appropriate action at some critical point? To be aware that when you did take action, it was not because of nationalism or some grand idealism but simply because you'd have been embarrassed not to. To be haunted by the image of what was left of the first man you killed? To watch, in the middle of a just-destroyed village, a teenaged girl mindlessly dancing in front of the burn-out hut in which the other members of her family lie dead?
O'Brien deals with these questions and more in a series of stories in which he and the other men of his platoon were involved. Are they true? The reader is advised at the outset that "This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary." The author contends, however, that what you imagine is true and what you dream is true are sometimes more true than what actually happened. At any rate, he was there, and I'm willing to accept that though the exact stories he relates may be fiction, they're based on things he really saw and felt.
I personally had no experience of this---or any---war, so I'll rely on the understanding of those who have had. The review of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED in The Veteran said "Go out and get this book and read it. Read it slowly and let O'Brien's masterful storytelling and his eloquent philosophizing about the nature of war wash over you."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"this one is MINE" by Maria Semple

289 pages
Published March 2010 by Little, Brown & Company
Source: the publisher sent this one for participation in an online book discussion

Violet and David Parry and living the American dream. They have everything they could ever hope for - a darling daughter, Dot, a home in the Hollywood Hills, expensive cars, expensive clothes, and hired help. But David, a highly successful music executive, just isn't making Violet happy any more. In fact, ever since she gave up her job as a successful television writer to have a family and spent all of her own money to remodel their multi-million dollar home, things have been going down hill for Violet. Being a mom isn't what she was expecting and being the perfect executive's wife at the expense of being her own person is making Violet desperately unhappy.

Enter Teddy, a musician Violet meets in a museum bathroom. Despite his being dirty, wearing mismatched clothing, and smelling, there's something about Teddy that draws Violet to him like the proverbial moth to flames. She risks everything to be with him and is willing to give him whatever it takes to have him. But David is on to her and Teddy isn't quite as eager to start a new life as Violet is.

We're also introduced to Sally, David's diabetic sister who teaches ballet and is working like mad to find a husband with money before she gets too old. She has a friend introduce her to Jeremy, a well-known sportswriter who's about to hit it big with a job on ESPN. Sally throws herself at Jeremy, pulling out every trick in her book to reel him in despite the fact that she hardly knows him and doesn't particularly care for him. When she discovers she's pregnant and has that ring on her finger, she thinks her life is made. But happily-ever-after might not be in the cards for Sally.

I read this book as part of an online book club hosted by Gayle at Everyday I Write The Book. I've read several books with the group and, while they haven't always been my favorites, we always read books that provoke discussion and challenge me to read out of my usual comfort zone. Sadly, this one didn't live up to that standard for me despite having great potential.

Semple is, herself, a successful television screenwriter, known for her satire. She does poke plenty of fun at the lifestyle of the rich and famous in this book (Violet keeps spending money in a Hermes store simply because she feels obligated to the salesman who's been diligently looking for a particular hat for her for years) and she takes no prisoners among her characters as she mocks their values. Done well, that works for me--Evelyn Waugh's writing comes to mind. But Semple has created characters that I didn't like and didn't understand to begin with.

It's hard to feel sorry for someone like Violet who seems to have it all, but I actually could sympathize with her at the beginning. There's a certain truth to the "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it" adage. It's what Violet gave up along the way that brings her down. Sure she chose to give it up but we don't always realize what the consequences of our choices will be until it's too late. I could have bought into the idea of Violet being drawn into an affair. But with Teddy? I get that Semple wanted to throw Violet into a relationship with someone that other people in her group might look down their noses at. But there was nothing about this guy that seemed in the least bit enticing. He smelled, he was dirty, he made inappropriate remarks in public, he was a currently clean junkie who had contracted Hepatitis C through a dirty needle, and confesses to having impregnated numerous women because he refuses to use a condom. Oh, yeah, and he's something of a misogynist. What's not to love, right?

And Sally? I think the reader is supposed to feel sorry for her because she's had to deal with diabetes since she was a child and had to give up her career as a ballerina when a part of one toe had to be amputated. But there are a lot of people out there that deal with diabetes on a daily basis but becoming a shallow, screeching money grubber doesn't seem to be a symptom of the disease for most of them.

In addition to dealing with Hepatitis C and diabetes, Semple also includes characters that are dealing with autism and I started to feel like the discussion of these issues was meant to raise the book to a higher level. But it all just seemed like too much to me. And even though not everyone lived happily ever after, the ending was tidier than I usually enjoy.

Semple's writing holds great promise; there were frequently passages and pieces that I thought were spot on.

"One time, as an experiment, Violet had decided to only listen to what he said, and never bring anything up about herself. After a couple of days, he grew depressed and became hostile toward her. Still he had never asked a single question about her day or how she was...The whole thing taught her to everyday volunteer something about herself. Even knowing it would be met with indifference."

How true is this? "Stay happy," he said. "You twinkle when you're happy."

And this statement about a couple who's been married a long time: "We're partners who love each other."

Those little gems have me holding out hope that Semple will keep writing and that her next effort will feature more of them. Thanks to Gayle for allowing me to be part of the discussion. Can't wait to head over to her blog to see what others thought of this one.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wuthering Heights Wednesday


Wuthering Heights Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Fizzy Thoughts. This week we're talking about Chapters 10-12 and spoilers will abound. Also posting about the book are:
Chapter 10
When last we saw her, Cathy had just married Edgar and moved to Thrushcross Grange to become the mistress of that house and Ellen has come along with her. For six months everyone is pretty happy--Edgar quickly learns to avoid making Cathy upset and she's on her best behavior. But then:
"It ended. Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering and it ended when circumstances caused each to feel that the one's interest was not the chief consideration in the other's thoughts."

Those circumstances? None other than the return of Heathcliff who is very much changed although he won't tell anyone where he's been or how he came to have money. Cathy is thrilled to have him back and pretty much acts a fool when he first comes to the house. Edgar? Not so thrilled to have Heathcliff back or about the way Cathy is acting.
"...Catherine, try to be glad, without being absurd! The whole household need not witness the sight of your welcoming a runaway servant as a brother."

Now there's a problem. Because Cathy sees Heathcliff as at least a brother, certainly an equal. But there is nothing that will convince Edgar that Heathcliff is anything more than a servant. Then Isabella develops a raging crush on Heathcliff. Cathy tries to talk Isabella out of throwing herself at Heathcliff.
"Pray, don't imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He's not a rough diamond - a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic; he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man."

But Isabella, spoiled teenager that she is won't listen and accuses Catherine of being jealous.

"But she uttered falsehoods, didn't she? Mr. Heathcliff is not a fiend; he has an honourable soul, and a true one, or how could he remember her?"

So Catherine decides to embarrass Isabella by talking about Isabella's infatuation right in front of Heathcliff. You can practically see him rubbing his hands together with an evil look as he begins plot how he can use this information.

Chapter 11
Heathcliff has been staying at Wuthering Heights since he's been back which is pretty surprising considering how much Hindley hated him. But Hindley's gone off the deep end and is more than willing to accept Heathcliff back since Heathcliff is paying him. When Ellen stops by, we begin to see that Heathcliff is having a terrible effect on little Hareton and helping Hindley dig himself an even bigger hole.

One day Heathcliff arrives at Thrushcross Grange and he and Catherine get into a huge fight. She's all "stay away from Isabella" and he's all "no I won't and mind your own business." Ellen thinks things are getting out of hand and goes to warn Edgar who heads off to the kitchen to take care of the problem. Too bad he's not up to the battle. Heathcliff really backs him down and makes him look like a coward but then ol' Edgar hauls off and whacks him in the throat. While Heathcliff is recovering, Edgar runs to get some servants to help him kick Heathcliff out.

At this point, Cathy loses it. She's mad at Ellen for dragging Edgar into the whole thing and insists she could have handled it. She's mad at Edgar for banning Heathcliff and threatens to break her own heart if Heathcliff can't come back. Once again Ellen steps in and basically tells Edgar "tsk, tsk, never mind her; she's just putting on an act." So when Catherine locks herself into her bedroom for a couple of days, no one seems to be too concerned.

Chapter 12
Finally on the third day, Catherine lets Ellen into her room. Surprise! In the past couple of days Catherine has done lost her mind. She's imagining things, her moods are changing by the second and she doesn't even seem to know where she's at some of the time. When Linton comes to the room he blames Ellen for giving him bad advice and sends her off to fetch what passes for a doctor, Mr. Kenneth. When she gets there, Kenneth tells her that word is out that Isabella and Heathcliff were seen leaving the area the night before. Ellen rushes back to tell Edgar but he just says that from now on Isabella is his sister in name only because she has disowned him.

My Thoughts
I'm much less cranky about Heathcliff's behavior at this point. The guy's been treated pretty badly in the past. But I'm completely with Edgar when he bans him from Thrushcross Grange. Seriously, the guy has designs on both Edgar's wife and sister. And Catherine? So over her. She's been bending everyone to her will all of this time and is surprised to find out that they don't all just love her.

"How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me."

I'm thinking the whole lot of them deserves to be whacked upside the head!

Several of you asked for pictures of my book so here they are.
I actually quite like the expression on Heathcliff's face but I have no idea why they would have made him a redhead! Next week I'll try to remember to take a picture of the drawing of Emily Bronte that's inside the book--the one that makes her look like she's smelled something awful.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Giveaway: "The Singer's Gun" by Emily St. John Mandel


Thanks to Unbridled Books, I have one hardcover copy of Emily St. John Mandel's "The Singer's Gun" to giveaway!

Please leave me a comment with a way to get in touch with you. Giveaway is limited to U.S. residents only and entries must be received by May 1st.

Have you read any of Unbridled Book's titles?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

The Singer's Gun by Emily Mandel
304 pages
Published May 2010 by Unbridled Books
Source: This copy courtesy of the publisher

I've been struggling with a synopsis for this one since I finished reading it. I didn't have much of an idea what it was about when I started reading it. I knew I wanted to read it because I had liked Mandel's "Last Night in Montreal," so I jumped at the chance to read this one. I thought maybe I'd just use the publisher's synopsis, and you're welcome to read it if you want to, but it gives away a far amount of what were, for me, the surprises that made this feel like a puzzle to me.

Anton Walker is the only son of parents that deal in salvage architecture and cousin to Aria, a person he is drawn to in ways that only lead to trouble. Anton has broken away from his family to start a new life for himself as a mid-level manager and has desperately been trying to marry his girlfriend, Sophie. When he finally manages to get her down the aisle, it turns out it is too late for them and Sophie leaves him on their honeymoon and returns home alone. And that's not the only thing that's gone wrong in Anton's life. He's been having an affair with his secretary, something strange is going on with his job, and he's been sucked into one last job for Aria that seems to be more dangerous than she is making it out to be.

There--that's all I want to tell you even though I took a printer page full of miniscule notes to keep track of what was going on. But I really want you to have the fun of turning the pages and having those "a-ha" moments which made this book such a page turner for me. Mandel has, once again, created a book loaded with usual characters and a plot unlike anything you have ever read before. And then there's her writing; Mandel also has an entirely unique voice.

"Anton resented the absence of a television, but there were things he read in books that took his breath away. His mother's collection of travel guides never moved him, but Kirkegaard's last words were Sweep me up. He read those three words when he was fifteen and his eyes filled inexplicably with tears."

"Come on, this can't possibly be it. I cannot possibly be expected to do something this awful day in and day out until the day I die. It's like a life sentence imposed in the absence of a crime."

"Every catastrophe has a last moment just before it: as last as eight forty-four A.M. on the morning of September 11, 2001, it was still only a perfect bright day in New York."

The first half of the novel moves along rapidly, introducing characters, dropping hints then later resolving them. The second half of the book is much slower as it takes all of that and sets up the conclusion and it did drag a bit in places. Just as she did in "Last Night in Montreal," Mandel left me with a satisfying ending--not a "happily ever after" ending but tidy enough to satisfy.

There's a lot here for a book club to discuss--fidelity, right vs. wrong, just how much do we owe our families. Both "Last Night In Montreal" and "The Singer's Gun" have been Indie Next Picks. As I finished this one, I was happy to know that Mandel is hard at work on a third novel so I shouldn't have long to wait. "The Singer's Gun" will be on blog tour beginning next week so be sure to check out for other opinions.

Tomorrow I'll be posting a giveaway for a copy of "The Singer's Gun" so be sure to check back then.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Wuthering Heights Wednesday - The Friday Catch Up Edition

When Jill from Fizzy Thoughts announced that she was going to be doing a read-along of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, I jumped at the chance to join in. Wuthering Heights was on several of my challenge lists for the year and, what the heck, I already own the book so remembering to pick up a copy wouldn't be a problem. Turns out that finding my copy was, however. In the end it was right where it was supposed to be; I was just looking for a completely different book. I had forgotten that my copy of the book is a little (just barely 4" x 7"), almost forty year old, inexpensive hardcover. And by inexpensive, I mean $1.60--even by 1960's standards, that's inexpensive.

Each week the bloggers that are participating in the read-along are posting their summaries and thoughts on three chapters at a time. This is week three--since I'm behind and have nine chapters, I'm going to be doing a Cliff's Notes edition of my thoughts.

Chapters 1-3
Mr. Lockwood opens the book recalling a visit he has just paid to his new landlord Mr. Heathcliff at Wuthering Heights. Mr. Lockwood declares Mr. Heathcliff "a gypsy in aspect; in dress and manner a gentleman." Lockwood feels as though he and Heathcliff are a "suitable pair." Uninvited, Lockwood drops by for a second visit. After being stranded by a snowstorm and forced to spend the night at Wuthering Heights, Lockwood changes his opinion. It's on this visit that Lockwood also meets a young man named Hareton (whom Lockwood finds repulsive), young Catherine (the wife of Heathcliff's late son) and Heathcliff's servants Zillah and Joseph.

After Lockwood has finally fallen asleep, he is awakened by a tapping at the window sill. He breaks out a windowpane trying to brush away what he assumes is an offending tree branch. Instead he is grasped by a young woman's hand and she begs to be let in. Fearing what is happening, Lockwood lets out a scream that causes Heathcliff to come to the room; furious, he tells Lockwood to leave. As Lockwood is leaving, he witnesses Heathcliff at the window begging Catherine to come in.

Chapters 4-6
When Lockwood is able to return home the next morning, he asks his housekeeper, Mrs. Dean (Ellen or Nelly), if she knows anything about Heathcliff. Well of course she does! It turns out that she was a servant in the Earnshaw house then Catherine and Hindley were young. The Earnshaws were a happy little family until Mr. Earnshaw went off to London on business. Instead of returning home with gifts for his kids as promised, Earnshaw brought home a raggedy, sullen orphan. The spoiled Earnshaw children are really mean to him at first but Catherine soon begins to dote on him. But Hindley hates the boy, who is named Heathcliff, and his hatred grows the more his father dotes on Heathcliff.

Then Hindley goes off to college and old Earnshaw grows ill. Joseph (he was around even then) is constantly preaching and telling old Earnshaw the children are all bad. Earnshaw only seems to hear it about Cathy and she starts to grow hard the harder her life becomes.

When Earnshaw dies, Hindley returns for the funeral with a sickly wife and promptly banishes Heathcliff from the house, makes him work as a outside servant, and stops his education. Cathy and Heathcliff take to running wild and roaming the moors. One day they decide to go spy on the richy rich Lintons at Thrushcross Grange and, while they're there, Cathy is attacked by a dog. Heathcliff is sent home but the Lintons take Cathy in until she is healed.

Chapters 7-9
When Cathy's leg is healed, she returns to Wuthering Heights. She has changed a lot and Heathcliff realizes how far apart they have grown. At first he decides to become as dirty and unkempt as possible but soon asks Ellen to help him become better.

"Were I in your place, I would frame high notions of my birth, and the thoughts of what I was should give me courage and dignity to support the oppressions of a little farmer."
Then the Linton children, Edgar and Isabella, begin visiting and Heathcliff is pushed further and further away from Cathy; she is torn between wanting to fit in with them and wanting to be with Heathcliff.

When Frances gives birth to Hareton, the consumption she has been battling becomes much more serious. Hindley goes crazy with grief and becomes a drunken bum.

Cathy develops two personalities--at home she's awful but around the Lintons she's charming and she manages to charm Edgar into proposing. Cathy accepts even though she confesses to Ellen that she really loves Heathcliff but that she can't marry him because he's below her and they would be beggars. If she marries Edgar, Cathy says, she can help Heathcliff. He happens to overhear only the part where she says she wouldn't marry him and decides to run away.

Within the next three years, both of Edgar's parents die and Cathy and Edgar are married.

My Thoughts
Whew--I had forgotten how much happened in these first few chapters! Bronte packed in a lot of characters and plenty of action while still creating a wonderful sense of place and fully realized characters.

When I read this before I really did not like Heathcliff--he seemed to come to the Earnshaws already a person who would always be disagreeable. But as I read the story again, I did begin to feel sorry for him and think that if he had been treated better from the time he came to live at Wuthering Heights, he may have turned out much differently. Had old Mr. Earnshaw not given so much of his affection to Heathcliff, Cathy and Hindley might not have turned out to be such unpleasant people.

My favorite passage was Cathy describing her love of Heathcliff to Ellen:

"I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of your beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it."

So now I'm caught up with the read-along and caught up in the book. I'll be back Wednesday with my next update!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNess

By Kelly O'Connor McNees
336 Pages
Published April 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Louisa May Alcott, who wrote one of the most beloved stories of all time, "Little Women", grew up in a much different household than the one she painted in the classic. Her father, Bronson, was a transcendentalist and a free thinker. His philosophies kept his family in extreme poverty because he would not take a job. The burden of keeping the family feed and sheltered fell squarely on the shoulders of Louisa's mother, Abigail, known as Abba, and their four daughters. When the girls were all young women, they moved to Walpole, thanks to a family member who offered them free lodging. And it is here that McNees begins her story, blending the well-documented lives of the Alcotts with fiction.

As soon as they arrive, Louisa, already in her twenties, is making plans in her head to return to Boston to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. But when her oldest sister, Anna, confides that she is hoping to find a husband in Walpole, Louisa begins to doubt that she will be able to leave her mother. Younger sister Lizzie never fully recovered from small pox and isn't able to do much of the household work and youngest sister May is frivolous and manages to avoid it. But mostly Louisa is upset with Anna because she cannot imagine a future as a wife and can't believe that Anna would want to live the same kind of life as their mother. And, as much as Louisa craves her father's approval, he is a terrible example of what a husband and father should be. About marriage, Abba even says to Louisa:

"I suppose you will learn this soon enough on your own, but I might have understood my life a little better if someone had told me. For a man, love is just a season. For a woman it is the whole of the year--winter, spring, summer, and fall--and yet, sometimes it is not what it could be. What it seems it should be."
As a father, Bronson seemed to view his children as objects, rather than people:
"...her father approached child-rearing like a scientific study. He collected evidence, keeping written observations of his subjects and as the girls grew, reviewing their own journals. And like any scientist worth his salt, Bronson formed theories and then constructed experiments to test their veracity."
Then Louisa meets Joseph, a young man who is largely responsible for running his father's business. When she finds herself being drawn into a relationship with him that will mean the end to her own plans, she has to make the decision between Joseph and independence.

An encounter with the famed actress Fanny Kemble, whom Louisa greatly admired for her fight for her own independence, helps Louisa make up her mind.

"Suddenly she was in the presence of a genius of her time, not to mention a woman unafraid of upsetting the dictates of propriety in order to live her life as she pleased. She wondered if God had put Fanny Kemble in her path at this moment to remind her that life held the promise of unlimited and surprising joys, if only one had the courage to pursue them."
But when that life turns out to be harder than she thought, when she almost finds herself becoming a Jane Eyre, she begins to doubt her decision and a life with Joseph once again begins to look as if it might be a possibility for Louisa.

The book is well-written, well-paced and McNees does a good job of tying up all of the plot lines. She has clearly done her research on the Alcotts and does a wonderful job of tying in that research into what she imagines might have been the real Alcotts take on their reality.

"...her father was a man of many grand ideas and little commonsense. As a child, she had revered him and never doubted that the problem lay with a world unwilling to comprehend his brilliance. But eventually she had come to see him in a different light, one that revealed his flaws."

As a person who grew up loving "Little Women," I was concerned that this would take the Alcotts in a direction that I wouldn't enjoy, much as Geraldine Brook's "March" did. But McNees has carefully managed to make the characters a wonderful blend of reality and the dear girls that I fell in love with. I had some problems with the ending of the book. On the one hand, I liked that McNees did not attempt to alter reality but I felt that things got closed up a bit too neatly. However, that is such a minor complaint, it really didn't effect my opinion of the book.

Trish, of Hey Lady, Whatcha Reading, led an online discussion of the book with McNees and she was a terrific sport, answering all questions posted to her ahead of time then spending extra time going back to answer questions that had come up in the discussion. Check it out to learn more about the writing of the book. To learn more about Kelly O'Connor McNees, check out her website.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour! For more views on this book, visit the other tour sites.

Thursday, April 1st: S. Krishna’s Books
Monday, April 5th: Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Tuesday, April 6th: The Tome Traveller
Wednesday, April 7th: Snickollet
Thursday, April 8th: lit*chick
Friday, April 9th: This Dangerous Life
Monday, April 12th: Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, April 14th: Reading Series on Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?
Thursday, April 15th: Devourer of Books
Monday, April 19th: Book-a-rama
Tuesday, April 20th: Becky’s Book Reviews
Wednesday, April 21st: Lit and Life
Thursday, April 22nd: Life in the Thumb
Monday, April 26th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Tuesday, April 27th: kerrianne
Wednesday, April 28th: Books Like Breathing
Thursday, April 29th: Sophisticated Dorkiness
Friday, April 30th: Mille Fiori Favoriti

Monday, April 19, 2010

Comfort Living: A Back-to-Basics Guide To a More Balanced Lifestyle by Christine Eisner

Comfort Living: A Back-to-Basics Guide To A More Balanced Lifestyle by Christine Eisner
82 pages
Published January 2010 by Lifestyle
Source: supplied by the publisher for review

From the book:

"Each chapter in Comfort Living will prompt and guide you to reflect on what matters most to you, along with step-by-step tools, exercises and examples that show you how to use these tools in your own home."

The book provides the reader with an eight week program to bring balance to your life by making changes in your surroundings to make them work better for your lifestyle. Each week focuses on a lesson, introduces concepts, gives to-dos for the week and requires the reader to make observations. A weekly worksheet is also included. The book includes profile pages to develop your own plan. My book also came with a companion Journal to record treasures and obstacles (concepts introduced in the book) and to-do's.

One of the concepts introduced in the book is the the creation of campfires, or centers of energy that attract. One example is a reading campfire: a comfortable chair, a lamp, a lap blanket, and some books create a reading campfire for you and your child to cozy up in.

Bridges and Echoes are other concepts that are worked on in Week 5. Bridges create a connection or continuity and can be a person place, thing or even a routine. Echoes are objects or other elements that have the power to transport you across time a place, such as a favorite song or the aroma of a comfort food.

I've had this book for a while and really wanted to be able to read it a little at a time so that I could actually use the ideas as they were introduced. The idea was to do it the first of the year. Which came and went. And then I couldn't start until the Christmas stuff was down and put back where it belongs. And then...you get the picture. So I finally just sat down and read it. And found a lot of great ideas, presented in a very straight forward manner with very practical application ideas and beautiful photographs.

As with with so many self-help type books, some things are easier said than done. And there were definitely ideas that I know I won't be implementing. Setting the table in the morning for dinner doesn't work for me. I just don't like the idea of the dishes that I'm going to eat off of sitting out all day. I think the biggest hinderance for this book will be the price; $19.95 for an 82 page paperback may deter some buyers.

Now I just need to make sure that I start back at the beginning and really put the book to use. I'll let you know how it goes!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mama Shepp's Family Recommends...

This week's family recommendation comes from Mama Shepp's own mama. Actually, I'm not sure anyone's ever called her "Mama" but that's neither here nor there. What's she's recommended for us is Extra Virgin: Amongst The Olive Groves of Liguria by Annie Hawkes. Here's what Mom has to say about the book:

"Annie Hawes and "the sister" leave England to work in San Pietro, a town on the Riviera near the French border, for ten weeks. They begin their stay in an inn which also houses "The Sulking Cafe" where they learn the wide differences between Italy and England. The English sisters are mystified over the many beliefs of the Italians in 1983 and the Italians are horrified over the behavior and notions of the English sisters. Before the ten weeks are over, the sisters have bought a rustico (an old abandoned home) in the mountains above the village. They begin the process of learning to live with "the hanky people" and to learn and accept the customs. There are many blunders made as they progress through the steps to making their house a home and to adapting the many terraces around their home into an acceptable landscape. The story includes many references to Italian foods and eating habits. The most common thread is that of the olive tree which grows in great abundance in their region. As you read, you learn to love the Italian friends and feel sorrow when one later dies. You struggle to learn to care for the olive trees and to make the tedious ride up to the mountain home. You are introduced to many Italian words and have a wonderful time at the many "festas" that frequently occur. Because it is only about 40 years since the end of WWII, you are introduced to the memories of the Nazi influence in this part of the world and feel grateful that you are not a German trying to settle in this region. When money runs out, the sisters return to England to work but hurry back to their new home. The book has many facets--humor, instruction, pathos, cooking lessons, horticulture, etc.--it is a delightful book, one that I highly recommend. The author's memoirs are well written and you live the years with and through her. Her command of the English language makes the book come alive. It just makes you go "wow!" Luigi and Maria and Domenico and Sergio became my friends as we harvested the olives and fought the forest fires, and stomped the grapes. And now if you don't mind, I need to go and find some extra virgin olive oil--the noon church bells are ringing and I must follow custom and eat."

When looking for more information on this book, I found a curious thing. I'm used to different covers, so I wasn't surprised that the cover I found on Goodreads (above) was not the same as the cover I found on Barnes & Nobles' website. The strange part was that the subtitle was different. So if this one appeals to you, you may find it under the title "Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers The Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted." Oh, and do make sure you look for this by the author as well as the title, which, not surprisingly, will also bring you up some books of an entirely different ilk!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Finds - April 16

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Anchee Min talking with Melissa Block on NPR's All Things Considered about her latest novel, "Pearl of China." Min was 14, and living in Shanghai, when she first heard of American author, Pearl Buck. At the time, Buck was out of favor in China and Min could find almost no information about her. Years later, a fan gave her a copy of Buck's "The Good Earth" and as soon as Min read the way Buck wrote about the Chinese peasants, "Pearl of China" was born.
In the small southern town of Chin-kiang, in the last days of the nineteenth century, two young girls bump heads and become thick as thieves. Willow is the only child of a destitute family, Pearl the headstrong daughter of zealous Christian missionaries. She will ultimately become the internationally renowned author Pearl S. Buck, but for now she is just a girl embarrassed by her blonde hair and enchanted by her new Chinese friend. The two embark on a friendship that will sustain both of them through one of the most tumultuous periods in Chinese history.
Moving out into the world together, the two enter the intellectual fray of the times, share love interests and survive early marriages gone bad. Their shared upbringing inspires Pearl’s novels, which celebrate the life of the Chinese peasant and will eventually earn her both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize. But when a civil war erupts between the Nationalists and Communists, Pearl is forced to flee the country just ahead of angry mobs. Willow, despite close ties to Mao’s inner circle, is punished for loyalty to her “cultural imperialist" friend. And yet, through love and loss, heartbreak and joy, exile and imprisonment, the two women remain intimately entwined.
In this ambitious new novel, Anchee Min brings to life a courageous and passionate woman who is now hailed in China as a modern heroine. Like nothing before it, Pearl of China tells the story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, from the perspective ofthe people she loved and of the land she called home.


Friday Finds is hosted by Miz B of Should Be Reading.

Get Lucky by Katherine Center

Get Lucky by Katherine Center
288 pages
Published April 2010 by Random House
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Sarah Harper has had a crisis of conscience. Either that or she's just stayed up too late and in her sleepless state made a terrible decision. Either way, she has just sabotaged herself by forwarding on an email that her sister had sent Sarah to her entire company. Which might not be, in and of itself, a bad thing, except that the email was filled with pictures of women's breasts. So the lady that is responsible for the company's latest ad campaign for a line of bras now finds herself without a job. Fired by her former lover. A workaholic, Sarah doesn't know what to do with herself so she puts her things in storage and hops a plane for Houston and her family. As if she were not down enough, Sarah finds herself seated on the plane next to a high-school sweetheart. She broke his heart; he tells her now that she looks old. She can't wait to get to her sister, her closest friend.

But when her sister, Mackie, picks her up at the airport, Mackie has a confession to make. She has come to the end of her options for having a child of her own. She and her husband, Clive, are giving up. Which sets Sarah's mind in motion--why can't she carry Clive and Mackie's baby? After all, they have plenty of room for her to stay with them, can afford to support her and she has no where better to be. Soon Sarah finds herself pregnant with twins and life is not quite as idyllic as she had anticipated. For one thing, she soon tires of Mackie's constant hovering as she tries to protect her babies. Also, it turns out that ex-high school boyfriend was headed to Houston to work with Clive's company, a situation that will put Sarah and him together frequently. And Sarah starts to wonder about giving up these little humans that have been growing inside of her.

Toss into all of this a situation involving the ex-boss and the model for the bra campaign, her widowed father's new girlfriend (Dixie), a crush on her brother-in-law, a new job with a preservation society and a Clive and Mackie's va-va-va-voom tenant and Sarah's life has become anything but the relaxing break she was expecting when she left New York.

I defy you not to get pulled in by a book that opens like this:

"First: I got fired. For emailing a website with hundreds of pictures of breasts to every single person in our company. Even the CEO and chairman of the board. Even the summer interns."

Looking back, I may have been ready to leave my job. I'd like to give myself the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes the crazy things I do are actually very sensible. And sometimes, of course, they're just crazy."

Center's books are probably considered chick-lit by many. And, to be fair, they probably do fall into that category to some extent; at least the two books I have read by her do. There are handsome men, leading ladies in distress, complications, other women--that sort of thing. And in this book, the relationship with the the handsome leading man in this one didn't work that well for me. It just didn't seem to have much development--things just sort of happened.

But this book is so much more than chick-lit. Center's style of writing is unique. She mixes in humor (the kind that sometimes makes me laugh out loud), with moments that really tug at your heart (like the scene where Dixie discovers that Sarah's dad has never gotten rid of one single thing that belonged to her mother), and some really terrific observations about people, our relationships and our life choices.

"Either way, I couldn't get around what they had to say. That an economy based on buying stuff needed to keep us all dissatisfied and miserable, needed to keep us focused on what we didn't have instead of what we did, and needed to convince us that things like happiness and peace and beauty could be bought."

"I should mention that my sister and I were close. We weren't best friends exactly, though--because a best friend is a person you choose. A best friend, in most cases, is a temporary person, too, until she moves away, or gets a promotion and starts working too hard, or just drifts off. Friends depend on a certain amount of convenience. With friends, you have to have their number handy, or work in the same office, of live in the same city. With sisters, none of that matters. And in the end, for me, that would be a lucky thing."


It's gems of truths like those that make me get over the fact that I wasn't wild about the way Sarah's feelings about seeing the babies after they were born was resolved. It's the fact that Center can so accurately describe the feelings that Sarah has about not being in her old life while she's pregnant or how she feels about seeing her father become more and more hermit like that keep me reading. It's lines like "He dressed like a handsomer man" and "...when you're tethered, all you can do is flap like hell to get free---long after your feathers are gone, or even maybe your wings" that make reading Center's books so delightful. And even though the book pretty much wraps everything up with a tidy bow, Center acknowledges that some things in life just aren't that easy to wrap up neatly.

"All this time later, I am glad Mackie got what she wanted, and I'm happy I was able to help her, and I know it was the right thing to do. But I still can't shake the feeling that I've lost her. The weirdness from that pregnancy has fallen away, but the babies did change everything."

For more thoughts on "Get Lucky," check out these stops on the tour:
Thursday, April 1st: Bermuda Onion
Friday, April 2nd: Stephanie’s Written Word
Monday, April 5th: Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, April 6th: Thoughts of an Evil Overlord
Wednesday, April 7th: Pop Culture Junkie
Thursday, April 8th: Caribousmom
Friday, April 9th: Write for a Reader
Monday, April 12th: Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, April 13th: Luxury Reading
Wednesday, April 14th: S. Krishna’s Books
Thursday, April 15th: My Friend Amy
Friday, April 16th: Lit and Life
Monday, April 19th: Park City Girl
Tuesday, April 20th: The 3 R’s Blog
Wednesday, April 21st: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Thursday, April 22nd: Maw Books
Monday, April 26th: Write Meg!
Tuesday, April 27th: Rundpinne
Wednesday, April 28th: Diary of an Eccentric
And for more information on Katherine Center and her work, check out www.katherinecenter.com. Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

And The Winner of "South of Broad" Is...


Congratulations, Holly!


Thanks to Knopf Doubleday for offering this book for giveaway!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Eloise

Written by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight
61 pages
Published April 1969 by Simon & Schuster's Childrens
Source: my daughter

I feel a little bit like I cheated reading this for the read-a-thon but it counts for the You've Got Mail Challenge and I needed a quick read to sandwich in between other books during the read-a-thon.

Eloise is a six-year-old who lives in The Plaza hotel with Nanny; her dog that looks like a cat, Weenie, and her turtle, Skipperdee. To say that Eloise is a handful is an understatement. Eloise loves, loves, loves to ride the elevators and order room service. She simply cawn't, cawn't, cawn't go a day without adjusting the hotel's thermostats, or pulling out the fire houses, or opening all of the packages in the Package Room in search of one that might be for her. If she were you child, you'd be pulling your hair out. But since she's not, she's adorable.

Thompson captures the voice of a precocious six-year-old marvelously. Eloise skidders sticks along the wall, slomps in her skates and skibbles out of bed in the morning. As wonderful as the writing is, I can't imagine that Eloise would have been quite the success that it's been without Knight's drawings. We've got several of the Eloise books--they're on the shelf of books that I just have to keep in the hopes that someday I'll be able to snuggle up with a grand-daughter and Eloise.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Salon - April 11

Happy Sunday! What a gorgeous weekend it's been here!

Reading Group Choices recently came out with their list of the top ten book group favorites of 2009, with Kathryn Stockett's The Help topping the list. Of the ten, I've read seven with the remaining three all on my list of books to read this year.

Like so many of you, I spent a lot of time reading this weekend as part of Dewey's 24-Hour Read-a-thon. Life conspired against me yesterday (I ended up having to work a few hours yesterday just as the read-a thon began and exactly at one of the quietest times in my house). At the 19th hour, I decided to call it a night, having decided to continue on my own into today. All told, I did manage to finish four books while keeping my family feed, catching up on laundry, cleaning my kitchen and getting Mini-me fitted for a tux for his senior prom.


Reading Group Choices also had an interesting article by Elise Blackwell, author of An Unfinished Score and The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, talking about book clubs, marriage and inspiration. Elise is married to a writer and talks about the perception of how marriage between two authors works.

In an article written for Book Browse Blog, Tatjana Soli, author of The Lotus Eaters, writes about rereading favorite books. She lists several books that she's read so many times she's had to buy multiple copies, including Anna Karenina, Heart of Darkness (by Joseph Conrad) and The Things They Carried. With both Soli and Jennie Nash recommending The Things They Carried to me, I ordered it recently and can't wait to read it

It's no secret that I loved The Lotus Eaters. I'm in good company; The New York Times reviewer was similarly impressed.

In love listening to Studio 360 on NPR, which is usually hosted by the wonderful Kurt Anderson. A couple of weeks ago actor Alec Baldwin sat in for Anderson and interviewed Mary Karr, author most recently of Lit, an memoir about her battle with alcoholism. I highly recommend having a listen!


Hope you all had a wonderful weekend and got to enjoy plenty of reading time as well!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Reading Is Fundamental Mini-Challenge


Joy, at Joystory, is hosting, as part of the Read-a-thon, a minichallenge as readers to create a post celebrating the reading child, in support of Reading is Fundamental.


I've talked a lot on my blog about the role reading has played in my family, from my great-grandmother being a part of creating the first library in her town to my own efforts to turn my own children into readers. My great-grandmother passed down her love of reading to my grandmother (who read until she passed away, even when that meant "reading" by checking out books on audio from the library) who passed that same love on to my father. I've told you about how he used to read to us before bed time; he would lean against the bit of wall between my bedroom and his and the three of us would snuggle up around him in the hall. I have no idea why we didn't go stretch out on the sofa or curl up on someone's bed but we didn't. Perhaps the hallway offered fewer distractions than other places in the house, but I can't imagine that was necessary. My father brought those stories alive. A very early Christmas card of my family actually includes my father holding a copy of the book "Babes In Toyland," as though he were reading it to us.

My husband and I both read to our children from the time they were infants but some of my favorite memories are of the times I came upon one of the boys reading to his sibling(s). First of all, hooray, they were getting along, but, more importantly, reading was clearly something that he felt was fun to do. When my daughter was four and, for the first time ever they all had matching Christmas clothes, I decided it was time to recreate, to some extent anyway, that Christmas card from my youth. We didn't have "Babes In Toyland," but we had more than enough Christmas books to choose from (36 at one point--how ridiculous is that?!). I'm looking that picture now thinking that a) this should never be made into a poster to advocate reading as fun (do they look like they're enjoying themselves?) and b) everyone is going to know that I threatened them that Santa wouldn't come if they didn't stand still and let me take the darn picture. Don't worry. I'm sure that as soon as we got this shot, they were allowed to jump into their little footie pajamas, curl up on the sofa with me and enjoy a few books before bedtime.

Dewey's Read-a-thon: Hour 1 (for me at least!)

Finally home from work and ready to kick off the read-a-thon. Now let's see--do I have everything I need?

Books? check
Snacks? check
Tea? check
Reading glasses? sadly, check
Cell phone to keep up with Twitter? check
Peace and quiet? not so much.

The hubby is off having fun, Mini-him is at work but Mini-me and Miss H are in various parts of the house listening to music which they feel obliged to share. The blending of the two is not particularly conducive to relaxed reading. Soon I'll send Mini-me off for pizza and that will afford me a little more quiet. Kicking off the day with The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees.

Friday, April 9, 2010

It's Time For Dewey's Read-a-thon Again!

Just a few more hours now until the spring edition of Dewey's Read-a-thon kicks off and I've finally officially signed up to read from 7 a.m. Saturday until 7 a.m. Sunday. Okay--in the fall I really thought that I was going to read for 24 hours, less one Nebraska football game and maybe some family interruptions. But there were a lot of football games to watch and kids coming in and out and at five in the morning I was bleary eyed and not at all enjoying myself any more so I called it a night. This time I'm really going to try to get more reading done during the day but when I get tired, I'm calling it a night! Snacks and caffeine will figure prominently. These are the books I'm planning on reading:


"Comfort Living" by Christine Eisner


"The Singer's Gun" by Emily St. John Mandel


"The Only True Genius In The Family" by Jennie Nash


"Get Lucky" by Katherine Center


"The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott" by Kelly O'Connor McNees

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wonderous Words Wednesday

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme, hosted by Kathy at Bermudaonion's Weblog, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. If you want to play along, grab the button, and join the fun! (Don’t forget to leave a link in the comments if you’re participating.) All of my words this week come from Pat Conroy's "South of Broad."

1. Bailiwick: "Unlike any other family I knew, the kitchen was my father's bailiwick and his alone."

As used here, bailiwick means a person's skill, knowledge, authority or work.

2. Etiolated: "Each semester she taught a graduate-level course on Joyce at the College of Charleston that was both highly praised and fully subscribed to by students as etiolated as egrets."

Defined as "to cause to become weakened or sickly; drain of color or vigor. "

3. Lassitude: "When I became aware of Starla's great lassitude of spirit, and the flimsiness of her hold on sanity, my greatest fear became that she would take her own life..."

The dictionary defines lassitude as "a condition of weariness or debility."

This book is loaded with wonderous words--it's one of the things that makes me enjoy Conroy's writing. What wonderous words have you read lately?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Giveaway - "South of Broad" by Pat Conroy


Thanks to the publisher, I have one copy of "South of Broad" to giveaway. Please leave a comment with a way to get a hold of you. Winner will picked on Monday, April 12th.

To learn more about Pat Conroy, check out his website at:
http://www.patconroy.com/

Pat Conroy is also the author The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline and The Great Santini, all of which have been made into movies.

Monday, April 5, 2010

South of Broad

By Pat Conroy
528 pages
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours for this review

In June 1969, Leopold Bloom King, the son of a loving, friendly high school math teacher and a strict, former nun mother, who is also the high school principal, suddenly finds himself, for the first time since the suicide of his brother nine years earlier, making friends. New neighbors Sheba and Trevor Poe. Orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead. Ike Jefferson, son of the football coach and one of the first black people Leo has ever really known. Chadworth and Fraser Rutledge and Molly Huger, of the first family of Charleston who end up attending the public high school after an being caught with drugs. Part One of South of Broad recounts how this unlikely group of people became friends and gives a solid background on each of the players.

Jump forward 20 years for Part Two. Sheba, now a major movie star, has made one of her rare returns to Charleston. Those of the group that remain in town throw her a reunion but know that Sheba is there for a reason. It turns out that Trevor, who has all but disappeared in the past few years, has really disappeared now and Sheba is anxious to find him and bring him back to Charleston. Sheba, estranged from Trevor for years, has discovered that he is dying of AIDS and wants him to spend the rest of his life surrounded by friends, friends she would like to have help her find him. So Ike, his wife Betty, Niles, Fraser, Sheba, Molly and Leo head off to San Fransisco, each of them carrying more baggage than just the suitcases they have packed.

Pat Conroy is a master of writing about the American South. Just as in all of his novels, the setting of South of Broad, Charleston, is very much a character in the book. Leo describes Charleston this way:

"I consider it a high privilege to be a native of one of the loveliest American cities, not a high-kicking, glossy, or lipsticked city, not a city with bells on its fingers or brightly painted toenails, but a ruffled, low-slung city, understated and tolerant of nothing mismade or ostenatious. Though Charleston feels a seersuckered, tuxedoed view of itself, it approves of restraint far more than vulgarity."

I love the way Conroy can paint a picture of a place, although it can sometimes get carried away here. Conroy seems to try to pack too much description into much of the book and it can detract from the experience.

Leo, the narrator of the book, is a wonderful character, shaped as much by the suicide of his brother when he was a young boy and his parents' reaction, as much as he is by his parents themselves.

"From the moment I marked the time when the earth opened up to swallow me whole, I left simple grief on the road behind me and held madness at arm's length as it stormed the walls of my boyhood with its timeless regiments coming at the most tender parts of my psyche in wave after unappeasable wave."

"My brother's death had almost killed both my parents, but it did not change my father's fundamental good nature and graceful optimism. He turned his full attention to me and tried to love me harder because I was not Steve. Unlike my mother, who handled his death in the only way she knew how, so I feared that she could never love anyone again who was not Steve."

Leo's mother is a James Joyce scholar and named both of her sons for characters in "Ulysses." It's a cross Leo can hardly stand to bear but a perfect name for him since he is also a character who is traveling. But instead of one day, Leo travels through his own life and the lives of his friends for whom he is the glue that holds them together.

Conroy throws a lot at the wall in this book and most of it sticks. Classism, racism, homosexuality ant the AIDS crisis, incest and child abuse, stalking and murder, love, friendship, religion and family dynamics. Not all of it works but much of it is heartbreaking.

Much as I enjoyed the first part of the book, I didn't feel like Conroy had really captured the voice of an 18-year-old. I know that voice--I have an 18-year-old and Leo often sounds much more like an adult looking back than the kid in the here in now that he was supposed to be. He was also supposed to be a socially awkward kid, one who had had no friends since his brother's death. But suddenly, on the day he meets all of these new people that he will become livelong friends with, he seems to know just the right thing to say.

The friends have a tendency to talk to each other in a teasing way that would be insulting if you said the same things to strangers. Which is all well and good when you are talking about kids. But when we jump forward in time, they are still treating each other the same way--a lot of the time. I think I would have a really hard time being friends with people that talked to me like that so often.

Like so many long books, this one would have benefited from some editing. There might even have been more than one book in these characters' stories. But there are some truly wonderful characters in this book and it was a true pleasure to go on their journey with them.

Overall, I enjoyed watching these characters make their way through life. If your book club is up for a long book, there is a lot to discuss in this one. Talking about the various marriages alone could fill an hour!For more opinions on this book, check out some of the other stops on the tour:

Thursday, April 1st: Jen’s Book Thoughts

Monday, April 5th: Lit and Life

Tuesday, April 6th: Rundpinne

Wednesday, April 7th: Meanderings and Muses

Thursday, April 8th: The Brain Lair

Friday, April 9th: Luxury Reading

Monday, April 12th: Books and Cooks

Wednesday, April 14th: Po(sey) Sessions

Thursday, April 15th: Raging Bibliomania

Monday, April 19th: Life in the Thumb

Tuesday, April 20th: Maggie Reads

Wednesday, April 21st: Reading, Writing, and Retirement

Thursday, April 22nd: Stephanie’s Written Word

Friday, April 23rd: Sherri’s Jubilee

Monday, April 26th: The Literate Housewife

Tuesday, April 27th: Peeking Between the Pages

Wednesday, April 28th: Library Queue

Thursday, April 29th: Lakeside Musing

Friday, April 30th: A Circle of Books

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Mama Shepp's Family Recommends...

Introducing "Mama Shepp's Family Recommends...," a new feature I'm planning to be posting every other week. With my reading down this year, and with a family of readers, I thought it was time to call in the troops. From teenagers to retirees and all manner of tastes in books, I'm hoping to be able to bring some books to your attention that are also new finds for me.

When I floated the idea of this to my family, my uncle was quick to reply so he's up first.

"A few days ago I touted to you a three volume work of historical fiction about the Haitian revolution by an author named Madison Smartt Bell. Yesterday I finished another book that demonstrates the versatility of this author. The title is "Anything Goes". This is about a blues band traveling from nasty dive to nasty dive from Key West to New Hampshire--the kind of music and venue that used to appeal most to me. Some of it will make sense only to a musician but even those of us not so called should appreciate the evolution of the narrator, a guitarist/bassist named Jesse, and the relationships among a succession of band members. The creative process seems as difficult as life on the road and perhaps only slightly more rewarding."

I like the cover of this one--it makes me think of the legend of bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for musical genius.

The publisher has this synopsis:
The only taste of life Jesse has known in his twenty years is bitter: his mother disappeared before he could talk, his father never got over being left, and Jesse's presence seems only to kindle his father's anger. Jesse's talent is for music, which has given him a livelihood and a home as a bass player in a bar band called Anything Goes. Band life offers the opportunity for the dregs of experience (hangovers, mildewed hotel rooms), and the antics of his band mates (all of them older than he is; some of them wiser, some not) offer more schooling in hard knocks." Anything Goes tells Jesse's story over the course of a year, during which he finds his life slowly being tempered by the unexpected: by a dad who wants to make up and be part of Jesse's life; by a female lead singer who suddenly makes the band sound a lot better than they have any right to be; and by the confidence Jesse begins to feel in his own musical talent.

When I pulled up the Barnes & Noble site to get a picture of the book, I was very surprised by the variety of books that Bell has written. In addition to historical fiction (including the trilogy about the Haitian revolution) and fiction, Bell has also written books about the writing process and published short story collections.

What's your family been reading this week?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
400 pages
Published March 2010 by St Martin's Press
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

It is 1975 and the North Vietnamese Army is poised to enter Saigon. The Americans are leaving as fast as helicopters can land on the embassy to take them away. Helen Adams, a photojournalist, is desperate to get Linh, the Vietnamese man she is in love with, to the embassy and out of the country. Despite a terrible bullet wound, she is finally able to get him on board a helicopter but at the last minute realizes that she cannot leave. As Linh is on a ship headed away from his home land and Helen, it occurred to him:

"Over the years he had doubted her love, if that love could only exist in war, if she insisted on staying partly because their love was only possible in his own country. But now he knew that she did love him. Clear now that she was as dependent as any addict on the drug of war. He had underestimated the damage to her."

Helen had arrived in Vietnam in 1967, completely untrained as a photographer but desperately in need of finding some meaning to her brother's death there. But female photojournalists were almost non-existent and the male journalists, a sort of good-old boys club, and the military were not particularly eager to welcome her. She is expected to take human interest pictures and stay out of the combat zone. Instead, she connects with Sam Darrow, perhaps the least likely of the club to take her under his wing, and talks him into taking her out with him. When she freezes on her first mission, she becomes fiercely determined to prove herself and soon takes a picture that lands on the cover of LIFE magazine. She also find herself falling in love with the married Darrow who tries to teach Helen about the country and its people.

"There's one lesson of etiquette you need to learn here--never ask what happened to someone. The answer is usually bad."

"There's something lovely here, yet even as we look, even as we have contact with it, we change it."
Helen soon realizes that she needs to get Darrow out of the war zone but doesn't want to have to beg him to leave, fearing that he will always be resentful. He, meanwhile, continues to find reasons not to leave, knowing all the while that if she only asked him to leave, that he would. The longer each of them stays in the country, the harder it becomes to leave. When tragedy strikes, Helen turns to Linh, who cared for both Helen and Darrow.

The Vietnam war has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember--my dad watched the coverage on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite every night. As I read this book, the images that were buried in my brain rushed to the front. Soli does a marvelous job of conveying the feel of Vietnam in that time, of painting a picture of that landscape and of making the reader see the reality of war in that place.

"Giant teak trunks blocked the sun, and the vegetation lay thick and snarled below: unseen animals crashed away through the brush while birds screamed overhead. A russet-colored dust floated in the air. The ground a springy compost that left behind perfect footprints. Helen thought of Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail. During the day the heat was so hot and thick it tasted green on the tongue, like swallowing a pond."

While this is a book set in a war and a love story, a number of them, actually, it is more the story about people living in a war.

"Before, there had been this small, shiny thing inside her that kept her immune from what was happening, and now she knew it had only been her ignorance, and she felt herself falling into a deep, dark sadness."

The book spans ten years and there are often jumps of weeks, and even months, in the story which can be a little jarring. There are a lot of characters and it was hard sometimes to remember who was who and to latch onto which characters were going to be the ones to attach to, which ones will play a more major role in the story. But that is the limit of the "faults" I found with this book.

This book took me a long time to read; I found myself taking a ridiculous amount of notes of wonderful things I wanted to share. When I finished, I realized that there was no way to share all of them, nor did I want to. You really need to read this beautiful book for yourself, particularly if you are of an age where you grew up aware of the Vietnam war.


Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other reviews, please visit:
Thursday, March 18th: Book Club Classics!
Friday, March 19th: Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Monday, March 22nd: Feminist Review
Tuesday, March 23rd: Reading, Writing, and Retirement
Wednesday, March 24th: Caribousmom – review
Wednesday, March 24th: Caribousmom – author guest post
Thursday, March 25th: Word Lily
Friday, March 26th: Bookfoolery and Babble
Monday, March 29th: My Friend Amy
Wednesday, March 31st: Books and Movies
Thursday, April 1st: Lit and Life
Friday, April 2nd: Luxury Reading
Monday, April 5th: Suko’s Notebook
Tuesday, April 6th: One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books
Wednesday, April 7th: Diary of an Eccentric
Thursday, April 8th: Happy Lotus
Friday, April 9th: At Home With Books
Monday, April 12th: Savvy Verse and Wit
Monday, April 13th: A High and Hidden Place