Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thrity Thursdays or The Space Between Us Readalong

Welcome to Thrity Thursday, also known as The Space Between Us readalong. We'll be reading the book over the next five weeks. Thanks to these bloggers for joining me!

Ti at Book Chatter
Dar at Peeking Between The Pages
Staci at Life In The Thumb
Kathy at Mommy's Reading
Booksync at Book In The City
Bailey at The Window Seat Reader
Mari at Bookworm With A View

Chapters 1-6

My Synopsis:
Bhima and her granddaughter, Maya, live in the slums of Bombay. They've had to move there after Bhima's husband, Gopal, leaves her but Bhima had high hopes for Maya, who was going to college. But Maya is pregnant and Bhima is both angry and afraid; she can't let herself comfort Maya in anyone because she needs Maya to understand the shame this will bring on them.

Bhima has worked as a housekeeper for Sera Dubash, who also lives with her daughter Dinaz and son-in-law, Viraf. Dinaz is also pregnant. Sera likes to say that Bhima is one of the family but still treats her like a lower-class citizen. They have tea together, but Bhima isn't allowed to sit on a chair. On the other hand, it's Sera that saw the potential in Maya and has taken care of her education.

Even though Sera and Bhima believe that Maya should have an abortion, Bhima holds on to the hope that Maya will name the father of her baby and that he will do the honorable thing and Maya will make a good marriage. So when Maya finally gives Bhima a name, Bhima decides to find him at the college and confront him. But when she does, she discovers that Maya has lied; the boy she named hardly knows Maya and now word of Maya's pregnancy will spread over the campus, meaning that Maya cannot return.

Maya finally agrees to get an abortion but asks that Sera go with her rather than Bhima because she knows she will get better care if a woman of wealth is with her.

We also get some of the background of Sera when she visits the home of her mother-in-law, Banu, whom Sera calls "The Monster." Banu has suffered a stroke and is paralyzed; Sera visits her every day but pinches Banu's unfeeling cheek to prove a point. Banu treated her terribly when Sera and her husband, Feraz, lived with Banu and her husband, Freddy.

We also learn about Bhima's courtship with Gopal who pursued Bhima after meeting her at a cousin's wedding. When they marry he promises her a live of fun and that he will always treat her like a queen.

My Thoughts:
Well, then, that's a lot of names isn't it?! I'm thinking we've met almost everyone that's going to play a prominent part in this book. Classism is clearly going to be a huge theme here: Sera says she feels like Bhima is one of the family but clearly doesn't really feel that way; on more than one occasion the point is made that the wealthy will be treated better than the poor; even Bhima, who didn't always live in the slums, considers herself a step above the other residents because she doesn't feel like she belongs there.
"On the one hand, it makes her flush with pride when Serabai calls her "my Bhima" and talks about her proprietarily. On the other hand, she always seems to be doing things that undercut Bhima's interests. Life refusing Viraf baba's offer to buy a dishwasher. How nice it would be not to run her arthritic hands in water all day long."
I'm thinking that much will be made, also, of the difference between Maya's and Dinaz's pregnancies.

Much like I was with Umrigar's "The Weigh of Heaven," I was pulled right into this book. Her descriptions of Bhima's life are almost painful to read--so raw that I can't even make myself give you a quote. I think I'm going to have a hard time doling this one out a few chapters a week! If you're interested in joining us, it's not too late.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday Sunday Salon

Whew! What a busy weekend we had! Actually, it started on Wednesday with a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers concert (their old stuff takes me right back to college!). Friday night we headed downtown to the Summer Arts Festival where we saw some really interesting stuff but walked away empty handed. With so many choices, we just could not make a choice!

We also got to listen to a couple of bands for free, including a really great blues band, while enjoying some kettlecorn and cold beverages. It would have been so much more enjoyable had it not been sooooo hot!

Saturday night we headed out for dinner with three other couples. All of the guys have known each other since middle school so they spend a lot of time rehashing the old days. The wives have known each other since college but we tend to focus more on things that have happened in the past year! Always fun to spend time with people you know so well.

Sunday we headed off to my mom's hometown for a family reunion on her dad's side of the family. Came home, changed, grabbed more food and a bottle of wine and headed off to the annual Shakespeare on the Green festival to watch a musical version of "Two Gentlemen of Verona." Next weekend we'll go back to see their production of "Romeo & Juliet." (picture is of their production of "The Taming of the Shrew" from two years ago.)

The only big thing going on in Omaha that we didn't take in this weekend was the College World Series. We almost always catch at least one game but just haven't made it down this year. There's always tomorrow! Maybe by then I'll have some energy again.

What fun things did you do this weekend?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Captivity by Deborah Noyes

Captivity by Deborah Noyes
352 pages
Published June 2010 by Unbridled Books
Source: the publisher--thanks, Caitlin!

Kim, of Sophisticated Dorkiness, recently coined the term "non-fiction fiction" in a guest post on The 3 R's Blog. "Captivity" fits squarely into that term. In the mid-19th century, the Fox sisters of rural New York created a sensation when they claimed to be able to communicate with the dead. Noyes has taken those facts and written them into a work of fiction.

The book opens in 1848 when teenaged Maggie Fox and her younger sister, Kate, claim that rapping sounds in their house are the communications of a peddler who was murdered and buried in the house. Word quickly spreads and soon men are madly digging for the body in the basement and the family has had to remove themselves to a brother's farm. There they were soon surrounded by people camped all over the property. The girls' sister, Leah, certain that all of the uproar is merely a hoax, convinces their mother that the girls should be brought to Rochester. The thing is, the rappings continue no matter where they girls are living--it seems there are spirits living every where and Leah quickly decides that there is much to be gained by promoting the girls' "ability" to communicate with the dead. All of which leads to the founding of the American Spiritualist movement and makes the girls both famous and infamous. Maggie quickly begins to have mixed feelings about what's happening, no longer sure of what's real or if she wants to be a part of it all.
"And what's the difference, after all, between real and unreal when people react precisely the same way to either? Doesn't the Bible say somewhere, Ask and you'll receive? Well, Maggie's asking, and since this spirit game started, no one's told her no. Her whole life before the peddler was one agonizing no."
Clara Gill and her father have come to the United States following a scandal in England. Clara has become a recluse, a situation her father has been more than happy to encourage.
"She's spent her lifetime reining herself in, not for society's sake but for her own: she has a knack and a preference for revealing next to nothing about herself."

"Sometimes she feels she is nothing now but consciousness, unmoving in her chair, tracking the ever-changing light, the astonishing clouds flying past, the fat fly that circled and circled inside the shade of her reading lamp, knocking like a drunken fool at her thoughts She forgets she has a body, and when she remembers, grief rests like lead on her chest, in which her heart still beats in its old frame, stubborn as rain."
But when a woman trying to woo Mr. Gill convinces him to hire a couple of girls to help around the house, Maggie Fox comes into Clara's life. Maggie is desperate for someone to connect with and is willing to do whatever it takes to break through Clara's substantial shell. And Clara, who is fully aware of Maggie's notoriety, has her own reasons for allowing Maggie in to her life. As the book progresses, Clara is drawn more and more into her past, a time when she was young, an artist and in love. Together, the two women explore skepticism in all things.

Noyes deftly blends the fiction and the non-fiction, the story of Maggie and the story of Clara, the present time of the novel and Clara's past. It is a work that explores love, grief and faith with a shadow overhanging all things.

"Lyrical" is a word that appears in many of the reviews for this book. For good reason; Noyes writing is often poetic in its descriptions.
"Real death is not a parlor game but a flat heaviness that weights the limbs, that makes every step a struggle, every breath reproach and volition. It is mold on the morning firewood and a chill that won't go even when the hearth is banked to roaring, even when the familiar quilt is wound full round weighted legs and feet on a stool like a winding sheet. It is the bitterness of herbs in an undertaker's parlor and damp shoes by a hole in the ground and the absence of sunlight and emptiness beyond reckoning."
Noyes drew me in immediately and made me care about the characters, particularly Clara. I was compelled to read on to find out what had happened to her in England and what might become of her once Maggie came into her life. I promised Caitlin, at Unbridled Books, I'd review this book a while ago. And I wanted to--I mean that cover alone screamed "read me now." But I also knew that I wanted to make sure I had time with this book and I'm so glad I held off on reading it. It is every bit as beautiful and mysterious as that cover.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Conversation With Deborah Noyes, Author of "Captivity"

Please join me in welcoming Deborah Noyes, author of "Captivity," to Lit and Life. "Captivity," published by Unbridled Books," weaves together the true story of the Fox sisters, who claimed to be able to speak to the dead in the late 19th century, and the story of the Gills, an Englishman and his reclusive daughter who have come to the United States amid whispers of a scandal.

1. How did you come upon the story of the Fox sisters and what made you want to write about them?

I first read about Maggie and Kate in an article in American History magazine and was immediately drawn to the real-life rags-to-riches story of two ordinary farm girls who gripped their community by claiming to be able to communicate with the dead. Their “gift” eventually made them famous, the nineteenth-century equivalent of celebrities. Maggie's affair with the polar explorer Elisha Kent Kane kept her at the edge of scandal and fanned that fame. Western New York at the time was progressive and reform-minded, and Maggie, Kate, and their older sister Leah turned this mood to their advantage, sowing the seeds of an international religious movement. Their story touches on science and spirit, class and gender, subversion and showmanship, family politics and bad romance. A lot here for a writer to love.

2. How much research did you do into the time period and the story of the sisters?
I had excellent nonfiction accounts to draw from, notably Barbara Weisberg's Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism and Nancy Rubin's The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox plus a wealth of primary sources, including Kane's love letters to Maggie and Leah’s memoir, which offered rich context and helped me reconstruct the Fox family timeline. For the London subplot, I read Victorian diaries and news accounts, etiquette and recipe books, penny dreadfuls and passages from the Newgate Calendar.

I also made pilgrimages to Rochester, where I had help with local history and landmarks from the good folks at Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County and The Landmark Society of Western New York. I did some detective work and spent an afternoon driving around Acadia in search [of] the Fox family homestead. The cottage itself was gone, with only a simple cornerstone memorial (“The Birthplace and Shrine of Modern Spiritualism,” erected by a group called the Ministry of Spiritual and Divine Science) — marking the site where, in 1848, Maggie and her younger sister Kate first demonstrated their spectral "rappings.” But the rural, canal-centric landscape of that part of New York still looks as it must have in Maggie’s day. It was easy to imagine the sisters out chasing crows from the brittle fields or braiding seedpods into one another’s hair.

Last but not least, I paid a visit to Lily Dale, a quaint Victorian hamlet in western New York commonly known as “the town that talks to the dead” because of the mediums who hang out a shingle each summer to greet tourists and “serve spirit” by delivering messages from Beyond. While I checked out spirit trumpets and spirit slates in the museum — and the resident historian regaled me with tales of Mae West, Susan B. Anthony, Harry Houdini, and other famous Lily Dale visitors — I was delighted to spot a glass case with a scale model of the Fox farmhouse inside. Apparently the actual cottage was relocated to Lily Dale in 1916, though it burned down 41 years later.

3. How did the character of Clara develop and what made you decide to incorporate fact and fiction in this book?
Maggie was always conflicted about her calling, and it was this conflict — not whether (or not) she and her sisters were frauds — that interested me. What drove her? Why did otherwise rational people buy what she had to sell? To what extent do we need to believe in the continuity of life, and why? To explore these questions, I needed a second protagonist, a counterpoint.
Maggie’s friendship with Clara, a reclusive scientific artist and a skeptic, is pretty unlikely -- given the barriers of age, class, and temperament -- but Clara’s tragic past leaves her open in a way she might not be otherwise. Her back story lifts a strand from my first novel, Angel and Apostle, where the menagerie in the Tower of London also made a fleeting appearance (in Captivity, Clara meets her to-be-lost love, a beast keeper, there). Animals and ideas about the wild always figure in my thought and metaphor, and I wanted to explore them in more depth here. On a basic level, Clara is held captive by grief, and that’s where Maggie comes in.
4. Death and ghosts seem to be a recurring theme for you. Have you always been interested in ghost stories? Any favorites?
My mom always had yellowing yard-sale copies of — to paraphrase Neil Gaiman — novels with ladies in long nightgowns holding candelabras and fleeing spooky castles on the cover. So from an early age I read writers like Daphne de Maurier and Mary Stewart, or for that matter Steven King and Anne Rice, along with my Little House books (which may explain the weird mix of genres and preoccupations I entertain today: "little haunted house on the prairie," anyone?).
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and the short stories of Edith Wharton and Isak Dinesen. One of my favorite contemporary novels is Margot Livesey's beautiful Eva Moves the Furniture. I also loved the movie The Others, with Nicole Kidman, and mean to read the book that inspired it.

5. You've written books for children, adults and done a book using your own photography. Do you prefer one type over the other?

Fiction is my first love, whether for adults or teens, but it's a thorny kind of love — writing a novel’s like sitting too long in a dark room or a thicket. So out I’ll come for light and air. Picture books and photography let me collaborate and indulge my visual side. With nonfiction I get to sink into research — history, folklore — which is meditative (medicative?!) for me.

6. When you're working on a book, are you able to read books by other authors or do you need to shut out all other authors?

When I'm working on an adult novel, I read young-adult — often fantasy or something paranormal. When it’s children's or YA, I crave adult literary or historical fiction. Balance is the thing, I guess, but I read more nonfiction than fiction while drafting.

7. Who are your favorite authors?

All the great Gothic and Romantic writers... and Flannery O'Connor, Alice Munro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Annie Dillard, James Cain, David Almond, Margo Lanagan, Walt Whitman, Kelly Link, Raymond Carver, Mary Oliver, Li Po, Shirley Jackson, Susan Cooper, Pablo Neruda, Sonya Hartnett, Hans Christian Andersen, Rod Serling, Elizabeth Bishop, Graham Green, Angela Carter...

8. Your photographs are stunning. When did you take up photography?
I took a night class about fifteen years ago with a friend, and we've both gone on to incorporate photography into our work, though it still feels new to me. I have a lot to learn and am mostly self-taught, so it's a reckless education.

9. How do you make time for writing with a family and all of your other commitments?

Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining? "All work and no play…”? I'm dull. Exceedingly. I've done an ace job of convincing myself that work is fun and have almost no social life, which is okay, for now.

10. Favorite guilty pleasure?

Salty snacks. Long car rides. Melancholy Americana. Big white hotel beds. Costume dramas.

Thanks, Deborah! To learn more about Deborah, check out her website; she really is a woman of many talents.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
576 pages
Published: July 2005 by Harper Collins
Source: I bought this one at the Goodwill for 99 cents!

Nathan Price, a Baptist minister, decides, against all advice, to take his family to the heart of the Congo in 1959 to spread the word of God. They arrive there, thinking they have everything they need to get started--hammer, boxed cake mixes for birthdays they will celebrate there, and seeds to plant a garden. The only problem is that there is are no nails to hammer, the humidity causes the cake mixes to become rock-like in the box and, although the seeds will grow, they will not put on fruit--there are no bees to pollinate anything. And that is just the beginning of their misunderstanding of the people and ways of the Congo. The story is told from five different points of view--each of the four daughters and the mother and each of them tells their own story about trying to make their way through their time in the village of Kilanga. The oldest, Rachel, steadfastly refuses to learn the ways of the people and thinks only of how to get out of there. The youngest, Ruth May, soon becomes friends with the children. Leah, one of the twins, comes to the Congo determined to win her father's favor and to lead a life lead by the Bible. But she soon finds herself questioning everything she ever believed and learning to understand the subtleties of life in the village. Adah, the other twin, who has been crippled since birth, is the most observant and bides her time spying on everyone, including the pilot who brought them to the village and sometimes spends time in a hut nearby where he has a radio that no one knows about and seems to be plotting something. Kingsolver follows the life of the family during the little more than a year they spent in the village, through tragedy and then back into new lives as she continues to follow them for three decades.

I absolutely loved the first half of this book--the time the family spent in the village. Kingsolver does a marvelous job writing from the various points of view. I'm not sure I've ever read a book where the author did a better job of giving each point of view a unique voice. There was never any doubt, as I read, which girl was telling me that part of the story. And the writing was beautiful. Orleanna's parts are always written from the present looking back and her early parts are haunting.
"Seen from above this way they are pale doomed blossoms bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you'll have to decide what sympathy they deserve, the mother especially - watch how she leads them on, pale-eyed, deliberate."

"You played some trick on the dividing of my cells so my body can never be free of the small parts of Africa it consumed...It's the scent of accusation."
Orleanna struggles with her role as wife and mother. She has never entirely been on board with her husband's religious views but stays on with him, even as he is obviously oblivious to the realities of life, saying he is "well inclined toward stubbornness, and contemptuous of failure." It was hard to imagine a mother allowing anyone to do to her family what Nathan did, but I had to keep reminding myself that this was a different time and place.

The second half of the book felt much slower to me, although it covers a vastly greater period of time. Perhaps for that very reason. It lost some of it's in lyricism and depth as it looked into the lives of the women as they plunged through what had happened to them over a more extended period of time. I also felt like it got a bit preachy, not necessarily that what Kingsolver was preaching was wrong, but just that it wasn't right for the novel as it had been going. I wasn't alone in my opinion of this part of the book when my book club met last night. "Preachy" was exactly the word several ladies used to describe a good part of the second half of the book. But Kingsolver still gives the reader much to love in this part.
"But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it's wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them."
"As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop."
There is so much going on in this book, so much to think about. Religion, life in another culture and what it takes to try to live in that culture, the history of Africa as the Europeans and Americans came into it. It is a book that will stay with me for a long time and one that I can easily imagine reading again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Everything Austen II Challenge

Once again Stephanie, of Stephanie's Written Word, is hosting Everything Austen (well, II this time since this is the second year!). I felt sure that I was already planning on re-reading some Austen this year so it wouldn't be a thing to work the challenge in to the years' reading plan. Not so fast my reading plan told me--you don't have a single Austen-related item on the list for this year. Oh shut up, I told my reading plan. It just so happens that I was the lucky winner of the grand prize for last years' Everything Austen challenge so I have quite a few Austen-related books that I really should read since Stephanie was nice enough to put together that lovely prize package. So this year for the challenge, which runs from July 1, 2010 to January 1, 2011, here is what I plan to do:

"Being Jane Austen" by Jon Spence
"Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sandition" all by Jane Austen
"Pride & Prejudice" the Marvel Comics set
"Lost in Austen" by Emma Campbell Webster
"Jane Bites Back" by Michael Thomas Ford

"Sex and The Austen Girl" created by Laura Viera Rigler for
one of the BBC adaptations--I haven't decided on this one yet

Listen To:
"Emma" by Austen on

I also have "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" by Seth Grahame-Smith but one Austen-based creature book may be all I can handle!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday Salon - June 19

Lots of stuff for you this week, some bookish, some just fun.

I was so excited to open my email the other day and find an email from Jim Krahenbuhl, Director of the National Hansen's Disease [leprosy] Programs with HRSA, in response to my post about books dealing with the leprosy colony at Carville. He tells me that he's greeted with surprise when he tells his bosses that leprosy still exists (and they're in charge of it), so I don't feel so bad about being unaware of it. He also gave some recommendations for other places to learn more:

"You might find the recent book, Squint, by Jose Ramirez, also of interest. Jose was confined to Carville in the late 1960’s and has devoted his life to overcoming the psychosocial stigma of leprosy. There is also the definitive history (through 1967) of Carville by Stanley Stein, a longtime resident patient (1931-1967) who became a world renowned crusader for patients’ rights and diminishing the stigma. Stein founded THE STAR a patient-run newsletter that is still available on line. In its hay-day the STAR sent 50,000 copies per issue around the world. Of course the completely unnecessary quarantine laws of that era (1940’s and 1950’s) required the newsletter be sterilized. See: Finally there is a terrific DVD, Triumph at Carville, done for PBS in 2008. "

At The Huffington Post, I found this list of Indie Bookseller's picks for summer reading, which includes Justin Cronin's "The Passage" and "The Singer's Gun" by Emily St. John Mandel.

Lisa, from Bibliophiliac, awarded me the Sunshine Award. Lisa is an art lover and high school English teacher who also happens to be fond of poetry. Thanks, Lisa! Be sure to check out Bibliophiliac!

Just for fun--20 fictional characters whose names you didn't know, including Barbie, Cap'n Crunch, and The Man In The Yellow Hat from Curious George.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mama Shepp's Family Recommends...

Ten years or so ago, the pilot light went out on my furnace. The only thing to do while I waited for help was to light the fireplace and spend some time in my robe and slippers in front of the computer. What's all that got to do with this book, you ask? Hold on...I'm getting to that. On a lark, I did a search on my paternal grandmother's name. It's something of an unusual name and I didn't really expect to find anything but, what the heck, there was nothing better to do. Lo and behold, I discovered the family of my great-grandfather's brother. Excited, I called my mom and told her. She took it and ran...and discovered an enormous family of cousins that we didn't even know existed. Including a cousin in Arizona and her husband, who shall hereafter be known as the Arizona cousins. Catchy, I know. I love to see her Facebook posts--he is a wonderful photographer so she posts great shots of nature in their area that is like nothing we have here. And, did I mention, they read.

Arizona cousin was raving about Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt on Facebook the other day so, of course, I had to check it out. Here's what she says about the book:

"The Years of Rice and Salt," an outstanding novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, examines the possible rise of civilization without Europeans (who all die of plague in the 14th century). Using the device of reincarnation to hold the story together, the story examines religion, philosophy, culture, history, and math and science. The characters are vital and charismic. The ending is dramatic. Take your time reading through this one. It's well worth it."

Kim Stanley Robinson is best known as an award-winning science-fiction writer of the Mars trilogy. Anyone who's been following this blog for long would, therefore, understand why I had never heard of him. Other than some Ray Bradbury years ago, I really don't touch the stuff. But this one really intrigues me. And if this is science fiction, then maybe I need to rethink my position on that genre!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Blogger Hop

I hopped along on the Book Blogger Hop several weeks ago but clearly I didn't pay attention. I thought it was only a Friday thing and by the time I get home from work and finally get my turn on the computer on Fridays, the day is often nearly done. But today I finally noticed that the hop lasts all weekend. And Miss H is gone this evening so I've had a lot of fun visiting new blogs and growing my Google reader.

Thanks to Jennifer at Crazy-For-Books for hosting the Blog Hop!

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden
288 pages
Published April 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher for the Spring Reading Series at Books On The Brain

Wendy Burden is the great- great- great- granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Vanderbilt family was one of the wealthiest family in America for generations but by the time Wendy was born the fortunes of the various family branches were starting to dwindle and the gene pool was definitely getting shallow. Wendy's father was the Vanderbilt and when he committed suicide, his parents cut Wendy's mother off financially. She still managed to find enough money to keep herself in vacations, fancy clothes, and booze but she had almost no interest in parenting her three children. Wendy's grandparents insisted on having the children visit often and they certainly spoiled the children. But they weren't much better at paying attention to them. In fact Wendy says she felt much more as if the servants were her family.

What makes this book different from the other tales of poor little rich kids you've read? Burden's biting sense of humor and tough chick attitude. When she was young, she fancied herself to be Wednesday Addams, had an obsession with the macabre, and was something of a hellion. She frequently thought of ways to kill her brother (in the duck press for example); once, along with her brother took every bit of food out of the kitchen of one of her grandparents' homes to teach her grandfather and the chef a lesson; and, one summer, kept a collection of dead birds in various stages of decomposition.

Burden takes shots at everyone in her family and on the staff, but seems to take particular pleasure in going after her mother (who, frankly, seems to deserve everything she gets) who spends most of Burden's childhood telling her how fat she is and all of her own adult life in a drunken stupor.

I laughed out loud frequently and read bits of the book often to my husband (apparently it helps if you are actually reading the book to find it funny). I started to wonder if I might be a mean person to think it was so funny to make fun of a family that is so clearly screwed up. Seriously, if my kids made fun of people in the same way, I would scold them.

As the book progressed, the suicidal tendencies and the effects of the family's alcoholism started to take their toll and the humor did start to seem mean to me. It was a little painful to watch Burden grow up without any real emotional attachment to anyone in her family. The pacing of the book felt a bit uneven to me, slowing as the book went on, and the stories lost much of their bite.

Do not go into the book expecting to learn about the history of the Vanderbilt family; other than the initial run down of how the family descended down to Wendy, there is very little here to connect Burden to the Vanderbilt name.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Thrity Thursdays or The Space Between Us Readalong

When I wrote my review of Thrity Umrigar's The Weight of Heaven, many of you commented that you liked The Space Between Us  even better. Then several of you mentioned that you'd be interested in doing a readalong so, without further ado, I present "Thrity Thursdays," a readalong of "The Space Between Us."

The synopsis of the book from the Barnes and Noble website:
Each morning, Bhima, a domestic servant in contemporary Bombay, leaves her own small shanty in the slums to tend to another woman's house. In Sera Dubash's home, Bhima scrubs the floors of a house in which she remains an outsider. She cleans furniture she is not permitted to sit on. She washes glasses from which she is not allowed to drink. Yet despite being separated from each other by blood and class, she and Sera find themselves bound by gender and shared life experiences.
Sera is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage. A widow, she devotes herself to her family, spending much of her time caring for her pregnant daughter, Dinaz, a kindhearted, educated professional, and her charming and successful son-in-law, Viraf.
Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years. Cursed by fate, she sacrifices all for her beautiful, headstrong granddaughter, Maya, a university student whose education — paid for by Sera — will enable them to escape the slums. But when an unwed Maya becomes pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, Bhima's dreams of a better life for her granddaughter, as well as for herself, may be shattered forever.
I didn't want to drag this out for too many weeks, so I broke the book down into five parts of about 60 pages and, coincidentally, there are five Thursdays in July. Here's the breakdown:
Post Date Chapters
July 1 Chapters 1-6
July 8 Chapters 7-11
July 15 Chapters 12-15
July 22 Chapters 16-20
July 29 Chapters 21-25
If you'd like to join us, just leave a comment and I'll add you to the list.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Is Coming!

Okay, it may not exactly be around the corner; after all summer just started and by the time September 13th rolls around, my kids will have been back in school for a month. But registration time is upon us. If you are a person who primarily blogs about books and doesn't charge a fee to post a review or author interview, then you are eligible to participate and can register between now and July 7th here. There have been quite a few changes made to the registration process this year so be sure to allot some time to it. In fact, there have been a lot of changes made to the entire process used to determine the award winners so be sure all of the details when you register.

What, exactly, is BBAW? According to the website, it is:
Book Blogger Appreciation Week is a week long festival celebrating the community of book bloggers and their contribution to preserving a culture of literacy through book reviews and recommendations, reading reflections, and general bookish chat.
There will be special posts, activities for everyone to participate in, and prizes, people, prizes! So be sure to get registered soon!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All Things In Common

Sometimes I come across things in books that coincidentally link to something I've read in another book. This time, however, it was not a coincidence that I read two books that talked about the leprosy colony at Carville, Louisiana. Last fall I read Elise Blackwell's "The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish" which talked about the colony. I was shocked--I had no idea that there had ever been leprosy in the United States, let alone that it had survived into the last century. So when I was given the opportunity to review "In The Sanctuary of Outcasts," by Neil White, which dealt with a man who was imprisoned in the federal prison that was attached to the colony, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

Blackwell had this to say about Carville:

"Lepers entering the colony at Carville in the early decades of the twentieth century were encouraged, if not coerced, to change their names. It was thought that both the lepers and their families were better off parting ways for good."

"Many a carefully drawn family tree had a stunted limb, a truncation bearing only the first name of an aunt or uncle or cousin who - though everyone had known where he or she had been taken - had disappeared as if forever into the mysterious word Carville."

White tells us this about the start of the colony at Carville:

"The plantation sat in disrepair, unoccupied for thirty years, before the State of Louisiana leased the land in 1894. The 360-acre plot, along with a decaying manor house and slave quarters, was then designated as the Louisiana Leper Home. After that, all lepers in Louisiana were sent to the remote colony. The geography was perfect for outcasts. The plantation was virtually impossible to reach by land...In the early days, doctors and nurses were reluctant to come to the home. There was no running water, little sanitation, and no budget for improvement. The first residents shared the buildings with snakes and bats."

According to White, the severity of leprosy depends on a person's natural immunity. Those with higher immunity may only notice a lighter patch of skin on their legs. In the most severe cases, the disease (which is a bacteria) can actually eat away flesh. There is, to this day, no vaccine against leprosy but there are treatments. There are approximately 6500 case of leprosy in the U.S., 3300 are active but these days, victims are able to continue with their lives as they receive treatment.

As you can see from the above shot, all of the buildings are connected with covered hallways.

Patients no longer live at Carville. It is now the National Hansen's Disease Museum. I found out more about the disease at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What's In A Name 3 Challenge -- Finished!

Number 3 on my Bloggiesta to-do list was to go through my challenges and get them all updated. Imagine my surprise to discover that I had actually finished a challenge and didn't even know it. I haven't actually read any of the books that were on the list I made at the beginning of the challenge but it turns out that six other books I have read worked. Here's what I read:

Book with a Place in the Title: "On Folly Beach" by Karen White
Book with a Music Term in the Title: "An Unfinished Score" by Elise Blackwell
Book with a Body of Water in the Title: "The Day The Falls Stood Still" by by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Book with a Food in the Title: "James And The Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl
Book with a Plant in the Title: "The Lotus Eaters" by Tatjana Soli
Book with a Title in the Title: "The Queen of Palmyra" by Minrose Gwin

One down, eleven to go!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bloggiesta Final Post

Well, I feel like I've spent a ton of time sitting at my computer this weekend and there is still so much more I could have gotten done. I did, however, accomplish all of the things I set out to do.

1. My Google reader and I have been doing battle. And it's not just that I haven't been able to keep up with the posts that are coming in. I've also had quite a few blogs that for some reason would not show as having things read once I'd been through them. I need to catch up on my reading, clear out the blogs I just don't to (over 200 is much more than I can manage), clear out the blogs with the glitch and try to get them reinstalled. I cleared out the blogs that I don't really read or that have all but stopped posting, read all of the posts out there and kept them read all weekend. I did add some new ones that I found through the Bloggiesta feed which I'm looking forward to reading.

2. Set up a schedule for the planned "The Space Between Us" readalong to begin in July, make a button for it and write a first post about it. The post is written and scheduled for this Thursday and I got a post written for "All Things In Common" which is also scheduled for this week.

3. Go through all my challenges and get them updated. See if I need to adjust my lists of books to make getting through the challenges more doable. Done. I've written and scheduled a post for this week to wrap up the challenge that it turns out I'm done with. I'm still hoping not to have to make a lot of changes in my reading lists for the other challenges. Both of the books I'm reading right now will work for a number of challenges.

4. Change my template and either go back to a two-column format or reset the three-column format to make my blog look less cluttered. I'm betting that this will take me most of a day -- unless I can recruit my resident computer geek to help. Done--well, for now! I have completely redone the layout and background, thanks to Blogger's new templates. So easy to work with. I still need to tweak the header and I may change the colors but otherwise it's good to go for a while.

I also did a couple of mini-challenges but I'm embarrassed to say that I don't even remember where I found them. I actually found them by going through someone else's blog as I read the Bloggiesta feed. I graded by blog, set up Google alerts, and worked on my RSS feed. All in all a very productive weekend. I probably spent about 20 hours working on my blog this weekend.

Under Construction!

As part of the Bloggiesta, today's project is to redesign my layout. I'm trying one of the new blogger layouts--much easier to do than anything that requires any knowledge of HTML. Since my resident computer geek is at work (how dare he?!), I'm taking the easy way out for now. There will be much moving around of elements as construction continues and maybe some color changes as well. Or...a completely different look if I don't like it when all is said and done with this look!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bloggiesta Update 1

I spent seven hours yesterday cleaning up and reading posts in my feed reader. I cut 37 blogs out and I think I only cut out the ones that I don't have regular contact with but it's possible I accidentally dropped someone I read regularly. If you don't hear from me in the next few days, will you please send me an email?

Today I spent a couple of hours working on a new template. I thought I'd take the easy way out this time and go with one of the new Blogger layouts. They're much more customizable than the one I have now and I had one that was lovely almost ready to go. Then, as I was moving elements around on the new layout...poof...everything I had done was gone. At first I was frustrated that I had saved at any point but now I'm glad I didn't end up with something that was half done that I had to fight with. Now I'm thinking I'll go with the template I wanted to begin with, but I'll do that tomorrow.

Also today I've gone through all of my challenges and made sure I entered the books on those sites and updated my sidebar. Imagine my surprise to find that I've actually finished one of the challenges and wasn't even aware of it because none of the books I read for it were the ones I had planned to read. I'll do a post of that which I'll schedule for Monday.

Last, but not least, I've got the post written and scheduled for Thursday for "The Space Between Us" readalong. I can't wait to start that book!

Now I'm off to eat supper--nachos anyone?!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bloggiesta Ole!

Late to the party (that hardly ever happens!) but ready to put on my sombrero and get to work. Bloggiesta is hosted by Natasha at Maw Books and " it’s a blogging marathon. A opportunity to cross those nagging items off of your to-do list and improve your blog while in the good company of other awesome bloggers doing the same thing." I've only got a few goals this time but I have a feeling they may take a good long while. If I had a lot of smaller things, then I'll be tempted to do those first so I can mark things off faster and never get the the things I really want to get done.

1. My Google reader and I have been doing battle. And it's not just that I haven't been able to keep up with the posts that are coming in. I've also had quite a few blogs that for some reason would not show as having things read once I'd been through them. I need to catch up on my reading, clear out the blogs I just don't get to (over 200 is much more than I can manage), clear out the blogs with the glitch and try to get them reinstalled.

2. Set up a schedule for the planned "The Space Between Us" readalong to begin in July, make a button for it and write a first post about it.

3. Go through all my challenges and get them updated. See if I need to adjust my lists of books to make getting through the challenges more doable.

4. Change my template and either go back to a two-column format or reset the three-column format to make my blog look less cluttered. I'm betting that this will take me most of a day -- unless I can recruit my resident computer geek to help.

Today I'm hoping to complete the first goal checked off and check out the mini-challenges.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

In The Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

In The Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
352 pages
Published June 2010 by Harper Collins Publishers
Source: TLC Book Tours and the publisher

Neil White was a man who had been raised all his life with the idea that he was going to do great things. When he was a little boy, his life goal was to do something, anything, to get his name in the Guinness Book of World Records. In college he studied journalism and when he got out, he started a small newspaper in the small Mississippi town he had grown up in. He prided himself on being a thorn in the side of the other newspaper in town - well-written articles, court records, going after the big guy. But along the way, the good he was doing got caught up with his ambition and hampered by his inability to be fiscally responsible. He soon found himself in trouble with the bank and in financial ruin at the paper. So he did what any responsible young man would do. He moved to a larger city with his family and started a magazine, solely with the goal of making a lot of money. He lived a lavish lifestyle, his magazine empire expanded and his inability to balance finances also continued. Until one day he found himself owing three-quarters of a million dollars to two different banks, money had has kited to make payroll and pay off other debts. This time he was out of people that would bail him out and he found himself with an 18 month sentence at the Federal Prison in Carville, Louisiana.

When White arrived at Carville, he was surprised to find that there were no doors on the cells, no fences around the perimeter of the facility and his uniforms were wrinkled and cologne was a banned substance. Oh yeah...Carville was also home to the only remaining leprosarium in the United States. Also the prisoners were not to have direct contact with the victims of leprosy, they were also in very immediate contact with them.

The first time White passed one of the patients in a hallway, he held his breath as he went past, then breathed through his shirt until he could get into the fresh air. He was mortified by the idea of any actual physical contact with the patients. But when an idea hatched into White's head that he could use the time in the prison to do research for an "undercover" expose on the prison (all the while pretending he wasn't actually a prisoner), he decided he would start interviewing inmates and patients alike. Getting to know these people made White take a good look at the person he was and what he wanted from his life when he got out.

This book is much more than a memoir about White's rise, fall and time in prison. In fact, it is every bit as much a story about the people that he met while there: Doc, his roommate who spent all of his time reading medical journals so that he could develop a new get-rich medical treatment when he was released; Link, an uneducated inmate with a wicked sense of humor who gave White the nickname "Clark Kent;" and Ella, a wheel-chair bound woman who had been brought to the colony as a young girl and who became White's best friend and and something of a spiritual mentor.

White's writing style is conversational and straightforward. He doesn't sugarcoat the crimes of any of the convicts, including his own, but he makes the reader see them as real, flawed people. He combines humor with the sadness of the patient's stories and gives the history of the facility without ever sounding preachy. White used his time in the prison library to research Carville and clearly knows what he is talking about but doesn't weigh the book down with it.
"The plantation sat in disrepair, unoccupied for thirty years, before the State of Louisiana leased the land in 1894. The 360-acre plot, along with a decaying manor house and slave quarters, was then designated as the Louisiana Leper Home. After that, all lepers in Louisiana were sent to the remote colony. The geography was perfect for outcasts. The plantation was virtually impossible to reach by land...In the early days, doctors and nurses were reluctant to come to the home. There was no running water, little sanitation, and no budget for improvement. The first residents shared the buildings with snakes and bats."
It seemed that very little had changed about attitudes toward leprosy sufferers since the time of the Bible. To this day, the cause of leprosy is unknown, it is unknown exactly how it spreads and there is no vaccine. It is hardly surprising, I suppose, that people would be so frightened by it, seeing what can happen to those afflicted. But reading the stories about the people that were sent to Carville is heart wrenching.

Occasionally, I felt that White got a little repetitious talking about himself and, interestingly, I thought the weakest part of the book was when White described his then wife, Linda. It seemed to be easier for him to describe the flawed appearances of the victims of leprosy than the beauty of this woman.

I couldn't put this book down and read it in just a couple of days; I was so caught up in the characters and the history. I thought White did a great job of taking us through his personal growth and the change in his attitude about his fellow inmates and the patients.

To learn more about Neil White, check out his website. To browse inside the book, click here.
And, for more opinions on the book, read the rest of the reviews at:
Wednesday, June 2nd: Book Nook Club
Wednesday, June 9th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Monday, June 14th: Heart 2 Heart
Thursday, June 17th: Tales of a Capricious Reader
Tuesday, June 22nd: lit*chick
Wednesday, June 23rd: Lost in Books
Thursday, June 24th: Wordsmithonia
Monday, June 28th: Michelle’s Masterful Musings
Tuesday, June 29th: Chocolate & Croissants
Wednesday, June 30th: A Bookshelf Monstrosity

Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Everything Is Broken by Emma Larkin

Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma by Emma Larkin
288 pages
Published April 2010 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

On May 2, 2008, an unprecedented tropical cyclone hit the Irrawaddy Delta in Burma. The official death toll was over 138,000 dead and missing with destruction of the land too great to comprehend. As news of the disaster and its scale began to be known in the days following the cyclone, the military regime ruling Burma took the unbelievable stand that they would not allow any kind of foreign aid to enter the country. Furthermore, they themselves took almost no steps to provide aid to the survivors. Hundreds of thousands of their people had no drinking water, food or shelter.

The author had made many trips into Burma in previous years doing research for anther book and immediately wanted to get into Burma to see what was happening and what she could do. Coming into the country as a tourist, Larkin was able to find lodging in a house in Rangoon and through her network of friends began to be able to piece together the story of what had happened in the country since the storm.

The book is written in three parts. The first is "Skyful of Lies" and chronicles the specific details of what was done by the government and the various aid groups. Despite the horrific details, this part really dragged for me. After the initial shock of reading about the bodies of the dead left wherever the storm had left them, the callousness of the government and the ineffectiveness of the aid groups in coordinating efforts, I began to feel like I was reading the same thing over and over again. That may have been Larkin's intention--to drive home her point. But I came close to giving up on this one.

Then I got to the second part, "No Bad News For The King," and my interest picked back up. Larkin takes the reader through the history of the leadership in Burma, including the period of time it was a British colony and the history of Burma's current ruling general. Burma is a Buddhist country and Larkin delves into that aspect of the country and the government's handling of the monks, as well. I found this much more interesting and, despite the fact that the actions of the government were clearly wrong, it became obvious that they were almost inevitable given the past.

It's in the third part, "Everything Is Broken," that Larkin really sucks the reader in. As she is finally able to venture out into the delta, Larkin begins to collect stories of the survivors and really gives the reader a sense of the country and what had happened to it.

"Seen from above, the Irrawaddy Delta is a patchwork of varied shades of green. There are swaths of velvety moss green and areas of pale jade, a color so translucent it is hardly green at all. The latticework of waterways that draw random patterns through this greenery is laid with tangled carpets of water hyacinth and spill over into the spiky neon-green expanse of paddy fields. Villages of thatch houses are nestled with the curves of larger rivers, partially hidden beneath groves of palm trees. The entire landscape seems to undulate softly, rippling as if the surface of a pond were being disturbed by a light breeze, and it is impossible to distinguish land from water; seen from above, the delta seems to be both land and water."

Doesn't that sound lovely? It is so vivid, I could clearly imagine what life in that land must have been like before May 2, 2008. But Larkin goes on to say,

"Even three months on, the path of destruction carved by Cyclone Nargis is still clearly marked. The verdant green gives way to brown, and the delta's fertile lushness is replaced by a dying landscape. In the cyclone zone, the waterways course sickly gray and dark, brackish water seeps across the paddy fields and plantations. There are no more cozy clusters of huts and palm trees, only the remnants of villages - the hint of a dirt road beneath stagnant floodwater, the tilted skeleton of a rice warehouse that has no walls or roof; slight indentations where homes once stood."

What makes all of this so sad is knowing that there was help in the area almost immediately after the cyclone hit--several countries had ships just off the shore within days ready to provide manpower and machinery; the U.S. had a cargo plane ready to fly in with food aid almost within hours and many other countries had planes and people ready with aid and expertise. So many of the dead might have survived, so much of the suffering might have been eased.

As we deal with the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, and people question whether or not the government is doing enough, this book really drives home how fortunate we are to have a government that is willing to do anything and allows the media to report on the story. It's truly a miracle that Larkin was able to get this story out to us.

For other opinions about this book, check out the rest of the stops on the tour:

Tuesday, May 18th: Word Lily
Wednesday, May 19th: Beastmomma
Wednesday, May 26th: The Little Reader
Thursday, May 27th: Heart 2 Heart
Monday, May 31st: Café of Dreams
Wednesday, June 2th: Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Thursday, June 3rd: Book Addiction
Wednesday, June 9th: Caribousmom
Thursday, June 10th: Sophisticated Dorkiness
Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour and to those who encouraged me to keep reading when I talked about giving up on this one. I'm so glad I didn't.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Love Ceiling by Jean Davies Okimoto

The Love Ceiling by Jean Davies Okimoto
320 pages
Published September 2009 by Endicott and Hughes Books
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

When her Japenese American mother dies, 64-year-old Anne is left to deal with her father, Alexander Gunther, a world-famous artist and man that Anne cannot stand to be around. Growing up, he seemed to go out of his way to make her life miserable, including ruining a painting she had done, so that she wouldn't have to learn later in life that she had no talent. But when an art teacher and friend of her mother's invites her to his studio, she begins to think about pursuing her dream of being an artist. There are only three things that stand in her way--her two children and her semi-retired husband. Cass, her 32-year-old daughter, has just broken up with her long-time boyfriend and moves back home just as Anne has decided to turn Cass' old room into an art studio. And Jack, her husband, can't seem to accept the fact that he's no longer on the cutting edge of medical research, that maybe his wife doesn't want to be nothing more than a reliable meal source, and that her part-time job is important to her.
'"There's a glass ceilingfor women, Jack," I stared at my painting in the dim light next to the washer and dryer. "And it's made out of the people we love.""
Okimoto makes some lovely points in this book. When Anne's mother is dying, she does two things--make Anne promise to start painting again and apologize for allowing Alexander to treat Anne so badly.
"I couldn't remember a single time, not once in my entire life, that my mother had ever spoken to me about it, so those few words...I'm sorry about him...those few hard-fought, rasping, tortured words meant she understood. And she was deeply sorry she'd been helpless to do anything about it. What more was there to say? That's all there is."
And I loved this line..."It is one thing to be gifted and a quite another to be worthy of one's gift." How true is that?

I felt like Jack and Anne's relationship was very realistic for people of their age and social status. They clearly loved each other but found that they had slipped into roles over the years that didn't necessarily work any more. They fought, they resolved issues without needing to have discussions that were pages and pages long and without having to actually say "I'm sorry."

Unfortunately, I felt like the relationship between Alexander and Anne was built up early on, but then I didn't feel like it explored enough throughout the book. A situation occurs which might have been the opportunity to delve into it but nothing much happened with it. It may have been Okimoto's intention to show that we can't always resolve problems with other people in our lives but I was just expecting that to be the center of the book.

Instead, the focus of the book seemed to be as much about what was going on in Cass's life as what was going on with Anne. The narration even alternated between Anne's story and Cass' story and it felt to me as though I were being pulled in too many directions.

There were several points in the book where I found myself wondering why something was being included. There is a detailed description of a softball game that Cass is going to that may or may not be rained out and Okimoto gives the reader the entire process as to how that would be determined. At another point, Anne gives the full story to a fellow art student about how she's dealt with a medical condition. I don't care how close I've become to that person, I don't think I'd give them the complete history of my treatment over the past forty years.

This book held a lot of promise and I think a bit more editing would have really helped. Book clubs would find a lot to discuss in the book and there is a reader's guide in the book. Having just read a book on a similar subject, I couldn't help but compare this one. Perhaps my overall impression would have been different had I read this at another time.

Thanks to Lisa, and TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour! For more information on Okimoto, check out her website. Read an excerpt of The Love Ceiling HERE. Check out an interview with Jeanie Okimoto HERE.
For more reviews of this book, check out the other stops on the tour:

Tuesday, June 1st: Book Club Classics
Wednesday, June 2nd: Patricia’s Wisdom
Thursday, June 3rd: Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, June 9th: Rundpinne
Monday, June 14th: Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, June 16th: Crazy for Books
Thursday, June 17th: Luxury Reading
Monday, June 21st: Erasing the Bored
Wednesday, June 23rd: Mooncat Farms Meanderings
Thursday, June 24th: carp(e) libris reviews
Monday, June 28th: Feminist Review