Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia: A Novel by Mary Helen Stefaniak

The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia by Mary Helen Stefaniak
352 pages
Published September 2010 by Norton, W. W. and Company
Source: bought it at The Bookworm and had it signed!

When Miss Grace Spivey arrives in Threestep, Georgia in 1939 to teach in the one-room classroom, she turns the small town on it's head. She's got a world view and the opinion that blacks are the equals of whites and every bit as entitled to a good education as any of the white children in her school. Gladys Cailiff, our eleven-year-old narrator for most of the book, takes an immediate liking to Miss Spivey and the Miss Spivey takes an immediate liking to all of the Cailiffs, including Gladys's brother's Ralphord and Force and sisters May and Ildred.
"Two year later, she [Miss Spivey] told a cheery blue-suited woman from the WPA that she wanted to bring democracy and education to the poorest, darkest, most remote and forgotten corner of America.

They sent her to Threestep, Georgia."
Threestep is indeed remote and forgotten. "In 1938, a lot of folks in Piedmont County were still pretty much in awe of the miracle of the airwaves." Miss Spivey's introduces the children to The Thousand Nights and A Night, reading the children the Sir Richard Burton's translation after the local library proved to only have a children's picture book version.
"Miss Spivey proceeded immediately to the "A" drawer herself to look for another edition of The Arabian Nights, but there was only the one. "A children's picture book!" she said then, sounding so put out  that Miss Eunice Spears [the librarian] hurried over to assure her that, despite the turbans and all, there was nothing offensive or inappropriate for children in the book. She had made certain of that."
Everyone becomes engrossed in the stories, especially Miss Spivey, who soon decides the spring festival the school usually puts on will now become an Arabian Nights celebration, complete with camels. Before long, the entire county becomes involved, although convincing the church leaders took some doing; after all, the people in the stories were "heathens." School is almost entirely devoted to the creation of costumes, the making of sets and the practicing of parts. But the involvement of the black people has the local Ku Klux Klan leader on edge and the entire celebration sets off a chain of events that will forever change the lives of everyone in Threestep.

In The Cailiffs of Baghdad, George, Stefaniak as created her own version of The Thousand Nights And A Night, crafting a story withing a story within story, taking the reader from 1939 Georgia back in time to 1775 Baghdad, Iraq and 1864 Savannah, Georgia. She creates a Southern tale so spot on that it's hard to believe that this is a writer who was born in Milwaukee and now splits her time between Omaha and Iowa City. Stefaniak's mother is from Georgia and when I heard her speak last summer, she credited that family with much of the inspiration for this book.

In Gladys, Stefaniak has given the reader a delightful voice and captured that innocence and awe that only found in a child of that age. The book is filled with interesting, believable characters including Theo Boykin, the smartest person in the county who also happens to be black and Uncle Mack, the camel man. Stefaniak manages to touch on a number of themes including racism, religion, and big business vs. landowners. While the story stayed in 1939 Georgia, I was rapt. In the last third of the book, Stefaniak travels back in time, spending a long period away from Threestep. While this part of the book was certainly interesting, I found myself losing track of the original story and getting lost in all of the new characters. Overall, though, I found the book delightful, often nodding my head or chuckling. Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Reviews both called the book "engaging" and I would have to agree.

Stefaniak signing books at Omaha's The Bookworm

To learn more about Steniak and her other books, including The Turk and My Mother, visit her website.

This wraps up my month dedicated to Omaha authors, although I've noticeably left out mystery/thriller writer Alex Kava (completely unintentionally!). I'll write more about her soon. In looking at Stefaniak's website, I see that the Nebraska Book Festival is coming up in May. I didn't even know such a thing existed! Unfortunately, I'm planning to be out of town that weekend but if my plans change, you know I'll be traveling to Lincoln instead to attend the Festival.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mythology Mondays - What Exactly Is A Myth?

It's been a while since I had time for Mythology Monday and when I was contemplating what I might do this week, I occurred to me that I wasn't sure exactly what constitutes a myth. According to a myth is:
"a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature."
Some peoples came to see their own mythology as "true" stories whereas fables were considered to be fiction. A Greek mythologist, Euhemerus, who lived about 1700 years ago, first put out the idea that myths were based on actual events and people. According to Euhemerus, as these stories were based down, they were embellished until the characters become god-like beings. Whether or not the stories have any basis in reality, it's easy to see why people would have created these stories to explain things for which there was no other explanation.

Another theory is that myths have their basis in allegory, particularly for natural phenomenon or spiritual concepts. Yet another theory contends that myths were the result of "personification of inanimate objects and forces." 

Regardless of how "myth" is defined or what their genesis was, they make wonderful stories that have clearly stood the test of time. What do Shakespeare and George Clooney have in common? Mythology. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from Greek mythology in writing him plays. Clooney starred in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which was based on The Odyssey.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Salon - April 24

It's been a busy week at Chez Shepp and not much readings been done. I'm reading Mary Helen Stefaniak's The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia this weekend and will have a review for that up this week. Stefaniak is another Omaha author and I'm enjoying her book a lot.

Mary Pipher, PhD is another Nebraska author many of you may have heard of, particularly if you have teen-aged daughters. Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves of Adolescent Girls was published almost a decade ago and was an New York Times bestseller which is still cited when discussing what we can do to help our daughters survive our "girl-poisoning" culture.

Pipher is also the author of books about women and our quest for thinness, the art of mentoring, writing to change the world, and rebuilding our families in light of the difficulties we face in today's society. I was disappointed to miss the chance to hear Pipher speak about a week ago. One of the local churches hosts a program called The Center for Faith Studies; a couple of years ago I was delighted to find that they were hosting Geraldine Brooks speaking about People of the Book.

Hoping to get back on track this week, although work will be really busy. I've got a lot of books to read for May, including Ordinary Thunderstorms; Island Beneath The Sea; Island Girl; and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter for TLC Book Tours and Brooklyn with The Omaha Bookworms. What are you looking forward to reading soon?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Separate Kingdoms by Valierie Laken

Separate Kingdoms by Valerie Laken
224 pages
Published February 2011 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

The loss of a young boy's vision at birth, the loss of a woman's limb in a car accident, the loss of a father. In this collection of short stories, Valerie Laken explores loss on many levels, both physical and emotional, short-term and permanent. The stories are set in both the United States and Russia, populated with characters who are emotionally scarred but ultimately hopeful.

As with any collection of short stories, there were some stories here that I enjoyed more than others. There were even a couple where I was not sure what, exactly, Laken was trying to say. But I enjoyed her writing in all of the stories; they are unique, emotionally touching and thought provoking. Laken also does not sacrifice on description to fit the story into short form, as in this passage from "Spectators:"
"...he had always appreciated the tidy green isolation of golf courses, the way people's voices dropped naturally to church tones, as if there were something in their midst to worship. He liked the cocktails and groundskeepers and the old-fashioned shoes, and the way serious adults could abandon the jagged concerns of their lives to focus for a few quiet hours on the flight of a small dimpled ball."
My favorite story was "Family Planning," the story of a gay couple who has traveled to Russia to adopt a child. But when they arrive and are given their choice of two children, instead of only the little boy they were expecting to met, the women realize that their hopes for the future are very different.

When I was approached about reviewing this book, I read only as far as the description of the title story. In fact, I didn't even read far enough to realize that this was a collection of short stories. I'm not sure that would have made a difference in whether or not I read this; I generally prefer to be able to read collections of short stores over a long periods. Fortunately, I didn't pass on this one.

Thanks to TLC for including me on this tour!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent
332 pages
Published October 2009 by Little, Brown and Company
Source: I bought it to read with The Omaha Bookworms

In December 1690, Sarah Carrier and her family moved from Billerica, Massachusetts to Andover to live with her grandmother. They weren't exactly chased out of Billerica but they weren't really welcome there any more. Soon they would no longer be welcome in Andover, either. Sarah's father, Thomas, has a past that frightens people and her mother is a woman far ahead of her time, unwilling to back down, unwilling to be silent.

"But Martha Carrier was like a deep pond, the surface of which was placid enough but deeply cold to the touch and which was filled beneath the surface with sharp rocks and treacherous choke roots. And she had a tongue, the sharpness of which would gut a man as quick as a Gloucester fisherman could clean a lamprey eel."
The villagers weren't the only ones who didn't much care for Martha Carrier. Sarah found her to be cold and uncaring. After spending some time with her aunt and uncle when her own family was battling small pox, and seeing what a loving family could be like, Sarah was more miserable than ever in her own home. But as cries of witchcraft began to be heard in nearby Salem Village and the villagers of Andover begin to cry out against the Carrier family, Sarah will come to understand her mother in a way she had never thought possible.

Martha Carrier was one of the first women arrested and tried for witchcraft in the craze that swept the new world in 1692. She was not the last family member to be arrested. Sarah and three of her brothers were also arrested and held in the most deplorable of conditions. Over 150 other men, women and children accused of witchcraft were also arrested. Twenty six were tried and convicted in Salem Village alone. Nineteen were hanged; one man who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death by stones in an attempt to coerce a confession. It was one of the worst cases of mass hysteria in history.

 Kathleen Kent is a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier. She is also the author The Wolves of Andover which is Thomas Carrier's story. The Omaha Bookworms were honored to get to speak with Ms. Kent last night via Skype, well we tried to Skype anyway. Due to stormy weather in her area, we weren't able to keep our Skype connection with Ms. Kent, but the phone worked just fine.

Ms. Kent told us that her fascination with Martha Carrier and the Salem witch trials began when she was only eight and first found out that she had a relative who had been accused of witchcraft. It kept her interest for years but not until she was approaching her 50th birthday did Ms. Kent finally decide it was time to write commit the story to paper.  It's always interesting to talk with an author but this was an exceptional case because of the history involved. Ms. Kent talked about which parts of the story were family lore that she discovered to be true (a cow was fed pumpkins and gave golden milk, for example), which parts she learned from reading the trial records, and which parts were developed after extensive research. Ms. Kent is currently working on a third book, also historical fiction, but this one is not based on family history. Look for it, hopefully, in the fall of 2012! Thanks to Ms. Kent for spending so much time with us!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Safe From The Sea by Peter Geye

Safe From The Sea by Peter Geye
256 pages
Published September 2010 by Unbridled Books
Source: the publisher

When Noah Torr's father, Olaf, calls and tells Noah that he could use some help, that he's sick, Noah immediately goes to him. For most of us this would be the obvious thing to do but for Noah it's not that easy. Noah and Olaf have been estranged for years and Noah and his wife, Natalie, have been struggling to conceive a baby for years. Even knowing that it could cost him his marriage, Noah makes the decision to go to Minnesota.

Noah grew up with a father who spent his life on ships on the Great Lakes. He was often gone, he was more often distant. When Noah arrives at his father's cabin and finds him terminally ill, he understands that it's time to learn why his father became the man who abandoned his family.

I thought perhaps if I waited some time after finishing this book to write this review, I could be more objective. I thought wrong. Weeks after finishing this book, the first word that pops into my mind to describe this book is "brilliant." Setting the book on the cold shores of Lake Superior, a setting he knows well, Geye deftly makes the atmosphere inside Olaf's cabin mirror the atmosphere outside of it. Before he arrives at his father's cabin, Noah visits a maritime museum, in particular the room featuring artifacts from a ship wreck his father survived. The sadness and grief associated with that wreck permeate the relationship between Olaf and Noah as well. Both of the men have carried the scars of that wreck for more than 30 years. Olaf knew that he would ever after only be known as one of only three men to survive the wreck. The survivor's guilt Olaf felt drove him to drink, leaving Noah to grow up without his father even when he wasn't on the lakes. One reviewer called the dialogue between Noah and Olaf "stagnant" and said that it "slowed the plot." I found it very realistic and felt that the conversation between the men was the plot of the story.

I rarely cry when reading a book; I can't remember the last book that brought me to tears. This one did...twice. That despite my knowing well before the book was done what was going to happen. The ending may have been a bit tidier than I would have preferred but it worked for me. My husband also read the book and was less satisfied with the ending but very much enjoyed the book as well.

Geye and Unbridled Books have put in my hands a book that I would highly recommend to readers of either sex and almost any age. A most impressive debut.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sunday Salon - April 17

If your name is Timothy Schaffert, and you've been Googling your name recently, you've found a lot to read about yourself and your book, The Coffins of Little Hope. Omaha author Schaffert's name has been appearing all over the book world this week with the publication of his fourth book (which I reviewed last week) published by my favorite indie publisher, Unbridled Books.

The New York Times reviewed The Coffins of Little Hope this week and mentioned that you could pick up Schaffert's previous books for as little as a penny a piece. As much as I dislike Amazon, I headed straight over to their site to see about getting all three of the previous books. Then a feeling of guilt overcame me. I'm all for shopping for books in the clearance bins but if I'm really committed to supporting an author, how am I helping him/her if I'm buying a used copy of a book for one cent? Instead I headed to my local indie bookstore, The Bookworm, where I got the chance to listen to Schaffert read several chapters from the book and answer questions. Then I went a paid full price for his first novel, supporting both a local writer, an indie bookstore and an indie publisher all in one purchase.

Dzanc Books, another indie book publisher also had wonderful things to say about Unbridled Books and their commitment to their authors.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - Maria Tatar

Last fall, when I was at the Omaha Lit Fest (are you getting tired of me talking about that yet?), there were a couple of names I had never heard before that kept coming up during the panel discussions. With my interest in fairy tales piqued, I decided it was probably important to learn more about those people. Included in that group were Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Joy Williams, and Maria Tatar. Carter, Calvino and Williams are all highly respected authors whose works include fairy tales and I'll get to them soon. This week I want to introduce you to Tatar.

Maria Tatar is a teacher and a writer, two things that make her interesting to me immediately. She's not just any teacher though; Tatar teaches folklore, children's literature and Germanic culture studies at none other than Harvard University. She chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology. In an interview you can see at the Barnes & Noble website, Tatar says that the combination of horror and beauty is what drew her into the study of folklore. The woman is a prolific translator and annotator of classic fairy tales and has made herself "the" expert in the field.

In this interview for the Harvard Gazette, Tatar talks about writing her book The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales (W.W. Norton 2002), teaching fairy tales and why she thinks the tales appeal to such a wide age group. Those morals I was looking for when I started reading fairy tales? Tatar says that fairy tales don't provide them. Any morals you find in the stories were probably added by the people that made the tales into stories for children. Sometimes the morals even run counter to the stories, she says.

Enjoy what Ms. Tatar has to say about storytelling, folklore and children's literature at her blog, Breezes From Wonderland.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Introducing Another Omaha Author - Julie Christensen

Julie Christensen is the author of "Searching for Meredith Love," a women's fiction book that Julie has self-published as an e-book. It's getting great reviews on Amazon. Although Julie lives Omaha, this book is set in New Mexico.

Meredith Love thought her life was just fine. Fresh out of graduate school, she had a shiny new job in the medical office where she used to be a secretary. Sure, she didn’t really like all her co-workers, and yes, her bosses still asked her to drop everything to send a fax. And, okay, she had an irritatingly successful best friend who was always telling Meredith that her life sucked. But Meredith was content with her quiet life in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Then Ben Abel, second-year medical resident, appears on the scene, and Meredith realizes how miserable her life is and what happiness could be. Suddenly, her life looks as bad as her best friend always said and it's getting worse by the minute. Now Meredith is going to have to stand up and fight for the life she wants instead of the life she's got. And even if she succeeds, a secret from her past could ruin everything.

A native New Yorker, Julie studied painting at Pratt Institute and worked briefly in advertising on Fifth Avenue before she realized that her "creative" job was sucking the life out of her soul. Julie worked as a live-in Au Pair in Brooklyn, taught preschool, and lived in Barcelona and New Mexico before finally going back to school to get her Masters in Audiology. She wrote Searching For Meredith Love while living in New Mexico. After graduation, Julie did her fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota before moving to Omaha to work at a center for pediatric audiology. It was in Omaha that she discovered how hard dating is when you are an old thirty-something. She began writing about her horrible dates to amuse her single friends and make her married friends appreciate their husbands. The Truth About Dating is based on these experiences. Julie was introduced to her future husband by an acquaintance who, after reading a draft of The Truth About Dating, realized that she knew the perfect man for Julie. One blind date led to marriage less than a year later. They now have two children, ages 2 and 3. Julie continues to paint ( and write ( She is currently at work on her third novel, a mystery set in Brooklyn.

Julie tells me that she's putting the finishing touches on a print edition of The Truth About Dating and once that's completed, she'll move to do the same with Searching For Meredith Love.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
288 pages
Published April 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

In a small town in New Jersey, new drama teacher at the high school has announced that this year's play will be "Lysistrata*," a play in which one Greek woman incites the rest to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until the end the Pelopponesian War. Almost immediately a spell begins to settle over the women of Stellar Plains. Young and old, they begin to lose all interest in intimacy. The slightest touch has them pulling away.

It happens to Robby and Dory Lang, admired and beloved English teachers at the high school. Married for fifteen years, everyone assumes that Dory and Robby have the perfect marriage.
"It might have gone on like this for a long, long time. It might never have changed. They might have remained one of those miracle couples who never stop, never quit, and whom everyone regards in head-shaking awe. They might have stayed at an impressive pitch, sexually, even after so much time had gone by."
Then one night, Robby put a hand on Dory's shoulder and she felt a blast of cold air, a blast that was the spell, a spell that left her feeling disgusted by Robby's touch. And so it went throughout the town.
"Starting that night, and continuing for quite a while afterward, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped and the windows shook like crazy in their frames, and all over that town, you could hear the word "no."
The spell came over Bev Cutler, a woman who's been pulling back from her husband for some time but is still surprised to be so repulsed by him. It settles on Ruth Winik, the girls' P.E. teacher who previously had been so attracted to her husband that she had given up a period of lesbianism to be with him. It even comes over Leanne Bannerjee who pulls away from not one but three lovers and Willa Lang who has only recently fallen in love for the first time and begun discovering sex. The more the women pull away, the more frustrated and distant the men become.

I went into this book completely unaware of what it was about; I knew Wolitzer's name and that the book was about relationships. I wasn't sure where the book was going for a while, if it was just going to be a book about Robby and Dory or something more. But as the spell spread and Wolitzer explored how such a thing might effect society, the story definitely picked up for me. I didn't really connect with any of the characters, perhaps because there were so many of them, although there were things about many of the couples that struck home. The idea of magical realism in a story doesn't always well for me and this book was no exception; I might have enjoyed the book more if Wolitzer had found a different way to make her point. Despite the fact that the major theme of the book is intimacy, there is nothing particularly graphic in the novel and this one might make an interesting book club selection.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour. For more reviews, check out these blogs. To learn more about Wolitzer and her books, check out her website. To read an excerpt of the book, follow this link.

* "Lysistrata": a play by Aristophanes in which Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual favors from their husbands to force them to negotiate peace after the Pelopponisian War has dragged on for over twenty years. The women's actions start a new war...the battle between the sexes. The play, a comedy, helped usher in a new era for the comedic theater and includes explicit obscenities and double entendre.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
272 pages
Published April 2011 by Unbridled Books
Source: the publisher

Essie Myles is an octagenarian, writing obituaries for the newspaper that her grandson, Doc, is running, the same newspaper that Essie's father started. Between them, they've been raising Doc's niece, Tiffany, since her mother ran off with her lover seven years ago.

The small Nebraska town they live in has been struggling for years, fighting to remain a real town and not an homage to the past, a past that never really existed, as had happened to other nearby towns.
"The grocery store was now a museum, the post office a gallery of Western art, the haberdashery a concert hall due to its quirky acoustics. For years the bountiful Myrtle Kingsley Fitch [a long deceased author who had lived in the town] Foundation had been saving that dying rural town by killing it, inch by inch, and casting it in amber"
 Then the  publisher of a hugely popular children's book series asks Doc to be one of a group of small presses that will be printing the final installment of the series in an effort to keep the story secret. The buzz is akin to that of the Harry Potter books but the books themselves felt to me much more like the Series of Unfortunate Events books.

Real change comes to the town, however, when one of the employees of the press, Daisy, reports that her daughter has been abducted by an aerial photographer who's been spending time at her farm. A daughter who, as it turns out, may or may not have existed. Daisy confides the details to Doc and his stories in the paper soon attract other media, curiosity seekers and even some who will soon form a cult called Lenorians (a term coined by Tiff after the girl, Lenore). Doc, Essie and Tiff all find themselves caught up in the drama even as they deal with the return of Tiff's mom.

There's a lot going on in this book, but Schaffert does a marvelous job of blending all of the elements in a non-linear style with humor and empathy. The characters are at once quirky yet very real; in Essie, in particular, Schaffert has created a character who will stay with the reader. His writing is wonderfully descriptive; clearly this is a man who enjoys the intricacies of language. He is also appears to be a man who believes that not all technology is a good thing, as seen in this passage from Essie:
"I still used a manual typewriter (a 1853 Underwood portable, in a robin's-egg blue) because the soft pip-pip-pip of the typing of keys on a computer keyboard doesn't quite fit with my sense of what writing sounds like. I need the hard metal clack, and need those keys to sometimes catch so I can reach in and untangle them, turning my fingertips inky."
Schaffert has summed up my resistance to ereaders and my ambivalence about audio books in this passage:
"Tiff needed the words on the page to become the voice in her head, her own voice, or an approximation of it, and she need the paper and the sound of the scratch of her chapped fingertips against it as she fiddled with each page, ever ready to turn it."
Schaffert is the driving force of the Omaha Lit Fest and I've been looking forward to reading this book since I heard him talking about it last fall. My anticipation was only heightened when I learned that Unbridled Books was the book's publisher. Regular readers know how much I love Unbridled Books! So I went into this book with high expectations and I'm very happy to be able to say that not only was I not disappointed, I was delighted to find this book is bound to remain one of my favorite books of the year.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Salon - April 10

I was feeling like a massive failure at Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon earlier today. I probably only read about 10 hours, only read about 400 pages and didn't participate in a single mini-challenge. On the other hand, I did finish one book, read another book and got a good start on a third. I visited a lot of other blogs, including many new-to-me blogs. And I did all of that while still managing to do laundry, give my son a haircut, get my hair colored and enjoy an evening out with friends. So, yeah, now I'm feeling pretty good about what I got done.

It may be a foregone conclusion that if you work for a newspaper and you write a book, the paper will be a great promoter for you. Still, it was nice to see not just a nice review of Rainbow Rowell's Attachments, but also this article. If you'd like to see what Rowell is all about, check out her articles. I'm looking forward to hearing her this Thursday but suddenly realized that I've given my copy of the book to my mom to read. Argh!

I'm looking forward to finishing The Heretic's Daughter this week and then I'll either move on to Valerie Laken's Separate Kingdoms or Jay Winik's April 1865 for the War Through The Generations challenge. What are you reading this week?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon - The Spring 2011 Edition

I've been on the fence about joining in this spring with the Dewey's 24 Hour Read-A-Thon, knowing that I wasn't going to have a full 24 hours to read. Then The Big Guy's snoring woke me up just as if he were an alarm clock set especially for the event and my decision was made. When I just went and signed up, I was the 450th person to do so! I love thinking that there are 450 of us, world-wide, all enjoying this together! The kickoff post asked us to tell you a few things, most of which I'll cover below but asked that I tell you three random things about myself. Let's give this a shot: 1) those bananas in the picture? I will not be eating them for breakfast; I don't really care for bananas 2) my sister and I should really not be allowed to go out in public together; we are ridiculously loud and laugh entirely too much 3) I hate the very expensive pillow my husband bought me for Christmas but don't tell him; I haven't been able to get my pillows "right" for months and he was trying to help.

I'm kicking off the event with a little coffee (actually, a lot of coffee) and breakfast while I finish up Timothy Schaffert's The Little Coffins Of Hope. Then it's on to Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling, which I'll be reviewing this week. After that The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent, which my book club is reading for this month. We are all so excited to be Skyping with Ms. Kent! If, by some bizarre chance, I find myself getting in much more reading time than I had planned, or being able to stay awake all night, I'll finish the read-a-thon with Valerie Lakin's Separate Kingdoms, which I'll be reviewing for TLC Book Tours later this month.

I'm just going to be adding to this post throughout the read-a-thon so as to not clog up any one's reader or email. I'll be checking in with my fellow readers periodically, but for now, let's get reading!

Update 1: Three hours in and I've finished The Little Coffins of Hope and I'm 45 pages in The Uncoupling. Pages read: 108. I am definitely not a morning person.After about an hour of reading I get drowsy. I've had to take a break and get moving to wake myself up. Fortunately for Mini-Me, that means the haircut he's been needing.

Update 2: 18 hours in and I need another break to try to stay awake. Took a very long break early and went to dinner and a concert with book club friends and their husbands. Greek food and folk music. I have now finished The Uncoupling and have started The Heretic's Daughter. Not sure how much longer I'll be able to stay awake. How do so many of you make it the full 24 hours and remember anything that you read in the last few hours?

Wrap Up: Not long after my last update, I succumbed to the weight of my eyelids and went to bed. It was beginning to feel too much like work and I never want to have the feeling that reading is making me miserable. I did get 50 pages into The Heretic's Daughter and I'm enjoying it very much. Wish I would have had more time to read today!

Total Pages Read: 434

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
288 pages
Published February 2009 by Simon and Schuster Adult
Source: bought it for the Omaha Bookworms March read

After two years in a British detention center for immigrants, Little Bee is finally being released along with three other refugees.  Each of the girls is carrying a plastic bag with all of their worldly belongings in them.  For one of the girls, the bag is empty, in another there are pineapple rings, in a third there is a mass of official documents.  In Little Bee's there is a business card and a driver's license belonging to Andrew O'Rourke.
 "The African girl they locked up in the immigration detention center, poor child, she never really escaped. In my soul she is still locked up in there, forever, under the fluorescent lights, curled up on the green linoleum floor with her knees tucked up under her chin. And this woman they released from the immigration detention center, this creature that I am, she is a new breed of human. There is nothing natural about me. I was born - no, I was reborn - in captivity."
 Ten days later, Little Bee rings the door bell at the O'Rourke home, stunning Sarah O'Rourke. Andrew and Sarah had first met Little Bee on a beach in Nigeria while they were on a vacation but neither of them had ever expected to see Little Bee again.  All three of them have never forgotten what happened that day.

Have you ever seen the movie "The Crying Game?" Toward the end of that movie there was a major revelation that entirely changed everything. The makers of the movie asked that viewers of the movie not let the secret out and people were astonishingly good about not reveling the secret. This publishers of this book have made a similar request of readers and in the spirit of not spoiling the book for anyone, I'm going not going to give anything more of the plot away. Although I don't think the twist in Little Bee that has been so well guarded is quite as shocking, there are actually a number of surprises in this book.

The book is written in alternating first-person narratives by both Little Bee and Sarah and both women bare their souls to the reader. Cleave does a marvelous job of capturing both voices. Occasionally I felt that the book dragged a bit on both sides of the story and I found myself not much liking Sarah, but then I'm sure that Cleave did not intend for his readers to like her. Little Bee's narratives were full of wonderful observations about society that really caught my attention.
"Everything was happiness and singing when I was a little girl. There was plenty of time for it. We did not have hurry. We did not have electricity or fresh water or sadness either, because none of these had been connected to our village yet."
I have often thought that all the things we think people in remote villages need are just the things that start causing problems for the villagers.

I've been wanted to read Little Bee since it first came out but finally got to it because the Omaha Bookworms chose it for our March read. In the same paragraph as the above quote, three of us had marked this passage as an example of Cleave's lovely writing.
"I sat in between the roots of my limba tree and I laughed while I watched Nkiruka swinging back and fro, back and fro. The tether of the swing was very long, so it took a long time for her to travel from one end of its swing to the other. It never looked like it was in a rush, that swing. I used to watch it all day long and I never realized that I was watching a pendulum counting down the last seasons of peace in my village."
Little Bee was recommended to me by a number of people as an excellent book club read and they were so right. Several of the ladies had not finished the book yet but all were eager to discuss what they had read and all enjoyed the book. Little Bee is not a light nor an easy read but it is a book well worth reading.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jane Eyre Giveaway Winner!

Congratulations to Michelle, winner of the Jane Eyre prize pack! Thanks to everyone who entered!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
336 pages
Published April 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Lincoln is not happy in his job as the night shift IT guy at the newspaper. There's not nearly enough work for him to do and one of his official duties is to monitor the company's email filtering system, making sure that employees are not using the computers for personal purposes or using certain language. Lincoln is living in a rut outside of his job as well. He's spent most of the last ten years in college, earning two Master's degrees and living with his mother.  His sister is at him constantly to move on from the broken heart he suffered his freshman year of college that started his downward spiral, but Lincoln just doesn't it in him to develop a plan for the future.
"Love. Purpose. Those are the things that you can't plan for. Those are the things that just happen. And what if they don't happen? Do you spend your whole life pining for them? Waiting to be happy?"
Beth and Jennifer are friends who also work at the newspaper. They know their emails are monitored but they just don't seem to care. When emails between the pair start popping up in the filter that Lincoln is reading, he finds himself drawn into their worlds, their friendship. Jennifer tells Beth about her anxiety about having children and Beth tells Jennifer about the problems in her relationship with her boyfriend, a local rock musician. They talk about their mothers, their jobs, their appearance...everything.

Soon Lincoln realizes that he's fallen in love with Beth.Then Beth starts talking about a cute guy in the building. "My Cute Guy" she calls him. Then one day, as he's reading an email between the women, Lincoln realizes that he is Beth's cute guy. But there's no way Lincoln can possibly approach Beth. No way he can explain how he knows so much about her. No way he can explain why he's been to see her boyfriend's band perform so often. But somehow, all of this has finally caused Lincoln to start taking the tiny steps he needs to take to move on with his life.

Rowell uses an unusual style in this novel. The narrative switches between a third-person point of view when we're looking at Lincoln's side of the story while switching to an epistolary (email version) style for the conversations between Beth and Jennifer.  This did take some getting used to but given the premise that we're introduced to Beth and Jennifer because of their email dispatches, it seemed appropriate to continue in the vein. Rowell creates likable characters and it was enjoyable to watch each of the three leads slowly grow over the course of the year-long span of the book. 

One of my favorite characters in the book was the city itself.  My city. It's always fun to read a book set in the place where you live, particularly when it's written by a person that knows that place, who refers to places that are familiar. The story starts in August of 1999 and, in addition to bringing the hype of Y2K back to mind, Rowell revisits events and places of note in the city at the time including a concert venue that has now been torn down to make room for a Wal-Mart and the fight to save the last Cinemarama theater in the country.

Having read Rowell's column in our local paper for years, I had an idea what style her writing might take in a novel, what I hoped to find in a novel written by Rowell. I was not disappointed. Her style is light and humorous, as in this exchange between Beth and Jennifer:
"<> It wasn't much of a story: I went to get some M&M'S from the break room today, and ended up in line behind the publisher at the snack machine. I was sure he would choose a conservative and traditional snack--perhaps mixed nuts or a great American Hershey's bar--but, no, he went right for the Salsa Verde Doritos.
<> This is at odds with everything I thought I understood about our editorial policy.
<> I know. How can someone who eats Salsa Verde Doritos so vehemently oppose gay marriage?
<> And affirmative action.
<> And traffic roundabouts."
Rowell is no slouch at writing heartwarming and heartbreaking as in this conversation between Lincoln and his high school sweetheart, Sam, who he followed to California for college and who is pulling away from him:
""You're reminding them that I'm other," she said. "That I'm a freshman, that I'm not from around here. I need them to look at me and see my role. To see my talent and nothing else. You're reminding them that I have this cloying Heartland backstory.:
"What cloying?" he asked.
"The adoring-Germanic-farm-boy thing."
"I'm not a farm boy."
"To them, you are," she said.""
This quote is just for my family. It's not meant to be funny, and I always love when authors use words that are out of the ordinary, but I laughed out loud when I read it because of a conversation my family had years ago:
"The Village Inn had reached its 3:00 A.M. nadir when Lincoln got up to leave."
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour; it was a pleasure to see what Rowell is capable of when she's got a full novel in which to play. For other, perhaps less biased reviews, check out what the rest of the reviewers on the tour think of this freshman effort.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Salon - April 3

First off, I need to say happy birthday to my nephew, who is celebrating his 21st birthday today. I can still vividly remember seeing him for the first time. He weighed over 9 1/2 lbs when he was born; big enough that when my then 3 year old son wanted to hold him, I let him. Love that picture!

This month at Lit and Life, I'm going to be talking a lot about Omaha and Nebraska authors. I realized one day that I had books for review this month from both Timothy Schaffert and Rainbow Rowell and that I also had Mary Helen Stefaniak's The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia on my shelves. I'm always jealous that so many of you get to attend great author events but I suddenly realized that there are plenty of authors right here to be excited about.
Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell, in addition to be the author Attachments, which I'm currently reading, is a columnist for the Omaha newspaper who just happened to write an article about the same subject and introduced me to a lot of new names.I'll be reviewing Attachments tomorrow then I hope to get to The Bookworm book store next week to have her sign my copy. She'll also be in Des Moines and Kansas City soon. I've been reading Rainbow's articles since she first started writing for the paper (I can't tell you how much I missed that female voice when she left for a while!) so I feel a little bit like I've watched her grow up!

Timothy Schaffert
Timothy Schaffert's latest book is The Coffins of Little Hope which I'll be reviewing next week. I'm also looking forward to seeing Schaffert that week, also at The Bookworm, and having my book signed. You've heard me talk about Schaffert before; he's the driving force behind Omaha Lit Fest which I discovered last year. The Coffins of Little Hope is getting great reviews; no surprise there, it is published by Unbridled Books. They never let me down! Schaffert's going to be hitting the road in May; look for him in Milwaukee, Chicago and Iowa City.

Are any local authors on your reading plans soon?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fairy Tale Friday - The Princess In Disguise

Because it's April Fool's Day, I thought a fairy tale about trickery was in order, so this week I read The Princess in Disguise, wherein a princess disguises herself first to flee her father and then to trap herself a husband.

Once upon a time there was a queen who was dying. Shortly before she died, she made her husband, the King, promise not to remarry unless the woman was a beautiful as the Queen was and had hair as golden. After she died, the King's men searched far and wide but never could find such a woman for the King to take as a second wife. So the King finally decided that he would marry his daughter (I know, yuck!).When he told his daughter his plan, she was creeped out by the idea as well. To put him off, she told him that she first she wanted three gowns, one as golden as the sunshine, one as silvery as the moon and one as glittering as the stars. She also asked for a mantle made from a thousand skins of rough fur sewn together. Impossible tasks, thought she. But she was wrong. So when the King presented them to her, she decided she needed to run away. One night she folded the gowns up so small that they fit in a nut shell (what the heck material were these dresses made of?), stained her hands and face with the juice from a walnut, and took three gold tokens with her before she left, a ring, a spinning wheel, and a hook.

She walked all night then fell asleep in a forest. It just so happened that day the King of that country's men were out hunting and thought the girl was some new kind of animal. Fortuitously, the King ordered the animal captured alive and when the men found that this was a girl and not an animal, they decided to try to help her. They brought her back to their castle where she became an assistant to the cook and was known as Roughskin. Some time later, the King was hosting a party and Roughskin asked to watch the visitors arrived and the cook agreed. Swiftly, the princess, washed off her face and hands and changed into the gold dress and joined the guests. The King was enchanted but the princess left without telling him who she was. Later the King asked for a bowl of soup and the cook let Roughskin make the soup. Into the soup she dropped the gold ring. When the King asked the cook about it, she said she hadn't made the soup and Roughskin said that she didn't know where the ring came from.

The next time visitors were coming, the princess did the same thing with with the silver dress. Again the king was taken by her but again she disappeared. This time when he asked for soup, she dropped in the golden spinning wheel, then , as Roughskin, denied knowing anything about it. The third time the King had guests, the princess donned the shimmering dress but the King was smart and snuck the ring on her finger before she left (really? she didn't feel that?). The princess was late getting back and this time didn't fully get her face stained and could only hide her dress under her mantle. When she sent the king the soup, she dropped in the hook. When he came to the kitchen, he saw uncovered the princess and found the ring on her finger. She finally told him all of her history. Where upon he asked her to marry him and "they lived happily till their death."

This is actually quite a short story that carries quite a lot of symbolism. The number three repeatedly appears in the story (three dresses, three golden pieces, and three attributes that made the princess appeal to the king), a number that was historically significant. The attributes of the princess (wealth, beauty and the ability to cook) are symbolic of the way men have traditionally valued women. Each of the golden pieces is symbolic on its own. The ring, given first, represents a promise; the spinning wheel represents femininity; and the hook...well, the hook is obvious, isn't it? It's interesting to note that the princess only had value when she was with her father or future husband but only when she was away from them did she have a name, her own identity.

For a humorous look at the story, checkout this version in play form.