Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - Giambattista Basile

When I had the idea to start Fairy Tale Fridays, I largely envisioned myself re-reading beloved fairy tales, reading the new takes on them and discovering the original versions. Perhaps a little research here and there into the origins of the tales. But the more I've read, the more I've wanted to learn about how the stories morphed over time, who passed them down and who's telling them now and I'm always looking for new sources of information. Today I found The Journal of Mythical Arts thanks to Veens at Giving Reading A Chance. I doubly excited to find this site because it covers not just fairy tales but myths as well.

As soon as I started poking around the site, I came across the name Giambattista Basile. You may remember that I only recently discovered Basile (shocking, now that I know how much he contributed to fairy tales) and I decided I wanted to learn more about this man who seems to be one of the first people to record fairy tales which had, until that time, been primarily oral.

Born in 1575, Basile was both a poet and a military man who held posts in Neapolitan courts. As different as those two roles are, he's best known for two wildly divergent works. One was a series of nine satires of popular culture in Naples, the other a fairy tale collection, the title of which translates to The Tale of Tales or Entertainment for Little Ones. Basile took the tales that he had heard and made them into original tales which are heavily metaphorical and written in the local dialect. The stories were never published until after Basile's death and then fell into relative obscurity until the Brother's Grimm praised the work. For a guy that's been dead nearly 400 years, Basile is remarkably modern--he's got his own Facebook page! So now, in addition to my previous pledge to learn more about religion in fairy tales, I also want to read Basile's original work (well, the English translation, anyway!).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Salon - June 26

A little of this and a little of that for you this week, all book-related for a change! From NPR, a couple of links for you. First up, some literary getaways for this summer, including Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee. What literary getaway would you recommend for summer reading?

Also from NPR, Nancy Pearl's 10 Terrific Summer Reads. Delighted to find on Ms. Pearl's list The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert. So now, don't just take my word for it, listen to the wonderful librarian and get yourself a copy!

(Joe Shlobotnik/Flckr)

On Point Radio, with Tom Ashbrook (heard on NPR--you think maybe I listen too much?!), recently compiled a list of listener's best summer read picks. The list includes everything from classics to just released titles; fiction to non-fiction to memoir. Some book "experts" also gave their suggestions for the summer. Are any of these on your agenda in the coming months? I've got a couple that I'm hoping to get to, including The Gap Year by Sarah Bird and Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan.

From Barnes & Noble, their Bookseller's Guide to Good Reading. Included are some hot reads (Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, Before I Go To Sleep and the last installment of the Stephanie Plum series), cool books (The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, The Astral, and I Wore The Ocean In The Shape of A Girl) and modern classics (The Poisonwood Bible, Cloud Atlas and Housekeeping). I always think I know most of what's out there, and then one of these lists comes along and proves me wrong.

I'm very excited to have discovered, in the newspaper today (thank heavens newspapers haven't completely disappeared yet!) that Omaha's Joslyn Castle will be hosting "Romance at the Castle: The Brontes" in July. There will be movies, readings, and a one-woman play. I won't be able to get to nearly all of it but I'm hoping to round up a couple of other Bronte fans to get to a few of the offerings.

I'm looking forward to the coming weekend--not so much for the Fourth of July celebrations but for a three-day weekend with, I hope, plenty of time to sit on the patio and read. For those of you in the U.S., do you have big plans for the coming weekend?

What are you reading this week?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What's Keeping Me From Reading Lately - Omaha

It's not that I'm not enjoying Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (I really am!). It's just that there are so many other things going on around here lately to pull my interest away from reading. Tonight it was some baseball followed by big fireworks show. I've gotten tired of the driveway displays but I sure do love those big booming shows!

The flooding Missouri River continues to fascinate and horrify me. That road you see on the left? That's Interstate 29, the north-south corridor from Kansas City to Canada. You can just make out Omaha to the south.

I'm not much of a baseball fan as a general rule, but I do like to watch some college baseball and I love to watch the College World Series. It was especially interesting to watch as a massive bow echo line of thunderstorms moved over the city on Monday night.

If Virginia had won last night against defending CWS champions, South Carolina, it would have been a toss up what to do tonight. It will be a beautiful night to spend outdoors and, had VA won, it would have meant a rematch to determine who gets to play Florida in the championship series.  Since they lost, the decision is made for us.

This year marks the 25th year for Shakespeare on the Green and it looks like tonight we'll be heading down to watch A Midsummer Night's Dream. They always do a terrific job but a big part of the fun is having a picnic dinner in the park with a few hundred other fans of the bard while enjoying juggling and wandering troubadours. I'm eager to see Hamlet as well so we may be back down to the Green next weekend.

Perhaps I can work in some reading while I'm stretched out on a blanket waiting for it to get dark enough for the show to start. What are your plans for the weekend?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - The Appearance of Religion in Fairy Tales

In keeping with my idea that June Fairy Tale Fridays would be devoted to marriage, I came across a tale, in my Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales, titled "The Heavenly Wedding." It starts:

"A poor peasant boy one day heard the priest say in church that whosoever desired to enter into the kingdom of Heaven must always go straight onward." My first thought was that this didn't sound very much like a story that was going to end in a "happily-ever-after" wedding and my second thought was that this was the first time that I had ever read a fairy tale that referred, in any overt way, to religion.

In the tale, the boy begins walking, straight onward until he comes to a church. Having followed the priest's instructions, the boy believes that he must have come to Heaven and refuses to ever leave the church afterward. The priest agrees to let the boy stay. While there, the boy witnesses people praying to "Our Lady with the blessed child Jesus." Seeing how thin she is, the child begins leaving food for the statue. Those who come to the church begin to notice that the statue is indeed getting larger.

After some time, the boy becomes ill for many days and is unable to feed the Virgin. When he returns, he apologizes to her and she tells him that she has seen his good will and that the next Sunday he will go with her to the wedding. The next Sunday arrived and when the host came the boy fell down and died and was at the eternal wedding. Which, if you are a religious person, does end our story with a "happily-ever-after" wedding.

Curious about this appearance of religion in a fairy tale, I did a little research. In one article I found the idea that all fairy tales are based on the originally religious beliefs of people. It was the supposition of the author that this is the only way that fairy tales survived the arrival of Christianity in Europe because the people were banned from telling their old stories by their new religious leaders. Most of what came up when I typed in "religion and fairy tales" had more to do with the idea that all religion is, itself, a fairy tale for grownups. Buried some where in all of those search results is, I'm sure, more information on this topic. I'll be spending some time in the coming week looking further into the appearance of religion in fairy tales and looking for other tales where it makes an obvious appearance, as it did in "The Heavenly Wedding." This has definitely piqued my interest!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister

Joy For Beginners by Erica Bauermeister
288 pages
Published June 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours
*all quotes are from an uncorrected proof

Having survived breast cancer, Kate has no interest in risking death by going on the white water rafting trip her daughter is proposing. But at a celebratory dinner with six of her friends, Kate agrees to go on the trip, if each of the women agrees to a challenge of their own, a challenge that Kate will choose.

Caroline's son has just left for college when her husband leaves her for a younger woman leaving her wondering who she is if she is not a wife and a mother. Free-spirit Daria, is the youngest of the group, a potter who prides herself on being unpredictable.Wife and mother, Sara loves those roles but has recently started to wonder what happened to pre-marriage Sara.
"And she found herself wondering at what point in her life she had ceased to be Gulliver and had become the strings holding him to the ground."
Hadley, Sara's neighbor, is a young widow. In her grief, she purchased a house with a garden where the ivy has all but taken over everything else in the yard and cut off the house from the outside world. Kate challenges Hadley to clean up her garden, opening it back up to the world and uncovering all that is still there, buried beneath.
"When Sean died she understood for the first time how completely human beings were dependent upon a suspension of disbelief in order to simply move forward through their days. If that suspension faltered, if you truly understood, even if only for a moment, that human beings were made of bones and blood that broke and sprayed with the slightest provocation, and that provocation was everywhere--in street curbs and dangling tree limbs, bicycles and pencils--well you would fly for the first nest in a tree, run flat-out for the first burrow you saw."
Marion, the oldest of the group, is also the rock steady organizer. Where her sister, Daria, grew up pushing the limits, Marion was always the "good girl."
"There were moments in life, Marion thought, when you reached back, baton in hand, feeling the runner behind you. Felt the clasp of their fingers resonating through the wood, the release of your hand, which then flew forward, empty, into the space ahead of you."
Kate's best friend, Ava, whose mother died of cancer, is dealing with the guilt of not being with Kate during Kate's battle with cancer. How could she be? When her own mother was losing her own battle, Ava discovered that her hyper-sensitive sense of smell meant that she could tell when people were losing their battles.

And Kate? Kate who had looked death in the face and won? Kate is terrified of the raft trip, unable to grasp how she could possibly have allowed herself to be talked into willingly risking her life after working so hard to save it.

Joy For Beginners started slowly for me. I felt much the same way with this one as I did with The Four Ms. Bradwells: another story about a group of women; what can this one possibly offer that's new? First of all, Bauermeister has written the novel in a unique way that allows each character to take center stage as they tackle the challenge that Kate has assigned them. There is none of the "whole group together hashing out old grievances" that is so standard in novels about women. Instead, many of the characters don't even appear in the other character's chapters.

I suppose it should not have surprised me not to "click" with some of the ladies. If these were real people, it would stand to reason that there would be some that I wouldn't connect with. Still I began to be worried when I wasn't particularly drawn into Caroline's and then Daria's stories.In the same way, then it should not have taken me by surprise to have found myself so emotionally attached to other characters, some because I saw so much of myself in them. I found myself particularly drawn to Sara and Marion because I saw something of myself in them, but also to Hadley, who brought out the mother in me. Bauermeister really grabbed me with these two passages that seem to define so many women's lives:

"From the beginning, Sara had felt the pull toward procreation, toward Dan, as strong as the current of a river, deep and sensual, impossible to resist when she was ovulating. During the weeks when she was not fertile, she had felt like paper, thin and insubstantial, ready to blow away with the next wind."
"She had never felt the simple urgency of time more than in the past few years, as her ovaries creaked into silence and she had gone for months and then a year without the gush of blood or the deep purple sadness that came with it. She had understood that something was ceasing within her and, more important, would never start again. The cold reality of it had struck her, as if, perched on the crest of a roller coaster, the rest of the ride was suddenly irreversibly clear."
Perhaps it just took me until Sara's story to really understand where Bauermeister was going with the book, what she was trying to say. Once I did, I couldn't put the book down as I was drawn deeper into these women's lives. Bauermeister's writing is sublime and her messages universal: don't be afraid to lean on others, take a chance, discover your joy and embrace it. Highly recommended for book clubs.

Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For more reviews of this book, check out the full list of reviews on the tour. For more information on Ms. Bauermeister, check out her website or follow her on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Omaha Bookworms Discuss The Cookbook Collector

The Omaha Bookworms met last night to discuss Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector. Sadly, the picture is not of last night (although I had every intention of taking a picture and just forgot). That picture is from last summer when Mari ( of Bookworm With A View) was still with us in body as well as in spirit. The plan last night was to be on the patio but the weather just didn't cooperate. At least it was better than the night before when there were 23 tornadoes in Nebraska and the sirens went off here, sending the crowd at the College World Series game scrambling for cover. But I digress...

We were a small group last night--just five of us. Three had finished the book, one was about half way done and one hadn't read it. Ellen, who had recommended it was probably disappointed that the rest of us weren't nearly as enthused. I was happy to learn that neither of the other two who finished the book had foreseen what happened on page 329, which we couldn't discuss because we didn't want to ruin for the person still reading.

We talked a lot about the time period this was set in -- Ellen's of an age where she knew a lot of people who were young enough to really get caught up in the hype. We talked a little bit about what you would do if you found yourself as suddenly wealthy as many of the characters in this book did. One member has a friend that leaves in a big house they got cheap because the owner had lost all of their money in the bust.

Even though not all of us loved this one, we would all agree that this makes a good read for book clubs.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
394 pages
July 2010 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: bought this one at the Half-Price Book Store to read with the Omaha Bookworms this month

Two sisters, 28-year-old Emily and 23-year-old Jess, who could not be more different. Emily is the stereotypical over achiever, the daughter every parent dreams of, the sister who makes living in her shadow difficult. Jess is the free spirit, the idealist, the thinker whose study of philosophy is a disappointment to her scientist father.

"Everyone expected Emily to take care and take charge. It had always been this way. ... Emily knew she was not an angel, but the more she doubted it, the better she behaved."
As Emily, and the computer company she helped start, move confidently toward a bright future, Jess struggles to nail down exactly what her future will hold. Emily tells Jess "you have a way of losing yourself in other people." The same might be said of causes; Emily frequently finds herself with different men involved in different activist causes.

Emily's boyfriend, Jonathon, is equally driven. He has also co-founded a computer company, scheduled to go public only weeks after Emily's company does. But where Emily is pragmatic, Jonathon is content to let other people take care of the details, while he shoots for the stars.

The constant man in Jess's life is not one of her boyfriends. Instead it is George, who made millions with Microsoft but now is the owner of an antiquarian book store and Jess's boss. George is a collector and one of the "last romantics."  But George has never married, unable to commit to long-term relationships, even when it comes to the things he collects.
"Endlessly he had searched for his love, and when he couldn't find her, he looked for signs, traces of her beauty in books and maps. He surrounded himself with talismans and reliquaries, but he never stopped desiring the one he couldn't find."
A huge cast of supporting characters orbit each of the primary characters, including two Bialystok rabbis, Emily and Jess's father and his new family, co-workers, tree activist Leon, and Sandra McClintock who one day begins bringing cookbooks in to George's store.

Along with that huge cast, Goodman gives the reader an almost equal number of plot lines as we learn about the lives of all of the characters. As a book club selection, all of these characters and plot lines make for a book with a lot to talk about. Perhaps because I was reading this one as both a person just reading it because I'd heard wonderful things about it and as a person thinking about discussion points, I came away from this one feeling of two minds about the book.

As a book club reader, I took a lot of notes to keep all of the characters and discussion points straight in my mind. A somewhat unusual book structure, sudden wealth, secrets, loyalty, trust, activism, family, collecting but not doing  -- all things I'm looking forward to discussing with the Omaha Bookworms tonight. But as a person just reading the book for pleasure, I began to feel like the book was work to read; too many characters to keep track of, not enough time to explore any one thought or character. Still, on page 329, Goodman hit me with something that I should have seen coming but somehow missed altogether; it was then that I realized how deeply into the story I had been drawn, how interested I was in learning how Emily and Jess dealt with what had happened.

The reviewer for The New York Times called this one a "feast of love" and The Barnes and Noble Review calls The Cookbook Collector a "delicious read." Fifty fewer pages, a dozen fewer characters, and I think I might have felt that same way.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Salon - June 19

Happy Father's Day to all of the dads out there and all who have acted in that capacity!

Two news stories coming out of Omaha this week: the continuing flood concerns and the College World Series.  The Missouri River continues to rise, threatening cities, shutting down a long section of  Interstate 29, and devastating farmlands. In Omaha, we worry about our airport, our water supply and, gasp, the sewers backing up and flooding downtown streets and parking lots just as thousands of visitors descend upon our city. So far, so good but more water is being let out from the dam up river and we continue to get more and more rain.

The College World Series kicked off in its new home (TD Ameritrade Park) Friday night with Fan Appreciation night. It's not the same as the ballpark on the hill and there is something to be missed about the ballpark being set in a largely residential neighborhood. But the new stadium is very nice and the teams seem to like it. We're hoping to get down to a game this week.

On the reading front this week, I raced through Erica Bauermeister's Joy For Beginners (that review on Thursday) and started The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (for a readalong) and This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin (for the War Through The Generations challenge). Looking forward to discussing The Cookbook Collector (Allegra Goodman) with the Omaha Bookworms this week (my review on Tuesday). What are your reading plans for the week? Are you finding you have more or less time to read during the summer?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - The True Bride

With June being the traditional month of weddings, I thought it was only appropriate that Fairy Tale Fridays make its return with tale about a bride and so I selected "The True Bride" from my Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales. As I was reading along, I was enjoying all of the similarities that this tale has with so many of the other tales: wicked stepmother; poor, down-trodden stepdaughter who is forced to work day and night; and even a fairy godmother (although she is not actually called a fairy godmother in this tale).

About half way through this tale, though, the story switched gears. The fairy godmother had seen to it the the wicked stepmother met her demise and that our heroine had been left to thrive in a magnificent castle filled with everything she would need. This is where most fairy tales would end. It is a happily-ever-after ending after all. But this tale launches right into its next incarnation wherein our heroine must find herself a husband. Because, of course, she certainly can't really be happy until she has one, right? There are no end of suitors wooing our young lady but none of them strikes her fancy until a handsome prince comes along. It had to be a handsome prince, didn't it? When our girl promises herself to the prince, he tells her to wait for him under a lime tree and he'll be back shortly after he speaks to his father. When he doesn't return, the girl goes in search of him. Having no luck, she finally buries the fine gowns and jewels she has brought along on her journey and hires herself on as a farm hand. You heard me right, a farm hand. Has a castle she got as a reward after being forced to work so hard for so long that she doesn't return to, opting instead to work hard all day. I don't get it either.

One day, who should ride by but that same prince who does not even recognize the young lady he so recently wanted to marry. The next day he rides by again. Finally the girl decides to dig up her jewels and gowns and go to the castle. Now here is where I started to think to myself "didn't I already read this story?" The first night the girl showed up in a dress with golden suns, the next night a dress with silver moons and the third night a stardress. Well, of course, the prince finally remembered the girl and off they went to her castle to be married. Thanks heavens because everyone knows you have to be married to be happy.

Now, where had I heard this story before? Oh yes, on April 1st Fairy Tale Fridays featured the tale of The Princess in Disguise, a tale where a young woman uses three gowns, one the color of the sun, one the color of the moonlight and one with the twinkle of the stars. It seems that as the tales got told from place to place, different storytellers must have adapted the tales, choosing the parts that they liked from one tale and weaving it into another. I had never heard the story of The True Bride before, but Jim Henson had heard of it and liked it well enough to include it in his mini-series The Storytellers which ran on HBO in the late 1980's. In Henson's version, our heroine has a name (Anja) and rather than a wicked stepmother, she suffers under a troll. The prince is originally a gardener and instead of a series of gowns, Anja must use her jewels and wealth to convince the troll's daughter to let her spend time with the prince who is under sleeping spell. A reverse Sleeping Beauty, if you will. I would love to see if I can find a copy of this entire series! For the version of the tale that Henson must have used, check out the full story, troll and all.

Up next week, more wedding stories including The Heavenly Wedding.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cat Thursday

Oliver doing his best chameleon impression. "Can you see me now?"

Cat Thursday is hosted by Michelle of The True Book Addict. I'm allergic to cats so I'm borrowing my son's for cute kitten pictures. Thanks, Mini-him!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mythology Mondays - There Are Some Really Strange Gods Out There

Yesterday my husband, daughter and I enjoyed an afternoon at the Omaha Summer Arts Festival so I thought I might like to tie in my Mythology Monday post with art. When I pulled up lists of gods and goddess, though, I discovered something odd. First of all, there is no god or goddess (that I could find) of the visual arts. The thing I found more interesting was the number of gods and goddesses of very strange or very specific things.

The Romans had one goddess to watch over children as they left home and another goddess to watch over them as they returned. They also had separate goddess to watch over children as they went to sleep and while they slept in their cradles. What's with these goddesses? Didn't they know that women are supposed to be able to multi-task?

Both the Greeks and the Romans had a goddess of treachery. The Romans also had Laverna, goddess of thieves, con men, and charlatans but at least they also had Poena, goddess of punishment.

Strangest Roman god award goes to Cloacina, goddess of the Roman sewer system. Seriously, what does a girl have to have done to be demoted to goddess of the sewers? The Ancient Egyptian winner is Kebechet, god of embalming liquid. Eww.

But wait! Just when I was ready to give up all hope for a god/goddess of the arts, along come the Celts with Lugh, who claimed to be the master of all of the arts and crafts. Versions of this god can be found in Ireland, France, Poland and The Netherlands. So, thanks Lugh, for all of the great talent on display in Omaha this past weekend!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday Salon - June 12

What a wonderful, relaxing weekend I've had, filled with plenty of time for family, fun and, of course, reading. Friday night was a default "date night" since we had no parenting responsibilities after we went out to dinner. Saturday we got to see our parents, the Big Guy's sister and her family and we got to meet the newest member of our family, 2-month-old Baby Z. He is adorable! Today we headed downtown with Miss H in tow with a twofold purpose. 

The Big Guy and I have been enjoying the Omaha Summer Arts Festival since we first moved to Omaha 25 years ago. When the kids were younger, we kind of stopped going--it's almost impossible to really look and enjoy the works when you're worried that someone will break something, pick a fight or start whining. In the past few years, we've really enjoyed taking our almost grownup children. Today was the first time in several years that Miss H joined us and what a delight she was to have along. She has really developed an eye for art and a sense of what she likes and why she likes it. We also got to enjoy some funnel cake and great music. They even humored me and let me go into the Friends of the Library tent to check out their book sale.

Then we headed down to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, a bridge that spans the Missouri River, connected Nebraska and Iowa. From out in the center of the bridge, we were able to get bird's eye view of this flooding river which is threatening low lying areas of the city and has already caused millions of dollars in losses along it's path. Farm lands are under water, homes will be under water for a least a couple of months, and thousands are now homeless. 

Those trees? They aren't supposed to be in the water. Nearby Harrah's Casino has water all the way up to the building and Omaha's airport is in danger. Festivals in Omaha have had to be moved from the landing that is normally 12 feet above the river. And that water, filled with an enormous amount of debris, some of it huge, is moving so very fast. It was hard to leave the bridge.

On the reading front, I finished Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector today and will start Erica Bauermeister's Joy For Beginners which I'm really looking forward to reading. Tuesday I'm looking forward to meeting with the Omaha Bookworms to discuss The Cookbook Collector. There will be a lot to discuss and it's always good to spend time with these ladies.

What are your reading plans for the week?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg - Guest Review

Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey To Becoming A Big Kid
by Simon Pegg
368 pages
Published June 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Summary from the publisher:
The unique life story of one of the most talented and inventive comedians, star of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Star Trek.
Zombies in North London, death cults in the West Country, the engineering deck of the Enterprise: actor, comedian, writer and self-proclaimed supergeek Simon Pegg has been ploughing some bizarre furrows in recent times. Having landed on the U.S. movie scene in the surprise cult hit Shaun of the Dead, his enduring appeal and rise to movie star with a dedicated following has been mercurial, meteoric, megatronic, but mostly just plain great.
From his childhood (and subsequently adult) obsession with science fiction, his enduring friendship with Nick Frost, and his forays into stand-up comedy which began with his regular Monday morning slot in front of his twelve-year-old classmates, Simon has always had a severe and dangerous case of the funnies.
Whether recounting his experience working as a lifeguard at the city pool, going to Comic-Con for the first time and confessing to Carrie Fisher that he used to kiss her picture every night before he went to sleep, or meeting and working with heroes that include Peter Jackson, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino, Pegg offers a hilarious look at the journey to becoming an international superstar, dotted with a cast of memorable characters, and you're rooting for him all the way.
When the lovely ladies at TLC Book Tours first approached me about the book, I immediately knew it was something that any of the males in my house would enjoy. My husband grabbed the book the minute it came in the mail, so he'll be your guest reviewer for this one!

Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg pretty much sums it up as Simon is a Star Wars and Zombie movie junkie from way back. Having been a science fiction fan from way back as a wee lad of six or seven in Iowa sneaking up out of bed to join my much older brother and his friends, I can relate.  I loved the old Twilight Zone, Star Trek shows as well as Stephen King books, especially in his early days, so we have a similar mind set, although I didn't share the infatuation with zombies.  That being said I loved Simon's "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," both excellent violent comedies that tickled my dark sense of humor.
One of the things I did not know was Simon's extensive experience in stand up comedy, comedy writing and working on some of the British shows that evidently were more of a hit over there or that I just plain missed here.  Something I will need to go search out.  Simon also has a great love for the dramatic arts and was exposed early and often in his family and I applaud him in his relentless pursuit of  his acting career knowing the ups and downs of the business.  

Being an autobiography it probably will appeal to a certain crowd and. as my lovely wife mentioned, more of a male crowd due to Simon's interests and style, but it was fun and interesting.  Despite his not rising to the pinnacle of the British education system with their various caste levels, Simon has a great command of the English language and a lively and witty writing style.  I can see why he has been doing television comedy writing as well as stand up. 

So if you are a bit is a Star Wars fan, like zombie movies, or are a fan of Simon's movies, this should be an enjoyable read.  I need to go out and see "Paul" that is still in the cheap theater and should be out on DVD soon. 

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour and to my husband for his review. I'm sure this book will be in one of my sons' hands soon! For more reviews of the book, check out the full tour. Follow Simon on Twitter at

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Four Ms. Bradwells by Meg Waite Clayton

The Four Ms. Bradwells by Meg Waite Clayton
336 pages
Published March 2011
Source: the publisher and Kathleen at Goldberg McDuffie Communications

"The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belong to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life...The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator."
                        -U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley, from his 1873 opinion in Bradwell v. Illinois, denying Mrs. Myra Bradwell the right to practice law.

In 1979 in the first hour of the first day of the first year of law school, four young women suddenly find themselves with new nicknames, instantly becoming the four Ms. Bradwells. Mia, the savant; Betts, the funny one; Ginger, the rebel; and Laney, the good girl. Although the women all come from very different backgrounds, in each other they find the kind of friendship that will last, that will survive, a lifetime.

Thirty years later, Betts is sitting in front of a Congressional panel, hoping to become the first immigrant ever to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. It's something she has wanted all of her life and her three friends have come to support her. Her appointment is all but a done deal until one of the Congressmen asks:
"I'd like to ask you what you know about a death that occurred in the spring of 1982, at a home in Maryland where I believe you were a guest?"
Quickly the four friends make a dash for that very same home on an island in the Chesapeake Bay. It is the home of Faith Cook Conrad, mother of Ginger and feminist activist, who has recently passed away. With that question hanging in the air, being on that island and surrounded by the ghost of Faith, the four women are forced to confront what happened that week in 1982 that reshaped all four of their lives.

Sometimes a book comes into your hands at just the right time. After a string of books about and/or written by men (many of which I loved), I was ready for a book about strong women. Certainly The Four Ms. Bradwells starts with a premise so common in women's literature that I often bypass them as likely to offer nothing new, the idea of four women who have been friends for decades and have issues to work through. To be sure, Clayton does pull out some of the usual tricks. Of course all four women bring into the story their own issues and there are the usual hard feelings over things said and done long ago.

But Clayton doesn't allow her story to get mired down in cliches. Each of the four friends is well-developed and the relationship between the four is realistic. While they love and rely on each other, they are not above sniping at one another and occasionally dwelling on their flaws. Mia's inability to maintain a relationship with a man, Bett's inability to move on long after the death of her husband, Ginger's inability to move out from under the shadow of her mother, and Laney's mounting feelings of guilt.

Ginger is certainly the most complex character, using poetry as a shield from her true emotions. I did feel that the poetry, and Laney's use of Latin to hide behind, was sometimes excessive. The ending felt a bit too tidy for me and it took a long time to get there. The story alternated narrative points of view between the four women and shifted back and forth in time. Occasionally this meant an overlapping of the details and sometimes it got confusing as to what time period the characters were in. Overall this was not a problem, though, and worked well to explain the reasons for the women's behavior.

The issues the death brings up can be related to by all women and it's what makes this so much more than the usual book about a group of women. While there is the mystery of that death, this is most decidedly not a murder mystery, but a book about relationships, courage, and standing up for your beliefs.

Monday, June 6, 2011

48 Hour Book Challenge - The End

While not nearly the epic failure I usually am at read-a-thons (I did manage to just get in my 12 hours total), I didn't get nearly as much reading done during the 48 Hour Book Challenge as I had hoped. I had really thought of 12 hours as being the easy out and imagined that I might get as many as 18 hours in. That was before my husband decided we needed to get out on Friday and enjoy the outdoors before temps in the 90's arrived. It was before friends invited us to join them for dinner Saturday nights. It was before I decided that I really needed to spend a few hours on Saturday at the mall (I really did need to, I swear!). And, silly me, I hadn't taken into account the fact that 16 of those 48 hours were going to be spent sleeping because, by golly, I was getting eight hours of sleep a night this weekend.

My son just said he wished he could read as fast as I can. I wish I could read as fast as he think I can! Instead, in the eleven hours I spent reading (one hour was spent visiting the blogs of other participants), I was only able to get 302 pages read. The only book I laid my hands on during the reading challenge was Meg Waite Clayton's The Four Ms. Bradwells. And I had to read even after the reading challenge to finish it.

Still, I did get a book read over the weekend and I discovered some new blogs that I'll be visiting regularly. So overall, I'd have to call this one a success. Thanks to Mother Reader for hosting the challenge!

Friday, June 3, 2011

48 Hour Book Challenge

Finally a weekend that's all mine--no guests (although I dearly love having them!) and no planned activities (although I dearly loved being at both of the graduation weekends we've celebrated recently!). To make sure I give myself plenty of "me" time this weekend, I've decided to jump on the bandwagon and join the 48 Hour Book Challenge, hosted by Mother Reader. It's my first time doing this challenge and, while I want to make it a challenge, I also want it to be a time for me to relax. So I'm going to start reading at 6 p.m. on Friday and shoot for the minimum of 12 hours between now and Sunday at 6 p.m.

I'm starting off the weekend with Meg Waite Clayton's The Four Ms. Bradwells which I just started. Then I'll move on to The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman which is the June selection for the Omaha Bookworms. 

And now, off to read! Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos

Thoughts Without Cigarettes by Oscar Hijuelos
384 pages
Published June 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Oscar Hijuelos has entranced readers with the characters in his books, mostly notably in his Pulitzer-prize winning effort The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (in 1992 it was made into a movie starring Armand Assante and Antonio Bandaras). In Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Hijuelos doesn't need to create great characters, he only needs to tell us about the ones he grew up with.

Born in New York City, Hijuelos is a second-generation Cuban-American, grew up in the 1950's in a neighborhood that was culturally diverse. When Oscar was only four, Magdalena Hijuelos took her two sons home to Cuba for an extended stay. While there, Oscar contracted a disease that resulted in nephritis and a year-long stay in a ward for similarly ill persons. As best he can recall, Oscar's father never visited him there. Although his mother did visit, she was not allowed to touch him and the more he was exposed to the English language during his stay, the less he understood of the Spanish that his mother spoke, creating a barrier between the two they were never able to overcame.

When he returned home, Oscar was smothered by his parents, particularly his mother. He was not allowed to play outside and was on a very restricted diet (in a home where rich foods where a part of the daily diet) for years after his release from the hospital. When he was finally allowed to go to school, he found himself playing catch up with the other students. Dealing with his alcoholic father, and suffering through his parents' high voltage marriage, made life at home difficult at best. All of which contributed to Oscar spending the rest of his life trying to discover his place in the world.

Interestingly, writing was not on Hijuelos' radar as he grew up; being a musician was first desire, but if that didn't work out, his plan was to be a teacher. Teachers along the way, however, recognized that Hiuelos had a gift and encouraged him to write. A chance encounter with the author William Burroughs (Naked Lunch) further convinced Hijuelos that writing might just be his thing.

Certainly Hijuelos lived an interesting life and paints a vivid portrait of New York City, his home life and his family.
"Inside the bowels of the subway he would go, with its dirty platforms and penny Chiclets and five-cent Hershey bar dispensers on the columns, and board his train downtown and eventually over to Grand Central, the seats in those days still often covered in lacquered cane."
Perhaps it was reading back-to-back non-fiction works (something I never do). Perhaps it was the feeling I couldn't shake that someone had shaken up Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and thrown in some Cuban spice. Perhaps it was the fact that early in the book, Hijuelos repeated guessed at what might have happened or what might have been said (obviously, he would have been too young or not directly involved in certain conversations to be able to say things with sureness). "Possibly" and "I can only suppose" only work for me, even in a memoir where exact details are not necessarily required, when the possibilities or suppositions have some basis in reality. For whatever reason, even though I enjoyed Thoughts Without Cigarettes, it didn't really flow for me, feeling more like something I had to read, rather than something I wanted to read. Which is a shame, because Hijuelos really is a marvelous writer.
"Yet, while he [Hijuelos' father] offered me affection, that cubano, a union man and hotel cook of simple tastes and longings, he never really taught me anything at all, not how to dress (though he could be quite dapper), not to dance the mambo or rumba (at which he, like my mother, had excelled), nor, among so many other things, even how to drive a car (he, raised on farms, which horses, never would learn). And when it came to something as important as restoring that which had been taken from me, a sense of just who I was, I doubt that, as with my mother, it hardly occurred to him that something inside of me was missing, an element of personality in need of repair. Earthly in his needs and desires, he just didn't think that way."

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions on this book, check out the other stops on the tour.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On China by Henry Kissinger

On China by Henry Kissinger
608 pages
Published May 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

In July of 1971, then National Security Adviser to President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, made a secret trip to China. This trip was the precursor to Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China and the beginning of more friendly relations between the United States and China and opened trade. But how was it that Nixon was the first sitting U.S. President ever to visit China and why were relations so frosty up to that point? In On China, Mr. Kissinger takes an in-depth look at China, it's interactions with other societies and the development of trade and relations between those countries.

With the power that China now wields over the world, I thought it was important to read what one of the leading experts on the subject has to say about China and how we interact with them. As the daughter of a Current Events high school teacher, the evening news was always a part of my life and I vividly remember Kissinger from the Nixon administration and the trip to China, making this book even more of a draw for me. I knew this one was going to be a stretch for me, taking me well out of my usual comfort zone, and I had a feeling that I was going to be overloaded with information. It was, it did, and I was.

Kissinger opens the book with China's history and within thirty pages my head was swimming with names and dates but mostly with ideas. Ideas that had me nodding my head, thinking "well, that explains a lot."
"At its ultimate extent, the Chinese cultural sphere stretched over a continental area much larger than any European state, indeed about the size of continental Europe. The extent and variety of this territory bolstered the sense that China was a world unto itself."
For the earliest years, the Chinese considered themselves to the center of the world, the "Middle Kingdom." Not only was China larger, until the Industrial Revolution, it was also richer than any of the European states, making it hard for the Chinese to every feel the need to develop trade with other countries. Kissinger also writes, of China's history: "What was most remarkable about the Chinese approach to international affairs was less its monumental formal pretensions than its underlying strategic acumen and longevity." This seems to still be a strategy the Chinese are using.

Kissinger writes about how Confucius, Sun Tzu and the game wei qi have influenced the Chinese in their dealings with other countries. In fact wei qi in particular, comes back again and again as Kissinger explores his own role in opening relations with China. This is a game in which each player is constantly seeking relative advantage, "mitigating the strategic potential of his opponents pieces." As masters of the actual game, the Chinese have made the game part of their international dealings. He also writes extensively about the era of Mao Zedong and the formation of  modern China.

Richard Nixon took office at a time when China was perhaps more vulnerable to U.S. entreaties; with the U.S.S.R. building up troops along the Chinese borders and a major skirmish behind them, China was looking to ally with the U.S. against a common enemy. The U.S. was looking to redefine its foreign policy and retain its role as a world leader. Kissinger delves deeply into the roads that led both sides to this point and the steps it took to bring both sides to an agreement, particularly his own role in the journey.

On China is every bit the challenge I anticipated it to be and, to be honest, I ended up racing through the book to get it done on time. I have every intention of going back, over the coming months, and reading this one with the full attention it deserves. While I can see that the book contains some bias, being written as it is by someone so intimately involved, I found it extremely interesting and thought provoking. In light of the fact that opening trade with China gave us their cheap goods and them so much of our money, it might be argued that Nixon's 1972 mission wasn't such a good thing for the U.S. But it certainly makes for an interesting book and one that will lay a good basis for understanding future relations between the two countries.
For other opinions (many of them from people with a far greater understanding of the region than I have), check out the full book tour:

Wednesday, May 11th: Man of La Book
Thursday, May 12th: Mark's China Blog
Monday, May 16th: Hidden Harmonies China Blog
Tuesday, May 17th: Inside-Out China
Wednesday, May 18th: Lisa Graas
Monday, May 23rd: Divided We Stand United We Fall
Tuesday, May 24th: Bookworm's Dinner
Wednesday, May 25th: Pacific Rim Shots
Thursday, May 26th: Asia Unbound
Tuesday, May 31st: Wordsmithonia
Wednesday, June 1st: Lit and Life
Thursday, June 2nd: ChinaGeeks
Tuesday, June 7th: booker rising
Wednesday, June 8th: Power and Control
Thursday, June 9th: Marathon Pundit
Friday, June 10th: Rundpinne
Date TBD: Rhapsody In Books
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!