Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
304 pages
Published April 2011 by Europa Editions
Source: the publisher

When 17-year-old Sulfia Kalganowa tells her mother that she's pregnant and doesn't know who the father is, her mother, Rosa, doesn't jump to the usual conclusion that her daughter has been sleeping around. Instead, Rosa believes that Sulfia must have gotten pregnant by looking at a man. Is Rosa stupid? Not at all, Rosa just has such a low opinion of her daughter that doesn't think any man would have her. Even if her daughter happens to be a medical miracle, Rosa isn't going to allow her daughter to have this baby and bring shame to her own good name. Despite her best efforts, however, some months later, Aminat is born and Rosa is smitten, despite the child's tendency to cry all of the time. The little girl looks just like Rosa, after all, and isn't that a fortunate thing?

Beginning in 1978 Russia and for the next thirty years, Rosa will spend all of her time and energy "helping" Sulfia find a suitable husband, raising Aminat in the right way (something Sulfia clearly isn't capable of doing), and making sure she gets everything she deserves out of her own life.

Those of you who have read "Olive Kitteridge" will cringe when I tell you that Rosa Achemetowna makes Olive look like the mother of the year. She is, perhaps the most egotistical character ever brought to life on the page and one of the most conniving.
"I think it pleased Sergej to have such a graceful swan like me as his mother-in-law, especially given that he had married such an ugly duckling."
Far from finding Rosa so disagreeable that I didn't want to read another word about her, Bronsky pulled me into Rosa's world. Even after Rosa essentially sells her daughter to a pedophile, I still could not bring myself to hate her. In fact, by the end of the book, I even began to feel sorry for this woman who was so wrapped up in her own view of the world, that she couldn't see what was really happening around her, couldn't really see the people around her for who they were.

Bronsky's writing is crisp, yet detailed and she writes with a wit that makes a character like Rosa someone the reader will care about. I accepted this book as part of my continuing effort to widen my view of the world and I was not disappointed. Bronsky shows the reader what life was like in Russia in the 1980's and 90's for the average citizen and what it felt like for those who finally decided they needed to find another life for themselves in another country. Although the title of this book may give the impression that the book is a light read, Bronsky pulls together a number of serious themes, making it an excellent choice for book clubs.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Salon - August 28

What a great weekend we've had here! Went out with friends Friday night and had friends and family in for a dinner party last night. Today we're off to my parents for another dinner party. As much fun as I've had, that's about enough socializing for this bookworm! I haven't gotten any reading done at all this weekend but I'm going to make good use of the car trip today for just that purpose. The Big Guy and Mini-Him have been working on my computer this weekend and have yet to get my pictures loaded back on, hence no Sunday Salon image. There may also be glitches I'm unaware of as of yet. Please let me know if you notice anything off or not working when you visit!

I came across this book in an email from Random House.  Without knowing anything at all about the story, I'm anticipating Hooked by Catherine Greenman will be making waves amongst the parents of its intended audience. People who prefer their children not to read anything that smacks of the real world and almost certainly not going to want them to even pick up a book with a pregnant teen on the cover.

The Atlantic had an article this week, "Can A Bestselling Book Guarantee A Hit Movie?" The conclusion, after looking at two of the most recent movie adaptations, Kathryn Stockett's The Help and David Nicholl's One Day, is a resounding "no." The movie still needs to be good, it's as simple as that. Of course, if your protagonist is Harry Potter, then question is moot; the movie will be huge. And the latest Winnie-the-Pooh movie is also something of an exception to the rule. It has not done well at all at the theaters; shame on parents of young children for not making this one a hit. It's so hard to get Hollywood to make movies for children that are good. Hopefully the sales and rentals of the DVD version will be big enough to convince movie makers that a profit can be made with movies aimed at children.

Last night my sister was raving about a book she recently read, A Dog's Purpose, which will appear later this week when "Mama Shepp's Family Recommends.." returns. Also up this week, reviews of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky and Skipping A Beat by Sarah Pekkanen both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. This week I'm reading Joan Leegant's Wherever You Go" for an upcoming TLC Book Tour. What are you reading this week?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - The Dessert Version


Once again, my plans for Fairy Tale Fridays were changed this week. I've been doing some reading of The Power of Myth but I was completely distracted when I was changing channels the other night and came across Bravo-TV's Top Chef: Just Desserts. And just what was the theme this week, my little pretties? You've got it--fairy tales!  There are some great pictures on their site, which sadly would not allow me to save them, even though they say, big as day, that they belong to Bravo TV. Each of the teams had to make a centerpiece that showed what fairy tale inspired their desserts. For Goldilocks and The Three Bears, for example, one of the desserts was Baby Bear's Porridge, Hot Ranier Cherries, Basil Syrup and Cherry Sorbet. Who'd have guessed you could eat your fairy tales?!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness  by Alexandra Fuller
256 pages
Published August 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher & TLC Book Tours

How to summarize Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness? It is, at it's heart, the story of Alexandra Fuller's mother, Nicola who was born on the Scottish Isle of Skye but spent nearly all of her life in Africa. She certainly is the central character around whom all others orbit and a woman who lived her life so that she would have a biography worth telling. But Africa itself is the star of this book as Fuller chronicles her family's lives through a period when the entire continent was changing profoundly.

In Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller has spent hours interviewing her parents, primarily on vacation in South Africa where they spend hours literally having cocktails under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Ironic, isn't it, that nothing is forgotten under that tree?

Nicola's childhood was both typically British (stiff upper lip, loyalty to blood, that kind of thing) and utterly unusual.
"I used to run away from our bungalow, which was on the edge of the estate, and go over to the main house and play in her [their landlord's] garden with my first best friend, Stephen Foster." Mum smiles at the memory. "Stephen and I used to take turns pushing each other on his tricycle. We wore matching romper suits. We had tea parties. We went everywhere together, hand in hand."
"Stephen was Zoe's son?" I guess.
Mum frowns. "No, no, no," she says. "Stephan wasn't her son. Stephan was her chimpanzee."
There is a small, appalled pause while I try - and fail - to imagine sending one of my toddlers off to play with a chimpanzee.
"Weren't your parents worried he would bite you?" I ask.
Mum give me a look as if I have just called Winnie the Pooh a pedophile, "Stephen? Bite me? Not at all, we were best friends. He was a very, very nice, very civilized chimpanzee. Anyway, my mother didn't worry about me too much. She knew I would always be all right because everywhere I went Topper came with me."
"And Topper was?"
"A dog my father rescued," Mum says."
That passage says so much about the way that Nicola was raised, the way that she raised her own children. No fenced yards or stranger danger for them and animals were, truly part of the family. Nicola and Fuller's father, Tim, met in Africa and only during a period of extreme poverty and sadness did they return to Britain. But there was something about the light of Africa, the air, the opportunity, that drew them back, even when it meant settling in Rhodesia at a time when that country had been cut off by Britain.
"We accepted the war as one of the prices that had to be paid for Our Freedom, although it was a funny sort of Freedom that didn't include being able to say what you wanted about the Rhodesian government or being able to write books that were critical of it. And for the majority of the country, Freedom did not include access to public restrooms, the sidewalks, the best schools and hospitals, decent farming land or the right to vote."
Do you know the line people mock about movies - "I laughed, I cried...?" That was this book for me. I read long passages of this book to my poor husband (why are those passages never as funny when you aren't actually reading the book?), laughing. Then there were places where my heart broke for the Fullers and other passages where I gasped in disbelief at the horrors of war. Fuller places her family squarely into the reality of Africa as native Africans begin fighting to take back their continent.
"War is Africa's perpetual ripe fruit. There is so much injustice to resolve, such desire for revenge in the blood of the people, such crippling corruption of power, such unseemly scramble for the natural resources. The wind of power shirts and there go the fruit again, tumbling toward the ground, each war more inventively terrible than the last."
I loved this book. Although it skipped around quite a bit and it could sometimes take a bit to settle yourself back into where you were at in time and how it related to what else you had read, I ultimately far preferred Fuller's style than if she had tried to tell the story of her family in a more linear way. I grew to understand, at least a bit, what it was about Africa, that drew Fuller's parents and grandparents back to the continent, even at great personal risk. And I fell in love with Nicola, a woman who, at first glance, would appear to be one of the most thoughtless mothers you've ever read about. Not cruel, really, just a product of her upbringing and life. But Fuller, herself, clearly loves her mother, a woman of whom she says "the broken, splendid, fierce mother I have."

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour! For other opinions about the book, check out the full tour for this book. To learn more about Fuller, check out her website, where you can also learn more about her first memoir, Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, a book Nicola forever after referred to as that Awful Book.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Salon - August 21

How can we possibly be nearly the end of August (and, therefore, the end of summer)? What a blur this summer has been! I feel like I haven't done much reading but I know by most people's standards, I've read quite a lot. I'd like to think that I'll get more read this fall. But those of you who know anything at all about me by now know that I'm going to spend quite a lot of the next few months in front of a television watching football. My beloved Cornhuskers will kick off their inaugural season in the Big 10 soon and every fall starts with high hopes for my Oakland Raiders. Perhaps I need to work in some football reading this fall.

We went to a wedding last night, the first of Mama Shepp's boys to get married. I can't believe my boys could possibly be grown up enough to be getting married although the youngest of them are all 22 by now, the same age I was when I got married. Still, all of "my boys" will forever be goofy high school kids, hanging out in my kitchen, forgetting that I'm a grownup and making me laugh so hard.

New York Press has a article about mom-and-pop bookstores this week. Much as I love knowing that I can walk into a Barnes & Noble and find almost any book I'm looking for, I love the idea of walking into an indie bookstore and finding a book I didn't even know I was looking for.
"There’s a word in Danish that doesn’t translate to English. Google Translate will tell you that “hygge” means “cozy” or “coziness,” but it really means much more than that. Hygge, pronounced “hue-gah,” is the happy, satisfied laziness you feel when it’s raining outside and you’re curled up on the couch. It’s the feeling of being at home—of being comfortable—that all humans crave.
Hygge is exactly the feeling you get in tiny bookshops that smell like paper and dust and feature leaning towers of good reads. And it’s the feeling on which the owners of those bookstores count to stay in business."
There's nothing but cleaning (and, of course, some reading) on my schedule this afternoon. It might just be a good day to head off to downtown Omaha and visit Jones Street Booksellers.

Happy 90th birthday to Winnie-The-Pooh today! He looks pretty good for 90, doesn't he?!
This week I'm finishing up "Cocktails Under The Tree of Forgetfulness" by Alexandra Fuller (loving this one!) and then I'm actually ahead of reading for my scheduled reviews. What to read next? What are you reading this week?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - Fairy Tales Japanese Style

This was meant to be a post about fairy tale princesses but the first thing I saw (well, after I sifted through hundreds of images of Disney princesses, little girls in princess costumes and some naughty princess costume shots) was a lovely Japanese book titled "Japanese Fairy Tales: Princess Splendor." My mind immediately changed tracks. "Princess Splendor" is more widely known as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

There once lived a poor, elderly bamboo cutter and his wife; their great sadness was that they were never able to have children. Every day, the bamboo cutter, Taketori no Okina, went out to cut bamboo which he brought home and fashioned into items that he sold. One day when he was in the bamboo forest, a soft light began glowing from one of the bamboo stalks. When Taketori no Okina looked closely, he discovered, in a notch in the stalk, a very tiny girl, who glowed as if light by the moon. He took the girl home and he and his wife adopted the girl as their own. Everyday after that, when the bamboo cutter went off to work, he found gold and precious gems in the bamboo stalks and he and his family were soon wealthy.

The tiny girl. Kaguya-hime, blossomed into a fully-grown young lady whose beauty soon became known throughout the land. Soon suitors began appearing at the home but the girl had no interest in marrying. Five suitors came to beg for her hand and she set them all off on impossible tasks. None of them succeeded. When the Emperor of Japan, Mikado, heard of Kaguya-hime, he came to see her, fell in love with her and asked her to marry him only to be turned down. Kaguya-hime told the Emperor that she was not of his country so could not go to his palace.

That summer, whenever the moon was full, Kaguya-hime became depressed. When her worried parents questioned Kaguya-hime about her sadness, she finally told them that she was from the Moon and must return to her people there. As the time drew near for Kaguya-hime to leave, the Emperor sent an army to protect her from the Moon people.

But when the Moon people arrived, the guards were blinded by a strange light. Kaguya-hime announced that she must return to her home, despite her love for her parents and earthly friends. She wrote her parents and the Emperor a sad apology for leaving, gave her parents her own robe as a memento and entrusted the elixir of life to a guard to take to the Emperor. When a feather robe was placed on her shoulder, all of Kaguya-hime's sadness was forgotten and the heavenly group left for the Moon.

When he received the elixir, the Emperor said that he didn't want to live forever without Kaguya-hime.  He sent a guard to the top of the mountain closest to the heavens to burn his message to her, along with the elixir of life, hoping that his message would reach her. Legend tells that the Japanese word for immortality became the name of the mountain...Mount Fuji.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is still widely told today and has been adapted in many forms. It seems hard for me to believe that it wasn't an inspiration for Hans Christian Anderson's Thumbelina. It has been made into a film and an opera and both Sesame Street and Hello Kitty have included the story in special episodes. For manga fans, you may be familiar with the idea of Moon people from the book/television series Sailor Moon.

Once again, in looking into fairy tales, I've come across something new to me that has only piqued my interest in learning more. More Japanese fairy tales to come!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

O Pioneers! and The Omaha Bookworms

The Omaha Bookworms met last night to discuss Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and, let's be honest, talk about everything else going on in our lives. Since we're located in Nebraska, we've been talking for some time about reading a book by a Nebraska author. When it came time to choose our classic read for this year, I decided it was time to do just that.
"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."
Cather's O Pioneers tells the story of Alexandra Bergson, whose family has immigrated to Nebraska from Sweden. After eleven years of hard work to reach the point where the family is debt free, John Bergson dies, leaving Alexandra in charge of the farm, her mother and her three younger brothers. John has chosen wisely; Alexandra has a keen mind when it comes to farming. By listening to others and being willing to go against the general consensus, Alexandra manages to tame the land and help the entire family to prosper.

As attuned as she is to the land, Alexandra is not nearly as attuned to her feelings or those around her. It will be years before she realizes that she is in love with long-time friend, Carl Linstrum and even longer before she becomes aware of the feelings her youngest brother, Emil, has developed for a married woman.
"Marie often wondered if there was anyone else who could look his thoughts to you as Emil could."
"It was like a sigh they had breathed together, almost sorrowful, as fi each were afraid of wakening something in the other."
The greatest love story of the book, however is Cather's love of and respect for the land.
"Winter has settled down over the Divide again, the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring."
O Pioneers! was a hit with the Bookworms. Cather's writing particularly impressed; all of those who had finished the book raved about Cather's use of language to describe the land and the people who settled it. For a book that we all agreed is an easy read, this book is full themes to discuss: alcoholism, religion, love, temptation, forgiveness and feminism.

Written in 1913, Cather had long since left Nebraska and moved to New York to be with her lover, Isabelle McClung. That fact alone might have something to do with this being the 83rd most frequently banned or challenged book. I enjoyed this one so much, I think I'm going to have to go back and re-read Cather's My Antonia which I had no appreciation for on first reading. Now I am absolutely enchanted by Cather's way with words.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mythology Mondays - Joseph Campbell

Every since I started thinking about doing Mythology Mondays, I've been wondering what happened to a particular book that my husband bought years ago. For a while I couldn't even remember the name of it. Finally I recalled that it was Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth. But where the heck was it? Finally this weekend I recalled that it was in a stack of books that's been the display vase for a lovely piece of pottery.

Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) is best known for his work in comparative mythology. In his monomyth concept, Campbell talked about  the idea that "the whole of the human race could be seen as reciting a single story of great spiritual importance. Over time, the story evolved based on the culture in which it was being told, taking on different masks based on societal structures and necessities.

Campbell felt that myths served four purposes:

1. Metaphysical: awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being.

2. Cosmological: explaining the shape of the universe.

3. Sociological: supporting the existing social order

4. Psychological: guide the individual through life.

Ouch, my head is already starting to hurt. Maybe I'm not going to be up to reading this book after all! Oh, but wait. This book is "with Bill Moyers," respected and beloved journalist. The entire book is a conversation between Moyers and Campbell. Surely Moyers will make Campbell explain his theories in such a way that I can understand what he's saying without having to work too hard. And just maybe I'll even be able to explain to you what I've read as I go along.

To be continued....

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday Salon - August 14

It's been a bittersweet week. My baby had her last first day of school (college doesn't count, not really). As I contemplate the next few months, I foresee a lot of tears (mostly mine), a lot of fun (mostly hers), and a lot of firsts mixed in with a lot of lasts. I'm wondering how that might effect the kinds of books I'll be picking up.

Coming up soon is a guest review of Lev Grossman's latest, The Magician King, the sequel to his hugely popular The Magicians. Last Christmas we gave Mini-him's girlfriend The Magicians which she tore through. So it was only logical to give her the opportunity to read The Magician King since she'll be able to offer a review that can compare this one to her impressions of  The Magicians.

Parry Gripp, who, I gather, is a regular YouTube contributor, is a huge fan of Grossman's. I'm all for anyone who wants to promote books!

I love the idea of finding new ways to display and store books and this idea for industrial pipe shelving certainly is unique. But am I alone in thinking that this doesn't look good for the books?

Coming up this week, the thoughts of the Omaha Bookworms on Willa Cather's O, Pioneers as well as the latest installments of Mythology Mondays and Fairy Tale Fridays. What are your reading plans for this week?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - The Art

One of the things I've enjoyed since I started Fairy Tale Fridays is looking for the artwork to include in my posts. I've stuck to the traditional drawings, largely because I wasn't finding a lot of more modern interpretations. Thanks to my niece, I've discovered a page on Stumble! that features minimalist artwork for fairy tales. I'm liking these almost as much as my beloved Arthur Rackham works.

Rackham's work is so traditional, so appropriate to the feel of the fairy tales, that it seems that it must be hundreds of years old as well. But Rackham (9/9/1867 - 9/6/1939) didn't even begin studying art until 1885 and the works for which he is famous were not created until after the turn of the century. By that time, Rackham had developed his own technique, explaining why his pieces are so instantly recognizable.

Other well-known fairy tale artists are Maxfield Parrish, Gustave Dore, and Edmund Dulac. While Dore's works are literally and figuratively darker, Parrish and Dulac's works are all about color.

But Lisa, you as, were there no women illustrators? Why, yes there were; thank you for asking. Among the better known female illustrators of fairy tales are Margaret Ely Webb, Jessie M. King (a Scotswoman whose work was influenced by the Art Nouveau movement), Helen Stratton, Jennie Harbour, and Anne Anderson (whose work was a bit more stylized).

Jessie Wilcox Smith is, perhaps, the most famous of the female fairy tale illustrators.Smith, a contemporary of Rackham's, was as well known for her magazine covers as she was for her children's book illustrations and her illustrations for Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1916) are housed in the Library of Congress.

You may notice, if you should happen to click on all of these links, that all of these artists are deceased. There appear to be almost no modern fairy tale works to be found, making me even more happy to have found that page on Stumble! but, once again, I'm left wanting more. Let the research continue!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin: The Movie Adaptation

Three years ago, Mari, of Bookworm With A View, read We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver's Orange-Prize winning eighth novel. When she finished, she put it in my hands, telling me it was a book that I had to read. She was right, although we had very different experiences with the book. I always say that reading We Need To Talk About Kevin is like peeling off a bandage. For some, the only way to get through the experience is to rip if off; for others, it needs to be peeled off slowly. Mari raced through the book. Here's what I had to say about the book at the time:
"I could never read more than about 30 pages of this book at a time because of the emotions it generates. I couldn't imagine feeling the way Eva did about Kevin from the beginning, I couldn't fathom the relationship between Franklin & Eva and trying to pin down a feeling about Kevin was difficult. The book is written with brutal honesty; Eva does not sugar coat her own behavior or emotions. This book, exploring nature versus nurture, is definitely worth the effort."
When I first read that a movie adaptation of this book was going to be released, I had mixed feelings. Done well, it would make a fascinating, horrifying movie. But would I be able to watch it?

Starring the always amazing Tilda Swinton and versatile Charles C. Reilly, the movie recently appeared at the Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews. Given the cast and the reviews, I'm certain that I'll see this movie at some point. Maybe it will be in the comfort of my own home, where I can slowly peel off the bandage, pausing the DVD whenever things get too tense. Which they will.

We Need to Talk About Kevin Bande-annonce by toutlecine

Have you read the book? Will you see the movie?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Language Is by John McWhorter

What Language Is (And What It Isn't And What It Could Be) by John McWhorter
272 pages
Published August 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

In What Language Is, best-selling linguist John McWhorter explores languages throughout the world, explaining how they have evolved over time...or why they haven't, looking at languages spoken by only a few hundred people to the biggies, like Mandarin and English.

As an avid reader, language fascinates me, always has. As a high school student I took not one, but both levels of  "Greek and Latin Roots." Can you say word nerd? I loved them and still consider them to be two of the most useful classes I ever took. So I went into What Language Is expecting to be both educated and entertained. After all, the blurb on the front of the book says that Publisher's Weekly found the book "a rollicking tour of human language." Within twenty pages I knew that those folks at Publisher's Weekly are clearly even bigger word nerds than I am; clearly the kind of nerds that wear pocket protectors and have their pants belted so high that their socks are visible.

Rollicking this book is not. Boring is the word that first came to mind after just a few pages, in fact. How in the world will I ever finish this one to review it, I wondered. Fortunately it did pick up considerably and I found myself constantly amazed by what I was learning. McWhorter (a renowned linguist, mind you) even makes the case that we should stop being so uptight about allowing what we call "slang" to slip into our accepted language. After all, that's what's happened to language for thousands of years.

Language, he contends, develops orally. That's how a something like "a napron" over time became "an apron." That's one of the reasons that language changed more rapidly in the early years of man; without a written record of the "right" way, language is more likely to shift over time. For example, as people began anticipating the next sound in a word, over time their mouths simply began adjusting to prepare of the change, altering the first sound until that became the accepted way of saying something.
"Only when this sort of thing became possible [massive population shifts] was there any reason for a language to undergo the peculiar circumstance of being learned as much by adults as by children. Only then could there be languages like Modern English and Persian."
And how is it that some languages are more complicated than others? McWhorter contends that in places where there was an influx of foreigners, language became less and less complicated. Adults, he says, are unable to fully learn a new language and they will be learning it through hearing it, rather than reading it. They will learn the things that are absolutely necessarily to communicate and leave the subtleties and tricky bits behind. With a large enough influx of immigrants, soon the native children beginning learning their own language as much from hearing the "correct" way of speaking as from hearing the "new" way.

Here's a shocker for anyone who's ever taken an English class (and I'm hoping that is pretty much all of you!). English is not a complicated language. What? Doesn't McWhorter still, after all these years of studying language, still sometimes wonder whether or not he should be using "than" or "then?" It's true, compared to many of the other languages of the world, English really is much easier. Our nouns, for example, do not have gender. After you read even a few pages about some of the more complex languages of the world, you will wish you had been nicer to your high school English teacher.Clearly it was your own stupidity that made the class so difficult; that poor woman was teaching a relatively easy language, after all.

My dad is exceedingly fond of the English language but I'm not sure I'll be able to pass this book along to him because of one passage. Dad, I hate to tell you this, but McWhorter thinks that we should just get over the whole issue of "lie" versus "lay."

"Lie and lay "want" to just be words that mean the same thing. Call that unsystematic, but all languages have synonyms. Language is sloppy."

In What Language Is McWhorter teaches us that language is ingrown, dissheveled (the book's spelling, not mine), intricate, oral, and mixed. With more than enough examples to prove it (and I really do mean more than enough), McWhorter convinces his reader that all of the above are true. And that maybe we should be teaching foreign languages to our grades school students instead of our high school students when it is much too late for them to really learn the language.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. My brain is exhausted now. Can I please go "lay" down?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sunday Salon - August 7

Well, this is not a Sunday Salon post I thought I would be able to write. The "thing" we've been dealing with all spring and summer was supposed to take a major turn tomorrow, one that would completely have occupied my thoughts today. Strange as it may sound, it's a disappoint to find that we are not able to take that next step. We now find ourselves living in a kind of limbo. I continue to find it hard to find the time to get to my Google Reader much, other than to try to keep it in check and stop by a few blogs every day. I'm trying to read as many of them as I can, though!

Mini-me found this picture for me this week of a theater that has been turned into a library. How gorgeous is that? I have a hard enough time tearing myself away from the boring library in my suburb. What a great idea!

Not sure how I missed this one--Michael Ondaatje's latest, The Cat's Table: A Novel is being released this month. I'm a huge fan of Ondaatje's The English Patient and have In The Skin Of The Lion patiently awaiting me already after hearing wonderful things about it. What's new on your wish list this week?
I've got a review of John McWhorter's What Language Is coming up this week. The Omaha Bookworms are meeting next week to discuss native Nebraskan Willa Cather's O, Pioneers so I'll be finishing that up this week. Then I'm hoping to squeeze in something from my review shelf that doesn't have a "due" date before my next scheduled review. I've fallen hopelessly behind again! What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Gap Year by Sarah Bird

The Gap Year by Sarah Bird
320 pages
Published July 2011 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours

The gap year usually refers to that year that some students take between their senior year of high school and their first year of college. But in Sarah Bird's latest, the gap year refers, instead, to the year in the lives of Cam and Aubrey Lightsey when suddenly, without Cam having a clue as to why, a gap developed between the two.

Cam and Aubrey had always been close, right up until Aubrey's senior year of high school when she suddenly started keeping a lot of secrets from Cam. The attitude that most teens exhibit had only rarely reared it's ugly head and flat out disobedience was almost unheard of. Cam, a quasi-rebel resigned to living life in the suburbs, is so wrapped up in her job as a lactation specialist that she hasn't even noticed the changes in Aubrey that started even before that year.

Then Aubrey suddenly gets a friend request on Facebook from a man she hasn't seen in 16 years...her father. And she begins a relationship with the high school's star quarterback. Aubrey knows that her mother will not approve of her relationship with either man, particularly not with the man who left Cam when Aubrey was only an infant to join a kind of religious cult. And Aubrey is certainly right. Cam is mortified with Aubrey's relationship with Tyler Moldenhause, but not as much because of what sport he plays as because she blames him for taking Aubrey away from her. As for Aubrey's father, it's not until Aubrey disappears, two days before she's supposed to leave for college that Cam even realizes that Aubrey's been in contact with her father. Suddenly the two need to work together to find their daughter and it's then that Cam fully discovers that he knows a lot more about the person Aubrey is now than Cam does.

When I was offered this book for review, I jumped at the chance; the story hits so close to home. My daughter is heading into her final year of high school and we are probably as close as any mother and daughter I know. Yet I also know that teens are capable of living a life of which their parents are entirely unaware. To paraphrase "Jerry McGuire," Bird had me at hello.
"Although I am a slob and raised Aubrey with plenty of messiness, my worst enemy - Recent Studies - now tells me that I should have gone the extra step and provided actual squalor. Recent Studies says that the absolute best thing for building antibodies is close contact with livestock. If I'd only put a goat in the playpen with my baby, she probably wouldn't have asthma today."
Yes indeed, Cam is living a life filled with regrets and concerns as she prepares to send Aubrey off to college and it really resonated with me. I'm a person who still lives with the guilt of having cut my son's fingernail too short the day I brought him home from the hospital...twenty three years ago. While I can't say that I could relate to Cam on every level, I frequently found myself nodding my head in agreement with a comment or observation she made. And I've been around enough teens in recent years to find Aubrey to be an equally reliable and true voice for her generation. Am I worried, after reading this book, that I might not know my daughter as well as I think I do? Heck, yes. Which is an excellent gauge of how well Bird has captured the relationship between a mother and daughter.

Bird uses dual narrators, both Cam and Aubrey, but in a style I've not seen before. While Cam's chapters are set in the present, over the course of a few days, Aubrey's are set in the past, catching the reader up on what has happened in the past year from her perspective. It's a wonderful tool to keep the reader engaged and to emphasize the differences in perspective and highlight the lack of communication between the two. The book is filled with humor but grounded it's serious story line. It makes for a very satisfying read and one I'll definitely be passing along to other moms.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour! For more reviews of The Gap Year, see the full list of tour stops and to learn more about Bird, visit her website.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
448 pages
Published July 2011 by Random House Publishing
Source: the publisher

Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was born on Halloween in 1841 to a farm family in Massachusetts, a perfectly ordinary baby just as her three siblings had been. For a year, she grew normally. Then, almost without being noticed by her busy parents, she simply stopped growing. Lavinia, or Vinnie as she was known by family and friends, reached her peak height of 32 inches not long afterward. Her family was never quite sure what to make of her. She was sometimes an embarrassment to her siblings and always a concern to her mother who found danger lurking everywhere for her tiny daughter.

Vinnie, unlike her even smaller younger sister, Minnie, was much less concerned with what she should be afraid of as she was with what she wanted to be able to do. When the local school board offered her a teaching position when she was only sixteen, she jumped at the chance to be able to become somewhat independent of her family. When, less than a year later, Colonel John Wood walked into the family home offering Vinnie an even bigger opportunity. Claiming to be a distant cousin, Wood convinced the family that he could offer Vinnie the chance to travel the country, performing with his troupe, a troupe he claimed was akin to the world-famous acts shown by P.T. Barnum. Over her family's objections, Vinnie jumped at the chance.

Once on Wood's boat, Vinnie quickly discovered that life was not going to be quite what Wood had portrayed. Life on board was sometimes dangerous and never more dangerous than being around Wood soon became for Vinnie. But she had made many friends on the boat, particularly the giantess, Sylvia, who watched over her as if Vinnie were her sole responsibility.

When the Civil War broke out, the troupe found themselves without jobs and Vinnie was forced to return home. As much as she had missed her family and the comforts of home, Vinnie found herself missing the excitement of life away from home. Two years after she returned, she used the fame that she had found on the tour to attract the attention of P.T. Barnum himself.

Barnum was enchanted by Vinnie, less for the fact that she was a perfectly formed miniature woman, as he was by the fact of her intelligence and quick wit, and went about making her the sensation of the world, to much success. In 1863, despite not being in love with him, Vinnie married General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) in the wedding of the century. It was both Barnum and Vinnie's greatest triumph. She became even more famous and traveled the world, meeting royalty and presidents. But her fame came with a price. She would never find true love and she would no longer be able to protect Minnie from the glare of the public spotlight.

I've been anxiously waiting for The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb since I heard Melonie Benjamin talk about it at the Omaha Lit Fest last fall so I jumped at the chance to read and review it. I'm thrilled to be able to report that this book did not disappoint. Benjamin once again takes a well known but little written about woman from history and crafts a novel about what might have been, perfectly capturing the time period in which the story is set. In Vinnie she has also captured a voice which is filled with longing, spunk, and love and fully developed her into a person who is much more than just a public figure. I was thoroughly charmed by Benjamin's story; she has managed to give the reader a full range of emotions, to show the reader both the seedy underbelly of life in the mid-19th century and the over-the-top lifestyle of the well-to-do, and give us a love story on so many levels.