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April 28, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns






A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/27/07
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)
ARC - Book due out on May 22nd





Book Description:

Khaled Hosseini's novel A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan's past thirty years -- from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban, to the post-Taliban reemergence -- that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate human terms. It is a tale of two generations of characters brought jarringly together by the tragic sweep of war, where personal lives -- the struggle to survive, raise a family, find happiness -- are inextricable from the history playing out around them all. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a striking, heart-wrenching novel of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship, and an indestructible love.

Khaled Hosseini's stunning first novel, The Kite Runner, is already a beloved classic. It has been published in forty countries, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 111 weeks, and has sold more than 4 million copies in the United States.

Not only did The Kite Runner quickly became a favorite with book groups worldwide, several communities (including mine) chose it for their annual "One Book" program. It made my Top Ten list for 2004 and I'm anxious to see the film, which comes out in November.

As with many highly successful debut novels, there tends to be heightened anticipation when the author's subsequent book is announced. This is often tempered by a bit of trepidation. Will the author's sophomore endeavor satisfy his devoted fans, or will he be relegated to the status of a one-hit-wonder? Rest assured, this reader was not disappointed in the least. If anything, A Thousand Splendid Suns surpasses The Kite Runner, soaring above all expectations, higher than one could have possibly imagined.

It's always a struggle for me to write a review without divulging too much information. With each favorite passage or plot summary, I fear too many key elements will be revealed -- not necessarily spoilers, but facts that I know I would prefer to discover on my own. So, I won't spoil the thrill of discovery for any of you. However, I can speak in generalities.

When I glanced over my journal notes for The Kite Runner, I was surprised that so much of what I wrote could easily describe this new novel. It too is a story of family ties, friendship, loyalty, courage, love and betrayal. It's also a tale of great despair and endurance. I found myself gritting my teeth as I read, stopping to pause for a moment, reminding myself that it's only a story. Yet, perhaps that's what was so disturbing. Yes, it's a work of fiction, yet there's such truth in the details.

This is by no means a light and cheery read. It's all too real and all too heartbreaking. It makes me examine my own life and the luck -- pure and simple luck -- that I was born in Canada and raised in the United States. I have never been confined to my home, only allowed to leave if accompanied by a male relative. I have never had to wear a burqa, with only my eyes visible to those who see me. I have never been denied an education or the opportunity to work. I have never had to refrain from singing or dancing. I've never been afraid to laugh in public or speak before spoken to. I've never been forbidden from watching movies or television, and I have never heard a bomb explode in my city or in my neighborhood. I have never known real hunger, nor have I ever experienced dysentery or TB. I have never, ever been beaten.

I simply can't fathom a life filled with such fear. I sit here in the comfort of my home, listening to the hum of the computer, taking for granted the endless supply of electricity, indoor plumbing, and a refrigerator full of food; all the freedoms to which I am entitled as a free woman.

Why me? How did I get to be one of the lucky ones?

This is an unforgettable, thought-provoking story about Mariam and Laila, two women whose lives surreptitiously intersect during a reign of terror in Afghanistan. It's a intensely emotional page-turner that leaves you with a deep sense of humility for those who have ever suffered. There are only a few books that have had such a profound affect on me: Elie Wiesel's Night, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Hosseini's novels are also reminiscent of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. These are all beautifully evocative narratives, and while each taught me about the culture and history of the countries described, they are also a stark reminder of how very fortunate I am to be a woman in America in the 21st century.

This is a keeper, folks. Hosseini is a gifted and consummate storyteller, filling page after page with scenes of political unrest, all depicted with stunning clarity, each and every primary character fully realized. I have no doubt that this highly anticipated novel will become an immediate sensation.

I only have one question for Mr. Hosseini: How soon before your third book is published??

April 26, 2007

Favorite Stephen King Novels


Here's a list of my favorite Stephen King novels, as promised several weeks ago:

Bag of Bones

Cujo

Dreamcatcher (recently reviewed - click on title)

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Hearts in Atlantis

Insomnia

It

Pet Sematary

Rose Madder

The Shining

The Stand

Thinner

Tommyknockers

When I started putting this list together, I was going to write a brief comment next to each title. However, after a few blurbs, I realized that in most cases I was repeating myself. These are all great, creepy reads with memorable characters and scenes. King is a masterful storyteller, pulling his readers in from the opening lines and making the unbelievable seem quite real and possible.

I was quite surprised when I saw how many of his books of I've read. I knew it had been a lot, but until I typed up the list, I had no idea there were so many. There aren't too many authors I've read with such dedication. Other than a few mystery/thriller writers (John Sandford, Harlan Coben, and Dennis Lehane), there is only one other author I've read in such quantity and that's Elizabeth Berg, coming in at a grand total of 16 (with a new book coming out on May 1st!). The good news is that there are still many more books by Stephen King that I want to read.

Oh, and if you were wondering, The Stand is my #1 favorite of all.

April 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets




Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Young Adult Fiction/Fantasy
Finished on 4/24/07
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)





This was just as entertaining as the first time I read it. Such a delightfully fun series!

Count Down to:


87 days!


Favorite quote:

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. (ProfessorAlbus Dumbledore)


April 22, 2007

Allergy Season

In spite of the late freeze we had earlier this month, our crab apple survived (not so sure about our Star Magnolia and Japanese Maple) and is now in full bloom. I love the rich pink color. It's too bad the blossoms fall off fairly quickly, but with spring comes wind and rain (we're currently under a tornado watch). Our front porch is littered with tiny pink petals (and yellow pollen).





The garden phlox is also in full bloom. Pretty pinks and purples. This is such a lovely ground cover, requiring no attention whatsoever, other than admiration.

Birdsong

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Contemporary Fiction
Quit on 4/17/07
Rating: DNF
Chunkster Challenge (incomplete)


If the reader finds pleasure... let him continue; if not, let him throw the book away. The only criterion in the end is pleasure; all the other arguments are worthless.
~Claude Simon


It's been close to 10 years since I first heard about this book. Someone in my very first online book group raved about the novel, so of course I had to add it to my newly formed TBR list. Bookfool's Chunkster Challenge prompted me to finally give the book a read and I'm sorry to say that after 75 pages, I decided to call it quits. I wish I were still in touch with the woman who spoke so highly of Birdsong so I could ask her if it's one of those books that requires some determination and if it gets better further along. Since I'm not reading nearly as much as I was a few months ago, I decided not to continue wasting my time on a book that simply wasn't entertaining. While I don't plan to follow Simon's advice and throw this book away, I will add it to my BookMooch inventory, with hopes that someone may make a request for it.

Delights & Shadows




Delights & Shadows by Ted Kooser
Poetry
Finished 4/16/07
Rating: 2.5/5 Average
2005 Winner Pulitzer Prize for Poetry





Another collection of poems by local Nebraskan poet (and former U.S. Poet Laureate) Ted Kooser. This one was a little better than Weather Central, but just barely. There were a few poems that I liked, but overall, nothing terribly special to this reader.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Tectonics

In only a few months
there begin to be fissures
in what we remember,
and within a year or two,
the facts break apart
one from another
and slowly begin to shift
and turn, grinding,
pushing up over each other
until their shapes
have been changed
and the past has become
a new world.
And after many years,
even a love affair,
one lush green island
all to itself,
perfectly detailed
with even a candle
softly lighting a smile,
may slide under the waves
like Atlantis,
scarcely rippling the heart.

I do so want to like this poet and will continue to read more of his works.

April 18, 2007

A Moment of Silence


My heart breaks for all the families and friends of those who died so tragically at Virginia Tech University on Monday, April 16th. Blogging about books seems a bit trite right now. I'll be back next week.

April 16, 2007

The Road

***Update: 2007 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction***





The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Fiction
Finished on 3/27/07
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)





“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
~ Albert Einstein


Book Description:

A searing, postapocalyptic [sic] novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.


This is not a cheerful book. It is probably the grimmest book I’ve ever read. And one of the most difficult to review. When I finished reading the final page, I quickly decided I didn’t like the book. It was overwhelmingly bleak and depressing (and far too plausible). Yet, in the days following, my thoughts returned to the story, sifting through the psychological detritus that continued to linger, debating structure and style with my husband (who read and loved the novel), and ultimately changing my view and final rating.

As we discussed the book, I told my husband that part of my initial distaste was simply due to its depressing nature. However, The Book Thief was also sad and depressing and bleak, and yet it’s one of my favorite books. I’m not sure why I’ve changed my opinion, but I’ve come to the conclusion that The Road is a beautifully crafted story, rich in texture and depth, and one that deserves a second reading. Perhaps I was too preoccupied trying to sort out all the missing plot points (What caused the nuclear war? Which coastline were they traveling toward? What are their names?!), none of which are of great importance after all, as the story represents every man, every child, and every nation.

This is a fairly short novel, easily read in a day or two. The dialogue is quite sparse, as though the boy and his father were conserving all their strength just to put one foot in front of the other, not expending any extra energy toward conversation. Perhaps the brevity of their discussions is symbolic of the stark, barren environment. Or, maybe, after traveling together for several years in such desolate surroundings, it was no longer necessary to communicate in a sophisticated language. While anthropologists and linguists believe that language has evolved from primitive grunts and gestures into a powerful and sophisticated tool, McCarthy presents a bleak vision in which that evolution has now been reversed: The journey down the ruined road mirrors -- and is mirrored by -- the characters' linguistic descent; it's a narrative lacking in complex dialogue, one in which mumbles, nods, and one-word utterances are all that is needed and perhaps all that the characters can manage. McCarthy forces us to consider the painful likelihood that, when the world finally blinks out, the last remaining man will simply grunt and moan as the end comes, because that is the only response of which he is capable.

I don't have any quotes to include here (the narrative is so tight, every passage is a spoiler), but I'd like to share the following review by one of my favorite authors, Dennis Lehane:

Cormac McCarthy sets his new novel, The Road, in a post-apocalyptic blight of gray skies that drizzle ash, a world in which all matter of wildlife is extinct, starvation is not only prevalent but nearly all-encompassing, and marauding bands of cannibals roam the environment with pieces of human flesh stuck between their teeth. If this sounds oppressive and dispiriting, it is. McCarthy may have just set to paper the definitive vision of the world after nuclear war, and in this recent age of relentless saber-rattling by the global powers, it's not much of a leap to feel his vision could be not far off the mark nor, sadly, right around the corner. Stealing across this horrific (and that's the only word for it) landscape are an unnamed man and his emaciated son, a boy probably around the age of ten. It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy's previous work. McCarthy's Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. In fact that greatest love affair in any of his novels, I would argue, occurs between the Billy Parham and the wolf in The Crossing. But here the love of a desperate father for his sickly son transcends all else. McCarthy has always written about the battle between light and darkness; the darkness usually comprises 99.9% of the world, while any illumination is the weak shaft thrown by a penlight running low on batteries. In The Road, those batteries are almost out--the entire world is, quite literally, dying--so the final affirmation of hope in the novel's closing pages is all the more shocking and maybe all the more enduring as the boy takes all of his father's (and McCarthy's) rage at the hopeless folly of man and lays it down, lifting up, in its place, the oddest of all things: faith.

This is a book I’d like to own and read again. I guess that B&N employee discount will come in handy after all.

April 15, 2007

Five Quarters of the Orange




Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/13/07
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
2007 TBR Challenge #4



I had been back for almost six years when I opened the crêperie. By then I had money set aside, custom, acceptance. I had a boy working for me on the farm - a boy from Courlé, not from one of the Families - and I took on a girl to help with the service. I started with only five tables - the trick has always been to think small at first, to avoid alarming people - but eventually I had double that, plus what I could fit on the terrasse in front on fine days. I kept it simple. My menu was limited to buckwheat pancakes with a choice of fillings, plus one main dish every day and a selection of desserts. That way I could handle the cooking myself, leaving Lise to take the orders. I called the Place Crêpe Framboise after the house specialty, a sweet pancake with raspberry coulis and my homemade liqueur, and I smiled a little to myself, thinking of their reaction if they could have known... Several of my regulars even came to calling the place Chez Framboise, which made me smile all the more.

It's been almost exactly seven years since I read Harris' novel, Chocolat. I didn't write much about that particular book in my reading journal -- only noting that it was "pretty good" and advising against reading if hungry, as my mouth didn't stop watering the entire time I was reading. Five Quarters of the Orange is another that offers tantalizing descriptions of meals and ingredients, yet not quite as prominently as in Chocolat.

Perhaps that was why she gave me the album, valueless then except for the thoughts and insights jotted in the margins alongside recipes and newspaper cuttings and herbal cures. Not a diary, precisely. There are almost no dates in the album, no precise order. Pages were inserted into it at random, loose leaves later bound together with small, obsessive stitches, some pages thin as onionskin, others cut from pieces of card trimmed to fit inside the battered leather cover. My mother marked the events of her life with recipes, dishes of her own invention or interpretations of old favorites. Food was her nostalgia, her celebration, its nurture and preparation the sole outlet for her creativity. The first page is given to my father's death - the ribbon of his Légion d'Honneur pasted thickly to the paper beneath a blurry photograph and a neat recipe for black buckwheat pancakes - and carries a kind of gruesome humor. Under the picture my mother has penciled Remember - dig up Jerusalem artichokes. Ha! Ha! Ha! in red.

Five Quarters of the Orange was enjoyable enough and I was eager to see how things would turn out for Framboise, yet none of the characters felt fully realized. The only one I came to care about was nine-year-old Framboise (who reminded me of Ian McEwan's Briony from Atonement). All the other characters (primary and supporting) were flat and unremarkable.

While I'm not sorry I read the book, I doubt I'll bother with any other novels by Joanne Harris. In 2005, I gave up on Blackberry Wine after only a few chapters. Nothing has impressed me quite like Chocolate. Having said that, my curiosity was piqued when I discovered the enticing descriptions for Harris' two cookbooks: My French Kitchen: A Book of 120 Treasured Recipes and The French Market: More Recipes From a French Kitchen. They sound absolutely lovely.

Oh, dear. I just discovered a new novel (The Lollipop Shoes) by Harris is due for publication on May 10th. It sounds intriguing!

“Who died?” I said. “Or is it a secret?”

“My mother. Vianne Rocher.”

Seeking refuge and anonymity in the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Yanne and her daughters, Rosette and Annie, live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop. Nothing unusual marks them out; no red sachets hang by the door. The wind has stopped – at least, for a while. Then into their lives blows Zozie de l’Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes, and everything begins to change…

But this new friendship is not what it seems. Ruthless, devious and seductive, Zozie de l’Alba has plans of her own – plans that will shake their world to pieces. And with everything she loves at stake, Yanne must face a difficult choice; to flee, as she has done so many times before, or to confront her most dangerous enemy...

Herself.

Recognize the name Vianne Rocher? She's the main character in Chocolat. How can I resist? For further details, go here.

April 14, 2007

The Piano Man


The Piano Man by Marcia Preston
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/9/07
Rating: 3/5 (Above Average)




Book Description

"Dear Stranger,
You don't know me, but you are my hero. My husband, Mason, received your son's heart. You have given him a new life."

With the tragic death of her teenage son, Clair O'Neal lost more than Nathan -- she lost her direction. Now, three years after his death, her life remains flat and hopeless. But with the unexpected discovery of a forgotten letter, written by the wife of the man who received Nathan's heart, Claire feels as if she has been given a chance to connect again with her son. According to the letter, Mason MacKinnon is a talented violinist and happily married. Perhaps, if she could meet him, Nathan's death would finally have some meaning.

But when she finds Mason, he is playing piano in a seedy bar, a cynical, chain-smoking man, down on his luck and in no mood for Claire. What has happened to him in the years since his wife wrote to Claire? How dare he abuse the precious gift given to him by Claire's son? Saving a man who has lost his family, his illustrious career and his will to live is no easy task, but Claire is driven with a purpose that borders obsession. And as two lost, lonely people learn to find hope once again, they grow to understand that life's most beautiful music still comes straight from the heart.

With a clear eye, acclaimed author Marcia Preston shows how our lives can be connected in strange, unexpected and sometimes wonderful ways.

Meh. Not bad. Not great. Just an enjoyable read (in spite of the subject matter) that I stumbled upon at the library one afternoon. The cover art caught my eye and after a quick skim of the book description, I decided to give it a try. Although a bit uneven and occasionally far-fetched, it wasn't terribly sappy or maudlin. Overall, this is not one I'd want to read again, so it's good that I found it at the library.

April 11, 2007

The Cat







The Cat
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The cat
licks its paw and
lies down in
the bookshelf nook
She
can lie in a
sphinx position
without moving for so
many hours
and then turn her head
to me and
rise and stretch
and turn
her back to me and
lick her paw again as if
no real time had passed
It hasn't
and she is the sphinx with
all the time in the world
in the desert of her time
The cat
knows where flies die
sees ghosts in the motes of air
and shadows in sunbeams
She hears
the music of the spheres and
the hum in the wires of the houses
and the hum of the universe
in interstellar spaces
but
prefers domestic places
and the hum of the heater

Until today, I didn't know of this poem. Thanks, Nan!