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March 31, 2010

A Month in Summary - February '10

Wow. Even if you disregard the audio book and the one novel I gave up on, I had a very good month. For me. Six books is a lot these days. Of course, one was a young adult novel (fairly quick to read) and the other was one I'd been reading over many, many months. But still... :)

The Help by Kathryn Stocket (audio) (5/5)

The Delights of Reading: Quotes, Notes & Anecdotes by Otto L. Bettmann (3/5)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (2/5)

Impatient with Desire by Gabrielle Burton (4/5)

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (DNF)

Love Begins in Winter: Five Stories by Simon Van Booy (3.5/5)

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman (2.5/5)

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish (2/5)

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Favorite of the month: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Books Read 7
DNF 1
Male Authors 3
Female Authors 4
New-To-Me Authors 6
Epistolary 1
Audio 1
Fiction 5
Nonfiction 2
Historical Fiction 3
Coming-of-Age 1
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 1
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Graphic Novel 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 1
Biography 0
Short Stories 1
Essays 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 0
Religious Fiction 0
Re-read 1
Mine 5
Borrowed 2
ARC 1

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

A Month in Summary - January '10

A very nice start to the new year, with three great books! Let's see if the momentum continues...

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen (4.5/5)

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo (3.5/5)

Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin (4/5)

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan (5/5)

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Favorite of the month: Mudbound by Hilary Jordan

Books Read 4
DNF 0
Male Authors 0
Female Authors 4
New-To-Me Authors 4
Epistolary 0
Audio 0
Fiction 3
Nonfiction 1
Historical Fiction 1
Coming-of-Age 0
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Graphic Novel 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 0
Biography 0
Short Stories 0
Essays 1
Culinary 1
Mystery/Thriller 1
Religious Fiction 0
Re-read 0
Mine 3
Borrowed 1
ARC 1

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

A Month in Summary - December '09

Only a few in December and nothing terribly remarkable.

Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman (2/5)

Torch by Cheryl Strayed (3.5/5)


The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama (4/5)


The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg (audio) (4/5) - No review written for this audio, although you can read what I wrote about the printed book, which I read in 2005.


Favorite of the month: The Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg


Books Read 4
DNF 0
Male Authors 0
Female Authors 4
New-To-Me Authors 1
Epistolary 0
Audio 1
Fiction 4
Nonfiction 0
Historical Fiction 1
Coming-of-Age 0
Classic 0

Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 0
Graphic Novel 0

Romance 0

Humor 0

Travel 0
Memoir 0
Biography 0
Short Stories 0
Essays 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 0
Religious Fiction 0
Re-read 1

Mine 4

Borrowed 0

ARC 0


Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

A Month in Summary - November '09

It occurred to me that I haven't posted my Monthly Summaries since last fall. I'm going to catch up on the past four months, so bear with me.

Holly's Inbox by Holly Denham (2.5/5)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (4.5/5)

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (4/5)

The Mongoose Diaries by Erin Noteboom (4.5/5)

These Is My Words by Nancy Turner (4.5/5)

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

Favorite of the month: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, followed by The Mongoose Diaries by Erin Noteboom.

Books Read 5
DNF 0
Male Authors 3 (Holly Denham is a pseudonym)
Female Authors 2
New-To-Me Authors 3
Epistolary 3
Audio 0
Fiction 4
Nonfiction 1
Historical Fiction 1
Coming-of-Age 0
Classic 0
Poetry 0
Teen 0
Children's 0
Sci-Fi 0
Fantasy 0
Horror 1
Graphic Novel 0
Romance 0
Humor 0
Travel 0
Memoir 1
Biography 0
Short Stories 1
Essays 0
Culinary 0
Mystery/Thriller 1
Religious Fiction 0
Re-read 1
Mine 4
Borrowed 1
ARC 0

Note: Only books completed are counted in the above totals with, of course, the exception of the DNF category.

March 27, 2010

Making Toast


Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt
Memoir
2010 Ecco
Finished on 3/14/10
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
FTC Disclosure: Received ARC from publisher via Shelf Awareness




Publisher's Blurb:

"How long are you staying, Boppo?"

"Forever."

When his daughter, Amy—a gifted doctor, mother, and wife—collapsed and died from an asymptomatic heart condition, Roger Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, left their home on the South Shore of Long Island to move in with their son-in-law, Harris, and their three young grandchildren: six-year-old Jessica, four-year-old Sammy, and one-year-old James, known as Bubbies.

Long past the years of diapers, homework, and recitals, Roger and Ginny—Boppo and Mimi to the kids—quickly reaccustomed themselves to the world of small children: bedtime stories, talking toys, playdates, nonstop questions, and nonsequential thought. Though still reeling from Amy's death, they carried on, reconstructing a family, sustaining one another, and guiding three lively, alert, and tenderhearted children through the pains and confusions of grief. As he marveled at the strength of his son-in-law, a surgeon, and the tenacity and skill of his wife, a former kindergarten teacher, Roger attended each day to "the one household duty I have mastered"—preparing the morning toast perfectly to each child's liking.

With the wit, heart, precision, and depth of understanding that has characterized his work, Roger Rosenblatt peels back the layers on this most personal of losses to create both a tribute to his late daughter and a testament to familial love.The day Amy died, Harris told Ginny and Roger, "It's impossible." Roger's story tells how a family makes the possible of the impossible.

Oh, my.

When I first saw Making Toast reviewed on Shelf Awareness's monthly feature (Maximum Shelf), I knew it was a book I had to read. I tend to gravitate toward books, notably memoirs, dealing with grief. This particular book sounded like one I could especially appreciate, as it is very close to my family's particular situation with our own loss. You see, when my stepdaughter was killed almost five years ago, she left behind a young daughter (not even three years old at the time). Our granddaughter is now being raised with love and devotion by her maternal grandmother, who like Rosenblatt and his wife, was well beyond the years of potty training, car seats, nightmares, Hannah Montana, and children's birthday parties. And yet, one does what one needs to do.

I think writing a book about a personal loss must be very difficult. How much do you share with your readers in order to bring them closer to the story? And how do you do that without creating a book so full of despair and sorrow that nobody is able to finish? How much do you reveal without infringing on the privacy of those involved?

Rosenblatt is an accomplished and renowned author and professor, so I was a little surprised at my reaction (or lack of reaction) to this spare, straightforward memoir. Like Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Making Toast is a nonlinear narrative, oftentimes circular — much like grief itself. I found the writing disjointed and lacking the emotional impact I had anticipated. Rather than open the back door and invite the reader into the warmth of the kitchen, Rosenblatt allows only a glimpse into the heart of this home—the soul of this family's grief—through a gauzy curtain.

Perhaps I expected more resemblance to my own family's grief. And there were a few, as well as some strange coincidences. For one, our daughter's middle name, Elizabeth, was the same as Rosenblatt's daughter. And our younger daughter's name, like Rosenblatt's, is Amy. Rosenblatt is Jewish; his wife was born Episcopalian. My husband is Jewish. I was raised Episcopalian. And, finally, Rosenblatt's granddaughter is the same age as our granddaughter.


I did find myself nodding in agreement on a few occasions:

On platitudes, clichés and God:

Road rage was a danger those early weeks. I picked fights with store clerks for no reason. I lost my temper with a student who phoned me too frequently about her work. I seethed at those who spoke of Amy's death in the clichés of modern usage, such as "passing" and closure." I cursed God. In a way, believing in God made Amy's death more, not less, comprehensible, since the God I believed in is not beneficent. He doesn't care. A friend was visiting Jerusalem when he got the news about Amy. He kicked the Wailing Wall, and said, "Fuck you, God!" My sentiments exactly.

On therapy:

What keeps me from seeking Catherine's [the children's psychotherapist] help is that unlike other psychological problems, what has happened to Amy, and to all of us, is real. The monster is real. And while there may be strategies that help Ginny and me feel a little better rather than a little worse, we will never feel right again. No analysis or therapy will change that.

On religion:

I wonder if having a religion makes death easier to take, there being an established, possibly protective formalities that attend it. Ginny and I avoided religions ourselves and reared our children without one. She was born Episcopalian. We were married in a Unitarian church in New York. When we first visited the church to see if it would be right for us, they were dedicating a pew to a cat, which sealed the deal. Carl and Wendy, who were born Catholic, have a nonreligious home, as did Amy and Harris. We had something like a wake in the viewing, and when we greeted friends at home, it was akin to sitting shiva. But these events simply fell into place and God was not with us.

On expressing one's sorrow:

But I am not inclined to talk about my feelings with anyone but Ginny, and only rarely with her. Something about the momentum of our lives is good for us, keeps us from sinking. Given the choice between confessions of sorrow, however cathartic, and the simplest act of getting on with it, we'll get on with it.

On the passage of time:

The month of December has passed heavily. I tell her [Catherine, the therapist] I keep saying "Amy" when I mean Jessie or Ginny, and that I often feel removed from friends in social situations. She says that one of the delusions of people in grief is that once a year passes, things will start to look up. She reminds us of what she told Harris at the outset, that grief is a lifelong process for every one of us, not just the children. As for the demarcation of a year, "Things actually get worse. You, Ginny, and Harris are now realizing the hard truth that this is how life will be from now on. One year is no time at all."

And, finally, on a grandmother's day in the life:

And Ginny? After a day that consists of making and packing Jessie's and Sammy's school lunches, checking that Jessie's homework is in her backpack, and getting her ready to be picked up for Spanish lessons at 8 a.m., and making sure that Sammy is wearing his warm jacket and not the sweatshirt he prefers, taking Bubbies to Geneva, then doubling back to Burning Tree to help out in Sammy's class; after picking up Bubbies and giving him lunch and driving back to Burning Tree to take Jessie to a play-date with Danielle; after getting food for dinner and coming home to check on Sammy and Bo who has come for a play-date, and picking up Jessie at the end of the afternoon and playing with Bubs as he rides his trike, and preparing dinner for Bubbies, Sammy, and Jessie; after going down to the playroom to read to Bubbies and coming upstairs again to go over homework spelling words with Jessie, and making Sammy's and Jessie's schedules for the following day, and having a phone conversation with the mother of one of Sammy's friends who would like him to come over next week; after preparing dinner for Harris, me and herself; after playing just one-more-game of Uno with Jessie, and seeing that Jessie and Sammy use the bathroom before going to bed, and reading with Jessie, and laying out her and Sammy's and Bubbie's clothes for the morning... she kisses the children good night.

Did I expect to be moved by this memoir simply because of similar circumstances? Is it fair to criticize a book because one isn't moved to tears? Now that I've finished writing my review, I'm eager to read others, curious to see if other readers have found this book more "enjoyable" (for lack of a better word) than I.

Final thoughts:


I do know that writing about one's loss is especially cathartic. Both my husband (a talented writer by profession) and I have blogs comprised of letters written to Rachel after her death. Rod's letters moved me to tears each and every time, but, of course, I love him and his pain is my pain. I don't know Roger or Ginny, and while their sorrow is surely just as deep as my own, I never felt like I was given a chance to truly see it. But maybe it's not for me to see. Some day, when Jessica, Sammy and James are older, they'll be able to sit down and read Making Toast and see, through their grandfather's words, not only his undying love for his daughter, but the love he feels so deeply for each one of them. Because, of course, this is what I hope our granddaughter will see when she is mature enough to read our love letters to her mommy.

Read what other bloggers are saying about Making Toast:

Making Toast is about patience, love, faith (and the lack of it), grief, and the slow, torturous process of recovery. But perhaps it is mostly about what it means to be a family. Rosenblatt’s simple prose and his matter-of-fact presentation is surprisingly moving in the context of the story. It is a beautiful tribute to a daughter. (Wendy, of Caribousmom)

Written in simple prose, the story is not depressing or sappy. Yes, it is about loss and grieving, but more importantly, when all is said and done, it is about family, and about doing the right thing. It is about rolling up your sleeves and stepping up to the plate, and helping the people who need you the most. It's about rebuilding lives in the aftermath of tragedy, and redefining what family really means. (Diane, of Bibliophile By the Sea)

If you aren't planning to read Making Toast, I urge you to listen to this interview between Roger Rosenblatt and Diane Rehm on NPR. It's marvelous and was exactly what I had been hoping for in the book.

Read an excellent piece about Making Toast here.

See the video trailer for Making Toast here.

March 25, 2010

Bike Fever!




What an absolutely gorgeous day!! Blue sky, puffy white clouds, a slight breeze and a free afternoon to do as I pleased. I was going to hit the gym with a couple of friends from work (they're trying to talk me into taking a Zumba class), but wires got crossed and we wound up not going. But as luck would have it, I got my bike tuned-up last week and have been anxious to hit the trails.

So, after taking Annie-Dog for her walk, I hopped on my bike and headed out. I rode my usual route, but now I have a fancy wireless computer that showed exactly how fast I was traveling, how far I'd gone, how long I'd ridden, and best of all, THE TEMPERATURE! ;) It was a balmy 60 degrees and I rode 11.2 miles in almost exactly an hour. It felt so good to be out enjoying the beautiful weather. While the above photos show some sights from my ride, I have to confess that they're from my archives. Our trees are not leafed-out, nor is the grass that lush and green. But it won't be long.

There's nothing quite like the first warm spring day of the year.

I rode past a baseball field and heard the crack of a bat. OK, not really a crack. More like a ping. But what a great sound!

I heard two cardinals calling out to each other from the tree tops.

I heard the squeal of a small child in a swing at a playground.

I saw dozens and dozens of people out enjoying the weather. People were walking, jogging, biking, rollerblading, and walking dogs. I saw kids playing touch football in a backyard and several homeowners cleaning up their flower beds, anxious to start planting, I'm sure.

I haven't felt so full of joy and happiness in... well, months.

Life is good.

March 22, 2010

Sun, sun, sun...



Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it’s all right

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it’s all right

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it’s all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes…

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it’s all right
It’s all right

~George Harrison

Go here to listen.

March 20, 2010

Lift




Lift by Kelly Corrigan
Nonfiction - Memoir
2010 Voice (Hyperion)
Finished on 3/8/10 and... 3/19/10
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding)









Publisher's Blurb:

No matter when and why this comes to your hands, I want to put down on paper how things started with us.

Written as a letter to her children, Kelly Corrigan's Lift is a tender, intimate, and robust portrait of risk and love; a touchstone for anyone who wants to live more fully. In Lift, Corrigan weaves together three true and unforgettable stories of adults willing to experience emotional hazards in exchange for the gratification of raising children.

Lift takes its name from hang gliding, a pursuit that requires flying directly into rough air, because turbulence saves a glider from "sinking out." For Corrigan, this wisdom—that to fly requires chaotic, sometimes even violent passages—becomes a metaphor for all of life's most meaningful endeavors, particularly the great flight that is parenting.

Corrigan serves it up straight—how mundanely and fiercely her children have been loved, how close most lives occasionally come to disaster, and how often we fall short as mothers and fathers. Lift is for everyone who has been caught off guard by the pace and vulnerability of raising children, to remind us that our work is important and our time limited.

Like Ann Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, Lift is a meditation on the complexities of a woman's life, and like Corrigan's memoir, The Middle Place, Lift is boisterous and generous, a book readers can wait to share.

After finishing Lift, I did something I've never done before. I turned around and read it again. Not on the same day, but within a couple of weeks. The first reading took place over the course of two days. I wanted to savor this slim little book, taking in the freshness of Kelly's new work, wishing with each turned page that it was longer. The second reading took place yesterday afternoon. Snuggled under a blanket on the couch, snow gently falling outside, Post-it Note flags in hand, I began to read. And in my head I could hear Kelly's voice, sharing her stories with her young daughters, feeling a tug in my chest and a lump in my throat as I read the words that I knew would cause her to choke back her own tears.

It's tempting to share all of my favorite passages from Lift, but I have a feeling Kelly would frown upon me quoting her entire book! So here are just a few samples:

I heard once that the average person barely knows ten stories from childhood and those are based more on photographs and retellings than memory. So even with all the videos we take, the two boxes of snapshots under my desk, and the 1,276 photos in folders on the computer, you'll be lucky to end up with a dozen stories. You won't remember how it started with us, the things that I know about you that you don't even know about yourselves. We won't come back here.

You'll remember middle school and high school, but you'll have changed by then. You changing will make me change. That means you won't ever know me as I am right now—the mother I am tonight and tomorrow, the mother I've been for the last eight years, every bath and book and birthday party, gone. It won't hit you that you're missing this chapter of our story until you see me push your child on a swing or untangle his jump rope or wave a bee away from his head and think, Is this what she was like with me?

and

Georgia, you hate it when I cry. All my conspicuous emoting turns you off. That fed-up look you give me at teacher retirement parties or soccer games or the winter concert is partly how I know that I am only a few years away from exasperating you by the way I apply my lipstick or talk to waiters or answer the phone or drive or walk or breathe.

and

People rarely rave about their childhoods and it's no wonder. So many mistakes are made.

I see how that happens now, how we all create future work for our kids by checking our cell phones while you are mid-story or sticking you in the basement to watch a movie because we love you but we don't really want to be with you anymore that day, or coming unhinged over all manner of spilt milk—wet towels, unflushed toilets, lost brand-new! whatevers.

and

This tug-of-war often obscures what's also happening between us. I am your mother, the first mile of your road. Me and all my obvious and hidden limitations. That means that in addition to possibly wrecking you, I have the chance to give to you what was given to me: a decent childhood, more good memories than bad, some values, a sense of tribe, a run at happiness. You can't imagine how seriously I take that—even as I fail you. Mothering you is the first thing of consequence that I have ever done.

and

I remember having an awful conversation once, long before I became a mother, about whether it would be worse to lose a baby or a ten-year-old or a twenty-year-old, and so on. Why people think about these things, I don't know, but we do. We hover around the edges of catastrophe—trading headlines, reading memoirs about addiction and disease and abuse, watching seventeen seasons of ER. I said it would hurt the most to lose a twenty-year-old, because you'd have loved them so much longer and your attachment would be so much more specific. Babies love everyone and everyone loves them. But twenty-year-olds? They won't lean into just anyone. You have to earn any sliver of intimacy you share with them. Some pale memory of trust and connection has to hold against the callous disregard that is adolescence. And at twenty, they are just on their way back to you.

I love this book. It spoke to me on so many levels and I found myself nodding my head in agreement or recognition at least a dozen times. After I finished the first reading, I went to work and couldn't stop talking about what I'd just read. I found beautiful passages and read them aloud to coworkers. I promptly put four copies in the top tray on my endcap, eager to share my enthusiasm with my favorite customers. I made a mental note of friends and relatives I thought might also enjoy the book. And what timing! Tucked in a small basket with a bottle of perfume or lotion, and a little box of Godiva chocolate, Lift, with its warm and honest testimony of a mother's love, would make a perfect Mother's Day gift.

I rarely ever read the jacket blurbs or author endorsements until after I've read a book, so I was quite surprised to see the comparison to Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. About halfway into Lift, I had that exact same thought and even went so far as to go upstairs to find my copy of Gift of the Sea, with plans to read it again.

Bravo, Kelly! What a treasure you've given not only to your readers, but most importantly to your daughters.


You can hear Kelly read from Lift here:

I posted this clip a year or so ago, but want to include it again.

My review for Kelly's previous memoir, The Middle Place, can be found here.

Final thoughts: I listened to Gift of the Sea while walking on the bike trail near our house a few years ago. While I would love to experience the audio version of Lift, I think I better listen within the privacy of my home. It's one thing to suddenly burst out laughing while listening to an audio book in public and quite another to walk past strangers with tears streaming down one's cheeks.

March 19, 2010

The Empty House



The Empty House by Rosamunde Pilcher
Fiction
1973 St. Martin's Press
Finished 3/11/10
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)




Product Description

When you read a novel by Rosamunde Pilcher you enter a special world where emotions sing from the heart. A world that lovingly captures the ties that bind us to one another-the joys and sorrows, heartbreaks and misunderstandings, and glad, perfect moments when we are in true harmony. A world filled with evocative, engrossing, and above all, enjoyable portraits of people's lives and loves, tenderly laid open for us...

At twenty-seven, Virginia Keile had been through the most intense experiences life had to offer-a magical first love ending in heartbreak, a suitable marriage, motherhood, and widowhood. All she wanted now was to take her daughter and son to a seaside cottage and help them recover. But Virginia's true love was there, waiting, hoping, praying that this time she would be strong enough to seize happiness.

After reading a couple of grim novels about World War II, I decided it was time for something a bit lighter. Earlier this month, Robin mentioned The Empty House and after a quick scan of my shelves, I found my unread copy. This novella is a quick read and was just the ticket to lift my spirits after finishing Skeletons at the Feast.

The Shell Seekers and Winter Solstice remain my favorites (I prefer her lengthier novels to her novellas), but I always enjoy revisiting Pilcher's cozy world of Cornwall.



The building which housed the solicitors' office stood at the top of the hill which led out of Porthkerris, but even so Virginia was taken unawares by the marvellous view which leapt at her as soon as she walked into the room. Mr. Williams's desk stood in the middle of the carpet and Mr. Williams was, even now, getting to his feet behind it. But, beyond Mr. Williams, a great picture-window framed, like some lovely painting, the whole jumbled, charming panorama of the old part of the town. Roofs of houses, faded slate and whitewashed chimneys, tumbled without pattern or order down the hill. Here a blue door, there a yellow window; here a window-sill bright with geraniums, a line of washing gay as flags, or the leaves of some unsuspected and normally unseen tree. Beyond the roofs and far below them was the harbour, at full tide and sparkling with sunshine. Boats rocked at anchor and a white sail sped out beyond the shelter of the harbour wall, heading for the ruler line of the horizon where the two blues met. The air was clamorous with the sound of gulls, the sky patterned with their great gliding wings and as Virginia stood there, the church bells from the Normal tower struck up a simple carillon and clock chimes range out eleven o'clock.

I've already begun to forget the details of The Empty House, but its gentle story provided me with a few hours of peace.

Final thoughts: The guilty pleasure of a fluffy romance.

Wonder if I can talk my husband into a vacation here!

March 17, 2010

March 15, 2010

Skeletons at the Feast


Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Historical Fiction
2008 Shaye Areheart Books
Finished 3/7/10
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)





Publisher's Blurb:

In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from the Russian front to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.

Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family's farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred—who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.

As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna's and Callum's love, as well as their friendship with Manfred—assuming any of them even survive.

Perhaps not since The English Patient has a novel so deftly captured both the power and poignancy of romance and the terror and tragedy of war. Skillfully portraying the flesh and blood of history, Chris Bohjalian has crafted a rich tapestry that puts a face on one of the twentieth century's greatest tragedies—while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.

I seem to be on a World War II kick these days. I was helping a co-worker put together a list of World War II books for an upcoming event at the store and I now have dozens of titles to add to my wish list. I could easily spend a year reading nothing but books set during this time period, but I think that would be a bit too depressing. As it is, I chose a couple of lighter books to read once I finished Skeletons at the Feast.

Skeletons at the Feast is not a light, entertaining read. It's one of the more gritty WWII novels I've read and on several occasions I found myself cringing. We're all aware of the atrocities of this particular war, but to read the details of the incredible cruelty inflicted upon those in the camps and death marches made me stop and wonder if I really wanted to continue reading. But I did. And I'm not sorry, as the book is a refreshing account of a well-documented time in our history.

I was impressed with this novel and found myself wondering why I haven't read more of Bohjalian's books. It's been quite a few years since I read Midwives, The Law of Similars, and Trans-Sister Radio, and I enjoyed each of these enough to think I'd discovered a new favorite author. But I still have several of his works (Water Witches, The Buffalo Soldier, Before You Know Kindness, and The Double Bind) on my shelves or TBR list. And just last month, Secrets of Eden (his 12th novel) was released. Am I the only one who forgets to read an author they enjoy?! If it hadn't been for book club, I may not have stumbled on this gem for who knows how long!

My book club meets in a couple of days and I'm anxious to hear the other members' reactions to this dramatic story. The novel is a little slow-going at the beginning, but once the narrative returns to the earlier days of the war, when the characters come to know one another, the pacing picks up and I found it difficult to set the book aside. But I wouldn't be surprised if some of the group members decided to skip this month's selection due to the disturbing nature of the story.

Bohjalian was inspired to write Skeletons at the Feast after reading the diary of a friend's East Prussian grandmother, which spanned the years between 1920 and 1945. In addition to the diary, Bohjalian's research included several books that are already on my TBR list. One in particular, All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein, continues to call to me. Like Elie Wiesel's Night, I'm sure it will be a heartbreaking read. And yet, I'm still drawn to it and others of this time period. I find I learn a little bit more each time I read a book about World War II.

Final thoughts: I originally gave this book a higher rating (4/5), but while discussing it with my husband, I decided to drop the rating down a notch. The following are my quibbles:

Bohjalian's excessive usage of em dashes was distracting, particularly in the opening chapters. The fact that they're typographically disruptive is one thing, but more importantly, it seemed to indicate a jarringly parenthetical series of thoughts that might have flowed better had they been woven more naturally into the main sentence.

I found it difficult to care about any of the characters and feel they could have been fleshed-out more.

The second portion of the epilogue felt like an after-thought or a means of tying up a loose end. (I can't go into detail without revealing a spoiler.)

The "love affair" between Anna and Callum didn't ring true and the sexually explicit details seemed gratuitous and unnecessary.

March 13, 2010

The Help - Audio

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Historical Fiction
2009 Penguin Audio, Unabridged Edition
Finished on 2/16/10
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent!)



From AudioFile:

Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. White ladies playing bridge and sipping ice tea. Colored maids cooking, cleaning, and loving the white babies. The separate, intertwined paths of these worlds are going to collide. Audio is THE way to be inside this story, brilliantly cast with four voices. The separate casting of the three voices of Stockett's debut novel is astute. Jenna Lamia embodies Miss Skeeter, the young aspiring writer who starts a project that disrupts her privileged and predictable world. Lamia's genteel Southern tones can pass off ingrained prejudice with chilling comfort, screech with outrage, and subtly reflect Skeeter's growing resolve and self-discovery. Bahni Turpin and Octavia Spencer contrast the voices of hot-headed Minny and thoughtful, inspiring Aibileen. Their musical speech and emotional connection to the characters are riveting. Listeners are swept up in the story--shocked and reminded by the times; inspired and proud of these women. R.F.W. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award.

I reviewed The Help just about a year ago this month (read my review here), but wanted to post a quick write-up about the audio version. I very rarely listen to audio books. My commute is less than 15 minutes each way and I just don't spend that much time in my car. However, a good friend loaned me this audio book and said I simply had to give it a listen, even though I'd already read the book. She was so enthusiastic, I couldn't turn her down. And I'm so glad I didn't. What an experience! I fell in love with the book all over again. The readers are all superb and I quickly became engrossed in the story, looking for reasons to drive all over town so I could continue listening. (Why I didn't just copy the discs over to my iPod, and listen while walking on the treadmill, is beyond me. Next time!)

One of the advantages to listening to an audio book is hearing the pronunciation of names and locations, as well as hearing the accents and emotion in the dialogue. I don't know if it's due to a second "reading" that the story is more ingrained in my memory, or whether it's due to the process of listening to it being read aloud, but I feel like I'm able to recall more detail about the plot and remember the characters' names better than when I just read a printed book. Whatever the reason, I'm quickly becoming a fan of audio books and have decided this is a great way to "re-read" some of my favorite books.


Final thoughts: Even if you've already read The Help, I urge you to listen to the audio book. What a superb performance.

Oh, and if you haven't heard the news, Dreamworks Studio has acquired the rights to The Help. You can learn more here.

And, if you've got some free time, take a listen to this marvelous interview between Kathryn Stockett and Katie Couric.

Can you tell I'm a huge fan of this book?! I can't wait to see what Stockett has in store for us next.

The Delights of Reading


The Delights of Reading: Quotes, Notes & Anecdotes by Otto L. Bettmann
Nonfiction - Literary Reference
1987 David R. Godine Publisher
Finished on 2/11/10
Rating: 3/5 (So-So)



Product Description:

From the writings of the great, the near-great, and the would-be-great, a delicious selection of quotes and anecdotes on that most dangerous afflictions—the passion for books and reading.

I've had this on my shelf for quite a few years. I don't remember where I got it, so it may be a book I actually bought for my husband. I finally read through the entire compilation (over the course of several months) and discovered a few quotes to put in a journal in which I keep reading quotes. Since there aren't too many, I'll share them with you here.

Reading—the best state yet to keep absolute loneliness at bay.
~ William Styron


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


Oh! For a book, and a cosy nook
And oh! for a quiet hour,
When care and strife and worry of life,
Have lost their dreaded power,
When you read with zest the very best
That mind to mind can give,
And quaff your joy without allow,
And feel it is good to live.
~Anonymous

Books relieve me from idleness, rescue me from company, blunt the edge of my grief. They are the comfort and solitude of my old age.
~ Michel de Montaigne


This nice and subtle happiness of reading, this joy not chilled by age, this polite and unpunished vice, this selfish, serene life-long intoxication.
~ Logan Pearsall Smith


A book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.
~ Charles Lamb


No furniture is so charming as books... Even if you never open them, or read a single word; the plainest row of cloth or paper covered books is more significant of refinement than the most elaborately carved etagere or sideboard.
~ Sydney Smith


Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired (by passionate devotion to them) produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can peradventure read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity... we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.
~ A. E. Newton


and my two favorites:

I cannot imagine a pleasanter old age than one spent in the not too remote country where I could reread and annotate my favorite books.
~ Andre Maurois


I cannot think of a greater blessing than to die in one's own bed, without warning or discomfort, on the last page of the new book that we most wanted to read.
~ John Russell

March 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

Lathrop, Missouri
April 2009

March 6, 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas



The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Young Adult Fiction - Historical
2006 David Fickling Books
Finished on 2/26/10
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)




Publisher's Blurb:

Berlin 1942. When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

When I learned that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was coming out on DVD, I decided I needed to make time and give it a read since I'm one who likes to read the book before watching the movie. Now that I've finished the book, well, let's just say I'll be skipping the movie.

Over the years I've become quite a fan of historical fiction, particularly that of World War II. As a matter of fact, my current book is set during WWII and is quite engrossing. And, one of my absolute favorite books is The Book Thief, which, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, focuses on the life of a young German child during the war. However, that's where the similarities end. John Boyne badly missed the mark with his simplistic tale of a young, naive boy (the son of a high-ranking German soldier), living literally next-door to Auschwitz. The story consists of one-dimensional characters, improbable situations, a ridiculous literary device (the usage of puns to describe Auschwitz and the Fuhrer), and a trivialized plot that barely held my interest and which does no credit at all to the weighty matters with which it attempts to deal.

As I read, I began to wonder exactly for whom this book was written. It lacks the sophistication of any teen book I've read in the past few years, and I found myself comparing the reading level to that of The Penderwicks, which was written for young readers. Obviously, this is not appropriate subject matter for a seven- or eight-year-old, unless handled much more carefully and delicately than Boyne manages here. Yet, it reads as if young children, not teens, were the target audience. What we have here is a book aimed at teens but which talks down to its audience.

Final thoughts: Meh. Read The Book Thief instead.

March 3, 2010

Blogiversary Winners!!


No, I didn't forget. I simply haven't had time to announce the winners of my blogiversary giveaway. Thank you all for being patient with me. And now to the winners' circle...

Lee wins a copy of Mudbound by Hillary Jordan!!

Melanie wins a copy of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn.

Tara wins a copy of Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg.

Sara wins a copy of Saving CeeCee Honeycut by Beth Hoffman.

I will get in touch with the four of you later this evening to confirm your mailing addresses. Melanie, I need your email address!

Congrats to all of you. I hope you enjoy the books!