Thursday, December 17, 2009

Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (2007)

This book was a gift to me from Mary, my sister’s mother-in-law – I had recently given her one of the Penguin Great Journey series which told the true story of Olaudah Equiano, a man born in Africa and taken as a slave to the Americas in the late 1700’s. Coincidentally, Mary’s reading group was reading “Someone Knows My Name” this fall, which not only tells the story of Aminata, a young girl trapped as a slave and also taken to the Americas, but also mentions Equiano in the later parts of the book. There are many similarities between the life journeys of Aminata and Equiano, a major difference being that Aminata is a fictional character and Equiano a real person of flesh and blood, who published his own autobiography in London in 1789.

This does not at all diminish the power of Aminata’s story or the feelings you have as a reader accompanying her on her brutal journeys. Told in the first person, based on the actual history of that time and sparing no details, we first see Aminata in her near idyllic life in Africa, a beloved only child of her Muslim father and midwife mother. She learns much from both her parents, important things which will serve her well: the basics of the Koran and the desire to read and write, and gynecology and obstetrics skills paired with a knowledge of herbal medicine.

She is ripped from her family in the most brutal way imaginable and is forced to make the harsh journey to the Americas, first on foot and later by ship. It is a miracle that she arrives in the Carolinas still alive, just barely hanging on to her humanity and her physical health. She ends up being sold to an indigo plantation where the second phase of her life takes place, but always in the back of her mind the desire to return home to Africa one day.

Through Aminata, we are privy to many aspects of the slave’s experience: daily life and tremendous hardships, the different relationships between fellow slaves as well as slaves and owners, the possibilities and limitations to a person who was held as a slave, the historical context and the role of black slaves and freemen in the Revolutionary War, and what happened to them after the defeat of the British. We are also a witness to the creation of the “Book of Negroes”, a real genealogical document created to register all the free black persons who emigrated to Nova Scotia after the war. Aminata was one of these who regained her freedom through service to the British, but heartbreak and hardship continued in her life, in spite of her new situation in Canada.

Her greatest wish remained: to return to Africa. After years of struggle she finally gets her wish, through the colonization of Freetown by black people from Nova Scotia. But all is not what it seems and the Africa of her youth is difficult to find, so towards the end of her life, the abolitionists convince her to join their struggle as a witness for the British parliament, and she travels to London, where she finally finds a kind of peace.

This is an incredibly moving tale, at times impossible to get out of your mind, or to put down. Also when you consider the conditions that she traveled and lived in, and still managed to survive, it is truly mind boggling. I can’t even imagine as a young teenager, having to go through the indignities and suffering that she bore. How lucky I am for the place and time I was born. But finally the most important aspect of all – at our very heart we are all the same, and want the same things – to be with our parents and family, to live in a safe community, to be able to provide for our children and see them grow up, to learn and to be free to come and go where we will. Today still there are so many of us in this world who do not possess these basic rights, and Aminata’s story is a witness to the tragedy of slavery, the dark side of the human condition, and the beauty and strength of the human spirit. A moving story, a well-written book, and a powerful reminder of things we must never forget.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)

I think I have already mentioned that I have a thing for first novels - I am already impressed before even opening the book at the tenacity and talent it takes to get a first book published! I bought this because it was included in a special Penguin collection of important books put out in 2007 called “Penguin Celebrations” – all the books had a cool retro cover and they were really cute. I bought a few of them, and this was one that appealed to me.

The novel is about a young American writer who travels to Ukraine to search for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi’s. He is assisted by two Ukrainians: a young man who is a translator and his “blind” grandfather, who serves as their driver. The book is unusual in that half the chapters are actually written by the young Ukrainian translator – and let’s just say his English isn’t that great! It sounds as though the author spent a lot of time listening to Ukrainians speak English because once you get used to reading it, you can really hear Sasha speaking.

The story alternates between the three men’s journey as described by Sasha, letters from Sasha to the American discussing the writing of story and his own life, and then the novel itself, which starts with the history of the village they are searching for and the writer’s great-great-great-great-grandmother and builds up slowly to the grandfather.

Some parts of this novel made me laugh out loud – especially the scene where the American tries to tell the two Ukrainians he is a vegetarian and that this means no meat, “not even sausage” – it was so funny I read it out loud to my husband and then to my one of my kids. But much of the novel is heart wrenchingly sad and deals with extreme cruelty, intolerance, hatred and tragedy.

An excellent, creative and courageous book. One of my favorite lines in the book:

...once you hear something, you can never return to the time before you
heard it.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

This was a birthday gift from my friend Joy, who said it is one of her favorites. I had heard of it, knew it had been made into a film, but had never read it and didn’t really know what it was about. But I knew it would be good if Joy liked it! I was intrigued when I saw that it was a first novel, I am always impressed by first novels because I know how tough it must be to get that first one turned out and published.

This is a very unique and unusual love story about Henry and Clare. Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily time travel, which turns out to be rather dangerous as he can never predict when or where he will show up – and he is always naked when he arrives. He meets Clare on his time travels to the past when she is a young girl and they become friends as he continues to appear in her time. Later they meet when they are both adults, and in the same present, fall in love, and marry. But Henry’s time travelling begins to cause more and more problems…

I truly admire the author’s imagination and ingenuity in describing Henry’s disorder, it is amazing how well thought out the details are, all the little practical implications have been carefully puzzled into the story so that it becomes completely plausible.

I also found the family relationships described in the book were finely drawn, especially Henry’s grief for his mother, his skewed relationship with his father, Clare’s family dynamics and her mother’s mental illness, Henry and Clare’s friends and their issues, Henry’s work colleagues at the library, Henry’s Korean surrogate mom …by the end of the book they all were a real cast of characters to me, not just extras.

The other thing I loved about this book was the silent main character: the city of Chicago! Having lived in the Chicago area as a child and teen, I was very familiar with a lot of the places the author describes, like the Art Institute, the Natural History Museum, and felt like I was there again. Obviously the author knows the city very well and has spent a lot of time in its many neighborhoods. This could easily be one of those books that inspire tours of the city (like Barcelona and “The Shadow of the Wind”), taking fans to all the spots mentioned in the book, because they are all real places. I loved that the author included an actual real bookstore and record shop in the story!

Ultimately this novel is about loyalty, sacrifice and love, and the last couple of chapters had me staying up late and getting all choked up. A great read. So glad I didn’t see the movie before I got a chance to read it. I don’t even know who the actors were and don’t care – Clare and Henry are so clear in my mind.

Thanks, Joy!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory (2005)

This was the book I won over at Sheila's blog (Journey Through a World of Books) - she constantly has great giveaways, so go over there and check it out. If I can win, anybody can!

The book is a historical novel that reconstructs the life of Katherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess and daughter of powerful Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. From birth, she is betrothed to Arthur, the oldest son of the English king, and thus destined to be Queen of England and crucial cement in the relationship between Spain and England and just a pawn in the diplomatic power games going on in Europe at the time.

As soon as she reaches marriageable age, she is shipped off to England to wed Arthur. Their marriage is short lived, as he dies unexpectedly, and then Katherine is left to rot away while her father-in-law basically holds her hostage until financial arrangements have been agreed with her parents. But Katherine does not give up trying to have a hand in her destiny and she perseveres and manages, by holding fast to a crucial lie, to marry Arthur's brother, and next in line for the throne, Henry the 8th.

Fascinating stuff, which makes me want to get out a history book and get clear on all the historical details. Author Gregory does a good job of getting inside her characters' heads without it seeming too implausible. I was most impressed by the years that Katherine was in exile in England, alone and for all intents and purposes abandoned by both sides of her family, which must have been very difficult for a young woman. But she managed to come back and fulfill her destiny as Queen of England after all, and do an excellent job of it, too. Until Anne Boleyn catches her husband's eye...but that is another book!

Friday, November 20, 2009


Just a postcard I picked up at a recent visit to the Magritte museum in Brussels - couldn't resist sharing it here!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

This book was a gift from my long lost friend Rebecca who I reconnected with on
Facebook earlier this year. She came to visit us this summer and brought this book with her from London. I had vaguely heard of the book, but never read it.
Apparently it is a well known satirical comedy, and has been adapted many times for the stage and radio. I read the introduction with great interest, becoming rather intrigued by the book and the author’s background. The book is essentially a parody of the romantic rural novel popular at the time (eg novels by D.H. Lawrence).

The story follows sensible young Flora Poste, who, having lost both her parents at the age of 19, decides to go live with relatives. But not just any relatives – she tries her best to figure out which set of relatives could most use “improving”, as she loves nothing better than fixing others’ lives. With the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm she has found the mother lode of people needing all sorts of lifestyle advice!

Cold Comfort Farm has been dominated for years by reclusive Aunt Ada, who stays in her room but nevertheless manages to keep everyone on the farm under her thumb by constantly reminding them of her childhood trauma: “I saw something nasty in the
woodshed”. With the arrival of Flora, events are set in motion that will soon change the balance of power. With gusto she sets about improving just about anyone she can get her hands on, with wafts of “What Not to Wear”-style good intentioned and practical advice left and right. No stone is left unturned and she even applies herself to improving the life of the farm’s bull, Big Business.

An enjoyable read, even though I am sure much of the very British humor went over my head!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Shipwrecked Men by Cabeza de Vaca

This is another from the Penguin series "Great Journeys" - fabulous little gems! This title is the true account of a Spanish expedition to the New World in 1527 that goes terribly wrong. The writer, Cabeza de Vaca, tells the incredible story of the shipwrecks, hurricances, starvation, disease, cannibalism, being enslaved by Indian tribes and his harrowing journey across the American southwest and into Mexico, together with four other survivors out of the six hundred who perished. It is an amazing story. Most interesting to me was his narrative about the lives of the native Americans, what they ate (seemed like very little and not especially good) and their customs. He ended up spending ten years roaming in miserable conditions before finally finding other Spaniards again and returning to Spain, where he wrote his story for the Spanish king.

It is incredible what people went through 500 years ago to travel - it makes our modern inconveniences seem petty by comparison. I'll try to remember that when I get on that "long" flight to America this week!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872)

I loved this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the weeks I spent reading it, and looked forward to reading a few chapters every night. It is a surprisingly modern story about several families and couples in a small provincial town in England in the mid 1800's. George Eliot uses the storylines to touch on many themes like women's roles in marriage and public life, greed, gossip, the nature of a good marriage, family ties and expectations.

Sometimes it felt like I was reading a soap opera, as the book moved back and forth between some of the main characters just like scenes in a movie. It was also fascinating to read such a realistic depiction of what life was like nearly 200 years ago, for example, the details of the way the houses were furnished and used, the clothing, the daily habits. Most of the characters in the book are wealthy or working middle class, and we see that social status was a determining factor in many parts of life back then.

Finally, the individual stories themselves:
  • the marriage of young, intelligent Dorothea to the older scholar Casaubon and her unsuitable friendship with his nephew Will Ladislaw
  • the young ambitious doctor Lydgate who is trying to build his new practice in Middlemarch, and his difficult marriage to the spoiled little rich girl Rosamond Vincy
  • Rosamond's brother Fred Vincy's hopes of inheriting from their rich eccentric uncle Featherstone, and the implications for his later life and his engagement to Mary Garth, a practical and sensible young woman from a middle class family

A good long read to keep you company on a cold winter night!

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Just in case anyone was wondering, I haven't stopped reading! I am in the middle of Middlemarch by George Elliot (a very long book) and will be back soon!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling (1999)

Book 3 starts out with the familar: Harry "causing" some disaster at the Dursleys. This time it happens to be accidentally blowing up the horrible Aunt Marge. Harry needs to get away very quickly, and is picked up by the Knight Bus, but not before he catches sight of a Grim (a giant scary dog) stalking him in the darkness. He also makes the unpleasant acquaintance of the Dementors, spooky creatures that are supposed to be on the lookout for the escapee from Azkaban, Sirius Black. The Dementors are horrible, and suck all joy out of their victims' bodies.

Safely at Hogwarts, the school year begins with a new class: Divination with Professor Trelauney, who promptly predicts Harry's iminent death! And there is again a new professor of the Dark Arts, Professor Lupin, who has some very strange habits.

The book is filled to the brim with magical drama: the Marauder's Map that helps Harry find his way to Hogsmeade Village for forbidden visits, the conflict between Crookshanks (Herminone's cat) and Scabbers (Ron's rat), the great Quidditch final, Herminone's big secret (which enables her to attend more classes than anyone else), the hippogriff (part horse, part bird) Buckbeak's death sentence, the appearance of Sirius Black who turns out to be Harry's godfather, and the discovery that Harry's father James was an Animagus and could turn into a stag. As always an exciting, whirlwind of a story!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008)

I LOVED this book, devoured it, savored it, completely enjoyed it. It made me think about things in a way I hadn't before, about marriage, being a woman sacrificing her career and identity to a husband...

And the funny thing was, when I first read the review of this last year I thought I would not like it. After all, the premise of the book is a fictional account that very closely follows the life of former first lady Laura Bush. Yes, the names are changed and the state they come from is changed (Wisconsin instead of Texas) but many of the larger events remain. And I was never a big fan of Laura Bush so I never gave it another thought until a fellow blogger suggested it a while back. Thanks, because I loved it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Voices, by Susan Elderkin (2003)

I bumped into this book at the library when I was looking for something else in the E's. The cover, a picture of an aborigine girl with a stark blue sky and red earth behind her, intrigued me. So I picked it up, thinking I could read it for Books Around the World Challenge for Australia.

The main character is Billy, whom we meet as a 13 year old boy who has a special connection to kangaroos and loves collecting rocks and minerals. He lives with his parents in a small outpost in Western Australia. We also meet Billy as he is admitted to the emergency room as a young man, seriously injured in some mysterious way and very delirious. As the story unfolds, we learn bit by bit what happened to Billy over the course of his life.

The novel weaves Billy's history together with white and black members of his town, gives us some insight into the situation of the aboriginal community and modern Australia off the beaten path. The author has a canny ear for the way Australians speak - having watched lots of Australian TV series here in Belgium (Neighbors, Flying Doctors) when I was reading the dialogues I could just hear them in my head! The imagery of the landscape, especially the otherworldliness of the mining set up, is well drawn.

Apart from the landscape, the wild animals, the colorful inhabitants of the town, the other main element in the book are The Voices, who seem to be aboriginal spirits who lie in their hammocks all day and argue with the wind. The Voices are having an existential problem - no one wants to believe in them any longer and they fear for their existence. Through a young girl they call the spirit child, they have put their last hopes in Billy for their redemption.

At first the interruptions by The Voices are jarring, but little by little it becomes clear what thier role is in the story, and their hand in Billy's fate.

This novel really grew on me and I felt like I learned something about Australia, not only information about what it is like for people there, but also what it feels like to be there.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling (1998)

In the second book of the Harry Potter series, it again starts off with a terrible disaster happening at the Dursleys, for which Harry of course gets the blame. This time, Dobby, the house-elf appears, and proceeds to ruin Uncle Vernon's important dinner party with a business client. Luckily Harry is saved by Ron in a flying car and whisked off to the Weasleys for the rest of the summer before school starts.

Harry and Ron somehow miss the Hogwarts Express train and decide to fly to Hogwarts in the car, where they end up crashing into the Whomping Willow and get in big trouble.

Trouble is brewing at Hogwarts as well: the new professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, the vain and pompous Gilderoy Lockheart, and all the other staff, cannot prevent a series of attacks on students whereby they are petrified. Rumors abound, some blame Harry for the attacks, and word has it the mysterious Chamber of Secrets has been unlocked, unleashing the Heir of Slytherin upon the school. Of course, Harry, Ron and Hermione set out to unravel the mystery! Their plan includes Polyjuice Potion to turn into Malfoy's pals for a few hours and get information out of him, former student Tom Riddle's interactive diary, Hagrid's friend Aragog the giant spider and a clue from Moaning Myrtle in the girl's toilets.

In the end, Harry finds out much more about Voldemort, prevails in a wizarding battle, saves Ginny Weasley (and wins her heart!) and cleverly sets Dobby free from bondage to his master.

This and much much more takes place in the whirlwind second volume in the Harry Potter series - what a great read!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

BBC Book List - how does your reading history stack up?

The BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 great books here... how do your reading habits stack up? I recently saw this and thought I would put it up, as a kind of wish list for future reading for myself! (x = have read or currently reading)

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen x
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte x
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling x (currently reading!)
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee x
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte x
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell x
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott x
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy x
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier x
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger x
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot x (just got this from the library!)
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald x
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck x
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll x
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis x (LOVED these as a child!!!)
34 Emma-Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis x
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hossein
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne x
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell x
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez x
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery x
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding x (re-read this recently)
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan x
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert x (ages ago when I loved sci-fi in high school!)
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen x
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon x (read part of this)
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley x
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck x
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt x
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett x (re-read this recently, great children's book)
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola x (French major in college!)
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert x (see 78)
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White x
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albomx
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery x
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams x
95 A Confederacy of Dunces- John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl x
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

How did I do? 34 that I am sure I read, I am not so sure about some of them, especially which Jane Austen novels I have read. Some of them I know I will most likely never read, but it does inspire me to look for some of the others!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Harry Potter Challenge: Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone (1997)

I still remember my mom telling me about this great children's book she had heard about and how I should get it for my boys. So I got ahold of it somehow, and started reading it aloud to my oldest. He loved it! And by the time the second one came out, he was hooked and able to read on his own. I credit the Harry Potter series to my oldest son's love of reading, and his proficiency in reading in English.

So for me, re-reading Philospher's Stone was very nostalgic. I love the feeling of how new everything is for Harry and the wonder of finally discovering a place where he really feels he belongs, after all the mistreatment he has received at the Dursleys. The affection he gets from Hagrid, his new friendships with Ron and Hermione, his search for knowledge about his parents, make this in fact, a romantic story.

And then of course, there is all the adventure, mystery and danger... but with the satisfying wind up at the end of the year banquet, where everything seems to work out in the end. Totally appropriate for ten year old readers. What I think is brilliant about J.K. Rowling's plan for the books is how they get progressively longer, darker, and more grown up, right along with Harry himself and his friends...and the readers themselves.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Trans-Sister Radio, by Chris Bohjalian (2000)

I loved "Midwives", I loved "Buffalo Soliders", both by Chris Bohjalian, but when I saw this one in the library I wasn't sure... the story is about a 40 something divorced school teacher who meets this film professor, starts dating him, falls in love - and then he tells her he is scheduled to have sex change surgery in a few months. What would you do? Would your life fall apart?

Well, that is exactly what happens to Allie in this book, as well as to her boyfriend, her ex-husband, and the town she lives in. The only person who seems to be able to deal with the fall out is her daughter, a freshman in college. Chris Bohjalian manages to write about this rather delicate topic in a way that doesn't make you see the main characters as players in a vaudville, they are real people and as a reader you manage to get past the raw details of their lives and see the bigger picture. I could not put it down, and finished it late at night the same day I started it!

I saw the twist at the end coming, but it makes for a fitting way to end the story, even if it is just a tiny bit implausible.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I won!

I am so excited - I actually won a book, The Constant Princess, over at - she has some great giveaways on her blog. I am really looking forward to reading this book, as it is a historical novel about the Spanish Princess Catalina, who married into the British royal family. I will certainly post a report about it here when done

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Last Days of Dogtown, by Anita Diamant (2005)

Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent" is one of my all-time favorite books. So when I saw "The Last Days of Dogtown" in the bargain section at Half Price Books a few years ago, I grabbed it. It took me a long time to get to, however, and it rested in my pile of "to be read" books. Finally this summer it got its chance!

The story is about a real village called Dogtown, situated on a desolated and rocky pennisula on Cape Ann, off the coast north of Boston. Based on actual history, the story follows the last inhabitants of Dogtown as they slowly die or move elsewhere with their lives, the great majority of them women who were outcasts of "normal" society. Their stories are gracefully interwoven in this novel, and the cast of characters grows on you until at the end, you are sorry to leave them behind but satisfied to know their various destinations.

Most moving to me was the story of the relationship between Judy Rhines, independent and lonely spinster, and the freed slave, Cornelius Finson, which is spun bit by bith through the entire book. Additionally, I loved the sense of community and caring (aside from a few individuals) that develops between the group of outcasts and how they help each other survive with dignity.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Harry Potter Book Reading Challenge

This is so seredipitous! My son has read all the Harry Potter books, many times over, and we have always gone to see the movies right when they come out. I always planned to read the books myself, but kept putting it off. A few weeks ago, after seeing the movie for #6, I finally decided to get started on the books – I realize there is so much that you miss when you haven’t read the books and I decided I want to see the last movie being totally “in the know”. So now I am busy with the second one, and recently discovered a reading challenge over on GalleySmith that fits me like a glove! Anyone else up for it?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Sabbathday River, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (1999)

You want a compelling, riveting, thick book for a summer read? Go find this book at your library - it was excellent. I never would have found this had it not been for the Oprah summer reading list - they had another book by Korelitz listed, and my library didn't have that one, but they did have this one, and boy, am I glad.

The story is anchored by Naomi, a Jewish woman who moved from New York city to rural New Hampshire for idealistic reasons, and is struggling to make a place for herself in the conservative community. While out running one day, she discovers the body of a dead infant floating in the river. It is this discovery that will turn the town upside down, and ultimately change forever the lives of Naomi and the other main characters: Heather, the naive and strange young outcast in town, and Judith, Naomi's lawyer friend.

Twist and turns in the plot, thriller like suspense and courtroom drama - this novel has it all. But it also includes thoughtful passages pertaining to women's rights, small town cruelty, motherhood, feminism, religion and spirituality. I was sorry when it was over, and the twist at the end is actually tempting me to go back and read it again, to see if there were any clues that would have given the secret at the end away.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Truth about Love, by Josephine Hart (2009)

Don't you just love finding a brand new book in the library, and then you get to be the first to crack the spine a little bit? That was the case with this book, and since it also looked like an intriguing story, and was written by Josephine Hart who also wrote Damage many years ago, I took it home.

The story is about an Irish family who loses two children in tragic circumstances and how they deal with that and get on with their lives. At the same time, it is about a German man who has immigrated to their village to escape the demons in his home country after the two world wars and his own personal tragedy. Additionally, it is a kind of philosophical-political treatise on the history of Ireland, woven in with bits of the history of wartime Germany.

I think for someone who knew much more about Irish history at the beginning of the 20th century this book would have had a lot more meaning, but with the limits of my own knowledge about it, I felt lost during those sections and have to admit I skimmed through them. I did not enjoy the feeling that so much of the book was inacessible to me, and it left me with a negative feeling, although some of the passages about the family, and especially the oldest daughter and her mother, were very moving.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Honeymoon, by Justin Haythe (2004)

One of my random picks from the library...this was a strange, sad, and subdued story. Written in the first person, it tells the tale of Gordon, a twenty-something young American man living in London and trying to get over the end of his marriage and reconcile the fact that its failure had so much to do with his relationship with his very odd mother.

Gordon and his mother, Maureen, spent most of his childhood traipsing around Europe, for she was doing research for a travel guide to the best art in different European countries. He tells us about his mother's odd habits, and their solitude. He seems to be numb, when as a reader, you feel like he should be angry at what she selfishly did to his childhood.

Gordon meets Annie after he finally gets out on his own to go to art school in London. They marry and things seem to be going fine until they are invited on a honeymoon trip to Venice with Gordon's mother and her new Swiss boyfriend. It is there that the marriage unravels, due to the unbalanced and cruel behavior of Maureen.

An odd read, strangely compelling - because you want to find out what Maureen is capapble of and what she will do to Annie - but the ending is somewhat of a soft landing, considering the expectations and dread that are created by the creepy atmosphere.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Summer reading

I recently popped into our library to pick up a few novels...I have to say we really do have a large collection of English books in Leuven. I meant to bring the list from Oprah's Summer Reading club with me, I had hoped to find at least a few of the books on her list ( this year in the library. But sadly, I forgot the list! So I picked out a few other interesting looking books that I will be sharing my thoughts about soon, here.

  • The Honeymoon, by Justin Haythe (2004) - was nominated for the Booker Prize and looked sad and a bit creepy.
  • The Truth about Love, by Josephine Hart (2009) - brand new, I don't think anyone's read it yet! Family drama set in Ireland.
  • The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (1970) - remember the movie with all those angst ridden teen actors that are now middle aged stars? I thought it might be interesting to revisit the book!

Back at home, I went to the online catalog, and to my great surprise, not one book from the Oprah list is held by our library! Not even Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast! (They do have it in Dutch but I hate reading English books in Dutch translation - it is just too weird.) What a disappointment.

On a bright note, they do have American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which was recommended to me by Kristin. So the next time I go to the library that will be the one I get!

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Senator's Wife, by Sue Miller (2008)

Mom was reading this while she was here in May and I got the impression that she was not entirely happy with it. She left it for me to read, and all she would say was that it was weird. Hmmm.

I am not familiar with Sue Miller's other books, but I have to agree with Mom. This book is weird. More precisely, the ending is weird, and a let-down.

The story follows Delia, the wife of a senator, who has built up an indepedent life of her own after separating from her husband because of his inability to be faithful to her. They remain married and see each other intermittently, but in order to endure his philandering, she found she had to create distance from him, and although this is not how she would have wanted her life, she can live with things as they are.

A young couple moves into the house next door and Delia becomes friends with the wife, Meri. Meri has issues of her own, having to do with being a young wife, and how to reconcile herself with her new roles as wife, soon-to-be mother and someone who loves her job as a radio producer. I could certainly relate to both of the characters and some of the challenges they faced, being somewhat in the middle of the two by age and shall we say, "profession"? Sue Miller writes knowingly about marriage, intimacy and the particular difficulty women face to maintain a professional alter ego in spite of being most strongly identified with home and hearth, and raising children.

Towards the end of the book, through tragedy, Delia suddenly finds herself in the role of caring for her husband - after all those years of having absolutely no say in his comings and goings, he is suddenly completely under her thumb. She is in a strange way happy with this new situation, in spite of the limits it places on her own freedom - he has finally come home to her and she feels secure at last that he will finally be 100% faithful.

Until, of course, the final creepy twist in the story, up until which I was really enjoying the book and the characters. I found what Meri does at the end of the book to be incomprehensible, and although it might fit with the insecurity she feels, it just did not feel right to me. So, yes, I agree with Mom, it is a weird book.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Note on The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

A fellow avid reader, Joan, just sent me a link to his review of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides: It's so interesting because I really wasn't aware that he had written this book, although I saw the film a while ago. It intrigues me because I wonder how he gets such insight to the pysche of adolescent girls. I will have to look for the book at the library and think about it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan (2007)

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, you cannot help but know who Frank Lloyd Wright is; in fact there was a Wright home in our town (Geneva) and the Oak Park prairie houses were of course world renowned. However, aside from that, I personally never knew any other details about his life - that is, until Mom lent me this book.

Nancy Horan spent 7 years researching her incredible novel (it is fiction historically based in fact) which details the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his Oak Park clients, Mamah Cheney. They first meet in 1907 when Mamah and her husband commission a home from Wright, and sparks fly. It does not take long before Mamah and Frank are secretly meeting each other. Mamah had long felt stifled in her marriage and Frank offered her the intellectual and spiritual relationship she had missed, along with a powerful physical attraction. A mother of two children, Mamah struggled with the implications that leaving her husband would have on them and on herself. In those days it was not obvious for a woman to walk away from a marriage and come out unscathed on the other side. But Frank, himself a father of six with a wife who refused to grant him a divorce, was compelling, and convinced her to move to Europe with him while he worked there.

Of course, it must be said, Mamah had a ideal situation which enabled her to escape real life - her unmarried sister and a devoted nanny both lived in with the family, and were able to step in and take over her duties as a mother and running the household. At times I found Mamah to be, in fact, rather selfishly self absorbed, in the way she deserted her children and simply accepted that others pick up the slack. This did have a consequence for her later, most poignantly in her later, strained relationship with her sister.

Mamah was a talented writer and translator and became involved with the early feminist movement, as the American translator for the Swedish feminist Ellen Keys. It was vitally important to her to have her own work, her own contribution to the world, and admirably, she did make this a priority in her life, spending time alone studying, even leaving Frank for a time in order to pursue her goals.

After spending time in Europe and Japan, she and Frank finally settled down in the home he was building for them in Wisconsin. At the outset, the couple was beleaguered by the press - their relationship was one of the biggest scandals Chicago society had known at that time and the newspapers smelled blood. But finally things died down and Mamah was able to make a real home for herself, finally spend time with her children, continute her literary work, and make plans for the future. The feeling that things in Mamah's life were at last getting on track and there seemed to be hope for a happy life, makes the dramatic ending all the more shocking, and truly sad.

This book is admirable in the imagination it must have taken to piece together the factual puzzle and fill in the blanks with educated guesses about how Mamah would have felt or behaved. Whether or not you sympathise with Mamah and agree or disagree with the life decisions she made, you cannot help but admire her as a powerful, daring person who never gave up trying to live her ideals.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Cobra's Heart, by Ryszard Kapuscinski

This is another of the Penguin "Great Journeys" series that I have mentioned before, this time in Africa. Ryszard Kapuscinski was a correspondant for a Polish newspaper in the 1960's and spent many years travelling around Africa. This little book pulls together some of his more memorable experiences there, especially off the beaten track, and about the people: "Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humour." A quick, engaging read with some fascinating tales.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian (2002)

I was just with my mom and sister in Florida last week for our half marathon and my mom passed this book on to me to read on the plane home. I have to say, I was not very enthusiastic when reading the short summary on the back, but when I found out it was by the author of Midwives, which I read some time ago, I became intrigued, because I loved that book, and was amazed to find out the author was a man, not a woman. How could a man have written so poignantly and with so much understanding about pregnancy, delivery, being a midwife?? So I decided to give him a chance with Buffalo Soldier. I started reading it during my journey and it kept me company all the way.

The novel tells the story of a couple who lost their twin daughters in a tragic accident and who are struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together. They decide to foster a child, and a young black boy is placed with them. The husband struggles to come to terms with the child, his own grief and the distance between himself and his wife. The wife feels a close connection to the child, Alfred, which turns into a fierce loyalty when she faces possibly having to choose between him or her marriage. Alfred does his best to fit into the small and insulated white community, while warding off his own fears of abandonment.

I was entranced by this book. The characters are all real people, not one sided - even the secondary characters are superbly drawn. I was sorry when I got to the end of the book, even though it was a satisfactory ending, with some of the characters having to make hard choices, but the right ones, I think. And the Bob Marley song, "Buffalo Soldier", was in my mind all week...

I am definitely going to see if our library has more books by Mr. Bohjalian.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Diet for a Small Planet

I just finished reading the classic book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. This was one of the first books, originally published in 1971, to make the link between diets heavy in meat and environmental, ecological, social justice and poverty issues. It's fascinating to see how it got started as a grassroots, unconventional movement and how today it is becoming a more mainstream, even fashionable (i.e. Skinny Bitch, as well as Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan's recent books) thing to cut back on consumption of animal foods.

Interestingly enough, Lappé points out that she does not necessarily "advocate what most people think of as vegetarianism". She pleads for a return to the diet on which our bodies evolved: mainly plant foods, with animal foods "playing a supplementary role". While she personally does not eat meat, she acknowledges, just like Bittman and Pollan, that a difference can be made to our health, the environment, animal welfare and social justice if we simply start by reducing the amount of animal products we consume.

One of Lappés original reasons for writing this book (which started out as a mimeographed pamphlet) was to show that it was possible and indeed easy to get enough protein for good health on a meatless diet. The book includes many recipes, all of them vegetarian, most include dairy and/or eggs, as they are all trying to provide plenty of protein.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, by Tennesee Williams

This was a Bookcrossing book I picked up at Greenway recently. Of course we have all heard of Tennessee Williams famous plays (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, , The Glass Menagerie, among others) but I personally was not familiar at all with his fiction.

This novel acquaints us with Mrs. Stone, a formerly famous stage actress who has moved to Rome to try to find some meaning in her days as a newly widowed, unemployed but very wealthy woman. She falls prey to various Roman vultures who are looking to get a share of her fortune by providing her with company and friendship. And while she is well aware of their intention, for some reason, she goes along with the scam, up until the end, that is, when she has a sudden change of heart, which Williams refers to as the "drift".

With only 117 pages, this book was a good, quick read, thought provoking and sad. I found some parallels to people's empty lives today, working so hard to achieve success and then finding at the end of the ride complete emptiness. I think the message of Mrs. Stone's life is to build meaning and introspection into our lives early on, or there will be no substance left when all our worldly pursuits fade away.

I'll be releasing this book back into the "wild" here in Leuven, unless there is someone who would like for me to pass it along to them to read (what the Bookcrossing website calls a "controlled release"!)

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Free Book

Scott Blum, one of the founders of one of my favorite websites, The Daily OM, will be publishing two books in 2009, and is offering the first one, Summer's Path, free at his website:

I downloaded it and just finished reading it. It is an intriguing exploration of what happens to us when we are about to die, when we are faced with a debilitating illness, where our souls reside, etc. all told as a parable which reminded me of The Shack in many ways. It follows Don, who has incurable cancer, and his struggle to decided what to do as he faces mounting medical bills and his worries about the burden he will leave behind for his wife. He finds assistance from an unexpected source, and the way he decides to handle his situation will surprise you. It certainly makes you think.