Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Sometimes I still read chick-lit.

There are a few authors that have the power to pull me in and Marian Keyes is one of them. Which is why I begged the Harper Collins First Look site to send me a copy of her latest book , This Charming Man, which will be released in the US in June.

This Charming Man is the story of Paddy de Courcy, a handsome young Irish politician, and four women whose lives he has affected. The book deals with some serious issues, as Keyes' books often do, and Keyes injects some suspense as well by not always letting the reader know exactly what is happening or who it is happening to.

The story is told from the four women's points of view and this is where I had a little trouble with this book. One of the women is Lola and the first 75 pages of the book begins her story. It is written in diary form, in a sort of stream of consciousness way, not always using complete sentences or proper grammar. This made it difficult for me to become engaged in this book and I worried that if the entire book was written this way I wouldn't be able to finish it. Happily, the other character's parts were written more traditionally and I did become absorbed in this book and couldn't put it down for the second half. This book was in turns funny, sad, frightening, and loving. While it wasn't my favorite book by Keyes, if you can get past the first part I think it's an enjoyable read.

Update on EPL

My book club discussed Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love last Thursday. We had six members at our meeting for what was one of our more memorable discussions. One member didn't even finish the book - she said she wasn't interested in it and felt bored by it. Three members (myself included) felt that they enjoyed the writing and the author's sense of humor but had a lot of issues with the subject matter. Two members said they liked the book overall. Both of these women still had issues with the material, one being bothered by all the talk of the 'Brazilian lover' and wishing Gilbert had remained celibate. The other woman seemed to enjoy the book the most and I asked her a lot of questions about that. She said she didn't particularly like Gilbert or feel as though they would be friends - I've read a lot of these comments from people who have enjoyed the book. She said she could see that a lot of people in our society are looking to find happiness and while Gilbert's solution is rather extreme, that people could use this as the impetus to make changes in their own lives in order to find greater satisfaction. She thought that while some people might think helping others through volunteering could be beneficial she could see that helping yourself first might be necessary.

The best part of reading EPL for me has been discussing it both online and with my book club so for that reason I'm glad I read it and was able to participate in the discussion of this popular and polarizing book.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I have always been a fan of historical fiction. When I think back to my favorite books as a young girl or look through old boxes of my books, this is so clear to me though I don't think I realized it until I was an adult. I prefer books about women, am partial to books about London - throw in a prostitute and squalor and I'm in. I don't enjoy tales that are especially romantic or melodramatic. I am interested in how people lived - what life was like.

This is why I was so thrilled when Harper Collins offered me a copy of Sally Gunning's latest novel, Bound. Alice Cole is seven years old when she crosses the Atlantic from London to Boston with her family. When the ship reaches Boston, only she and her father remain of their family and Alice is bound by her father into indentured servitude to the Morton family. Mr Morton is kind to Alice and apart from doing hard work her life is not unpleasant. When Mr Morton's daughter leaves to marry, Alice goes with her and her time remaining to serve becomes the property of her new master. Alice finds herself in danger in this home and runs away. She stows away on a boat to Satucket on Cape Cod and is taken in by the Widow Berry. Here Alice works hard but lives in fear of her secrets being discovered. The life that Alice builds in Satucket is jeopardized and it takes every bit of her strength and bravery to find her way again.

Bound is just the sort of historical fiction I love. I thought the characters were interesting and multifaceted. There was a fascinating plot that kept me turning pages. There was a small amount of romance that did not overshadow the main storyline. What I enjoyed the most, though, was reading about life in New England in 1764 with the controversy of taxation without representation in the background. I learned not only about the politics and legal processes of the time, but also what sort of work was done in the home including how cloth was made, what sorts of food were eaten and what life was like for women.

I have not yet read Sally Gunning's previous novel, The Widow's War which is the story of the Widow Berry. I certainly plan to, and look forward to seeing what Gunning writes next. While this story wrapped up nicely, I could see the possibility of Alice turning up in Gunning's future work.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love. What? Love, AGAIN??

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year or so (and you live in the US) you must have heard of Elizabeth Gilbert's Oprah-certified memoir Eat, Pray, Love. You had to have seen that attractive cover peering out at you from the bestseller shelves at Barnes and Noble. Or Borders. Or Target. Anyhow, this is the book I wasn't planning on reading, too much hype and all that. But as these things tend to go, it was chosen for this months book club selection and so here we are.

For those who have just climbed out from under a rock, a short synopsis: unhappily married Gilbert falls apart on bathroom floor, proceeds to file for divorce and begins another unhealthy relationship with an attractive man. Said relationship is not working out so Gilbert receives large book advance to travel and find herself and God. Oh, and a new man. There's that.

Does it sound as though I disliked this book? I did in parts, but not altogether. I was happily surprised to find this book fairly readable and quite humorous. Gilbert is a good writer with a conversational style that drew me in and I enjoyed the first section of the book which details Gilbert's relationship woes and her travels in Italy. Then we moved on to India. Hmmm. Gilbert spends 4 months essentially meditating in an Ashram. She notices the native women hauling rocks on the side of the road and thinks (and I paraphrase here) 'Huh. That must be a hard life.' And continues to meditate. It just all felt so out of touch and reinforced the thoughts going through my mind about how self-absorbed the author is. At one point Gilbert decides she's been talking too much, so she's going to be "The Quiet Girl." And everyone is going to look at this mysterious girl and think "Who is that Quiet Girl?" All I can think is that you're spending a little too much time thinking about yourself and how you can manipulate how other people see you. I'm thinking if I wanted to improve myself and my 'karma' in the world my time would be better spent doing some volunteer work in India. Just an idea. It was during this portion of the book that my eardrum ruptured. I had to take a few weeks away from it. Somehow being half deaf, unable to go out in public or read to my daughter due to ear pain decreased my tolerance.

In the third and final section of EPL Gilbert travels to Bali. She is brave, not having any official plans, and heads off to visit a medicine man she met several years earlier. They spend time together talking and learning from one another. Gilbert makes a life for herself, taking a house and getting to know people. She meets a man and begins a friendship with him. It is apparent that he wants more, but Gilbert thinks she is not ready....but then she is. And the cycle is completed. Apparently Gilbert's next book is about her marriage to this man.

I've read that in order to like or even love this book one has to really like Gilbert and her personality. I just didn't identify with her in any way. Most people I know are too busy working, taking care of family and just life to spend so much time thinking about themselves. I didn't like the overly cutesy way she had of describing herself - again I paraphrase - I'm such a cute blond - I've never been without a man - I make friends so easily. Or some of the 'clever' jokes she made - at the beginning of chapter 74 Gilbert makes a comment about landing in the middle of the Sudan with no idea what to do next. Considering the situation in Darfur I felt this was a poorly timed remark.

I just don't 'get' all the hype about this book. I truly don't understand why so many people have been drawn to this book, and what's more, why they come away feeling it's changed their life or is the best book they've ever read. I'm hoping someone in my book club meeting tomorrow night loved it and can explain this to me.

I'm curious to know - did you read this and how did you feel about it? And in particular - if you are not from the US, is this a popular book where you live? Just wondering.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Catching Up

I'm still trying to catch up on book reviews for books I've read in the past few weeks. When I was sick and planning on traveling a few weeks ago, I wanted to bring along books that would be comfortable - not too difficult, but not mindless either. I choose The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar and The Chimney Sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine. Though these selections seemed very different I did find a common theme between them - that of women unhappily married due to physical or emotional abuse.

Set in Bombay/Mumbai, The Space Between Us is the story of two women, Sera the mistress, and Bhima, her maid for many years. Despite their very different lives, these women know each other better than probably anyone else due to their close proximity and long relationship, but because of their different social status, Bhima may not sit on the furniture or eat off of the dishes in Sera's home. The book details the many obstacles the women have dealt with over the years, the support they have received from the other and particularly the times Sera and her husband helped the illiterate Bhima with legal and personal issues. The supporting cast includes Bhima's granddaughter Maya, a promising young women who Sera is helping to educate. The climax of the book is a situation that arises which tests the women's loyalties to one another. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I loved the setting and learning about modern life in India. I enjoyed the fact that many of the situations wouldn't happen in our modern society and becoming aware of how they would be dealt with, positively and negatively. The only issue I have with the book is the ending. There was a long build up leading to the inevitable climax which happened very abruptly. This left only the final chapter of the book which I found a bit unsatisfying.

Barbara Vine's The Chimney Sweeper's Boy was a nice contrast to the above in both setting and tone. Set in modern England, this is the story of writer Gerald Candless and his family including two adoring daughters. When one of his daughters begins researching a book about his life she discovers a terrible truth that no one in the family has ever suspected. I found this book quite different from the other Vine novels I have read. It does not have the same suspenseful pacing I have become accustomed to. I found this book to be much more a literary novel that happened to have suspense within it, rather that a true mystery/suspense novel. I suspect that is why I came across some negative reviews for this book - readers simply didn't get what they were expecting. I did enjoy the book and think Vine an excellent writer. I have found her books perfect reading material for traveling or when I am sick. I really find them to be absorbing.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Girlbomb (rhymes with Erlbaum)

I read and reviewed Janice Erlbaum's second book and memoir late last year compliments of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Erlbaum's publisher was kind enough to offer readers of the advanced edition a copy of her first book which I accepted eagerly.

Girlbomb is also a memoir, about Erlbaum's teenage years. To say they were turbulent would be an understatement. Erlbaum leaves home at age 15 due to a violent stepfather and a mother that continues to put her well-being after his. Living in Brooklyn, she heads to a shelter in NYC. Life there is no picnic either. Erlbaum is harassed due to her minority status and life with a bunch of teenage girls is difficult enough, let alone troubled ones. Erlbaum continues to attend school during this time, but continues down a troubling path. I certainly did some things during my teenage years that were pretty, well, stupid, but never in my wildest imagination did I think of living life as Erlbaum did. Drugs, alcohol, sex - this was a girl looking for attention. As a parent, naturally, this is all very disturbing and definitely sends the message not to stop parenting when your child is a teenager as it seems Erlbaum's mother did.

In many ways I'm glad I read her second book first - because I would have been worried about her well-being after this first book. Of course, we know that Erlbaum is now well - she's a published author, after all. Erlbaum's writing is truly compelling. I find her writing very conversational. This is not an easy book to read - by turns disturbing, dramatic, frightening, crass, yet also hopeful. It is a testament to her writing that you want to keep reading at all. That is no mistake, I think. Erlbaum's writing probably saved her from another sort of life, another path she could easily have chosen. I look forward to what else she has to say, about herself or on another topic.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Since I've started reading more than one book at a time - since I've been writing this blog, really - I've begun to notice similarities between the books. A few weeks ago I realized that through no plan at all I was reading three books that all tied together through the presence of servants. I was reading Miss Pettigrew in which Miss P has worked as a governess and is looking for another post. This book was much too nice to cart back and forth to work so I added The House at Riverton to the mix since it was both portable and a comfort read as I was feeling ill. I also found myself immersed in a nonfiction title, One Pair of Hands. I topped all that off by watching Manor House, also known as The Edwardian Country House in the UK. Manor House is another edition in PBS's house series dealing obviously with Edwardian times and the Upstairs/Downstairs issues that came along with it. I enjoyed the program, though not quite as much as The 1940s House. There are so many people in Manor House it is difficult to get to know them as well. It is a fascinating program though, particularly because it seemed the Lord and Lady of the Manor took to their roles a bit too easily and would have happily lived on in the house. The servants on the other hand had it much worse. It's hard to imagine signing up for this program and just cleaning and cooking for three months straight. Though I think they came out of it with a better understanding of the period.

On to the books.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton is one of those books that just kept popping up all over the place, mainly on UK blogs. I just knew I had to have this one so I ordered it from The Book Depository though it seems this book is being published now in the US. House at Riverton is told from the point of view of Grace, an elderly woman who went into service as a young girl. She became quite attached to the family and the daughters in particular. At the end of her life she is being interviewed by a film-maker who is working on a project dealing with a suicide at Riverton that drove a divide between the sisters. It is obvious Grace knows something about the suicide that no one else has ever found out. This was an enjoyable read for me but I never fell in love with it. I liked the story and the writing but at times I felt the book was weighed down by dialogue. There is one instance I recall in which the sisters discuss for several pages what color dress to wear - it just didn't seem to move the story along at all. I also felt the ending was a bit abrupt after such a long book. Overall this was a good comfort read and I would recommend it. There is a nice Author's Note at the end with loads of additional reading suggestions about the period.

Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens' great-granddaughter and wrote One Pair of Hands in 1939 after putting herself into service. I was never quite certain how well-to-do her family was, but it seems she was bored with the party scene and was looking for another way to spend her time. Dickens writes about multiple households that she cooks and cleans for and the situations that ensue. On the one hand this is a fascinating book in terms of learning how people lived and ate at that time. So many people had help in their homes, both small and large. It's hard to imagine there being someone else in my home everyday, just a room away, cooking and cleaning up. On the other hand, this is quite the comedy and Dickens' skill in recreating her various employers is brilliant. For me, this book was better read in short bits rather than large, but was overall immensely entertaining.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Translator

I was lucky to receive a copy of The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I requested this book because I felt uneducated about the situation in Darfur and hoped this book would rectify that. It did.

Daoud Hari is a young man from a small village in Darfur who has already had a lifetime's worth of experiences. In The Translator he writes about his youth and about traditional tribesman life. Hari spend some time away from Darfur as a young man trying to earn money, eventually winding up in a prison in Egypt. Hari returns to his homeland to see his family and to help them escape from the fighting. I will not try to explain the complicated situation, but essentially the government of Sudan wants to get rid of the indigenous people of Darfur and is systematically killing them. Hari winds up in Chad, where the refugee camps are. Although it is illegal for him to do so, Hari offers himself as a translator to western journalists since he speaks English. Hari describes several trips that he makes back into Darfur and the many frightening times that ensued. Around a third of the book deals with Hari's journey into Darfur with journalist Paul Salopek, a writer for National Geographic. Hari, Salopek and their driver were captured and thought to be spies. Over the course of many weeks they are tortured, sleep deprived, left without food and shuttled from prison to prison. I won't give anything away by telling you there was a good outcome; Hari was subsequently able to write this book. I was excited to see Paul Salopek's article about the situation in the April 2008 edition of National Geographic. It was interesting to read his side of the story as well as view photographs of the region.

Hari was written a powerful book in simple language. He has an amazingly positive outlook despite having been through hell. Hari writes in his acknowledgements that the situation in Darfur has not improved and there is no point in doing new stories unless people act. A very good point indeed.

The only thing that would have improved this book, in my opinion, is a map of the affected area. I have an advanced copy so perhaps there is one in the finished book.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dipping my toe back into the waters....

Hello! First of all, I want to thank everyone that left me such kind and supportive comments on my last post. It really meant a lot to me that you took the time to wish me well and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The bad news is, that the morning after I wrote my last post I awoke with terrible ear pain which became worse and worse and by lunchtime my eardrum burst and my ear began draining.....some stuff. I went to the doctor the next day for confirmation and antibiotics, also to the pediatrician to find out that my daughter would be placed on her fifth course of antibiotics since late December for ear infection, and then we went to see her dentist. What a day that was. Did I mention we also had tickets that night to the Children's Theater to see a well reviewed play? Yup. I don't really know how I sat though that. As a result of the rupture/infection/fluid, I had no hearing in my right ear at all. I was scheduled to work the following weekend and then fly to see my sister and her family on Tuesday. Over the past few days I have regained some hearing in my ear, but not all of it by any means. I am going to wait and see and hope that it continues to improve. The trip to Ohio went well and I got lots of baby holding in as she has a five month old baby boy who is just sweet and adorable. We did some napping together.

I've gotten a fair amount of reading done, but today I'll start small - a small book that is, but not a small story. I read about Address Unknown over at Nan's and was just fascinated by what she wrote about it. I requested the book from the library and when it arrived, I had forgotten the premise as I am wont to do.

Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor was first published as a short story in 1938 and was so popular that the magazine that published it sold out. Reader's Digest then reprinted it and in 1939 it was released in book form. The story is a series of letters between two men - business partners in California, both from Germany, one Jewish and one not. The Jewish man remains in the US while the other man has emigrated back to Germany with his family in 1932 and subsequently falls under the spell of the Nazi party. His attitudes toward his friend change and after tragedy strikes, there is a twist in the story that left me speechless. I was confused for a moment but then experienced that 'aha!' moment that a brilliantly told tale can bring. I read this book in less than 30 minutes, and I highly recommend it. I don't think I will ever forget it.

I am still trying to catch up on my emails and get my bloglines posts to read under - gulp- 200. So I'll be around soon to visit!