Posts Tagged book review

A book round-up

Life in Motion

Anyone who knows me has to be aware that I read voraciously. My partner sometimes calls me ‘Wormie,’ since I’m such a bookworm. So, while it is always my intention to review the books I read, sometimes I’m plowing through them so rapidly that I just can’t take the time. I thought, instead of lengthy reviews, that I’d list some of the books I’ve read in the past few months, with a few comments about each of them, and why I picked them up.

I was wandering around our local Barnes and Noble and found myself drawn to the three for the price of two table. Well, okay, I’m always drawn to that table, but I don’t usually buy anything because I can never find three I want to read. But this time, I did. I’m already through the two memoirs:

I picked up Life in Motion: an unlikely Ballerina, by Misty Copeland, largely because my niece, Audrey Rachelle Stanley, started out in ballet. Audrey danced for two years with the Nashville Ballet’s second company, before switching to Contemporary Dance. She now lives in New York City, and dances with Teresa Fellion, among others. I was curious about the ballet world, and about the way a black woman has made it in what I know to be an extremely competitive and demanding profession. This inspiring book is partly about that, and partly about Ms. Copeland’s crazy childhood, and the wonderful people who inspired and helped her along the way. I could hardly put it down. Certainly, the chapters where she talks about dancing on injuries because she was afraid she’d lose her position confirmed my suspicions about the ballet world, but much of the book says that if we have enough passion, and we work hard enough (and maybe have that extra something special?), we can achieve greatness.

I also picked up What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Way Dogs Perceive the World, by Cat Warren. I enjoyed this book, even though it wasn’t quite what I expected: I thought there’d be a lot more science about how dogs and humans smells things, but it’s more about the training of dogs to become cadaver dogs, and testing of other species for that purpose. There’s enough of her personal story with her dog Solo to keep the story moving, and I learned some things about the use of dog-generated evidence, but my main take-away was that I shouldn’t feel bad that my two corgis don’t listen to my commands when they feel that they know better than I do.

I also picked up Freud’s Mistress, by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, off the sale table while I was at B&N. This book is based upon what is known about Minna Bernays, the sister of Freud’s wife, and Freud’s relationship. I imagine that this book would be very  interesting, since Freud himself has been so influential, and I have enjoyed novels about Hemingway’s wife and Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress. Also, Freud’s Mistress has received a fair amount of press. I’m sure that the authors did their research well, as they include many details about life in that time. For my taste, they are too caught up in the details, and the guilt that Minna feels, and the prose is stiff. Freud comes across as a horrible man, and I wonder why Minna would find him attractive. Perhaps he was awful, but it seems over-done. I plan to finish the book, but I keep picking up others instead. I think a lot more could have been done with this material to bring it to life.

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Book Review: In The Time of Butterflies

This novel by Julia Alvarez was a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection. From the book blurb:

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their death as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.

This novel is based upon a real incident which happened four months after Alvarez’s family escaped to New York. The Mirabel sisters, known as Las Mariposas, were members of the underground resistance, along with Alvarez’s father. In her notes at the back of the novel, Alvarez says: “When as a young girl I heard about the “accident, I could not get the Mirabels out of my mind. On my frequent trips back to the Dominican Republic, I sought out whatever information I could about these brave sisters who had done what few men and only a handful of women—had been Julia-Alvarezwilling to do.” She took what she found and began to invent the characters which fill these pages.

Alvarez tells the story from the point of view of each of the four sisters, devoting alternating chapters to each. We start in 1994, with the surviving sister, Dedé, meeting a journalist who wishes to interview her about her sisters. Then we drop into the past. Dedé is a little girl living on a farm with her family. We meet the fierce middle sister, Minerva, who wants to be a lawyer, the religious oldest sister, Patria, and the shy youngest, María Teresa. Their lives seem peaceful, their father becoming prosperous. Like many girls, Minerva and Patria are sent to Catholic boarding school, where Minerva pushes the boundaries along with her girlfriends and Patria becomes ever more religious. Dedé stays home to help her papa with his store.

However, the brutal Trujillo’s dictatorship soon changes everything. Minerva and her friends, chosen to perform a skit for Trujillo, change it to make a political statement in front of him. Trujillo, known for taking pretty teenagers as mistresses, sets his sights on the beautiful Minerva. Inviting her family to a ball, he tries to claim her, but she manages to escape. From then on, the intrigue builds, yet in between the political, the sisters grow up, falling in love, having their children, and interacting with their aging parents. Their marriages have their very real ups and down.

I loved this novel. The language is rich, the descriptions beautiful, and the four sisters’ voices come across clear and distinct. I felt as if I was right there. I loved the way Alvarez combined the intimate with the political, reminding us that all warriors have parents, many have spouses and children, and every choice they make has to be weighed against the risk to those they love. I give it five stars out of five.

Note: A Wikipedia page about the Mirabel sisters states that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is November 25 in honor of the three brave sisters who were assassinated Nov 25, 1960.

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Book review: Life After Life

life after lifeKate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life has received much praise. It sits near the top of several lists of the best books of the year (#6 in Goodreads). The basic idea is this:

Ursula Todd is born over and over again, in England, on a snowy night in 1910. She then dies over and over again, each time in a different manner. She gradually grows more and more aware of her previous lifetimes. In her first few repetitions, she merely feels fear when the event which caused her death is imminent and manages to avoid it, but eventually she begins to have actual memories of her lifetimes and learn more consciously from them. This causes her life to take a different path, and a different death to overtake her. With each life, Atkinson fills in some of the details of Ursula’s family and the world she inhabits. Thus Ursula gets the ultimate do-over, until she creates an opportunity to kill Hitler, which is actually where the novel opens.

This novel reminded me a lot of the movie Groundhog Day. Like that movie, it attempts to satisfy the ultimate fantasy, the idea that we could have an opportunity to go back and redo our lives, armed with what we now know. If only, we think to ourselves, I hadn’t said that, hurt that person’s feelings, or taken that walk, then my life would be wonderful. If only I’d never met so and so. If only I’d finished that college degree. Well, you get the picture.

Since this novel takes place in England and, in at least some of her lives, Ursula moves to London, where she spends World War II, we are treated to a slowly filled-in portrait of both the English countryside and then London itself as the Germans bomb it to pieces. We learn about the awful older brother, the wonderful sister and younger brother, and the eccentric Aunt. At the same time, we explore philosophical questions, such as: are we all repeating our lives over and over (apparently yes, since it isn’t only Ursula who does things differently each time around, although the others seem unaware that they are repeating). It also looks a little at women’s role in the workplace and home in upper class England at the time.

Each life begins with Ursula’s birth on a snowy day, and each time something a little different either occurs or gets explored, to keep the event interesting and provide the perspectives of the mother, doctor, housekeeper, etc. Luckily for the reader, that’s about the only thing which repeats (unlike in Groundhog Day), because Atkinson assumes we can recall the events she leaves out. It would be tedious otherwise. The fun comes in reading about the device which allows Ursula to avoid the death event of her previous life.

This is a wonderful concept. It’s clever, and the number of different ways Ursula dies is great (none of the deaths are made to seem particularly gruesome or painful). I found myself reading onward just to find out how she would die next. I liked it enough to give it three and a half stars, but I really wondered why it’s gotten as much praise as it has. It often drags. Ursula is not a particularly interesting person, nor does she come across as very engaged in her life. Atkinson’s prose floats about the drama, reading like a ledger of actions, dispassionate for the most part. Turning to a random page, I read:

The office was a tedious, rather irritable place these days – fatigue, probably, due to the cold and the lack of good, nourishing food. And the work was tedious, an endless compilation and permutation of statistics to file away in the archives somewhere—or to be pored over by the historians of the future, she supposed. They were still “clearing up and putting their house in order,” as Maurice would have it, as if the casualties of war were clutter to be put away and forgotten.

There’s more, but I got bored just typing this. It isn’t all this dull, of course. My real problem with the novel is the way the very first scene with Hitler comes about. In most of the novel, Ursula goes through similar lives each time, tweaking events to arrive at different ends. However, she has only three lives in which she goes to Europe, and only one in which meeting Hitler is described (a life in which she doesn’t kill him). Since she recalls each of her lives only a little, how did she recall enough of that one to know how to get close enough to kill him? Why doesn’t she live that life over and over again, not quite succeeding until the final one? That would seem more consistent with the whole re-lived life concept as carried out in the rest of the book. Of course, Hitler gets do-overs too, so she would have to kill him over and over again, in life after life, I suppose, though we are spared this detail.

Someone should do a sequel, portraying what happened in Europe after Hitler’s murder. With no Hitler, would there be no World War II, no concentration camps, and no nuclear weapons? Or would it all have occurred anyway? Anyone up to the task?

related posts:

NYTimes: Subject to Revision

Goodreads reviews

Not the Booker prize 2013: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (oh, and read the comments, which pretty well agree with me)

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Book Review: As the Heart Bones Break, by Audrey Chin

Heart BonesAudrey Chin rocks in her newest novel, As The Heart Bones Break.*     She beautifully spins the drama of one man’s life, from his childhood in Vietnam during the war to late middle-age as a world-traveled business and family man, into a fascinating tale of personal growth, intrigue, love, and loss, while at the same time weaving bits of history, the conflict between those who supported the Communists and those who supported the Americans, the difference between traditional Vietnamese beliefs and those of children born in the United States, karma, love, what it means to be part of a family, and many other themes effortlessly into the tale.

With sentences like this:

Turning away from her friends, she flipped her long pony tail of ebony black hair over her shoulder and looked straight past Binh and at you, the large double-lidded eyes in her oval porcelain-pale face flashing with scorn.

she brings you into the scenes, breathing life into them, until you know Thong Tran’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences almost as well as he himself knows them.

Except for a chapter about his childhood, Chin begins the thread of Thong’s life when he’s already a young married man living in California, working as an engineer. But he is not finished with Vietnam or the past. His family and his career conspire to make him remember. Through his memories, we see how his youth in Vietnam shaped him, and how, only by sharing his secrets and exploring those of his family, can he grow into a person who can be loved and love in return even as tragedy envelopes him.

I adored this lovely, graceful novel about a man who survived an awful war that tore families and friendships asunder. If you enjoy learning about the human heart, and about other lands and cultures, you will love As the Heart Bones Break. Honestly, it’s so good that I’m expecting her to win awards for this work. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It gets five out of five stars, without any doubt.

*If you live in the United States, you can still order the book or read it on Kindle, even though she’s still looking for a US publisher. See Audrey’s comment for the links.

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Book review: Americanah, By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For those who are curious about my progress with NaNoWriMo, I reached the 50K word goal this afternoon, almost a week ahead of time. Yeah! On to 60K in the next six days?

I often enjoy novels about other cultures, especially ones where people from those worlds come into contact with Americans. Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Audrey Chin and Jhumpa Lahiri immediately come to mind as authors who have explored this territory in ways which both entranced me and said new things about my country. I also enjoyed Adichie’s earlier novel, Purple Hibiscus, about two young children growing up with an abusive yet very religious father. So, when I saw reviews for Americanah, I

English: Chimamanda Adichie

English: Chimamanda Adichie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

anticipated more great writing. To my delight, I found it on the new book shelf at my local library.
This novel, in which a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, comes to the United States to go to college and become an American citizen, while her boyfriend, Obinze, ends up in England, covers a lot of ground. I found it at times fascinating, funny, smart and tedious. Some of the best material covers their difficulties surviving in countries which are not as open to immigrants as one might expect. Neither one of them can work legally: Ifemelu, because foreign students can only do work-study, which doesn’t give her enough money to live on; Obinze because he overstays his temporary visa. Obinze’s experience reminds me a lot of Little Bee in Chris Cleave‘s novel of that name (see my review of his other novel, Incendiary, here), and sheds light on some of the less easily understood aspects of Little Bee’s experience. Both Little Bee and Obinze are caught and deported back to their home countries.
There’s also some interesting material about how difficult it is for Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, a medical doctor who immigrates to the US, and has to redo to medical school and a residency in order to practice medicine here. Perhaps because of her financial difficulties, and also because of her age, she dates a Nigerian man. Ifemelu, who stays with her Aunty Uju when she first comes to the US, sees immediately that this man is not good for her Aunt:

“She had slipped into the rituals, smiling a smile that promised to be demure to him but not to the world, lunging to pick up his fork when it slipped from his hand, serving him more beer.”

While in college, Ifemelu begins writing a blog about being a nonAmerican black in America. The insights she has about the United States are fascinating. She picks up on many tiny things, from dress, expectations, and hair, which differ greatly between her homeland and the US. She also has two long affairs, one with a rich white man and one with a politically-engaged liberal professor, Blaine. I suppose that these affairs pushed the plot along, but they seemed to take up more time in the novel than necessary. The interaction with Blaine’s sister especially seems like a sidetrack going nowhere.
I found the main storyline, in which Ifemelu eventually returns to Nigeria, figures out how to make a living, and hooks up with the now-married Obinze, more interesting than these intermediate relationships, because that’s the real tension behind this story: how they ended apart and yet never could break the tie even when they hadn’t spoken in years.
Overall, this is a wonderful book, though I think it would have been a lot better if it had been trimmed to eliminate some of the less interesting material and some of the repetition, and added more material on what happened when Obinze returned to Nigeria, an entire quadrant of his life only hinted at. If you like reading about how immigrants react and deal with the United States and Great Britain, and some of the culture differences, you will enjoy this book. I suspect it appeals more to people in the eastern part of the US than to the rest, just because that is where it’s set.

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Book Review: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

A generic U.S. World War II tank, a derivate o...

A generic U.S. World War II tank, a derivate of Image:TM-9-374-T25E1-1.jpg, background removed (transparent), hue set to steel blue, reduced size and colors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This historical novel begins with the burial of a man hated for his cruelty, then goes back in time, leaving the reader wondering why he was so reviled. The story slowly unfolds, beginning with the wooing of Laura by the man’s son. Laura is a typical spinster teacher until Henry comes along. She likes him and eventually is eager to marry this young engineer, imagining that they will always live in the city near her family. But what she doesn’t know is that her new husband wants to farm. His dream leads her and their children to an isolated place, where black sharecroppers and tenants help with the work, and where the hard farm work and the care of her difficult father-in-law dampen her enthusiasm for life and her marriage.
You might think that this tale of misery would falter in the farm’s mud, but you’d be wrong. The two soldiers returning from World War II add tension and the ultimate storyline that reveals why her father-in-law is being buried. Along the way, Jordan delves into the world of black southern farmers who dream of owning their own land, where one false step can lead to ruin, and the assumptions whites made about blacks before the civil rights movement came along.
Jordan makes this world come to life, with beautiful descriptions and the inner dialog of the characters, especially Laura’s. If you like reading about what makes a marriage work, along with some history, or enjoyed The Help, I think you’ll like Mudbound as much as I did.

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Book review: The Keka Collection, by Cynthia M. Dagnal-Myron

The Keka Collection: The Best of Keka’s Blog on Open Salon (Volume 1)

I met Keka (aka Cynthia M. Dagnal-Myron) in an online writing course. We were a couple of weeks into the course when her mentor, the film critic, Roger Ebert died. Keka wrote a wonderful tribute, and I not only loved her piece: I discovered her writing. She had me in tears. When she published this collection, I rushed to read it.

However, I couldn’t rush through this book. I savored each very personal essay about growing up black in the Chicago area, starting out at the Chicago Sun Times, living with the Hopi, raising her daughter, going through early retirement, and all her other topics (I can’t possibly leave out the essay on her one date with Arnold, can I?). Although she sticks to her own experiences, she lightly touches on their larger significance, and relates them to contemporary culture. She’s interesting and thoughtful.

Keka was and is a wild woman (she claims that she’s calmed down, but who believes her?) who ‘went for the gusto’ without ever losing sight of who she was down inside. I think that’s one reason her essays are so much fun to read. She also knows how to wrangle words and sentences into beauty. Hers is one of Open Salon’s most popular blogs, and no wonder. I loved this collection.

Because these are blogs, they appear unedited, so there are some (not many) typos and grammatical errors, which she warns the reader about in advance. Towards the end, a couple of the essays rambled a little too much for my taste, but that didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of her prose. I can’t wait for Volume 2.

I received a free copy of this book from StoryCartel in exchange for my honest review.

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