Thursday, October 22, 2009

Alphabetical List of Reviews by Title

I have a lot of reviews on here, and Blogger only lets me list them by date. I thought, "Well that's not very helpful to someone looking for a specific book!" So I decided to list them alphabetically. This list is by book title; at some point I'll also make a list alphabetically by author (can you tell I'm anal rententive???). You can click on each title to go directly to the review. If you're looking for something that starts with "the" or "a," look under the second word. I'll keep this updated as I add reviews.

1984 by George Orwell
Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Blessings by Anna Quindlen
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Finding Angela Shelton by Angela Shelton
Goat by Brad Land
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Little Prince/Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Maybe, Baby by Tenaya Darlington
Meeting Mr. Wrong by Stephanie Snowe
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Misconceptions by Naomi Wolf
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The Ocean in the Closet by Yuko Taniguchi
Out by Natsuo Kirino
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
Princess by Jean P. Sasson
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David O. Relin
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Wifework by Susan Maushart
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Wednesday, October 21, 2009



by George Orwell

This post contains spoilers below the fold.

When I first heard about 1984, I assumed it was a science fiction about the physical and psychological toll inflicted on humans by an over-reaching government system, much like Animal Farm (although, I admit, I read that when I was 12 so I may not have grasped some of the deeper themes). What I didn't expect was a philosophy text, a metaphysical journey, questioning the meaning of truth and reality, and exploring how the human mind can simultaneously believe conflicting things, which Orwell calls doublethink but we know it as cognitive dissonance (although there are differences which Orwell outlines, I found cognitive dissonance the easiest avenue from which to explore the concept of doublethink).

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

I had heard of Maya Angelou's book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, mostly referred to as classical American and African American literature, and I was familiar with much of her poetry due to American literature classes in high school. What I did not know is that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography that was written on a dare. After hearing her life story, writer James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis challenged Angelou to write it as a piece of literature. Angelou succeeded so exceptionally that some reviewers do not categorize it as nonfiction. Indeed, I was a quarter of the way through the book when I learned this, and had assumed that it was fiction.

Angelou's story begins in the deeply segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where she and her brother live with her paternal grandmother and her uncle. She speaks powerfully to her and her brother's feelings of abandonment as she describes how they were treated as baggage during their journey. A longing for love and acceptance from both of her parents laces throughout the work, and perhaps even intensifies during the periods where she lives with each of them, separately.

A second theme that Angelou weaves throughout her text is the effect of racism on herself and her brother. When Angelou gets a maid job in a white woman's house, she is re-named Mary by the housemistress, who seems to think it is a compliment. She only regains her name by breaking a favorite dish, then being abused and thrown out. The hurt and fear visited upon the child Maya is apparent through her silent defiance, although it becomes more intense as she talks about her brother, Bailey.

The third theme that Angelou's work engages is the misogyny and sexism which deeply impact her childhood. At the age of 8, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend. The fear and confusion she felt is conveyed by her abuse being intensely connected with death. With this connection Angelou draws a powerful parallel known intimately to rape survivors: namely, that rape is a waking death that will always be a part of you. The fear associated with womanhood follows Angelou through the book and this, combined with a lack of education about her own body - in those days talking about women's reproductive parts was considered indelicate for women - results in her becoming pregnant at 16. The book ends as she passes from naieve, fearful childhood to a womanhood where she can trust herself and her body.

I very much enjoyed reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou not only wove her three themes together masterfully, but did so with lyric, humor, frankness and percipience. When I finished the book I was eager to learn what happened next, and I may dig into the sequels soon, although I have heard this particular volume was her pièce de résistance.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time

by Greg Mortenson and David O. Relin

In 1993 Greg Mortenson expected to summit K2 in honor of his late sister, Christa. What he didn't expect was to fail his attempt, get lost on the mountain twice, and fall in love with a small village named Korphe, impoverished and forgotten by its own country. Mortenson promised the village leader, Haji Ali, that he would return to build a school for Korphe. Thus began Dr. Greg's school-building saga.Mortenson's mission is to breathe life into the forgotten, poor and wor-torn villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan by educating their children, both girls and boys. Not only does he build schools, but he also builds whatever is necessary for the students to thrive in their education, be it bridges, wells, or women's centers. Mortenson helps the villages to build these structures for themselves, a monument that they can put to immediate use and be proud of as a community. Mortenson builds these schools in the face of kidnapping, fatwas, death threats, loss of funding, 9-11, and war. His is an amazing and inspirational story of kindness, learning, and understanding. While the writing was a bit choppy, journalistic and, at times, cheesy, the story drew me in and captured my attention. You can learn more about Mortenson's campaign at the website for his foundation, the Central Asia Institute.

Finding Angela Shelton

Finding Angela Shelton: The True Story of One Woman's Triumph Over Sexual Abuse

by Angela Shelton

Finding Angela Shelton is a quasi-memoir written documenting the making of the documentary Searching for Angela Shelton. The idea behind the documentary was that she would travel around the country to survey women in America by meeting those that share her name, Angela Shelton (I had originally wanted to see the documentary but had a hard time getting my hands on it, so I read the book instead; now I'm more determined than ever to find the documentary). She thought it would be a fun and quirky documentary, however the film soon took another path as she learned that over 70% of the Angela Sheltons she talked to had been sexually or physically abused/assaulted in their lifetimes. A victim of childhood sexual abuse herself, Angela is mired in flashbacks. When she learns that one of the Angela Sheltons tracks sexual predators for a living and lives in the same town as her molester - her father - she knows that she needs to confrot him. When a broken bone has not been treated, it must be rebroken and set in order for it to heal properly. Similarly, Angela must delve into her personal history of sexual abuse and confront her abuser in order to heal both herself and others.

This book really hit me in the gut. While the author's childhood sexual abuse was both similar to and different from mine, many of her feelings and thoughts on her trauma reflected mine. As I sit here, I still cannot say what happened to me and am blushing with embarrassment whenever I write about the subject. But her message is that silence only allows abuse to continue shrouded in a shame that should be felt by the perpetrators but is all to often only felt by the victims. It is a call to action for people to open their eyes to the abuse that is epidemic in our society, for victim/survivors to shout and scream and make ourselves known, because what has been seen cannot be unseen and only when we force people to believe yes we ARE HERE yes we DO EXIST and we are NUMEROUS, will real change occur. Until then, the abusers will have the power through denial, blame and shame.

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel

by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible begins in 1959 when minister Nathan Price moves his family from suburban Georgia to the Belgian Congo (which we now know as Zaire) to serve as a missionary in the village of Kilanga, which can only be reached by plane or riverboat, since days of travel are required to reach any neighboring village by road. The family soon learns that everything they painstakingly packed to bring with them, including their ideas and prejudices, are utterly useless: Nathan Price is fond of exclaiming "Tata Jesus is bangala!" which is supposed to mean "Father Jesus is Precious!", however in his deliberate ignorance of pronunciation and nuance of the Kikongo language, actually means "Father Jesus is Poisonwood!" His ministry further alienates the local people when he insists that their children must be baptized in a river that is rife with crocodiles, or they will suffer hell. How will the Price children survive when their father has alienated the entire town, the only people who can help them learn how and what to eat?

The story of the Price family is told mostly by the children of the family- Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May (in order of age)- with introductions to each section narrated by the mother, Orleanna. Each narrator has her own unique voice: Orleanna is unobtrusive and bittersweet; Rachel is self-centered, terrified, and humorous; Leah is the moral voice who moves from a child unquestioning of God and her Father to a native African; Adah, who is hemiplegic, writes riddles that pierce the heart of the truth; and Ruth May, who states poignant facts in a way only little pitchers with big ears can. The Poisonwood Bible is an apt interpretation of the old adage that one must bend, or one will break. Some members of the Price family will be broken by Africa, and some will learn to bend to it, as they live through the revolution of the forming of the Republic of Congo, when it flings off the rule of Belgium.

I found The Poisonwood Bible a very enjoyable read. Kingsolver researched her subject well, and is able to write with such nuance that she is able to tell a story that is not only an amazing adventure, but is also philosophical and speaks to modern thought and prejudice regarding Africa. The reader can both enjoy a story and learn something both about themself and the world around them through this novel.

Ahab's Wife

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel

by Sena Jeter Naslund

Ahab's Wife is the life story of Una Spenser, the only wife of Moby Dick's Captain Ahab. The novel begins with her exile from her childhood home at the age of 12, when she is shuttled to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin on a lighthouse island in New England. Naslund goes into sometimes painstaking detail of the day to day life of Una with a lyrical style that reflects Melville and other 18th century authors. Naslund wrote the book with the idea to tell the story of 18th century women, since the vast majority of literature from that period barely acknowledge their existence. Una is not a woman to stay at home, gazing worriedly for her lost lover, although she does spend some time doing just that. Throughout Una's adventures, she runs away to become a cabin boy on a whaling ship, marries and divorces a probable schizophrenic, hobknobs with Margret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emmerson, births and raises a live child and a stillborn, becomes involved in the Abolitionist movement and much, much more. Una's story is as much of an epic adventure as Ahab's.

Ahab's Wife reads in fits and starts; it took me just as long to get through the first 100 pages as it took me to get through the next 400, and slightly less time to get through the last 100 or so. Una's life was punctuated with periods of unactivity and periods of frantic exploits. While I could appreciate Naslund's prose from a literary perspective, it was a bit bourgeois for me. At times it was prose for prose's sake, rather than prose for descriptive or philosophical ends. I also wish Una's philosophical ponderings were a bit deeper than your basic philosophy 1o1 questions. Overall Ahab's Wife was a fairly enjoyable read, if not a quick one, but I found myself constantly yearning for something deeper, as I felt was promised but not quite fulfilled.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death

by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a delightful, quick read that I would reccommend to anyone. It is an autobiography, but it's more than just an autobiography. French Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke at the age of 43, leaving him with locked-in syndrome, in which he was paralyzed everywhere except for his eyelids. He likens this to being trapped under a diving bell. He learns, however, to escape his prison by letting his mind travel wherever he chooses to go: "My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly." Bauby weaves his daydreams and memories together with his day-to-day therapy, visits from friends and family, and the process of writing his memoir, often giving a bitersweet contrast of joy and frustration, of companionship and isolation. Bauby tells each tale, mundane or extrordionary, with rich imagery and wit that draws you in to his every word. Take, for example, this passage where he explains how he communicates:

The jumbled appearence of my chorus line stems not from chance but from cunning calculation. More than an alphabet, it is a hit parade in which each letter is placed according to the frequency of its use in the French language. That is why E dances proudly out in front, while E labors to hold on to last place. B resents being pushed back next to V, and haughty J-which begins so many sentences in French-is amazed to find itself so near the rear of the pack. Roly-poly G is annoyed to have to trade places with H, while T and U, the tender components of tu, rejoice that they have not ben separated. All this reshuffling has a purpose: to make it easier for those who wish to communicate with me.

It is with this voice that Bauby draws us into his life: into his memories, into the hospital where there are those who are kind and those who wish to forget him, and into his effusive imagination. His story ends as frankly as it begins, and left me with the same bittersweetness that peppers this memoir, knowing that its author died just two days after his book was published in France.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Meeting Mr. Wrong

Meeting Mr. Wrong: The Romantic Misadventures of a Southern Belle

by Stephanie Snowe

Very special books do not cross my desk very often, but I am delighted to have read Meeting Mr. Wrong: The Romantic Misadventures of a Southern Belle. I am fortunate to read this book because the author, Stephanie Snowe, is a good friend of mine who has wanted to be a writer for decades and finally got the courage to not only publish a book, but to make her debut with an autobiographical account of her horrifying and horrifyingly hilarious experiences as a 22-year-old single mom of twins in the internet dating world. You can buy it here. Buy it. Read it. Love it. Also: Read her blog Jason. For the love of God. She is hilarious, y'all.

Left high and dry, pregnant with twins, just off the altar, Snowe plunges head-first into the internet dating world, despite being told that if she did so an axe murderer would hunt her down and kill her. After weeks of wading through emails from men who clearly were not paying attention to, you know, anything, Snowe ventures onto her first date with Denny and, apparently, all of his coworkers. Thus start the Romantic Misadventures of Ms. Snowe. Between big fat married liars, mama's boys, men with killer attack birds and even a suitor named Big Pimpin' Willie, Snowe bravely plunges through the hell of the dating world with humor and as much dignity as humanly possible while being asked by a client to help with his urges. It reminds me of the time I was asked by some random man - at a gas station - whether I wanted to be his "special friend for the day" wink wink nudge nudge.

You'll have to read the book to find out whether Snowe ever finds love in the series of tubes internet dating world or whether she gives up forever, how fun a date during a hurricane is, and exactly what is so distracting about Big Pimpin' Willie's tattoo.

Meeting Mr. Wrong is a quick read, both because it's easy to understand and because you're itching to flip the page to find out what dating disaster happens next. Snowe writes with such conversational wit that you could imagine laughing with disbelief as she told you her tales over coffee (or a good stiff drink!) I enjoyed Meeting Mr. Wrong so much I finished it the evening it arrived on my doorstep. I very much look forward to her next installment.

Maybe Baby

Maybe Baby

by Tenaya Darlington

I received this book from a friend as a Christmas Gift, and it took me nearly a year just to get to it, I was so backlogged on books!

Maybe Baby is a strange little book following the Glide family as their youngest daughter, Gretchen, gestates and births the first grandchild. The story, while revolving around this birth, is more about how the Glide parents, Judy and Rusty, try to reconnect with their three offspring, all of whom they had alienated into practical disownment after highschool. We learn throughout the book that Judy and Rusty are a fairly typical sheltered, white, middle-class, midwestern couple who have children that go on to be a gay theatre major, a rock star, and a women's studies major, all of which frighten and anger Rusty. Judy allows him to drive his children out of their lives, but decides to reconnect with her daughter in a fit of breaking-and-entering when she learns of Gretchen's pregnancy. Through an odd series of events, this brings home their other two children, Carson and Henry, and gives Rusty and Judy a chance to reconnect with them.

The meat of the story revolves around Gretchen's unusual lifestyle. Gretchen and her boyfriend Ray - an eccentric modern dancer whom Rusty nicknames "The Chimp" - are founding members of a somewhat reclusive society dedicating to raising children in a completely gender-neutral way, including names, clothing, and toys. No one but the children's parents are to know the baby's biological sex, hence the title Maybe Baby (Maybe a boy, maybe a girl). Gretchen and Ray insist upon strict rules involving clothing and language around their baby that Rusty and Judy, and Ray's mother Sunny and her boyfriend Klaus, must agree upon to be a part of the child's life. Can these grandparents come to terms with the rules, or will they surreptitiously try to break them? The answer may surprise you.

I found Darlington's writing plain and straightforward; she is more concerned with exploring her ideas on social interactions than she is on perfecting her prose. While at times this made the book sound more like a story a friend was telling you over coffee rather than literature, it allowed the reader to be brought into the tale more easily. Many of the characters in Darlington's book are a bit two-dimensional, although Judy is very well-developed and eventually Rusty is, as well, although it takes most of the book to get there. I would have liked more character development with Gretchen, Henry and Carson, as well, however the book is more concerned with the parent's perspectives than that of the children. The author's primary concern is: How do typical Midwestern meat-and-potatoes middle-agers come to terms with the culture shock of modern gender and sexuality, especially when it is thrust upon them by their immediate family? I also felt that Darlington too much effort describing the minute details of the actions of the characters, and that it distracted her from exploring the deeper motivations of her characters.

Overall Maybe Baby was a fairly easy and enjoyable read. It had potential to inspire deeper thought into the social constructs of gender and sexuality and how they are percieved by a generation that came of age in a time where such matters were not discussed, but ultimately fell a bit short of that goal.