Archive for April, 2011

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of “chick-lit”.  Which probably meant that my POV regarding this book doesn’t count.  But.  I’m going to give it anyway.
I don’t think I really need to give much of a summary, do I?  The premise of The Jane Austen Book Club is fairly straight-forward, and unfortunately, it’s been done before.  A group of people who seemingly have nothing in common except their one singular passion (in this case, the novels of Jane Austen) come together to explore their interest together, when in reality, they’re all really trying to come to grips with the unspeakable tragedy or unhappiness in their lives.  
The whole thing just felt so played out.  The idea of people coming together to forget previous tragedies through their hobby has been done to death (re: The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood or The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs), and it doesn’t seem that Fowler has anything new to add, except for the plot twist of involving a male character.  This piqued my interest; unfortunately, the characters never flesh out.  Fowler chooses to divide the book into a series of vignettes about each character, leaving little room to explore each personality and providing little to no character development.  Just when I would start to get involved in a character’s personality and story, WHAM!  The chapter is over, we’ve moved on to the next character…and I’m left wondering what the hell just happened.  So little time was spent exploring each personality, that I could not bring myself to care about any of the characters.
Then I am forced to ask: why Jane Austen, again?  Don’t get me wrong, Jane is a phenomenal writer, as I’ve written before.  HOWEVER, today, nearly 200 years after her death, it seems that everyone is jumping on the Jane Austen (or Mr. Darcy) bandwagon.  The author (presumably an Austen-aficionado herself) sprinkles references to Jane’s famous works throughout the book…but they don’t tie in very well, and when they do, the transition is sloppy at best.
I could not relate to the characters and due to the quick transitions, I found it hard to even develop an interest in any of them.  I didn’t care who was romancing who and whose marriage was ending and who was dating who by the end of the book.  I think if Fowler had chosen to flesh out the book a little more, spend more time on her characters, developing their personalities, and put in a little more action…I might have enjoyed the book more.
Oh, and if she had provided a translation for the character that consistently (and obnoxiously) speaks in French phrases.  I can read a little French, but the content was beyond my scope, and I constantly felt that I was missing something.  Very unfortunate.
Rating: * and 1/2

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Please Note: There will be spoilers here in this review.  I don’t know if I can adequately review it without putting in some spoilers.  So.  If you haven’t read this book yet, and plan to in the future (and I HIGHLY recommend you do!), then I would close your browser and skip this review for now.
In 1995, freelance writer and adventure-seeker Jon Krakauer was selected by Outsider magazine to travel to the slopes of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world, and write a feature article about the “consumerization” of mountain climbing, along with its effect on the world’s tallest mountain.  This mission would require Krakauer to leave his home and travel to “Base Camp”, the lowest of the camps on Everest, and observe guides and their “clients”, the wealthy men and women who were paying dearly ($26,000  per head) to be helped up to the summit.  Outsider magazine, sensing a story among the hype of the wealthy elite to climb Everest (even the ones who were grossly unsuited for it, except for the small detail that they had the cash to blow), asked Krakauer to report on it.
Krakauer, a mountaineer himself who had dreamed of Everest since childhood, asked if the magazine would pay for him to “take the story to the top”, so to speak, and climb the mountain to the summit, following the paths of his guide, famous Everest mountaineer Rob Hall, and the other “clients” who would be summitting from all over the world.  Outsider accepted his proposal, and Krakauer set out with a team of climbers (guides, professional mountaineers, rookie mountaineers who were paying out the nose to be guided up Everest, and the Sherpas who were employed to help) to spend six months acclimatizing and summitting Mt. Everest, in early spring of 1996.  The “final summitting” happened on May 10th, 1996.
What happened in the twenty-four hours in which these men and women summitted Mt. Everest has become famous as one of the greatest tragedies to ever happen in mountain-climbing history.  A hurricane-force storm came upon them, and through a series of incidents that, taken separately, would have not been much cause for alarm, together caused an unspeakable tragedy that haunts some of them to this day.  Eight climbers died in a single day on the mountain, fifteen in all in the month of May, 1996.  Those who survived were left stunned and reeling, wondering how such a thing could have happened.
Into Thin Air is a large expansion on the article that Krakauer wrote (read it here; I did before I read the book), was largely published, as he explains, in an attempt to get some closure on what had happened.  Krakauer wrote his original article when he still did not have all the facts about what had happened to people he had considered teammates and friends, and he apologizes for the gaps and errors in the original article.  Attempting to set the record straight, he gives a blow-by-blow account of what happened in the weeks leading up to the disaster, and the great tragedy of May 10-11, 1996.  His feelings of guilt (however justified or misplaced is left up to the reader to decide) are difficult to read at times.  I could tell as I read that he was writing while still dealing with an incredible sense of futility and guilt regarding the accident, when as a “client” and not a guide, it was not technically his responsibility to be out saving lives.  However, Krakauer illustrates that he possesses a sense of morality and obligation to his fellow man that some other mountaineers (such as those who left climber David Sharp to die on Everest ten years later) seem to desperately lack.
I finished Into Thin Air with a sense of hopelessness that I had not expected.  Krakauer’s original mission in writing the article for Outsider was to create commentary on the booming business of experienced guides charging wealthy clients (most of whom had almost zero experience and no business whatsoever climbing the highest mountains on earth) to literally drag them up to the summit.  Krakauer argues that the use of bottled oxygen (without which, only the most experienced climbers could manage to summit) creates a “security blanket” for those who are not experienced enough to go without it, and keeps them flocking to and paying guides to bring them up to the top.  Without experienced people to lead them, and without the use of bottled oxygen, Krakauer argues, those who have no business being on Everest would more than likely get discouraged and quit the climb far before they reached the so-called “death zone” (altitudes higher than 8,000 meters where it is impossible to sustain life for long periods of time).  But with the high marketability of Everest and its location between two of the poorer nations of the world, Krakauer reports sadly, it is unlikely that either of these rules will be implemented any time soon.  Until that time, any rookie climber (and indeed, some of the more experienced ones) will still remain in danger every time they attempt to conquer Everest.
I put this book on my poll on The Nest Book Club, asking which of five books I should read next, and it was the clear winner.  I would like to thank those fine ladies for recommending it to me, as well as my father for loaning me his copy with the assurance that “It is one of the best books that (he has) ever read.”  It is an amazing, although horrifying at times, tome, really driving home the point that human failing and mortality is nothing versus the elements of this world.
Rating: *****

EDIT: After three days of being unable to get this book out of my head, I have changed my original rating of four-and-a-half stars to five stars.  This was not a decision lightly made (I’m not in the habit of giving out five-star reviews), but I think it is only fair to Krakauer and to his book that I give the rating I feel it more than deserves.  Phenomenal.

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Religious fiction isn’t really my thing, but somehow this book piqued my interest when it came out, oh, ten years or so ago.  I put myself on the waiting list at the local library, and was so far down the list that by the time my name was called, I wasn’t even interested anymore.  But I found a copy at GW, and my interest was renewed.  I finished it in three days.
The Red Tent is author Anita Diamant’s depiction of the life of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob from the Bible, the father of twelve sons and of Joseph (he of the “Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat”).  Jacob has four wives, and through those four wives, thirteen children — twelve sons and a single daughter, Dinah.  As the only daughter of four mothers, Dinah is spoiled, pampered, and beloved.  Her “mothers” (who all treat her as their own) raise her in their belief system (polytheistic, unlike the monotheistic Jacob) and teach her the arts of spinning, weaving, and her specialty, midwifery.  As Dinah becomes a women, she is brought into the “red tent” — the place where women go to birth their babies — and finds herself overjoyed with belonging to this unique inner female circle where she instinctively feels she belongs.  But when Dinah falls in love with an Egyptian man, inducing the wrath of her older brothers, tragedy splits her life and family in two, leaving her wondering how she will ever pick up the pieces and retain anything she once possessed.
Many people are familiar with the book of Genesis, the passage known as the “Rape of Dinah”.  In the story, Dinah is taken by force by Shechem, a prince of Egypt, and made to be his wife.  In an interesting twist, Diamant chooses to portray Shechem and Dinah’s love as mutual and consensual, which makes the consequences therein that much more terrible.  The reader, even knowing what is going to happen, genuinely feels for Dinah.  It was also surprising to me that the Diamant chose to make the women of Jacob’s tribe polytheistic, worshiping the cult of the ancient goddess Inanna, rather than worshiping the early Jewish God.  It was a surprising twist, but probably accurate if one takes into account the history of ancient religion.
All in all, the story sends a powerful message about the unbreakable bonds between mothers and daughters, and the importance of the sacred feminine.
Rating: *** and a half. 

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I had a “frenemy” in high school.  Her name was Kim.  Kim and I were, for all intents and purposes, almost exactly alike.  We even looked the same (except I wore glasses 24/7 back then and she did not).  We both had long brown hair, we were both tall for our age, we were both readers…we both liked the same guy.  Hence our status as “frenemies.”  Even though we knew (and acknowledged) that we could have been best friends if we didn’t both like the same guy, we insisted upon having a love-hate relationship from sophomore to senior year of high school.  She dated him, and then I dated him, and he was a jerk to both of us.  
In early spring of 2000, when Kim and I were in the same English class, she told me that she had just read an amazing book, and wanted to loan it to me, since she knew that we had similar literary preferences (to this day, I will take her book recommendations over everyone else’s, she knew me that well).  That book was Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.
Sakamoto Chiyo is only nine years old when she and her sister are cruelly ripped from their parents’  home in the little poverty-stricken village of Yoroido, Japan, and taken to Kyoto — a city rich in culture and famous for its geisha (“artisans”), ladies who are trained in the arts of dance and entertainment, who are mistresses of some of the most famous and powerful men in Japan.  Little Chiyo, noticeably beautiful (especially for her blue-gray eyes, unlike any other eyes in Japan), is sold to the mistress of an okiya, where she is expected to begin training in the arts of being a geisha.  Poor Chiyo is homesick for her parents and her older sister, and tries desperately to return to Yoroido for years, before a chance encounter with a wealthy businessman alters her life — and her dreams — forever.
Years later, she is the beautiful geisha Sayuri, caught between the life she is expected to live — that of the obedient geisha — and the man she has fallen in love with.  Set against the backdrop of Japan during the Great Depression and World War II, Sayuri must learn to balance the flow with the tide that her life has become, and to find a way to be both a successful geisha and not give up on her dreams.
The writing in this book is, in my humble opinion, what makes it so fabulous.  I don’t know what an American writer has to go through, or how much he has to immerse himself in the culture, to make his writing style sound like that of a Japanese geisha writing down her life-story, but somehow Arthur Golden succeeded.  Even now, eleven years after the first time I read Memoirs, I still feel transported to Kyoto, Japan, every time I read it.  I can see the beautiful kimono, hear the bells ringing at the Shinto shrines, and imagine the cherry blossoms swaying in the breeze as Sayuri so beautifully describes each detail.  The writing style is almost lyrical, and so beautiful that I never grow tired of reading it.
Although it has come to light that Golden’s story about the lives of geisha in Japan in the 20th century is not completely accurate (Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha whom Golden interviewed for his research, was reportedly furious because she felt Golden portrayed geisha as little more than prostitutes), the reader who chooses to indulge him or herself with Memoirs purely for the beauty of the writing will not be disappointed.  Those who are better-versed in the history and lifestyles of the Japanese geisha will certainly see more inaccuracies than I did.  To me, it’s just a beautiful story.
And (for those of you who really care and might be wondering) — what happened to Kim and I?  I’m pleased to say that after three years of being “frenemies”, we put aside our differences right before graduation, became best of friends…and years later (in 2004 and 2010, respectively) were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings.  Kim has now been happily married for nearly seven years and is the mother to three little girls (ages three, one, and with another one due later this summer), and lives in Rhode Island.  We still talk on the phone several times a week, and she is one of my best friends.  So our story had a happy ending as well.
Kim (left) and me on my wedding day, Nov. 5, 2010

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Occasionally, I like to try my hand at cooking.  I’m not a great cook, or even really a decent one, by any stretch of the imagination…but I like to bake.  And my husband likes baked items of all kinds.  Last week, when he was away visiting a friend in MA, I thought I’d try my hand at making banana bread.

I have always considered myself anti-banana bread.  This was mainly because I’ve never had banana bread that didn’t include walnuts.  No offense to the walnut-lovers out there, but I am not a fan.  I think they taste like dirt.  But we had several overripe bananas in our fruit bowl last week…and David loves banana bread the same way I love chocolate…so I found a recipe online sans walnuts, and I gave it a whirl.

And I discovered that I actually LOVE banana bread, when it doesn’t include walnuts.  Poor David wasn’t quick enough, and I ended up eating about half of the loaf myself for various breakfasts last week.  I’m sure he’s learned and will be quicker with this batch.
I used this recipe to make my bread.  It comes out really moist, and yes, for you walnut fans, I’m sure it tastes just as good (to you) if you throw in a cup of walnuts.  Right now my kitchen smells like deliciousness, vanilla, and bananas, and I can’t wait to have a slice for breakfast tomorrow!

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After David came home last night, he was so kind as to drag out my three huge boxes of books, so I could put them on the “new” bookshelf.  It took a little finagling to get it organized the way I wanted it, but here is the final product!

Top Shelf: Fiction, historical fiction, and memoirs
Second Shelf: Non-fiction histories (including my Alison Weirs — all nine of them and counting!), and in the corner, Dan Brown illustrated editions beneath my pile of theology books.
Bottom Shelf: Writing manuals (mainly from college), Harry Potter, and my knitting books.

Survey says?  I need another bookshelf if I’m going to keep buying books.  On the top left-hand corner of the bookshelf, you can see my Kindle, wrapped in its little blue quilted travel case that my mother made me a few weeks ago.  David says I can just buy books for my Kindle, instead of paperbacks, which is true, but most of the paperbacks I buy are on ridiculous sale!  I don’t want to give them up.

Speaking of which, I ventured out to GW again and scored some good ones yesterday.

Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden.  I bought this one for a two-fold purpose — I loved it and I haven’t been able to find my copy in about two years, and I want to use it for the Spring Book Challenge (SBC).  I figure it can count towards “read a book you loved as a child or teen”, since I became obsessed with this book back in 2000 when my friend Kim loaned it to me.  The “true” story about little Chiyo, the child who was sold by her family to an okiya (geisha house) in Gion, Japan, and the path her life takes as she trains to become a geisha herself, is a really beautiful piece, although it garnered some negative criticism after Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha whom Golden interviewed and whose life he based Memoirs off of, claimed that he embellished her stories.  Still, it is one of my favorites.
Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn.  Most of us are familiar with  actress Katharine Hepburn, who was really the grande dame  of Old Hollywood and one of the most famous actresses of all time.  She starred in such hits as The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, The Lion in Winter, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and On Golden Pond.  She is the only woman in history to have won not one, but four Best Actress Oscars, and she lived only twenty minutes away from me in Connecticut.  She passed away a legend in 2003 at the age of 96.  Famously mum about her life, Hepburn published Me, her memoirs, in 1991, when she was 84 years old.  I have always wanted to read this book, and now I have a copy of my own.  Still not sure where I’m going to fit it in on the SBC, but I’ll figure something out.
The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, as retold by Joseph Bedier.  This was $.50 at GW, and I’m a sucker for a good historical romance, so I nabbed it.  The movie Tristan and Isolde came out in 2006, based on the legend of the knight Tristan and the beautiful love of his life, Iseult (I don’t know why they changed the spelling of her name for the film, but there you go).  That was the first time I heard of it, and I’ve wanted to see the film and read the book ever since.  I saw it and snatched it up.  It’s a short piece (only 224 pages, paperback), so I think this “original Romeo and Juliet” tale will probably be a quick, light read over this Easter weekend.

How was your weekend?  Did you get any reading done or pick up any new books?

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A Million Little Pieces may be, at this point, one of the most famous contemporary American novels.  Its cover (the hand coated in sprinkles in front of a Tiffany-blue background) is easily as recognizable and famous as the  Twilight hands holding a red apple.  At this point, is there anyone who hasn’t heard of James Frey’s “memoir” of drug rehabilitation and the ensuing chaos that followed after the Smoking Gun revealed that he had fabricated some of his story?  Especially after Oprah brought him on her show and rolled him over the coals for “conning” her?  
I must admit that it was partially the drama that piqued my interest when it came to A Million Little Pieces.  Yet, having finished it, I have to say that I’m in no way interested in the possibility that Frey embellished his memoirs.  Because at the end of the day, it didn’t change my opinion of the book, one way or the other.
James is 23 years old when he wakes up on an airplane, his face beaten and some of his teeth broken and missing, on his way to drug and alcohol rehabilitation.  He has been drinking since he was a child and doing drugs since his early teenage years.  He is, as he puts it, “an Alcoholic and an Addict and a Criminal” — addicted to booze and drugs of all kinds (especially crack cocaine) and wanted in three states.  He is told that his body is in such rough condition that, if he chooses to use drugs or alcohol again, he will be dead in a matter of days.  Faced with the choice of death or attempting rehab, but having little to no faith in the AA “Twelve-Step Program”, James begrudgingly agrees to give sobriety a chance.
This is not light reading.  Not even close.  James’ story is gritty, and it’s raw, and it’s really tough to read at parts.  The chapter about his oral surgery (performed without any anesthesia or painkillers, since he is in rehab) was particularly graphic, and I had to skim those pages to keep my stomach from flipping over.  The writing style is…”different”, I guess, would be a good word.  Like Frank McCourt, Frey chooses not to use quotation marks (or any punctuation, at times), which can make reading difficult at times, particularly when he’s describing conversations between multiple people.  Yet, although the subject matter is tough at best, it is not a difficult book to read, and it does go relatively fast.
And though I think as a memoir (real or embellished) it’s well-done…I can’t really understand the huge buzz around the book.  I never personally felt the “can’t put it down” pull to finish it the way I do with many books that I love.  Pieces gets easier to read, the more progress James makes, and towards the end I was finding it easier and more enjoyable to read.  I can’t say I ever felt the obsession that Oprah and millions of other people claimed to have over this book — which may be the reason why I can’t understand what the big deal was that James Frey embellished the truth.

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