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Archive for June, 2011

Tomorrow is the last day of The Nest Book Club’s “Spring Book Challenge 2011”.  As you could see in the tabs above, I have been following this since April, and although I didn’t come close to finishing, I still think I did pretty well.  My final score was 270 points.  Not shabby for a first time around!
I will be removing the tab above and replacing it with the “Summer Book Challenge 2011” today.  The challenge starts on Friday, July 1st.  The book I’m reading right now, Legacy by Susan Kay, doesn’t fit in the SBC, but it will fit in the SuBC, and it’s so long, and I have so little time over the next few days, that I’m fairly certain I won’t be past 50% done with it by Friday morning.
So, for posterity’s sake, here is a recap of the 2011 Spring Book Challenge:
5 pts
1. Read a book with a one word title Testimony by Anita Shreve
2. Read a book that you already own, but haven’t read Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
3. IHO Cherish an Antique Day (April 9), read a classic A Little Princess by Frances H. Burnett
4. Read a book by an author that has an X, Z, or Q in their name. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
5. Lewis and Clark set off on 5/14/1804: Read a book set somewhere you’d like to go  Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
6. Read a book with a person’s entire head not visible (only shows other parts of the body) The Devil Wears Prada by Laura Weisberger
7. Flowers are (finally!) growing: Read a book with a green cover or with “flower” or a specific flower name in the title Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
8. Read a book you loved as a child/teenager Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
9. IHO Earth Day read an ebook, library book, or listen to an audiobook Shine by Lauren Myracle
10. Read something outside The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory
10 pts
1. Read a book about/at a wedding The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
2. School’s out for summer: read a book set in or about high school The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
3. Read a play by Shakespeare
4. Read a book set in or about a country you haven’t been to The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
5. Read a good book: has an average of 4 stars or higher on Goodreads. The book must have at least 50 ratings (not reviews). The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
6. Read a book with a weather word for the start of hurricane season. Ex: snow, rain, thunder, hurricane, wind, etc.
7. Poll Nesties for your book (out of 5 you suggest) Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
8. Read a book to continue a series you have already started Anne of Avonlea by Lucy M. Montgomery
9. IHO Pet Owner Day (April 25): book about a pet or animal Animal Farm by George Orwell
10. Read a book about an author (biography, memoir, historical fiction) Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
15 pts
1. IHO of royal wedding, book about royalty or royal character The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
2. Holocaust Remembrance Day (May 2): book about/set in the Holocaust The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
3. Read a book of poetry
4. Read a book in a genre you don’t normally read The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
5. Read a book by an author with your name (first, middle, maiden, or last) Bumped by Megan McCafferty
6. Read the April, May, or June NBC pick and participate in the discussion Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
7. IHO National Smile Month (June), read a humorous book
8. Read a popular book: a book that has at least 15,000 ratings (not reviews) on goodreads A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
9. IHO Mother’s and Father’s Days, get a suggestion from your mom, dad, or other family member from an older generation Different Seasons by Stephen King
10. Read a non-fiction book that isn’t a biography or memoir Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

25 Points
Read a book about urban farming, sustainable agriculture, or American food policy (200 pages +, not an audiobook) and grow an edible plant. Post a 100 word response to the book and a picture of your plant. Recipes and photos of what you cook with your plant are encouraged but totally optional. If you can’t grow a plant, read at least 3 children’s books that are set on a farm or in a garden with a child of the appropriate age and post which one was your favorite, which was the child’s favorite and why.

Read a non-fiction book about Africa or the Middle East (history, politics, geography, etc). The book can be about a particular country or the region in general. Post your thoughts on the book and whether or not the book impacted your impressions/opinions regarding this part of the world.

Many NBCers have their Goodreads shelves linked in their siggy. Pick a nestie and read one of her 5-star books and one of her 1-star books (or 2-star if she doesn’t have a 1-star). Report back on which nestie you picked, what you thought of the books and how your ratings compared to the nestie you picked.

This task is inspired by a Jeopardy category. You will have to read two books- the last word(s) of one title will be the first word(s) of the second.

Experience a book two ways.  First read a book and then either listen to the audio book, watch the movie based on the book, read the comic book based on the book, etc.  Write a short post on which medium you preferred. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett has been on my “to-read” list for a few months now.  Everyone has been raving about it.  I’m sure that if you haven’t read it yet, someone has recommended it to you.  And you can add me to the list, because I’m about to as well. 
In the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, 1962, three women have decided they’ve had enough of “the way things are” in Jackson, Mississippi.  Aibileen, a middle-aged black nurse and housekeeper, has raised seventeen white babies, and finds it harder and harder every day to turn a blind eye to the unfairness of it all.  Minny, a smart-mouth who has been fired several times, struggles to keep her newest job, while trying to keep the secrets of her latest employers.  And Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a twenty-three year old white college graduate and writer, stifles her angry feelings and her dismay at what the world she grew up in has become.  Life has dissolved into one big pressure cooker with no vents, and the three of them are about to blow the lid off life in Jackson, forever.
I love this book.  Love it.  I love the three tones (Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter), and the way that Stockett manages to make three distinct “voices” in her writing (a testimony to how good it was — usually I hate books told in multiple POVs).  Minny was probably my favorite character; I love how she wasn’t portrayed as either sinner or saint, just a normal woman with a lot of pent-up anger (and some anger that she refused to pent-up, if truth be told).  
Stockett doesn’t skirt the issue of racism in the book, and she doesn’t sugarcoat it, either.  As a child of the 80’s who grew up in New England, The Help is worlds away from anything I’ve ever known in my life, so I can’t verify its accuracy personally, but the picture is so vivid.  It’s amazing, and sad too, the way that some of the white people in the book claim to not be racist, while enforcing the Jim Crow Laws and even inventing some of their own.
At first, I wanted to write that I was disappointed in the ending.  But then I realized, it wasn’t the ending, it was my own expectations, that were disappointed.  The book ended just the way it should have.  There really isn’t anything that I would change.  I also have to add that I was moved to tears at one point.  This book is fantastic.  I don’t know if the progression of the year is making me soft for the ratings, or if I’m just reading a whole lot of really good books.  I’m starting to think it’s the latter.
Rating: *****

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Stephen King is one of my favorite writers, and my favorite work of his is, surprisingly, not a horror novel.  It is not really a novel at all.  And it is number 54 of my books for the year.
In the afterword of the book, Stephen King states that Different Seasons, an anthology, rather than a novel, was created from four short stories (or novellas) that he wrote after finishing some of his hit novels such as Carrie and The Shining.  He writes about his concerns of being typecast in the afterword, and that the idea of the title “Different Seasons” was to show that he could write something “different”, something that wasn’t horror.  Each of the four novellas represent one of the four seasons, and all are strikingly different in nature and tone.  Three of the four have been made into films.  I just read the fourth one today for the first time.
1. Hope Springs Eternal: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.  Andy Dufresne is a young banker who has just received a life sentence in Shawshank Maximum Security Prison for a crime he claims he didn’t commit.  Told through the eyes of “Red”, one of his fellow inmates, Shawshank Redemption is a tale about a human being who refused to let his hopes be killed, and who inspired many to follow along with his philosophy.  It is probably the most recognizable film adaptation of the four novellas, The Shawshank Redemption starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.
2. Summer of Corruption: Apt Pupil.  The only one of the stories to be told in the third person narrative.  Twelve-year-old Todd Bowden discovers that his elderly neighbor is the fugitive Nazi officer Kurt Dussander.  Intrigued, Todd blackmails Dussander to tell him stories about the internment camps and the Holocaust…but over a period of months, Todd realizes that he is no longer the one in control.  Made into a film several years ago starring the late Brad Renfro and Ian McKellan.
3. Fall From Innocence: The Body.  Four boys strike out on a hiking trip in search of a dead body.  The most classic coming-of-age tale possibly ever written.  Made into a film in the 1980s called Stand By Me, starring the late River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Will Wheaton, and Jerry O’Connell.
4. A Winter’s Tale: The Breathing Method.  The protagonist, a businessman named David, is invited to a gentlemens’ club where the members tell each other tales.  One Christmas evening, one member, a doctor, tells a group of his contemporaries the story of a young woman’s determination to triumph over the adversity she has encountered.  Not made into a film to date.
This anthology is a winner.  All four of the novellas are brilliantly written.  I couldn’t pick a favorite, but if I had to, it would be a tie between Shawshank Redemption and The Body.  The first I think is just an incredible story of hope and justice.  The second I have personal ties to; it was the first of these stories I ever read.  The Breathing Method was difficult for me to get into before now (the first twenty pages or so are relatively dull), but once I got into it I had trouble putting it down.
Having read several of Stephen King’s books (including Dolores Claiborne and ‘Salem’s Lot, to name two), I have to say that I like this anthology better.  I love King’s prose and his open, imaginative style.  I would give five stars to Shawshank and The Body, four and a half to Apt Pupil, and four to The Breathing Method, so we’ll put this in at four and a half stars.  Great book.
Rating: **** and 1/2

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Warning: Spoilers.
Alison Weir is my favorite British historian, bar none.  I have many of her biographies (most of them) and I have read two of her three historical fictions.  But of all her books, this one, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, is by far my favorite.
Due in part to writers like Philippa Gregory and the Showtime series The Tudors, there has been a definite resurgence of interest in Renaissance England andTudor dynasty.  But especially in King Henry VIII, the man who virtually created the English Reformation and who was notorious in his married life, the only King to have six wives.  But Weir does not merely focus on the life of Henry VIII — something colorful and occupying in its own right — but chooses to tell the story of the six women who were bound to him in holy matrimony throughout his turbulent reign.  Because of a dearth of knowledge about the latter four queens (and also their shortened reigns and little influence on English history), Weir chooses to write the first two thirds of her book about Henry’s first two queens, leaving one chapter for the third lady, and cramming the last three into the third part.  
Part One, entitled “The Princess from Spain”, is all about Katherine of Aragon, the first queen, a princess from Spain who came to England to marry Henry’s elder brother Arthur, who died just weeks after their wedding.  After swearing that the marriage was never consummated, Katharine was then betrothed to Henry, who took her as his wife for fourteen years before annulling the marriage on the grounds that she could not provide him with a son.  This part of the book is probably the happiest, and where we see Henry at his best, before age and intransigence made him a vicious tyrant.  Weir dissects English history up to this point, describing the English court and political stage, as well as the marriage between Henry and Katherine, why it began so successfully, and what lead to its ultimate failure.
Part Two is titled “The King’s Great Matter” and is all about Anne Boleyn, the lady-in-waiting who aspired to the throne of England and who promised Henry a son if he married her.  Weir explains the religious schisms happening in Europe at the time and why it was ultimately so easy for Henry to break with the Roman Catholic Church when they did not give him his annulment, and how Anne’s constant assurances that Henry had absolute power lead them all to disaster.  By the end of Part Two, Henry is no longer an affable and friendly monarch, he is a tyrant who stops at nothing to have his will and destroy those who oppose him.  And of course, by its end, Anne is dead, as is Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, whose short but memorable career as queen of England ended in death after the birth of Henry’s son, the future Edward VI.
Part Three, “How Many Wives Will He Have?” focuses on Henry’s last three marriages and the motivations behind each, as well as his attempts to fulfill his two very important needs: more sons for the assurance of the succession after his death, and his attempts to reclaim the youth he lost.  His marriage to his fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleves, was a dismal failure from the start (Henry is reported to have been displeased with her appearance) and was annulled after six months.  Henry’s fifth marriage was to a mere English teenager, the 15-year-old Katherine Howard, whom he was reported to be deeply and passionately in love with (rather like Anne).  After Katherine’s death, Henry married the widow Katherine Parr, who is his queen during his short but successful invasion of France and up until his last days.
Weir’s biography explains Tudor England and Renaissance Europe during a time of incredible turmoil and change, through the lives of these six women who had the fortune (good or bad) to marry England’s most notorious and irascible King.  Yet by the end, Weir almost has me feeling a modicum of sympathy even for King Henry, for surely the life she unfolded in her novel was not what he had anticipated.  The sequel, The Children of Henry VIII, is nearly as well-written and colorful, and picks up where Wives left off.  This book and others of Weir’s are, IMO, a must for any Tudor fanatics, and much better than most historical fiction about the period.

Rating: *****

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In the 1980s and 1990s, the greatest names in pairs figure skating were Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, from Russia.  For nearly a decade, they dominated their sport, winning gold medals at the 1988 and 1994 Olympic Games, and turning professional to great accolades.  Gordeeva and Grinkov (or G and G, as they were playfully known) were the poster children for the “image” of the pairs skaters: the tiny, childlike female skater and the strong male partner a whole head taller than her.  They were skaters, they were best friends, they were lovers.  Their lives were a virtual fairy tale, until November 20, 1995.  On that day, while practicing a routine, Sergei suddenly collapsed on the ice and died of an undiagnosed heart condition.  He was 28 years old. 

A widow at age 24 with a two year old daughter, Ekaterina was left with the pieces of her shattered life, wondering how to move on and learn to live again without the partner she had had since the age of 11.  The result was this collaboration with E.M. Swift, My Sergei: A Love Story.
Ekaterina tells both her story and Sergei’s, intermingling stories of their childhoods, of growing up in the Soviet Union, learning to skate and their pairing together.  The book truly is a “love story”, living up to its subtitle — Ekaterina brings the reader through their courtship, marriage, and foray into parenthood with their daughter, Daria.  Their brief but illustrious figure skating career is described throughout; the book would be incomplete without it.  
But Ekaterina’s real purpose in this collaboration is the “celebration of a life” — finding a way to move past the pain of Sergei’s early, tragic death and find joy in the life left to her and her daughter.  She expresses her fear and grief at the prospect of living the rest of her life without him, yet by the end, she has learned to accept her future.  
As a figure skater, I read this book as a child, barely knowing who Gordeeva and Grinkov were.  This book has the distinction of being the first volume to ever make me cry — and I must confess that I cried again in reading it now, for the first time in probably ten years.  It is a beautiful memoir, something that would touch even someone who has never laced up a pair of skates.
Rating: **** and 1/2

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Sometimes, we expect books to be brilliant masterpieces, they are talked up consistently to us, they hit the bestseller list and ricochet up for weeks or months at a time.  Or a friend lends us a book, promising us that we “won’t be able to put it down.”  Sometimes we expect it.  And sometimes, it catches us completely by surprise.

This was one of those times.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, is a book that I picked up as part of a book club that I’m involved in.  I ordered it from Amazon and didn’t think too much of it when it arrived.  I read other books first.  Then today I picked it up.  And just finished it a little while ago.  I could not put it down.  This is a book that does not allow for you to have an outside life while you read it. 
In July 1942, little ten-year-old Sarah is awakened in the middle of the night by French soldiers who have come to round up the Jews in Paris.  She hides her four-year-old brother in a secret cupboard, locks him in, and promises to return to free him soon.  Sixty years later, Julia, an American journalist, stumbles upon Sarah’s story as she is investigating the roundup of the Jews and their incarceration at the Vel d’Hiv before their deportation to Auschwitz.  Her curiosity, partnered with the revelations of some ancient family secrets, lead Julia on a mission that will change her life forever.
When I finished it, I didn’t hesitate about what rating I would give it.  Generally, I think about this very carefully.  Not this time.  I went to Goodreads and clicked on “five stars”, because I felt I had no choice.  This book is magnificent.
It is told, originally, from two points of view — Sarah’s and Julia’s — until a certain point in the novel.  The writing is stunning and fluid, the chapters are short, you can’t put the book down because there never is a good place to let it go.  The stories of both women are heartbreaking in their own ways — Sarah, a child of the Holocaust determined to rescue her little brother, and Julia, an American-born Parisienne who is struggling with a difficult marriage and a harsh decision that will change her life, one way or another, forever.   Some of the scenes are extremely difficult to read about, especially the days before the deportation, when hundreds of French Jews were crammed into the Vel d’Hiv without adequate food, water, or sanitation, and the days of the deportation itself, when families were separated.  Heartbreaking.  I feel like that might be the only word for this book.
And yet, there’s something truly redemptive about it, as well.  About people discovering what is important to them, why the past cannot remain dead and buried, why some things must be dragged up and analyzed and discussed.  About two women realizing what they truly need, even if it is not the easiest, or obvious thing to do.  About the consequences of our actions, or inactions, advancing far into the future.
This became one of my favorite books instantaneously.
Rating: *****

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The 50th book!  My goal was to complete 50 by the end of June, and I made it with two weeks to spare!  And what better way to start off the second half of the year than with the book that has been #1 on my “to-read” list on Goodreads: Animal Farm, by George Orwell.
The animals of Manor Farm are tired of being under the tyrannical rule of their alcoholic master, Mr. Jones.  Spurred on by the pigs Napoleon and Snowball, the animals rise up in revolt, banish their incompetent master, and rechristen their home “Animal Farm” — the first farm to be managed, owned, and controlled solely by animals.  The animals come up with the “Seven Commandments”, condemning human behavior, and seek to create a complete society where everyone works and everyone is equal.  But over time, as the pigs (spurred on by Napoleon) encroach more and more on the rights and privileges, the other animals begin to wonder if their glorious revolution paved the way for something much worse, and if they weren’t better off before.
I heard about Animal Farm many years ago, but for some reason, never picked it up.  I read the whole thing in about two hours (couldn’t put it down), and enjoyed it immensely.  Orwell was writing a satire of the infamous Russian Revolution and the years of developing communism in the Soviet Union.  Jones is a parody of Tsar Nicholas II, Napoleon is Josef Stalin, Snowball is Leon Trotsky, and so on.  It is amazing to watch as Napoleon, the other pigs, and the dogs gradually seize total control of the farm, simply by insisting that if their orders are disobeyed, then Jones, the “evil” former master, might come back.  It’s scary to see that just propaganda and fear can propel people (or animals, in this case) to allow their rights and freedoms to be taken away.
The turning point, I felt, really came when Napoleon forces the animals to turn on Snowball.  Until that point, there is some balance of power, and the hope that the animals’ equality might continue.  But once Snowball is chased off, it’s the end of hope for the animals, and the last breath of fairness is gone.  My favorite character was Boxer, the horse (and I won’t mention what happens, but I will say that it sucks), who represents the working class, always hopeful that if they work hard and do their best, and toe the line, that things will work out for them.
I thought as a satire, this book was brilliant — something that even a young person could follow and understand.  Orwell writes a fantastically chilling story about what happens when people — or animals — try to create a utopia, and why it is always doomed to failure.
Rating: **** and 1/2

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