Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Whole Five Feet by Christopher Beha

Published:  2009 by Grove Press
Source:  Purchased

  I seem to be drawn to these "project" memoirs, where someone takes on some grand goal over the course of a year and then writes about it.  Some of them have been more interesting than others (A.J. Jacobs is the best, in my opinion), but at the very least I find it admirable that one has the discipline to carry out such undertakings.
  I am especially impressed with Christopher Beha's quest to read over the course of one year the entire Harvard Classics, a selection of great books of literature intended to fit on a five-foot shelf.  While a challenge in itself, it is compounded by the illness and death of a close family member and Beha's own health emergency which, as a cancer survivor, he does not take lightly.  Heavy on Greek and Latin works, and with a seemingly appropriate volume on medical-themed texts, the Classics provide Beha a respite from all that was going on in his life and in a way gave him some comfort:

Reading these words that others had set down while they suffered and before they were gone made things easier for me.

  This is a serious memoir, and also encouraging.  Not all of us have the time to undertake an entire collection of great books, but Christopher Beha does make a good case for reading them.

  I read this book for the What's in a Name Challenge 4, for the category "Book with a size in its title".

Friday, January 28, 2011

Quickie Reviews

  So I have a stack of books on my desk that I've read and meant to review, but time passes and, well, the stack just gets bigger.  So in the interest of getting them off my desk, here are a few quickie reviews:

Purge by Sofi Oksanen:  A novel set in Estonia in the early 1990s with flashbacks to the post WWII era, it is about a young girl and and and old woman and how their lives connect.  A bit on the dark side, and not what I expected, but it was interesting to read about a country that is not often featured in novels.

The Homecoming Party by Carmine Abate:  A novel set in Italy about a family separated by economic necessity and the effects this has on the children, especially the son of the family.  "The future, for a child, is an empty word", Marco laments as he tries to comprehend the explanation for his father's absence.  I didn't love it, but enjoyed its descriptions of Italian country life.

Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King:  This is a description of Michelangelo's work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Even though he did have assistance, the amount of work that Michelangelo put in for this commission despite external threats to its completion is remarkable.  After reading this book, you can't not want to go to Rome and see the real thing up close. 

The Debba by Avner Mandelman:  This novel is about a man forced to return to Israel after the brutal murder of his father to fulfill his father's last wish -- to publicly perform a play he wrote many years earlier which stirs up Palestinian-Israeli emotions.  I didn't quite "get" this story as I found it had too many side plots.

  Have you read any of these books?  What were your thoughts on them?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Envoy by Alex Kershaw

Published:  2010 by Da Capo Press
Source:  borrowed from the library

  In  high school history class, I did a book report on a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who is credited with saving thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.  His is a fascinating story, not only for his heroic efforts in saving lives but also for the mystery surrounding his disappearance into the Soviet Union almost immediately upon the Soviets' liberation of Hungary.

 The Envoy is an account of the fate of Hungarian Jews towards the end of World War II.  Up until mid-1944, Jews in Hungary were relatively safe from the Nazis; however with Germany increasingly on the losing side of battles, Adolf Eichmann - the architect of the Holocaust - was brought in to begin liquidating the last large cohort of Jewish people in Europe.  While other countries looked on passively, Raoul Wallenberg took it upon himself and his nation to save as many Jews as he could by providing them with Schutzpasses - documents conferring Swedish citizenship upon the bearer and therefore protection from transport to the concentration camps.  His work was certainly not done completely on his own, but Wallenberg himself risked his own safety on numerous occasions to ensure the protection of the vulnerable. 

  Once Hungary has been liberated by the Soviet troops, the fates of both Wallenberg and his adversary Eichmann are tracked.  Eichmann's escape from Europe, subsequent capture by Israeli agents and his trial are well documented and is described briefly in this book; it is Wallenberg's fate, however that is still the cause of speculation.  Taken into the Soviet Union after the liberation, it appears that he was considered a German spy (having in his papers several phone numbers for Eichmann, whom he contacted in his efforts to rescue Jews) and was imprisoned; officially the Soviet Union said that he died of a heart attack in prison in 1947 but his family refused to believe this and despite no assistance from the Swedish government to act on behalf of their own missing diplomat, they have tried learning his true fate for over sixty years.

  Along with profiles of several Jews Wallenberg saved, this book provides insight into both sides of the Holocaust that isn't normally seen in one place.  The efforts to kill Jews are placed alongside efforts to save them, and the courage of those needing to be rescued and the rescuers themselves has greater emphasis when viewed next to the evil that worked against them.


Monday, January 24, 2011

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
Published:  2007 by McLelland & Stewart
Source:  Purchased (the Canadian edition, eh?)

  I'm a Canadian girl, and my one complaint about Canadian literature is that most of it is frankly quite depressing and bleak.  Granted, I enjoy reading depressing and bleak, but I wish there were more books available that were well written and that provided a laugh or two (or even a few smiles).  The Best Laid Plans is a great start.

  Daniel Addison has been a political aide in the Liberal Party but after a personal shock, he decides to leave Ottawa and head into academia at a university just outside of the capital.  Canada is just about ready for an election, so the Party asks him to find a Liberal candidate in the university's riding.  Said candidate would be running in an overwhelmingly Tory riding against the incumbent Member of Parliament Tory Finance Minister Eric Cameron; who is extremely popular around the country.

   Daniel finds his sacrificial lamb --  his landlord, Angus McLintock, who is also an engineering professor at the university -- who after some negotiation agrees to have his name on the ballot with the understanding that he has no chance of winning.  But of course, things happen..... 

   I wasn't sure if non-Canadians would appreciate/understand the political discourse in the novel, but after reading it I think that its description of politics is pretty universal.  And that is only one part of the story; there is romance, adventure (trust me, it's there!) and a very quirky cast of characters that make it all work.   And it's funny -- again I don't know if you need to be Canadian to get some the jokes but I've been out of the country for 11 years and I still found myself laughing out loud.

  It's only January, but The Best Laid Plans is already on my favorite reads of 2011 list.  Highly recommended.

  And it counts toward my progress in The Canadian Book Challenge 4 !

Thursday, January 13, 2011

War & Peace -- Done!!!

  Yes, can you believe it?  I have finished it! Yay me.  And it only took about two months  (compared to six months with Ulysses, a novel about 400 pages shorter).

   Did I love it?  I can't say that I did -- I think it's one of those novels that you need to re-read to fully appreciate -- but I certainly liked it.  It's not a book that one can just pick up and read a few pages here and there (at least I couldn't), so it does require a time commitment, but I think it is worth it.  The last part of the epilogue is a really dry (REALLY) essay on the significance on history of man's will (at least I think that is what it was about, my eyes glazed over once in a while), but the novel as a whole held my interest.

   People far more intelligent and articulate than I have talked about this book, so I won't make an attempt.  My classics reading group will be discussing this on Wednesday, so I'm looking forward to seeing how the others felt about it.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Travel as a Political Act

Published:  Nation Books, 2009
Source:  Purchased

   I am really not sure how I feel about Rick Steves -- I watch his programs on PBS occasionally to vicariously fulfill my European travel wishes, but there is just something about him that I find off-putting.  Maybe I'm just jealous.

   I haven't read any of his travel guides, but I did pick up his book, Travel as a Political Act, because I was interested in its premise -- how travel provides the opportunity to be better local and world citizens.  Drawing on his own travel experiences, primarily in Europe but also in El Salvador, Turkey, Morocco, and Iran, Steves provides a picture of the world that is not necessarily seen by stereotypical tourists only looking for fun and the "name" attractions.  As well, especially with his visit to Iran, he shows the places in a light rarely if ever displayed in American media outlets -- not everyone is anti-American, and most of the world's Muslims are peaceful, law abiding citizens, for example.

  I have not travelled nearly as much as I want to, but I appreciate the sentiments that Steves expresses in this book.  Seeing the sights is of course an important part of the travel experience, but just as important is interacting with local people and immersing oneself in the culture even if only for a short time. 

  Some of the more overtly "political" statements he makes felt out of place to me, but aside from that, as an aspiring world traveller (alas, doing most of my travelling through books these days) this book is informative and enjoyable. 

   This is the first book off of my list for the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge.

Monday, January 10, 2011

I'm a Stylish Blogger

  I'm stylish?  Really?  Well, Bev at My Reader's Block seems to think so, and she graciously presented me with this Stylish Blogger Award.  You like me!  You really like me!  (and thank you so much)
  So the responsibilities attached with this award are as follows:

1) Thank the person who gave you the award, and link back to them in your post.
2) Tell us 5 things about yourself.
3) Award 5 super-stylish bloggers this award :D
4) Contact those bloggers and let them know they have won

  So, the five things about me that you really must (??) know are:
  1. I am a late bloomer in many things:  I didn't learn to ride a bike or tie shoelaces until I was 7 or 8 and I didn't get my driver's license until I was 25.  But I learned to read when I was 4.
  2. I have never seen the movie E.T.
  3. I own a share (a very very small share) of a painting of Winnie-the-Pooh by the original illustrator, E.H. Shepard (on display at the Pavilion Gallery in my hometown of Winnipeg)
  4. I am in a music video -- Gowan's Awake the Giant, a Canadian 80s classic (granted, you have to record the video and freeze frame through to see me, but I'm there!)
  5. I cry almost on command when I hear Amazing Grace played on the bagpipes
  T.M.I. right?

  I am passing forward this award to the following bloggers:
  Check them out if you haven't already done so!

It's Monday -- What are You Reading?

  It's Monday - What are you Reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila at bookjourney to allow us to share with others in the book-loving cyberworld what is on our reading plates.

  This week I finished the following books:

  Books in Progress:
 This last week was rough coming back from the holidays and having to work a (gasp) FIVE DAY WEEK!  This week doesn't look to be much better, but I am looking forward to finishing W&P.  There is also a small (medium) chance that I might be going on a tour of France in September and I am working on the details of that and it always helps to have something to look forward to.

  What are you reading this week?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Literary Blog Hop -- Reading Literary Fiction and Non-fiction

  The Literary Blog Hop is hosted at The Blue Bookcase and this week's prompt asks us:  How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and non-fiction?
   I can't remember a specific "aha" moment where I moved to reading more literary works.  As a kid, I adored reading The Bobbsey Twins (does anyone remember them?) and Nancy Drew mysteries, and as a teenager I read the sappy teen romances of the day (Sweet Dreams -- anyone?).  But I also was very very curious about a lot of things, and I satisfied this curiosity with books; unlike the lighter reading of my youth these books made me think and led me to other books and other subjects. 

   A specific topic that I can recall being fascinated with as a child was The Holocaust.  I read Anne Frank:  The Diary of a Young Girl when I was eight or nine and from that point I was hooked on reading survivors' stories.  My small local library didn't have a big selection, but I read every single book on the Holocaust that they had; some were more well-written than others, of course, but I learned something from all of them.

   I still do guilty pleasure reading occasionally, but as I've become older and (?) more mature I am more drawn to thought-provoking novels and non-fiction that keep me interested in all kinds of subjects.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ten Books I Resolve to Read in 2011

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week we are asked to list the 10 books we resolve to read in 2011.

 I have about 30 books I have resolved to read for the challenges in which I am participating, but there are several other books on the ol' to-read pile that I am eager to get to.  So, in no particular order, here are the books I resolve to read in 2011:
  1. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  2. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  3. The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
  4. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
  5. Possession by A.S. Byatt
  6. The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson
  7. Bloodlands:  Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
  8. Nine Lives:  In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple
  9. How to Live by Sarah Bakewell
  10. A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth
  Have you read any of these titles?  What are you resolving to read this year?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

And the Show Went On

Published:  2010 by Alfred A. Knopf
Source:  Purchased (e-book)

   Since I started studying French again in September, I have become more of a Francophile than ever.  I'm dipping my toes into reading books in French, but they are a challenge; so I will content myself for now with English translations and accounts of life in France and in the process add books to my French to-read list (giving me that much more motivation to keep studying the language!)

   As I am also (bizarrely) fascinated with events in World War II, the book And the Show Went On was an instant purchase for me when I heard about it.  Alan Riding takes us to Paris before, during and after the war and provides a look at how culture - theater, film, dance, art, music and literature - reacted to the invasion and subsequent occupation.

   The culture of Paris may have slowed down during the war, but by no means did it stop.  Despite having to report to German censors, artists of all forms were rather productive during this period and also managed to include subtle hints of resistance in their work.

   Surprisingly (to me, anyway) there seemed to be a fair amount of both resistance and "collaborationist" activities within the cultural communities, though Riding does make the point that some of those indicted for collaboration at the end of the war - were only doing their job to provide for their families and had no malicious intent at all, not unlike French factory workers forced into producing equipment for the German army.

   Although I'm not entirely familiar with a lot of their work, many of the artists discussed -- Picasso, Edith Piaf, Sartre, Colette, for example -- are names I know and hope to experience (read, see, hear) what they produced during this period.  Others, such as Marguerite Duras (writer) and Montherlant (playwright) are new discoveries.

   The war is, of course, central to this book; and as such its major effects (especially the persecution of Jews) cannot be ignored. However, it is interesting to see how a country (well, more specifically the city of Paris) is able to keep a creative pulse despite the hardship and repression that the occupation forced upon them.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

January Reading List and 2011 Reading Resolutions

  Happy New Year everyone!  I hope that 2011 brings everyone health and happiness and many great books to read and discuss.

  Thanks in part to my blog, in 2010 I read more books than I ever have before - 128 - and I'm sure that my list of to-read books has increased by that much.  Of course I'd love to be able to read more, but I don't want to sacrifice quality for quantity; I'd rather read less books and enjoy them than read more books just to say I've read more and then not remember any of them.
  That said, I am resolving to read 11 more books in 2011.  I just found about a challenge on my favorite book blog/podcast -- Books on the Nightstand -- to read 11 more books in 2011 than you did in 2010 and I think that it is achievable.  Though to make it more challenging I am going to aim to read at  least some of these 11 books in French, especially as my ability in the language improves (oh yeah, and that is resolution #2).
  I am also resolving to whittle down my overwhelming to-read shelves.  Don't laugh -- I'm really going to try.  I have committed to three reading challenges for 2011 and with one exception (which I know I can get at the library) I will be able to complete all of them with books I already own.  I won't say that I will stop buying books, but I am definitely going to cut it down and I am going to use my closest indie bookseller as much as I can when I do splurge on a new book(s).
  For my blog, I am resolving to post three times a week.  The blog is a hobby for me, but I also feel that I need to work on it regularly in order to get the most enjoyment out of it and, since I mentioned before that I'm needy when it comes to comments, if I don't post enough people won't visit or comment.

 So to start 2011, this is my reading list for January:
       Book groups:     The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner
                                 War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy (ok, a bit of a cheat since I started it in November in order to finish in time for our group discussion, but I will be reading it at least into the first week of January)
       Challenges:          The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon  for the Back to the Classics Challenge (Books on the Nightstand will also be hosting an online chat/discussion of this book in January so check out their site for the date and time)
                                  The Whole Five Feet by Christopher R. Beha for the What's in a Name 4 Challenge
                                  Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves for the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge
                                  The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis for the Canadian Book Challenge 4

 This list should keep me going through the long cold winter nights.