Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Beginnings on Friday

  Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme created by Becky at Page Turners, and is now hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading. If you like, share with everyone why you do, or do not, like the sentence.

  My beginning is from Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones:

I was with her at the first hotel on the Arabian Sea.

  A simple sentence, yet one that creates some questions for the reader:  the identity of "her", why we need to know where the narrator encountered her.  Since it's also told in the first person, it's an indication that the story might be all about perception. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

  One of the things that I love about reading is the ability to go back into history and view events from a different perspective, both in fiction and non-fiction.  An epic novel, both in its length - 985 pages - and its scope - covering about 10 years in the early 20th Century - Fall of Giants is a great story and a fascinating look at the events of the time, especially The First World War.

  The novel is the story of several families from different parts of the world.  The stories do intersect throughout, but they also break off from time to time and we are able to see how historical events - The Great War, but also the Russian Revolution and the movement in Britain for women's suffrage - impact individual people. 

  It seems strange to describe a 985 page book as an easy read, but I really thought it was.  The characters - including some real-life ones such as Lenin, Winston Churchill, and Woodrow Wilson - were all interesting (obviously some more likeable than others) and the history seems to be incredibly accurate.  I did notice a bias toward a particular political view, but to me it did not affect the overall content of the novel.   

  This is the first novel in a proposed "Century" trilogy, and the ground has been laid with specific mention of the names of the children of the main characters in this novel.  I suspect that the second volume will focus on the time around World War II, but that is just a guess; at any rate, I am eagerly awaiting its release. 

  In the meantime, since this was my first Ken Follett novel, I will have to move World Without End and Pillars of the Earth higher up on the to-read list. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

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 only finished one book:  Emma, by Jane Austen.  I didn't really like it, but it was a good book for our classics group discussion; I'm also told that it improves upon re-reading, so maybe one day I will go back to it.

Books in progress:
  • Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.  I'm about 2/3 of the way through and enjoy it very much.  This is the first book of an anticipated trilogy and I already am eagerly awaiting the next one.  Oh, and I really need to read The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End too.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker.  I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying this, as I don't normally go for the creepy, gothic stuff. 
  • At Home:  A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.  I borrowed this from the library, but it is so full of interesting facts and trivia that I might just need to purchase this at some point. 
  • Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon.  I wish I could read more literature in their original languages, but this anthology provides a broad sample of translated works of which we aren't too familiar in the US
Once I've one or two of these of of my plate I am very eager to start Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones.  I was very lucky to have received a signed copy from a Twitter giveaway (thank you Claire Armitstead and The Guardian!) and there will be a discussion of the book on Twitter with the hashtag #HMDWchat.  The book has a very interesting premise so I am looking forward to reading and discussing it.

What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Blogger Recommended -- Hitler's Canary

  Welcome to the first post in A Blogger Recommended, a series where I will periodically write about a book I've read based on the review/post of another blogger.

  It gives me great pleasure to start with the YA novel Hitler's Canary by Sandi Toksvig, which I discovered through Helen's Book Blog.

  This novel is about Nazi-occupied Denmark in World War II and centers around a young boy named Bamse and his family and friends.  At the beginning of the occupation, the Danes are seen as rather complacent, almost accepting of their fate, but being viewed by the British and other Allies as "Hitler's Canary" - "he has us in a cage and we just sit and sing any tune he wants" - spurs some into resistance action, including Bamse's older brother Orlando.
  Then it becomes evident that Denmark's Jewish population, although small, is going to be targeted just as Hitler and the Nazis have done in the other places they have conquered.  This hits more close to home for Bamse, as his best friend is Jewish and several of his mother's colleagues in the theater are also Jewish.  Although Bamse knew of their difference in faith, it ultimately did not matter to him or to many other Danish people, because they were all Danish.  In a statement to his uncle Johann - a Nazi sympathizer - Bamse asks:

Uncle Johann, if you can't spot them without the yellow star on, then they must just be the same as us.  I mean, otherwise you would know them without the star, wouldn't you?

What immediately struck me about this question was how a child could capture such a simple concept so logically -- without overt symbols, how can we identify anyone as being truly different from anyone else?

 The story then describes the massive effort of many Danish citizens to get the country's Jews to safety by smuggling them to Sweden.  Although a fictional account, the novel is based on stories told to the author by her father, and it is just amazing about the bravery of everyone involved -- young and old, the persecuted and the protected.

  As with any story set in wartime, this novel does not have a completely happy ending -- several instances had me reaching for a tissue.  Nor does it paint all Germans as bad and all Danes as good.  One of the greatest lessons that I think can be taken from this story is that injustice to anyone must not be tolerated:

You must stand up for everyone's right to be who they are - otherwise you may find one day that it is you who is singled out, who is seen as different, and then there will be no one to defend you.

  I was drawn to this book not only because of my interest in World War II/Holocaust literature, but also because I am of Danish heritage and I honestly did not know much about Denmark's role in the war.

  On a personal note, I did also learn something interesting:  Bamse's father spoke about The Order of the Elephant, the highest order of the nobility in Denmark, even though elephants aren't native to Denmark. My grandmother, born in Denmark and recently passed away, collected elephants for most of her life and I never thought to ask her why.  I wonder if this was one tie to keep to her native country.

 Thank you, Helen, for bringing this book to my attention.

Monday, October 18, 2010

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.

Books finished:
Books in Progress:

I will be starting a new "series" of posts this week, called A Blogger Recommended, where I will write a post/review about a book that I read based on the post/review of another blogger.  I hope that you check it out ....

What are you reading this week?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Russian Winter - Daphne Kalotay

  Nina Revskaya was once a prima ballerina for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.  Her life was relatively comfortable, given that she lived in Stalinist Russia; but after a series of events that cause her to question her own life, she defects to the West.  Now old, frail, and living in Boston, she decides to put her substantial jewelry collection up for auction. 
  Grigori Solodin is a professor of Russian literature, noted for the translation of the poems of a celebrated Russian poet.  Adopted at birth, he has always wondered about his birth parents, and with the recent death of his beloved wife he has unconsciously been searching for some sort of intimate connection.
   Based on these two character summaries, one might automatically jump to conclusions about how their stories unfold, but it is not quite so simple.  Russian Winter is about loneliness, yes, but it is also about passion - for people, for a vocation - and how at times the two must co-exist.  The author does a fine job of mingling these emotions so that one is not always sure what the characters are feeling.  The settings of the novel -- Moscow of the late 1940s/early 1950s and present-day Boston -- also add a cold, lonely atmosphere.
   It's hard to talk about the plot without giving a lot away, but I enjoyed the pace of this novel and even though I thought I knew how it was going to turn out, a few twists came up to surprise me.  I would have liked to read more about how she came to own her jewelry (we only know the story behind a few key pieces) but other than that it was an entertaining book.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Abandoning Books

  So in a recent post, I mentioned that I had recently abandoned two books in a week and several commenters expressed interest as to why.  Other commenters mentioned how they did not like abandoning books for fear of missing out on a good ending.  I thought it was an interesting idea for a post, so ... here it is.

  I've actually abandoned three books in the last two weeks:  Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey, and The Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst.  I should say that all three of these were borrowed from the local library -- I might have stuck with them longer if I owned them.  
  In the case of Freedom, I gave up after about 20-25 pages because I wasn't feeling anything for any of the characters introduced to that point and there was nothing in the storyline that grabbed me enough to motivate me to read further.  I couldn't get through The Corrections either, so I'm not sure if it's him or me.
  For Parrot & Olivier in America, I made it to about 70 pages but I was getting confused - it seemed as if the narrative was changing from first to third person and I couldn't keep track of where the story was going.

  I only made it through about 50 pages of The Spies of the Balkans, again because the characters to that point and the storyline did not inspire me to read on.
  I don't normally like to give up on a book, especially if I have heard good things about it.  However, I have so many books on my to-read pile that I feel I'm wasting precious reading time on a book I'm not completely interested in.  Sometimes I can go back to these books and read them in their entirety and enjoy them (Atonement by Ian McEwan is one example) -- I guess I just need to have the right time for those types of books.

  Have you read any of my abandoned books?  Do you think I should try them again?  What makes you abandon a book?


Monday, October 11, 2010

Top Ten Tuesday -- Books I'll Never Read

  Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's question is to list your top 10 books that you will never read.

  Warning:  I understand that some of the books I have listed here are very popular and loved by many people.  They just aren't my cup of tea. 

  That said, in no particular order, the books I will never read:
  • The Twilight Series
  • The Hunger Games trilogy
  • Snooki's novel
  • The Secret
  • I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
  • The Shack
  • The Left Behind Series
  Of course, never is a REALLY long time and sometime down the road I might pick up one of these books (in Snooki's case, though, the temperature in Hell would have to be 33 degrees and falling and pigs would be getting ready for takeoff)

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:
  I abandoned:
  Books in Progress:
  Yesterday I finally got around to booking tickets for a few events at The Chicago Humanities Festival in early November.  The event I'm most looking forward to is a reading of selections from the 2010 Best European Fiction anthology (I've had this on my shelf for several months, so this will give me the motivation to finally read it!).  I also got a ticket for an event called Jane Austen and the Body - a panel discussing bodily references in her novels.  Is anyone in the Chicagoland area going to these or any other Festival events?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Secret Kept - Tatiana de Rosnay


  I cannot tell you how much I loved Sarah's Key.  The story of a young Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Paris and of the woman who learns her story 60 years later was heart-wrenching and so well-written, it has easily become one of my favorite books. 

  That said, I was very excited to see that the author, Tatiana de Rosnay, released a new novel in the U.S., entitled A Secret Kept, and I picked it up (yeah, I bought it) almost immediately.  This story, too, is told in the past and in the present -- about a man, Antoine, trying to piece together his mother's life and the ramifications of her early death.

  For her fortieth birthday, Antoine takes his sister, Melanie, on a long-weekend getaway to Noirmoutier Island, site of summer vacations with their family during their childhood.  The last time the siblings visited the Island was the summer before their mother unexpectedly died, and the visit brings back many memories for them.  On the way back to Paris, Melanie tells Antoine that during the weekend she remembered something about their mother that she must tell him, but then she loses control of the car and they run off the road.  Antoine manages to escape unscathed, but Melanie is seriously injured. 

  So one would think the rest of the story would be about this secret, right?  Not so much.  Melanie is taken to a hospital in a small French town and cannot remember anything about what she wanted to tell Antoine.  The story then seems to become Antoine's quest to find happiness in his own life -- to get over his divorce, to have a decent relationship with his children, to find love again.  Though interesting in its own way, this is not the story I wanted to read.

  Eventually Melanie remembers what she wanted to tell Antoine and it's -- really no big deal.  It does lead Antoine to question the circumstances surrounding their mother's death, but even that became anti-climactic.

  If I wasn't expecting a different story, this book might have been more enjoyable.  Alas, I had hoped for suspense/tension similar to that in Sarah's Key and I was disappointed.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I won an award!

  What a pleasant surprise this morning to see that I received this One Lovely Blog Award from Judith at leeswammes.  The rules for accepting this award are: 

     1. Accept the award. Post it on your blog with the name of the person who has granted the award and his or her blog link.
     2. Pay it forward to 15 other bloggers that you have newly discovered.
     3. Contact those blog owners and let them know that they’ve been chosen.

  Wow, I'm not sure I can come up with 15 bloggers but here is my list to whom I am paying it forward: 
  Please check out these interesting blogs if you haven't already done so!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

  The premise of A Novel Bookstore is a book-lover's dream -- two bibliophiles decide to establish a bookstore in Paris that sells only "good" novels as selected by a secret committee of eight literary figures.  It is a great success -- book lovers flock to The Good Novel to find quality literature that is seemingly lacking in other bookstores.  However, someone has it in for the venture; writing op-ed pieces denouncing the store's elitist attitude, exposing the owners' secret and not-so-secret pasts.  Three of the committee members are then attacked, and the fate of the bookstore is called into question.

  Unfortunately, the mystery of the attacks (and a weak romance) doesn't do much for the story, which otherwise is a great celebration of books and reading and their positive effects:

You have just confirmed to me that one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.

  The city of Paris also shines in this novel, and if I didn't already have an intense desire to make a return visit, I would definitely have it after reading this. 

  I have to say that I am a big fan of the book's publisher, Europa Editions.  This is the third book I have read from their catalog (The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody, both by Muriel Barbery, are the others) and I have several others on my to-read pile.  I love that they are providing American readers with European literature in translation.  It would be great to be able to read these books in their original languages, but Europa Editions provides us with an acceptable alternative.

(ps I've purchased their books on my own)

Top Ten Tuesday -- Favorite Authors

  Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created  at The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's question is to list your top 10 favorite authors.
  My top 10, in no particular order, along with my favorite work of each, are:
  • Margaret Atwood  (The Handmaid's Tale)
  • Jennifer Weiner    (Good in Bed)
  • Andrea Levy         (Small Island)
  • Rohinton Mistry    (A Fine Balance)
  • Bill Bryson           (Neither Here nor There:  Travels in Europe)
  • Sophie Kinsella    (Twenties Girl)
  • A.J. Jacobs       (The Guinea Pig Diaries)
  • Khaled Hosseini  (The Kite Runner)
  • Nick Hornby    (How to be Good)
  • Kate Atkinson  (Case Histories)
  The list seems to change periodically, though, as I discover new and new-to-me writers.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

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, the only book I finished was A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse.  I abandoned Freedom after 20 pages because it just wasn't doing anything for me.

  Books in progress:

  The latter part of the week was slightly tumultuous for me.  An employee's domestic situation brought itself into my workplace and somehow my office (and a few others) was targeted.  I arrived at work on Thursday to find that my desk had been trashed with equipment overturned and just about everything else scattered on the floor.  Thankfully nobody was physically injured and the property damage was minimal, but it was still a scary situation -- you know it wasn't something personally directed at you, but it feels that way nonetheless.  Hopefully this week will be less dramatic.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

October's Reading List

    For Reading Groups:
                 Emma by Jane Austen
                 Where Men Win Glory:  The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (I've already read this, so I'm not sure if I will re-read)
                 The Island at the Center of the World by Russel Shorto

                 Anton Chekhov:  Early Short Stories 1883-1888 (I received a book for review called Celebrity Chekhov by Ben Greenman and since I've not read any Chekhov stories I thought I'd better start with them)
                 Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey
                 The Debba by Avner Mandelman

   I know I'm going to sound like a broken record, but I'm really going to try hard to not buy books this month.  I don't know when I'll have time to finish all of the books I already own, so I need to seriously work down that pile first.  People -- hold me accountable!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Beginnings on Friday

  Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Becky at Page Turners. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading. If you like, share with everyone why you do, or do not, like the sentence.

  This week's beginning comes from A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse:

One could hardly say that Paul Neon's disappearance caused a stir in the canton of Biot, where he had apparently settled for good, nor in Les Crets, the scrawny village where he inhabited the very last house.

  This sentence provides a mysterious beginning to the book:  why wouldn't his disappearance cause a stir?  Who is Paul Neon?  It also sets the scene - for the moment in the French countryside.  It doesn't give any indication, though, why the novel might have been given its title -- another mystery (for now).