Friday, January 27, 2012

I'm moving ....

.... my blog over to WordPress.  I've not been entirely happy with Blogger lately, although it has for the most part served my purposes; however many of my favorite blogs are on WordPress and I've always been a bit envious of what they are able to do that I can't (at least without any advanced technical expertise).
  It will be in work in progress for a short time, so pardon the dust, as it were.  I will announce the winner of my giveaway of Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen in both places, so stay tuned!

  Oh yeah -- the new address is:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Treasure Island!!!

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
Published:  2012 by Tonga Books (Europa Editions)
Source:  Purchased

  This novel has a very interesting premise -- a young woman (unnamed), recently graduated from college and rolling through a succession of dead-end jobs reads the classic novel Treasure Island and decides to use it as the manual to re-invent her life, using the novel's Core Values:  Boldness, Resolution, Independence, and Horn-Blowing.  As I am always interested in stories that might inspire me to embark on my own life-changing adventure, I read with a notebook at my side; ready to write down any nuggets of wisdom I would come across.


   It's not that the protagonist does not pursue adventure.  There's plenty of it, though mostly of the unintentional kind.  And she is certainly motivated by those Core Values.  But to me the motivation didn't lead to anything concrete and positive; and perhaps it's because I'm older and (ahem) more mature that I just became more and more frustrated with her and wanted to just yell GROW UP ALREADY.   My attention quickly re-focused to the much more entertaining supporting cast of characters:  her parents, older sister, her former boss, her best friend, her ex-boyfriend; many of them seemed to exemplify the qualities the main character was pursuing.

  At least the book was fairly short (172 pages), and the writing incredibly witty, otherwise I probably would have given up on this book once my impression of the main character turned negative.  Maybe I'm just not in the right age group to properly appreciate the heroine's efforts.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen -- review and giveaway

Published:  2003 by Anchor Canada
Source:  Purchased

    My favorite book of 2012.  Yes, it's early to make that call, but I just loved loved loved this book.

    Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is a novel with three related narratives:  that of Madame Proust of the title - Jeanne, mother of Marcel; of Marie Prevost, translator of Madame Proust's (fictionalized) diaries; and Sarah Bensimon, a Jewish girl who escaped Nazi-occupied Paris to a safe haven in Toronto.  Aside from Jeanne and Marie's obvious connection, it is difficult at first to see how the women's stories relate to one another, but they do tie together not only with the stories, but with the themes of memory, the French language (and its use with and against English -- especially in Montreal where part of Marie's story takes place), Jewish identity, and maternal love and expectations. 

   Marie in fact refers to Marcel Proust as "a comrade in pursuit of memory" and begins her translation of Madame Proust's diaries as a result of her affection for In Search of Lost Time.  In the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, her work on the diaries is intertwined with memories of her childhood in Paris, her first encounters with Jewish people, and of memories of Max Segal, a man who could not return the love she felt for him.  Her thoughts on discovering a fellow student in her Parisian school I found especially interesting and vivid:

... in these Parisian days, I know few Jews personally, and David's blond hair and happy manner are utterly unlike the other Jews I do know, the ones in the pictures they show us at school.  They are emaciated, living skeletons in striped pyjamas, indistinguishable one from the other.

and on learning about those "skeletons" in school:

These suffering skeletons in their striped pyjamas seem to me as noble and as distant as the bleeding Christ and weeping Virgin whose image hangs on the wall of the small classroom where we dully receive instruction on our catechism every Wednesday afternoon.

Such a lovely (yet at the same time haunting) description of Holocaust victims that I never have seen.

  Sarah Bensimon's story is not as directly tied to the other two, but it is no less interesting.  Living in Toronto with a Jewish foster family, she is brought up as "normally" as possible given her circumstances, though as a young woman and then as a wife and mother she seems to become a timid and insecure person who is not at all sure of her place in the world.  To comply with her more observant husband's religious traditions, but to keep the culinary traditions of her homeland, she turns her attention to cooking and finding a way to combine the two.  It is hard to say if this helps her at all or if it is only to please the others in her life, but to me it seems that this is the one of the few things she truly enjoys.

  And of course, being set partially in Canada, winter plays a part in the story and I just loved some of the descriptions of the season, especially this declaration Max makes to Marie as they leave a party in the dark of night during a snowfall:

"Snow, it's like falling in love.  Makes you see the whole world differently."

 I loved this sentence especially since as I was reading it six inches of snow was falling on us in Chicagoland and as I looked out the window I could see everything look prettier and calmer. 

  Kate Taylor touches on heavy topics in this novel, but it is by no means a heavy read.  Each narrative was well-told and woven into one another seamlessly; and as evidenced by the few quotes I've cited above, her use of words to paint a picture is perfect.

   I highly highly recommend this novel, but it is a bit tricky to find.  I picked it up on a visit to Toronto last week, and the only online source of it that I could find is Canada's bookstore chain Indigo.  But I really really want you to read this book, so for one lucky commenter (internationally!) I would like to order the book on their behalf.  Leave an e-mail address with your comment and on Sunday, January 29 I will randomly select a winner.


Friday, January 20, 2012

TLC Book Tour -- The Ruins of Us

The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen
Published:  2012 by Harper Perennial
Source:  Received from publisher for review

  I'm a curious person and love to read about different countries and cultures, so I've always been drawn to novels set in exotic locales that provide a glimpse into the true life of its residents.  When given the opportunity to participate in the tour for The Ruins of Us, I couldn't resist. 

  Set in Saudi Arabia, the novel is about Rosalie, an American who spent part of her childhood there and who returned to the country after marrying a Saudi man she met in college.  As we meet Rosalie, she is shopping with her teenage daughter when she receives surprising news from the unlikeliest of sources - a merchant in the market:  her husband has taken a second wife and in fact they have been married for two years.  Since she is still considered an outsider to many in her husband's family and his associates, this news has humiliated her and she is angry, though unsure of what to do.  While this is happening, Rosalie and Abdullah's teenage son, Faisal, is coming under the influence of a Muslim teacher/cleric and as he becomes more religious he becomes more confrontational with his parents and also with Dan, a friend of theirs from college now working in Saudi Arabia.  

  I think the major problem I had with this story is that for me it started in the middle, when Rosalie found out about the second wife (it's not a spoiler, this information is revealed on the jacket copy).  Aside from the obvious issues of it being a second wife and that it had been kept a secret, why did this upset Rosalie so much?  What was their marriage like in the happy, earlier days?  Why did this news cause her to want to distance herself from the culture that she went to so many lengths to become part of?  The few flashbacks into Rosalie and Abdullah's courtship did not provide any insight to me.  As well, Faisal's storyline seemed to be a stereotype, though I don't know if that is because of my preconceived notions (I can't explain this too much without a spoiler).  And, again, because I felt I was dropped in mid-story, I have questions about why Faisal was moving in the direction he chose. 

  There are some lovely descriptions of the Saudi landscape (not all desert) and frequent use of Arabic terms, which gave me a sensory experience of the novel's setting (though I wish there was a glossary of the terms included), but the story itself was for me not worthy of it. 

  For other perspectives on this novel, please visit the other stops on this tour.



Wednesday, January 18, 2012

bibliosue's bibliotherapy

So I've been off of the radar for about a week but I'm back! (did you miss me?)

My day job has been driving me (more) crazy the last month or so and unfortunately it has meant that the last thing I want to do when I get home is sit in front of the computer.  And I've missed it, which is I think a good sign. 

Now that things at work have calmed down (a bit) and I've returned from an mood-lifting weekend in Toronto with my 2 year old nieces and 8 week old nephew I'm ready to get back in the saddle.  While in Toronto, I took some time out to visit The World's Biggest Bookstore and, well, damage was done.  This is the pile I came home with:

Canadian Pie by Will Ferguson
1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke
How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden (graphic novel)
Winter:  Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik
Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen by Kate Taylor
Why I Hate Canadians by Will Ferguson (full disclosure:  I am Canadian, eh?)
Concerto to the Memory of an Angel by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Ulysse from Bagdad by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Odette Toulemonde et autres histoires by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

Ok yes, I did load up on the Schmitt titles, but two of these are in French and given my improving though basic ability in the language will take me a while to read; Odette Toulemonde is the original French version of The Most Beautiful Book in the World which was one of my favorites of 2011 (reviewed here).  And only some of these were impulse purchases -- I did actually go into the store with a list of what I wanted to purchase, the others just "found" their way onto the stack.

I am about halfway through Madame Proust and am loving it -- if you are able to find it please do pick it up because I would love to discuss it with someone.  When I'm done I'll definitely be writing about it if you need an extra push to hunt it down (really, it is a tricky book to find).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reading Challenge Quickie Review: Postcards from a Dead Girl

Published:  2010 by Harper Perennial
Source:  Purchased

  Sid sells travel packages via telephone.  He is not much of a traveller.  But when he starts getting postcards from various international destinations without any signatures and with relatively old postmarks, he sets out on a mini-quest to track down the origin of the postcards, thinking it my be his ex-girlfriend, Zoe, who is sending them. 

  The story isn't as simple as that, of course.  His dead mother talks to him through a bottle of wine in the basement.  The smell of lilac overcomes him on occasion without warning.  He obviously has issues that he is not willing to face and he is letting everything else in his life slip by.

  I initially picked up this book because of the back cover's description of a "solo European jaunt" (ok, it doesn't take much for me to pick up a book) and though that was only a small part of this story, I still enjoyed the book anyway.  It's a bit hard to explain without spoiling anything, but there's a little bit of adventure, a little dark comedy, a little family drama, a little sadness and a little romance that all seems to come together and work for me.  Sid is a quirky guy who I both liked and disliked and I want to see him solve his postcard mystery.  Does it get solved?  Well, you will have to read the book.


Monday, January 9, 2012

TLC Blog Tour - The Western Lit Survival Kit

Published:  2012 by Gotham Books
Source:  Received from publisher for review

  Aside from a Shakespeare play every year in high school (The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Hamlet), my education in "classical" literature was sparse.  I remember studying Bruce Springsteen's lyrics as poetry, so my English teachers were very much on the modern side of the spectrum.  I am on a quest to round out my reading experience by catching up with what I've missed, but let's face it -- books labeled classic also get an intimidating label upon them. 
  Sandra Newman has endeavored to relieve readers of some of the intimidation in these works in this witty and informative book. Starting with the ancient Greece and moving chronologically to the early twentieth century, she provides readable synopses of "key works" (well-represented but of course subjective) that explain not only the point of the piece (novels, short stories, plays and poetry are all represented) but also discussions of the historical periods and places in which these works were written and the evolution of the genres:

While Restoration literature is the voice of the nobility, eighteenth-century literature is by, for, and about the middle class.  Literature becomes professionalized, ...
... the eighteenth-century novel is subtly different from our conventional novels.  It tends to break the fourth wall, reminding the reader again and again that this is a novel and that the author can, if he wishes, turn the hero into a rabbit at any moment.

  The "key" players --  Homer, Dickens, Shakespeare (he gets his own chapter), Tolstoy, Hemingway, et al -- are well represented, and there are many names that I have never heard of.  Most of the writers are male, but Jane Austen, the Brontes and Virginia Woolf among others are in there too.  And the title says it all:  Western Lit Survival Kit; Asian and African literature is not represented.  

  The book is written in a very tongue in cheek tone which annoyed me at times -- it seemed she felt the need to add a punch line to everything -- but it is informative and a good reference for both literature enthusiasts and neophytes alike.  

  Be sure to check out the other stops on the blog tour:

Monday, January 2nd: Sophisticated Dorkiness

Tuesday, January 3rd: Chaotic Compendiums
Wednesday, January 4th: DBC Reads
Thursday, January 5th: Book Hooked Blog
Friday, January 6th: Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, January 10th: Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, January 11th: The 3 R’s Blog
Thursday, January 12th: Library of Clean Reads
Friday, January 13th: Books Distilled
Monday, January 16th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, January 17th: Shooting Stars Mag
Wednesday, January 18th: Luxury Reading
Thursday, January 19th: Joyfully Retired
Friday, January 20th: Book Snob
Monday, January 23rd: Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms
Tuesday, January 24th: Sarah Reads Too Much
Wednesday, January 25th: Literary Musings
Thursday, January 26th: Between the Covers

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Warmth of Other Suns

Published:  2010 by Random House
Source:  Received as a gift

  I cannot give this book a proper review.  Reading it made me mad, it upset me, it made me cry, but at times it also made me smile.  And I don't know if I have the right to any of those emotions.
  The Warmth of Other Suns is about the migration of thousands of black citizens from the segregated Jim Crow South to cities in the officially (though not always in practice) desegregated North.  The general migration story is explained, but Isabel Wilkerson, herself the daughter of such migrants, specifically tells the story of three people: 
  • Ida Mae Brandon Gladney: A sharecropper's wife in Mississippi who, with her husband and young children leave the cotton plantation to join her sister in Milwaukee, but who eventually settles in Chicago
  • George Swanson Starling:  An agitator for better wages for orange grove pickers in Florida, he flees just ahead of the lynch mobs for New York City
  • Robert Joseph Pershing Foster:  The son of the principal of the colored school in Monroe, Louisiana, he becomes a doctor and - not wanting to be merely a country doctor for the colored people - heads to Los Angeles to seek his fortune.
  We see their stories almost in their entirety:  The demeaning existence they had to endure in their hometowns (though it must be said there seemed to be an incredible sense of community within the black population which must have been what got some of them through such difficulties); the struggle to leave, the difficulties of life in a completely new environment up North.  What was extremely surprising to me is how much discrimination they had to put up with even once they were settled in these large metropolises, and this is where I started feeling outrage and shame;  neither myself nor my immediate ancestors had any part of this injustice but I kept wanting to just look up some of these people and apologize.

  The three stories are similar, yet very different at the same time.  Ms Wilkerson tells the three stories so well that they read like fiction.  I wish that some of the events described were fiction, but sadly ......

   It's a fairly long book, but it is definitely worth the effort. 

   I started this book just after Christmas, and finished it on January 3, so I just might make this one of my favorite books for 2011 and 2012.  Highly recommended. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

bibliosue's 2012 Reading Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone!  I hope you all had a safe and wonderful holiday.  Christmas was spent quietly at home, and the last week of the year was an extremely busy blur at the office so I did not do anything for New Year's Eve except relax. 

So ... 2012 is upon us and I started thinking about what I want to accomplish with my reading and in turn with my blog.  As much as I love getting free books to review and though a small part of me wants to be an esteemed book critic (I can be delusional sometimes), I think that for 2012 I am going to move away from this.  I don't do a lot of formal reviewing but when I do it sometimes feels like I'm doing homework and that takes away some of my enjoyment of the reading experience.  I still plan on writing reviews, but it will be for books that I have selected and obtained on my own. 

Given the state of my to-read shelves I really should impose a book-buying embargo, but I know that just is not going to happen (I'm going up to Toronto next week and have a list of books to pick up when I'm there).  What I can commit to, though, is a concentrated effort to control my impulsive book purchases so that I can catch up on what I already own and only purchase books that I genuinely want to read right away.

I don't think I will set a goal for the number of books to read in 2012.  I read over 120 in each of the last two years and I think that is good enough for me.  I would like to pay attention to what I'm reading rather than how much I'm reading and again given the state of my to-read shelves this is a challenge to avoid wanting to rush through one book to get to the next one. 

Do you have any reading goals for the new year?