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Sunday Salon: the Rollercoaster Post

June 28, 2009

The Sunday

Well, thanks to last week’s answer post, I didn’t get to cover all of the books I’d read. So we’re in for another long post this week! But at least I can just do paragraph reviews rather than the interview thing. Unlike most of my posts, this one contains several books I didn’t really like, so the tone of my reviews feels a bit like a rollercoaster to me. ;) But we’ll start on a high note!

wesleytheowlI loved Wesley the Owl by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien was a young biology researcher working at the CalTech labs when her mentor suggested she adopt a baby barn owl, Wesley. This book talks about their relationship. O’Brien obviously has a very deep love for animals, which really comes through in her writing. Getting to know Wesley through her eyes was fascinating! Additionally, since O’Brien works at CalTech for about half of the memoir, and I really enjoyed whenever she gave peeks of the ‘weird’ aspects of being in a science community. Parts of it amused me because I went to a liberal arts college that had more than its fair share of strange students, so I could identify with the atmosphere. But I found myself laughing loudly on more than one occasion, due to the stories she relates (and she compares CalTeach to Hogwarts several times, for you HP fans!). Most of the book is lighthearted and fun, but things take a turn in the last couple of chapters, as first O’Brien experiences major health problems, and then Wesley inevitably dies. I cried. I’d highly recommend this for animal lovers, people amused by crazy scientists, those desperately searching for a happy memoir, or anyone who’s hesitant about nonfiction. Just prepare yourself for a less than cheerful ending.

kampungboyI expected to love Kampung Boy by Lat. It’s a memoir of his childhood in a small Malaysian village. And it’s in graphic form! And Claire loves it. Unfortunately, I have to be honest: while I would have given the story itself five stars, but the drawing style repulsed me. The people don’t even look like people to me, just weird, part-animal, I don’t even know what. Now, Lat has a reputation as an awesome cartoonist, and other reviews I read written by people who understand cartoons are in awe of his drawing. So I totally admit that this is my problem, probably because I didn’t grow up reading cartoons/comics, so my eye isn’t adjusted to it. And I did love the peek in village life that Lat gave me. I’d probably read the sequel, Town Boy, if my library had it, but it’s not a book I’d read over and over again, savouring. Just not my style of art.

sleepwalkinglandIt took me forever to read Mia Couto’s Sleepwalking Land. Couto is a white Mozambiquean (?), and this story is set during the civil war. It’s a complicated format, with nested stories, and a definite magical realist flavour. All of that really appealed to me. But the style is just so bleak that I had to force myself to pick it up after I had set it down. And I was never sad when I had hit my fifty pages (I read in chunks), and I never went over the fifty. In other words, it was work to read this novel. That being said, I’m glad that I did. I got to see Mozambique, and in the less depressing scenes, I could feel some of the flavour of life. Recommended for those who are willing to be sad in order to read a novel set in Mozambique!

myinventedcountryOn the other hand, I raced through My Invented Country by Isabel Allende. She’s one of my favourite novelists, so reading this memoir about (for the most part) Chile was a real treat. And the narrative tone definitely felt familiar from her fiction; I like it when authors have a consistent voice. I didn’t know much about Chile before reading this, so I felt privileged to have such an insightful and intelligent guide. And her family story is almost as crazy as the ones you find in her novels! :) Reading this is like having a close friend over for tea, and listening to her life story. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll find yourself nodding your head a lot. And of course, by the end, you’ll want to read her whole oevre! Recommended for everyone.

therednecklaceAfter Sleepwalking Land, I needed a fictional break. So I turned to Sally Gardner’s The Red Necklace. I adored her first novel, Coriander (about a young girl who gets tangled up with faeries in Cromwell’s England), when I listened to it on CD a couple of years ago. This one is set during the French Revolution, and doesn’t have faeries, but it still has a driving plot, loveable characters, and more than a hint of magic. There are definite overtones of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but without the weird slang or absurdly dense heroine. ;) I didn’t love it as much as Coriander, but it was still a thumping good read, and I plan on reading the next one (The Silver Blade). I’d recommend it for those who enjoy younger YA stories, historical urban fantasy (like Sorcery and Cecilia), magical gypsies, or of course The Scarlet Pimpernel!

antoinesalphabetI picked up Antoine’s Alphabet by Jed Perl because of the pretty cover, and since it was about Watteau, I assumed I could use it for the Art History challenge. But this isn’t a biography of Watteau at all. It’s more like Watteau is the jumping off point for Perl’s imagination. Rather as if you and an intelligent professor went out for a few drinks, and the professor kept up a steady monologue, that got stranger as the drinks kept coming. And that was alphabetised. I enjoyed it in small doses, but mainly I was frustrated because Watteau seems like an interesting artist, and we only get glimpses of him. Pretension soaked the whole book, and even though it was little, it took me awhile to work through.

longtacksamFortunately, the next nonfiction book I picked up, Ann Marie Fleming’s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam was wonderful. It’s a graphic memoir about Fleming’s quest to learn more about her great grandfather, who was a famous Chinese magician who toured the world, his Austrian wife, and their two daughters (one of them Fleming’s grandmother) who became integral to the act. Fleming is a film maker, and she made a documentary about his life, so I guess the book is a companion to that. It felt complete in itself though! Not only did I really enjoy learning about Long Tack Sam’s unique life, I thought the book’s format was perfect. It mixes cartoons with pictures with old posters and includes little things like timelines for the years; it felt so reader friendly and interesting. Highly recommended for anyone interested in fascinating, cosmopolitan families, magic, or who enjoy graphic memoirs.

choosingyouI was on a bit of a memoir kick, so I picked up Choosing You by Alexandra Soiseth. In it, she recounts how she got to be thirty-eight, single, and determined to have a baby, as well as the process of becoming pregnant (she went the sperm bank route), pregnany and labour, and having a newborn. This could have easily been banal (Soiseth discusses her struggles with weight, her family issues, etc.), but Soiseth’s brutal and complete honesty instead made it a fascinating read. I also loved it because, at heart, it’s a story of the sisterhood of women. Once Soiseth is pregnant, she relies on her girlfriends to help her out, and of course they deliver! Highly recommended for those who enjoy peeking into other women’s lives.

mudboundThen I read my third southern book of the summer, Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, which I was really looking forward to. I’ve read only positive reviews of it, so I’m going to say upfront that it seems most people don’t agree with me, but I wasn’t very impressed. Most of the characters felt like stereotypes (crochety, racist, sexist grandfather, strong black midwife, fifties housewife left to rot due to husband’s decisions, God-fearing, land-loving black man, etc.), the majority of the sad events seemed emotionally manipulative and ultimately extraneous to the plot (I won’t cite particulars, since it’d involve spoilers), and the whole thing just felt like it’d been done before. Also, while several characters took turns narrating, their voices all sounded similar; I often had to flip back to the chapter heading to see who was talking. Not to say it’s actually bad, I’d call it an average read, and I did like the parts about being a young black soldier in WWII. But it didn’t grab me, or challenge any of my viewpoints, or even introduce me to a society I haven’t ‘seen’ before. I saw a Barbara Kingsolver quote on the front, and the flaws did remind me of The Poisonwood Bible, which I loathed and everyone else seems to love. So if you enjoy books like that or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (which I also hated), I bet you’ll like this one. I think it’s much better than either of those, but it has the same feel, if that makes sense.

aletterofmarySince it’d been an up-and-down reading week, I took refuge in one of my favourite authors! I’ve been rereading Laurie King’s Mary Russell series this year, and I picked up A Letter of Mary, the third in the series. I loved the character development, especially Holmes’ and Russell’s relationship, and most of the book was tightly plotted. That being said, the ending wasn’t from a ‘traditional’ mystery ending, and while I found it refreshing (you mean the suspect doesn’t immediately confess all when confronted with evidence?!), it might annoy some. My own reaction, though, on finishing the book, was to want to grab the next one immediately. I find Mary Russell and her world immeasurably comforting, and of all the fictional characters, she’s the one I’d most want to be. I’ve gushed about this series a ton, though, so if you haven’t read the first one (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice), go out and get it already!

readingdiaryThe final book I’m going to talk about now is Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary. Now, I loved both A History of Reading (which I’ve reread) and The Library at Night, so I totally expected this to be a comforting, awesome book. Unfortunately, I barely enjoyed it, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as the place to start with Manguel. It’s published as an actual diary, with random paragraphs following one another in a kind of stream-of-conscious style (but with normal grammar). And for some reason, I thought most of the book just seemed pretentious. Like, I was actually rolling my eyes while reading. I may have even scoffed once or twice. Especially at his comments about “the English speaking reader.” There were a couple of months I thoroughly enjoyed (each month he rereads a different book), but for the most part I just felt sad. Also, there’s lots of political talk about Iraq (the diary was kept in 2002/2003), which I didn’t like at all.

So there you go, the ups and downs of a couple of reading weeks. Most of my five-star reads I either talked about last week or reviewed in their own posts, so my reading has been much happier than this post necessarily portrays! :) Still, out of the eleven books I talked about, I loved six and didn’t love five, so the overall balance is definitely positive. And reading, even with less-than-stellar books, is always a magical experience.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2009 6:37 am

    I have yet to read anything by Isabel Allende. What would you recommend for a first read by her?

  2. June 28, 2009 6:42 am

    Well, I’m sorry that there were some stinkers in there! I still think I would like Mudbound. I am one of those who loved The Poisonwood Bible, so I guess you might be right. Yours is the first negative review I’ve seen so now I’m really interested to see how I feel about it!

  3. June 28, 2009 7:01 am

    I guess I’d better go read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice! And it’s too bad about Manguel. I haven’t yet read anything by him, but I think History of Reading and the library one both sound fascinating!

  4. June 28, 2009 7:02 am

    I’m sorry to read that about Mudbound. I love books set in the South but I hate it when they rely on the same old tired cliches.

  5. June 28, 2009 7:17 am

    I loved “Wesley the Owl!” I think it was one of the first reviews I posted on my blog. Stacey has a website that is loaded with pictures and you can also buy a cute furry replica of Wesley at . But it’s the story that’s so wonderful. It doesn’t read like a nonfiction ethology book at all but more like a memoir that makes you laugh and cry.

  6. June 28, 2009 8:39 am

    I’ve had the first two books in the Mary Russell series for YEARS and haven’t read them yet. I must remedy that soon.

  7. June 28, 2009 8:41 am

    That Owl books sounds good to me!

    TSS: A World I never Made

  8. June 28, 2009 10:11 am

    Ah, it’s so nice to see a book blogger who shares my particular dislikes, especially when they’re unusual dislikes. Last week it was Poisonwood Bible and this week the Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which I couldn’t even bring myself to finish.

    You’ve confirmed exactly what I suspected about Mudbound. I’m ridiculously picky about southern fiction because so much of it relies on stereotypes. Clyde Edgerton is the only current southern fiction writer I can think of who doesn’t annoy me.

  9. June 28, 2009 12:06 pm

    I wish I could and write as much as you. That’s okay. As long as you’re doing, I’m still happy. Thanks.

  10. June 28, 2009 12:27 pm

    What a fun post, Eva! I love that you put in what you didn’t like as well as enjoyed. I have to seek out that one about the owl. It looks most interesting!

  11. lena permalink
    June 28, 2009 12:46 pm

    That’s a lot of darn reading! You never fail to amaze me with how many books you read in a few weeks or months.

  12. June 28, 2009 1:58 pm

    That was a roller coaster week! Wesley the Owl sounds absolutely delightful and is going on my list. I still haven’t gotten around to The Library at Night, but look forward to that one as well. Too bad about A Reading Diary.

  13. June 28, 2009 2:44 pm

    Pouting ’cause my comment just got eaten midway through typing. (Yes, it was undoubtedly something I did, of course.) Anyway, let’s try again…

    You’re killing me. Yes, you filled up an entire page of my little wish list notebook with this post. Yes, I even wrote down a book you didn’t like (Kampung Boy). Yes, putting you and Nymeth and Chris together, I may just end up in the poor house!

    I am definitely an animal lover and (luckily!) a lover of crazy scientists…so I think this is a must have!

    I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed in Mudbound…that’s a book I’ve been looking forward to since last summer.

  14. June 28, 2009 5:10 pm

    Eva – I have to add Wesley The Owl to my TBR pile, and My Invented Country and The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam! Your not the only one who didn’t care for Mudbound, I think for all the reasons you mention. Even though I really wanted to like it I couldn’t even finish it.

    Have a great reading week!

  15. June 28, 2009 6:21 pm

    I absolutely love the owl cover! Too cute!

  16. June 28, 2009 8:01 pm

    What a lot of books. I really want to read Wesley the Owl.

  17. June 28, 2009 8:13 pm

    It seems like last week’s books were 50/50. I can’t wait to see what you read next week.

  18. June 28, 2009 11:21 pm

    I’m always impressed when I read posts like these. The amount of reading you are able to squeeze into one week just astounds me!! Of the books you’ve read, a few really caught my eye. (of course, I’m STILL laughing at the “weird part-animal” people in Kampung boy! Probably not going on my list.) I haven’t read a book by Allende either. (and nothing by Laurie King) Figure these authors should rank pretty high on my TBR list!! I have Mudbound on my list too. Sorry you didn’t love it like so many have.

  19. June 29, 2009 9:06 am

    I love your Salon posts as they just add to my TBR list! I’ve been meaning to try The Beekeeper’s Apprentice every since I heard you rave about it previously but I still haven’t found the chance to pick it up yet. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these books :)

  20. June 29, 2009 11:29 am

    When I find I didn’t really like a book, especially if it’s one that many others did like, I always doubt myself and feel as if I have to explain my opinions. So, I definitely understand your reviews of the books you didn’t really love. I have Mudbound at home but haven’t read it. I want to start the King books, but haven’t gotten around to it, yet. As always, I’m amazed at the sheer volume of books that you read. I wish I could get through books that quickly, and I may just have a prayer of finishing all the books I want to read. :)

  21. June 29, 2009 11:36 am

    Amanda, I loved Portrait in Sepia, it’s probably my favourite that I read by her. But House of Spirits is better known!

    Meghan, I’m curious so see if you enjoy it too, since you loved The Poisonwood Bible!

    Rebecca, you should!!

    BermudaOnion, here here!

    Rhapsody, I agree: it’s definitely memoir first, science second. And I laughed and cried too!

    3M, definitely remedy that!

    Gautami, it was!

    Teresa, I’m glad I’m not the only one! Have you read Daniel Wallace? He’s an incredible Souther writer.

    Susan, awww: thank yoU!

    (Other) Susan, it was interesting. And fun!

    Lena, hehe, thanks.

    Terri, I think other people have enjoyed A Reading Diary, so it might just be me!

    Debi, I hate it when that happens!! I write my comments in Notepad to avoid it. :) I did like Kampung Boy, just not the art. :/ And I think Wesley is right up your alley!

    Gavin, I’m glad I’m not the only one! I finished it, but I was kind of on autopilot the last one hundred pages.

    Christina, isn’t it adorable?!

    Jeane, it’s DEFINITELY your style! I thought of you while I was reading it. :)

    Vasilly, so far this week’s been more fun!

    Stephanie, yep Allende and King should be high on your list!

    Samantha, thank you! I’ll just keep raving about the Laurie King series, hehe. Eventually I’ll browbeat everyone into trying them!

  22. June 30, 2009 2:38 pm

    wow. you are quite a thoughtful reader who knows the score. i have a copy of my debut YA book, Let Slip the Dogs of Love, that i’d like to send you, my compliments. maybe you’d like to review it. if not, you may enjoy it a lot, going by what you write here. check out the promo video on YouTube. if that grabs you, check out the publisher’s website at for a write up and author bio. if after that you wish, i can send you a copy. lemme know!

  23. June 30, 2009 3:33 pm

    Look at you go! I am almost done with Wesley… I stopped last night when I realized I was coming to the sad part, and thought I would save that for when I had a bit more time to sob and hug my kitties. :) However, it is ADORABLE and I love the CalTech stuff too. Wesley reminds me of our little miracle kitty, Katie. More about that in my review, hopefully coming tomorrow!

  24. June 30, 2009 5:54 pm

    I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like Lat’s artwork, Eva. I really did. But at least you liked the story. :) Anyway, I don’t know about the Poisonwood Bible and Memory Keeper’s Daughter comparison, are they really in the same league? I would think Kingsolver writes a lot better than the Memory Keeper’s author, he he. I will still try reading Manguel’s Reading Diary one of these days. I think I might like it. Well, a week of not-so-perfect reading is fine, as you do read a lot of good ones some days! Hope this week or next is better for you. :D

  25. July 3, 2009 12:56 pm

    Love Isabel Allende–I’ll have to look for “My Invented Country.”


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