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Sunday Salon: the OMG-August’s-Over Post

August 30, 2009

The Sunday Salon.comApparently, August is over! The R.I.P. Challenge has begun, the Summer Lovin’ Challenge is almost over, and last night I had to wear a sweatshirt. So it’s official: fall is on its way. I love fall, don’t get me wrong, but I have no idea where August went this year! That being said, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading this week. I’m going to review all of the graphic novels in a different post, but that still leaves me with eight books to discuss.

So let’s get going. :D

painteddrumI read The Painted Drumby Louise Erdrichas part of my 9 for ’09 Challenge, which helps participants read books from the TBR case. I picked it up at a library sale last year, because I’ve heard good things about Erdrichand I couldn’t remember ever reading a bookby a Native American. The book’s in three main parts, each of which has a different focus and narrator, with a final section that kind of wraps them all up. United everyone is a Native American drum with spiritual powers. I expected to adore this book; I love magical realism, I love folklore, and I really enjoy reading literature by authors with wildly different backgrounds. Unfortunately, it fell a bit flat for me…it had a contemporary ‘book club’ feel to it almost, in that I felt the author threw certain things in merely to manipulate my emotions rather than to tell a good story. There arechildren dying and suffering left and right it seems, and only one of those really felt justified. That being said, while the book ended up being ‘meh’ for me, the second part of it was absolutely marvelous. That’s when the narrator shifts from Faye, a part-Native American living out East and working as an estate manager who returns the drum to its original tribe, to Bernard, a Native American who lives on a reservation out in the Dakotas. He tells the legends and stories that surround the drum, and the style had me completely convinced. When Erdich tells tales, it’s as if I’m sitting around the campfire listening, and I didn’t want that part to end. However it did, and I came to a trite third part that, after the majesty of story-telling in the middle, disappointed me. So, I doubt I’ll be reading more Erdrich unless I can find a novel of hers that sounds entirely like the second section of this one. That being said, I think a lot of people who enjoy this one; anyone who enjoyed Mudbound, The Kite Runner, The Poisonwood Bible, The Painted Drumfelt reminiscent. As for me, I’ve got Sherman Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, from the library, and I can’t wait to read another Native American author!

yesmydarlingdaughter I then read Yes, My Darling Daughterby Margaret LeRoy. While I didn’t read it for the R.I.P. challenge, it definitely fits into that category! In it, Gail, a young single mom who’s struggling to keep her life together, must deal with her four-year-old daughter’s increasingly odd behavior. Like her refusal to call her ‘Mummy.’ And her phobia of water. And her stories about the house ‘she used to live in,’ that Gail’s never been to. Having exhausted other resources, Gail turns to a psychology professor who specialises in the paranormal, and they go off on a quest to determine if Sylvie might just be remembering a past life in Ireland. While I enjoyed this one, I wouldn’t call it marvelous, and the reviews comparing it to Rebeccaare just silly. It isn’t nearly as gothic, the mystery is incredibly obvious, and the writing style is much lower. That being said, I read it through in one sitting and had fun with it!

inthefootstepsofmrkurtzThen I read a wonderful nonfiction book: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wrong (whose name I misspelled and confused a ridiculous amount of times) for the World Citizen Challenge. Wrong is an Economistcorrespondent who spent a considerable time in the DPRC (then-Zaire) and was in Kinshasa when dictator Mobuto’s fell. The book opens with her experience of that, her worry that there would be a ‘last stand’ in the hotel she was staying in, and what she saw in the streets. She’s a marvelous writer, who can really bring a scene to life, so I found myself engrossed. After that opening, she looks at Mobuto’s life. It’s a generally chronological approach, but the emphasis is a thematic one (for example, one chapter deals with the IMF/World Bank, one with Congo under King Leopold’s rule, etc.). It works very well, and I think she provides enough background information for someone who doesn’t know anything about DPRC to get a good handle on it. Since it’s a huge country in the middle of Africa, and its problems have encouraged destabilisation in countries as far away as Rwanda and Angola, this is an important book for anyone who wants to know about modern African politics. This was Wrong’s first book; she’s since written two more, one focused on Eritrea and one on Kenya. I intend to read both

BlueLatitudesI then finished up a very different nonfiction read, also for the 9 for ’09 Challenge, Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes. It’s a combination travelogue and biography of Captain Cook, the famous British explorer. Horwitz obviously has a bit of a thing for Cook, so he decided to retrace his journeys. There were things I absolutely loved in this: Horwitz begins his trip by sailing on a kind of ‘living museum’ of Cook’s first ship The Endeavour, so he has a taste of what being a sailor in Cook’s time meant. Throughout the book, he seeks out such forms of odd travel to try to get inside Cook’s head, which was really neat. He’s often accompanied by a Yorkshire-turned-Australian friend named Roger, who’s hilarious. And I haven’t read much about the Pacific Islands, so it was neat that most of the book was centered around them. He even goes to Nieu, a tiny Polynesia country I’d only heard about in connection with refugee issues. Horwitz is strong at bringing people and places to life. And yet, despite all of that, I didn’t rush through this one…there was something that had me constantly checking to see how many pages were left (and it’s over 400 pages long). So I can’t give this an unqualified recommendation, but I can say that I’m glad I read it and all of the good bits far outweighed the boring ones. That doesn’t sound as enthusiastic as it ought to be…I loved the emphasis on seafaring, getting to know countries I’d never ‘visited’ before, and learning more about Captain Cook (it sounds like Forester might have based Horatio Hornblower’s character on his, at least a bit). Anyone who enjoys travel or nautical books should check this one out! :) And I’m curious about Horwitz’s other writing now.

blueskyNext up was a slim autobiographical novel (apparently the first in a trilogy) The Blue Sky, by Mongolian shaman Galsan Tschinag. This was an impulse grab from the library’s shelves for me, and I’m happy to say I adored it. Tschinag’s writing is very fluid and natural; I was instantly transported to rural Mongolia and the life of nomadic shepherds. Almost the entire book is very upbeat; while Tschinag’s family faces hardships, his joy in his world far outweights them. I think anyone at all interested in international fiction or coming-of-age stories would love this, and I can’t wait for the other two books. I also discovered a cool publishing company: Milkweed Editions, which will be a marvelous resource for future reading. :D Since it was translated from German, I’m counting it for the Lost in Translation Challenge.

deadsecretAfter that I turned to Wilkie Collins, a trusted favourite of mine, and one of his earlier books The Dead Secret as part of the Classics Challenge. It was fun to see a younger Collins in action (this was published in 1857, compared to The Moonstone almost a decade later), as well as a lighter take on themes he explored more thoroughly in The Woman in White (1860) and No Name (1862). This one was pretty much pure entertainment, without the social commentary or shifting narrators (it does shift which character is being followed, but the narrator throughout is third person). I loved every second of it. Collins creates the most marvelous, idiosyncratic characters and then describes them perfectly. I always find it difficult to review book by my favourite authors, because I want to just say go read it now! Who cares about plot or anything? I promise it will be wonderful! So I think I’m just going to leave it at that…if you haven’t read Collins before, I think this would be a great place to start (it’s also shorter than his best-known novels, so there’s less commitment involved). And if you’re already a Collins fan, it won’t disappoint. :)

oucastsunitedMeanwhile, I was reading Warren St. John’s Outcasts Unitedfor the Dewey Decimal Challenge (700s). This is a nonfiction book about Clarkstown, GA which is a small town on the outskirts of Atlanta that has become a major refugee resettlement zone in the last couple of decades, and a soccer team started there that’s made up of refugee boys. I really liked the topic, but for a NYTreporter, I was expecting a much more analytical approach. Perhaps I’ve read/studied refugee issues a bit too much, but this felt like completely nonfiction fluff to me. Also, the writing style was so simplistic, it almost felt like a product of a freshman college composition class. There’s one major exception to this: the soccer scenes themselves. St. John is a marvelous sports writer, and I could see the games and big plays unfolding before my eyes. There are lots of these scences too, and I looked forward to each one of them! So I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about soccer and sports, as well as to those who are curious about refugee issues but don’t have much a knowledge base already.

newmoonsarmsI next picked up The New Moon’s Armsby Nalo Hopkinson. I put her in my Caribbean Challenge pool, because of Nymeth’s review of another of her novels, The Salt Roads. But my library didn’t have that one, so I grabbed this one without even bothering to read a plot summary. You can imagine my delight when it ends up involving mermaids! And magical realism! And the narrator is a middle-aged woman who still has flings with men and wears high heeled shoes! And she’s also completely anti-homosexuality, which comes up quite a bit in the book and is handled so marvelously (the homosexual characters are portrayed sympathetically, while the narrator comes off looking like the homophobe she is, so it’s evident where the author’s opinion lies). Basically, this book completely and utterly captivated me; usually I read 4 books at once, rotating every 50 pages, but I read this one straight through. And I’m positive you’ll love it too. It’s intelligent and literary while simultaneously being a fascinating page-turner. It’s different from any book I’ve read this year, and I mean that as a compliment. I thought about devoting a whole post to it, since it certainly deserves it, but then I realised I didn’t want to giveaway any more of the book, because it’s so wonderful to not knowing what’s going to happen next. So go read it already.

I was going to review The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman, my first official R.I.P. read, but I’ve decided I want to go more in depth into it than I could here.

I’ll close this post with a brief discussion of my new resolution to read half of my fiction by POC (people of colour) authors, which I made public in last week’s Sunday Salon. Immediately afterwards, I had a bit of a panic attack, not knowing if I would be able to live up to my goals (and I’m behind in my 25% POC nonfiction one, but this week’s Library Loot will fix that). But I did lots of research and put together a really long, really exciting list. And 6 out of 10 of the novels I read this week fall in the POC category. It’s early, but I already love how much broader my reading horizons feel. And not because it’s the politically correct thing to say, but because my favourite thing about reading is being able to peek into lives of characters that are compeltely different from me. I was worried that making such a big resolution would constrict my reading. But it’s done quite the opposite. I was worried I might have to read books that didn’t appeal to me simply because the author was of a certain ethnicity. Instead, I’ve found fantastic sounding books in all of my favourite genres. I was worried that I might read less-than-marvelously-written books simply because of the author’s ethnicity. But I’ve found it’s the exact same as reading white authors-some I love, some I have no interest in reading more of, but that’s ok. I share this with you in case you’re thinking about making a similar reading resolution but being held back by similar concerns. Many of the POC book reviews I see in the blogosphere are YA lit, which is great, but I don’t personally read a ton of YA. So if you’re the same way, and you’d like a book list to help you read more POC authors, e-mail me (astripedarmchairATgmailDOTcom) and I’ll be more than happy to share mine. :) As I said last week, the more blogs review POC literature, the easier it will be to diversify our reading!

Did you read any POC books this week? Did you enjoy them?

36 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2009 5:37 am

    When I found out I was moving to Australia, I picked up Blue Latitudes. I don’t remember finishing it. I think I got through half and I just got bored. I’ve added the Collins book to my list! I just read Woman in White and liked it!

  2. August 30, 2009 6:18 am

    I read a lot of Erdrich years ago. Love Medicine was fantastic, as was The Beet Queen. I’ll have to check out this new one!

  3. August 30, 2009 7:32 am

    I received Outcasts United from Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program, and I read it a few months ago. While I can agree that it’s “fluffy” nonfiction, I still really enjoyed the book. I found it fascinating to learn about all these different families and how/why they ended up in the U.S., and watching the kids learn to get along despite their differences was great too. The book definitely would have been better with more analysis, like you said, but I still was really happy with it!

  4. August 30, 2009 8:08 am

    How fun to see your comments on The Painted Drum here, as I just finished writing my Sunday Salon post that also mentioned it. (This is what I love, among many things, about the book blogging world … you can always find someone reading the same thing as you!) I’m just starting Part 2 and so far I’m enjoying this, although I can see where one could feel that it is flat in some areas.

    Have you read Erdrich’s short story collection “The Red Convertible”?

  5. August 30, 2009 8:11 am

    Wow, you really did get a lot of reading done this week! Kudos on that POC goal. I don’t always get enough different points of view in my reading.

  6. August 30, 2009 8:52 am

    i am so jealous of your sweatshirt weather. We’re finally getting some relief in San Antonio – only 97 the last two days – but it’s not enough to make me feel like fall’s coming yet. :(

  7. August 30, 2009 9:15 am

    I really hope you’ll give Erdrich another chance! Love Medicine is absolutely amazing and I think it sounds like the second half of The Painted Drum. Maybe?

  8. August 30, 2009 11:08 am

    I have really enjoyed Horwitz’s books, but there is a mix of wheat and chaff in them! Also I have listened to them in the car, and when you do that you can sort of tune out and tune in as needed!

  9. August 30, 2009 11:11 am

    I like the sound of THE DEAD SECRET. I’ve been reading the introduction to my copy of THE WOMAN IN WHITE to get a bit of background on Collins, and I was shocked to learn how many other books he’d written! You never really hear about them. If I like THE WOMAN IN WHITE, you can bet I’ll seek out THE DEAD SECRET.

  10. August 30, 2009 11:49 am

    The year is just flying by for me! I don’t know too much about refugees, so Outcasts United might not be too fluffy for me.

  11. August 30, 2009 12:31 pm

    I picked up New Moon and didn’t get to it.

  12. August 30, 2009 12:36 pm


    We have more YA POC in part because many of readers are educators and parents. I’d love to get more adult fiction. Now I know one more person to guest blog for us.

    Great reviews. I’m glad you honestly shared what a lot of people think but won’t say: They fear they won’t find books and authors they enjoy or identify with. Once you begin reading though, you’ll discover so many authors.

  13. August 30, 2009 1:28 pm

    Oh my, you have read so many I don’t seem to have heard of. I shall have to investigate.

    Over here in England, August has definitely passed with out the sunshine. Maybe September will be bettter.

  14. August 30, 2009 3:50 pm

    Can I just say how glad I am that you are back in the blogging world again? I’ve been busy and haven’t had the time to comment but I’m adding to my TBR list constantly after checking your blog :)

  15. August 30, 2009 4:10 pm

    I have the soccer book on my shelf as it was given to me. I haven’t looked through it and really have very little interest in in. You said the writing was simple. Simple enough for an 8th – 9th grader?

  16. August 30, 2009 4:50 pm

    I still find it amazing how many books you can get on to my wish list in only one post! :D

    My favorite Louise Erdrich and the one that prompted me to add a bunch more of her work to my wish list (though I haven’t been all that impressed yet…) was The Master Butcher’s Singing Club. I really loved this, though I guess it is a bit of a departure from her usual fare since it focuses more on a bunch of German immigrants living in North Dakota than it does on Native Americans. But yes, if you happen to want to give Erdrich another try, this is one that I’d highly recommend!

    I’ve got In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz lurking on my TBR shelves left over from my college days. It was one of those books that kind of got glossed over in the class that I bought it for but something that I still want to read – especially now that you’ve recommended it!

  17. August 30, 2009 6:32 pm

    Eva – What a wonderful selection of books you read! I try and make sure I get a good mix of points of view in my reading, from POC to authors from around the world. I hope you enjoy Reservation Blues, Alexie is one of my favorite authors.

  18. August 30, 2009 8:01 pm

    Oooh!! The Blue Sky sounds fantastic!!!! Why must you keep heaping books onto my wishlist Eva? Why?? Kidding of course..please continue ;)

  19. August 30, 2009 8:51 pm

    Reading your post fully clued me into the fact that summer really is ending. Sometimes, I just need to be reminded of such basic things :)

  20. August 30, 2009 9:19 pm

    Holy moley! I’m constantly amazed and humbled by your awesome reading!

  21. August 30, 2009 11:31 pm

    Rebecca, this makes me feel better. I can’t say why I kept getting bored, I just did!

    SmallWorld Reads, I’m sure I’ll give her another chance!

    Heather, I agree that the book had a lot going for it, and even though the fluffiness annoyed me, I still was happy I read it!

    Melissa, I love book-ish coincidences too!

    Lisa, it’s interesting how it’s made me shift how I look at reading!

    Amanda, it’s only at night; during the day it’s hitting mid to high 80s and there’s no a/c. Which is painful!

    Lu, ok-I’ll try out Love Medicine! Since you told me to! :)

    Rhapsody, I suppose I could just skim over the boring bits!

    Memory, I hope you love The Woman in White. :D

    Bermuda, definitely give it a shot; I found it to be a really fast read.

    Susan, you didn’t get into it? Or just didn’t get to reading it? If it’s the latter, you should check it out again! :p And I certainly wasn’t attacking how Colour Online has lots of YA posts; I think that’s great! It’s just that I tend to be more drawn to non-YA books. :)

    Vivenne, I lived in England for seven years, so I sympathise! But isn’t August blackberry season? So delicious!

    Samantha, thanks so much!!

    Christina, the writing would be simple enough, but some of the back stories on the refugees are depressing. There are a few deaths involved. I think I could’ve handeled it as an 8th/9th grader, but thought I’d give you a headsup!

    Megan, I think you’ll really enjoy In the Footsteps…! And thanks for the rec. :)

    Gavin, I’m glad he’s one of your favourites-it makes me more excited to read him!

    Chris, lol. :p

    Beastmomma, it’s crazy right?!

    Andi, aww-thanks!

  22. August 31, 2009 3:46 am

    I’d love a copy of that list, Eva! I love what you’re doing, and one of the things that makes me sad about my new tbr rules is that I know I won’t be reading very many books by POC in the next few months, simply because I don’t own them :/ Still, I’d love a list for future reference! And this will teach me to be more conscientious in my book acquiring habits.

    It’s too bad your library didn’t have The Salt Roads, but now I really want The New Moon!

  23. August 31, 2009 7:36 am

    It’s been eventful, or if I’m being honest, it wasn’t. This has been the mellowest summer I’ve had in a while. I’ve read a fair few brilliant books, and a number of hmm-pretty-good-but-never-to-be-read-again books and, fortunately, just one awful book.

    August, for me, is a type of reflect, breathe and get ready for the rest of the year.

  24. August 31, 2009 1:12 pm

    Thanks for the Nalo Hopkinson review. I’ve loved some of her books, others not so much. I’ve been hesitant on the latest (The New Moon’s Arms) but your description–and enthusiasm–make it seem like my kind of book. …I also happen to have ‘Yes, My Darling Daughter’ on to-read pile right now.

  25. August 31, 2009 1:50 pm

    Good grief, you did all that reading in one week? I am so impressed! So much to respond to, and I know I won’t get it all in. No POC books for me this week. (Actually, I bet, now that I think about it, that I tend toward white people, though it’s not a conscious choice. I did some different reading this week: a memoir about horrific circumstances during WWII, escapist fare from Mary Higgins Clark, the new Faye Kellerman, which I just started and the name of which completely escapes me, and I just picked up a book about body obsession of the negative kind, Love Your Body, Love Your Life. It’s by a body image expert and personal empowerment coach. Anyone see the story about Kelly Clarkson and how she got airbrushed on a magazine cover? I think “GMA” did a piece on it — Kelly Clarkson was non-plussed, and thought it completely unnecessary. Well, how many people have unhealthy body images or are obsessed with what they see in the mirror? I’m not obsessed, but I am interested in fitness and good health, and have daughters who’d I’d also like to NOT be obsessed. This book is about helping people learn to create bodies and lives that they love.

    Oh — and the part about summer being over? We had record cold weather this morning …

  26. August 31, 2009 4:00 pm

    What a great variety of books, Eva. I’ve often wanted to try Louise Erdrich’s books but have heard lots of mixed reviews of them. I guess for now I’ll pass on but maybe one day.

  27. August 31, 2009 6:04 pm

    Three books I now MUST HAVE from just one post! Sheesh…I’m sort of afraid to read all the rest of your posts I missed while on vacation. ;) Okay, you know that’s a load of crap…I love to read every word you write. And you add the COOLEST books to my wish list. So I really shouldn’t be complaining all the time, should I?
    And speaking of adding books, I’d soooo love a copy of your list! Your lists are always so awesome! And this sounds like one I could really use…not a single book I’ve read in the past two weeks was by a person of color. *hanging head in shame*

  28. August 31, 2009 8:40 pm

    I really like Erdrich and am sorry you didn’t like this one more. As Lu suggests, try Love Medicine; I also really liked Tracks and Four Souls.

    I am always amazed by how much you read. Can you believe I’ve never read Nalo Hopkinson? Now I’ll have to try this one.

    I haven’t read any books by POC this week – but one I read a while ago and can recommend is Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens (set in Sri Lanka)

  29. September 1, 2009 12:21 am

    Nymeth, I’ll e-mail it to you! I warn you though it’s not as fancy as the lists I post on the blog. If I was restricted to what I already had on my TBR case, I don’t think I’d be reading many POC books either. :/

    Uenohama, I think mellow summers are marvelous. :)

    Alisa, if you enjoy magical realism and feisty narrators I think you’ll be good. :)

    Liz, thanks for commenting! I tend towards white authors too-like you it’s something I do consciously, it’s just a product of publishing/book blogs/etc.

    Iliana, I had heard mixed reviews too. Maybe she writes in different styles in different books?

    Debi, lol; you make me laugh! And I’ll e-mail you the list too, though like I told Nymeth, this one isn’t as fancy as the ones I put on the blog. I rarely used to read POC authors either, which is why I’ve made the resolution! No shame here. :p

    Melanie, I hadn’t heard of her before this year! :) That Sri Lankan book sounds neat-thanks for the rec!

  30. justicejenniferreads permalink
    September 1, 2009 11:32 am

    I can’t believe August is already over either. I have so much reading to do this upcoming week – trying to get as much as I can in before school starts!

    I’m sorry that your first Erdrich was only “meh” for you. I adore the two books I have read by her – Love Medicine and The Plague of Doves. Maybe the stories in these would be more to your liking? Both are written in a nonlinear format so they can be extremely confusing, but the stories and the writing are so beautiful. She really is a talented writer who really captures the plight of the Native American.


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