‘Friday Salon’: the Early Post
I decided that since tomorrow is Dewey’s Read-a-Thon, there’s no way I’d be up for doing a Sunday Salon post this week. But I don’t want the books I’ve read since the last one to go by the wayside. So I spent the morning finishing up the books I was reading, so I’d have a clean slate for tomorrow, and now I’m going to talk about them all Sunday Salon-style, but on Friday. ;) Almost all of the books I read this week were marvelous, so get ready for some gushing!
First I finished Serve the People by Jen Lin Liu for the China Challenge. Liu is a Chinese American journalist who moved to Shanghai after journalism school, and eventually found herself in Beijing and decided to go to cooking school and become a certified chef. So the book is part memoir about Liu’s experience, part travelogue as she goes about China, and part cultural history of Communist China, since Liu talks to various Chinese people and share their life stories with the reader. I loved this book! Since Liu studied Mandarin in Beijing and lived in China for eight years, she had more access to the culture than a mere traveller would, and it showed. And while she was very different from her Chinese friends, she always portrayed them compassionately and made a real effort to ensure that their viewpoints came across to the reader as valid. Liu’s also simply a great writer-the book was always interesting, and I could have flown through it if I didn’t make myself slow down! She also includes lots of recipes (and a list of them all in the front), which I think is neat (though as a vegetarian, I think there were only 2 or 3 in the entire book that didn’t use meat, lol). Oh, and she’s a total foodie and great with her descriptions of food; while that’s not a big priority for me as a reader (I think mainly because I’m a vegetarian, so even the most lovingly described pork isn’t going to charm me), I know lots of people enjoy it. :) What I loved more was her description of the cooking process; I love to cook myself, and Liu obviously does as well. I felt like I was right there with her rolling dumplings! Anyway, I think anyone who is curious about other cultures, or China in particular, or enjoys foodie books or travelogues or expat memoirs would be delighted with this one. And if you’re doing Rebecca’s Spice of Life Challenge, Serve the People is a perfect choice!
Next I finished Nicola Upson’s An Expert in Murder, the presumably first in a historical mystery series featuring real-life mystery author Josephine Tey in England in the 30s. The murders are centered around Tey’s hit play “Richard of Bordeaux” and dredge up old secrets of the past. Honestly, I didn’t like this one that much. Upson relies on a lot of cliches, both in her writing and plotting. Additionally, she jumps around a lot among narrators, which I don’t really like all that much in any book, and especially not in a mystery. I did enjoy both Josephine herself and her friend, Detective Inspector Archie Penrose. If Upson had limited herself to those two as narrators, I think the book would have been stronger. But I saw the murderer, and all of the twists, a mile off, and I don’t think Upson was so much giving a nod to the Golden Age mystery writers as trying to emulate them. I mean, one of the characters calls Penrose just to tell him he has vital information that could solve the first murder, but he doesn’t want to talk about it over the phone, so he arranges to meet him in a couple of hours; I’m sure you can guess what happens next. Seriously!? Even when Christie used that device it felt contrived. That being said, I’m quite picky about my mysteries (I also don’t enjoy the Maisie Dobbs or Amelia Peabody books), so you might still want to give this a go if you’ve read less of the Golden Age authors (I wrote a big paper my senior year of high school entitled “The Evolution of the British Mystery Novel”), and especially if you enjoy theater stuff, since most of the characters are directors, actors, playwrights, etc. Oh, and I did like that Upson has both lesbian and gay characters without making a huge deal out of it; this would be a good unexpected choice for The Challenge that Dare Not Speak Its Name. Still, by the halfway point, I was counting down the pages left, and I won’t be reading the second novel when it comes out.
I then read A Lifetime of Secrets, ed. by Frank Warren. This is one of the PostSecret books, and it’s pretty much like reading a really extended Sunday post from the blog. For me, while I really enjoy the blog, I made the mistake of reading the book in one go, which was a bit too much of a good thing. In fact, it left me quite depressed, since while there are happy secrets, it seems like more of them are sad. :( So I doubt I’ll be reading the other books, but I’ll continue visiting the blog!
Philip Done’s Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind was a great antidote to any residual sadness! Done is a third-grade teacher, and this book is a collection of mini-essays organised by month in the school year (I was pleasantly surprised to discover they were essays, so this is going towards My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge). :) I’m biased here, since I’m working on my elementary teacher certification, but I loved this one! Every once in awhile, Done crosses the line into what I would consider ‘Hallmark Teacher’ territory, but that’s very rare. For the most part, his essays made me laugh or cry or think, and they all made me even more excited to be a teacher! :) I was constantly reading out loud bits to my parents, and Done has a wonderful way with words. I think anyone who loves little kids (or just has to deal with them! hehe), remembers their own elementary school days (my 3rd grade teacher was my favourite ever-Mrs. Hogue), or just enjoys essays with down-to-earth storytelling should give Done a try. He has a previously published book, 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny, that I really want to read too. I wouldn’t say the book was incredibly thought-provoking, but it was sincere, and for those who normally shy away from nonfiction, this would be a great way to get their feet wet.
The first book I completed this morning was The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. I stretched it out as long as I could, because I loved it so very much. It definitely deserves its own post, complete with ridiculously long review, so for now I’ll just leave it at that.
I picked up Death and the Maidens by Janet Todd for the R.I.P. IV Challenge, after Ana mentioned a different unsatisfactory book about Mary Shelly and this one came up in my library catalogue. :) Todd sets out to look at Mary’s older half-sister, Fanny, who killed herself in her early twenties and was pretty marginalised by history. But since there’s so little information on Fanny, the book is really a group biography, looking at Mary Wollstonecraft (Fanny and Mary’s mother who died after giving birth to Mary), William Godwin, the widower Wollstonecraft left behind who raised the girls, Claire, their stepsister after Godwin remarried, and of course Percy Shelly and a hint of Lord Byron. Todd’s a good academic writer-the book had an intellectual tone without feeling dry. But she seems to assume readers already have some background knowledge about that era and those people, so sometimes I felt a bit lost. She usually filled in the blanks eventually, but I would have preferred to have a larger picture. Of course, since the book centers around Fanny, and there aren’t that many historical sources on her life, I understand why parts of it felt like sketches. :) In the end, I think the reason I didn’t love the book had nothing to do with Todd’s writing but with her subject matter. Everyone she discusses comes off as a pretty bad person (ok, maybe that’s Todd’s impression, I don’t know-I don’t know much about these people). And it got tiresome to read about petty squabbles, bad choices, money and sexual drama, etc. I think in the end, I just don’t care that much about the Romantics, lol. If you’re interested in the time period, and the people, the book is well written and scholarly. But as someone who felt only a bit of curiosity to begin with, I can say I now no longer care about any of their lives.
I started reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace when I was in the middle of The Children’s Book, because I thought it might be one of the few books that could hold its own in comparison! I was right. :) I’ve always loved Atwood’s writing (I even enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, which since dystopian lit is one of my least favourite genres ever, is saying quite a lot), and I read several of her books in high school and then seemed to almost forget about her. I’m glad that the Canadian Challenge gave me the push I needed to start reading her again, and I bet she’ll soon once again be one of my favourite authors. :) Alias Grace is a historical novel centered around a real person, Grace Marks, who at age 16 and as a housemaid was convicted of murdering her master and the housekeeper and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Grace is one of the primary narrators, along with Dr. Simon Jordan, a young American psychiatrist who wants to use her as a case study and decide whether she’s insane. In addition to telling the story through their eyes, Atwood employs letters and, at the beginning of each part of the book (there are quite a few), excerpts from varied sources-everything from the real Grace’s confession to newspaper articles from the time to poems by Emily Dickinson. In fact, this book is the best I’ve seen at using ‘quotes’ to open chapters. I loved it because it felt so authentic; Grace and Simon both feel like real people, of their own time, and both of their voices drew me along. While it’s a pretty big book, I read it quickly-Atwood has managed to combine her own marvelous sophistication with a plain storytelling style from Grace’s voice and a slightly more intellectual but still imminently readable tone from Simon. I loved every page of this one, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical novels, the Victorian period (especially things like Victorian prisons, asylums, and spiritualism), Upstairs-Downstairs types of books (i.e. ones that focus on the secret lives of servants), or novels that are both literary and readable.
The final book I’ll talk about today, and one that I just finished about an hour ago, was also for the Canadian Challenge: The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede. On 9/11, the US closed its airspace, and a lot of international flights were suddenly forced to change routes. Over 300 of those planes ended up in Gander, Newfoundland which used to have one of the largest airports in the world (before the advent of the jumbo jet made a stop for fueling Transatlantic flights unnecessary). Nowadays, it has only 10,000 people, and on September 11th, 6.595 passengers and flight crews suddenly found themselves stranded there. I like Defede’s brief introduction to Newfoundland (including the proper way to pronounce the name, similar to ‘understand’ rather than New Finland, which is how I always thought it sounded like), and then he immediately begins to profile various ‘high-interest’ passengers (a couple from rural Texas who were on their way home from adopting their Second Kazakh daughter, a chairman of Hugo Boss, a US General, a Nigerian princess, a couple whose son was a firefighter in NYC, etc.). It took awhile for me to be able to catch my bearings, since Defede throws out a lot of names and stories quite quickly, but whenever those people reappear, he’s careful to remind the reader of who they are. This made things simpler. :) He mainly talks about the extraordinary generosity the people of Gander showed: everything from pharmacists working around the clock to call doctors all over the world so they could refill passengers’ prescriptions for free to stores donated toys for the kids and toiletries for everyone to the humane society workers who forced the authorities to let them take care of the animals on board the planes (no one was allowed to get any checked luggage off the planes, so passengers had only what they’d carried on). Essentially, this is a feel-good book about how wonderful people can be, and how love rising up in the face of evil. And it’s quite well written, even if it still feels like a journalist-book. ;) That being said, while I’m glad I read it and I enjoyed it, I also have to say that I cried through almost the whole thing. This is the first book I’ve read about 9/11 (vs. the events leading up to it, like The Looming Tower), and I was shocked by how emotional I became. The first hundred pages is about what everyone was doing on September 11th itself (the passengers and residents of Gander, obviously; Defede doesn’t talk about the actual events except for peoples’ reactions as they find out about them), and I cried almost the whole time, simply because I was remembering what I was doing (I was a junior in high school & home sick & began watching before the 2nd plane hit, when they still thought it was an accident, so I saw the second plane hitting, the crash, everything live and was home alone) and how awful it was. I didn’t expect that. So even though I recommend this book, I’d still give a warning that it might release emotions about that day that you didn’t know you had.
There you have it! I’ll be spending most of today preparing for the read-a-thon, either with my co-hosting stuff (cheerleaders-you should have an e-mail in a couple of hours! lol), or by fun stuff like cooking Chex Mix and pumpkin bars as snacks for tomorrow. I don’t intend to start any books, because I want to be completely open at 6 AM tomorrow morning. :D That being said, I have so many wonderful books to choose from, I’m not sure where to start! So if you have any opinions about the books in my pile (pictured here and discussed here), I’d love to hear them!