Sunday Salon: the Wow-October’s-Over! Post
Can you believe today is November 1st? I missed last week’s Sunday Salon (although I did a Friday salon, lol) in the post-Dewey’s Read-a-Thon madness, so I have quite a few books to talk about. I’ve decided to save the graphic books I’ve been reading for another post, but that leaves us with 16. So let’s get started!
My first read-a-thon choice was Disquiet by Julia Leigh, which is also my first book for the November Novella Challenge (yes, we were allowed to start early). It’s set in France, and revolves around a woman who’s come back from Australia to her ancestral children with her two small children. But all is not well; the woman’s brother and his wife have just had a stillborn child, the woman herself seems to be expecting something bad to occur, and the children are just trying to figure everything out. I loved how Leigh created an atmosphere of creepiness, and there are several scenes that I’ll probably always remember. I don’t have a problem with ambiguous writing that conceals more than it reveals (I loved Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills), but I think Leigh could have fleshed it out just a bit more to create an even more wonderful book. I recommend this to readers who enjoy ambiguous writing, or modern short stories (even though this is a novella, it’s ending was as abrupt as many of the stories I read).
Then I turned to an essay collection: Expat edited by Christina Henry de Tessan. Each essay is written by an American woman who lived (or lives) abroad, and for the most part they were excellent. A couple I didn’t enjoy so much, but I still loved this book! Most of the writing was both thoughtful and wonderfully descriptive; I defiitely added to the “countries I want to live in” someday list! I’d recommend this to you if you too have been an expat, if you dream of being one, or if you like reading women’s writing. After that I read Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues, which I’ve gushed about already.
A science book came next: Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson. This is a quite slim biography of Miss Leavitt, who worked as a ‘computer’ for Harvard astronomers in the early 1900s (she looked at pictures of stars and categorised them) and had several key insights, although she was ignored for her gender. It’s also an examination of a key time in astronomy (you’ll meet Hubble, among others!), and Johnson does a wonderful job of making the scientific theories understandable. His writing is lucid and interesting, exactly what I want from a science writer. And there are pictures within the text! :) I think this would be a great place to begin for those that are new to science writing; it would also appeal to readers curious about women’s history or astronomy.
Then I turned to a book for the Lost in Translation Challenge: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Another tiny book (I stockpiled them for the read-a-thon!), I found this to be an interesting sample of Marquez, since I’d previously read (and loved) his longer novels and a journalistic-style look at FARC kidnapping victims. The book starts out with the death of the main character, and the rest of it examines why he died, and what everyone was doing on the day previous to his death as well as that morning. It’s an examination of machismo, and while Marquez doesn’t write from a political angle, to me it felt like an indictment of the tradition. I think this would be a great way for readers to try out Marquez, if they’re not sure about him. It’s written in his usual wonderful style, but it’s much shorter and without the magical realism (since it only covers two days). And for those who already love Marquez, it won’t disappoint!
The Creative Family by Amanda Blake Soule was an impulse library hold from me; after all, I don’t have a family. But I do love crafting, and I might have a family in the future. ;) Anyway, this book is one of the most wonderful, soothing, uplifting books I’ve ever read. Soule discusses how to bring creativity and craftiness into your home, and essentially calls for us to return to old-fashioned pleasures. I completely agree with her; I hate all of those plastic toys that pile up in kids’ rooms, and how there’s so much pressure to schedule every waking hour of a child’s life. But the book doesn’t dwell on those negatives; instead, it encourages you to go for the opposite. Search out one high-quality wooden toy instead of five plastic ones. Make sure your kids have space to use their imagination. You can’t overestimate the power of nature. Soule also includes specific projects you can do and list of resources in the back. I think anyone’s who is interested in parenting, or who disagrees with the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ mentality, or who loves bringing craftiness and nature into their lives will love this. She has a blog, SouleMama that gives you a good idea of her writing style, but I’d still recommend reading the book as well. I know I want to buy a copy for my shelves!
Still in the read-a-thon books, I grabbed Where are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark (part of my R.I.P. IV pile). I didn’t like this at all, but that’s because when I started it I thought it was going to have creepy child ghosts in it. Instead, it had a p*dophile and a kidnapping. I don’t like any book that has that, so that was that. If you can handle that kind of stuff, this is probably a decent thriller; it all takes place over one day, and Clark ratchets up the tension. But the writing is nothing spectacular, and the characters felt a bit stereotypical to me (granted, when it was first published in the 70s, they might have been fresh).
Next up was Book by Book by Michael Dirda. I have a mixed history with Dirda; I think he recommends a lot of neat books and authors, but his writing style can veer into snobbish territory (from my persespective). This book had some really awesome book lists (and you know I love an annotated book list, hehe), but I think it could have been formatted better. Each chapter is a different topic, and it begins with 3-4 pages and straight quotes from other books, followed by Dirda’s own writing. I think it would have been better to break up the quotes more; they would have had more power and interest. Still, this was worth reading for me, and I definitely intend to refer to his suggested books in the future! I’d recommend this to people who love books about books and don’t mind the clunky format.
The rest of Dewey’s read-a-thon I spent reading graphic books, which I’ll discuss in a different post. So it’s on to post-read-a-thon stuff! First up is Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. This is a YA novel that I read for the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name. It’s narrated by a high school boy in a suburb outside Boston, who discovers ‘zines and develops a big crush on a lesbian girl who is looking to escape average suburbia life. Included are excerpts from the various ‘zines, with cool formatting; I thought that was neat. I loved how Wittlinger captured that hopeless love that refuses to go away (lol) teens often experience, and I thought the narrator’s voice felt authentic. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys YA, or those sick of reading about girls falling in love with gay boys (hehe).
While I was cooking this week, I finally finished Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, which I’d be listening to on CD. This is my third de Botton book this year; I love how he takes a philosophical approach to modern life’s problems. And I loved the topic: how our jobs and income determine our status, and how stressful that is. There were lots of wonderful quotes I wish I could share (that’s the downside of audiobooks), and I think in the end anyone reading it would feel inspired and happier about their life. My favourite part was when de Botton discussed how novelists have subverted society’s status expectations by giving us an insight into the lives and thoughts of the ‘lesser’ people. Oh, and did you know a possible origin of the word snob? At Oxford, they would note who wasn’t noble in Latin (sine nobilis) and was abbreviated s.nob. Fun, right? I’d recommend this to those who are sick and thus unable to work (well, that was my motivation for wanting to read it!), anyone unemployed or not in the highest income bracket that wants to feel better, or those who don’t believe in the rat race anyway.
I finished up The Texicans by Nina Vida after that. This was my attempt to give the Westerns genre another try, and I felt ‘meh’ about it. Afterwards, I discovered that Vida is a born-and-raised Californian, which makes perfect sense, since my main issue with the book was the complete lack of a sense of place. I consider myself Texan (lived there for about half my life), and I lived right near hill country, where much of the story is set. It’s a stunning landscape, one that makes you fall in love with it instantly, but that didn’t come across in the book at all. Even the descriptions of San Antonio (where I lived for years) were generic…the whole novel felt like it could be set anywhere in the west. I found that very disappointing. Also, I didn’t care about any of the characters; I was so excited beforehand that a bruja was a main character, and the book starts out focusing on her, but then it shifts and she falls by the wayside. And they all feel wooden, like archetypes rather than actual people, so I didn’t care about their struggles. That being said, the writing style itself was good. So maybe other people would enjoy this more than me. But if you’re a Texan, I doubt you’ll like this one.
Back to being positive, I next read Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz, another Lost in Translation selection. This is the second in his Cairo trilogy; I read the first one (Palace Walk) two years ago and loved it. I don’t know why it took me this long to read the second one! Fortunately, there are enough years that have passed between the two books, and Mahfouz provides enough background information, that I quickly found my bearings. I loved this one just as much as the first one! It’s mainly focused on Kamal, the youngest son of the family who is just beginning college. Mahfouz captures the internal monologue of that weird time in life perfectly, and often things Kamal though had me laughing out loud in recognition. This is more of a male-centric novel than the first one, which was fine although I did miss the wife and daughters’ voices. I hope in the third one they’re given more prominence. ;) I can’t talk much about the plot without giving away quite a bit of the first novel, so I won’t. But I adore Mahfouz; he’s so good at making his characters live and breathe! And bringing 20s Cairo to life. There’s love and sex and family fights…the novel has the domestic, individual-people focus of Middlemarch, only from the male perspective (so maybe more like Trollope). I’ll definitely be reading the third one soon, and I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys domestic novels, historical novels, or wants an insider pass to a different culture.
I have mixed feelings about the travelogue Adventure Divas by Holly Morris. Morris has been the TV personality in several PBS-style travel shows, and this is her memoir about a company she began with her mom to produce a new TV series, Adventure Divas that went around the world interviewing strong women. The chapters actually about the Adventure Divas trips are awesome! They go to Cuba, India, New Zealand, and Iran, and I found those chapters funny, inspiring, everything travel writing should be. But, alternating with those chapters, are chapters about Morris’ trips for other TV shows. And I didn’t like them at all. They had a ‘Look at me! I’m boar hunting with natives! Racing camels in Niger! Climbing a big mountain!’ feel to them that alienated me from Morris. And they weren’t about finding strong women, so they didn’t really fit in the book. Fortunately, they are the shorter chapters, and following each one was another Adventure Divas trip. For me, then, the bad chapters were balanced out by the awesome ones, and the book is well worth a read. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in women’s studies or travelogues, as long as you can put up with the author patting herself on the back a little too frequently. ;)
I went into Connected by Daniel Altman, which I read as an economics choice for the World Citizen Challenge, with high hopes. It’s a clever idea; look at globalisation by taking one day and analysing a different headline, and visiting a different city, every hour. Unfortunately, it fell flat. I couldn’t figure out who Altman’s target audience was; most of the book was filled with somewhat technical and detailed discussions, that made me glad I’d studied microecon, macroecon, and international econ in college. But then there were ‘interludes’ that explained really basic concepts. It was odd. And Altman is a pretty extreme neoliberalist, so I didn’t agree with a lot of his economic views, which he presented as if they were fact rather than a paradigm. I can’t say I’d recommend this as a choice for the challenge, although I think it would make a really good discussion/book club pick!
We’re almost there. :) I only have left the three books I finished up last night while sitting by the door for the trick-or-treaters. Ask a Mexican by Gustavo Arellano is a very tongue-in-cheek nonfiction read, based on Aurellano’s column in The OC Weekly. Most of the book is made up of questions-and-answers from his column, and while it’s often hilarious, it’s never PC. I can’t say I learned as much as I expected about actual Mexican culture, though, which disappointed me. I think if you didn’t have any Mexican/Mexican-American friends, this might have more interesting stuff in it, but it stays pretty shallow. It’s more a humour column than anything, and it did make me laugh. But as a woman, you should know that Aurellano’s lack of reverence definitely extends to gender, and the book more than a few off-colour jokes about women. I’m sure Aurellano doesn’t actually believe it, and the whole book is so off-colour, it didn’t really offend me, but it did make me raise my eyebrows.
A wonderful nonfiction book, that I’d recommend to everyone is Better by Atul Gawande. Gawande’s a surgeon, and this is his second essay collection about the medical field (you can see me gushing about his first book, Complications). While the topics in this book are different, Gawande’s thoughtfulness and marvelous writing style remain. I loved these essays just as much, and they definitely made me think; from looking at military medical personnel to doctors involved in lethal injection executions to medical incomes to more, Gawande doesn’t shy away from the controversial. But he looks at everything so thoughtfully, that it’s a joy to read. I can’t imagine anyone not loving his essays.
Finally, I finished Paper Towns by John Green. I read his debut novel Looking for Alaska last year, and enjoyed it so much I was nervous to try his other books in case they weren’t as good. Lots of bloggers convinced me to give Paper Towns a try, and I absolutely loved it! In fact, I loved it more than Looking for Alaska; it felt more innovative and original, and it has a road trip and all-night hijinks! It brought back some of my own all-night escapes from high school and college, as well as that freeing feeling that always comes at the beginning of a road trip. And the way the characters talk with each is witty and hilarious, but still realistic-it felt like how my high school friends and I talked. The book made me laugh, it made me think…Green transcends the YA genre, and I’d highly recommend this to anyone! However, I still don’t want to read An Abundance of Katherines, lol. It can’t possibly live up to this one. ;)