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Sunday Salon: the Wow-October’s-Over! Post

November 1, 2009

The Sunday Salon.comCan 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!

DisquietMy 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).

ExpatThen 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.

MissLeavittsStarsA 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.

ChronicleofaDeathForetoldThen 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!

TheCreativeFamilyThe 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!

WherearethechildrenStill 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).

BookbyBookNext 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.

HardLoveThe 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).

StatusAnxietyWhile 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.

TheTexicansI 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.

PalaceofDesireBack 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.

AdventureDivasI 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. ;)

ConnectedI 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!

Ask a MexicanWe’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.

BetterA 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.

PaperTownsFinally, 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. ;)

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2009 5:39 pm

    This is a wonderful list of books. I find some of them very intriguing, especially Atul Gawande ‘s Better and Complications and Paper Towns by John Green. I have added these and a few others to my TBR list. I am amazed by how many books you read, it’s fantastic!

    Great post, Eva.

  2. November 1, 2009 6:07 pm

    Gotta admit, The Texicans didn’t quite do it for me, either. I honestly couldn’t pin down the reason it gave me a bit of a meh feeling, too, so I chalked it up to not being able to connect with the story or the characters. Honestly, I *still* can’t quite pin it down, but it was kind of a bummer that Aurelia, who had so much potential as a character, was more or less relegated to the sidelines in favor of the unloveable Joseph and his wife.

    Here’s the part where I (again) subtly mention that Lonesome Dove is like 8500 times better when it comes to western lit, and therefore you really should give it another chance. ;-)

  3. November 1, 2009 6:15 pm

    I added Gawande to my wishlist, too! Rebecca Reads had some great revs of his books, too. And Miss Leavitt’s Stars is going on my list for Women Unbound. :)

  4. November 1, 2009 7:00 pm

    You have such a spot on taste in books, Eva! I always overload my Amazon wishlist after visits at your blog :) Thanks for the wide range of thoughtful reading here…

  5. November 1, 2009 7:27 pm

    Damn. So many of these look wonderful, and I was thinking this would just be a brief skim through my Google Reader. Instead I am taking a break to add books to my list. :P

  6. November 1, 2009 7:29 pm

    Wow, this is a serious Sunday Salon post, Eva! :)

    I LOVED Paper Towns too, and Looking for Alaska is one of my favorite YA books. I didn’t enjoy An Abundance of Katherines nearly as much, so I don’t think it’s a huge deal for you to skip that one.

  7. November 1, 2009 7:30 pm

    I loved, loved, loved all three books of the Cairo trilogy…maybe I should give Middlemarch a try? Haven’t seen that cover before.

  8. November 1, 2009 7:35 pm

    Gosh Eva, I always add a book or two or 10 to my TBR list after visiting your blog. Thanks for the great reviews!

  9. aartichapati permalink
    November 1, 2009 9:19 pm

    I completely agree with you and Megan on The Texicans. It just didn’t click for me, and I also was sad about Aurelia’s movement to the side (and Joseph’s weird lifelong obsession with her). I am interested by your review of Palace of Desire and how you say you loved Palace Walk. I gave that one a try while I was in Egypt a couple years ago to do some ‘sense of place’ reading, and I had to put it down. The main character upset me so much. And I felt so bad for his wife.

    Now that I think about it, that would be a good one for the women unbound challenge, too, considering how the women in there are treated and how they think and react…

  10. November 1, 2009 9:37 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read John Green for quite some time. You’ve given me so many books to think about, and so many that I hadn’t even heard of!

  11. November 1, 2009 11:58 pm

    Wasn’t Miss Leavitt’s Stars neat? I’m so glad you liked that one!
    Meanwhile, you have added another 5 books to the endless List without even trying…off to join your challenge too…oy!

  12. November 2, 2009 4:00 am

    You’re such a reading machine, aren’t you? You can’t stop make me amazed of how fast you read! ;)

  13. November 2, 2009 5:23 am

    Well, holy sugar monkeys, Eva…this post was nearly as bad on my wish list as your last post!

    I know just what you mean about John Green…even though I have both Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines on the shelf here, I can’t seem to make myself read them. I just found Looking for Alaska so very special that I’m afraid of being let down.

  14. November 2, 2009 5:28 am

    Love these mini-reviews, they are the perfect bite-sized taste of a book! I’m adding disquiet to my reading list, as well as Status Anxiety (love the s.nob fact!)

    I’d read Where Are The Children a few years back after hearing how fantastic Higgins-Clark is, and I wasn’t overly impressed. After trying two others of her books I decided she wasn’t the author for me.

    So happy you enjoyed Paper Towns – I just love how Green writes about adolescence with such realism.

  15. November 2, 2009 7:43 am

    Wow, u made me add a few titles to my reading list. Would love to read John Greene’s Paper Towns..

  16. November 2, 2009 10:32 am

    I loved Miss Leavitt’s Stars, glad you enjoyed it too.

    You mention so many books that I want to read now; both of Gawande’s sound so appealing. I also enjoy de Botton; have you read The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work?

    And, unlike most people, I love An Abundance of Katherines the best of John Green’s books. Though I did just finish Paper Towns and enjoyed it as well.

  17. November 2, 2009 12:34 pm

    Definitely want Disquiet. I do like the sound of this. Yet again, I am stunned by the amount of books you read in a week.

  18. November 2, 2009 10:09 pm

    I was an Expat for 15 months! My suburban Australian town didn’t seem very foreign, but that sounds like a fun collection of essays all the same! The science book sounds light enough for my science-challenged brain, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold sounds excellent: I enjoyed 100 Years of Solitude but found it hard to follow much of the time!

    I really need to read the Creative Family book — we don’t have a lot of toys for the reasons you mention and he just loves creative play (he stirs his puzzle pieces in a bowl and puts it in an “oven.” When he takes it out he says “hot!”)

    I gave up on Book by Book last year because the set up was off putting, and I’ve heard great things about the Mahfouz and Paper Towns! Glad you enjoyed Better as well!

    I saw the Ask a Mexican book as it came through circulation one morning (I volunteer there) and I flipped through it — kind of got the same impression you mention about it being rather shallow…

    Wow, so I have lots to say about all these books, I guess! One review for 16 garners a lot of comments, I guess.

  19. November 2, 2009 10:47 pm

    I’d never heard of that Marquez. I’m always on the lookout for short fiction by classic authors. I loved One Hundred Years of Solitude, so I’ll have to check this out.

    This is the second review of Better that’s made me want to read it soon! It seems so timely.

  20. November 3, 2009 3:37 pm

    Oh some of these sound really good especially “Disquiet” – doesn’t it have a great cover too!

    Unfortunately the Ask a Mexican book is not on my list at all. I have read his column and I pretty much hate it. I know it’s all tongue in cheek and ironic but maybe because I am Mexicana I don’t see the humor in it.

  21. November 4, 2009 4:43 pm

    Nice to read your review for Soulemama’s book. I’ve been following her blog for several years in spite of the fact the my youngest is about to turn 26. There is something so soothing about Amanda’s blog. She is such a talented writer and photographer and I stand in awe of how she manages her blog, the ability to publish two books, while raising/homeschooling four children. She makes me almost wish I could do it all over again. :)

  22. November 5, 2009 12:10 am

    Amy, thanks! :)

    Megan, LOL…at some point I’ll try Lonesome Dove again. Maybe when I retire. ;)

    Care, I know-I loved reading Rebecca’s reviews. She didn’t like Complications as much as me though, lol.

    BookshelfMonstrosity, thank you!

    Jenny, lol-that happens to me all the time when ‘skimming’ my reader!

    Heather, I know-it was either review a billion books or just accept I’d never review them, lol.

    JoAnn, isn’t the Mahfouz cover cute? I covet it. Definitely try out Middlemarch!

    Dana, thank you!

    Aarti, you know, the dad was a total arse in Palace Walk. But I didn’t think of him as the main character, and it didn’t seem like Mahfouz sympathised with him-you know what I mean?

    Hazra, definitely give Green a try soon! :)

    DS, lol!

    Mee, awww-thanks. ;)

    Dbei, sugar monkeys/! Do those even exist?! lol…I actually now love Paper Towns more than Looking for Alaska. For what it’s worth!

    Joanne, thank you! They arose from necessity, but I’ve come to enjoy them as well. :) And I heart Green-I could live in one of his novels quite happily.

    Docshona, hope you get ahold of it!

    Melanie, I haven’t read Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, but I intend to work my way through his entire backlist. :) Interesting that you think Abundance of Katherines is best-that’s definitely not the majority opinion! ;) But then, I think Anne’s the best Bronte sister, hehe.

    Vivienne, you’ll be able to read Disquiet in a couple of hours.

    Rebecca, I’m jealous of you living in Australia! I think you’ll enjoy the Marquez (and didn’t you read 100 Years in Spanish?!).

    DailyWords, definitely read Chronicle if you loved 100 Years! :)

    Iliana, that’s interesting! I can totally see why you would hate it…it reminds me of Stuff White People Like only more crude. ;)

    Les, she makes me want to have lots of children and move to Maine! lol

    • November 5, 2009 6:24 am

      I started it in Spanish but ended up needing to get an English copy. It was hard!

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