Sunday Salon: the Belated Post
I wasn’t going to post today; on Thanksgiving we got some bad family news, and since then I’ve been too distracted to really get into blogging. But I’ve been reading a lot this week (hmmm…I wonder why? it couldn’t be that books are my comfort and escape, lol), and now I want to distract myself from what’s going on. And what better way to do that than in a ridiculously long Sunday Salon post? Last Sunday, I didn’t do a TSS, but I only read 4 books that I hadn’t reviewed (one of those I reviewed this week). But this week, I’ve read 18 books, which would mean talking about twenty-one books in one post. So I went through and found some I could do ‘theme’ posts on, which got it down to 14.
First up, I read Baby of the Family by Tina McElroy Ansa. This was originally on my R.I.P. IV list, and even though that challenge ended last month, this book sounded too good to ignore. It’s set in the 1950s, and follows Lena McPherson’s childhood. She was born with a caul over her face, which means that she can see ghosts. Here’s the thing about this book: Ansa has a wonderful writing style. She brings characters and settings to life seemingly effortlessly, and the story just flows. But this isn’t really a book about ghosts. They only make a couple of minor appearances, which really disappointed me. If it had been described as a coming-of-age story, I think I would have enjoyed it more, rather than impatiently waiting for the ghosts to appear. And Ansa has decided to capture Lena’s life from birth to adolescence-this is a large amount of time for a short book, so sometimes a chapter would simply begin several years later, and then go back to Lena’s memories, which left me feeling disoriented. That being said, I still loved how Ansa brought me into the life of an upper middle class African American family in Georgia, and how real Lena felt. So I’m happy I read the book, and I’ll be reading more Ansa in the future, but I would recommend this as a coming-of-age story rather than a ghost one. It’d be a great choice for the Southern Reading Challenge, assuming Maggie holds it again next summer!
Then I finished Saudi Arabia Exposed by John Bradley for the World Citizen Challenge: it’s a book about modern Saudi Arabia, especially its politics. I loathed this book, and I don’t recommend it at all. Bradley brings a lot of personal prejudices to his writing, and I didn’t find him reliable, which is a problem in a nonfiction book. But I was willing to keep reading, to find the few grains of truth in all that chaff. Then I got to the chapter about women in Saudi Arabia, and my blood pressure went through the roof. He kept saying ridiculous, ignorant things that just pissed me off. And I thought, if he has this little ability to imagine life from a woman’s perspective, he probably doesn’t have any ability to analyse Saudi men either. And that wasn’t all-the way he talked about the expats revealed a disturbing classicm, and his discussion of homosexuality left something to be desired as well. Obviously, I can’t get into a play-by-play analysis in a paragraph, but I really, really don’t recommend it.
I finally got The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and I couldn’t wait long after I’d brought it home from the library to open it up. This is a really popular ghost story in the book blogosphere, but one I couldn’t find at either of my libraries (when I lived in CA last year) or any bookstores. Finally, I decided to try ILLing it, despite only 20-something libraries in the US having it, and it worked! :) When I saw how slim it was, I decided to count it as part of the November Novella Challenge. Anyway, this is a Victorian-style ghost story, and I really enjoyed it! It’s a lot better than the other Hill book I’ve read (The Man in the Portrait)-while the tone of the book stays faithful to Hill’s chosen style, it feels less formulaic. The build-up of tension and atmosphere was handled marvelously. That being said, the book post-plot climax lost something. I think Hill over-explained the origins of the ghost, and the ending was a bit of letdown. But most of the book was a delicious, fun read, and I definitely recommend this one if you enjoy gothic books or Victorian ghost stories. I wish I could go see the play based on it-I bet it’s marvelous!
I picked up Ali and Nino by Kurban Said because I’d never read a bok by an Azerbaijani author. Said’s origins are misty-it’s a pseudonym that’s commonly accepted to be that of an Azerbaijani Lev Nussimbaum. The book is set in Baku, and apparently the Azerbaijani government feels that it’s a ‘national novel.’ So who am I to disagree with all that? Well, all I can say is that the whole time I was reading this book, it felt like it was written by a western European author pretending to be a Muslim. The book is narrated by Ali, a Muslim Azerbaijani who comes of age just as Azerbaijan is getting its independence (which the USSR promptly squashed) and is in love with Nino, who is a Christian Georgian by heritage, although she was born and raised in Azerbaijan. So the main story is their love, with all of the politics as a backdrop. But the way that Ali discusses his ‘oriental’ side, the dichotomy of his country, etc. just felt like a Westerner looking in. Ali never felt real, more like a political construct. And because of that, I didn’t enjoy this book a whole bunch. I’d maybe recommend it if you’re curious about the Caucauses during that time period, but don’t expect a wonderful story. And if you’ve read it, did it feel Western to you? Or geniune?
I put Ruined by Paula Morris on hold, because it was set in New Orleans and about ghosts! I read it when I was feeling sick, and it’s written so simply that it was easy to follow. I wouldn’t call this YA so much as middle grade fiction, and while it took me out of myself, it lacked enough sophistication for me to highly recommend it. I think if I had read it when I was 10, I would have loved it though. There’s a creepy cemetary, a ghost, a private school, and lots of mean rich New Orleans ‘old money’ famillies. Doesn’t that feel stereotypical? And it is: the story unfolds exactly as I would have expected it to. But it was a nice distraction when my brain was all foggy from fibro-it wasn’t a bad book, just too young for my tastes.
I loved Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, which I read for the Caribbean Lit Challenge. As I mentioned in a Library Loot vlog, I’ve been avoiding Kincaid because I had her confused with Jean Rhys (I didn’t like The Wide Sargasso Sea, and it wasn’t because I’m attached to the original Jane Eyre characters, since I don’t really like that book either), so when I finally figured out my mistake, I decided to start with her first published novel. It actually reminded me of Colette’s Claudine at School, but set in the Caribbean instead of rural France. Annie John is a precocious school girl, who describes her life on the island and how she changes during adolescence. Annie’s combination of flippancy and know-it-all-ness was just so perfectly teenager I loved it. Kincaid has a real gift for narrative voice! There isn’t much a plot-this is more a book that brings you into day-to-day life, which I appreciated since it was a different culture. I highly recommend this one, and I’ll definitely be reading more Kincaid soon!
Aura by Carlos Fuentes was one of my choices for the November Novella Challenge; I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got! Imagine Angela Carter mixed with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and that might give you a good idea of tone. It’s narrated in second-person, which is always a bit of a risk, but Fuentes pulls it off. And the story is like some dark, delicious fairy tale. I’m not going to tell you anymore about it, because it’s so slim (my book was 160 pages, but it was dual language, so the English bit was 80 pages), but this was my introduction to Fuentes and I definitely want to read more of his books. He was pretty prolific too, so I’ve got quite the backlist to choose from. ;)
Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan is an Israeli graphic novel, which I found ‘meh.’ The main character drives a taxicab and gets caught up in a quest to find out if his father died in an explosion when an Israeli girl fresh from her military service shows up one day. I didn’t really connect with any of the characters; they all felt flat to me. And I didn’t get much of a window into Israeli life or culture. For the most part, I liked the artwork, but I would have had no idea that the Israeli girl was a girl if the words hadn’t said so. I think that was intentional, though. Anyway, it seems like this one has garnered lots of accolades, so you still might want to check it out despite my reaction.
Raise the Lantern by Su Tong was another November Novella Challenge choice: it had three novellas in the book. I was nervous about this one, because in the past I’ve never loved fiction written by male Chinese authors. But the title novella, which is also the first one, was wonderful! About a young girl who has to become as a third wife after her family’s ruined, and her adaptations to her new life with its political machinations. I loved everything about it, from the narrative style to the characters to the story. It was dynamic, interesting, wonderful. I eagerly turned to the second novella, “Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes.” And I hated it. It was like a completely different author writing it-the narrative voice was awful, there was a lot of misogyny and ickiness, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. So I decided to go ahead and read the third novella, “Opium Family,” to find out which of the first two was the anomaly. Unfortunately, this one was just like “Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes,” and I hated it as well. So I won’t be reading more of Su Tong in the future, but I did really love “Raise the Red Lantern.”
Speaking of China, I read The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer for the China Challenge. Meyer originally moved to China to teach English for the Peace Corps and he stayed afterwards. He was teaching at an international school in Beijing (in college he studied elementary education) when he heard about the hutong neighbourhoods (the oldest parts of Beijing) being razed in the name of progress. Rather than just complain from the outside, he decided to move into one, volunteering to teach at the local school so that he’s not seen as a foreigner, and writing this book. The book combines Meyer’s own experiences with interviews he does with all kinds of Beijing-ers with brief chapters on the history of Bejing itself. It’s wonderful. Meyer has a great writing style that I loved to go back to, and everything in the book is just fascinating. I had really high expectations of this one when I put in on my challenge list, and all of those expectations were met. I highly recommend this one if you’re at all curious about China or progress or unusual expat memoirs (I wouldn’t call this a memoir per se, but some chapters are).
In my rereading of The Belgariad, I’ve now finished the third book: Magician’s Gambit by David Eddings. It’s impossible for me to be objective about these books; I read them so much when I was younger that they’re total comfort reads. Reading this one, I noticed something about the writing style might not appeal to 2009 Eva-Eddings uses adverbs a lot. But I love the story, and I love the characters, and they’re all old friends. So there. ;) I think the good aspects of the books easily balance out the adverbs, but as I said I’m a very biased reader. I’ll be finishing up the other two in the series before the year is out!
I feel confident recommending Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf to everyone. I read it for the Science Book Challenge, but I’m positive that people who adore reading the way book bloggers do will all love this. Wolf is a neuroscienctist whose emphasis is on how people learn to read. She’s also an avid reader herself, which is so evident in the text, both in the way she talks about reading and in her frequent quotes from a variety of novels. The book has three parts: first there’s a look at how writing first arose and the history of alphabets and that stuff, then Wolf turns to how modern-day children learn to read and what’s going on in their brains, and the last part is about dyslexia and when brains have problems learning to read. I seriously can’t emphasise enough how much I loved this; I’m depressed that I have to return it to the library-I’ll probably buy a copy for myself when I have a job. Every page was a delight. And as a future educator, I found it really helpful; Wolf’s oldest son has dyslexia, and so she comes at that part from a personal perspective as well as a scientific one. I highly, highly recommend this to everyone, but especially to elementary school teachers, parents of children with reading problems, and any pop neuroscience buffs.
The Maias by Eca de Querios was an Orbis Terrarum choice. It’s a Portugese classic, set in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and since I love that era I expected to love this book. Unfortunately, I didn’t. A plot doesn’t even begin to emerge until around page 300 (the book itself is just over 600 pages), and when it does it’s so sensationalistic I found it odd in such a naturalistic novel. Most of the book is just about Carlos, a rich young Portugese nobleman, and how he spends his time seducing married women, spending money, joking about with friends, etc. Now, I don’t need a plot to be a happy reader. But if I don’t have a plot, I have to enjoy the main character. And frankly, I didn’t care about Carlos…throughout most of the book, I just kept thinking to myself “Why? Why do I care? When is something going to happen?” I hate that, because I expected to be all gush-y about how wonderful forgotten classics are and telling you to go out and read this. But this one just wasn’t for me. The writing itself was good; I’m definitely willing to give Querios a second chance (with a shorter book). But I was quite happy when I reached the final page.
Finally, I read a standalone book from the Sandman series: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano. Nymeth told me I’d love this, and she was totally right! :) It’s not a traditional graphic novel: it’s more like a picture book for adults in that the text and illustrations are seperate. The illustrations are all these beautiful water colours, and the story is a retelling of a Japanese fairy tale about a fox falling in love with a monk. I think Gaiman is wonderful when he’s writing in a fairy tale style, so I loved the words. And the pictures was so, so beautiful and added a lot to the story. And the story itself was marvelous. In case you can’t tell, I highly recommend this one! I think it would be great for readers new to the graphic format, since it’s halfway in between. And at novella length, it doesn’t require a huge time commitment, although if you’re like me you’ll get lost in the artwork. This is seriously nothing like the Sandman graphic novels, except that Morpheus appears towards the end; it was achingly beautiful and a book I definitely want to own.
There you have it-many of the books that I’ve been reading lately. Sorry that I haven’t been commenting on blogs the way that I usually do or replying to the comments y’all have left me; it’s been a rough week.