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Sunday Salon: the Warm Fuzzies Post

January 3, 2010

The Sunday Salon.comAll of the wonderful comments y’all left on my blogiversary post yesterday have given me a serious case of the warm fuzzies. Thank you all so much! :D As for this Sunday Salon, it’s wrapping up my reads from 2009. I wasn’t kidding when I said I went into a reading slump (which is really unusual for me around the holidays)…I only completed five books in the last bit of December, and then I finished up two this morning. So with seven books to discuss, this should be a pretty short TSS!

I raced through The Boilerplate Rhino by David Quammen for the My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. It’s a collection of essays from Quammen’s science columns, and I’ve had good luck with science columnists in the past. Unfortunately, Quammen just didn’t do it for me. A lot of his essays had annoying gimmicks (like referring to himself as ‘the journalist’ throughout a seven page essay), and he was a bit too cocky and ‘look at my profound insight’ for my taste. And he had that lame science humour that makes me feel like I should chuckle out of sympathy. We simply didn’t click. That being said, I can see that there’s some good material here; Quammen is obviously a real lover of nature, and a couple of his essays even touched my heart. And if you enjoy him, he has several other published books. So, not for me, but others might enjoy it anyway. I think if you just use the Amazon ‘look inside’ feature to try out the first few pages, you’ll get an idea of how you feel about him.

I picked up The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, because I couldn’t resist adding one last country to my list of places visited (Angola!). And I figured it was slim, so even if I disliked it, it wouldn’t last too long. ;) Fortunately, I absolutely adored it! From the narrator, Borges-reincarnated-as-a-gecko to the characters to the seemingly random plot points that all come together wonderfully, I was in heaven. I sighed when I turned the last page and sighed even more loudly when I discovered my library catalogue doesn’t have anything else written by Agualusa. But then a quick trip to Amazon showed that the US sees two translations of his books published this year (Rainy Season and My Father’s Wives), so now I can’t wait to get to know him better! Also, thanks to Agualusa’s inspiration, I think I might pick up some Borges this year. :D I think anyone who loves playful literary puzzles, or quirky, fable-like characters, or getting to know a new country would love this one. (Also, I feel I should mention how cute his author pictures are!)

I then finished my final essay collection for the My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge: Every Day is a Good Day ed. by Wilma Mankiller. I was really excited about this one, since it was supposed to be essays by Native American women on ‘life’ issues, but I was severely disappointed. I think the biggest flaw was in the book’s set-up; rather than a collection of essays, it was an odd mix of ‘introductory essays’ by the editor Mankiller, followed by a personal story of Mankiller’s, then brief thoughts of the other contributors. These parts were always italicised, which I found odd. And frankly, I think there was a bit too much Mankiller and not enough of everyone else! Also, many times the various women talked about their own culture by contrasting it with the Western Caucasian one. While I completely understand their anger and disgust with how white people have conducted themselves here on North America, it saddened me to see so many stereotypes about modern white US culture at the same time that the writers were complaining about being stereotyped themselves. I don’t think all white Americans act like characters on TV, and it would have been nice to be accorded the benefit of the doubt. There were some really interesting parts to the book, and some wonderful bits of advice, but overall, I rather dreaded picking this one up after I’d set it down for awhile.

Fortunately, I loved my last nonfiction read of 2009! Soldier’s Heart by Elizabeth Samet is almost an essay collection itself; the chapters are all reflections on various military themes, as experienced by Samet who is a civilian literature professor at West Point. Everything about this was wonderful for me; all of the literary and book-ish yumminess (especially her War and Peace references, which do contain spoilers though, if you haven’t read the book before), Samet’s love of classic movies, and her clear-eyed look at military culture. She neither idealises or demonises the cadets and her various military colleagues, which I really appreciated. Her various profiles of cadets she’s known are fascinating, and she really discusses every aspect of military life that I bet civilians are curious about. This was thought-provoking, fascinating, and very readable; I highly recommend it to everyone!

I finished Mistress of Spices by Chitra Divakaruni, my final Spice of Life Challenge selection, at 11:47 PM, New Year’s Eve. I don’t think this novel was perfect, but it had enough intriguing points to make me want to read more of Divakaruni, and it was head and shoulders above the movie version! Like many food-based novels that I’ve read, this had a definite fable feel to it…the main character has a magical connection to spices. She’s dedicated her life to them, and while they give her the power to help others, she’s had to make some pretty drastic commitments in return: never to step out of her shop, never to touch another person, and to live life in the body of an elderly woman. So she’s kind of like a nun. Originally from India, she’s serving the spices in Oakland, caught up in the dramas of the Indian immigrant community there, when a white man appears at the shop one day and threatens to ruin everything with love. My favourite bit about the novel was the incorporation of spices (which I love!). But it often felt a bit flat, and I ultimately found the romance at the heart of the story odd, to say the least. But then, I had similar issues with Like Water for Chocolate, so take my opinion with a grain of salt! ;) Ultimately, although I’m not gushing about this one, I did enjoy reading it, and it was a pleasant way to end the year. This was one of Divakaruni’s earlier books, so I’m curious to see how her later writing evolved.

So that’s it for 2009. What about 2010? I can’t say that I began this year on the best of notes, but I have finished my first two books of 2010. :)

I began listening to an audio version of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux in the middle of last month; it was a reread for me. When I was 11, I read the novel with my mother, and then for my 12th birthday we saw the musical in London. It was a magical experience, and I’ve been in love with the musical ever since (and can sing all the words). I’ve been curious about what I’d think of The Phantom of the Opera now, and I must say that the book isn’t as good as I remembered it. I think the story itself is still really neat; I loved all the stuff about the workings of the Paris Opera House, and the whole love triangle thing is a classic for a reason. That being said, Leroux’s writing is pretty awful! So awful, it might actually be good….it’s kitschy and amusing and would make a marvelous drinking game. It’s difficult to tell how much of Leroux’s style is tongue-in-cheek…is it supposed to be a gothic parody a la Northanger Abbey? I obviously can’t say for sure, but Leroux lacks the self-awareness of Austen. That being said, I really think the over-the-top aspect of everything from the plot to the dialogue to the characters is the best thing the book has going for it. I found myself quite affectionate towards it, in much the way I might view a three-legged dog or something. Am I glad I revisited it? Yep…but from now on I’ll stick with watching the movie or listening to the musical’s soundtrack.

I had high expectations for The Travels of Ibn Battutah edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, which I read for the Really Old Classics Challenge and began yesterday. I started getting into travelogues last year, so I was excited to read one of the founders of the genre! And the map at the beginning of my edition, showing the route Ibn Battutah followed over twenty-nine years of travel was inspiring. But. The book itself was a huge let-down; I found Battutah’s writing dull and boring most of the time with a complete lack of any self-knowledge or reflection on the new cultures he was experiencing. And Battutah himself came off as an ass. I know, I know…he was a 14th century man. But still; the numerous discussions of him buying slave girls, marrying women and divorcing them later, the way he described the women of the various cultures he visited, his extreme racism towards ‘heathens’ and later ‘Blacks’ was all too distasteful. I would have been willing to overlook this if he was a captivating writer, but since he’s not, I didn’t find much about the book redeeming. Occasionally, there were a few pages where all of a sudden things got interesting, but those were pretty few and far between. If you’re interested in this for the historical reasons, like me, you might find reading it worthwhile (I’m glad I finished it). But on the pure entertainment or armchair travel level, I can’t recommend this. I’m still excited to read Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s travelogue about following Battutah’s path though!

P.S.: If you’re wondering when we’re going to get our Hobbit on, just come back tomorrow for the inaugural post of the read-a-long!

Have you read your first book of 2010 yet? Did it set a good precedent?

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78 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2010 10:42 am

    My first book was Debbie Harry Sings in French and it DEFINITELY set a good tone; I really liked it!

    • January 4, 2010 9:17 am

      Wonderful! That title is super-intriguing. :)

  2. justabookreader permalink
    January 3, 2010 10:46 am

    I signed up for the readalong! I’m hoping to find a few hours to spend with The Hobbit this afternoon.

    I’ve finished two books so far and they were both pretty entertaining so a good start to 2010!

    • January 4, 2010 9:17 am

      Yay for Bilbo! I can’t wait to renew our acquaintance. :D

  3. January 3, 2010 11:05 am

    I’ve had a good start for 2010.:) I actually finished my second book of the year today: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (I read it for the Woolf in Winter group read). My first book of the year was a wonderful short story collection How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve stories of Identity, which I read for the GLBT challenge.

    Greetings,
    Tiina

    • January 4, 2010 9:18 am

      Woolf is always a wonderful read! I just got Mrs. Dalloway from the library so I can start on it for the read-a-long. :)

  4. January 3, 2010 11:12 am

    I missed your anniversary – congrats!

    You did better than me in December I read one book plus nearly finishing Drood (nearly 800 pages though). I finished it today.

    • January 4, 2010 9:18 am

      Thank you! Drood intimidates me; I’m not a huge fan of Dickens to begin with, so even though I love Collins, I’m not sure I’ll ever get to it. Go you for finishing it though!

  5. January 3, 2010 11:16 am

    I’ll have to reread The Phantom of the Opera again. Like you I was much younger when I first read it and frankly had it not been for the fresh movies in mind, I’d have forgotten what I read!

    • January 4, 2010 9:19 am

      For some reason, it really stuck in my mind, so I remembered all the differences between it and the musical version (i.e.: the Persian, the cricket vs. grasshopper, etc.). But the writing wasn’t at all like what I remembered!

  6. January 3, 2010 11:21 am

    “it saddened me to see so many stereotypes about modern white US culture at the same time that the writers were complaining about being stereotyped themselves.”

    It’s easy to fall into this trap. Not excusing it and I hear you.

    • January 4, 2010 9:20 am

      I agree; I completely understand why they would feel like that about my culture, but it did make the book more difficult for me to emphathise with. But then, maybe the point wasn’t for me to agree with it?

  7. January 3, 2010 11:23 am

    Well then–I guess I’ll skip Phantom of the Opera and satisfy myself with the movie and theater versions. Bad writing I don’t need! Do you think you enjoyed it more when you were younger because it was time you were spending with your mom?

    • January 4, 2010 9:21 am

      Hmmm…well, I definitely enjoyed it thanks to my mom when I was younger-the plot gets really involved, and she helped things seem less confusing! But I think I also didn’t read as critically back then, you know? :) The writing is so over the top, it’s kind of fun even while it’s awful. hehe

  8. January 3, 2010 12:03 pm

    I have indeed finished my first (and even second) book/s of 2010 the first one I read will be up tomorrow and I shall say no more until then. It was an interesting one though!

    • January 4, 2010 9:21 am

      Ohhh-secrets Simon? ;) I’ll be reading your review shortly!

  9. January 3, 2010 12:11 pm

    Eva, I also have a long-lasting love with the Phantom which goes all the way back to my childhood. I was obsessed with the musical (and I’ve seen it in the theaters about 7 times, at least!) and I too can sing along to all the songs! Did you ever see the recent movie version? I found it to be quite a disappointment (mostly because I don’t think the guy they cast as the phantom – Gerard Butler? – can actually sing…), but it certainly brought me back!

    Also, The Book of Chameleons looks great! I’m going to try to tackle my TBR piles in the first part of the year, but I am going to see if my library has a copy… ;)

    Finally, I have read my first book of the year (which I technically started in 2009, but I’m going to count it as a 2010 read as that’s when I finished it)… Northanger Abbey! It doesn’t get much better than starting the year with Austen, now does it?

    • January 4, 2010 9:23 am

      I did see the movie version, and I enjoyed it enough that my ex-boyfriend bought it for me. :) I don’t think the Phantom’s voice was nearly as good, but I loved the way that they staged it. And zomg, “The Point of No Return” is like the sexiest scence I’ve ever seen in a movie!!! ;)

      Book of Chameleons is really short, so it won’t keep you from your TBR too long, but it’s marvelous!

      And yay for Austen!!! Maybe I should just start every year with her. :D

  10. January 3, 2010 12:56 pm

    LOL! I love that you said Leroux’s writing would be perfect for a drinking game.

    I haven’t finished any books in 2010 yet, but I’m zeroing in on the end of two: Emma and Keeping the Feast. I’m also zipping through What to Expect the First Year (baby book, obviously). Good stuff!

    • January 4, 2010 9:23 am

      I know; I still have my college student mentality some days! hehe Emma by Jane Austen? That book has grown on me so much in recent years. :) And awww for baby books-I SERIOUSLY can’t wait to ‘meet’ Baby Andi!

  11. January 3, 2010 1:10 pm

    I haven’t read my first book of 2010, yet. I am off to a slow start!

    • January 4, 2010 9:24 am

      One of mine was almost done in 2009. ;) And I doubt I would have finished Ibn Battutah that quickly, but it was due back at the library and an ILL!

  12. January 3, 2010 1:25 pm

    My first book was Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun by Victoria Laurie and I love this series, so I think it was a great start to the year.

    • January 4, 2010 9:24 am

      Awesome! I love dependable authors and series. :D

  13. January 3, 2010 1:38 pm

    My first book of 2010 and my last book of 2009 are the same: When Everything Changed by Gail Collins, on my Kindle. I’m reading this history of the late-20th-century women’s movement for the Women Unbound Challenge, and I’m fascinated – almost halfway done, and it’s giving me a lot to think about.

    • January 4, 2010 9:25 am

      Ohhh; I can imagine that would be really thought-provoking. I want to begin my next Women Unbound feminist read soon: Taking On the Big Boys.

  14. January 3, 2010 1:42 pm

    I LOVED the Mistress of Spices (book and movie) and am looking forward to One Amazing Thing as well. Enjoy whatever you read next Eva.

    • January 4, 2010 9:25 am

      Thanks! I actually think I’m in the middle of several five-star reads right now. :D Have you read anything else by the author? Any advice on which one to pick up next?

  15. January 3, 2010 1:44 pm

    My first read of 2010 was Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which certainly set a good precedent, but then I read (& did not much care for) Slaughterhouse Five. So I am not sure what this portends! :)

    • January 4, 2010 9:26 am

      I read that back in pre-blogging land (so at least 2006) and LOVED it! I’m planning on rereading it this year actually. :D Vonnegut makes me really nervous, but I’ve only read one of his books (Cat’s Cradle) and actually enjoyed it.

  16. January 3, 2010 2:03 pm

    I haven’t finished a book yet! All of your reads look terrific.

  17. January 3, 2010 2:07 pm

    I’ve read Phantom twice now, both times as an adult, and both times I really like the first half and think it falls apart in the second. And yes, the writing is horrible. Jason is taking me to see the musical this March! I’ve never seen it before.

    • January 4, 2010 9:27 am

      Yay for the musical! My sister took my mom and I to see it in SA a couple of years ago. :) Yeah-the first part is definitely stronger than the second. Look-we agree on a book! hehe

  18. January 3, 2010 2:20 pm

    Soldier’s Heart looks like a good one. I’m about to finish Battle Royale and it’s been a struggle for me.

    • January 4, 2010 9:28 am

      I hate those books I struggle with. I’ve decided to get much better about abandoning books this year.

  19. January 3, 2010 2:42 pm

    I just finished Ruined by Paula Morris, which is a YA book set in New Orleans. It was fabulous and definitely a good first read of the year.

    • January 4, 2010 10:06 am

      I read that last year! And then I found out Morris is a Kiwi, hehe.

  20. January 3, 2010 3:26 pm

    Ooh, two books already! That’s a good start, in my view :-) I haven’t finished a single book yet, but I’m REALLY enjoying The Bone People a lot! I hope you find time to read it this year. I think the really interesting and thoughtful way it’s written, down to spacing and punctuation and spelling, is almost poetic. And I think you’d really appreciate that.

    • January 4, 2010 10:07 am

      Well, I had finished 6 out of 8 CDs for Phantom in 2009. ;) Ok, if tell me that I’d appreciate The Bone People, I’ll go for it!

  21. January 3, 2010 6:03 pm

    I’m readin Wolf Hall today. I’m sorry to hear about Ibn Battutah, as I had wanted to read it but will now take it off my list. Have a great reading week, Eva.

    • January 4, 2010 10:08 am

      I’ve since begun Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s travelogue, and it’s SO amazing! And you don’t need to read Ibn Battutah to appreciate it. So I say read that one instead (Travels With a Tangerine).

      • January 4, 2010 9:09 pm

        Oh good. I have Travels With A Tangerine on my list at the library!

  22. January 3, 2010 6:30 pm

    I feel so bad. With the holidays, I haven’t had any time to read anyone’s blog. So, I’m already behind. Will come back when I have more time to read your past posts…..just wanted to say Happy New Year!! And let you know I got my copy of The Hobbit today.

    • January 4, 2010 10:08 am

      Don’t feel bad! I missed out on bloggers over the holidays too! But yay for Bilbo! :D

  23. January 3, 2010 8:22 pm

    LMAO —> three legged dog.

    Bwhahaha.

    Really.

    I can’t write more.

    Because I’m still laughing! :P

    Love it.

    • January 4, 2010 10:10 am

      LOL I’m always excited when I make people laugh! :D

  24. January 3, 2010 10:33 pm

    My first book in 2010 was The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde. It was excellent! Fun, entertaining, and full of random literary references. I had started The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but only got a few pages in when I decided that was a depressing way to start the year! I’ll pick up back up soon though.

    • January 4, 2010 10:11 am

      That’s an excellent description of Fforde’s writing! :) I’m a fan of the Thursday Next series, although I think I’m two books behind at this point.

      Yeah-Elegance of the Hedgehog is pretty depressing…save it for later! hehe

  25. January 4, 2010 12:15 am

    I just started “The Calligrapher’s Daughter” and am enjoying it. Having a hard time putting it down!

    • January 4, 2010 10:11 am

      Ohhh-I had that out from the library last year and never got around to it. Maybe I’ll try it again!

  26. January 4, 2010 12:55 am

    I am constantly amazed at the amount of books you are able to read!

    I read Soldier’s Heart a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed it too.

    • January 4, 2010 10:12 am

      Yay for another fan of Soldier’s Heart! :)

  27. January 4, 2010 2:13 am

    I was waiting for your review of The Travels of Ibn Battutah, when you mentioned it in your Library Loot post. I’m a little disappointed you didn’t like it, because I thought the title and premise sounded interesting. But ah well, there will be other books.

    I’ve started the year with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and just finished The Virgin Suicides. I think I’ve had a good start of the year so far!

    • January 4, 2010 10:13 am

      It’s weird; the descriptions of his life and travels are so fascinating and tempting…but then his actual discussion of his travels isn’t. But I’m reading a travelogue by the book’s editor, in which he follows Ibn Battutah’s first stage from Tangiers to Constantinople, and it’s *wonderful*!

      I still need to read Oscar Wao-it’s been on my shelf for at least a year and a half! And I loved The Virgin Suicides-I read it when I was a freshman in college. :)

  28. January 4, 2010 9:58 am

    LOL…yep, started my reading year off well. Of course, I sort of cheated to do it, by saving the last two chapters of The Golden Compass for New Years Day just for that very reason. ;)

    Glad to hear you liked The Book of Chameleons…I’ve had that on my shelf for a while. I’ve been both excited and a tad afraid of it. But you’ve put my fears to rest.

    • January 4, 2010 10:14 am

      Great plan! I was nervous too, but Chameleons is super-readable. :)

  29. January 4, 2010 1:20 pm

    I heard the music for Phantom for years, it was one of my most played albums. Then, I went to see the show, and hated it. It was heartbreaking, all the fireworks and razzmatazz just felt distracting and show-offy. I wanted back the production in my head :D. And the book I disliked as well. Too implausible in parts, too full of itself in others. Oh well…

    • January 6, 2010 6:25 am

      Really?! I loved the production I saw in London. But then, I never heard the music before I saw it live, so I’m sure that had something to do with it. :)

  30. January 4, 2010 6:36 pm

    I’ve read some Divakaruni books that I really liked (I loved Sister of My Heart), but I’ve never been able to finish Mistress of Spices. I don’t know what it was about it, but I just didn’t like it.

    • January 6, 2010 6:25 am

      I’ll try Sister of My Heart next then!

  31. January 4, 2010 6:37 pm

    I just wanted to tell you how cute/funny it is that writing about seven books in one post is a short TSS for you :) I don’t think I’ve ever had seven books read in one week to write about!

    • January 6, 2010 6:26 am

      lol; when I first wrote that, I was only going to talk about five books! Does that make it better? :)

  32. January 4, 2010 11:06 pm

    Oh I’m so glad to hear you liked The Book of Chameleons. I’ve had that one on my shelves since it came out and I really need to get to it.

    Still haven’t finished a book this year but I’m well into a good mystery :)

    • January 6, 2010 6:26 am

      It’s a perfect Sunday afternoon one-sitting kind of read. :) And good mysteries are always a good way to kick off a new year!

  33. January 5, 2010 7:34 pm

    I was going to say maybe you got in a reading slump because there were some disappointing reads in there — but I’m glad you got some good ones in at the end!

    I didn’t “get” Borges when I read him. I hope you enjoy him more. And why is that food stories are fable-like? I guess because they really have a special impact on us. I love the idea of spices driving the story — I love spices too (in moderation) and even it if wasn’t the best of book, oh well.

    Really is too bad about the 14th century travelogue. Have you read the adventures of Marco Polo? I have it on my list and I was hoping it was good too, but if it’s similar, I’ll be sad. I don’t think it’s a travelogue, though, more of a fictionalized account of his “adventures.”

    • January 6, 2010 6:27 am

      Yeah; I think my slump could definitely have been caused by a string of meh books. I’m really nervous about Borges, hehe.

      I haven’t read Marco Polo, although the intro of Ibn Battutah made a point of saying he had travelled more. lol The travelogue I’m reading right now, by the editor of Ibn Battutah, in which he follows Battutah’s steps in much better. :D

  34. January 5, 2010 9:51 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Book of Chameleons! I thought it was a marvellous read, such wonderful quotable bits, especially about memory. I really liked it.

    The first book I finished this year was Yellow Boots, a Ukrainian Canadian novel. It was good but not a spectacular read as a novel. I’ve just finished a couple more light reads but neither has been very good. Sigh. Hope my reading choices will perk up soon.

    • January 6, 2010 6:28 am

      Definitely lots of quotable parts! I’m sending you good luck for your next book! Down with meh books forever. ;)

  35. January 6, 2010 3:43 am

    I’ve been wanting to read The Book of Chameleons for a while, so am pleased to hear that you enjoyed it – I might have to actually go out and get a copy now!

    I have a copy of Mistress of Spices and have been planning to read it for a while. My mother in law raves about all books by Chitra Divakaruni, so I promised to read one at some point. It is nice to see her finally mentioned in the blogging world. You weren’t totally negative, so I hope I’ll at least enjoy it to some extent!

    • January 6, 2010 6:29 am

      The storytelling is pretty heavy-handed, but I’m come to expect that with food-centric novels. It’s not the type of book I’d press into my friends’ hands, but it was a quick read and had its good qualities. :)

  36. January 7, 2010 5:24 pm

    We have a copy of the Soldier’s Heart book at my library and since you enjoyed it so much, I might have to keep that one in mind for my Bibliophilic Books Challenge.

    Here’s to a great year of reading in 2010!

Trackbacks

  1. Sunday Salon: the Healthier Post « A Striped Armchair
  2. Reviews Round-Up (Through January 11) « Really Old Classics Challenge
  3. Travel by Books: 2009 Wrap-Up « A Striped Armchair
  4. Middle African Authors « Diversify Your Reading
  5. Indigenous North American Authors « Diversify Your Reading
  6. Really Old Classics Challenge Wrap-Up « A Striped Armchair

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