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Sunday Salon: the April Showers Post

April 18, 2010

The Sunday Salon.comIt’s a grey, rainy day here outside of my window, with clouds hinting that thunderstorms might not be far away. Which is perfect for curling up with tea and books, no? But before I start reading more books, it’s time to review all of my backlog. :) I’ve been going through a bit of a reading slump, so I only have seven books to talk about today*.

I can’t believe I haven’t written a full gushy post about The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine! I loved this one so, so, so much, and I owe J.S. Peyton a huge thank you, since I picked it up based on her best of 2009 round-up. Alameddine was raised in Lebanon and now lives in the States, just like his modern-day narrator. The book is structured around the return of this narrator, after years of living in California, to Lebanon to sit at the side of his dying father. His reminisces about growing up form one of the core pieces of the book. Layered in with that, are all sorts of folk tales (which form two other main stories), because the narrator’s grandfather was a hakawati (story-teller). It’s a complicated structure, but Alameddine balanced it perfectly. I cared about each narrative storyline, and I loved the mix of magical, traditional folk tales a la Arabian Nights with a peek into pre-war Beirut and more. I read Arabian Nights last year, which certainly added a cherry on top of my enjoyment, but I don’t think it’s necessary pre-reading for the novel. I seriously loved every single thing about this novel: the characters (including lots of strong women!), the plots, the sense of place, the fun little twists on traditional stories, the hints at ‘issues’ (i.e. GLBT stuff, women’s rights, etc.) without them becoming the focus of the book…it was all completely perfect. Also, I think it’s a great folk tales read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. :) Basically, I adore this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a good story!

I read Memoir: a History by Ben Yagoda for the Bibliophilia Challenge after reading Kim’s review. Unfortunately, this one didn’t really do it for me. Obviously, Yagoda is knowledgeable about memoirs through the ages, as evidenced by a ton of paragraphs consisting of nothing but lists. However, I found the book rarely rose above the comprehension level of Bloom’s taxonomy. I kept waiting for the analysis and the synthesis, or even just for some kind of argument on Yagoda’s part to tell me why I was reading the book. It never came. I could see the potential for a thought-provoking, interesting book, but for the most part Yagoda just threw titles and authors at me while I thought to myself ‘Why again do I care’? If you have a strong interest in memoirs, and you’re looking for reader’s advisory style content, this one might appeal to you. But as a book-lover who was more curious about the big-picture evolution of the genre than the minutia, this book disappointed me.

I shall resume gushing for the next nonfiction book I have to talk about: Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina. This is my third Safina read (so now I have to wait until he publishes a new book *sigh*), and I’ve come to expect top-notch observations combined with a love of the world and all its inhabitants and outrage at the ecological damage inflicted throughout the years by humanity. Albatross met every one of those expectations! At its center, the book looks at the amazing life of the albatross, which flies hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe and spends most of its life soaring around the ocean. Before this book, I can’t say I had any inherent interest in albatrosses, but Safina’s passion definitely fixed that. ;) I’m also incredibly jealous of Safina; he gets to visit these remote, bird-filled islands in the name of research (since albatrosses only nest in places like that), places like the Galapagos only more so. He’s great at bringing to life the individual scientists doing research at these places, and putting a human face on Science. Also, in addition to general information about albatrosses and the various animals & plants connected to them, Safina looks at one particular albatross’ journeys, so that as a reader I felt an even deeper connection. All in all, this is a wonderful popular science book. I’m not going to lie: there are some very upsetting bits when Safina looks at the historical human relationship with albatrosses and how nowadays evil over-fishing* is putting them in danger. But you know what? Until people know about these bad things, and care enough to take action, we don’t do anything to change it, so I applaud Safina for including the darker side in his book. Anyway, this is another one that I highly recommend, because I think it captures the wonder and curiousity science has for our world. I read it for the Biodiversity Challenge, as a book about a particular branch of life.

I had high hopes for Here’s to You, Jesusa! by Elena Poniatowska, my first pick for the Mexico Reading Challenge. It’s essentially a fictionalised autobiography about a ‘peasant’ Mexican woman who lives through most of the important events of Mexico’s early twentieth century. Sounds neat, right? Well, for me, while reading it, I just kept being plagued by authenticity issues. Poniatowska wasn’t from Mexico’s lower class, and the whole novel just had this almost fetishisation of poverty feel to it that made me uncomfortable. I don’t know…it felt like some rich woman imagining how a poor woman might talk & see life. Also, it was unrelentingly depressing. I would have been fine with that if it weren’t for the authenticity issues, but as it was…it felt a bit voyeuristic. I can’t say I’d recommend this one to people, although I know it’s a classic in Mexico and that Poniatowska said she based it on long conversations she had with a Mexican peasant woman. So take my opinion with a grain of salt! ;)

I was so excited about The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower, which I read for the Art History Challenge since it’s historical fiction centered around the Bayeux tapestry. I had read several glowing reviews back in 2007, and they’d been in my mind ever since! :) Unfortunately, for me it was only an average read. I suppose I imagined it to be more directly about the tapestry, so while the first third of book I really enjoyed, the rest of it I spent wondering why I was supposed to care about this plot. So part of the problem was my expectations! But I just didn’t bond all that much with the two main characters, Odo and Gytha, and as the vast majority of the book’s almost 600 pages is about them, that made it a bit tedious to read. And it seemed to have some of the ‘conventions’ of historical fiction, like sex scenes and an accusation of witchcraft and the woman wise in herbs, etc….I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all, but I couldn’t help thinking ‘haven’t I read this before?’ The writing style was good, though. So, even though this book didn’t do it for me, I can definitely see why others love it. :)

I grabbed Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan both because I loved Lanagan’s Tender Morsels and for the Colourful Reading Challenge. It’s a short story collection as well, and I happen to be a big fan of short stories! ;) That being said, if you’re a reader who isn’t always happy with the short story format, I wouldn’t recommend Red Spikes. These are definitely the kind of stories that make you imagine a whole novel attached to them! :) Lanagan is a fantasy writer, and each story conjures up a different world, but there is a certain ‘feel’ that unites the collection. Her writing style is marvelously evocative, and it’s what I enjoyed most in the book. The hardest bit, for me, was that all of the stories were pretty dark. So while I could admire Lanagan’s ability to create a whole world in a few pages, and to create a variety of characters each with distinctive voices, I wasn’t always enjoying my reading experience. That being said, I do plan on reading Lanagan’s other story collections! I’ll just make sure to have a happier book nearby to balance things out.

I was going to review Chrysalis by Kim Todd as well, but my wrist is feeling really sore, so I’m going to pop off the computer for a bit. Which means I only talked about six books today…oh well! Now I’m off to curl up with The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, The Ladies’ Paradise, The Jew in the Lotus, and Terra Incognita…the perfect rainy day antidote!


Footnote One: Remember, I missed last Sunday’s salon, so this is two week’s worth of reading! And for me, unemployed and sick at home, a slump is reading 200 pages or less a day. I’m hoping I’ll back into the groove soon, but in the meantime I’ve been enjoying season two of Pushing Daisies!

Footnote Two: Don’t even get me started on all the horrible ways people are murdering the ocean. :/ There’s a reason I won’t eat sushi anymore, despite its deliciousness. If you want to know, read Safina’s Song for the Blue Ocean, but I warn you: it might fill you with some righteous wrath.

62 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2010 5:23 pm

    A bad reading day for you is a great reading day for the rest of us.

  2. April 18, 2010 5:28 pm

    I loved Eye of the Albatross! What are the other Safina books you’ve read? I do so want to get my hands on more of his work.

    • April 20, 2010 7:31 am

      His other two are Voyage of the Turtle and Song for the Blue Ocean. I think he’s got a couple pictures books too!

  3. April 18, 2010 5:50 pm

    A slump? :) Goodness me- seven books in twice as many days is simply astounding, Eva.

    • April 20, 2010 7:32 am

      It’s all relative…you should see all the time I waste online and w/ TV! ;)

  4. April 18, 2010 6:00 pm

    I have been desperate to read the Hakawati for so long…and Red Spikes is on the TBR.

    • April 20, 2010 7:32 am

      Hakawati rocks! Get your hands on it immediately. :D

  5. April 18, 2010 6:15 pm

    I’m sorry Memoir: A History didn’t do it for you. I felt like Yagoda did a good job looking at the evolution of truth in memoir and how the kinds of memoirs we have today were impacted by what are considered the first memoirs. But I do agree there were a lot of lists and some name-dropping, which could be a little annoying.

    And I agree with other people — I’d love to read as much as you do in a slump :)

    • April 20, 2010 7:33 am

      I think we came at it with different interests in memoirs, which is probably why I didn’t enjoy it as much! ;)

  6. April 18, 2010 6:17 pm

    I’m sad to hear that about the Elena Poniatowska because I absolutely love everything I’ve read of hers. I haven’t read Here’s to You, Jesusa! so I can’t say about that book in particular, but I highly recommend her short stories.

    • April 20, 2010 7:34 am

      Really? I’ll give her another shot now!

  7. April 18, 2010 6:41 pm

    Bummer about Memoir…that’s been on my radar, too, thanks to Kim. Plus, I just love the cover.

    • April 20, 2010 7:34 am

      Isn’t the cover gorgeous? You might react to it more like Kim than me though!

  8. April 18, 2010 7:09 pm

    I’m quite impressed with your reading output. I’ve read a goodly number of books, but all of them have been short.

    Hang in there. Rain makes way for sun. Slow reading makes way for quick reading. Depression eventually makes way for happiness.

    Or so I am told….

  9. April 18, 2010 7:13 pm

    The Hakawati sounds wonderful and, as you say, perfect for the Once Upon a Time Challenge! I’ve placed a hold on it at the library and will look forward to reading it. I’m fascinated by books set in the Middle East but, that I can remember, I haven’t read any fiction set in Lebanon.

  10. April 18, 2010 7:30 pm

    I’m happy but not surprised that you enjoyed The Hakawati so much, as it’s such a good book and Alameddine is a superb storyteller. The story nesting was quite impressive. It’s a long book, and I had to read it in small chunks over time. But each time I picked it up, I was sucked right in. I loved the character of Fatima, though the stuff with her two boys in the end got a little too weird for me. But almost all the women are fantastic in Hakawati, not just Fatima.

  11. April 18, 2010 7:38 pm

    SO GLAD you liked Hakawati- I still have that on the shelf to read :-)

  12. April 18, 2010 9:08 pm

    Eva – I’m glad you enjoyed The Hakawati. Now I have to add The Eye of the Albatross to my TBR list. I read Song for a Blue Ocean last year and loved it. Like you, it helped me decide to give up eating fish.

    • April 20, 2010 7:39 am

      I loved Albatross (and Voyage of the Turtle) more than Song for the Blue Ocean, so you’re in for a treat! :)

      Occassionally, as a vegetarian I entertained ideas of becoming a pescatarian, and when I lived in St. Petersburg & ate meat, I became addicted to sushi. But now, I’d rather eat any kind of meat before fish.

  13. April 18, 2010 9:20 pm

    Thanks for the footnote. I was beginning to feel like a real slacker with my reading since you covered so much reading in this post.

    It was a nice weekend here. Sort of hazy and humid yesterday but quite nice today. I still didn’t get any reading in though.

    • April 20, 2010 7:40 am

      I always feel like I need to add disclaimers when I talk about my reading habits! ;) I’m glad you’re having nice weather.

  14. April 19, 2010 1:02 am

    The Hakawati looks really interesting, I’m adding it to my TBR list right away.

    It does seem you didn’t have a lot of luck with the books you’ve read these past 2 weeks, since you didn’t really enjoy most of them. I hope you have better luck next week!

    • April 20, 2010 7:41 am

      Hmmm…I just checked, and I had far more 4 and 5 star reads than 3 and less. Partly it’s skewed because I tend to give the books I really love their own posts, so they don’t come up in the Sunday Salon! ;) I am going through a bit of a reading slump though…I hope things pick up soon.

  15. April 19, 2010 4:10 am

    I appreciate your pop-science reviews. Will look for the Albatross. I enjoyed all of your mini-reviews here and I hope you had a wonderful rain-read-tea kind of day.

  16. April 19, 2010 5:30 am

    I’m sorry that Needle in the Blood wasn’t better! I knew there was a reason I’d been putting it off for a year. The Hakawati sounds great, though. I think I’ll add that one to my list!

    • April 20, 2010 7:42 am

      I want to know what you make up Needle in the Blood though! I don’t read as much historical fiction as you. :)

  17. April 19, 2010 5:49 am

    i definitely need to read some of Lanagan’s work as her name just keeps cropping up.

    • April 20, 2010 7:42 am

      I highly recommend Tender Morsels! It took 100 pages for me to fall in love, but then I fell so hard.

  18. April 19, 2010 7:55 am

    What you call a slump Eva I call normal reading haha! I love the sound of Hakawati, I am off to see who is publishing it n the uk and when!

    • April 20, 2010 7:43 am

      You’re employed Simon! ;) I hope Hakawati’s available in the UK soon.

  19. April 19, 2010 8:07 am

    The Hakawati is sitting on my shelf – looks like it will be my next read!

  20. April 19, 2010 10:55 am

    Glad to hear that about The Hakawati. It’s been on my radar for some time now & your review definitely sold it for me. :)


    • April 20, 2010 7:44 am

      I definitely think you’d enjoy it Tiina! :)

  21. April 19, 2010 11:00 am

    A great collection of books here. Hakawati has been on my wish list for some time. All three of Carl Safina’s books are now on it as well. They sound incredible. I might also give The Needle in the Blood a try, but I think what you mention about Here’s to You, Jesusa would turn me off as well. Too bad.

    • April 20, 2010 7:45 am

      Safina rocks! As does Hakawati! :) I definitely think there’s a lot of potential for love in Needle in the Blood, even though it didn’t do it for me.

  22. April 19, 2010 12:08 pm

    I knew you would love “The Hakawati!” I read and reviewed this a couple weeks ago, and I have no doubt that it will be one of my favorite reads of 2010 — even though we are only a few months into the year.

    As for sushi, why not vegetarian sushi? Unless you are averse to using the seaweed wraps too? I like it with cucumbers, carrots, and cream cheese inside!

    • April 20, 2010 7:45 am

      I totally agree! :) I really like veggie sushi (although no cream cheese for me, since I’m vegan!)…I don’t consider it ‘real’ though. lol

  23. April 19, 2010 12:52 pm

    The albatross one sounds interesting. Have you read the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”? National Poetry Month is a good enough justification to recommend it to you, and the albatross connection is there.

    • April 20, 2010 7:46 am

      Safina brings up “Rime” in the book! :)

  24. April 19, 2010 2:07 pm

    I’m sorry Here’s to you Jesusa didn’t do it for you. I am hoping to read one of Elena’s books this year for the Mexico reading challenge. I am really looking forward to finally discovering this author and I just hope I won’t be disappointed!

    • April 20, 2010 7:46 am

      I’ll be curious to see what you make of Elena, since you have more a cultural background than me. :)

  25. April 19, 2010 4:28 pm

    I am also unemployed and yet I do not seem to read as much as you! I continue to be impressed by you!

    • April 20, 2010 7:47 am

      You’re conducting a job search though! And have a house to run! :)

  26. April 20, 2010 5:26 am

    I’ve put The Eye of the Albatross on hold–definitely sounds like my kind of book! Thanks for getting it on my radar!

  27. April 20, 2010 5:30 am

    The best part of academic life for me was doing the fieldwork — but the best part of my life now is being self-employed. Can’t have it both ways, I guess. Fabulous two weeks of reading.

    • April 20, 2010 7:48 am

      Ohhh….what kind of fieldwork did you do? I’m not sure I could spend months on end on a tiny island w/ a ton of birds and weird scientists, but it’d be fun for a few weeks. ;)

  28. April 20, 2010 10:08 am

    I’ve been waiting for your gushy post about Hakawati! I’m glad you loved it so much. I’m looking forward to it, ever since I heard it compared to Arabian Nights! Yeay for strong females!


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