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Sunday Salon: the July Post

July 25, 2010

I’m going to spend today catching you up on what I’ve been reading in July. ;) I already highlighted most of my favourites, so this post isn’t going to be quite so positive. But I’ve still got some books I recently read and loved up my sleeve to temper the not-so-great ones.

I picked up The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang for the China Challenge and because I’m always on the look out for a new mystery series to enjoy! Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to my hopes…while I greatly enjoyed the setting and insights into Chinese life, I found the mystery half-baked, the writing too simplistic, and the characters a bit flat. Since this was a debut novel, I’d consider giving the second one in the series a try, but only if the writing is substantially improved. This was also the book that made me realise that the most important thing to me in a book is the writing style; I know every reader’s different, though, so if you read more for setting this might work better for you.

You know, I’m finding the quest for good popular chemistry books difficult to say the least! Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks was incredible and perfect, so if you’re looking for just one, you’re set. But for the Science Book Challenge, I enjoy reading at least a science book a month, and I’m trying to encourage myself to branch out of my usual subjects (biology, including nature, and medicine). Anyway, The 13th Element by John Emsley sounded interesting: a history of phosphorous. And I think the raw material was quite interesting…unfortunately, Emsley structured the book by theme instead of chronology, which just didn’t work for me. Also, the printing was quite cheap; the margins and paper felt off. I didn’t realise that the physical book mattered that much to me (short of being attracted to pretty covers), but in addition to the textbook-style narrative voice, it just turned me off. If you have an innate interest in the subject, you’ll probably really like this, but Emsley isn’t going to create an interest (short of the clumsy attempts you’d see in a textbook). I haven’t given up hope in my popular chemistry reading though…I’m at the top of the hold list for The Disappearing Spoon!

Just in time, we come to a book I can gush about: Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire by Rafe Esquith. I grabbed this off the shelves on a whim (as regular readers might recall, I’m hoping to become a teacher myself when my health allows me), and I was delighted with what was inside! I don’t necessarily aspire to be Esquith (he teaches fifth grade in a year-round school, arrives at 6.30 am every day w/ the kids, stays late, works Saturdays, and spends vacations travelling with his students…I personally would like to have a life outside of the classroom), but this book was incredibly inspirational. I especially liked how Esquith would add particular advice to new teachers when he was discussing classroom methods, telling them not to pick fights with the administration, etc. It was just lovely to see what the force of human will power and belief can accomplish, and I believe that anyone even without much interest in education will enjoy this.

Then there’s The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. When I first heard about this book, it didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But then I read a review on some blog (I can’t remember where) that inspired me to go ahead and put it on hold. Weeks later, it arrived, and with a bit of foreboding I began it. Turns out, I should have gone with my instinct…while there were some parts of the book I liked, for the most part it just made me inner voice yell a lot. I only enjoy memoirs when I both connect with and like the author; unfortunately, I found myself disliking Rubin most of the time. I also didn’t like the format; eventually I realised the book was based on her blog, and it showed. In particular, she sometimes included long lists of comments her readers had left, which alienated me (I couldn’t tell you why). It just felt too episodic and forced, as if some of the stories had been massaged to git into Rubin’s broader theme. Oh, and in one of the early chapters when Rubin discusses her marriage, I was disturbed by how much her changed behavior towards her husband felt like advice from a 1950s housewife magazine (i.e.: men’s brains don’t like to discuss things, so Rubin decided to stop trying to talk about her problems with him so as not to upset him). But I know a lot of bloggers really enjoyed this, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. If I had been smarter, I would have just stopped reading after 50 pages, but even though I’ve gotten better at abandoning books, I still regularly backslide.

After that, let’s talk about how much I loved My Mother’s House and Sido by Colette! I read this for Literary Transgression’s discussion next Thursday, but really I barely need an excuse to pick up more Colette. ;) This felt more like memoir than fiction (a la Claudine), but I’m having trouble tracking down on the internet if it’s completely nonfiction. Maybe it’s a memoir that Colette took some literary license with? Anyway, that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is that the writing is lovely. Stunningly lovely. I’d like to prove this to you, but like a bad book blogger I forgot to copy out some passages before I had to return it to the library (I only had it for a week since it was an ILL). It’s mainly Colette’s memories of her mother growing up, but the second half, “Sido,” also includes meditations on her father and siblings. I loved having the peek into rural French life, but mainly I loved Colette’s mother, at least through her eyes. She was funny and wise and caring and I didn’t want the book to end. This is my fourth Colette now, and I must say it’s my very favourite. :) While Gigi and the two Claudines I’ve read are full of a jaunty kind of youthful joie de vivre, My Mother’s House and Sido has an older, graceful, radiant love. While reading the book, I felt suffused with that love, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

I just finished Asleep by Molly Caldwell Cosby this morning. It was an impulse grab from the ‘new nonfiction’ books section of my library, primarily due to the Sacks quote on the cover. It turns out, the book is about the historical illness that resulted in the Parkisonism-suffering patients Sacks wrote about in Awakenings (which got turned into a Robin Williams movie whose title I can’t recall). While Cosby isn’t Sacks, she is a really good writer, and I was delighted that a piece of such readable narrative nonfiction had over 60 pages of notes and bibliography at the back! So, she’s a good researcher too. :) I loved this because Cosby focuses on the people involved: the doctors, the researches, and the patients. She also takes the time to paint the backdrop, primarily New York City of WWI through to the Depression. I looked forward to picking this one up after every time I set it down, and I highly recommend this to anyone looking to read more nonfiction (it truly is page turning) or just for those who enjoy medical history stuff. I’ve definitely added Cosby’s first book, about yellow fever in America, to my TBR list! Also, thanks to this passage, I might to read John Burnham’s biography of Jelliffe (he sounds like a man worth knowing, eh?):

Jelliffe was frustrated with the medical community and its dismissive diagnoses when ti came to this disease. He criticized the tendency among the population, as well as the physicians, to “name a peculiar, bizarre, and noisily inconsistent set of symptoms, especially when occurring in women, as hysteria.” Jelliffe continued, “To stick pins in an individual and when he does not feel it, or gives no evidence of feeling it, and they say-hysteria-is bumble puppy and not diagnosis.” (73)

And so we arrive at my second (and last) novel to talk about today. The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles is a 650 debut novel about two sisters in 1930s Brazil that I chose for the Reading the World Challenge. They grow up in a small town with their seamstress aunt, and then one leaves for Recife through marriage while the other joins a band of outlaws who live in the scrub. Now: what came to mind when I told you that? Because whatever you’re imagining: that’s exactly what the book is. Sure, the setting is neat, but the characters are all just stereotypes. And Peebles completely overwrote this; it’s why the book is too long (she switches viewpoints between the two sisters and each time she rehashes the same events; also, the tone for both of the sisters are exactly the same, which is a pet peeve of mine). She just can’t trust the readers; there’s almost no dialogue in the book, it’s just the sisters tirelessly analysing their own feelings (and they’re far too self-aware). Here’s a taste:

If Degas had simply asked her for help, Emília would have given it. But Degas never asked, he threatened. He knew who her sister was, and what it would mean to reveal that knowledge. Before, he’d threatened only Emília and she’d pitied him, knowing his manipulation was born of desperation. But now Degas threatened Expedito. This, Emília could not stomach. Each time she saw Degas at the breakfast table she felt the urge to kick his shins. She wanted to scratch his precious English-language records with her sewing needles, to spin in the tin of pomade he kept in the bathroom. Emília understood that if she continued to live with Degas, she would be consumed by her anger and turn as bitter and sharp-tongued as Dona Dulce.

A bit plodding, eh? And for some reason, Peebles decided to open the book with a chapter set at the very end, and then go back in time for most of the 650 pages. While this style can work at times, it didn’t work here; it simply took out any possible tension from anything. I knew how both sisters would end up, and I knew what their problems were merely from that chapter, so I had to wonder why I was reading the other 630 pages. Do I seem to be harping on the length? I’m doing so because up until page 350/400, I felt the book wasn’t great but it was serviceable. But then I came to resent it. That being said, I’d say don’t write this off completely because of me (I know other bloggers who enjoyed it!). If you give it a try and suspect from the beginning that it’s a bit stereotypical, though, give up before you feel too far in!

I’ve read several of Alberto Manguel’s books on reading, so I was delighted to get A Reader on Reading from the library. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the essays continued therein were not about reading at all; if the book I had been entitled A Reader on Political Justice, that would have been fine. As it is, I just became cranky, since I don’t particularly like Manguel’s political writing and I simply felt duped by the way the book was packaged. There are eight sections, and only four of them are book-ish. Those sections were very, very good, as I’ve come to expect from Manguel. But some of the others were painful for me to get through (his implication in an essay on homosexuality that lesbians have it so much better than gay men was particularly bad for my blood pressure), so I’m left unsure as to whether to recommend it or not. If you’re new to Manguel, I’d say stick to The History of Reading or The Library at Night. If you enjoyed his Reading Diary, which included quite a bit of politics, you’ll probably like this one more than me. I’m still glad I read it, but I do think the publisher ought to apologise for false advertising. And just to finish off this post, here’s one of my favourite passages from A Reader on Reading:

Is this all?
Sometimes it seems enough. In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.

Have you read any of these books? Care to disagree/agree with me?

60 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2010 6:15 am

    I have heard of Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire but have not yet picked it up. I appears that I need to :)

    I have followed Gretchen’s blog for a few months now. Some of her daily posts resonate well with me — others I quickly skim and move on. It appears that I do not need to read her book though, if I read her blog.

    You certainly had a good literary month!

    • July 26, 2010 7:33 am

      I’ll be interested in what an actual teacher thinks of Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, vs. me as an aspiring one. ;)

      I had no idea the book was based on a blog before I read it, or I probably would’ve just gone with the latter. So I think you have the right idea!

  2. July 25, 2010 6:22 am

    I haven’t read any of these books, but “Teach” sounds like it could be up my alley since I am a teacher. I do worry about these teachers who have no other life, but bless them for doing as much as they do for their students!

    • July 26, 2010 7:37 am

      He seems to enjoy it: he’s friends with people like the actor who plays Gandalf (whose name escapes me at the moment), so at least he has some payback. ;) lol

  3. July 25, 2010 7:05 am

    I did read and enjoyed The Happiness Project, but then I think I was prepared for it to be the way it was…based on the blog.

    It’s unfortunate when we grab books that look wonderful and then we’re disappointed. I’ve certainly experienced that. With Amazon Vine, I pick books from a newsletter and based on the cover and description, make a choice. I’ve received some horrendous books (and some good ones).

    Now I generally only pick books that others have recommended, or if they’re from an author I know and enjoy.

    Great post, Eva…

    Here’s my salon:

    • July 26, 2010 7:43 am

      I think I definitely would have reacted differently to Happiness Project if I’d known ahead of time its ‘style’. :)

  4. July 25, 2010 8:05 am

    I’m pretty sure the Robin Williams movie was also called Awakenings. We watched in psychology in high school and I remember enjoying it. Asleep looks good, too! I’m disappointed to hear that you didn’t like The Happiness Project. I have it on hold so we’ll see.

    • July 26, 2010 7:47 am

      LOL It makes sense the movie would be called Awakenings too. :) I think I’m in the minority on Happiness Project, so don’t be too disappointed.

  5. July 25, 2010 8:08 am

    I suspect I’d like The Happiness Project based on what other bloggers have said about it, although your review makes me question that thought! I’ll probably still read it eventually, I’m definitely curious to see what exactly it contains. :)

    • July 26, 2010 7:49 am

      I want to know what you think of it when you read it! :)

  6. July 25, 2010 8:48 am

    Oh Eva–thank you!!! I was so happy to see what you said about The Happiness Project! Everyone else seems to love it, but I started reading it, but just couldn’t get far. For just these kind of reasons: “Oh, and in one of the early chapters when Rubin discusses her marriage, I was disturbed by how much her changed behavior towards her husband felt like advice from a 1950s housewife magazine (i.e.: men’s brains don’t like to discuss things, so Rubin decided to stop trying to talk about her problems with him so as not to upset him).” Drove me effing crazy…I seriously could not stand it and gave up pretty quickly.

    And I’m happy to see you enjoyed Asleep! That one is at the top of Rich’s wish list these days. He read her book, The American Plague, and loved it. Hope you do, too!

    • July 26, 2010 7:52 am

      I’m so glad I’m not the only one! I was afraid people would think me a Grinch when I talked about it. ;)

      I’m glad he loved American Plague: I really think he’ll enjoy Asleep!

  7. July 25, 2010 8:49 am

    Eva, you read such a diverse selection of books! I love these posts just because I like to see what you’ve been reading and add to my own TBR list. I hadn’t heard of any of these except The Happiness Project but that is because that one is all over the internet these days. Hope you have a great week of reading!

    • July 26, 2010 7:54 am

      Thanks so much Samantha! :) Happiness Project is everywhere, isn’t it?

  8. July 25, 2010 9:15 am

    I find mystery to a very difficult genre to find good books in, so I’m sorry to hear The Eye of Jade didn’t pan out.

    • July 26, 2010 7:57 am

      Which are your favourite mystery authors? Mine are Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Donna Leon, Kate Ross, and Agatha Christie. :)

  9. Kathleen permalink
    July 25, 2010 9:19 am

    Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire sounds like it would inspire me and I’m not even a teacher. I always enjoy your many non-fiction recommendations.

    • July 26, 2010 7:59 am

      Thanks! I think you’d definitely enjoy Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire! :)

  10. July 25, 2010 9:33 am

    Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire sounds like the perfect read for me, a necessary impetus for starting my twenty-sixth year. My hair was on fire, once upon a time, but now the embers are a dark red: still burning, but in need of some more flame.

    The part I love the most about teaching is the kids. And, reading to them. And, reading their reading response journals. It’s sort of like one big blog in the classroom when we share our love of literature. ;)

    • July 26, 2010 8:00 am

      Like I told Molly, I’d love to see what a real teacher thinks of the book. :) I want to be a teacher for the kids too! Those reading response journals sound marvelous!

  11. July 25, 2010 9:34 am

    “men’s brains don’t like to discuss things, so Rubin decided to stop trying to talk about her problems with him so as not to upset him”

    WTF? Definitely not the book for me either! Actually, although I have two blogs myself, I actually often find myself put off by bloggers with book deals…maybe it’s just that I dislike Julie Powell so strongly & my feelings for her have leached across the whole genre. Ah well.

    Love love love Colette!

    • July 26, 2010 8:02 am

      I feel the same way about books based on blogs that you do! If I had known Happiness Project was like that I never would have picked it up. Which is, as you say, odd for a blogger to feel. lol

  12. July 25, 2010 10:16 am

    Huh, too bad about A Reader on Reading. His comments on lesbians=WTF? I expect so much from Manguel, I’d better stay away from this one…

    • July 26, 2010 8:05 am

      I can show you the passage if you’d like. It totally took me by surprise, and I was left thinking WTF?! too.

  13. July 25, 2010 10:58 am

    I haven’t read any of these boos so I can’t tell you if I’d agree or disagree with you. However, I like the way you critiqued them all: a very thorough Sunday Salon post and a lot of food for thought.

    • July 25, 2010 11:01 am

      Oops, of course, I mean “books.”

    • July 26, 2010 8:08 am

      Thanks so much. I often worry that my mini-reviews are too superficial, so your comment was quite encouraging. :)

  14. July 25, 2010 11:20 am

    Interesting, I guess that I approached The Happiness Project from a totally different angle and enjoyed it. It was pitched to me as a self-help book, not really a memoir, so I took the parts that I thought were useful to my life and happiness, then threw out the more personal stuff in my mind. Also, there are subjects/problems in my life that irritate the heck out of my boyfriend, so I chose not to go there with him. Is that wrong? I don’t think so.

    • July 26, 2010 8:14 am

      I can see that approaching it as a self-help book would make for a different reading experience. :)

      I think there’s a difference between not talking about *certain* subjects with your SO because you know they lead to irritation and deciding not to talk about ANY deep subjects with your SO because their male brains can’t handle it. I tend to bristle whenever people start throwing around ‘male brain’ v. ‘female brain’ stuff to begin with, and I found that whole discussion in the book (which included the idea that women make more satisfying friends due to biology) quite demeaning towards men.

  15. July 25, 2010 12:25 pm

    As always, a great list of reviews. Even with a short review you always seem to pass on so much! Asleep sounds great, but as for the rest you’ve really just highlighted why I should avoid them. I was always a little iffy on The Happiness Project so I’m glad to see your thoughts and opinions as it is kind of what I was thinking on it. I shall avoid it for now. Thanks!

    • July 26, 2010 8:15 am

      Thanks Amy! :) This wasn’t a particularly upbeat post, was it? But I did also adore the Colette and Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. lol I think you’d definitely enjoy Asleep.

  16. July 25, 2010 12:35 pm

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy The 13th Element. I have that on my TBR list but maybe I drop it and add Uncle Tungsten. I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet! And the Colette sounds wonderful. Have a great week, Eva.

    • July 26, 2010 8:17 am

      Uncle Tungsten is SUCH a treat! 13th Element wasn’t all bad; there was a lot of interesting subject matter. It’s just the writing was, well, serviceable but nothing more. Isn’t Colette lovely?!

  17. July 25, 2010 2:11 pm

    Hey Eva, I would recommend you checking out Marva Collins if you’re looking for teaching inspiration.

    • July 26, 2010 8:18 am

      Thanks for the rec Christinia: I hadn’t heard of her!

  18. July 25, 2010 7:41 pm

    I haven’t read any of these, but appreciate the reminder about Colette because I’ve been wanting to read it but had forgotten all about it. Asleep looks really good – I like medical memoirs.

    I can’t believe you made it through 650 pages of that kind of writing with The Seamstress. Blech!

    • July 26, 2010 8:22 am

      In retrospect, I think my desire to like The Seamstress overrode my common sense. lol It SOUNDED like an Eva book (historical, set in a foreign country, focused on women), so I just blinded myself to the writing for as long as possible.

  19. July 25, 2010 8:05 pm

    I want to read The Happiness Project because I read a really good review of it recently, so it’s too bad it didn’t work for you. I can’t tell if the stuff she mentioned would bug me or not — I’ll think I’ll just have to try it.

    • July 26, 2010 8:23 am

      Would that be Raych’s review? I saw it in my GR and cringed even more at the thought of writing out my own reaction. lol

  20. July 25, 2010 10:20 pm

    Another great book for future teachers is Educating Esme: Diary of a First Year Teacher by Esme Raji Codell.

    • July 26, 2010 8:26 am

      Thanks Mari! I’d heard something about that in the past, but you’ve reminded me that I should track it down. :)

  21. July 25, 2010 11:34 pm

    What a rigorous reading list you have there! The book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire, looks really good though. I think you’d be a great teacher, so I hope you get that chance!

    Once again, a great list here. I’m glad to have someone as able as you to read and review these for us, so we get a chance to learn more about some really great books.

    • July 26, 2010 8:28 am

      Awww: thanks Becky!! So many sweet things in one comment; I don’t know what to do with myself. :)

  22. July 26, 2010 2:26 am

    Colette’s Sido and My Mother’s House are indeed ‘autobiographical fictions’, so basically memoir but with a LOT of license taken. But I’m so glad you loved it – you know she is dear to my heart. Great reviews as ever, Eva, and several books there that I’ll be looking out for now.

    • July 26, 2010 8:30 am

      Thanks for clarifying that Litlove! Every book of Colette’s I read makes me love her more…I have a feeling she’ll be on my list of very favourite authors soon at this rate.

  23. July 26, 2010 2:33 am

    I’m intrigued by the Oliver Sacks book you mention, I’m always on the lookout for good science books and had never heard of this one, so thanks!

    • July 26, 2010 8:31 am

      The Uncle Tungsten one? It’s SO good! I’m in love with Oliver Sacks, and I’ve read most of his books, but Uncle Tungsten is definitely one of my very faves. :) If you’d like more science author suggestions, just let me know!

  24. July 26, 2010 3:22 am

    I really wanted to join in on the discussion of those Colette books, but I can’t find them anywhere! And now that you loved them, I feel even worse about that.

    • July 26, 2010 8:33 am

      Aww; I’m sorry Iris! I had to ILL My Mother’s House, so it seems more difficult to find.

  25. July 26, 2010 4:27 am

    I can´t believe I still haven´t read any Manguel! I think I’ll start with The Library at Night, but thanks for pointing out that the essays are mostly about political justice :)

    • July 26, 2010 8:33 am

      Library at Night isn’t mostly about political justice: it’s all about books and quite fun! So enjoy. :)

  26. July 26, 2010 10:36 am

    I’m especially excited to see you posting about Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire! I’ve wanted to read that book for a really long time, and for some reason I either never find it at the ‘brary or bookstore or it falls off the wishlist somehow. I don’t know if I could devote that many hours to teaching, but it certainly is great to read about those who can and integrate what we can into our own teaching. Thanks for the reminder about this one!

    • July 28, 2010 4:04 am

      No problem! I’m sure you rock as a teacher. :D

  27. July 26, 2010 12:46 pm

    Oh I didn’t realize The Happiness Project was based on a blog. I’m sorry but I’ve read a couple of books from blogs and they just haven’t worked for me. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read this one.

    I’m bummed out you didn’t like The Eye of Jade. I’ve got that one on my shelf. I hope to read it one of these days so we’ll see how it goes. And, I do want to read The Seamstress too. I think it’s that cover that I’m finding so attractive! haha…

    • July 28, 2010 4:04 am

      I feel the same way about books from blogs! :)

      Maybe you’ll enjoy Eye of Jade more than me…the setting was really neat. :) And yep: that Seamstress cover is gorgeous!

  28. Amanda permalink
    August 4, 2010 3:54 pm

    Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you didn’t like The Seamstress, it was one of my favorite books the last couple of years. I guess I fell in love with her ramblings, the setting and the sisters. I guess to each their own.

  29. July 15, 2011 10:32 am

    I had to check for your review of The Happiness Project after watching your Library Loot vlog today, as I wasn’t a fan either. I don’t remember being offended by her changed behaviour towards her husband, but the long comments from her blog annoyed me too and I also found the whole thing too pat somehow. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one, as I had trouble finding other negative reviews of this book!

    • July 15, 2011 10:46 am

      You’re the first other person I’ve heard of who wasn’t a fan! This makes me feel better. :) It just bothers me when people say ‘Oh men never like to talk through problems,’ because I’ve had plenty of guy friends who gabbed about their problems and let me gab about mine all the time. And my mom, obviously a woman, reacts to complaints in the supposed ‘male brain way,’ i.e. she immediately goes into problem solving mode and sees how she can fix it, even if I just want to blow off steam. lol I also think part of my problem was, as someone who doesn’t have good health, she seemed to frequently remind herself that she should be happy because she’s healthy. That’s great for her, but not so great for me! Should I just give up on happiness unless I’m cured? Of course not. ;)

      • July 15, 2011 12:35 pm

        Ha, that’s funny, my mum is like yours and it drives me nuts sometimes! Yeah, I see what you mean about the healthy thing: I had a similar feeling that I wasn’t happy enough to begin with for her approach to work for me (if that makes any sense to you!). She just made it seem so easy, I guess, which is what bothered me the most.


  1. Favourites Reads of 2010 « A Striped Armchair

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