Showing posts with label 2013 around the world challenge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2013 around the world challenge. Show all posts

Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: Brazil by John Updike

Title: Brazil
Author: John Updike
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: January 25, 1994
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

They meet by chance on Copacabana Beach: Tristao Raposo, a poor black teen from the Rio slums, surviving day to day on street smarts and the hustle, and Isabel Leme, an upper-class white girl, treated like a pampered slave by her absent though very powerful father. Convinced that fate brought them together, betrayed by families who threaten to tear them apart, Tristao and Isabel flee to the farthest reaches of Brazil's wild west -- unaware of the astonishing destiny that awaits them . . .

My Review:

I've never read any Updike before, and honestly I always thought I'd start with the well-known Rabbit series.  However, in an effort to squeak out just ONE more country for Shannon's Around The World in 12 Books Challenge, I picked up Brazil in an effort to break into South America before year's end.

Even though I knew almost nothing about this book before I borrowed it from the library, I'm glad that I chose this for my Brazil-based novel for the challenge.  Isabel and Tristao's story is interesting, but as the title implies, Brazil itself plays an extremely important role as the setting for this novel.  I actually learned quite a bit about the country's history and political climate, as well as the culture of three of its very different regions.  Updike does a great job bringing Brazil to life.  This is one of those novels that has a setting so rich in detail, it almost feels like it plays a protagonist's role right alongside the main characters.

As for Isabel and Tristao--first of all, I've never seen/read Tristan and Isolde, the opera on which this book is based.  Part of me wonders how my experience may have been different if I had that background beforehand.  But either way, I was drawn into their story pretty quickly.  Tristao and Isabel have a romance that is not quite of this seems to almost exist separately from their lives with their families, friends, and even their children.  They place their love for each other above all other things, even in the most trying of times (and often to their detriment).  By the end of the novel, their love takes on a fantastical quality, which I was a little leery of (I am not usually a "magical realism" fan), but Updike weaves those elements of the plot into the story so well, that they don't seem unbelievable or out of place.

Overall, this is a fairly quick read, but one that is worth a little more of your time as you soak in the story and its various meanings.  Fair warning: this book is graphic, both in sexual and violent elements, so if that's not your thing, you may want to pick another novel to pass the time.  But despite that, it's definitely given me an appreciation for Updike's writing, so hopefully I'll finally get to that Rabbit series sometime soon...

Have you read any of Updike's novels?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?  Any you would recommend more than others?

Friday, December 13, 2013

2013 Challenges Wrap-Up

Oh, my 2013 reading challenges.  I knew from the start that I was taking on too much, but did I let that stop me?  No, of course not!

As a reminder, I took on five different challenges this year.  Some were completed...and some were epic fails.  Let's review!

1. Around The World in 12 Books Challenge: 58-67% completed
This book challenged me to read 1 book/month from a different country around the world.  This is COMPLETELY up my alley, and I was super excited for the push to read more internationally-set literature.  I did great with this challenge until we moved in August.  At that point, I got so busy that I was pretty much just reading what I had on hand, most of which was not set in the countries posed in this challenge.

Thus, sadly, I only completed 7 out of the 12 countries on the list.  HOWEVER, I did just pick up John Updike's Brazil, in hopes of being able to check off one more (plus I noticed on my 2013 Reading Map (see below) that South America was severely lacking--so I figured if I was going to add in one more country, it should be from there).  Hopefully I can finish it before the end of the month, bringing me up to 8 out of 12!
My 2013 reading map...shows all of the locations/settings of the novels I've read this year!  Sorry to Australia and South America.  lol.
2. Monthly Keyword Challenge: 100% completed!

This challenge was a lot of fun, and pretty easy to complete, given the flexibility of the rules.  Each month had a list of several words you could choose from, and you had to read a book that contained one of those keywords in the title.  Part of what made this easier for me is that the rules said it was OK to read the books in a different month than when the word was for example, the book I used for the June keyword was actually read in May.  As a result, I was able to wrap this one up in November.  Woohoo!

3. Mount TBR Challenge: 12.5% completed (ugh)

Oy vey, I did poorly here.  My goal was to read at least 24 books from my at-home TBR pile, and I was trying to only count paper books (not Kindle books), in an effort to clear my shelves a little bit.  I only managed THREE.  I blame this on two things: tons of ARCs (which are so hard for me to resist!) and the rest of these challenges (which often required me to use the library in order to find a book that fit a specific challenge).  Next year I am definitely cutting back on ARCs (and challenges!), so I'm hoping to try this one again.

4. Foodies Read Challenge: 100% completed!

I have no problem reading food books 'til the cows come home.  I finished this one mid-year and still read more of them before the end of the year...easy peasy!

5. Audiobook Challenge: 100% completed!

I am thankful that I finished this one just before we moved.  I used my commutes to/from work to listen to audiobooks all the time, so this was easy to finish by mid-year...but nowadays, I am hardly ever in the car, so I would have found it impossible to complete after I quit my job!  Definitely not one I will be able to do in 2014.

So there you have it: 3 challenges completed, 1 about halfway completed, and 1 miserable fail.  Not so bad, I suppose!  I'm pretty sure that my only challenge for next year will be Mount TBR, but we shall see.

How did your 2013 reading challenges go?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: A Woman In Jerusalem by A.B. Yehoshua

Title: A Woman In Jerusalem
Author: A.B. Yehoshua
Publisher: Harcourt
Publication Date: August 14, 2006 (English translation; originally published in Hebrew in 2004)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A woman in her forties is a victim of a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem market. Her body lies nameless in a hospital morgue. She had apparently worked as a cleaning woman at a bakery, but there is no record of her employment. When a Jerusalem daily accuses the bakery of "gross negligence and inhumanity toward an employee," the bakery's owner, overwhelmed by guilt, entrusts the task of identifying and burying the victim to a human resources man. This man is at first reluctant to take on the job, but as the facts of the woman's life take shape-she was an engineer from the former Soviet Union, a non-Jew on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and, judging by an early photograph, beautiful-he yields to feelings of regret, atonement, and even love.

At once profoundly serious and highly entertaining, A. B. Yehoshua astonishes us with his masterly, often unexpected turns in the story and with his ability to get under the skin and into the soul of Israel today.

My Review:

This month's country selection for the Around The World in 12 Books Challenge is Israel.  Next month is Palestine, in an effort to give us challengers a chance to get to know both countries.  I found it a little difficult to find a fiction novel set in Israel that was both modern and not too Biblical (those are my preferences, not necessarily those of the other challengers), but A Woman In Jerusalem fit the bill.

This is not a novel to be read for simple plot-based entertainment.  Early on, I realized that the story is intended as a parable, an illustration of some deeper meaning or concept.  The journey of the human resources manager is not to be taken at face value, that much is obvious.  I think the first hint of that was the fact that none of the characters (except the titular Woman In Jerusalem) ever has their name revealed in the novel.  They all go by titles..."human resources manager", "office manager", "consul", etc.  From this, it's easy to glean that the events in the book are not meant to be reflective of them as individuals, but instead are supposed to convey larger concepts.

While I won't try to play it off like I know exactly what Yehoshua was trying to illustrate, my conjecture is that much of the text is meant to be a reflection on Israel and the mindset of its citizens in the present day.  I don't know enough about Israeli politics and government to get more specific than that, but certainly the human resources manager in the story is weighed down by heavy feelings of love, dedication, and remorse...all potentially reflective of a greater Israeli identity.

(I would love to hear what other readers of Yehoshua's work think of this interpretation?  Am I completely off my rocker here?)

Yehoshua's writing vacillates between the aforementioned seriousness and a lighter, more entertaining dialogue.  I appreciated that, because I think if the text felt heavy with meaning the entire time, I would have gone quickly down the road to a DNF.  However, I flew through this novel--it combines the allegorical elements with more humorous scenes fairly well.

A primary purpose of the Around the World challenge is to learn more about the culture of each country we "visit", and I think A Woman in Jerusalem was a perfect pick for that end.  I feel smarter for having read it, and I'd especially love the chance to discuss this book with anyone who has lived in, or even visited, Israel.  Though this is a pretty fast read, it's not necessarily "light", as you'll be using your noggin for sure.

Read any good parables lately, reader friends?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

Title: Please Look After Mom
Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: April 5, 2011 (first US edition--originally published 2008)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A million-plus-copy best seller in Korea—a magnificent English-language debut poised to become an international sensation—this is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.

Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother,  Please Look After Mom  is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.

You will never think of your mother the same way again after you read this book .

My Review:

This month's country for the Around the World challenge is South Korea, and Please Look After Mom captured my interest for a few reasons.  One, it's a modern-day novel set in that country--something I was having trouble finding (most of the fiction novels set in South Korea were more historical in nature).  Two, it's a family drama, which is right up my alley.  Shin's novel was huge overseas before it landed in the US two years ago, so I figured this was a great choice for this month's challenge.

Overall, I had mixed feelings about this one.  In the end, I was left with that "meh" sensation that means I will probably forget about the book's details pretty quickly after reading.  It wasn't unenjoyable, per se...but I felt like it centered on an event that could have easily hooked a reader through the entire novel, but didn't.  Instead, Shin takes a more subtle and spiritual approach to the subject, and it left me shrugging my shoulders at the end.

The best thing about this book is the multiple-perspective narration.  The novel begins in the second-person POV of Chi-hon, oldest daughter of the family.  She introduces us to the sudden disappearance of her mother, and her (and her family's) immediate reaction to the crisis.  The next part of the novel is told in the third-person by Hyong-chol, oldest son of the family.  Then we get the second-person perspective of their father, and finally (before the epilogue) we get the first-person POV of the mother herself.  So, not only are you getting the narration of different family members in the situation, but the mode of perspective (first, second, third person) changes drastically as well.  I'm not sure I've ever read another novel that attempts to do this.  It was a little disorienting at first, but it works.  Each POV is so unique in how it approaches both the disappearance and the family's history, that by the end you get a very rich illustration of the complexities behind this family's dynamic.  Shin took a big risk here, but it paid off.

Obviously, that isn't where the book lost me.  I think there were two reasons why I felt underwhelmed by the end.  First, as I mentioned before, the last third of the novel relied so heavily on subtlety and spirituality that I became disinterested.  The section told from the mother's POV is disorienting and leaves a lot open to interpretation--too much, maybe.  In the end, I was left feeling that the novel came to no real conclusion.

The second issue was that, despite the variety of perspectives, I started to feel like the information being conveyed was repetitive.  As a reader, you are meant to see that once Mom disappears, the family brings to light all the regrets of how they treated her--and they also realize that they didn't fully know her as well as they thought they did.  However, when these themes are repeated over and over in each section, it starts to get a bit tedious, and leans more towards feeling morose rather than emotionally moving.

Final verdict?  I loved what Shin did here with perspective, but in the end I was left feeling like there was no real conclusion.  Not to mention that the tone for the entire novel is pretty much a downer.  Overall, not my fave.  I needed more solidity...and maybe just a tiny glimmer of happiness in the end.

Have you read any novels lately that were real downers?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Two Challenges DOWN!

I am pretty proud of myself, reader friends.  Remember all those crazy challenges I signed up for this year?  Of the five, I've already finished TWO!  And it's not even the halfway point of the year.  PATS ON THE BACK, YO.

The two that I finished are:

Audiobook Challenge (hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner)

I signed up to listen to at least 6 audiobooks and finished it when I completed The Round House last week.  I considered upping it to the next level (12 audiobooks), but I am going to lose my work commute in August when we move, so chances are I wouldn't make it.  However, I do hope to squeeze in another 1-2 before then.

Foodies Read Challenge (hosted by Foodies Read)

This wasn't tough, since I love food books so much!  I signed up for Pastry Chef level (4-8 food books) and hit #4 when I finished Pollan's Cooked last week.  I may throw in a few more throughout the year, but probably not enough to get above 8, so I'd say I'm done at this point.

As for my other three challenges...two are going great.  They are both monthly challenges (with a different category to fill each month) so I can't finish them until December, but so far I am right on track with both.  That's the Keyword Challenge and the Around The World in 12 Books Challenge.  As for the fifth one...let's just say the TBR Challenge is going to be a total wash.  I signed up to read 24 books from my TBR pile at home and so far I've read...1.  LAAAAAAAAAAAAME.  But there are just too many good library books and ARCs right now!!  Maybe next year...

Did you sign up for any 2013 challenges?  How are they going so far?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Book Review: The Bridge of Years by May Sarton

Title: The Bridge of Years
Author: May Sarton
Publisher: WW Norton
Publication Date: April 18, 1946
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

This novel, first published in 1946, is one of May Sarton's earliest and, some critics think, one of her best. It takes place during the years between the world wars and explores the life of a Belgian family, the Duchesnes, and their mutual devotion which intensifies under the shadow of impending disaster.

Mélanie Duchesne, mother of three, is an active businesswoman, whose courage, energy, and optimism bind the family and its farm together. Paul, her husband, is a philosopher, detached, moody, continually embroiled in the spiritual conflicts of a crumbling Europe.

The last years before the second war are tense ones, a time for stock-taking, for a quickening of the pace of life. But it is Mélanie who encourages her family to proceed with their plans, to continue with their way of life. And it is Mélanie who decides their future as the Germans launch their invasion of Belgium.

My Review:

I'll admit it--when I started looking for a book for this month's Around the World challenge, I wasn't super stoked.  I was having a really hard time finding a good Belgium pick.  I usually try to choose a monthly novel for this challenge that looks at least somewhat familiar to me, but nothing on the Belgium list jumped out.  However, based on its description, I put The Bridge of Years on hold at the library and hoped for the best.

Final verdict: SO GLAD that I gave this one a chance!  May Sarton's writing is absolutely beautiful, and I found myself completely enveloped in the Duchesnes' daily drama right from page one.

I will note right away that this is not a novel with an "action" plot.  Despite being set in a very turbulent political period, this is very much a character-driven work.  Sarton hones in on the relationships between each member of the Duchesne family, and spends a lot of time developing their joys, misgivings, and philosophies as the book progresses.  When the novel begins, World War 1 has just ended--by the end, World War 2 has recently pushed into Belgium.  What Sarton manages to do is create a concise illustration of the Duchesnes' ever-changing family dynamic, as the politics and worries of the wider world bear down upon them.

What is most striking about this novel is how each character brilliantly comes to life on the page.  A period of twenty years goes by in the course of the book, and yet Sarton is able to convincingly portray the maturity and development of each widely-different person: everyone from Melanie, the vivacious and charitable family matriarch, to Pierre, a young family friend who often spends summers with the Duchesnes.  Sarton eloquently delineates every character's inner conflicts, and to me, this is The Thing that makes this novel worth devouring.  She writes, in just 342 pages, words that seem like they belong in a much longer epic novel:

"Life was not lived at the point of intensity...when he finished his first book, when Colette was conceived.  Life might be conceived there, but it was maintained on another level, less pure, less violent, closer to earth, difficult, gradual, asking above all the ability to endure."

The last third of the novel did feel a little slower for me, as politics become a larger part of the Duchesnes' everyday lives.  However, I felt such a bond with the characters by then that it really did not disrupt my reading experience.  And the ending left me with a lot to think about, as the Duchesnes try to determine if their way of life can continue as war becomes their daily reality.

I feel like I can't do this one justice in one small review.  So you'll just have to trust me.  If you're looking for an introspective, fluidly-written, character-driven novel, The Bridge of Years is a wonderful choice.  This one snuck up on me, and reminded me that the more well-known novels are not the only good ones out there!

What novels have taken you by surprise lately?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Book Review: The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

Title: The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
Author: J. Maarten Troost
Publisher: Broadway
Publication Date: June 8, 2004
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals  tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters, including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).

With  The Sex Lives of Cannibals , Maarten Troost has delivered one of the most original, rip-roaringly funny travelogues in years—one that will leave you thankful for staples of American civilization such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news, and that will provide the ultimate vicarious adventure.

My Review:

The region of interest for this month's Around the World Challenge is the South Pacific islands.  I've read several rather serious books for my ATWC selections in previous months, so I figured April was a good time to try a new tone.  Thus, this entertaining travel memoir, set in the far-off island of Kiribati.

Before reading this, the only reason that I had heard of Kiribati (pronounced kir-ee-bas) was because I've played a lot of geography quizzes that require you to know the names of all 197 countries in the world. (Yes, I know them, and I can list them alphabetically, because as you would expect, I'm a little bit of a freak.)  However, beyond the name, I knew nothing.  I mean, what was there to know?  My picture of the South Pacific was largely based on my friend's honeymoon photos in Fiji: gorgeous beaches, crystalline waters, beautiful weather at all times, and lots of quaint oversea huts.  That's it, yes?

Apparently, no.  Maarten Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia trekked to Kiribati for 2 years while Sylvia worked for a government agency.  That two years was full of rabid dogs, feces-infested waters, and drought...rather unlike those Fijian photos of my mind.  Luckily, Troost took the entire experience in stride (quite unlike how I might have done), and wrote this lively memoir to commemorate it.

I got sucked into Troost's narrative right away, as he has a lighthearted and sarcastic writing style that I immediately enjoyed.  He has no problem poking fun at the many (many, many) mishaps that he and his girlfriend endured before, during, and after their time in the tiny Kiribati town of Tarawa.  I think the humor was important here, because in reality, Kiribati is rundown and quite full of poverty--a situation that could easily lower the tone of the memoir.  But I think Troost did a nice job of illustrating Kiribati's economic difficulties in between the humor, without making light of the country's problems.

Troost does also offer some historical chapters, which give you a lot of important background about the island's colonial roots.  He continues the humor in those sections too, which keeps the emphasis from changing too much throughout the book.  I will say that the last 30 pages or so of their time in Tarawa started to drag for me as a reader.  I almost felt like Troost started running low on funny anecdotes, and some of those final sections began to feel like filler.  However, it picked up again when he and Sylvia left Tarawa, leading to a well-crafted that makes me curious to check out some of the follow-up memoirs that Troost has penned.

Overall, if you enjoy travel memoirs that don't take themselves too seriously, this is a great choice.  (Bill Bryson fans?  This may be a good one for you.)  While I did find a few slow parts towards the end, as a whole this book manages to be both funny and informative...and I like my information funny, when possible.  (Seriously, history textbooks, where are you on this?)

Other reviews of The Sex Lives of Cannibals:
Reading Through Life
Small World Reads
The Book Lady's Blog

Have you read any travel memoirs lately?  Especially humorous ones?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Review: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

Title: How Green Was My Valley
Author: Richard Llewellyn
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication Date: 1939
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Huw Morgan, about to leave home forever, reminisces about the golden days of his youth, when South Wales still prospered and coal dust had not yet blackened the valley. Llewellyn's characters fight, love, laugh, and cry, creating an indelible portrait of a people.

My Review:

I picked up this book because I needed a novel set in Wales for last month's Around the World in 12 Books Challenge.  I was pretty excited to read about Wales, because my husband is 100% Welsh (or at least he thinks so...maybe some French Canadian in there?  But mostly Welsh).  And the only thing he has ever been able to tell me about the Welsh is that they are known for ditch digging.  I suspect that's about as accurate as saying my Irish ancestors are only known for being hungry for potatoes.  Ah, stereotypes!

When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, "You should read this.  It would make you feel proud to be Welsh."  Because seriously, what an epic, spirited portrayal of South Wales in the late 1800's.  This is easily one of the better classics that I've read in a LONG time.

Now, when I say this book would fill you with Welsh pride, I don't mean that everything in it is happy.  OH NO.  This book has tons of sads and feels.  The description above doesn't tell you much, but Huw is the youngest of six brothers, and he also has three sisters to boot.  The Morgans live in a valley of South Wales and work primarily as coal miners.  (Ditch digging, almost?)  The book begins with Huw as an adult, leaving his family home, but you don't find out why just yet.  Nope, because Huw then backtracks to when he was just a little boy (age six, I believe) and begins to tell us the story of his upbringing.

I love a well-done coming-of-age novel, and I daresay that Huw Morgan might be tied for my favorite coming-of-age character (alongside Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn ).  Llewellyn did an absolutely terrific job illustrating how Huw grows physically and emotionally throughout his life.  When the story opens, he's just an innocent kid living in pretty prosperous times.  But as the novel progresses, he faces his fair share of hard knocks (as does his family), and he matures before your eyes.  Llewellyn does this in such a way that the progression is evenly-paced, but not painfully slow (as can happen with some epic stories).  I was never, ever bored while reading this novel, and I found myself rooting for Huw all along the way.

Huw was obviously my favorite character, but the others in the novel became near and dear to my heart as well.  Each of Huw's MANY siblings had a distinct personality and passion that came through loud and clear.  For example, his sister Angharad, who became one of the best female characters in the history of ever when she told off a male suitor with this line:

"I am Angharad Morgan," she said, and the river never ran colder.  "Go to hell."


And two of his friends (Dai Bando and Cyfartha) were probably my favorite side characters, because they were HILARIOUS.  (There are some really great one-liners in this book, which is not something I normally say about a classic.)  Honestly, the entire village of people around the Morgans was an amazing, cohesive unit that puts modern day neighborhood friendships to shame.  The comraderie and support among all of the characters was inspiring, and a big reason why I told my husband that this book would make him proud to be Welsh.

But one of the best characters of all?  WALES!  And you're thinking, wait, that's the setting.  EXACTLY.  Llewellyn basically turns this South Wales valley into a character all its own.  It's not just the descriptions of the picturesque mountains or the ever-changing winds, but the way that the setting plays a crucial role in many of the important events of the characters' lives.  This novel couldn't be set anywhere else and be able to tell the same story.

I haven't read a real epic classic in a while, mostly because Middlemarch scared me off a couple of years ago.  How Green Was My Valley was my first foray back into that territory, and I am not sorry. This is a truly fantastic book and it's going on my favorites shelf.  READ IT!

Other reviews of How Green Was My Valley:
Caribou's Mom
Impressions In Ink
Book Light Graveyard

Do you have a favorite classic?  And have you ever visited Wales?  Because now I want to go to there.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

So how are those challenges going? *squirm*

Remember all those awesome reading challenges that I was posting about late last year?  Just to refresh your memory, psycho-me signed up for 5 challenges for 2013.  Now that we're 25% into the year, I figured I would keep myself honest by reporting my progress (or lack thereof) to my reading audience.

Without further ado!

Challenge #1: Around The World in 12 Books Challenge
Read 1 book a month, each from a different specified country.
I'm not doing too bad here.  I kept up with the January and February countries, but fell a little behind with March (I have just a few pages left in my Wales novel now, so only a few days behind!).  I am hoping to read my Fiji book on time this month, and get back on track.

Current Grade: B+

Challenge #2: Monthly Keyword Challenge
Read 1 book a month, each with a different keyword in the title.
Pretty much the same as Challenge #1.  Did great with January/February, but my Wales book is doubling as my March keyword book, so I will be a few days late getting this one finished up.  Looking to get back on track in April!

Current Grade: B+

Challenge #3: Foodies Read Challenge
Read 4 food-related books.
I've completed 1 out of the 4 books that I signed up to read here, so I guess I'm right on track.  I have eleventy billion food books checked out from the library right now (as you can see here), so hopefully I will tuck another one under my belt soon.

Current Grade: A

Challenge #4: Audiobook Challenge
Listen to at least 6 audiobooks.
Doing awesome on this one!!  I only signed up to finish 6 audiobooks this year, but I've already done 4.  It helps that I listen to them so much during my commutes.  I may actually raise the bar here and go for the next level up (12).

Current Grade: A++

Challenge #5: Mount TBR Challenge
Read at least 24 books from my at-home TBR pile.
This one is going to be a total wash.  I have only read ONE out of the 24 books I was hoping to take off my TBR pile this year.  There is no way I'm going to finish this one, especially given all the review copies that I have coming up in May/June.  I'll honestly be surprised if I make it to 10 by the end of the year.  And this is all not to mention the TONS of new books I've added to my possession the last few months.  FAIL!

Current Grade: F-

Readers, did you sign up for any reading challenges this year?  How are they going so far?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Library Blackout...has this happened to you?

Here's a pic of my library (taken from the second floor looking down towards the reference area).  Isn't it purty?:

I swear, there is something in the air at this place.

Every time I walk in there with ONE particular book in mind, I come out with that book, plus eleventy billion others that I have no idea when I will find the time to read.

Take, for example, last week.  I went to the library to pick up How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.  I really, truly, try to limit my library books lately, because I have SO SO many unread books at home (not to mention on my Kindle).  But I NEEDED this book for my Around the World in 12 Books challenge.  So borrowing was imperative.

I was kind of in a hurry, so I walked in, located the book, and done.  I was walking towards the checkout desk, thinking about my other book challenges this year, and remembered the Foodies Read challenge.  And I thought, "Huh, I've only done one foodie book so far this year...maybe I'll pick up one of those too.  JUST ONE."

I wander over to the nonfiction area and peruse the food/cooking section.  Suddenly I am inundated with choices.  So many good choices.  I CAN'T HANDLE ALL THE CHOICES.

It was at this point that I blacked out.

When I came to, I was in my car with How Green Was My Valley, as well as The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain, Beaten, Seared, and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon, and Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.  Also, Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson is on my holds list now, apparently.

WHAT HAPPENED IN THERE?  I will never know.  I can only assume the librarians drugged me and sent me packing with enough food-related reading material to cover me for most of the spring season.  They're a suspicious bunch, librarians.

Ah well, at-home TBR pile.  We will meet again another day.

Monday, March 18, 2013

It's Monday, peeps!

So what are you reading?

This weekend was another busy one around these parts, as we did a day trip on Saturday to visit the in-laws, and then yesterday was full of errands...although I did get to use a little tax return money to start my summer vacation shopping.  YES!  T-minus 3 months until a fantastical week of beach time.  Must load up the Kindle too...

In other news, Small Fry has started to refer to our cars as the "beep-beeps".  WHICH IS SO ADORABLE.  Love that kid.  He does something new every day.

Anyway, what am I reading?

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

Sage Singer befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone's favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret - he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - is it murder, or justice?  (Goodreads link)

The newest Picoult release that I picked up at her kickoff event last month.  I AM HOOKED.  The story is complex and mysterious and dramatic and full of awesome.  I'll admit, when I saw she was tackling the Holocaust, I was a little skeptical...there are SO many fiction novels that take on that topic, I wasn't sure how she was going to approach it from an original angle.  But those concerns quickly went out the window.  I hope the ending gives a big pay-off to match the rest of the novel.  Review coming later this week!

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

Huw Morgan, about to leave home forever, reminisces about the golden days of his youth, when South Wales still prospered and coal dust had not yet blackened the valley. Llewellyn's characters fight, love, laugh, and cry, creating an indelible portrait of a people.  (Goodreads link)

As I mentioned last week, I decided to use this as my book for Wales in the Around The World In 12 Books Challenge.   I just started it this weekend...not bad so far.  A slower pace than the Picoult book for sure, but I'm impressed with the breadth of characters and how quickly I'm coming to be attached to Huw.  This is a long one though, so we'll see how I fare!

Also, I'm still listening to the audiobook of The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.  It continues to be fantastic.  Can't wait to review soon!

What's on tap next?
Probably At the Mercy of the Mountains by Peter Bronski (for this month's Keyword Challenge), and/or Evil Water by Inger Wolf--I have a review copy and it sounds pretty thrilling.  Have you read either of these two?  Any recommendations?

Have a great reading week!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review: God Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau

Title:  God Grew Tired of Us
Author: John Bul Dau (with Michael S. Sweeney)
Publisher: National Geographic
Publication Date: January 16, 2007
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

One of the uprooted youngsters known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, John Bul Dau was 12 years old when civil war ravaged his village and shattered its age-old society, a life of herding and agriculture marked by dignity, respect, and the simple virtues of Dinka tribal tradition. As tracer bullets split the night and mortar shells exploded around him, John fled into the darkness—the first terrified moments of a journey that would lead him thousands of miles into an exile that was to last many years.

John's memoir of his Dinka childhood shows African life and values at their best, while his searing account of hardship, famine, and war also testifies to human resilience and kindness. In an era of cultural clashes, his often humorous stories of adapting to life in the United States offer proof that we can bridge our differences peacefully. John Bul Dau's quiet pride, true humility, deep seriousness, compassionate courage, and remarkable achievements will take every reader’s breath away.

My Review:

When looking for a book to match this month's Sudan pick for the Around The World in 12 Books Challenge, I had a rather long list of works from which to choose.  My original intention was to find a fiction novel, because many of the books on the list were nonfiction and I wanted to go against the grain.  However, I ended up choosing John Bul Dau's memoir as a Lost Boy of Sudan, because honestly...I didn't know much about the Sudanese civil war.  Very little, in fact, which I know is a sad thing to admit, given the upheaval that has taken place there.  So a nonfiction pick was important for me, as I wanted to read an interesting book and also feed my brain in the process.

In the end, I'm very happy that I chose this memoir.  John's story is both tragic and inspiring, and he manages to tell it with a level-headedness that is truly remarkable.  After fleeing his village at the age of 13 while it was under fire, John was separated from his family, and began a harrowing 14-year journey through Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya that eventually led him to a new life in Syracuse, NY.  He is able to reflect on his life story (and his future) with a level of clarity that I think would elude most of us, given all that he struggled against to get where he is today.  His insights illustrate the unrest not only in his home country, but throughout Africa:

"What a crazy world--each country in revolt, pushing its rebels to seek sanctuary in a neighboring country that was in turn dealing with its own problems."

Other than John's voice (which was really the best thing about the memoir for me), the format of the book was the biggest plus.  His words are interspersed with historical timelines and facts about the Sudanese civil war, which was crucial for me as a sadly-underinformed reader.  Plus, Dau's co-author (Michael S. Sweeney) included interviews with some of John's friends, family, and professors, which added a lot to Dau's original narrative. John's story could easily stand on its own, but these additional details are part of what makes this a truly captivating read.

Obviously, the story of John's flight through Africa is terrifying and ghastly.  I was afraid that, once John arrived in America, his memoir would take on a slower pace, which would disrupt the flow of the book.  However, that was definitely not the case.  It is amazing to read about how a total newcomer experiences your country upon their initial arrival.  John had basic knowledge of how things worked in the US, but small things (like seeing a woman drive a car, or using a microwave) were a complete shock for him.  Hearing about his journey to become self-sufficient in an entirely new country was inspiring.  And again, his insights into our culture were spot-on at times:

"...during the civil war in Sudan, my countrymen starved every day, and tens of thousands went hungry in the dark days in refugee camps, while in America dogs had special meals prepared just for them."

"Americans have so much, but they insist on seeing the glass as half empty instead of half full.  To extend the metaphor a bit, when I lived in Kakuma I didn't even have a glass."

Overall, John's memoir left me feeling heavyhearted (for all that he was forced to endure), moved (by his wisdom, and some of the generosity he encountered along the way), and better educated.  It is upsetting that crises like the one in Sudan/South Sudan are not highlighted in the US media nearly as much as, say...Lindsay Lohan.  But hopefully memoirs like this one will continue to infiltrate the American consciousness:

"The way I saw it, it was like a philosophy question I had heard: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  The villages of southern Sudan had been attacked again and again, and hundreds of thousands of people had died at the hands of the djellabas.  I could see two main differences between that war and the one carried out by bin Laden.  First, the villages of southern Sudan had no tall buildings to fall down.  And second, no journalists with television cameras captured and shared the news of my homeland's destruction with the world."

Have you read any interesting books set in Sudan/South Sudan?  What are the memoirs that have moved you the most?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas

Title: Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate)
Author: Amy Thomas
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication Date: February 1, 2012
Source: personal purchase (e-book)

Plot Summary from Goodreads :

Part love letter to New York, part love letter to Paris, and total devotion to all things sweet. Paris, My Sweet is a personal and moveable feast that’s a treasure map for anyone who loves fresh cupcakes and fine chocolate, New York and Paris, and life in general. It’s about how the search for happiness can be as fleeting as a sliver of cheesecake and about how the life you’re meant to live doesn’t always taste like the one you envisioned. Organized into a baker’s dozen of delicacies (and the adventures they inspired) that will tempt readers’ appetites, Paris, My Sweet is something to savor.

My Review:

Finding my first book for the Around The World in 12 Books challenge was a cinch.  This month's country (France) has been written about from top to bottom, so the recommendations were endless.  However, the one I eventually went with was Paris, My Sweet (mentioned to me by Andi from Estella's Revenge--thanks Andi!).  I thought this was a perfect choice, because it doubles as a book for the Foodies Read challenge (nom).

Paris, My Sweet is the nonfiction account of advertising copywriter/food blogger Amy Thomas during her yearlong stint working in Paris.  After a semester of study abroad in the City of Light during college, she dreamed of eventually returning.  She got the chance at the age of 36 when her job temporarily relocated her there from her longtime home in New York City.  During that year, she experienced all aspects of the city, but especially the ah-may-zing pastries and desserts.  Amy recaps how she ate her way through Paris, while also connecting her food experiences to her personal ups and downs as an expat in France.

I feel like I have to review this as two separate books.  Because first, there's Paris itself: the history, the ambiance, and the food.  OH, THE FOOD.  Amy Thomas pulls no punches when she's describing the positively decadent chocolate, croissants, macarons, cupcakes, et al throughout the city.  I was ravenous before the end of the first chapter.  Each section usually focuses on one type of food (the chocolate chip cookie, madeleines, French toast, etc) and how she experienced it in Paris--along with how it has (or has not) taken off in the NYC restaurant scene.  The contrast between the two cities makes this better than your average food or travel memoir.  (Plus, she provides addresses for every bakery and restaurant she mentions--major score.)

And even beyond the descriptions of the food itself, I felt myself falling in love with the French method of cuisine.  "Fresh, local, and delicious was not the marketing mantra du jour in Paris.  It's just the way it was."  Thomas emphasizes how her Parisians neighbors treasured high-quality ingredients and freshly-prepared dishes, something that is unfortunately undervalued in the US.  It made me yearn for a 3-hour lunch and some local wine.  GAH, divine.

So yes, as far as Paris and the food--this book gets a major thumbs up.

However, then there is the OTHER part of the book: Amy's personal experiences.  To put it plainly, Thomas is just awful at expressing her feelings in a relateable way for readers.  Is she a poor writer structurally?  No.  But she has a complete lack of self-awareness that ends up making her sound spoiled, whiny, and outrageously stuck-up.  She spends the first few chapters recounting how phenomenal her life is: awesome apartment in NYC's East Village, hoppin' social life, amazing job.  Then she gets transferred to the city of her dreams, where she lands a ridiculously perfect apartment (which she doesn't have to pay rent for), gets to work on the Louis Vuitton account, and spends her downtime eating copious amounts of chocolate and jetsetting around Europe.  At one point, she says, "It was almost stupid how picture-perfect my new life was."  And all I could think was, EXACTLY.  Thomas shows positively no humility in these descriptions, and as a reader, I lost all interest in her as a result.  (Best part: when she complains about how she had to work SO MUCH in the summer (wait, like the rest of us?)...but oh yeah, she did have time to vacation in the Loire Valley and the Cote d'Azur.  Oh, and she got to watch the Tour de France from her office.  Please excuse me while I cry all the tears for you.)  Later in the memoir, she starts to talk about some relationship and health problems that she encountered, but by then I found her so eyeroll-worthy, it took me a long time to sympathize.

Also, Thomas breaks a well-known rule of Girl Law: if you're a skinny girl, you don't tell the world about how fat you feel.  I can say this, because I am a somewhat skinny girl, and I know better than to complain publicly about a fat day.  I will not get sympathy.  I keep that sh*t between me and my husband and/or BFF, who are the two humans who will listen to me about it without punching me in the face.  Thomas, however, spends the entire book complaining about how "fat" Parisian chocolate made her, when it is plain from every Googled photo of her ever that that is not the case.  Again, she loses reader sympathy here.

So, overall--as a food memoir (especially a dessert memoir), this book rocks my socks.  I am really glad that I bought a copy, because I'd love to take it with me if I ever visit Paris--all the best foodie spots are mentioned!  And Paris, as a setting, is gorgeously described.  It made me want to hop a plane ASAP.  However, as a personal memoir, Paris, My Sweet falls on its face.  Thomas needs to re-think how she presents herself to her audience.  She had some good stories to tell, but she just doesn't go about it with the right tone.

Foodies--rejoice!  This one is a hit.  But memoirists, you may want to take a pass.

What are your favorite books set in Paris?  How about food memoirs?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

More Challenges!

OK y'all, I signed up for 4 more 2013 reading challenges.  Everybody, STOP POSTING AWESOME CHALLENGES.  I can't stop signing up for them.

I'm really done now though.  I already told you about the Monthly Keyword Challenge, and now I also am declaring:

Around The World in 12 Books Challenge, hosted by Giraffe Days
This is going to be SO FUN.  I love to travel, and doing it through books is fun too!

Mount TBR Challenge, hosted by My Reader's Block

I've signed up to read Mont Blanc (at least 24 books from my TBR pile).

Foodies Read Challenge, hosted by Foodies Read
I've signed up for Pastry Chef level (4-8 food-related books).

Audiobook Challenge, hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner

I've signed up for Flirting (listening to at least 6 audiobooks).

No more challenges, Kelly.  NO MORE.

(But look at them all...aren't they pretty...)

You can keep track of my progress next year on my 2013 Challenges page.
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