Friday, December 30, 2016

End of the Road: Ambrea's 2016 Read Harder Challenge

 Reported by Ambrea

This week, I’m just barely eking by with my Read Harder Challenge.  After reading these last three books, I have officially finished my list:
  1. Read a book that is set in the Middle East
  2. Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes
  3. Read a food memoir

To start off, I finally finished reading I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai.  It only took me 6 months, but I finished it and, honestly, I’m glad I did.  It’s a fascinating story that’s both heartbreaking and incredibly informative, offering insight into the various cultures and relations of Afghanistan.  Although her story is grim, it’s simultaneously uplifting.  Personally, I enjoyed reading about her and her father’s endeavors to bring education to local children—and particularly to the young women of the community.

Malala is a skilled narrator.  She’s bright, she’s hopeful, she’s very detailed and she’s very intelligent.  Although her book is a translation, which is sometimes apparent, I felt like I could read and relate to her feelings.  She does a fine job of connecting to her readers, detailing her thoughts and feelings—and, more importantly, making her voice heard.  She makes a compelling argument for education, for giving women equal education opportunities.  Truthfully, I can see why Malala Yousafzai is a Nobel Prize Laureate.

I also had the opportunity to read a short (and rather famous) essay by Virginia Woolf:  A Room of One’s Own.  As an avid reader and, ahem, English major in college, one would think I’d have taken the opportunity to read A Room of One’s Own, but, until this year, I had yet to make more than a cursory acquaintance with Woolf’s work.  Fortunately, I had the chance to remedy that; unfortunately, I wasn’t enamored by her essay.

A Room of One’s Own makes some very valid points.  It’s important to read and, after reading it, it’s something that I think all young women should have a chance to read at least once in their life.  However, I had a hard time reading Woolf’s essay, because I just couldn’t seem to focus on one thing before it jumped to another.  For instance, in the first few pages when Woolf described Oxbridge and her experiences at the esteemed university, I thought it took quite a long time to get to the point—and, confidentially, I found myself growing a little bored as I waited for her to come to a conclusion.  Not that her writing is bad, mind you; I just struggled to stay committed given her style of writing, so I’m not sure if that’s so much her failing as my own.

The point is, I finished reading A Room of One’s Own and I have a new appreciation for Woolf.  She’s a talented writer, but, personally, I’m not so sure she’s the writer for me.  I appreciate her work and I appreciate the significance of her essay, but I don’t think she’s the one and only feminist writer for me.

Last but not least, I read Julie and Julia by Julie Powell.  It’s riotously funny, yet strangely poignant.  Oddly enough, it reminds me of Jenny Lawson and her memoir, Furiously Happy—yet just a tiny bit less chaotic.  Not by much, considering Julie Powell undertakes to make 524 different recipes, many of which take hours to prepare, in just one year in a crappy little apartment in Queens.  It’s astonishing all the things she (and her marriage) manages to survive, including:  biological clocks, frozen pipes, disastrous dinner parties, inane dead end secretarial jobs, break downs, Blanche days, and celebrity crushes.

It’s really a pretty amusing book, especially if you decide to listen to it as read by the author (which I did); however, it’s not quite the food memoir I expected.  In fact, Julie and Julia is more memoir than food.  Julie is hell bent on recreating all of Julia Child’s recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1 and, in her journey, she learns how to make a variety of dishes and confronts some of the most trying times of her life.  While it features a lot of cooking, Julie and Julia feels like it’s more about the experiences of cooking and the results, specifically what happens to the author as she slogs through more than 500 French recipes, than the actual cooking, but I can’t say I minded.

Julie and Julia is strangely heartwarming and incredibly amusing.  To me, it strikes just the right balance that makes it a memoir worth reading, especially if you have the chance to listen to the author tell her own story.  It makes it memorable.  However, I will note that while I was listening to the audiobook I discovered I borrowed the abridged version.  I don’t know if the audiobook had the full text, but I do know I missed a few things that might otherwise have filled in details or fleshed out the characters involved.  It was my only disappointment in an otherwise wonderful book.

Ambrea finished just in time to start the 2017 Read Harder Challenge!  If you're interested, the list of challenges are here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nevermore: Lisette's List, Blood on Snow, A Land Remembered, Vanished

Reported by Jeanne

First up in Nevermore was Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland.  The story begins in 1937, when young bride Lisette has to move from her beloved Paris to a tiny village in Provence in order to take care of her husband’s grandfather, Pascal.  She finds compensation in hearing Pascal’s stories of the great artists:  he had been a pigment salesman and knew artists such as Pizarro and Cezanne who had gifted him with paintings. Then World War II begins, and Lisette’s world is again turned upside down as the Nazis invade.  Our reader proclaimed it to be an excellent novel, especially for those interested in art, but with a wide ranging appeal.

The next book was A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith, another historical novel but this one begins in 1858 in Florida when Tobias McIvey decides to start on new life on the frontier.  The novel follows several generations of the McIvey family as they struggle through hardships to become wealthy and influential.  The book covers a century of Florida history and has won numerous awards since its publication in 1984.  Our reader especially appreciated the attention to environmental detail.

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo centers on Olav, a hitman who is hired to take out a special target—the crime boss’s wife.  Olav knows it’s a very dangerous assignment from the start, as he will likely be eliminated by someone else because he knows too much.  Once he started shadowing his victim, another complication surfaces: he falls in love with her.  Our reader said Blood on Snow was very different from Nesbo’s usual work, almost poetic.  He loved it.

Nonfiction was well represented with Vanished by Wil Hylton. In 1944, a B-24 went down near the island of Palau in the Pacific with eleven crew members.  Despite the large size of the plane, the wreckage was never found.  Sixty years later, Dr. Pat Scanlon, a diver with an interest in locating WW II planes, took up the challenge to find out what became of the plane and crew. Our reader said it was interesting and noted that she read it for the mystery and not its literary quality.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

Reviewed by Ambrea

Helen Carpenter—thirty-two and divorced—has decided it’s high time she get her life together and reinvent herself.  She wants to do something wild, something adventurous, something completely out of character for her—like enduring a three weeks’ long survival course in Wyoming.  A bit extreme, as Helen would admit, but she’s sick and tired of her well-behaved life.

As Helen’s new adventure takes off, she’s set to begin the strangest adventure of her life where she will survive various dangers—including a summer blizzard, a group of sorority girls, rutting elk, trailside injuries, and infuriating men—and learn something about herself along the way.  Helen quickly discovers, “[S]ometimes you just have to get really, really lost before you can even have a hope of being found.”

I absolutely loved listening to Happiness for Beginners.  After picking it out on a whim, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed listening to Marguerite Gavin relate Helen Carpenter's story.  Gavin was an excellent narrator, lending her voice and attitude to Helen, making the story come to life.  It was an exceptional experience:  I found myself laughing in the midst of every chapter, thoroughly enjoying the narrator’s company as I walked my dog.

Although I enjoyed the retelling of Katherine Center’s novel, I also enjoyed the story and the characters.  Helen Carpenter is a candid narrator, a vivid storyteller, and a wonderful character, developing as her story builds and transforming from tentative, broken-hearted grade school teacher to a thoughtful, more knowledgeable woman.  She grows closer to her brother; she gains friends; she learns how to survive in the wilderness.

And it’s wonderful to see how she develops, how she accomplishes her goals and, more importantly, manages to surprise herself in the end.

Her adventure is ludicrous—three weeks in the wilderness, surviving on her wits and little else—and her story is full of unintended twists, which even she acknowledges.  She goes in search of a new identity, in search of happiness and a piece of herself that she feels has been missing for years.  It’s fun to watch her reinvention, to see her “rising from the ashes like a phoenix”—one of her many goals for her survival course.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to witness Helen’s growth as a character.  Helen is a really marvelous character:  smart, a touch sarcastic, insightful, courageous and thoroughly grounded in reality.  As a recently divorced woman, she’s been through the wringer and managed to come out on the other side—and I like that she succeeds in reinventing herself and reevaluating her life, as well as her relationships.

Overall, Happiness for Beginners was the perfect combination of narrator and story.  Something about the way the author wrote and Marguerite Gavin retold the story made me enjoy every minute of it.

Friday, December 23, 2016

A Wallflower Christmas by Lisa Kleypas

Reviewed by Christy

American Rafe Bowman has arrived in Queen Victoria’s London just in time for Christmas and his arranged courtship of Lady Natalie Blandford. Rafe’s sisters may be known to Kleypas fans as the protagonists of the previous Wallflower novels in which they look for love. In A Wallflower Christmas they are the ones trying to do the matchmaking, however. While Natalie is seemingly the perfect match for Rafe – proper, beautiful, and of good standing – his eye is drawn more to Natalie’s chaperone Hannah.

I had no knowledge of the Wallflowers series when I picked this up but it can be read as a standalone. This novel is short but not all that sweet. I was originally looking for a simple historical fiction Christmas novel, the main focus on the Christmas part, and this seemed to fit the bill. But the holiday season is not much more than a backdrop. The real focus is Rafe and his confounding feelings toward Hannah. Rafe seems to be your typical alpha male romantic interest (aka a jerk). Maybe I would’ve enjoyed the “bad boy” angle when I was younger but now it was not appealing in the least. Of course, like in any good romance, the rough exterior eventually melts away so our leading man can win the girl.  Hannah was fine, I guess, but not super exciting as a protagonist.

Although it was a quick, somewhat entertaining read I’m not sure if I’m inclined to peruse the rest of the series. Hannah and Rafe’s love story was of an instant variety, and their personalities seemed to just be romance stereotypes with no real dimension: a womanizing rake whose heart and defenses thaw when he meets an angelic girl who can finally change him. None of which would be too terribly awful if they threw some more Christmas in there – which is why I picked up the book in the first place. So to sum it up, it’s not horrible. There are certainly worse ways to spend your time. But there are also plenty of cozier and better Christmas books to settle in with on a cold night.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Nevermore: My Brilliant Friend, The Wonder, Pearl Harbor, Solar, and Time's Up

Reported by Kristin

Our first reader described Elena Ferrante as an author of vivid books about women’s struggles.  The “Neapolitan Novels” is a four book series which follows two women from Naples, Italy through all stages of their lives.  The titles include My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.  Our reader described the books as having much passion and being reminiscent of an opera, even though they are not musically based.

Next up was The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.  With the Irish potato famine barely past, eleven year old Anna O’Donnell is seen as a miracle or a hoax, as she has chosen to live without food for months.  Worldwide visitors, believing or not, came to see Anna.  Our reader found the book extremely moving and worth reading.

 Another reader has been considering the factors leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Books that helped to supplement an extremely well thought out discussion included Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness by Craig Nelson, Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack by Steve Twomey, and The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings.  Another book club member added that she was reading Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage by Joseph E. Persico.

Returning to fiction, another reader described Solar by Ian McEwan as a situation where you might be having an argument with someone and you believe you are totally in the right, but that after you walk away you discover that you were actually in the wrong.  In such a way you might learn something about your own fallibility.  The protagonist is a Nobel laureate physicist who has spent years trying, and failing, to live up to his own early success.

Lastly, a light, fun read was recommended:  Time’s Up by Janey Mack.  Maisie McGrane is a woman in her early 20’s who has grown up in a large Irish family full of cops and lawyers.  When she is kicked out the police academy, what is she to do with her life?  Become a meter maid of course, with the hopes of proving herself worthy of reinstatement to the academy.  Compared to early Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich, this is one crazy read with larger than life characters.