June 2007 archive

Series Challenge

Kathrin over at Crazy Cozy Murders is hosting a Series Challenge beginning December 1, 2007 and running through May 31, 2008, with a possible 6 month extension.

She says:

Well, I’ve been thinking about all those series I’ve started, but not finished at various points in my life. Be it series with the same characters, the same topic, by the same author… There are just so many of which I read maybe the first few books and then left off because of other series I wanted to give a try. And by no means did I “leave” those series because I didn’t like what I read!

Participants get to pick the number of books they will read.

Here is the list from which I will choose my books (I will pick a minimum of one series):

1. The Cairo Trilogy
2. Three Novels of Ancient Egypt
3. Kevin Baker Series (Paradise Alley, Dreamland, and Striver’s Row)

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – Book Review

They could have used several more members – a family clown, for instance; and a genuine black sheep, blacker than Cody; and maybe one of those managerial older sisters who holds a group together by force. As things were, it was Ezra who had to hold them together. He wasn’t doing a very good job. He was too absorbed in the food. Right now he was conferring with the waiter, gesturing toward the soup, which had arrived a touch too cool, he said – though to Jenny it seemed fine. And now Pearl was collecting her purse and sliding back her chair, “Powder room,” she mouthed to Jenny. Ezra would be all the more upset, once he noticed she’d gone. He liked the family in a group, a cluster, and he hated Pearl’s habit of constantly “freshening up” in a restaurant, just as he hated for Cody to smoke his slim cigars between courses. “I wish just once,” he was always saying, “we could get through a meal from start to finish,” and he would say it again as soon as he discovered Pearl was missing. -From Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, page 108-

Anne Tyler weaves together a cast of characters which capture the reader in her wonderful novel: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.  Pearl Tull, a domineering and stubborn woman who is adept at denial (especially when her husband abandons the family) heads up the Tull family. Tyler begins at Pearl’s deathbed, then rewinds to reveal the intricate relationships and events that span her life.

Cody Tull is the eldest of Pearl’s children – the son who remembers his father the most vividly and is perhaps the most damaged by Beck Tull’s desertion. Jenny, the only daughter, worries about her weight and can’t sustain a relationship with men. And then there is Ezra – the favorite son – gentle, lumbering and looking for family unity – the type of man who cares for others and can’t quite give up on his mother. Even Tyler’s minor characters will touch the reader’s heart – especially Ezra’s friend Josiah Payton:

Mrs. Payton kept refilling his plate. “To look at him,” she said, “you’d never know he eats so much, would you? Skinny as a fence post. I reckon he’s still a growing boy.” She laughed, and Josiah grinned bashfully with his eyes cast down – a skeletal, stooped , hunkering man. Jenny had never thought about the fact that Josiah was somebody’s son, some woman’s greatest treasure. His stubby black lashes were lowered; his prickly head was bent over his plate. He was so certain of being loved, her if no place else. -From Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, page 108-

Tyler’s novel is a character study – and there is no author out there who does character driven novels as well as Tyler. Beautiful, harsh, endearing, absorbing – all describe this wonderful story of the Tull family. As Pearl Tull’s life spirals down, Tyler infuses the characters with hope and gives the reader a deeply satisfying story to remember long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

The Other Side of the River – Book Review

Truth becomes myth; myth becomes truth. And your perspective – myth or truth, truth or myth – is shaped by which side of the river you live on. In the end all that matters is what you believe. Or so it seems. -From The Other Side of the River, page 9-

Two towns are separated by the muddy waters of the St. Joseph River, but as Alex Kotlowitz’s stunning novel unfolds the reader discovers that what divides these towns are the bigger issues of socioeconomics and race. St. Joseph, 95 percent white with pristine shops and manicured lawns, faces Benton Harbor – 92 percent black, littered and boasting one of the highest murder rates in the country. What does this have to do with a black teenager’s death?

Alex Kotlowitz, a former journalist for The Wall Street Journal, became obsessed with the death of Eric McGinnis when his swollen body was pulled from the St. Joseph River in May of 1991. Kotlowitz has spent years investigating why Eric ended up in the muddy waters of the river – and instead of answers, he has uncovered more and more questions. His novel explores the myths and truths – inexplicably woven together – that define the two towns caught up in the complexities of race relations – including socioeconomic differences, cultural stereotypes and political correctness.

The Other Side of the River is a compelling read – one I had a hard time putting down. Kotlowtiz writes with compassion and a yearning for understanding which gives both sides a clarity in an issue which has been clouded with anger and dissension. 

Was Eric’s death accidental or was there a more sinister explanation? In the end, Kotlowitz does not give the reader an answer, but rather leaves the conclusion open to interpretation. He lays down the “facts” of the case, and then allows the players to inject the emotion. At times, I wondered if I was reading a story set in the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement – and then was jolted back to the realization that instead this was a tale occurring in the mid 1990’s. How could there still be so much misunderstanding and animosity?

Kotlowitz has written an astounding treatise on race in the United States by showing us the life and death of one boy who found himself in the middle of two towns separated by more than a river.

Highly Recommended.

Peony in Love – Book Review

They had formed a sisterhood of friendship and writing, and then they built an intellectual and emotional community of women throughout the country through reading. In looking for solace, dignity, and recognition, they brought their quest to other women who still lived behind locked gates or were being pushed back inside by the Manchus. -From Peony in Love, page 206-

In 1644, the Ming Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Manchu Qing Dynasty. China reeled from this reorganization for nearly 30 years – women especially were impacted. This was a time in history defined by the “lovesick” maidens and the publication of thousands of poems and writings by women.

Lisa See has set her latest novel – Peony in Love– during this tumultuous time in China’s history. Peony, a sixteen year old girl, is preparing to “marry out.”. As tradition demands, she is not allowed to meet the man who will become her husband. Peony dreams of the ideal husband, and wishes for true love. She becomes enraptured by The Peony Pavilion, an opera  which speaks of the deep emotions and sentimental love called qing. It is interesting to note that this opera actually existed and was ultimately banned in China for its political and lascivious leanings. As the story unfolds, the reader travels with Peony through an exotic time and place as she discovers the true meaning of love, and unravels the mystery of the afterworld. Touching on subjects as vast as “mother love” and women’s rights, See creates a lyrical novel which provides insight into a culture filled with symbolism, tradition, and superstition.

At times, See becomes heavy handed with her characters imbuing them with emotion and importance which felt sappy and unreal. See spins a tale which forces the reader to suspend belief and simply float along with the story. The ending was a bit too predictable and the conflict sewn up too neatly.

In comparison to her blockbuster novel – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – See has fallen short of a masterpiece.

Despite these flaws, Peony in Love is an solid and enjoyable novel which informs the reader of the intricacies of Chinese history during the Qing Dynasty when women, for the first time, were allowed to experience the joy of writing and having their works published.


The Purpose Driven Life – Book Review

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ, …he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone. -Ephesians 1:11-

I received this book as a gift – otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and when I do it is not usually self-help or inspirational nonfiction. The Purpose Driven Life is meant to be read slowly over 40 days – one chapter a day. My husband and I read it together and discussed it; and in this regard it was a good experience.

As a Christian, I believe that Christ is our savior and died for our sins. I believe in the power of prayer. I believe there are ways to live our lives which make us better people and give our lives purpose. In many ways, this is what Rick Warren writes about – the problem with the book is twofold:

1. Warren repeats everything again and again and again. At some points, I wanted to scream “Okay, I get it!” Some of the information is so basic I felt Warren was talking down to the reader.
2. Warren presents an exceptionally narrow way of viewing the world which I felt was not inclusive enough. He made me feel that if I didn’t subscribe to his interpretation of God’s word, than I was not the ‘right kind of Christian.’ I’ve always hated that view – it makes me uncomfortable and it doesn’t feel correct to me. I didn’t appreciate the subtle judgment against other faiths which was woven into the text

On the up side, Warren presents information clearly, concisely and gives the reader a series of questions and meditations to strengthen his points. The book is well organized.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this book to a lot of people – even some Christians (like myself) may feel the book talks down to them and doesn’t resonate fully with their beliefs. If you are a person who loves inspirational and religious philosophy, you may want to give it a try.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

It’s memories like these that make me so very happy you’re my dad!
Wish I was there to celebrate Father’s Day with you….
Love, Wendy

The Alchemist – Book Review

But if you believe yourself worthy of the the thing you fought so hard to get, then you become an instrument of God, you help the Soul of the World, and you understand why you are here. – by Paulo Coelho in the introduction to The Alchemist, November 2002-

Until today, I had not read anything by Paulo Coelho – in fact, I knew next to nothing about him or his writing. After devouring The Alchemist in about 2 hours, I am certain I will be reading more of his work.

The Alchemist is a simple and wise little story about Santiago the shepherd boy who travels from the fields of Spain to the Egyptian Pyramids seeking a treasure he has dreamed about. Santiago meets a gypsy woman, a King, an Englishman and an alchemist who all impart their wisdom to him and help him on his journey. Along the way, Santiago learns about God and life and love – and the reader begins to realize that in simplicity there lies a broader truth.

It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them. -From The Alchemist, page 15-

Coelho has written a novel which is pure and unembellished in its prose; one that will resonate with people of all faiths; a story which testifies to the power of following one’s dreams and listening to one’s heart.

Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. – From The Alchemist-

The Alchemist is a must read and one I highly recommend.

Lessons from The Alchemist (possible spoilers below!):

…and when each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises. -page 27-

There must be a language that doesn’t depend on words… -page 43-

When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision. -page 68-

“Everyone has his or her own way of learning things,” he said to himself. “His way is isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that.” -page 84-

It is said that all people who are happy have God within them. -page 131-

“When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.” -page 134-

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure. -page 141-

…when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too. -page 150-

And that’s where the power of love comes in.  Because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are. -page 151-

The Flea Palace – Book Review

To acquire items so as to use them for awhile and then throw them in the garbage, is a habit germane to those who believe themselves to be in possession of these items. Yet objects have no possessors. If anything they have their stories, and at times it is these stories that have possession of the people who have meddled with them… -From The Flea Palace, page 403-

The Flea Palace was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006 and so I had high hopes for it.  Elif Shafak has created a meandering novel filled with odd and flawed characters – all living in a run down apartment building in Istanbul. The blurb on the back of the book states: ‘…we have a metaphoric conduit for the cultural and spiritual decay at the heart of Istanbul.‘ Perhaps my boredom with this novel stems from my ignorance of the culture and religion of Turkey.

Shafak begins the novel in reverse – starting in the present, spiraling back to the past, then surging forward into the future. She presents Agripina Fyodorovna Atipova, a white Russian with a tragic background whose husband ultimately brings her to Istanbul and builds a magnificent apartment building atop an old cemetery. The BonBon Palace becomes the setting for the rest of the novel.

I have to give Shafak a little credit – she develops rich characters who people the story with their oddities. The problem is the story itself, which is so convoluted at times it is difficult to follow its purpose. I must admit to feeling a bit like one of the characters when he observes: ‘So many details, so many introductory statements, so many stories whirling circles within circles that never get to the point…

There is a mystery (where is the stench around BonBon Palace coming from!??!) and Shafak eventually ties up the  loose ends – but ultimately the novel did not capture me and I was glad to turn the final page and move onto my next book.

Not recommended.

Wrap up for the Spring Reading Thing 2007 Challenge


Katrina at Calipidder Days is asking for our wrap up to this challenge…so here’s mine!

I read the following books:

1. Travels With Charley in Search of America, by John Steinbeck (FINISHED 3/29/2007. Read my review here.)
2. The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg (FINISHED 5/14/2007. Read my review here.)
3. The Year of Pleasures, by Elizabeth Berg (FINISHED 4/9/2007. Read my review here.)
4. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (FINISHED 5/17/2007. Read my review here.)
5. Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (FINISHED 5/29/2007. Read my review here.)

What was the best book you read this spring?

The Road was the best book I read. It was tense, emotional, finely wrought. I will be reading more McCarthy novels in the future. I also LOVED Travels With Charley.

What book could you have done without?

I actually enjoyed all five books, but my least favorite was The Art of Mending. I’m a Berg fan, but this wasn’t one of her best efforts.

Did you try out a new author this spring? If so, which one, and will you be reading that author again?

McCarthy was a new author to me, as was Jane Gardam. I’ll be reading more McCarthy, but not sure I’d read another Gardam book…not because she isn’t an accomplished writer, just because I prefer other styles.

Did you come across a book or two on other participant’ lists that you’re plannign to add to your own TBR pile? Which ones?

I’m trying really hard to stop adding books to my wish list!  I saw more books than I care to list here – suffice it to say, this challenge opened my eyes to some more great books!

What did you learn — about anything — through this challenge?

I learned that limiting my challenge list to something reasonable made it way more fun and less stress. I love finishing challenges!

What was the best part of the Spring Reading Thing?

Reading other people’s lists and reviews.

Would you be interested in participating in another challenge this Fall?

I’m always interested in new challenges!

Seconds Challenge

October 1 – December 31, 2007

CHALLENGE COMPLETED December 21, 2007:

Thank you, Joy, for sponsoring this fun challenge! My favorite book of the group was Disgrace, with I Am the Messenger a close second. I will definitely be reading more by both of these authors. Kiran Desai’s novel left me flat – I’ll have to think long and hard before picking up another book by her.


Joy (the sponsor of the
Non Fiction Five Challenge) is planning on sponsoring yet another great challenge. Her idea is to encourage participants to read three books by an new favorite author of whom they have previously only read one book (did that make any sense?? It is early here!). Given my addiction to challenges and in spite of my latest vow to stop joining challenges this year, I have decided to participate.  My list may change before October 1st…but here it is for now:

1. I Am The Messenger, by Markus Zusak (Completed December 17, 2007; rated 4/5; read my review)
2. Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard, by Kiran Desai (Completed December 21, 2007; rated 3/5; read my review)
3. Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee (Completed December 14, 2007; rated 4.5/5; read my review)

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