Monthly Archives: February 2008

Song of Solomon – Book Review

The song of songs, which is Solomon’s. -From Chapter One, Song of Solomon, The Bible-

With her father as her muse, Toni Morrison has created a memorable African American family with strong male characters in her novel The Song of Solomon. The novel opens with an insurance agent attempting to fly and therefore diving to his death off of Mercy (referred to as No Mercy) hospital in 1931. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel – a novel about flight and self discovery…mystical, triumphant, and disturbing.

Morrison’s story centers around the Dead family composed of Macon (the abusive, yet savvy father), Ruth (the mother – a sad woman whose grief for her dead father defines her life), First Corinthians (a daughter both beautiful and educated  who stumbles in her search for a lover), Magdalene called Lena (the second daughter), and finally Milkman (Macon’s son). There are other important characters as part of the extended family – namely Pilate, Macon’s free spirited sister who lives with her daughter Reba and Reba’ daughter Hager.

There are many themes and much symbolism throughout the book, and I found myself marking passages and re-reading paragraphs to make sense of them. First and foremost, the novel is about discovery of one’s roots, and the painful search for love. Milkman starts his life fighting to avoid murder at the hands of his father, and this theme continues through the book ending with Milkman’s protracted journey from his home in Michigan to his grandparent’s home in Virginia. Along the way, Milkman’s views of life are challenged and his connection to his roots are strengthened. Another strong theme in the novel is that of racism and the struggle of blacks in American to overcome the history of slavery. Finally, the idea of taking flight and finding oneself is replayed over and over in the book. In one memorable scene, Milkman and his friend Guitar observe a white peacock. Milkman asks why the peacock struggles to fly and Guitar says:

“Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” -From Song of Solomon, page 179-

I avoided reading a Morrison novel for a long time because I had heard that Morrison’s books were often difficult reads with weighty themes. And this is certainly true. But despite this, I found myself looking forward to picking up the book. Morrison writes beautifully and is a superb storyteller. Although she is sometimes heavy handed with the symbolism, I didn’t find it distracting from the story. I found myself caring deeply about the characters in Song of Solomon, even those who were not terribly likable.

Song of Solomon has been banned in the United States for “language degrading to blacks,” violent imagery, sexually explicit and profane language and depictions of sexuality. It has been accused of promoting a “homosexual agenda.” There is profanity, violence and sex in the novel, but it is not gratuitous.

Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for her body of work, and I can certainly see why based on this book alone. I will be reading more of Toni Morrison in the future.

Song of Solomon is highly recommended; rated 4.5/5.

What Punctuation Mark Are You?

You Are a Comma
You are open minded and extremely optimistic.
You enjoy almost all facets of life. You can find the good in almost anything.

You keep yourself busy with tons of friends, activities, and interests.
You find it hard to turn down an opportunity, even if you are pressed for time.

Your friends find you fascinating, charming, and easy to talk to.
(But with so many competing interests, you friends do feel like you hardly have time for them.)

You excel in: Inspiring people

You get along best with: The Question Mark

Sunday Salon – February 24, 2008

February 24, 2008

3:35 PM

Food shopping. Picking up cat medication. Going to the bank. Household chores.

This is how I spent a good portion of my day. Despite these dreary tasks (running amid raindrops and shielding myself from the cold, gusty wind), I managed to read another 50 pages into my current read: Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. This is my first Morrison novel – and I picked it up with a little reluctance. Although I have heard rave reviews about Beloved and The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s Song of Solomon has garnered mixed reactions. I’d heard about Morrison’s lively prose…but also about her tendency to delve into mystical realism and heavy symbolism – aspects of literature which usually stop me cold. But, this book came up as a group read on my Banned Books group, and so I decided to forge ahead with it.

Morrison writes in the forward about the death of her father and how she mourned him, and mourned the loss of the daughter who had lived in his head. In working through her grief, she began to seek his advice after his death:

I think it was because I felt closer to him than to myself that, after his death, I deliberately sought his advice for writing the novel that continued to elude me. “What are the men you have known really like?”

-Toni Morrison in her Introduction of Song of Solomon-

This intrigued me, and made me view what I was about to read in a different way. Morrison, who is known for her strong female POV, had chosen to write a novel whose muse was male – specifically her father. Perhaps because I feel the connection between myself and my own father more difficult as he gradually slips into dementia, Morrison’s thoughts about her father and the impact his life and subsequent death had on her writing spoke to me. In any case, it opened my mind to the novel and as I began to read the first chapter I was pulled instantly into the story.

Song of Solomon is about a black family – Macon and Ruth Dead and their three children … Milkman, Corinthians, and Magdalene called Lena. The novel opens with a man attempting to fly and therefore diving to his death off of Mercy (referred to as No Mercy) Hospital in 1931. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel – a novel about flight…mystical, triumphant, and disturbing.

I am half way through Morrison’s beautifully written novel, and am engrossed. I care about the characters, even those I don’t particularly like. I should finish this one by tomorrow and plan to write a more in depth review then.

In other reading this past week, I finished J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (read my review) as well as Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali (read my review). I liked them both (more so Ali’s than Coetzee’s…but with Coetzee the reader has to wrack their brain a bit more and so the joy in reading comes mostly from the understanding of the bigger issues at the end).

I think I will be in the mood for something lighter, less thought provoking after I’ve finished the Morrison book.

National Book Award Project

Sharon from Ex Libris is hosting this perpetual challenge (no time limit) to read from the National Book Award fiction list (winners and nominees). The National Book Award Project allows flexibility in the guidelines. Looking through the list, I’ve discovered I have already read several winners and nominees…so my goal will to keep reading through the list (good thing there is no time limit!). I don’t promise to read all the nominees, but I would like to get through all the winners – and if I do that, I will consider this challenge a success.

I’ll be keeping track of my progress at the official challenge blog; and you may also follow my overall progress on THIS PAGE (which has the complete fiction list with links to my reviews).

You may notice that there are a few DNF’s (Did not Finish). These were books which I disliked so much, I couldn’t make my way through them. I have no intention of trying them again…chalk it up to not enough time in my life to read books I hate.

My goal for 2009: 5 books (from the list below):

Winners:

  • Three Junes, by Julia Glass (2002)
  • The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
  • Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier (1997)
  • The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner (1977)
  • Them, by Joyce Carol Oates (1970)

Finalists:

  • Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski (short list 2007)
  • Drop City, by T.C. Boyle (short list 2003)
  • The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (short list 2003)
  • House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III (short list 1999)
  • Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat (short list 1995)
  • Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler (short list 1988)
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison (short list 1987)
  • The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty (short list 1973)

Below is my progress year by year.

Books Read Previous to the Challenge:

Winner 1952James Jones – From Here to Eternity (No review)

Finalist 1960 – Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House (no review)

Finalist 1961 – John Knowles – A Separate Place (no review)

Finalist 1962 – Joseph Heller – Catch 22 (DNF)

Finalist 1970 – Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five (Read December 2006; rated 4/5; no review)

Finalist 1979 – John Irving – The World According to Garp (Read multiple times; rated 5/5; no review)

Finalist 1982 – John Irving – The Hotel New Hampshire (Read multiple times; rated 5/5; no review)

Winner 1988 – Peter Dexter – Paris Trout (no review)

Winner 1993 – E. Annie Proulx – The Shipping News (no review)

Finalist 1997 – Don DeLillo – Underworld (DNF)

Books Read in 2007:

Finalist 1953 – John Steinbeck – East of Eden (Read October 15, 2007; rated 5/5; read my review)

Finalist 1961 – Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird (Read March 21, 2007; rated 5/5; read my review)

Winner 1983 – Alice Walker – The Color Purple (Read January 12, 2007; rated 4.25/5; read my review)

Finalist 1983 – Anne Tyler – Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (Read January 24, 2007; rated 4.5/5; read my review)

Finalist 1992 – Dorothy Allison – Bastard Out of Carolina (Read August 1, 2007; rated 3/5; read my review)

Winner 2003 – Shirley Hazzard – The Great Fire (Read August 9, 2007; rated 4/5; read my review)

Winner 2006 – Richard Powers – The Echo Maker (Read September 6, 2007; rated 4.5/5; read my review)

Finalist 2006 – Mark Z. Danielewski – Only Revolutions (DNF)

Finalist 2006 – Dana Spiotta – Eat the Document (Read May 22, 2007; rated 3.5/5; read my review)

Books Read in 2008:

Finalist 1968 – Joyce Carol Oates – A Garden of Earthly Delights (Read September 22, 2008; Rated 3.5/5; read my review)

Books Read in 2009:

Wrap Up – Unread Author’s Challenge

I completed this challenge today! I read five (5) books from my original list and one (1) book from my alternates list. You can view my entire list with links to reviews here.

I enjoyed all the new authors I read, rating 4 of the 6 a high 4.5/5 (highly recommended), and 2 of the 6 a 4/5 rating (recommended).

My favorite part of the challenge was adding to my “new to me” author list. For a long time I was stuck in a rut of only reading those authors I was familiar with…in 2007, I decided to branch out and try to read more new authors. This has really expanded my reading, and added to my favorite authors to choose from!

I would definitely participate in this challenge were it to be offered again. Thank you Ariel for hosting a fabulous reading challenge!!

Alentejo Blue – Book Review

She wore her black slingbacks and a white cotton dress with blue flowers that matched the paint that framed the door. Alentejo blue. here she was, in a picture, in a moment, setting out for the rest of her life. -From Alentejo Blue, page 131-

Monica Ali’s novella – Alentejo Blue – is a collection of moments lived by its vast array of characters. The Alentejo region of Portugal -located in south-central Portugal and known for its tiny, medieval villages – is the perfect setting for Ali’s book, which seems to be a collection of interconnected, short stories. Ali is adept at exploring her characters’ inner lives. The reader is gradually introduced to the inhabitants of the fictional town of Mamarrosa: Joao, an old timer who has seen the days of Communism and remembers the revolution of the peasants;  Vasco, the baker whose obesity and compulsion with eating hides his painful losses; Teresa, a young woman who longs to break away from the village of her birth; Sophie and Huw, an engaged couple whose holiday to Portugal uncovers the deeper issues of their relationship; Elaine, a middle-aged English woman seeking meaning in her tired marriage; Stanton, the alcoholic writer living a shallow existence; and the Potts family, living a dysfunctional existence far from their home in England. As the novella unwinds, the reader glimpses the connections between characters and the main themes evolve.

There is a theme of “old” world vs. “new” – highlighted by the elderly, traditional members of the village vs. the youth and tourists. Change is in the air, but it is unclear whether it will be for the best, or will simply disrupt the flow of village life.

So we stay as we are and watch the shadows lengthen and smell the evening loaves being baked and fell the sun slipping low, blushing over our necks like the first taste of wine. -From Alentejo Blue, page 94-

Ali’s lyrical prose transports the reader into the countryside of Portugal.

The plains spread out on either side. Here and there a cork oak stood grieving. The land rose and fell in modest dimensions. Now and again a gleam of machinery, glittering drops of water on an acacia, a giant eucalyptus shedding its splintery scrolls. Field upon field upon field, wheat and grass and fallow, on and on and on, and in this flat composition there was a depth, both sadness and tremulous joy. -From Alentejo Blue, page 163-

This novel was listed as a 2006 New York Times Most Notable book – and I think it is deserving of that honor. Ali is a gifted writer with great understanding and sensitivity to her characters – picking up Alentejo Blue was like relaxing into small town life, chatting with the neighbors and observing the ebb and flow of the days beneath a Portugal sun. I will be reading more of Ali’s novels in the future.

Highly recommended.

Life and Times of Michael K – Book Review

The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 1-

Michael K’s hare lip is the first thing everyone notices about him – a disfigurement that sets him apart and causes his mother to institutionalize him at a young age. This physical defect seems to set the tone for Micahel’s life of isolation and a turning inward of himself. As an adult, Michael finds work as a gardener in the city of Cape Town; later as his mother’s health deteriorates he decides to return to the country and the home of her birth. But a civil war makes this journey a challenge in more ways than one. Michael and his mother do not have papers to leave the city, they don’t have reliable transportation, and they must avoid armed guards and roadblocks. When Michael’s mother dies along the way, Michael is left with her ashes and the determination to reach his destiny.

This is a disturbing and revealing novel about the strength of the human spirit to not only endure, but to overcome physical obstacles in the discovery of self. Michael’s connection to the earth, his desire to grow his own food, becomes his sole purpose of living.

His deepest pleasure came at sunset when he turned open the cock at the dam wall and watched the stream of water run down its channels to soak the earth, turning it from fawn to deep brown. It is because I am a gardener, he tough, because that is my nature. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 59-

Coetzee’s writing is vivid in its descriptions. The sense of place is strong, which makes this novel a somber look at South Africa. The human suffering, the pointlessness of the re-education camps, the cruelty of the military – all resound heavily on the pages of this book.  Michael stands out, not only because he is physically marred, but because he possesses a peace within that those around him lack. A doctor who treats Michael in hospital seems to be the only character who identifies what makes Michael special.

I am the only one who sees you for the original soul you are. I am the only one who cares for you. I alone see you as neither a soft case for a soft camp nor a hard case for a hard camp but a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sarcophagus, murmuring behind that clownish mask. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 151-

As with all of Coetzee’s novels, Life and Times of Michael K is not light reading. In many ways it is depressing; but ultimately it captures the beauty of the human soul.

Recommended.

Awards and a Little Catching Up….

Updated at 1:15PM

Trish has honored me with the Mwah! Award – I’m terribly flattered!! Thank you, Trish – and answering your question was my pleasure.

**********************************

Today is a new day, and I just know I am going to get on the upside of this bug that has knocked me flat on my back. I feel quite remiss in acknowledging some very nice awards over the past week.

Teddy at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time handed me the Make My Day Award. Thank you, Teddy!!
And Bonnie at Bonnie’s Books awarded me the Excellent Blog Award – I’m afraid I am terrible at speeches *fumbles with notes*, but Thank You Bonnie!! I know I am supposed to award this to ten excellent blogs. I hope you’ll forgive my copping out a bit and saying that I read nothing BUT excellent blogs! To find them, simply go to my right side bar on this blog and scroll down.

In other news, I am strongly considering dropping some of my challenges – the problem is figuring out which ones to drop. I’ve quite over extended myself and yesterday looked at my lists and thought ‘How ridiculous, Wendy, you can never read all these books in this time frame!’ I’ll let you know my decision in a few days…

Most of our snow has melted, and the days are getting longer. That can only mean Spring is on its way – I can’t wait until the tulips start poking their pretty heads through the soil! How about you? Ready for some Spring weather?

Sunday Salon – February 17, 2008

February 17, 2008

9:15AM

I won’t be posting much today – but needed to at least stop in and let you all know I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth. No sooner did I recover from my upper respiratory illness, than I came down with the stomach flu Friday night. I’m a bit better today, but am still just eating Saltine crackers and drinking tea. I don’t think I’ll be doing much blogging today – but I’ve picked up The Life and Times of Michael K again. If I’m up to it, I’ll let you know later how I feel about the book.

The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur – Book Review

It says everything about this land to know that even the mountains are not to be trusted, and that the crunching sound under your camel’s hooves are usually human bones, hidden and revealed as the wind pleases. -From The Translator, page 20-

Daoud Hari’s memoir about the genocide occurring in Darfur is beautifully and simply wrought, and so powerful I found myself choking back tears. Hari decided to write his memoir, focusing on his years as a translator for Western news organizations, because he  knows ‘most people want others to have good lives, and, when they understand the situation, they will do what they can to steer the world back toward kindness.

Daoud Hari grew up in Darfur – and shows the reader his happy childhood, his close extended family, and the beautiful social network of his people. He then brings the reader up to the present day, where roving packs of Sudanese government supported rebels and militia groups systematically burn villages, rape women and children, and torture and kill tribesmen and their families who are only trying to eek out a simple existence in desert valleys. Hari reveals the thousands of displaced people living in camps without adequate water or food – places where women and children are forced to risk daily rapes as the price of wood for their fires. The stories contained in this slim memoir are horrifying and graphic – stories which once read would simply refuse to leave my consciousness.

The Translator is required reading for those who care about the people of the world. As Hari points out, if we continue to allow genocide to occur in Darfur, we risk it happening in other places as well. For Hari, it is simple: speak out, put pressure on our government and the people positioned to make a difference. Our voices, as Hari’s voice, can make a difference.

For those readers unfamiliar with the political situation in Darfur which has led to the massacre of thousands of indigenous Africans, Hari provides an appendix which helps put the crisis in historical perspective. The situation in Darfur is complex and not easily understood…Hari helps to simplify it.

The Translator is a disturbing and powerful book. It is not a book which I can read, set aside and forget about.

Highly recommended for its lyrical, yet simple prose and its tremendous social significance.