Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Geography of Bliss

I want to read this book, but our library doesn't have it and I'm not about to spend 25 smacks on a book. I know, I'm cheap. I have enjoyed this review though, and its just enough to hold me over until I breakdown and buy it. The review was on Powell's Book Review of the Day. I love that site!

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World
by Eric Weiner

Happy Talk
A Review by Daniel Gilbert

In the last two decades, psychologists and economists have learned a lot about happiness, including who's happy and who isn't. The Dutch are, the Romanians aren't, and Americans are somewhere in between. Eric Weiner -- a peripatetic journalist and self-proclaimed grump -- wanted to know why. So with science as his compass, he spent a year visiting the world's most and least happy places, and the result is a charming, funny and illuminating travelogue called The Geography of Bliss.

From the Persian Gulf to the Arctic Circle, Weiner discovers that happiness blooms where we least expect it. Who knew that the long, dark Icelandic winter gives rise to a magical, communal culture that has done away with envy and sobriety? Or that the Thais so prize "fun" that their government has created a Gross Domestic Happiness Index to ensure they get enough of it? Or that Moldovans are miserable because they "derive more pleasure from their neighbor's failure than their own success"? Or that the wealthy citizens of Qatar lead pampered, joyless lives in a "gilded sandbox" while the poor citizens of Bhutan are cheerfully obsessed with archery tournaments, penis statues and feeding marijuana to their fat (and presumably happy) pigs?

But Weiner does more than report on the lifestyles of the delighted and despondent. He participates -- meditating in Bangalore, visiting strip clubs in Bangkok and drinking himself into a stupor in Reykjavik. These cultural forays are entertaining, but the real focus of his story is on the people he meets in cafés and on buses, the people who rent him rooms and give him directions, the people whose conversations, confessions and silences reveal the deep truths about their lands and lives.

Weiner asks an Icelander whether he believes in elves, and the man replies, "I don't know if I believe in them, but other people do and my life is richer for it," leading Weiner to conclude that Icelanders "occupy the space that exists between not believing and not not believing. It is valuable real estate." He meets a widower in Slough -- a small town outside London with little to recommend it -- who explains that he's thought about moving away but that in the end "you come home because this is where you live." Weiner realizes that when our relationships end, "the place is all that remains, and to leave would feel like a betrayal....He doesn't love Slough, but he loved his wife, loved her here, in this much-maligned Berkshire town, so here he stays." Memory, like bliss, seems to have its own address.

Weiner has studied the scientific literature on happiness, too, and weaves it into his narrative, which he leavens with a steady stream of clever quips. We learn that "Bhutan has made tremendous strides in the kind of metrics that people who use words like metrics get excited about" and that "hairpin turns, precipitous drop-offs (no guardrails), and a driver who firmly believes in reincarnation make for a nerve-racking experience."

Weiner, a correspondent for National Public Radio, is an American who unapologetically indulges his ethnic stereotypes ("Watching Brits shed their inhibitions is like watching elephants mate. You know it happens, it must, but it's noisy, awkward as hell and you can't help but wonder: Is this something I really need to see?"), but if you want to wag a politically correct finger in his direction, you'll have to stop laughing first.

Weiner's book is so good that its occasional flaws stand out in sharp relief. He is smart and funny but doesn't always trust his readers to know that, which leads him to step on his punch lines and belabor his conclusions. Sometimes, he settles for clichés ("Happiness is a choice") and platitudes ("Some things are beyond measuring") instead of reaching for richer and subtler insights. And while he expertly brings us into the lives of every stranger on a train, he plays his own cards close to the chest. He tells us a lot about his obsession with satchels, for instance, but only in passing does he mention that he's a father. After traveling so long and so far together, we should know him better than that.

One of the ineluctable laws of travel is that most companions are beguiling at the beginning and annoying by the end. Weiner's company wears surprisingly well. It takes a chapter or two to decide you like him, and another to realize that you like him a lot, but by the time the trip is over, you find yourself hoping that you'll hit the road together again someday. The Geography of Bliss is a journey too good to be rare.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Here is something interesting. I don't know what I think quite yet.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book Review: Captain Jack's Woman

Pretty much your standard Stephanie Laurens. I enjoyed this book. 'Nuff said.

Book Review: Shadow Music

Well, one thing is for certain. Okay, two things. The first is that Julie Garwood's writing is just not the same as it was during the first half of her career. And by not the same I mean not as enjoyable. But the second thing is that despite the fact that I don't like her recent stuff, she is still much better at historical novels than contemporaries.

Shadow Music is Garwood's first historical since Ransom and her voice is just so much more better suited for this kind of book. I don't really want to write a long review, so I'll just say that this book is about a Highlander laird and an English lady (like most of her books). There were some things I didn't like about it, particularly how the romance seemed a little hurried, but overall I thought it was alright. It was coherent and interesting, in my opinion. But at the same time, I wouldn't have bought the hardcover if I hadn't have purchased it with a gift certificate.

Lindsey's Grade: C

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Review: The Winter Rose

I'm not really sure how I feel about this book, honestly. I found the plot engrossing and the 700 pages went pretty quickly, but at the same time I had some problems.

This book starts in 1900 London with the graduation of India Selwyn Jones from a female medical school. She grew up in a wealthy, aristocratic family, but is somewhat estranged from her family because of her decision to pursue medicine. India is determined to make a difference in the poorer parts of London, particularly the East End, but once she starts working she realizes that she knows nothing about the people there. The high morals standards and health habits that she'd been taught and had been preaching didn't seem to have much place in Whitechapel. It takes a while for her to realize that, and she does it with the help of Sid Malone, the most infamous crime lord in the East End.

When India was young she lost the boy that she loved in tragic circumstances, so she is determined never to love like that again. That's the reason why she settles and accepts the proposal of her childhood friend, Freddie, a young MP who is blazing a trail for himself through Westminster. But Sid Malone makes her feel things that Freddie never did, and suddenly India starts to believe that Sid might be worth taking another chance on.

There is way, way more going on in this book, but I don't want to to give too much of it away. I was really impressed by the effort that went into the plotting, and Donnelly clearly has a real talent for coming up with gripping stories. But at the same time this book was filled with so many coincidences that it was just hard to believe all of them. After reading this book you would think that there were only a dozen people living in London's East End in 1900 because of the rather remarkable connections between all of these people. But I've read The Classic Slum. I'm pretty sure that wasn't the case. When those coincidences and connections start spanning the globe, it gets even more ridiculous, I thought. But hey, it is a novel, so I guess I can excuse that for the sake of entertainment.

My other complaint is Donnelly's writing style. I always hesitate to criticize the writing style of the authors I review because I know I could never in my wildest dreams do what they go, so who am I to judge? At the same time, there is something to be said about a writer who can tell you something without coming out and telling you in a sentence that looks like something a third grader would diagram (noun, verb, etc.). Donnelly isn't quite to that point in her own writing because there were so many blunt statements that lacked any kind of lyrical quality which I consider to be the mark of fine writing. This is only her third book and only her second adult novel (she wrote a YA novel as well). I really think my complaints in that department have more to do with that than anything else. I'm sure that a couple books down the road she will really have come into herself because this book shows a lot of talent.

So in conclusion, I'd say that this was an engrossing historical novel that I enjoyed reading, but it was far from flawless.

Lindsey's Grade: B

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

NPR and Nancy Pearl

Here is another NPR Book Lust interview with Nancy Pearl. I have always enjoyed her recommendations. I also like the idea that I could visit her when in Seattle.

Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl returns with another set of what she calls "under-the-radar" books — titles you really, really should be reading but haven't (yet). The latest batch features the story of three royal cousins, tales of wild animal adventures and a pun-filled picture book for younger readers.

'King, Kaiser, Tsar'

'King, Kaiser, Tsar'
King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay, hardcover, 432 pages

Although I was vaguely aware of the interconnectedness of the European royal families, I never really appreciated quite how close they actually were until I delved into Catrine Clay's eminently readable biography, King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War. Making excellent use of newly translated and recently discovered letters and other materials, Clay explores the events, both personal and public, that led up to World War I, focusing on the lives of the three cousins of her title: George, who became King of England, Nicky, destined to become Tsar of All the Russias after the death of his father, Alexander, and Wilhelm (known as William to his English relatives), who grew up to be the final Kaiser of Germany.

To what extent did the characters of these three men lead inexorably to the war? Of what significance were other, more impersonal, factors? Did the very forms of government in their respective countries make war likely, if not inevitable? As Clay makes clear, despite the physical distances that separated them as they were growing up, the three developed close relationships with one another. They spent vacations together, "visited each other's homes, played together, celebrated each other's birthdays, danced with each other's sisters, and later attended each other's weddings. They were tied to one another by history, and history would tear them apart." She comes to the conclusion that "the relationships between the three, their personal likes and dislikes, did indeed contribute to the outbreak of hostilities." This is an excellent choice for both fans of biography and history.

'Cold Comfort Farm'

'Cold Comfort Farm'
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, paperback, 256 pages

Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm has the mixed blessing of being among the very few books that have been made into equally good films. But, even if you've seen the movie (with Kate Beckinsale and Rufus Sewell among the stellar cast of characters), don't let that deter you from reading the book (which, however good the movie, still has something more to offer) — it's quite simply one of the funniest satirical novels of the last century. When Flora Poste is orphaned at the age of 20, leaving her an income of a paltry hundred pounds a year on which to survive, she decides to go live with her relatives, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort, their dilapidated, perennially failing farm in Sussex, located just outside the town of Howling.

There she discovers one extremely quirky family. Aunt Ada Doom, her mother's sister, has pretty much refused to come out of her bedroom for almost seven decades, ever since the day that she saw "something nasty in the woodshed." And Aunt Ada Doom's children and grandchildren are not much better. Flora's cousin Judith is depressed (well, who wouldn't be, in such a situation?), while Amos, Judith's husband, ignores the farm in favor of the hell-and-damnation preaching he does for the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Their three children, Seth, Reuben, and Elfine, are equally eccentric, each in his or her own way. Then there's Adam, the handyman, who uses a twig to wash dishes with and adores the cows he milks, whose names happen to be Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless.

Once Flora gets the lay of the land, so to speak, she decides that she could manage her relatives' lives better than they've been doing themselves — and she takes it upon herself to do so. How she succeeds — or not — in clearing Cold Comfort Farm of the gloominess and foreboding that envelops it (and whether we ever learn what it was that Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed all those years ago) makes for a deliciously entertaining read.

'The Animal Dialogues'

'The Animal Dialogues'
The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs, hardcover, 336 pages

I have long been a huge fan of Craig Childs' nature writing, and I was delighted to discover his newest offering, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. This is a book to read slowly and savor, accompanying Childs one chapter at a time as he travels through the rain forest of Washington's Olympic Peninsula to the Arizona desert, from the mountains of Colorado to the rapids of the Colorado River, from Alaska to New Mexico, and sharing his experiences — vicariously, of course — with the animals he meets along the way. (I have to say that, for much of this book, I was in a state of extreme anxiety on Childs' behalf though he seems to have undertaken the (to me) daunting excursions described here with no more worry than I might feel, say, crossing a street against the light. At times, I felt there needed to be a warning label on the book: "Author is a trained professional. Do not try this on your own." But then, I have never claimed to be an outdoorsy sort of gal, and perhaps I was overreacting.)

There are sections on a wide variety of animal life: the Great Blue Heron and the Blue Shark, ravens, coyotes, camels, owls, and jaguars, to name just a few. If I had to choose my three favorite chapters, they would include the description of Childs' mostly futile attempts to get rid of the (uninvited) mice that are sharing his tipi (where he lived for quite a while) in the snowy Colorado mountains; his tense standoff with a mountain lion (even knowing, obviously, that the author survived didn't keep this part from being a heart-pounding experience for me); and his discussion of grizzly bears, which includes this marvelous description: "Most animals show themselves sparingly. The grizzly bear is six to eight hundred pounds of smugness. It has no need to hide. If it were a person, it would laugh loudly in quiet restaurants, boastfully wear the wrong clothes for special occasions, and probably play hockey." Pick the species you want to know more about and read on.

'I Capture the Castle'

'I Capture the Castle'
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, paperback, 352 pages

American readers probably know the British writer Dodie Smith best — if they know her at all — as the author of the book The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was made into the popular 1961 Disney animated film. (As entertaining as the movie is, the book is much better.) In I Capture the Castle, first published in 1948, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain begins her account of her family's life in a dilapidated castle with these lines: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." And write she does, all about her unpredictable, often irascible father, who published one critically acclaimed novel many years ago but developed a terrible writer's block and has been unable to produce anything since; her stepmother, Topaz, an artist's model who loves to commune with nature sans clothing; her older sister, Rose, who dreams of escaping the family's poverty; her younger brother, Thomas, who together with Cassandra schemes to get their father back to writing; and Stephen, the orphan (son of their deceased housekeeper) raised by the Mortmains. But when an American family moves into the estate next door, life for each of the Mortmains, as well as Stephen, changes in dramatic ways. Cassandra continues writing, through heartache and happiness, giving us a book that's perfect for any woman with even a scintilla of romance in their hearts, from the ages of 12 to 112.

'Wise Children'

'Wise Children'
Wise Children by Angela Carter, paperback, 240 pages

If it's true that, as Homer (and others) have said, "it's a wise child that knows its own father," then septuagenarian identical twins Nora and Dora Chance can be called wise. Unfortunately, as Dora relates in Angela Carter's Wise Children, she and her sister have never been able to persuade Melchior Hazard, the man they know to be their father (Grandma Chance told them), and the finest Shakespearean actor of the 20th century, to admit — publicly or privately — his paternity. Instead, he refers to them as his nieces, daughters of his twin brother, Peregrine, adventurer and bon vivant. (Just to complicate matters, Saskia and Imogen, the twin girls who believe that Melchior is their father, and vice versa — he was married to their mother, after all — are mistaken. They're actually Peregrine's daughters. Two other sets of twins in the Chance-Hazard extended clan also make brief appearances here. It's all somewhat like a play by Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde.)

Illusion and reality blend in this novel as it ranges from the vaudeville halls of the 1890s to Hollywood in the 1930s to the British home front during World War II, from the death of Dora and Nora's mother immediately following their birth to their singing and dancing childhood and adolescence under the benign, loving, and frequently inebriated eye of Grandma Chance. The last, priceless scene takes place at Melchior's 100th birthday party (which happens to be Dora and Nora's 75th birthday as well). Carter was a brilliant writer, and in this, her wickedly entertaining final novel before her untimely death at age 52, there are numerous quotable sentences to savor: Grandma Chance's toast as she downs a glass of the bubbly: "Champagne to all here, real pain to the other bastards," Dora's assertion that "comedy is tragedy that happens to other people," and "It is every woman's tragedy that after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator."

'By George'

'By George'
By George by Wesley Stace, hardcover, 400 pages

In By George, author Wesley Stace weaves together the life stories of two different Georges — one is human and the other is a wooden ventriloquist's dummy. In 1973, 11-year-old George Fisher, who comes from a long line of show-business folks, is sent off to boarding school because his famous actress mother is going on an extended tour starring in Peter Pan. George is heartsick at being separated from his adored mother, but he can't bear the thought of leaving his beloved 93-year-old great-grandmother, Evangeline, who once performed as a successful ventriloquist, and bequeathed that talent to her son, George's grandfather, Joe.

School is just as bad as George fears, until he's befriended by the headmaster and by the school's groundskeeper, who presents him with a how-to book on ventriloquism, a gift that will change the direction of George's life. Meanwhile, the wooden George relates his own experiences of working with George's grandfather, especially those years during World War II when the two, ventriloquist and dummy, were sent overseas to entertain the British troops. Neither of the two Georges is aware of the existence of the other, until a series of events brings them together and forces long-buried family secrets to come to light. This inventive novel rewards the reader with its intelligence, its wit, its poignancy, and its splendid writing. By George, I loved this book!

'Gimme Cracked Corn'

'Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share'
Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share by Kevin O'Malley, hardcover, 32 pages

You can always count on Kevin O'Malley for an entertaining picture book — his Little Buggy has long been a favorite of mine. But even by the standard of his past work, Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share is something special. In the spirit of the book and its barnyard setting, I'd go so far as to say that it's something eggstra special. Although it's clearly aimed at 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds who are just beginning to appreciate the possibilities of language and the pleasures of playing with words, this groanworthy, pun-filled picture book will delight the grownups in their lives, as well.

"One night," the book begins, "Chicken had a dream. He dreamed that in a beautiful barn, buried under a great pink pig, was a treasure of cracked corn — all the corn that any chicken could ever want." When he tells his friend George, George says, "You must be yolking," and "What are you — a comedi-hen?" Nevertheless, when Chicken sets out the next morning to follow his dream, George agrees to go with him, explaining that he's been "feeling a little cooped up lately." An adventure, and further wordplay, ensues. Readers, young and old, will get every yolk and probably cackle with amusement as they follow Chicken and George's eggstrordinarily entertaining adventure.

'Fowl Weather'

'Fowl Weather'
Fowl Weather by Bob Tarte, hardcover, 306 pages

If you're longing for a book that will make you laugh out loud, then run, don't walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Bob Tarte's Fowl Weather. There are animal lovers, and then there are REAL animal lovers, and then there's a higher class altogether, consisting of Bob and his wife, Linda, among very few others. (Among the others is Gerald Durrell – don't miss his comic masterpiece, My Family and Other Animals.) Just take a look at the (much necessary) cast of characters listed at the front of the book; it includes some human animals, true, but it's primarily animals who are winged, feathered and furred.

Whether he's engaged in an altercation with a duck, dealing with a master gardener who doesn't know his flowers from his weeds, hand-feeding a spider, worrying over the health of Stanley Sue, an African Grey parrot, fretting over Bertie the Bunny's missing puff of a tail, extricating himself from a pesky former classmate who somehow knows the fate of everyone in their old elementary school, as well as unsavory facts about Linda's now long dead pig, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, or trying to cope with his dad's death and his mother's growing dementia, Bob's tone is self-deprecating, humorous, and totally winsome.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

People love this book. Even good people like those at the New York Public Library who named this one of the books of the century. The latter is what led me to read this book. I would also like to be able to say that I am somewhat versed in good literature. It took me awhile to get through. I found the plot somewhat slow. The story surrounds Francie's coming of age at the turn of the 20th century. In many respects it is similar to other coming of age books in that Francie struggles to learn who she really is in the midst of providing for her family.

I grew to identify with Francie in several ways. She stepped up to the challenge of helping her family instead of attending college. She kept her goal of a good education within focus even in times of hardship. She daydreamed and wrote stories that were never published. She was a voracious reader and lover of books. And she loved her troubled father.

In addition to identifying with Francie I found the description of Brooklyn in the early 1900's fascinating. The class structure, the marketplace, the types of labor mentioned led to a better understanding of the Brooklyn's economy up to WWI. The fact that Smith grew up in Brooklyn and drew upon her own experiences make this book all the better. I can definitely see why this would be an honored book of the century.

Kim's Grade: A A good, entertaining read for young women.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Year of Almanac of the Dead: A Goal

Have I mentioned my disdain for "Year of" books? You know, the type of books where the narrator attempts to live a life without [insert noun] or attempts to live [insert adjective]? Well, I think its kind of stupid, and in ways shows a lack of creativity. So in an attempt to be uncreative (is that a word?) I am making it my 2008 goal to read Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. This will be my third attempt, with the last attempt being a bet with Erik that I could finish it before him. I think there was a bar involved in the bet too but I can't remember...hmm....

The book is over a 1000 pages long and can be described as a Twin Peaks like soap opera. Jason just gave me back my copy and said that YES I SHOULD STRUGGLE UNTIL THE END. So, dear readers, we are about to begin my Year of Almanac of the Dead: A Goal. I will submit updates of my reading and utter confusion of the plot. I will attempt tree diagrams to understand the character connections. I will practice patience. I will succeed!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nora Ephron and her Neck

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

When I read that Nora Ephron wrote When Harry Met Sally I knew I had to read more from her. There are too many classic moments in that movie and it remains one of my favorites. However, I'm not sure if I like reading that style. I mean, I can watch the movie just fine. The dialogue is smooth and everything flows but I had a difficult time reading the same style that is found in I Feel Bad About My Neck. I'll also admit that while I found the stories humorous I'm not THAT old. There I said it. I'm not at the age where I have children and those said children are eighteen. I'm not at the age where my significant other has potentially left me for another. I'm not at the age where I feel bad about my neck. So I couldn't relate well enough to the stories. This isn't to say that there are those of you out there that may find this book entertaining. I think it would make a nice theater experience. I think it would make a nice gift for my mother. I think I sold it back to Powell's on a recent trip--so I suppose I should end this review.

Kim's Grade: B Read if older than I.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Book Review: Einstein Defiant

If reading this book did anything for me, it reinforced my long-held belief that the physicists of the early twentieth century were some of the most brilliant people who have ever lived.

Niels Bohr once said that "anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." That quote is essentially what this book is about. The characteristics of quantum theory that Bohr found so shocking are precisely the same characteristics that Einstein so defiantly refused to accept. This book focuses on Einstein, but much of it is centered around disputes between the two giants of the quantum revolution, Einstein and Bohr. That's probably why the front cover of this book reads "Einstein Defiant" (obviously the title of the book), and the back cover reads "(Bohr Unyielding)."

I'm not going to pretend that I understand quantum theory—I don't. It's way over my head. When I took Modern Physics in undergrad I would frequently leave class and spend the walk to my next class crying in despair because I could not understand what was going on. (Why didn't I drop it, you ask? It was a graduation requirement, unfortunately.) My cousin used to complain about classes in which he could barely understand his foreign professors. Well, imagine a class where your professor didn't lecture with an accent, didn't just lecture in a different language, but lectured with something that isn't even verbal! Quantum theory is explained through mathematical equations, and I'm not a mathematician.

So in that respect I can sympathize with Einstein. The strength of this book lies in the way that Bolles reinforces the different views taken by Einstein and Bohr regarding physics. Neither of them were particular enamored of mathematics. Both saw math as a way to explain what was happening. But while Bohr was satisfied with mathematics merely describing a workable theory, Einstein wasn't satisfied until that theory could describe actual physical phenomena. It was perhaps Einstein's (only?) failure that he ended up on the wrong side of the debate. Modern physics seems to have accepted Bohr's stance that there is no physical reality that can be understood beyond the theory. (Bohr would say the complementary theory; Heisenberg said the Uncertainly Principle.)

I have a few complaints with the book, mainly that Bolles is overly and often annoyingly fond of analogies. After a while you get sick of them. But I can overlook all that for the excellent way he laid out the philosophical differences between Bohr and Einstein. I came away from this book with an enormous respect for Einstein, and my view of Bohr (who I often proclaim as my favorite scientist) was slightly marred, I must admit.

A minimal (if superficial, in my case) familiarity with physics and quantum theory is required to really enjoy this book, I think. But if you are a lover of scientific history like I am, and especially of early twentieth century physics like I am, you'll love this book. It describes the quantum revolution in terms of the personalities involved, which is always more interesting than the hard science, from a historical perspective anyway. All the big names are present: Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Born, Planck, Heisenberg, Pauli, de Broglie, Lorentz, Compton, Dirac, etc.

Lindsey's Grade: B+

Book Review: A Kingdom of Dreams

I really enjoyed this book! It reminded me a lot of Julie Garwood's glory days. What romance fan doesn't love a story about a strong, brave warrior who just so happens to have a heart of gold and is vanquished by a woman?

Basically this book is about a young Scottish countess, Jennifer Merrick, who is kidnapped by soldiers of Royce Westmoreland, Earl of Claymore. Royce is a legendary English warrior nicknamed "The Black Wolf." Stories of his battlefield brutality abound. But of course, he is instantly captivated by the proud, stubborn, red-headed woman who is brought as a captive to his camp.

The story is pretty simplistic, but sometimes that's better. There's nothing absurd that gets in the way of the romance, and I appreciate that. I don't know why, but I didn't expect to like this book when I picked it up, so I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and enthusiastically I finished the book.

Lindsey's Grade: A-

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

This book looks great. I was surprised to find a review of it in Ms. magazine because it sides on romance but maybe Ms. is loosening up a bit. As I was reading the review I was reminded of one of my favorite books, The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The notion of a foreigner in new places, learning new cultures and new aspects of identity has always been a theme I've identified with, however this book looks heavenly as is.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Love in a Second Language
A Review by Gail Tsukiyama

In the last 20 years, the proliferation of Asian writers in Europe and the Americas has grown into a lovely chorus of voices, opening our eyes to the lives of people and cultures we've only known from a distance. Xiaolu Guo's debut English-language novel takes us a step further into the complicated landscape of the immigrant experience.

We immediately recognize the alienation of 23-year-old Zhuang Xiao Qiao, known as Z to Westerners who can't pronounce her name, as she arrives in London for a year to study English. Frightened and alone, her broken English no help when seeking housing from Arab landlords with equally limited language skills, Z finds London a "refuge" camp. Her parents, who own a shoe factory in rural China, believe their daughter will "make better life through Western education." What she will also receive is an education in love.

Z soon sees that "the loneliness in this country is something very solid, very heavy." In a city where everything is new and foreign, where the most precious reminders of her old life are gone, she gradually makes a place for herself, a process Guo cleverly describes through Z's steadily improving English. Word by word, month by month, her insight into this new culture grows until, at the cinema, she meets an older Englishman, a part-time sculptor, and embarks on a relationship that will change the way she sees the world.

What begins as a blossoming of love, sex and freedom gradually finds Z questioning the different ways in which each views their life together. Their relationship unravels when his growing need for solitude and his lack of commitment conflict with the closeness and community for which Z yearns. The collective society she left back in China values family and tradition; this Western concept of individuality and living only in the moment is hard for Z to understand. She is left to reconcile their essential difference: "'Love,' this English word: like other English words it has tense. 'Loved' or 'will love' or 'have loved.'...Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite....In Chinese, Love...has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future."

In her quest to find herself in the West, Z realizes just how Chinese she is -- and that learning to speak a language doesn't necessarily mean being able to communicate. Guo, also a filmmaker, has written an inventive, often humorous and poignant story of a woman's journey over cultural and emotional borders. While books with similarly suggestive titles may fall into the chick-lit genre, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is so much more.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Book Review: A Royal Panoply

Those of you who don't have a huge hard-on for British royal history probably won't appreciate this book. But since I do belong in that camp, I loved this book! What a brilliant idea! Erickson profiles every British monarch from William the Conquerer to Elizabeth II, and she does it all by devoting about ten pages to each. (I think she leaves out Edward V, and Sophia, Electoress of Hanover, because neither was corronated, I think). I appreciated the brevity because it made it really to read, and also because I took History of England in college and I've read a lot of more comprehensive books on certain eras in British history so the brief bios were all I needed to refresh my memory in some cases.

I fell in love with these crazy kings (and occasional queens) during my History of England classes in college mainly because I think it is so fascinating how influential their personalities are. A number of things stood out as I read through his book. One, it is amazing how often a son will be the polar opposite of his father. As a result it seemed like whenever one king would do something really good, he'd have a really lazy or incompetent son come along after him and erase all that he'd done. This seemed to be a pattern until the time when Parliament seized greater control over the government, and there was more consistency and normalcy over the years. I remember thinking in college that the class got a lot less interesting once we started talking more about Parliament instead of the monarchy, but this book doesn't suffer that fate because it is not a history of England, it is a biography of the monarchs themselves, as individuals.

Another thing that struck me was how many of the kings had homosexual tendencies! Holy crap! What was the deal there? There must have been at least half a dozen with male intimates.

One of the best things about reading through this book was comparing what I was reading to the portrayals of these historical figures in books and in movies. For instance, when reading about Edward I, Edward II, and the latter's wife Isabella, I was thinking about Braveheart. When reading about Richard I, I was thinking about Robin Hood. When reading about Charles II, I thought about a movie (Stage Beauty, I think) that featured him. Of course my deep affection for Regency romance novels made me think about what I've read about the Prince Regent, George IV, in those novels. And I thought about the DVD my dad got me a few Christmases ago, The Lost Prince, when I read about George V. It's fun to see where the movies and books got it right, and when they certainly seemed to get it wrong.

If you like reading about British history I would definitely recommend this book as a quick little reference guide. Of course, it is an interesting read on its own.

Book Review: Someone To Love

Okay, let me say first that I didn't hate this book. In fact, when I consider the previous two Jude Deveraux releases (First Impressions and Carolina Isle) I would say that this wasn't a bad book. It is nothing compared to her books of about ten years ago, but people change, so I won't hold that against her. But I still felt like there was a strong Deveraux presence to this book. (Honestly I have been wondering if maybe she doesn't have a ghost writer... the copyright on the book is Deveraux, Inc., which isn't conclusive, but does make me wonder...)

The plot of this book is pretty simplistic, really. Jace Montgomery was in England on business with his fiancee, Stacy, when Stacy suddenly left their London hotel room one night after an argument and ended up at a pub in rural England. She rented a room for the night and was found the next morning dead from an apparent suicide by overdose of sleeping pills.

Jace is devastated, of course, but he's also haunted because Stacy's family insists that she killed herself because she was having second thoughts about marrying Jace and she was too terrified to tell me. So Jace is left wondering what it was that he did that drove the woman he loved to kill herself. Three years later he finds a postcard addressed to Stacy in one of her old books that has a picture of an English mansion on it and a note that says, "May 11, 2001, together again," or something like that. She died on May 12, and the mansion in the photo is in the same town where she died. Seeking answers, Jace takes out a loan from his billionaire uncle and buys the mansion.

The classic Deveraux kookiness comes into play because the mansion is haunted, and Jace for someone is one of a few people that is able to see the ghost. He thinks that perhaps the ghost can give him answers. So the book develops along two lines—the ghost's story, and the investigation into Stacy's death.

I personally thought that Carolina Isle came very close to being incoherent, so the fact that everything in this book made sense was kind of a relief, to be honest. The characterizations weren't the best, but they weren't bad, either. The book was easy to read, kept me interested, and had a satisfactory resolution. Overall, I was pleased. But, I went in with extremely low expectations having read her previous works. If you pick up this book after reading classic Deveraux from ten, twenty, thirty years ago, you'll likely be disappointed.

Lindsey's Grade: C+

Book Review: The Abstinence Teacher

The premise of this book seemed interesting enough for me to put it on my wish list for Christmas. A high school sex-ed teacher gets in trouble when she tells one of her students that "some people enjoy it" ("it" being oral sex). The girl's parents are members of a local evangelical church and they take offense, threatening a lawsuit. (Although I couldn't figure out what they would be suing over, myself.) So the school caves and changes its sex-ed curriculum to an abstinence-based program.

The teacher, Ruth, is a divorced mother of two, and her youngest daughter just happens to have a new soccer coach who is a member of the church. The two of them get into an argument on the soccer field one day when Tim, the coach, leads a prayer with all of the girls on the team.

I can see where the author was going with this book by pitting these two opposites against each other, and I think he did a very good job. It was particular interesting to me because Ruth was fairly conservative in her own life, while Tim was an ex-drug addict and musician who lived the "good life" for most of his adult life. Both characters were developed pretty thoroughly, although at times I felt like the people in Tim's life were pretty cliched at times. Tim and his wife Carrie were perhaps the exception to that.

I was pretty bothered by the religious tone in the book, mainly because the religious characters came across as rather crazy—especially Pastor Dennis, the church leader. But I think that was kind of the point. I found myself getting pretty upset over the things that were happening, and I was glad to see that Tim eventually started to open his eyes to the obsessive control that Pastor Dennis seemed to want to have over his life. I have to say, however, that it took a while for me to see all of the church-based stuff as something more than hyperbole, because I grew up in an inclusive Christian environment that has it's problems but was nothing like that. In the end the way that this book made me evaluate my own upbringing and how the Adventist church differs from these Evangelical churches was one of the best things about reading the book.

It wasn't hard to tell how the author felt about what he was writing about, but I did appreciate that way that he didn't make a villain out of Tim. In fact, he did a really good job of showing his humanness and how even Christians struggle sometimes. Unfortunately for Tim he didn't seem to realize that himself, and his pastor didn't do a very good job of helping him see that, either. I would say that an overarching theme I took from this book is that these kind of churches really appeal to certain people—damaged people who can't seem to get control over their lives and so who then need rigid rules in order to feel like they are finally doing something right.

My biggest complaint with this book was the ending. It felt really abrupt, even though certain events had been set in motion alerting the reader to what would eventually happen. Also I couldn't buy into any attraction between Tim and Ruth, primarily because I felt like Ruth could do a lot better than Tim, who obviously had his own issues to work through before he should even think about being in another relationship. I have to say that the author's writing style was a little too matter-of-fact for me. Don't get me wrong, it was good, but his strengths lie in plotting and characterizations rather than actually writing style.

Lindsey's Grade: B-