Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Something A Bit More Personal

As many of you know, I've worked for pretty much my entire professional life (all five and a half years) as a librarian at a small technical school.  It's a job that has served me well, but the time came for me to move on. Last week I put in my two weeks' notice.  It was one of the scariest, hardest things I've ever done, and kind of sent me into a tail-spin.

I don't handle change well.  At all.  Major life changes, even when they're the right decisions, can send me over the edge.  And, despite my best efforts not to be affected, I've been struggling for a week or two.  Which is why the posts have been few and far between.  I've been struggling, Reader Friends, but I think I'm getting my feet back under me now.

I hope you'll be patient with me and stick around while I get back on track with life and figure out what I'm going to do with myself and all this free time I'll suddenly have.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Audiobook Review: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I've had this on my TBR list forever and a day, so I was excited to find it for audio download through my library.  It's based around one of my favorite sub-genres: post-apocalyptic YA.  In Life As We Knew It, a meteor strikes the moon, shifting its orbit closer to earth.  The result is massive tsunamis that wipe out huge coastal regions, earthquakes, and such severe volcanic eruptions that the ash blocks out the sun.  In addition, long-term climate changes take place, which means Miranda and her family are forced to live off of stockpiled rations and scavenge for supplies.

I think the author did a good job of remembering the small details that I see left out of a lot of more recent YA post-apocalyptic books.  Instead of focusing on the dramatic weather-related disasters, the book is set in the middle of the country, where things are less severe.  Instead, we see life change in a slower, but more imaginable and completely terrifying way for Miranda and her family.  The author brings up things like toilet paper and feminine hygiene products and the lack of protein in the family's new diet, which are all significant, but often overlooked in books that tend to focus more on the action of the disaster itself.  I appreciated the author's take and her unique point of view.

Entertainment Value
Although the book isn't as fast-paced or action-filled as others in the genre, I think the slow (and honestly I'm not talking slow-slow, I'm talking over the course of months as opposed to the course of days) progression made the book more realistic and more frightening.  The move from feeling like things might be ok, the siblings being upset over the early school closures, to the closing of the library and the post office, and finally to a lack of basic necessities isn't necessarily frantic pacing, but I could see it really happening.  It made me anxious, and I liked that.  It also made me want to go stock up on toilet paper and canned food in a desperate way.

It was ok.  I wasn't terribly impressed, but I also wasn't bothered by anything in particular.  I think the book would be equally enjoyable in print and there's nothing that sets the narration apart for me.

I definitely recommend reading the book.  It's the first in a series of three, but it can also be read as a stand-alone.  No cliffhanger ending or incomplete story line, which I very much appreciated.  I'm sure I'll read the next two books at some point, but I don't feel like I need to do that to complete Miranda's story.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review: Tiger Babies Strike Back by Kim Wong Keltner

Thank you to TLC and the publisher for providing me with a review copy.

Tiger Babies Strike Back is a memoir/essay collection/rebuttal to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Keltner was raised by a "tiger mother" and has rejected the stereotype.  This book chronicles her story and the negative effect of being parented by a rigid, controlling mother with overly high expectations as well as her own experiences as a parent and how she interacts with her children.  

It's impossible to read the book and not compare it to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, since that book and the media attention around it is what inspired Keltner to write her own experiences from the opposite point of view.  I found it really interesting how both Chua and Keltner reflect their personalities so well in their writing.  Where Chua is formal and to the point, Keltner writes in a frequently humorous way and uses a much more casual style.  This is much less organized and direct and more of a collection of thoughts, loosely organized around the author's story as both a daughter and a mother.

Entertainment Value
I'm going to really try to avoid making my review about Chua's book, but I feel like I have to point out before this review that I really enjoyed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (click here to see my review) as a memoir.  In my review, I mentioned how frustrating I found many reviews of the book because they interpret it as a parenting manual or a how-to book. So I started off on the wrong foot with Keltner, when in an early chapter she writes about Chua's book as a parenting book.  Chua herself admits at the end of her book that her parenting choices may not have been the best for her daughters and questions some of her decisions.  So it made me a bit twitchy to start off with what I see as a misinterpretation of the point of a memoir that I liked.

However, Keltner quickly made up for that irksome remark by writing her own unique, thoughtful memoir that gave me a much different, but equally important look at a culture very different from my own.  I feel like Keltner did a good job of helping me imagine her life and the expectations and pressures placed on her as a result of her culture, but at times I also felt like I missed out on the full picture because I'm not Chinese.  I'm not sure if it was a natural disconnect because I haven't had the life experience of being a minority or if it was the author's intent, but at times I felt like I was reading something that was directed to an "in-crowd" that I'm not a part of.  Like an inside joke that I just wasn't getting.

I think the book is worth reading if you're familiar with or interested in (whether you like or dislike) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or if you can identify with the author's experiences being raised in an overachieving Chinese family.  Otherwise, I'm not sure I'd recommend it over other memoirs that may have a more universal appeal.

Thank you to TLC and the publisher for providing me with a copy to review.  Click here to see the full list of tour stops.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Top Ten Books About Tough Topics

I'm not usually a big meme participant, but occasionally I find the Top Ten Tuesday meme, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, to be irresistible.  Today's theme is difficult topics, and "issue" books are some of my favorites.  The problem is honestly limiting my numbers to ten.  So what I'm actually going to do is post my top ten issues and a book (or in the first five cases a fiction and non-fiction book) that represent best reads in that topic.  In no particular order of importance or interest:

1) School Violence

Fiction: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
A mother deals with the aftermath of her son's killing spree at his high school and the ramifications for her and her family.

Non-fiction: Ceremonial Violence: A Psychological Explanation of School Shootings by Jonathan Fast
An examination of various cases of school shootings from the first recorded incidents through Columbine.

2) Death and Grief

Two teenagers with cancer meet at a support group, fall in love, and teach each other valuable life lessons.  Wow that sounds cheesey. It's not, trust me.

Non-fiction: Blue Nights and (not pictured) The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Start with The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of the year Didion loses her husband and deals with major health issues threatening her daughter's life and then read Blue Nights, where Didion writes about her daughter's death.  Both are beautifully written.

3) Kidnapping/Domestic Trafficking

Shockingly relevant to ongoing current events, Room is the story of a woman who is kidnapped as a young adult and held for years.  The story is narrated by her five year old son, fathered by her captor.

Real stories of young women who are bought and sold and held against their will or forced into prostitution as told by Rachel Lloyd, whose life work is helping these women escape and restore their lives.

4) Depression

An allegorical work of literary fiction in which an actual black dog represents the depression experienced by both Winston Churchill and his temporary secretary.

There are so many good memoirs and works of non-fiction on depression but Les Murray's is one of my favorites because it also includes the poetry that he wrote during a debilitating bout of depression that I find to be particularly meaningful and relevant to my own experiences.

5) Religious Abuse/Sexual Abuse in the Church

A sister attempts to restore the reputation of her disgraced brother, a Catholic priest who has been accused of sexual abuse.

Non-fiction: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
A history of the Mormon faith, combined with an expose of the abuses of the modern FLDS.

6) Global Oppression of Women

Journalists Kristoff and WuDunn tackle the biggest issues facing women on a global level, such as: trafficking, rape as an instrument of war, AIDS proliferation, and female genital mutilation.

7) Repressed Memory

The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham
An expert in psychology, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, examines the way our memory works and the phenomenon of false memories and how they have resulted in allegations of abuse.

8) False Convictions

Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How To Make It Right by Barry Scheck, Jim Dwyer, and Peter Neufield
A description of the Innocence Project, a non-profit that is using advances in DNA testing to overturn the convictions of criminals who were wrongly convicted using poor evidence, and stories of the men and women whose lives have been changed.  It also addresses the challenges faced by those who are wrongly convicted, spend years in prison, and are then released.

9) Poverty

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Journalist Katherine Boo spends three years living among the people who live in a Mumbai slum and describes the devastating poverty and daily life challenges faced by the people who live there.

And finally, a very important issue that is on all of our minds, and about which we all need to be familiar:

10) The Zombie Apocalypse

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
It was really hard for me to narrow down just one zombie book to recommend, but in the end I had to go with Max Brooks because I feel like he is the definitive author of the zombie genre and World War Z is a must-read if you're at all concerned about the zombie apocalypse, WHICH YOU SHOULD BE.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Thank you to TLC and the publisher for providing me a copy to review.
The first thing that jumped out at me about this book is the setting - Chechnya in 2004, with some flashbacks to the previous 10 or so years.  Of course Chechnya is on everyone's radar since the bombings in Boston, but it was really the dates that stood out to me.  I can remember 2004 clearly.  I think I have a very stereotypical Western, privileged mindset and I have to admit that it is very hard for me to imagine these events happening during my adulthood.  It's hard for me to picture people not having electricity and access to  even halfway adequate healthcare during my privileged college years.

It's not that I am so naive that I don't know that this was and is the case in many countries, it's just hard for me to picture.  It's one of those things that I just have a very hard time imagining.  And this book brought the challenges faced by those in Eastern Europe to life in a way that I hadn't considered, particularly in recent years.  It's much easier for me to imagine an impoverished African or South American area than it is to imagine ethnic wars and the resulting economic and social devastation in Eastern Europe.  Considering this as a current event, rather than a "before my time" event was new.  And profoundly moving.

The plot revolves around three main characters: Akhmed, who finds his neighbor's child, Havaa, hiding in the woods after her father is abducted in the night and taken to be executed.  Akhmed knows the Feds who took Havaa's father are also looking for Havaa and takes her to the almost completely abandoned hospital, where he hopes Sonja, the only remaining doctor in the town, will help him conceal Havaa.  The next five days reveal connections both lost and found and impact the characters in ways the reader could not imagine.

Stunning.  This is probably the best long-form fiction, in terms of writing, that I've read this year.  The author's use of language is beautiful and compelling and the imagery is so amazingly vivid.  "I felt like I was there" is such a cliche, but in this case it is absolutely true.  I can't rave enough about the quality of the writing.  It's just beautiful.

Entertainment Value
It's not a fast-paced book, but the writing is so amazing and the story so intriguing that I couldn't put it down.    I was in love with the characters and the setting and the timeline and just everything about it.  And, of course, there is a well-paced plot driving the story, which never hurts.

I cannot say enough good things about this book.  I would be willing to bet that it'll have a high spot on my Best of 2013 list.  I think it has an appeal to a wide variety of readers and is accessible enough to be read by those who enjoy various genres.  I also think it's a book that writers need to read.

Again, thank you to TLC and the publisher for providing me with a copy to review.  You can click here to see the list of all the reviewers on the tour.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson

So this book combines my love for academia and academic settings with something I know very little about but find absolutely fascinating - LARPing.  For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it stands for Live Action Role Playing.  The stereotypical LARPer is playing a "real life" version of a game like Dungeons and Dragons, complete with costumes and pretend sword fighting.  The Magic Circle takes the idea of live action games and puts an academic, and very dark, twist on it.  It follows the story of three graduate students, all of whom are interested in game theory and creating live action games that will educate the players.  However, when Anders, one of the girls' brother, gets involved, things take a very dark turn.

It's definitely smart and well-written, but I'm not really sure who the ideal audience is.  I think the author went too academic for most people who would have an interest in role playing, but I'm also not sure how many people who want a very academic treatment of game theory would find the author's version of LARPing.  Something about it was me.  I think what it comes down to is not that there are any specific writing issues, but that I just can't imagine who the ideal reader for this book is.  I wouldn't recommend it to my friends who love literary fiction and I also wouldn't recommend it to friends who read thrillers.

Entertainment Value
Again, something just didn't click for me in terms of being entertained.  The beginning was slow and contained a lot of the background information necessary to the story, but the presentation was somewhat lackluster.  It was too formal for my taste - I know background information is necessary when you're addressing an academic topic that isn't common knowledge, but it wasn't presented in a way that made me want to keep reading.  It's a short book, but it took me several days to really develop an interest in what I would normally read in a day or two.

I feel like I haven't highlighted the positives of the book, which are that it IS very smart and the focus on game-playing in an academic setting is quite unique and interesting.  For me, however, it all boils down to audience.  As I've said many times before, I try to think of my ideal reader friends when I review and what I would tell them.  I also try to think of ALL the people I know who read my blog and whether or not I think it appeals to another reader with a different taste than me and my reading twins (triplets?).  But in this case, I just can't think of a person who I think would particularly enjoy the book.  I usually have a clear idea in my mind of "Oh, ____ would love this book."  In this case, I can't come up with an audience for it.

A big thank you to TLC for giving me the opportunity to review this one.  As always, please click here for a full list of reviews to get a balanced idea of how others felt.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder

Such a stunning cover, right?  I'd plan to buy a finished copy just based on that.  I'm such a sucker for women in beautiful dresses.  But luckily, this one is not just pretty to look at, but a totally enthralling read.  The author conducted in-depth interviews with the women Sylvia Plath spent the summer of 1953 with as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine.  She and several other young women were chosen to guest edit the magazine's college edition.  Her experiences that summer strongly influenced her most famous literary accomplishment, her novel The Bell Jar.  This book takes a look at the historical and personal events surrounding Plath that summer through the eyes of the women who were with her.

I am so conflicted on this portion of my review.  Obviously, these are personal accounts of recollections from 50 years ago, so I wasn't expecting detailed citation or a work of literary non-fiction.  I think the author did a great job of culling personal stories and presenting them in a work of non-fiction that is intended to give the impression of a personal account, not an academic biography.

What has me conflicted is what exactly the author intended with her style.  Her writing is very much like a journal entry.  Many paragraphs aren't made up of complete sentences, but are just fragments of impressions, smells, and sights that Plath would have experienced.  It threw me off at first until I realized how closely the author's style mirrors Plath's own journals.  Her stream of consciousness style is so similar to Plath's that I began to wonder if it was deliberate.  If so, it was very well done.  If not, well, stream of consciousness doesn't work as well for me in non-fiction.

Entertainment Value
Here again I was surprised.  By all reckoning, I should have been put off by this book.  I was expecting something more biographical and academic, as opposed to what the book focuses on: seemingly mundane details of Plath's wardrobe, shopping habits, and personality quirks.  But for some reason, this book really worked for me.  I was SO INTO the clothes.  She bought another black sheath?  TELL ME MORE!  I don't mean this in a sarcastic way at all, either.  I really and truly cared about all of these details and found myself wanting more and more.  It's not even that I'm a huge Plath fan (although I did love The Bell Jar) or that I'm really into fashion or magazines or that time period.  But something about the book and the way the author presents the material absolutely captivated me.

Obviously, this is required reading for Plath fans or for those who are interested in the early days of women's journalism.  But I think it has a wider audience than just those familiar with Mademoiselle magazine or with Plath's full history.  It provides a great glimpse into a time period, a social setting, and into Plath's life and the life of young professional women during a time period when professional women were a novelty. I highly recommend trying this one out - who knows, you may just love reading descriptions of Plath's fabulous wardrobe!

Monday, May 6, 2013

What I Read In April

April was a wonderful month, mainly because Sugar Bear and I finally got to make our big trip to Chicago to see my brother and his family.  I also took a weekend trip with two of my best girlfriends, Crystal and Andrea, and spend the weekend lounging around and playing with Andrea's kids.  The rest of my time was spent catching up on life after two wonderful weekend vacations.

As far as 52 Weeks To An Organized Home goes, I am still on track.  This weekend I dumped an entire Hefty bag full of half used and expired beauty products and filled another bag to donate.  I've cleared out everything that I don't use on at least a weekly basis and, as a result, my counters and under-the-counter space are nearly empty.  

We also came up with a home cleaning schedule and organized all our cleaning supplies, which makes it easier to know when we need to buy more and to distribute the tasks equally.  Just having the schedule has made a huge difference in the amount of arguments over who does more around the house.

And, finally, I got all of our important home documents organized and filed away and started a system for keeping up with filing and shredding on a daily basis.  The next couple weeks should be pretty easy - they focus on the "mudroom/entryway", which we don't have, and on the living room, which we have, but, since we don't have kids, isn't a big clutter collector for us.

Here's what I read this month:

Ten Tiny Breaths by K.A. Tucker
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
Hopeless by Colleen Hoover
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
BlogHer '12 Voices of the Year
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
The Great Escape by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
The Little Book of Heartbreak by Meghan Laslocky
Vampires In the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Total books read in April: 10
Total books read this year: 52
Total pages read this year: 15,647

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Book Review: I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert

As a young college graduate, Jennifer Gilbert expected great things from her life.  She had just returned from a post-grad year of touring Europe and returned to New York ready to start her professional life.  However, she was randomly and violently attacked by a man who attempted to take her life.  She survived, but was so damaged emotionally that she became a shell of her former independent self.

To get by, she threw herself into work, founding an event planning business and winning awards for her entrepreneurship.  In her memoir, she describes how her career as an event planner eventually led her to the realization of how the attack had damaged her emotionally, and how it also brings her back to her true self.  In the midst of all this, she finds love, starts a family, and comes to the realization that life itself is the only gift we are promised.

No issues with the writing.  I felt like I connected with the author, and, while she wasn't always likable, she remained sympathetic.  I think she really showed the impact of the attack on the next several years of her life and didn't try to hide the not-so-pretty or not-so-nice side from the reader.  It makes her seem like a real person.

Entertainment Value
It's not a long read and it's not a difficult read.  It read like a face to face conversation with the author - very personable and fluid.  Gilbert is witty and well-spoke and reading the book was a pleasure.  I can't think of any parts that felt off-pace or slow, and I wanted to know how Gilbert's story would end.

I think it's a successful memoir, chronicling a horrible period in the author's life and how she managed to overcome the difficulties life handed her.  It's a great book for anyone who is a fan of memoir or is looking for a lighter read that tackles a difficult subject.

Thanks to TLC for including me on the tour.  Click here for links to all the tour stops!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: When It Happens To You

Anyone feeling guilty over being behind on book reviews?  This may make you feel better.  I just added up all the reviews I need to write and could come up with a full month's worth of reviews (and that is assuming I post 4 a week) without reading another book.  There are books from February that I haven't reviewed yet.  Kind of a bummer, but I'm determined to catch up, starting with reviews of the three final books I read for the Sony Reader Club.

Ok, so the first thing you should know about this book is that it IS by the same Molly Ringwald of 80's movie fame.  When I saw she had written a book, I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't going to be her memoir, as I would LOVE a behind-the-scenes look at The Breakfast Club, one of my all time favorites.  However, I also love short stories and when the book was announced as a Sony Reader VIP choice, I was excited to see how Ringwald measures up in terms of writing.  And the good news is that she is brilliant.  These short stories are all connected (revolving around a Los Angelean family and their neighbors).

I was seriously impressed.  I get twitchy when I see that a celebrity plans to write anything other than a memoir.  I just feel like..sigh.  It's most likely to be a ghost-written YA novel or some other kind of foolishness (James Franco).  But in this case, I was more than pleasantly surprised.  Ringwald really blew me away with her thoughtful stories.  And not just thoughtful, but also smart, witty, and just flat-out well written.   Her characters are interesting and all of the stories had that moment where it all comes together and you just get what she's trying to say.  Exactly what I want in a short story.

Entertainment Value
I read the whole thing in one sitting on a Saturday morning.  It's not that it's a suspenseful book, but one where I kept telling myself "Just one more story."  And before I knew it, I had finished it.  And, I feel like I should note, I was pleased to see Ringwald address contemporary issues without being moralistic or telling the reader how to feel.  I noted this particularly in the story "My Olivia", which I expected to be a "lesson" for parents on letting your child explore his or her gender identity.  Instead, I found it to fit in perfectly with the other stories and revolve around the characters, not a PSA.

Another excellent short story collection I've read this year.  I highly recommend it and I will definitely pick up anything Ringwald writes in the future (unless it's a YA novel about models with superpowers).