Monday, February 20, 2017

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

genre: fiction

In the hotel restaurants of Prague, Ditie is a waiter.   Starting from the bottom as a busboy, he is determined to not let his humble beginnings and short stature deter him from making something of himself.   In love with both money and beautiful women, Ditie is present as Hitler rises to power and he watches as Prague is absorbed into the Reich.

I just can't even describe this book.  I can tell that it's comic and tragic but I never really felt invested into Ditie - his self-centeredness and obtuseness when it came to the political situation made it hard to care about what happened to him.  But then there were all these moments that were lovely or strangely moving or completely ridiculous and I couldn't give up on it.  It's certainly raunchy - not just his choices but his life as a waiter, seeing but not watching, hearing but not listening, puts him in a position to witness and participate in all kinds of debauchery.  

In some ways, just the narrative style made it challenging for me to feel very engaged. It's written in first person but time flies by so fast and there is so little dialogue that sometimes I felt like I was watching a movie in fast forward as opposed to really watching it.  He does certainly life about life, though, as he gets older.  And I did like was that I learned a bit about Czech Republic both during and after the war from a unique perspective (from someone that is both insider and outsider) and while I have a hard time recommending it, I'm not sorry I read it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

1984 by George Orwell (audiobook)

genre: dystopian

Winston Smith is being watched.  Big Brother and his Thought Police are there to ensure that Winston and all his comrades in the Party never behave inappropriately, never even think anything dissonant - not about the Party, not about Winston's country of Oceania and not certainly not about Big Brother.   But despite knowing he's being constantly monitored, Winston still struggles with keeping his thoughts in line.  He dreams of a better life and he knows he's being lied to.  In a world where whatever the party says is TRUTH, despite your own knowledge to the contrary, Winston finally finds a piece of happiness - but how long can it last?

Despite having a general knowledge of what this book is about, I can't believe I made it almost to forty before finally digging in.  So, it's terrifying.  The part that I keep mulling over in my head, what my thoughts can't leave alone, is the idea of the present controlling the past - that whatever "history" is left to our posterity is purely the result of our own biases and selective retelling.  It is so upsetting to imagine that everything we've been told about our own history could just be a story someone told to support their own agenda and struggle for power.  It's such an ugly idea, a civilization where every fact has been manipulated, every person is a shell to be filled with whatever the party says, where love and interconnectedness are weakness and strength is only to be found in giving yourself completely to a brutal and unforgiving ideal.

Can you say you LIKE this book?  I'm not sure I can.  Was I enthralled?  Yes. Terrified?  Yes.  Double yes.  Was it depressing?  Yes.  Did it make me think all the deep thoughts and ask myself some hard questions?  It did.  Did I find parts of it hard to listen to?  Yep.  It's harsh, this book.  It is stark and lonely and sad.  But the making-me-think part matters. A lot.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

genre: non-fiction, memoir

Paul Kalanithi is nearly there - his training as a neurosurgeon-scientist is nearly complete - when he receives the crushing news: he has cancer.  The prognosis is not good.  And when faced with the choice to either throw up his hands and declare his life and effort a waste or to search deep and look for meaning in the seemingly meaningless, he chose the latter.  In this deeply moving memoir, he details his journey to becoming a surgeon, a husband, a player in the race that is modern medicine.  And while he's chosen to spend his career ushering patients from one kind of life into another - and possibly death - he now has to usher himself.  A much more painful and encompassing task.

I appreciate Paul's search for meaning.  I appreciate his depth of feeling and his honesty about really hard things.  I appreciate that he helped me to remember how important it is to live each day as though that actual day matters.  I appreciate how when I was finishing the epilogue by his wife, I wept, seeing his story for a moment through another set of eyes, weeping for the loss of a husband as well as for the loss to our human family of a curious and dedicated doctor.

Very well written.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

genre: young adult graphic novel

Lord Blackheart doesn't need a side kick. His villainy is doing just fine on its own. But Nimona, well, she's persuasive. With her shapeshifting skills and penchant for wreaking havoc and destruction, he soon decides that she's worth the risk. With Sir Goldenloin (ha!) and the Institution to expose to the masses, this unlikely duo have their evil work cut out for them.

 I grabbed this because it had a National Book Award Finalist sticker on the front - and within the first few pages, I was engaged in the plot. Nimona is spunky and rash - the relationship between our two main characters is the real highlight of the book, I think. The world building is a cross between medieval Europe and steampunk, which really worked. It's violent but not graphically gory and there's heart in here too, with minutes of tenderness and surprising compassion. The drawing style is funky and I love that Nimona is curvy and tough. The language is clean and the ending is satisfying. Fun read.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (audiobook)

genre: middle grade historical fiction

As a nine year old, Ada can't walk.  That's what we learn about her first - and it's the biggest thing she knows about herself. Sitting in her London flat, she spends her days looking out the window at life going by until London decides to evacuate its children because of Hitler's forces moving ever Westward.  When her beloved younger brother Jamie is sent away, she makes the choice to join him.  And in leaving, Ada has taken the first steps (pun intended) to creating a life for herself where she might feel like she has worth.

When I heard that Jayne Entwhistle narrated the audiobook, I knew I couldn't go wrong, and I was correct.  She does a wonderful job of differentiating between the different characters and her accent just drops me into England and leaves me there, I love it.

Ada.  Beloved Ada.  Her mother is horrible (both emotionally and physically abusive though not to such an extreme that it would traumatic for younger readers) and for modern children the idea that people with physical disabilities were shunned or treated cruelly might be an upsetting one.  It also might get them to think a bit how THEY treat people whose bodies might look different or work different - because Ada becomes very endearing as you get to know her.  Her anxieties and fears clearly stem from a life of feeling always on the edge and I felt the author did a wonderful job of digging inside Ada's thoughts and explaining anxiety and coping mechanisms in a way that kids can understand.  I really like the woman they end up staying with in the country - she felt believable as someone thrown into a life with two emotionally scarred children: overwhelmed and frustrated but yet can't help but CARE.  Their relationship arc was believable too.  Plus, KENT!

The ending caught me by surprise a bit - but it made me teary too, in a good way, even if some threads were left hanging.  Although I don't often choose middle grade novels, I'm very glad I gave this a try.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Books I've Given Up On Part 5

Marked in Flesh by Anne Bishop - I'd enjoyed the first three while I read straight through them but the wait for this fourth one, apparently, dampened my interest.  I tried it and after a couple of chapters I found I just didn't care that much anymore.  I'm kind of bummed about that.

You were Here by Cori McCarthy - this just didn't ever hit the spot.  When I was 1/3 through and realized it was due at the library, I didn't care enough to renew it and I felt like that was reason enough to just be done.  Maybe the characters just didn't strike me as likable, at all or maybe in some ways the tragedy at the heart of the story just feels too real.  Either way, time to try something different.

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston - I picked this up at the thrift store because I thought it was a memoir of growing up the daughter of Chinese immigrants.  It was that, for about the first chapter (and I really liked it) but the rest was imaginative stories based on Chinese folklore and legend and I wasn't in the mood for that at all.

Ludwika: A Polish Woman's Struggle To Survive In Nazi Germany by Christoph Fischer - oh man.  I tend to try any story about World War 2 but I only made it through the first half of the first chapter because EDITING.  It was making me twitch with the errors and plot holes.  I'm sure it's a good story under there but if you love your story PLEASE PAY THE MONEY AND HAVE AN EDITOR EDIT IT.  The end.

50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany by Steven Pressman - again, World War 2.  This time there was just too much back story about all the different family members right at the beginning and I couldn't keep it straight and, rude, I know, I just didn't care that much.  Clearly I'm in the mood for a good, plot driven book.  I'm going to try something different now.

(all three of those last books I gave up on happened in a two day period. That's a problem!)

The Moonlit Garden by Corina Bowmann - I rarely give up on a book when I am so far into it but IT WAS DRIVING ME CRAZY.  Not just the anachronisms (did they REALLY say the word "guy" back in 1902 Sumatra?) but it was going so slow and the romance was too cheesy. I decided I would just skim the last two chapters and the epilogue and skip the 200 more pages and I totally did the right thing.

The Coral Thief: A Novel by Rebecca Stott: I wanted it to be about archeology instead of a weird mystery.  The writing wasn't horrible, it just bored me.

House of Royals by Keary Taylor - Well, on the second page the main character told me that she "doesn't know anything about Mississippi at all except that the river was named after it."  Shut. It. Down. Now.  Are you kidding me?

The House on Tradd Street by Karen White - After one chapter I realized I couldn't care less about any of it.  Not when our main character says, "I hated old houses.  Which was odd, really, since they were my speciality in the realty business."  You specialize in something you hate?  Anyway.  Just not my cup of tea.

A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith - got this from the newly purchased list at the library because it's Japan and ancient Japan and a girl with serious anger issues but after 50 pages I was so tired of her relentless rage that she exhausted me.  Maybe if I read it when I didn't have a sixteen year old daugheter?

Snow Summer by Kit Peel - Summers have essentially disappeared and it's winter almost all the time but again, angsty characters and too slow action just meant it couldn't keep my attention.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

genre: fiction

Sri Lanka: island of coconut palms, wide warm beaches and riots of color.  Upon this slip of land, however, a great cultural divide will rift its beauty as it slips into a civil war that leaves no side unscathed.  Sinhala and Tamil - two groups of people that belong in one shared space. Our two protagonists are on opposite sides of this conflict, which we learn about slowly as small comments heard in the misunderstanding ears of children turn into the grave understanding of teens and adults.

This novel engaged me with its lyricism - despite the harshness and brutality of civil war, there is beauty to be found in both the words and the peaceful memories of childhood.  Munaweera evokes Sri Lanka to those of us who have never given it five minutes thought and I loved how her novel begins with the youth of our main character's parents so we get a sense of how rooted she is within her family and their experiences.  The painful and yet comforting grip of a family's history and culture are very real as some characters have to leave home for reasons both harsh and, yet, understandable.  All the pain of this book is hashed up in my head right now, I'm trying to pull the strings of horror apart.  If you are a sensitive reader, I cannot recommend it.  There is no turning away from what humans DO to each other for a "higher cause" and there are scenes of carnage that made me want to close my eyes take the visuals in my mind and swipe them clean.  I hate that people have these actual images in their mind from their own real experience.  War is putrid and heartbreaking.

Within that, though, I found families that love each other.  People who want peace.  Gardens full of flowers and kitchens cloudy with spices and steam.  I have a sense of Sri Lanka and what its people have recently suffered that makes me glad I made the effort, if for no other reason than to be a better global citizen.  I wish that the novel wasn't quite so one sided - we hear far more from one point of view than the other, making it a bit biased towards one group of people - and I had to keep reminding myself of that.

In the end, this book both opened my eyes and broke my heart.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margaret and H. A. Rey

genre: non-fiction children's book

The lovable Curious George is one of the first characters my daughter ever identified with when she was little - in fact, the first long picture book that antsy little girl ever sat through was Curious George Goes to the Hospital.  And George has a staple in my home ever since.

When I was at the Holocaust Memorial Museum recently, the bright colors of this book on the shelf caught my eye and I purchased it because I was, ahem, curious to know the story of the authors, which I had previously known nothing about.

Turns out, theirs is a pretty incredible story: a story of adventure and war, the realities of being a refugee and how two artists can make a living from a pen and some paints. From Brazil to France and Spain to Portugal, the journey of Curious George's creators is displayed in a vibrant and engaging format.  Lots of primary sources here - we see pictures of telegrams and diaries, original photographs as well as illustrations from their books.  This would be a great springboard book to talk with younger elementary school aged children about what it would be like to flee from war, in a way that is real but not incredibly frightening.  Margaret and H. A. had guts and it shows in their choices. It also really makes you think about how many amazing things our world DOESN'T have and can never know about because of all those who were unable to escape they way they did.

I really liked this short biographical story of two incredible people.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

genre: ya science fiction
Katy's home, a tiny freezing-cold speck in the wilds of outer space, has just been attacked by a ship from a raiding corporation. When she and her newly-ex boyfriend Ezra manage to evacuate on shuttle to a waiting fleet, it feels like the world has come to an end.

But it's not over yet.

Because their fleet is being chased and something strange seems to be happening to one of the ships.  Not only that, there is talk of a strange plague and Katy will not put up with being kept from the facts.  With her wicked hacker skills, she is going to find out what in the world is going on - and if there is any way to solve it.

There is SO so much to like about this book.  What I liked most of all is the very unique format - it's like a giant file of documentation regarding the entire kerfluffle, beginning on Katy's home planet and into the far reaches of space as she and a few other key players move through the universe, trying to escape from the pursuing enemy warship.  We read e-mails, medical files, transcriptions, court documents, schematics, instant messaging scripts and interviews - there is no overarching narrative, we truly are piecing things together as we read along.  I don't want to spoil anything but I had no idea the direction this was going and I found it fascinating, violent and thought-provoking.  It moved a little slow at first and I had a hard time keeping names straight but soon I was itching to know what was going to happen to Katy and Ezra and the rest of the refugees from their destroyed planet.

This was both visually and intellectually a pleasure to read.  I look forward to more from this highly creative and fast-paced series.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman (audiobook)

genre: historical fiction

In 18th century Bristol, Ruth was born in the Convent.  Fantastic misnomer, the Convent - being as its a brothel and her mother's the mistress of the house.  Scrappy and streetwise, by the time she's 10, Ruthie's been scouted as a fighter - a lady pugilist.  With the help of her sponsor, the stiff and borderline-heartless Mr. Dryer, she grows up standing at the scratch and lets her "fives" do the talking.  A rough life, yes, but she loves the heart and the sweat of it and in a world where a sweet wager can make or break your fortune, Ruth is willing to play the game or die in the trying.

There really are three main characters in this tale, but Ruth is the one we know the longest.  Of the other two, I like Charlotte the best - a Lady born to privilege but with no freedom.  I liked her character arc the best, as she struggled to figure out what she even wanted and then if she was brave enough to try and get it.  George, our final main character, mostly drove me crazy with his ridiculous decisions and selfish nature.   I liked how their stories wove into Ruthie's and especially the interplay, such as it is,  between the ladies themselves.  Ruth has a WICKED strong accent and her language is full of words that I just have to guess from the context - but I loved that.  It made her so rounded as a person and I am SO GLAD I did the audio for this one. All three narrators were phenomenal (Steve West!  Fiona Hardingham!) and really brought the story to life.

While I really enjoyed this story and got very invested in Ruth and Charlotte, I will say that it's a pretty dark and depressing story a lot of the time.  The George storyline is more coarse and crude than the other two and, obviously, there is a lot of brothel times and while it's never particularly graphic at all, there is no mincing around the fact that prostitution is a significant part of the story.   I liked learning about the down and gritty life among the Bristol poor, the outdoor boxing arenas where women or men would fight for a pittance, for a chance to show their skill and gain whatever coin they could.  Pugilism was a complete non-entity to me before this, I just had never had a single thought about it before at all and so, while painful, I appreciated immersing myself in that place and time.

I also liked how it ended. Actually, I liked the ending a lot.  I found myself smiling as things came together and while not HAPPY and PERFECT, I felt like things had come full circle enough for me to be okay saying goodbye to Ruthie and Charlotte.  
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