Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Title: The Invention of Wings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content alert: abuse of slaves, mob violence, one very mild sex scene

I wish that I had reviewed The Invention of Wings two months ago when I read it and when I was riding high on the narrative. Now that so much time has passed, I worry that I won't do the book justice with this review. That said, here goes:

On the day Sarah Grimke turns eleven, her parents give her the traditional birthday gift for children in her late 18th-century Charleston household: a slave of her own, in this case, ten-year-old Handful. Sarah breaks with tradition when she tries to free Handful that night, and later promises Handful's mother that she will make sure that her daughter does not die a slave. The story of The Invention of Wings is told by both Sarah and Handful. They grow up as unusually close confidants, both bound and restricted in separate ways by their race, gender, and social class. Sarah yearns to become a lawyer, and and although she's smarter than her many brothers, her father doesn't take her seriously. Eventually, the women grow up and the realities of their position as women in the south drives a wedge between them. Sarah moves north with her younger sister and becomes involved in abolition while Handful stays at the family home in Charleston and plots ways to free herself and her mother and sister.

I'm embarrassed to admit that until I was 2/3 of the way through the novel, when Sarah Grimke has moved to Philadelphia and makes friends with Lucretia Mott, I had no idea that the book was historical fiction. I knew nothing about Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who both fought for abolition and the rights of women and were the most popular speakers of their day. The Handful character is mostly fictionalized. Kidd's afterword to the novel is absolutely fascinating. I loved reading about how she went about taking the Grimke story and creating Handful's tale, and weaving them together. The book is powerful and well-written and a page-turner, and I think it would be a hugely popular and appropriate novel for book groups. I'm going to recommend that my girls read it in a few years.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Title: Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
Author: Ann Patchett
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: language, drug use, mentions of sex

Truth and Beauty focuses on Patchett’s relationship with her best friend, the poet Lucy Grealy, who lost part of her jaw from a Ewing’s sarcoma as a child, and who ultimately died at the age of 39 in 2002. Grealy endured about 40 surgeries over the course of her lifetime, and when she wasn’t in the hospital, she was ambitious and hardworking, garnering many prizes and fellowships and shows Patchett and Grealy to have one of those great best friend kinds of relationships that people are lucky to come by once in a lifetime. However, the book also shows Grealy to have moments where she’s difficult and capricious.She constantly seeks validation, demanding Ann to tell her that she’s her very best friend. Jealous of Ann’s other friendships, she climbs into her lap at dinner and prevents Ann from having conversations with others at the table. She does things that would bug the heck out of me.

I’m sure that Ann would be the first person to admit that she was not a saint, but over the course of the story she continues to show love to Lucy– she nurses her after her surgeries and plays gatekeeper at the hospital. And as Lucy became more and more difficult and self-destructive in the final months of her life, Ann did her best to support Lucy even as she was pushed away.

While Truth and Beauty was somewhat controversial and Grealy's sister publicly criticized the book, saying, "Lucy was a uniquely gifted writer. Ann, not so gifted, is lucky to be able to hitch her wagon to my sister's star. I wish Lucy's work had been left to stand on its own." However, I doubt that I would have been introduced to Grealy's work had it not been for Patchett. I also think the book is beautifully written, and an enduring legacy to a female friendship that spanned the good times and the bad.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: One More Thing by BJ Novak

Title: One More Thing
Author: BJ Novak
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: some of these short stories would be suitable to read to your nursery school class, others would be "headphones only" with strong language and sexual situations.

BJ Novak, one of the foremost comedy writers of our day, establishes himself as someone who's out for more than just laughs with One More Thing. This series of short stories is sometimes funny, sometimes absurd. Some of the stories work really well, others fail. My kids loved the one about the principal who wants to stop offering math at his school. There were some stories I wanted to skip entirely, but I read them all, like a novel, because that's how I do things. I may have enjoyed the book more if I had given them a little more time to digest.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book Review: Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan

Title: Glitter and Glue
Author: Kelly Corrigan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13 for language

Layer #1: Kelly Corrigan is a woman in her late thirties whose mother drops everything and flies from Baltimore to San Francisco when she learns that her daughter needs surgery.

Layer #2: Kelly Corrigan is a woman in her early twenties who ditches her job at a non-profit to travel the world. She ends up in Australia, working as a nanny for a family whose mother recently died of cancer.

Layer #3: Kelly Corrigan is a young girl who adores her funny, larger-than-life father (the "glitter") and often resents her humorless mother (the "glue").

In Glitter and Glue, Corrigan paints a picture of her relationship with her mother. Her experiences living with a family in Australia who no longer have a mother help her get over some of the petty resentments she harbors against her own mother. Later, as she has her own health scare, her time in Australia highlight many of the fears she has for the future of her own family. It's a complex book, but one that I especially enjoyed as I've grown up and try to see my mother not as the harried mom of three small kids, but in a more mature, more generous light.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Title: Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Authors: John Green and David Levithan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Lots of cursing and talking about sex

Will Grayson is a high school junior living with his parents in Evanston, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. Everything about his life is normal and boring, except for Tiny Cooper, his larger-than-life (literally), flamboyantly gay, show tunes loving, offensive lineman of a best friend.

Will Grayson is also a high school junior living with his single mother in Naperville, a slightly less affluent suburb west of Chicago. Everything about his life is total crap, except for Isaac, the boy with whom he's been having an intense online relationship for the last year.

Will Grayson meets Will Grayson one night downtown when Will #1's (John Green's Will Grayson) fake ID fails to gain him access to a club and his friends ditch him for the concert. He decides to bide his time in a, well, a porn shop, where he runs into Will #2 (David Levithan's Will Grayson), who's discovering that his Isaac doesn't actually exist, and whose life appears to actually BE total crap, until both Will Graysons meet up with Tiny Cooper and their lives become intertwined by more than just a common name.

David Levithan is the master of co-writing novels, and John Green is the master of YA novels, so it's no surprise that this one seems to work so well. I didn't like Levithan's Will Grayson very much for the first half of the novel, but he grew on me, and Tiny Cooper's character is hilarious, stereotypical, totally over the top, and the glue that brings the whole thing together. The ending is totally cheesy, but it really worked for me. It's worth a read just to see the experiment unfold between the two authors, but I found the product pretty rewarding as a reader as well.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Title The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
Author: Jonas Jonasson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 or R for violence

On Allan Karlsson's hundredth birthday, he climbs out the ground-floor window of his retirement home and makes a run for the train station in an attempt to escape the hubbub of his birthday party. He appears to be a sweet old man who doesn't even think to trade out his slippers for shoes before he slips out and down the road. But when he's asked to watch a suitcase for a young man who needs to use the restroom, it sets off a madcap adventure and everyone, even the reader, underestimates the experiences and aptitude of this doddering old man.

If Forrest Gump had been born forty years earlier, lived in Sweden, and lived to be a hundred, you'd have the story of Allan Karlsson. Karlsson's life intersects with Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Truman, Johnson, and he climbs mountains, drinks with famous men everywhere, and gets thrown in jail innumerable times. Jonasson does a nice job balancing Karlsson's history with the adventures to preserve the suitcase, and the growing menagerie that surrounds Karlsson. The book is completely farfetched, but also pretty fun to read.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Title: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: murder and sexual assault

Balram Halawai started life in an Indian village-- the second son of a rickshaw driver with tuberculosis. As a child, he's innocent, naive, and smarter than all of his peers, but that changes as he moves from the prized pupil in his elementary class, to an underling in a tea shop who gives all of his money to his grandmother, to a servant in a wealthy home who rises through the ranks, to the murderer of his employer, to entrepreneur. This is Breaking Bad, Indian-style-- the portrait of one man as he abandons his morals as he ascends the social ladder.

I'm not knowledgeable enough about Indian culture and politics to comment much on Adiga's treatment of these subjects, but there were times when the book seemed satirical, with Balram a bumbling fool. The story itself dragged in places. We knew at the beginning of the novel, which is framed as a series of letters between Balram and a Chinese politician, that he would eventually murder his employer, and the story unfolded in such a straightforward manner, a Dickensian tale of modern India, that I was underwhelmed. I wanted twists and turns, I wanted surprises, and I got exactly what I would have expected from the first page of the first letter. The White Tiger illuminates a culture, but I'm not sure it's especially compelling from a storytelling perspective.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Title: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Authors: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Readers may be sensitive to descriptions of gynecological procedures and to the sexual slavery described in the book

First of all, I want to address those readers who might not love it when I take a two-month break from my regular book reviews to delve into the Whitney Awards. I'm back, and ready to review everything I listened to while I was furiously reading the Whitney books. Thanks for sticking around. Secondly, you might notice that I've changed the "This book would be rated" section of my header for each review to "Content Alert." I feel uncomfortable giving books a PG-13 or an R-rating, especially since some people have a different level of comfort with what they read or hear and what they see. And it doesn't feel right to give a nonfiction book a MPAA-style rating of any sort. But I also have readers who trust me to tell them if there might be something in a book that they would find objectionable or difficult to read about. I know it's a slight change, but it's one that makes me more comfortable.

I have heard so much about Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky that I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't feel compelled to actually read it until it became Audible's book of the day, which meant that I was able to buy it for less than five bucks, instead of the 10 or 11 I typically pay for and Audible book. The book talks about how the world has grown more equal in terms of race and religious discrimination, but women, especially women in the third world, are still at the mercy of oppressive men and cultures. Kristof and WuDunn, a married couple who work as New York Times journalists and who won the Pulitzer Prize for this work, traveled around the world, highlighting places, situations, and individual women who have faced oppression. They write about sex slavery in Southeast Asia, female genital cutting in East Africa, the prevalence of vaginal fistulas in Southern Africa, and limited economic opportunities throughout the world.

Half the Sky is an incredibly important book. It's one that I think all women should read, regardless (and because of) the difficulty of the subject matter, especially women like me who enjoy a certain degree of privilege and want to help but don't know how to get started. The book doesn't only talk about the terrible situations that exist, but it also discusses how we, as individual citizens, can get involved (things like Kiva loans), and what things help and do not help. In particular, I was interested in their recommendation that all American college students spend at least one semester living and working in the third world as a graduation requirement. They argue that this experience would change the students to the degree that the future course of their lives would be altered, as well as providing some immediate relief to the daily problems of life in the third world. As for me and mine? We'll start by picking out a new Kiva loan and by watching the PBS documentary (based on the novel) as a family.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What? You don't want to read 40 book reviews? (2013 Whitney Recap)

I don't blame you. But there are some pretty great books in the eight categories this year, and my top pick in each category is a book that I can recommend wholeheartedly. Voters are asked to rank the books from favorite to least favorite, but I think it's a little cruel to publicly list which books I hated most in each category, so for the purposes of being somewhat diplomatic, I'm restricting my comments here to my top pick or top two picks in each category.

General: The competition this year came down to two strong works: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster, which is very readable and moving with great characterization, and Jennifer Quist's Love Letters of the Angel of Death, the most ambitious, literary and lyrical of the novels in the entire competition. Both stories are about married couples, separated too soon by death.

Historical: Both H.B. Moore's Esther the Queen, the novelization of the story of Esther from the Old Testament, and Carla Kelly's Safe Passage, about an estranged couple brought back together during their escape from the Mormon colonies in Mexico, are great novels-- well written with great characters and compelling plots. 

Romance: Melanie Jacobson's Second Chances was far and away my favorite Romance this year, with the story of a producer who falls for the star of the Mormon Bachelor, who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. The story is witty and wise, and kept me turning pages far into the night. I even had a dream about it. 

Mystery/Suspense: Josi Kilpack's Rocky Road gets my vote. Sadie Hoffmiller's character gets more and more interesting in this, the tenth novel in her culinary mystery series, and the mystery here was pretty tricky too. 

Speculative: Jeffrey S. Savage's Dark Memories was creepily reminiscent of a Stephen King novel, where the world is just a half-step away from the one in which we're living. The story of revenge, more than thirty years after the fact, for the death of a young boy in a mine, kept me turning pages. 

Young Adult- Speculative: Kasie West's Pivot Point was far and away my favorite book in this category. Addie is able to see her two separate futures in alternating chapters in this book, and in the end she faces a difficult decision. Addie and her fellow characters in both the paranormal and normal worlds made the story come alive. 

Young Adult- General: Julie Berry's All The Truth That's in Me wowed. The writing was beautiful, the historical setting was realistic, and the choices Judith faced were heartbreakingly real. 

Middle Grade: Liesl Shurtliff's RUMP was a totally delightful retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story in which we learn to sympathize with the little guy and no longer make the mistake of siding entirely with that poor miller's daughter. 

Best Novel by a New Author: RUMP

Best Novel of the Year: Love Letters of the Angel of Death

Best Novel in Youth Fiction: All the Truth That's in Me

In the five years I've been reading for the contest, I've seen the overall quality of the work improve dramatically, and every finalist should be proud of their accomplishments. Good luck!

Book Review: Rocky Road by Josi Kilpack (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Rocky Road
Author: Josi Kilpack
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

In Rocky Road, the tenth of Josi Kilpack's culinary mysteries, Sadie Hoffmiller travels to St. George, Utah, for a bachelorette weekend before her upcoming marriage to Pete Cunningham. And while she was expecting a fun getaway with a girlfriend, she's quickly roped into solving the disappearance of a local doctor. Kilpack does a wonderful job with the southern Utah setting (I was in town a week after I read the novel and had fun picking out the places she mentioned) and also in showing how Sadie is changing as her work as a private investigator affects her. The mystery is a decent whodunit too. Some of the secondary characters are painted with fairly broad brushstrokes. And I finally know definitively that Sadie is not a Mormon without ever talking about the church (which is what I thought in the early days of the series), since she spends a lot of time with the Mormons in St. George.

I think it's fairly common for authors to have a great idea for a first novel, then string that story out into a series of sequels that get progressively less successful. I'm not sure if these authors rest on their laurels and get lazy, or if they find themselves less inspired as the stories wear on, but I get the sense that they're cashing in on early success. I've read six of the ten culinary mysteries "starring" Sadie Hoffmiller, and Kilpack is not resting on her laurels. Sadie has come into her own as a character over the course of the novels. She has developed and deepened and changed, and her motivations for solving crimes are more mature than they were ten books ago. Her relationship with Pete is also progressing in a satisfactory direction. And I feel that Kilpack has grown more self-assured and confident as a writer through this extended exploration of Sadie. Her writing keeps getting stronger and stronger, and I'm sad that this series is approaching its conclusion.