Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life's Hard Questions

Title: Tiny Buddha, Simple Wisdom for Life's Hard Questions 
Author: Lori Deschene  
ISBN-13: 9781573245067
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Pages: 304

What happened when you crowd source the ultimate questions of life?  You get thousands of answers and eventually create a website ( and write a book.  Deschene stated that she began the @tinybuddha feed because she wanted to teach people to simplify their complex lives, but in the process she learned more than what she was supposedly teaching - how to live in the moment, forgive and love herself, and lead a meaningful life.  She then took all of the wisdom she crowd sourced, did a little background reading and complied a book.

Deschene bares her soul to the reader - talking about her struggles as an adolescent, the disappointments in her life and silly decisions, all the while, trying to be a better version of herself.  Each section is focused on some of the big issues of life like money, love, happiness, meaning and relationships.  She introduces the chapter with her own experiences, what led her to ask the question and some of the actually Twitter replies.  

It is ironic that Deschene pokes fun at the self-help industry as she didn't find much solace in the numerous books she read, yet she provides a book to fuel the industry.  It is a quick read, and one that you can pick up whenever you have a few moments.  Although I didn't learn anything new, it was a good reminder to be intentional in setting and living my priorities rather than letting the minutia of life overwhelm me.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Tut as a Telenovela

Title: The Murder of King Tut:The Plot to Kill the Child King - A Nonfiction Thriller
Author: James Patterson & Martin Dugard
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316034043
Pages: 352

I have loved all things Egypt since I was in elementary school. I read all the school library books, did reports on mummification and the afterlife and as an adult, I've visited Egypt, the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings etc. I was in awe at the King Tut exhibit in the Cairo museum, as I think are most people. The gold death mask gleamed in the bright lights and the smooth, child-like face of the boy-king was haunting.

I was trolling through the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium Digital books and happened to stumble on Patterson's King Tut mystery. Now, I'm not much of a mystery reader, but I recognized his name. This will be good, I thought. Too bad that wasn't true. As fascinated as I am by all things Egypt, I had a tough time making it through this book.

The story takes place in three time periods – Ancient Egypt, early 1900s and Howard Carter's life, and modern times Florida in Patterson's office. Patterson book-ends Tutankhamen and Carter's stories with his own writing and research of their times, which is quite jolting. As for King Tut, he backtracks to grandfather, King Amenhotep III, who, according to Patterson, dreaded installing to the throne the “abomination” of Tut's father, Akhenaten, first known as Amenhotep IV. Akenaten, along with Nefertiti, brought a monotheistic view of religion to the Egyptian pantheon with the worship of Aten and moving the royal center to Akhetaten, at the site known today as Amarna. Patterson contends that there was great in-fighting for the throne, with many considering Akenaten a traitor to Egypt because of his lack of interest in conquest and traditional religious rites. With his death, Tutankhamen was made Pharaoh, which was cemented with his marriage to his half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten. Patterson's portrayal of the royal intrigue rivals any daytime soap-opera, with backstabbing and steamy sex included.

Carter's life is portrayed as one of unfulfilled ambition. His taste for Egypt was instilled by hanging out at the mansion of the wealthy Amherst family, Didlington Hall. Carter hired on to be a sketch artist in Egypt, a trade learned from his father. While there, Carter dreamt of finding the elusive Tut's tomb. Carter's career rose and fell with his ability to secure funding, and the whims of the British/Egyptian diplomacy, but eventually he did find the tomb. A few years after cataloging the find (which took several years), Carter died in 1939 a lonely man in English, attended by few.

Patterson boasts about the amount of research conducted by his partner,Martin Dugard, but there seems to be a lot of speculating and fictionalizing in this book. It is sub-titled “A Non-fiction Thriller” which definitely is a misnomer – it was mostly fiction and decidedly not a thriller. The short, choppy chapters were frustrating and the constant time-change was distracting.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Philosophy Made Simple

Title: Philosophy Made Simple
Author: Robert Hellenga
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0-316-05826-2
Pages: 277

Spoiler Alert – This book does not have a happy ending. I like happy endings. I think there is too much sad news in the world, that when I read a book of my own choosing, I would like it to have a neat, tidy, happy ending. I like to escape from the real world of drought, tornadoes, child pornography, cancer etc. I guess I expected this book to include painful examinations of life, since it does have philosophy in the title, but as I was carried away with the story, it seemed like it was building to a happy resolution, but on the “inauspicious day” of the main character's daughter's wedding – everything fell apart, and I was sad.

This is one of the Off the Shelf Challenge books that I've been meaning to read. Several years ago, when it seemed like I had more “free” time because I was only working one job and going to school full-time, I started listening to undergrad course online. One class that I especially enjoyed was PHI 110: Introduction to Philosophy by Missouri State University on iTunes. It was a nice review of the foundations of philosophy that I was supposed to get as an undergrad, but never did. Around that time, I stumbled on Hellenga's book at the University Bookstore and thought it might show how someone “really” thought about philosophy in everyday life. So, I ordered it from Paperback Swap and it has sat on my shelf since.

I really related to the introduction of the book. Everything had changed for Rudy – his wife died, his three daughters moved away to live their lives, and he was left alone with the dogs in the family house in Chicago. The girls and grandkids would visit, but it was no longer their home. Since my parents are about that same age, it made me think about how they must be feeling with us kids out of the house, living our lives and only visiting briefly. I too am nostalgic about the family memories we created in the house – the Christmases, birthday, confirmations, graduations and other paties but also the little things like letting the rabbits run around the living room while the cat watched uninterested, eating pizza on Sunday nights and watching the Wonderful World of Disney, turning off the lights during a thunderstorm to watch the lightning out the picture window and eventually sharing our home with Grandma during the last years of her life. These memories are a part of me – but are they a part of the house?

Rudy decides to sell the house and become an avocado farmer in Texas. At first the girls are supportive, but as reality sets in - they dread the loss of their family home and seem to be afraid of recognizing that their father is a person in his own right with hopes, regrets and a life. What accompanies Rudy through all the changes is a college textbook Philosophy Made Simple. His wife has been an art history professor and he acquired a lot of her knowledge, but not all of her tastes for art, history and philosophy. With a new space and open time, Rudy begins contemplating the big questions of life – What is beauty? What is happiness? What is the meaning of life? How do I know?

Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) are his touchstones throughout his philosophical meanderings in the midst of living life. He builds a life in Texas, farms avocados, plans and hosts his daughter's Indian wedding, and makes peace with the affair his wife had in Italy a few years before she died of cancer. Along the way, he tries out his philosophical understandings on his Mexican foreman, a Mexican paramour, the author of the textbook (who is a charismatic uncle of his new son-in-law), and a Russian and his artistic elephant Norma Jean that paints and is eventually abandoned to Rudy's care.

One of the interesting conversation in the book was about happiness – not just what it was, but when are we the happiest, or what was our happiest moment. “The pandit was quick to disagree: “Trying to reach happiness by fulfilling your desires is like trying to reach the horizon by running toward it. True happiness is to found not in the fulfillment of desire, but escape from desire.” (p. 212). Rudy counters with the idea “I think people are the happiest when they're standing on the threshold of a new life . . . “ His daughter continues with the illustration of the urn in Keat's poem Ode to a Grecian Urn, “It is not the kiss, but the moment just before the kiss that's the moment of real happiness” (p. 213). As soon as we get what we desire, we begin to desire something else. It is the absence of desire – the contentment of what we have, and being grateful for it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Postmistress

Title: The Postmistress
Author: Sarah Blake
Publisher: Berkley Trade
ISBN: 0425238695
Pages: 384

Over a year ago, NPR's All Things Considered had an interesting feature on Sarah Blake's novel, The Postmistress.  It sounded like an interesting historical fiction book - an intertwining of three women's lives through the mail and radio - the intrusion of modern communication on every day lives.   From the NPR story, I was interested in learning more about Frankie, a female American reporter living on the bombings of London and learning how to be a war correspondent from Edward R. Murrow, one of the few "real" people in this novel.  After recommending it to my mother-in-law, who bought it at a flea market and gave it to me after she finished it, I settled in for what I expected to be a gripping read.  The intertwining of stories was interesting, but the only character I really cared about was Frankie.  However, the chapters alternated between telling the story of Frankie; Iris an uptight, single, emancipated postmaster (mistress in England); and Emma a timid, un-emancipated new wife of a small town doctor. 

The story begins with a modern time Frankie titillating a cocktail party with the story of an undelivered letter. What would be the fate? Not knowing what the letter entailed.  Then the story dissolves back to WWII.  Both Emma and Iris hear Frankie's broadcasts from London.  With Murrow's tutelage, Frankie finds the voices of the streets to help the world hear and feel the war - especially a hesitant America that doesn't want to involve itself in the war "over there".  Frankie brings the names and lives of Londoners trying to survive the constant shelling, waiting, hiding and dying.  Iris, the postmistress of the small coastal town of Franklin, MA, is determined to keep order in the town through her meticulous handling of the mail.  However, the feeling that "something is coming" fills everyone.  Doctor Fitch gets his new wife Emma, an early orphan of the flu pandemic of WWI, and begins to settle into a blissful family life.  However, Frankie's constant stories of the war unsettle Dr. Fitch and his wife, and when a patient dies under his supervision, Dr. Fitch looks for redemption by volunteering as a doctor in London, leaving a pregnant Emma behind.  Like Penelope waiting for Odysseus, Emma writes and waits for him to come home.  Iris becomes involved with a local man who is convinced that the Germans will arrive in U-Boats to invade America.  She does not want her orderly life upset, so she tends to ignore both him and the reports from Europe about the severity of the war.

Frankie is in the thick of it, as she takes shelter with the rest of London underground during the bombs, but find the reality of war is told in the daily things - the suddenly missing traffic cop, the apartment building that is half blown ahead while the other half is in perfect order.  She meets Dr. Fitch one night in the shelter, where they each poke at the other's emotional soft spots.  When Dr. Fitch leaves the shelter, he is hit and killed by a taxi cab.  Frankie takes his last letter to Emma, intending to mail it, but without ID, his body is not identified and no notice is given to Emma about his death.  Her reporter flatmate is concerned with the plight of the Jewish refuges across Europe, and when she is killed, Frankie takes up the cause.  Murrow sends her into the heart of Europe to ride the trains and record the voices of the travelers(which the author admits is historically inaccurate).  What Frankie finds is chaos, death and displacement with very little hope.  She returns with several recordings of people's hopes and fears, but doesn't know what to do with them.  Murrow sends her back to the States to recuperate.

Still having the last letter in her possession, Frankie decides to give it, in person, to Emma.  However, the small town-ness envelopes her and when she realizes the Emma doesn't know her husband is dead, she refuses to hand it over.  At the same time, Iris had been hiding the initial letter from Dr. Fitch's colleagues in London saying he was missing.   When the final notice is given, Emma is surrounded by people who will take care of her, including Iris, Frankie and Otto (an Austrian Jewish man hoping for word from his wife in Europe).  That same night, Iris's lover's nightmare/prediction comes true, as a U-Boat shows up and kills him, yet with early warming, the coast is safe.

I was anticipating a really engrossing read, but I can't see this met my expectations.  The NPR pre-view sounded really good, but it felt more like getting stuck with flat soda at a movie that was so boring I noticed how much my butt went numb.  Since the character of Frankie was supposedly based on Martha Gellhorn, I think I will do some more reading about her!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Title: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Author: Stieg Larsson
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307269997
Pages: 576

I mentioned to a friend the other day that I was reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and she said, "I don't think I'm going to read those books. I heard that they are violent crime books that lean toward pornography." I hate to admit it, but that description is fairly accurate. This is the third book in the series of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (I also have to admit that I mistakenly picked up and read book 3 before book 2. Oops!) I'm generally not a crime book type person, though I did enjoy several V. I. Warshawski novels, mostly because of the Kathleen Turner movie of the same name. However, "everyone" was reading the Girl with Tattoo series a few years ago, my father-in-law gave me the books, and then the American movie came out. BTW - glad I read the book before the movie - like is often the case, the book was better than the movie, but the movie was good if you hadn't read the book (according to my husband).

The title is very appropriate for the book, which I especially love! The metaphor of Salander stirring up the hornets in the secret government conspiracy is absolutely spot on. The story begins with Salander being carted off to the hospital after being shot in the head. Blomkvist "rescued" her from almost certain death, but then has to deal with backwoods cops who think he had something to do with not only Salander's injuries, but the murders and assaults of several other people. Disentangling the 30 year conspiracy and clearing Salander's name becomes Blomkvist's mission. It begins with Salander's father, as ex-Russian spy who defected to Sweden and concealed for his valuable information - even though he abused Salander's mother mercilessly. As a teenager, Salander took revenge by throwing a Molotov cocktail, but rather than killing him, it resulted in Salander being committed to a mental institution and abused by a twisted psychiatrist, which was alluded to in the first book. Since the government didn't want people looking into the incident, "The Section" continued to hide and cover-up the unpleasantness. I now realize that there was a whole lot of stuff that happened in book 2 that I missed, like the murders of some of Blomkvist and Salander's allies, which led to Salander tracking down her demonic father and half-brother, which resulted it her current situation of a bullet in her head.

While Salander is operated on and recovering in the hospital, the conspiracy begins to unravel. Salander's father is murdered by The Section to prevent further confessions, but this leads to more people suspecting illegal and unconstitutional dealings deep within the government. Blomkvist continues to get help from his part-time lover Berger (editor of his magazine) who transfers to a rival newspaper. She is involved in petty office politics and a stalker/harasser, which had no bearing on the central plot, other than to make Berger edgy. Blomkvist makes a deal with another secret group within the government to investigate The Section, and through this, finds several more allies - including a new lover, a fitness fanatic security guard.

One of the most interesting character, which isn't developed fully, is Blomkvist's lawyer sister, Giannini, who agrees to represent Salander, even though Giannini's specialty is civil cases. However, it turns out that Giannini's background in psychology is useful, as is her background in abuse cases.

Even though Blomkvist and Salander don't meet again until the last few chapters, they have an ongoing conversation via chat. Even though Salander is under hospital arrest without visitor, Blomkvist manages to smuggle her a PalmPilot (Hee-hee, modern readers would not have a clue what this is - but I had one!) and she "taps" out to her hacking group for help in the investigation.

Having read the first book, I realized that Larsson spends a long time setting up his stories. To me, it was like watching the show Unchain Reaction based on Rube Goldberg's machines. In the show, the first 25 minutes is all about the concept, design and sorting out the problems and the finale lasts all of 2 minutes. In Larsson's book, the set-up takes 3/4 of the book, but once I was that invested in it, it felt like hitting the top of the hill on a roller-coaster - I just held up my hands and screamed!

Returning to my friend's comment about the violence and the prom - yes, it was pronounced. There are graphic descriptions of the murders, abuse (physical and sexual), and various altercations. As horrible as this all is, it makes Salander seem all that more amazing - to have survived and thrived under conditions that took away her freedom, rights and dignity. I can't say I would recommend this book to everyone - even though it was an the best seller list and such, I think it would appeal to a particular group of readers, unfortunately none that I know, so this book is going to The Little Free Library!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hunger Games - The Series - Better Late Than Never

Title: The Hunger Games - Catching Fire - Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 374, 391, 390

    Since the movie has been out, I'm not going to go into detail about the plot.  Even if you haven't seen the movie, I'm sure you know it.  In some future world, after a great civil war, the government reminds the people each year of the death and destruction of the revolution through The Hunger Games.  A boy and girl from each of the 12 districts are chosen to fight to the death in the arena and televised to all.  The main character, Katniss, takes her sister's place in the Games and incites a new revolution through her refusal to play the Game as the government intended.  As a coming of age story (across all 3 books), it includes a love triangle and search for identity, while she becomes both the most hated and loved icon in this civilization.
     Reading the series, I was transported back to my own adolescent time of struggle, persecution, wonderment, and discovery.  I read this book with the purpose of being entertained, not enlightened, and enjoyed the ride immensely.  As many others have detailed, there are some very gruesome deaths and the idea of kids killing each other is quite horrifying, but the fictional arena and competition isn't much different from Survivor, Amazing Race, and the multitude of other reality shows.  What will it take before we begin to celebrate the gladiators of modern times?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Song I Knew By Heart - A Contempory Ruth

Title: A Song I Knew By Heart
Author: Bret Lott
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN-10: 0345437756
Pages: 336

A contemporary take on the story of Ruth, this version is told by Naomi. It begins with the funeral of Ruth's husband, who was Naomi's son. Already a widow, Naomi had been living with her son and wife, but then she felt the call to go home – which means South Carolina. To her surprise, Ruth decides to move with her because “it isn't that she didn't have anything, but she had Naomi”. Both women continue to deal with the pain of widowhood, but Naomi is also feeling guilty for a one-night stand with her husband's business partner, now dying of cancer, who was the reason her son was driving on treacherous roads on the night he crashed. As the traditional story goes, Ruth finds love – a kind man who also loves Ruth's family and Naomi finds forgiveness and releases her bitterness. If you are into Nicholas Sparks novels, you might like this one, but I found myself skimming rather than reading. I think the original story has a lot more power and beauty.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Names and Naming in YA Lit - Nice tidbits

Title: Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature
Authors: Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don L.F. Nilsen
Publisher:Scarecrow Press
ISBN: 0-8108-5808-0
Pages: 165

This is one off my shelf. I bought it awhile ago but haven't gotten to it. I've often had students ask me about the intentionality of authors when they name characters. When I've attended readings by authors, that question is often asked also. Some authors don't name their characters until well into the writing and as the personality develops. Other authors state that the character just existed, and the author just wrote down the story. I was finally prompted to pick up this book because of finishing The Hunger Games and I was impressed with the author's ability to use names to foreshadow and extend the depth of characterization. Katniss – an edible water plant that is known for arrow shaped leaves. Rhue – or rue, to regret or be sorrowful. Peeta – close to pita bread, which reminds the reader of his origin. And, although Haymitch doesn't seem to have an origin, I kept thinking “hayseed” which is slang for a bumpkin or a yokel, which in the beginning, he certainly seems to be. There is a nice summary of names in Hunger Games here: Name Meanings.

The Nilsens had the honor of interviewing Robert Cormier many years ago about his use of names in novel such as The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, and After the First Death. This interview turned into an article, which turned into a book. Although the book isn't hefty, there's a lot of interesting tidbits, which are even more interesting for anyone who as read the authors the Nilsens highlight such as: M.E. Kerr, Gary Paulsen, Louis Sachar, Francesca Lia Block, Karen Cushman, Gary Soto, Nancy Farmer, Orson Scott Card, and Ursula K. LeGuin. In many cases, the Nilsens have communicated with the authors directly, plus they link historical naming trends and facts to how the authors selected names.

There is a preview of the book here: Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature 

Although a bit old, here is Alleen Nilsen's YA BookPage

Monday, March 5, 2012

The book couldn't vanish fast enough - Vanishing Acts

Title: Vanishing Acts
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Pages: 418

Maybe it was the context of reading this book – sitting in a hospital waiting for my dad to finish non-emergency surgery, but I groaned and complained all the way through this book. At first I found the main character, Delia, to be intriguing and heroic. But, then her reaction to her father's arrest and her constant whining, yet enabling of her fiancee's drinking and the love triangle got tedious and I couldn't wait for the book to end. Though, I have to admit, I was hooked on the how the fiancee was going to finagle the trial to get the father acquitted – but I could have watched any episode of Law & Order and had more fun.

Each chapter is told by a different main character in the book. Delia was “abducted” by her own father as a small child and they started a new life together, with Delia believing her mother was dead. As an adult, with a daughter of her own, Delia works with her dog as a search and rescue team to find missing children. (Yes, the irony couldn't be more obvious). With multiple successful cases, her newspaper clippings leads to the uncovering of her own abduction, for which her father is arrested. Come to find out, her mother was an alcoholic ( Delia becomes involved with one) and Delia was possibly molested by her mother's boyfriend, which led Delia's father to taking her and starting a new life. Within this, there is an up-close and personal look of the father's life in prison (too harsh and too graphic for me), the struggle of the love triangle of Delia, her fiancee, and their best friend/reporter, and Delia rediscovering who she really is.

I enjoyed My Sister's Keeper, and had hopes for this one but found the storyline too predictable and the characters too flat.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ruined by Reading - In a good way!

Title: Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books
Author: Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Publisher: Beacon Press
ISBN: 0-8070-7083-1
Pages: 119

I haven't savored a book in a long time; not since last summer when I read Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn. You know what I mean by savoring – the kind of swirling of words around your tongue and mind just because you like the way they sound and what they mean. Like a great wine, a decadent dessert or a creamy coconut curry, you want to ponder the taste before you swallow and go on to the next page. Books to savor are the ones that I write in, comment on, and sticky-note. I return to them like a child who requests the same birthday dinner, because that is her favorite and there is comfort and inspiration in the familiar (tacos and Westhaven cake). This is a savory book!

It is part memoir, part manifesto for readers, and part book-autobiography. Like Sue Bender's  Plain and Simple (another very savory book) there are no chapter titles or section headings, just meanderings through the life of a reader/writer who was drawn to books at an early age, which almost determined her life as a connoisseur of books (not texts, according to Schwartz, as that is too business-like “as if family treasures were being relegated to the distant airless safe-deposit box. Who ever curled up happily to spend the evening with a text?” pg. 108).

Here are some of my favorites, which I'm providing, without commentary, so you can swirl them around on your own tongue and mind.

"Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.”(pg. 3)

"In the midst of such confusion, perhaps at about eight or nine years old, I discovered a book that told me more about who I was than anything before or since. That was A Little Princess....and I read it over and over, as children will do with special books. I still return to it every few years; it draws me, the way a certain piece of music or a certain landscape draws people back every so often. Each time it bestows on me, yet again, some crucial knowledge that is all too easy to lose, that the world seems bent on making us forget." (p.47)

"At bottom, of course, the issue in choosing what to read (and what to do and how to live) is the old conflict, dating from the Garden, of pleasure versus duty: what we want to read versus what we think we ought to read, or think we ought to want to read." (pg. 96)

"Isaiah Berlin, in The Hedgehog and the Fox quotes the Greek poet Archilocus, "the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing" meaning that hedgehogs connect everything to one all-embracing principle, while foxes, "entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal . . . seizing on a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves." (p. 102) (Here is a quick summary of Berlin's article -  Isaiah Berlin's Hedgehogs and Foxes.)

"For here is the essence of true reading: learning to live in another's voice, to speak another's language. Reading is escape—why not admit it?—but not from job or troubles. It is escape from the boundaries of our own voice and idioms." (pp. 111-112)

“We gaze at marks on a page, put there by a machine, recognizable as words. Each one denotes something discrete but we do not, cannot, read them as such, except in the first days of learning how. They offer themselves in groups with wholes greater than the sum of the parts. As in human groups, the individual members behave in relation to their companions: each word presents aspects of itself suited to the ambiance, amplifying some connotations and muting others. Their respective rankings must change too. A word will be key here, play a supporting role there, and in each successive appearance will be weightier and more richly nuanced. All this we register faster than the speed of the light illuminating our page, hardly aware of noting the valence, assessing the role and position, of each word as it flies by, granting it its place in the assemblage.

Still more remarkable, these inky marks generate emotion, even give the illusion of containing emotion, while it is we who contribute the emotion. Yet it was there in advance too, in the writer. What a feat of transmission: the emotive powers of the book, with no local habitation, pass safely from writer to reader, unmangled by printing and binding and shipping, renewed and available whenever we open it.

Semioticists have unraveled these miracles in detail; even to call them miracles sounds ingenuous. After all, most aesthetic experience rests on transference through an inanimate medium. What is painting but oils smeared on canvas, or chamber music but bows drawn across strings? Reading is not the same, though. There is no sense organ that words fit like a glove, as pictures fit the eye or music the ear. Intricate neural transactions take place before words find their elusive target, before the wraith we call the "writer" finds the reader.

For dwelling in the book, however remote in time and space, is this imaginary being, this missing link whom no reader has ever glimpsed. Yes, from the visits of Dickens and Wilde to today’s performances, readers flock to see writers, to meet the person who has given them pleasure; perhaps the right of existence, but never in the flesh of the person bearing her name.

Since the book, too, doesn’t possess an independent or sensory existence but must teased, opened and fathomed, we enjoy the heady power of being necessary to its life. The real book is the prince hidden inside the frog. We open it, and our eyes give the kiss of regeneration. This power is what intoxicates. The thinking of others does not interfere with our own free thinking, but meshes with it in a splendid rite of recovery.

If we make books happen, they make us happen as well. Reading teaches receptivity, Keats’s negative capability. It teaches us to receive, in stillness and attentiveness, a voice possessed temporarily, on loan. The speaker lends herself and we do the same, a mutual and ephemeral exchange, like love. Yet unlike love, reading is a pure activity. It will gain us nothing but enchantment of the heart. And as we grow accustomed to receiving books in stillness and attentiveness, so we can grow to receive the world, also possessed temporarily, also enchanting the heart.

Reading gives a context for experience, a myriad of contexts. Not that we will know any better what to do when the time comes, but we will not be taken unawares or in a void. When we are old and have everything stripped away, and grasp the vanity of having had it and of grieving for its loss, yet remain bound in both vanity and grief, hugging the whole rotten package to our hearts in an antic, fierce embrace, we may think, King Lear: this has happened before, I am not in uncharted territory, now is my turn in the great procession." (pp. 116-117)

Now that you've gotten a taste for yourself – go get your own copy so you too can sticky-note, underline and comment.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Red Queen - The Cousin's War Rehashed

Title: The Red Queen: A Novel (The Cousins' War)
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Touchstone
Pages: 400

Having read The White Queen, it seemed only proper to read the sequel, The Red Queen. However, it seemed like a cross between Twilight and Desperate Housewives. The main character, Margaret, was whiny and unlikable, set in the midst of a power struggle in which the females used whatever assets they had to get their way. In contrast to The White Queen, she was pious and nun-like, hoping people would see her as the next Joan of Arc (which didn't end well) in contrast to the "witch" of the white queen. Since it covered much of the same events as the other book, just from a different view point, it was quite familiar. Margaret didn't hang out in London, which was a huge draw for me in the first book so it lost my interest early on, but I soldiered through, hoping I would get hooked, but I never really did. It ended, as expected, with King Henry taking the throne.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses - Future Regrets vs. In the Present

Title: The Hundred Secret Senses
Author: Amy Tan
Publisher: Random House - Ivy
ISBN: 978-0804111096
Pages: 399

When I was teaching high school English a few years ago, I had the opportunity to introduce my students to The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, mostly because we had copies of it at the school and it was on the AP English list. Since my students tended to straddle multiple cultures, the struggles between the daughters and the mothers seems an appropriate topic. But, for students, it can be a difficult book to understand - there are vignettes, flashbacks, and a constant change in narrator voice. However, most students enjoyed it, as did I. Amy Tan was all the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s and received critical and popular acclaim for her first book The Joy Luck Club, but it seems that her work has been eclipse now by other authors of color in the United States. However, it was at that time that I picked up The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) because "everyone" was reading it. But, it sat on my shelf through two moves because I found Tan's work to be intense in its exploration of relationships and the disintegration of them.

LitLovers has some brief discussion questions for the book.
Robert Fletcher provides some study aids or background to the events.

The Hundred Secret Senses is also an exploration of relationships - between two half-sisters and a marriage. Libby, born in America to a Chinese man and American woman, finds she has a Chinese sister who was left behind when her father immigrated to the US. As a young child, when her father dies, her mother promises to find and raise the child. Kwan, 10 years older than Libby, is boisterous and strange in Libby's eyes - a person who says and talks to "yin people", the dead. Sharing a bedroom growing up, Libby is nearly raised by Kwan and is acculturated into the word of Chinese mysticism. Eventually, Libby "tattles" on Kwan and she is sent away to receive shock treatments and returns with frizzy hair but still seeing the yin people.

As Libby goes off to college, she attempts to separate herself from her sister, who continues to interpose herself in Libby's life. When Libby brings home her boyfriend, who can't release the memory of his dead girlfriend, Libby enlists Kwan's help in speaking for the dead girlfriend to help Simon move on with his life. Eventually, Libby and Simon marry, but the specter of the dead girlfriend hangs over Libby and eventually pushes them apart.

However, Kwan persuades Libby, as a photographer, and Simon, a writer, to accompany her to visit her mother and home village in China. Kwan is convinced Libby and Simon are destined to be together. There is a secondary story told throughout the book of Kwan's past life in which she befriended Miss Banner, a missionary, who died waiting to be reunited with her beloved. Kwan believes Libby and Simon are these two people and need to be reconciled - but by using their hundred secret senses, to recognize who they really are.

I was intrigued by the introduction to the book - the blunt description of how Libby struggled with dealing with her "weird" sister who was unconditionally devoted. I think we all have people in our lives who insert themselves in ways we don't appreciate a the time, but over time, we realize who much we needed their "interference." Unfortunately, we don't often get the opportunity to let them know how much their influence impacted us. Tan also documents the fizzling and re-kindling of a romance. The ghost in Simon and Libby's marriage is more of a ghost to Libby, than to Simon. With the petty demands of life - getting a house, career etc - the larger dreams and intimate talks tend to be pushed aside. They no longer "saw" each other for who they really were and stopped growing and changing together. When they went to China, they encountered new ideas, but also re-discovered themselves and in returned, their interest in each other. The typical joke of married life is that the longer you are together, the more you look and act alike. I think there needs to be a continued balance of predictability and novelty. There is comfort in knowing who your spouse will react to situations and things but there is also excitement in discovering new aspects of your spouse. Are people destined to be together? Do we really have "soul mates" that complete us? In Tan's world, yes, and the future regrets prevent one from moving on. In my world, I prefer to live in the present and appreciate what I have in front of me, rather than pining for the past or regretting the future.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Revolter and the Princess - The Romanov Bride

Title: The Romanov Bride
Author: Robert Alexander
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0-670-01881-9
Pages: 306

Most people have heard of Anastasia, and her famous parents Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, but the Romanov family was large and Alexandra's sister, Elizabeth, had married into the Imperial Family and suffered a similar fate as the rest of the family. This book is Elizabeth's story from just before the first Russian Revolution to the sweep of the Revolution of 1917. However, this story has a twist. It is told through two different view points – Elizabeth and her executioner, Pavel.

Born into a life a privilege and royalty, as the granddaughter of Queen Victioria, in the house German house of Hesse, Elizabeth's life tended to be scheduled and controlled first by her father and then by her husband. She married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, the uncle of Tsar Nicholas, and was surrounded by the wealth and grandeur of Russian Imperialism. However, through the death of Sergie, she was able to forge a life of her own, by selling her properties and jewels to found the Mary and Martha convent with a mission to minister to the poor and sick. As abbess, her faith and trust in her religious calling allowed her to overcome the distrust of the common people, the envy of detractors, and the political maneuvering of the revolution. Even her execution, ordered by Lenin, was carried out in secret – as a remaining member of the Romanov family, and beloved by her community, she was a threat.

Pavel's story begins in the country-side as a peasant, doomed to a hard and short life. With hopes of better jobs, he takes his new bride to the city. However, poor and uneducated, they has few opportunities, and when a local priest begins a petition to see the Tsar, Pavel and his wife are caught up in the early stages of the Russian Revolution. When the peaceful peasants march on the Tsar's palace, the soldiers gun them down, including Pavel's wife. Thus begins his journey of revenge and life of killing. However, his various encounters with Elizabeth, as both the Grand Duchess and a nun, makes him regret some of his actions. In the end, Pavel himself is executed by the very revolutionaries he supported, but found comfort in forgiveness given by both Elizabeth and a follow condemned priest.

At first, I struggled to get into the book. The switch between narrators was distracting, and at first, I couldn't identify with either person. Pavel was to pig-headed and Elizabeth to vain. However, both characters become more fully developed and I found myself really caring about them. Elizabeth becomes a Mother Theresa, and Pavel becomes the thief on the cross. Having taught the Russian Revolution for high school history, through the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) from University of Cambridge, I had a pretty good handle on the facts of the revolution, but this book really humanized it for me.
The author provides a website for the book, including a book guide and multimedia of his book tour and documentary and photos of Elizabeth. After reading, I wondered how much was fiction or real, and did a little Internet trolling myself. The author used public documents, such as letters and diaries, to create the story of Elizabeth.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Soap Opera in London - The White Queen

Title: The White Queen
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4165-6369-3
Pages: 415

Off the Shelf Challenge book.  This book has been on my shelf for over a year.  My mother-in-law read through Philippa Gregory’s The Cousin’s War series which is based on the historical events of England’s War of the Roses.  It was a time of political intrigue, as the two royal houses, Lancaster (Red Rose) and York (White Rose) connived and murdered to gain control of the monarchy.  The White Queen is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, who, as a widow, became Queen consort of England as the spouse of King Edward IV.  In this story, her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, was a shrewd maneuverer with potential supernatural powers, who engineered her daughter’s assent to royal status.   The Tower of London, as a residence, and Westminster Abbey are central locations in the story.  As a historical fiction, much of the general facts of the story are based in documents, with the detailed fictionalized.  I enjoyed the courtship and early days of Elizabeth and Edward, but got lost in the soap opera of the political maneuvering. Elizabeth was also ambitious and protective of her own family.   The mystery of the princes in the Tower of London is illustrated toward the end.  Having been to London several times, it was interesting imagining the scenes as Gregory described them.

Friday, January 13, 2012

2 in 1 - The Devil in the White City

Title: Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Crown
ISBN: 0-965-71134-X
Pages: 447

Many years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Erik Larson about his book The Devil in the White City.  Being a history buff, I thought it would be very interesting, but being overseas, I didn't pick up the book and had forgotten about it.  I spent the past week at my in-laws and didn't bring enough books of my own to read.  My father-in-law had bought the book after hearing the same broadcast and my mother-in-law loved the book.  She said, "I wish I had highlighted things throughout the book.  There is so much to learn and check on. You should read it!" And so I did, with much of the same feeling - it was a history lesson wrapped up in an episode of CSI.

The Devil in the White City is actually two stories in one book - both stories take place within blocks of each other in Chicago during the late 1800s.  One character is Daniel Burnham, a leading architect of the Chicago Columbian Exposition (World's Fair)in 1893, and the other is Herman Mudgett, aka, H.H. Holmes (among numerous other alias), a suave, clever serial killer who murdered between 25 and 200 people throughout the U.S. but was especially productive during the World's Fair when hundreds of young, single women came to Chicago in the hopes of an emancipated life.

Paris has just closed their World's Fair with the wonder of the Eiffel Tower fresh in everyone's mind.  The U.S. wanted to make a statement to the Old World, that the New World could be just as dazzling and innovative.  Several cities vied for the honor (and the work) of the fair, with Chicago being the least compared to the likes of New York and DC.  Chicago has just begun to recover from the Great Fire and still had the reputation of being a Stockyard city, with low-class culture.  The architectural firm of Burnham & Root was selected to build the Exposition, which would be a city in itself.  With multiple delays of money, committees, and bureaucracy, it took almost a year to decide on a location, which left less than 2 years to actually build.   Architects from around the country proposed grand Neo-Classical style buildings, but struggled to build in the swampy land of Jackson Park.  Both Burnham & Root dedicated their lives to the management of this endeavor, which eventually killed Root.  Many innovations come from the building of the White City, named because all the buildings were white washed and illuminated with electricity at night.  We use AC in our houses because Westinghouse won the bid to wired the Exposition and we have Ferris wheels because the Exposition needed something to “out Eiffel the Eiffel Tower”.  The tremendous amount of work and organization that went into the development of the Exposition is absolutely amazing, and Larson does a great job of interweaving the facts into a compelling drama.

At the same time at the rise of the Exposition, a con-man/serial killer came to town.  He adopted the name Holmes in honor of the new books with Sherlock Holmes.  With some medical training and a charming personality, he created a small empire of a pharmacy, restaurant, shops, and apartments, all at little to no cost as he invented multiple aliases and swindles to pay for it.  At the same time, he had several wives and families, but his greatest creation was his very own amusement park of gas chambers, dissection rooms, and crematorium.  He charmed and killed multiple people, just for the satisfaction of controlling them.  He was eventually caught through the work of a private investigator who was attempting to track down some missing children.  The author used Holmes’s own memoir along with many newspaper articles, biographies, and eye-witness accounts to piece together Holmes’s life.  With the World’s Fair in town, Holmes really had an ideal situation to wreak his havoc.

With all the detail the author provides, this is not a fast or beach read – but it was absolutely fascinating.  There were several parts I read aloud to whoever would listen because the revelations of history were astounding.  There is so much I take for granted in life that has its roots in the creation of this fair.   At the same time, the recognition of the tremendous feat of building a World’s Fair – without computers, automobiles and infant electricity – is admirable.

A few remnants of the fair can still be seen in Chicago, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry.  Much of the original collection of the Field Museum also came from the World’s Fair.  The Norwegian Pavilion was moved to Wisconsin and can be toured at Little Norway.  Some believe the White City was the inspiration for Baum’s City of Oz and Disney’s theme park.

There are rumors that the book will be made into a movie, starring DiCaprio.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Rosemary Remembered: Good fluff mystery

Title: Rosemary Remembered
Author: Susan Wittig Albert 
Pages:  304

Ah, the pleasure of a "fluff" book. For most people, a fluff book would probably mean a romance. But, for me, it is a predictable, stock character book, and most recently, a mystery series. In my local newspaper, once a week, people on the street are asked what they are currently reading. Last spring, someone mentioned a private eye series that was named after herbs. I was intrigued and looked it up. The China Bayles Mysteries are set in Texas. China was a hard-nosed lawyer in the big city who burned out and chucked it all to own and operate an herbal shop in a small-town, which seems to have a lot of odd characters and an unusual amount of murders. Through the course of the series, she makes friends, finds a husband and becomes more settled and happy in her life.

I requested the first five books from PaperBack Swap and Rosemary Remembered is the fourth in the series. It begins with a summary of her current life - leaving the big city, becoming a shopkeeper for herbs, falling for an ex-cop now professor, moving in with him and his teenage son, and the various murders she has already solved. She struggles with giving up her independence and single life, while being the non-stepmom for a teenager, especially since her own childhood was less than desirable. It is mid-summer in Texas, which means it is hot and miserable. China is hosting an herbal conference and goes to pick up a truck from an acquaintance to move some tables for the workshops. However, there is a dead body in the truck, shot through the head. So begins the investigation. To complicate things, an former convict, with a vendetta against the ex-cop is on the lose and looking to settle a score.

The ex-cop is hired by the dead woman’s lover's boyfriend to find the boyfriend. Left alone with the teenage son, China attempts to tread the fine line between friend and mother, while following the understandably overpretective instructions of his father. Obviously, being a mystery, China is drawn into following various leads and finds that the dead woman had a very hidden life. She was a tax accountant, but also had a lot of enemies, from an ex-husband who was accused of domestic abuse, to the angry family of a former client who committed suicide, supposedly because of her influence.

For a lawyer/investigator (though not officially), China blabs a lot to all her friends, who unwittingly help her solve the mystery. Her New Age friend, Ruby, invites a channeler, who gives Yoda-like advise that leads and predicts some of the outcome. The campus cop director Smart Cookie, moves in to help protect China and the son from the ex-convict (and eventual fugitive) plus investigate the murder. All the while, China is relaying information between the local cops, the boyfriend's brother, and the ex-cop, who is in Mexico, looking for the boyfriend.


Like most mysteries, the story in wrapped up neatly in the last 20 pages. The dead woman found out that the brother was embezzling from the jointly owned company of the brother and boyfriend. When it was clear the dead woman and boyfriend would blow the whistle, the brother shot the woman, then the boyfriend and hid him in the freezer, then the garden.

At the same time, the son disappeared - though he was actually taken to a sci-fi convention by his crazy mother. China, through both natural and super-natural means, finds the son and the crazy mother, who had been suing for custody, is carted off. During this process, China realizes that she actually loves the son and wouldn't mind being his step-mother, though she still feels that she doesn't have the skills needed. However, to cement the bond between her and the son, the convict shows up to threaten them and China peppersprays him, to the great admiration of the son. So - all's well that end's well.

Since I'm sitting in a hospital waiting room, this was the perfect read. Not to taxing and easy to pick up and put down. The characters are familar - even if you haven't read the previous books. China is both admirable and a bit whiny, but in the tradition of V. I. Warshawski - independent, yet finding herself drawn into intimate relationships. Some of the references and dialogue are a bit dated and the story a bit formulaic, but for a beach read or waiting room read that's exactly what I want!

Monday, January 9, 2012

A little romance, culture, social awareness & happy ending: Chasing China

Title: Chasing China: A Daughter's Quest for the Truth
Author: Kay Bratt
Publisher: Kindle Edition
Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1466478578  (My first e-book!)
Pages: 346

Mia is clearly adopted. Growing up in a small-town, very white, her Chinese features prompted thoughtless people to ask, “What is she?” to which her mother would reply, “Human, of course!” As Mia enters adulthood, she feels the need to find out about her roots, not because her childhood was bad, or she doubts the love of her adopted family. Fortunately, her adopted family is highly supportive and she sets off, alone, to visit China for the summer and research the orphanage, and hopeful, her birth family.

Having procured a tour of the orphanage she was adopted from, Mia is treated with great honor as the director shows her the facility. However, Mia is appalled at the treatment of the children, which, although humane, lacks warmth and encouragement. Because she was adopted to an American family, it is assumed Mia is now rich with maids and butlers, extravagant clothing, and extensive education. Although not rich by American standards, Mia ponders the twist of fate that allowed her to have a loving, supportive childhood in the face of the institutional treatment of the children in the orphanage. She is particularly drawn to a quiet and obviously ill little girl. The visit seems to go well, until Mia is allowed to question her foster mother. There is some mystery to Mia's birth or adoption that no one will speak of. The visit ends abruptly.

While waiting for another meeting, and more information, from the director, a series of happy coincidences carries Mia through the struggles of being a single, female, foreigner in an unknown land. First, she meets a Chinese-American man, Jax, who is interning with a five star hotel chain. He takes an instant liking to her because of her independent and confident ways. Through him, Mia is introduced to the expatriate women's group, who volunteer at the orphanage and try to raise money and support for the ill children. Mia is brought into the bureaucracy of trying to secure treatment for the sick little girl in the orphanage. At the same time, Mia strikes up a friendship with one of the young caretakers, TingTing, who leads her to her foster mother. When official-looking security people raid Mia's hotel room, she takes shelter with TingTing and her foster mother. Through this, she learns more about her adoption and sets out to locate the town she was born into.

It turns out that her family were poor farmers who lived in caves in the country-side. Although poor, they were happy and joyful with their children, but could not afford the tax and fine for having multiple children. So, Mia was taken from them. Her parents attempted to raise the money to get her back, but being uncommonly beautiful, she was quickly adopted by Americans, which is more profitable than the tax/fine. One of the dark secrets of China, according to the book, is that children are forcibly taken from parents and put into the adoption pool. In other words, they are stolen children. Mia, accompanied by Jax and TingTing, meets her birth father, and it turns out TingTing is her sister. In a fairy-tale ending, Jax returns to the States to work at his family's business, TingTing moves in with Mia's adopted family, and her birth father dies a happy man.

Having lived overseas for awhile, I found Mia's reaction to the orphanage and daily life in China to be ironically funny. She is both appalled and fascinated with what she sees and attempts to reconcile her American mentality to a new world view. This, I believe, is a typical struggle of expats. However, although there were moments of tension, her search for her roots was filled with to many easy coincidences, not the least of which was the ease of living in China as a single, female foreigner. Throughout the book I was wondering who the target audience was for the writing, as there was a strange obsession with lip-gloss and mascara, and a teeny-bopper description of the development of the romance between Mia and Jax. Although not necessarily marketed as a young adult book, the style is less sophisticated then the typical adult read. However, it was a fun read with a happy ending, and I think we all need a little Disney in our lives to counteract the cynicism that is prevalent.

The author, a white American woman, spent time working in Chinese orphanages and based some of the characters on the people she met. She continues to work with adoptees in dealing with the unique issues of adoption, and especially those from Asia. Her personal website has more details on her books and work.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012 Tea & Books Reading Challenge - 2 Books - Chamomile Lover

This is a challenge made for me - I love tea and I love books!  As much as I would like to be an Earl Grey lover (as that is my favorite tea) I don't think I'll be able to read 6 large 700+ page books this year.  But, I do have a few on my shelf that I would like to read, so I will be a Chamomile Lover at 2 books, they are:

Tea & Books Reading Challenge

This challenge was inspired by C.S. Lewis' famous words, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."

You better settle in with a large cup of tea, because in this challenge you will only get to read ... wait for it ... books with more than 700 pages. I'm deadly serious. We all have a few of those tomes on our shelves and somehow the amount of pages often prevents us from finally picking them up. You may choose novels only, no short story collections or anthologies, and in case you're trying a short cut by picking large print editions of a book, well I'm sorry, those do not qualify for this challenge! Let's battle those tomes that have been collecting dust on our shelves, so no re-reads, please!

2 Books - Chamomile Lover

4 Books - Berry Tea Devotee

6 Books - Earl Grey Aficionado (this will be the one I'll try)

8 or more Books - Sencha Connoisseur

This is the sponsoring blog, so click on this to sign up!
The Book Garden


Anyone may join. Just leave a comment on the Book Garden blog with the following info:
Name / Blog (if you have one) / Chosen Level

The Book Garden wil comprise a list with everyone and add it to this page!

Updates on the challenge will be posted on a regular basis and you may then comment with your own progress.

The challenge will take place between January 1st and December 31st 2012.

You can join any time between now and early 2012.

You have to pick a level, though you may "upgrade" to the next one at any time. In this case just drop me a line, so I can change your previous level.

You don't need to list your books ahead of time, though I won't object if you do. I'm definitely curious about your book choices for these challenges.

The books you choose may crossover into other challenges.

Both physical and eBooks are allowed, though personally I feel that especially the Tea & Books Reading Challenge is more fun with real books.

Reviews of the books read are not mandatory.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2012 Off The Shelf Book Challenge - Make A Dint - 30 books

Bookish Ardour is hosting their second annual Off the Shelf challenge in 2012.

As I mentioned in my first post, I've collected a lot of books over the last 4 years and have been ignoring them. So, I challenge myself to Make A Dint – and choose 30 books to read this year that are already on my shelves.

What It’s All About

Do you love books? Do you love them so much your to be read list seems to keep growing, and growing, and growing? Is space on your bookshelf taken up with unread books? Is your eBook library burgeoning with unread stories? We’ve been there at BA and we still are!

This challenge is to read those books you own a copy of, print, digital, and audio, you have been meaning to read, but never gotten to. If you don’t own enough books for the challenge you can read your TBR list instead. And no, you do not need to get rid of your books afterwards, that’s completely your choice, this challenge is only to read them.

The Deets

  • The Main Rule: Do not include books acquired during 2012, it defeats the purpose, read those books from before 2012 started!
  • Running Dates: 1st of January – 31st of December 2012
  • When Can I Sign Up: All the way up to the last two weeks of December 2012!
  • Crossover Genres: Anything! The name of the game is to turn those unread books into read ones.
  • Mr Linky: To use the Mr Linky you’ll need to click on the graphic then enter your link. These will be updated and posted into this page every couple of weeks or so.
  • Further Details: Crossover challenges are fine, you can change levels at any time, this is eBook, short story, and graphic novel friendly, and you don’t need a blog to join in (read further for details).

The How To

  1. Choose Your Level:These are listed further down and you can change levels at any time.
  2. Grab The Badge: Place it somewhere on your blog, profile, or in a signature where possible and link back (main page or this page, it’s up to you).
  3. Sign Up Post: Create a post on your blog, in a group, or on a forum (only if allowed) to let others see what you’re aiming for (a predefined list of books is optional).
  4. Link Up: Grab the direct URL to your sign up post, not your blog, click the Mr Linky graphic and enter your link!
  5. Blogless? Don’t worry, you can sign up with your social network profile (YouTube, Twitter, GoodReads, Shelfari included), just make sure you link to your review list, shelf, tweet, or category. If you don’t have any of those feel free to comment!


  1. Your Reviews: Reviewing is optional! But if you do review we’d love for you to share them by submitting them on the Review Page (including social networks).
  2. Finished: When you’re done it’s completion post time and you can share these on the Completion Post page!

Challenge Levels

  1. Tempted– Choose 5 books to read
  2. Trying – Choose 15 books to read
  3. Making A Dint – Choose 30 books to read
  4. On A Roll – Choose 50 books to read
  5. Flying Off – Choose 75 books to read
  6. Hoarder – Choose between 76-135 books to read
  7. Buried – Choose between 136-200 books to read

Extra Challenges

If you feel like that extra kick to your reading challenges here’s a couple you can choose from.
  • World:Choose a country as your theme, reading only books from that country or where it’s the setting. For how high you go you can choose more than one country;
    • Level Tempted and Trying: Choose one country
    • Level Making a Dint and On A Roll: Choose two countries
    • Level Flying Off to end of Hoarder: Choose three countries
    • Level Buried: Choose four countries.
  • Gender Battle: Read books only by female or male authors. Another alternative is to read equal amounts of both.

Sign Up

Click Mr Linky and away you go!


Friday, January 6, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: The Good of the Many . . .

Title: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter
Author: Seth Grahame-Smith
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-446-56308-6
Pages: 336

Last April, my husband and I were in New Orleans for a conference. On the way out to the zoo, we stumbled onto a movie set. It was clear the movie was set in the 1800s. The horse and wagons, the period dress, and building architecture seemed both in-congruent and completely plausible in a city like New Orleans. I guess it is not an unusual thing to find a movie set in New Orleans. The week we visited, there were almost a dozen movies being filmed in and around the city, or so we were told by an extra. Like most other tourists, we took pictures of the actresses in long dresses, bonnets, and corsets while they listened to their iPods and texted on their smart phones. Then filming began and I saw a tall gentleman in a cream colored three-piece suit and top hat. It was clearly Abraham Lincoln. However, come to find out, he was a vampire slayer! Who know?

Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln - wrapping for the day.
That brings me to today's book - Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith, first known for his book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Many people want to read a book before seeing the movie, or end up reading the book because of the movie. I picked up this book because I saw the filming of the movie. Reading the book reminded me of paging through the historical book Then and Now: The Wonders of the Ancient World Brought to Life in Vivid See-Through Reproductions by Stefania Perring, which has pictures of historical buildings and places with a transparent overlay that shows what the place looked like in history. I recognize the Coliseum with chunks of it missing and looking like a relic, but with the overlay it became a vibrant theater filled with cheering people watching the gladiators bleed to death. I know the story of Honest Abe - his humble beginnings, his struggle to become a lawyer and president, and the tragedies in his life. Grahame-Smith overlays a secret life of vampire hunting, weaving an interesting combination of fiction and nonfiction. I was constantly lifting the overlay to check what was real and what wasn't. There was enough reality to make it plausible and enough fantasy to delight the Buffy-fan in me.

For some reason, Grahame-Smith bookends the story with an explanation of how this story came to be, with himself as the main character receiving secret diaries of Abraham Lincoln. It is his duty to take the ten journals of Lincoln and write a book that tells the truth about Lincoln's life. As Grahame-Smith says,"it turns out that the towering myth of honest Abe, the one ingrained in our earliest grade school memories, is inherently dishonest"(p. 15) "Vampires exist. And Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest vampire hunters of his age"(p. 14). And thus begins the "true" story of Lincoln.

Lincoln was propelled into vampire hunting when his mother was poisoned by vampire blood in retaliation for his father's debt. His motivation for learning to read and write was to learn the secrets of vampires to hunt them down and destroy them. In one of his early killings, he becomes friends with a "good" vampire, Henry, who recognizes the deep infiltration of vampires into the foundation of America's constitution and government. It seems slavery was a boon to vampires as there was easily available blood without retaliation. Therefore, the Civil War was not necessarily fought over the freedom of slaves but rather a war between factions of vampires for control of the country, with humans being the pawns. Lincoln may be the Great Emancipator, but, according the Grahame-Smith, the emancipation was actually to reduce the food supply for the Southern Vampires. Some of the most famous figures of the Civil War, such as Jefferson Davis and John Wilkes Booth, were either in league with vampires, or vampires themselves. If you are looking for an alternative reality book - this one clearly is for you!

I think I have forgotten how to read books just for pleasure, or fun. My analytical mind would not turn off while I was reading and I continually tried to sort out how much was fact and how much was fiction. Grahame-Smith has done an intriguing job of tweaking famous pictures of Lincoln in ways that made me think, "But wait, is that ax really in the picture of him talking to the General? " (The ax being his choice weapon to behead vampires). Or, taking famous speeches and reinterpreting them to indicate the subtext of the war with the vampires. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I used to watch faithfully, he is a tragic figure who knows the implausibly and impossibility of his situation yet continues to forge ahead, so the ignorant majority of the population can enjoy the daily pleasantries of life. His secret work takes a toil on his health and family, yet he continues to sacrifice as (in Spock's words, echoing John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism) "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

The movie should be in the theaters this summer. I'm looking forward to seeing the scene I saw being filmed in New Orleans, and as an action/fantasy film, it is based on a solid premise. Here is the trailer for the film:

If you want to know a little more about the book, this is a good review:

When I finished reading, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, I felt much like I did when I finished reading Wicked. I had the MGM techno-color version of The Wizard of Oz in my psyche since childhood and Gregory Maguire shattered that image. Yet, his new creation was intriguing and I've often thought of his portrayal of the images of good and evil, and the difference between intentions and consequences. Grahame-Smith similarly made me confront how much my image of Lincoln was based on the Disneyfied version of history and how much can actually be hidden from the general public. How much of our political system is generated and run by interests outside of the good for the many, and instead for the good of the few or the one?