Friday, January 24, 2014

I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious . . .

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Date: 2007
Pages: 576
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0375842207

A book narrated by death – not a typical narrator. And death has a sense of humor and compassion for the book thief, Liesel who stole her first book at the grave-site of her brother. A handbook for grave diggers. When her mother sends her to a foster family, she meets a compatriot in her foster father, a painter and violinist. Her foster mother is rough and sharp tongued, but strong and smart. Liesel becomes frenemies with Rudy and is teased at school for being uneducated. With various traumas surfacing each night in her dreams, her foster father begins midnight reading lessons. Liesel learns the power of words and wielding word in WWII Germany as Hilter begins his campaign against Jewish people. Because of an old promise to her foster father, the family hides a Jewish man, Max, who also befriends Liesel and builds new stories with her. As Germany rises and falls, Liesel's childhood is filled with unique characters, the illicit pleasure of stealing forbidden books, and treading a fine line of secrecy and discovery. Being a book narrated by death, the body count is not unexpected but it is still difficult to comprehend. The author uses a very interesting tone and style throughout the book that at first was distracting but became comfortable over the first few chapters. It was originally intended as a young adult book, yet because of the movie released in 2013, the book has been taken up by adult reading groups.

Here is some background and discussion questions from One Book, One Chicago 2012
Other discussion questions from LitLovers

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Beach Read

Title: How to Bake a Perfect Life
Author: Barbara O’Neal
Date: 2011
Publisher: Bantam Books
ISBN: 978-0-553-38977-6

A few months ago my local newspaper had a list of food related novel.  Some were mysteries, others were beach-reads.  This was a beach read - a fun, easy and it even came with recipes.

Ramona is trying to make a living baking the 100 year old house she inherited from her grandmother.  With multiple major repairs on house, Ramona is drowning.  Then  her pregnant daughter’s soldier husband is badly wounded and Sofie leaves to be with him.  However, she leaves behind her step-daughter, Katie, who was taken from her drug addicted mother’s home.  In between this drama, Ramona meets the kind boy who befriended her during her 15th summer that she spent with her aunt learning how to bake and giving birth to Sophie.  The story alternates between each of the major actors and flashbacks.  There is a fun twist at the end and a few good recipes.   Not a great book, but a fun read .

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Power of One Formidable, but Together, Better

Title: The Necklace: Thirteen Women and The Experiment That Transformed Their Lives
Author: Cheryl Jarvis
Date: 2008
Pages: 222
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-0345500724

As a teacher of literature, I've often had my students read Guy de Maupassant short story, “The Necklace.” In the story, Madame Loisel, unsatisfied with her life, almost refuses to attend a society gather, but relents when her friend loans a spectacular diamond necklace. With the necklace, Madame Loisel feels like she is the star of the party, but loses the necklace on the way home. She is too embarrassed to tell her friend, and goes into deep debt to purchase a new necklace to replace the lost one. To pay off the debt, Madame Loisel works harder and longer and become a bitter, tired old woman. When she meets her friend years later, Madame Loisel is unrecognizable and she blames her friend for her misfortunes. If her friend had not loaned her the diamond necklace, she would not have lost it and gone into debt. When she admits her deception to her friend, she is confronted with a chilling response, “"Oh, my poor Mathilde! But mine was imitation. It was worth at the very most five hundred francs! . . . "

Usually high schoolers are incredulous that Madame Loisel would hid the loss of the necklace and not just admit it. Often though, adult readers understand the prideful ego that led Madame Loisel to conceal her carelessness. Madame Loisel was concerned primarily about how the world perceived her, she longed to portray herself as wealthy and influential. Adults also understand how life often works as ironically as the ending – that what we think is real often is false, and we pay for this disillusionment.

Why do I mention Guy de Maupassant's story? Although Cheryl Jarvis's reporting of the true story of a diamond necklace the belonged to thirteen women in California in 2004 does not have the dark ending of de Maupassant's it exposes the facades many women present to themselves and the world, and how a necklace exposes these masks.

Each chapter is dedicated to one of the women involved in the time-share necklace, but the idea originates with Jonell. As a real estate agent, she frequently rewarded herself with something special after a good sale. When she sees a $37,000 tennis-style diamond necklace, she wonders why ordinary people can't experience extraordinary luxury. If she could convince several other women to buy a share of the necklace, and share the wearing of it, then everyone could feel the luxury. After phone calls and emails, she convinces a small group to time-share the necklace, and with the gracious pricing of the jewelry store owned who significantly reduced the price to $15,000, the women had a necklace to wear for 28 days around their birth date.

The group met for the first time to set some ground rules – the name of the necklace became Jewelia and at the end of the time-share, the woman with the necklace would host the next meeting. Each woman came to the group with different reasons for buying into the necklace, different seasons in life, and different expectations of the group. Without the necklace, many of the women would have never met each other. However, the necklace inspired each woman to examine herself and her desires from life. They discarded the masks they wore and began to embrace their potential.  Additionally, collectively, the group began to take up local causes, fund-raise, and become involved in their local community. In the group, the women found themselves to be both accepted and challenged. Over time, their experiment in time-sharing a luxury item become fodder to local and national news.

Each chapter is a short profile of each of the woman and are not fully realized, even though the author spent several weeks with each of the woman. But, as the necklace and group symbolized potential for the women, the book symbolizes potential for any woman to envision a life that fulfills her true possibilities. This theme is clearly evident with the opening quote:

Here we are, women who have been the beneficiaries of education, resources, reproductive choices, travel opportunities, the Internet, and a longer life expectancy than women have ever had in history.
What can and will we do?” ― Jean Shinoda Bolen

For current information about the Jewelia group, their webpage is The Women of Jewelia.