Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reviewing Nell Irvin Painter's History of White People

So long between updates! I’ve been traveling a bit, and then was obsessed with the NCAA basketball tournament, and am now recovering (I hope) from KU’s shocking loss in the second round.

Anyway, thankfully today provides a distraction: my review of Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People appears in this Sunday’s Boston Globe books section. You can read it here.

A snippet:

The violence of ancient white peoples, lauded by the Greeks and Romans, was also attractive to those who claimed them as ancestors. Ralph Waldo Emerson, father of American transcendentalism, saw himself as a son of these Saxons (who, in the goofy myth-making this book so ably mocks, were said to spring from Germany and Scandinavia but bestowed their manly beauty and superiority on American whites by way of the early English settlers). In his 1856 book “English Traits,’’ Emerson writes of the qualities passed on by such virile white stock, including “good sense, steadiness, wise speech, and prompt action,’’ but also “a singular turn for homicide.’’ Strangely, he means this as a compliment, though observers from different backgrounds saw the same quality less favorably. Black Bostonian David Walker, in his famous Appeal of 1829, pointed out that “whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.’’ Painter avoids taking sides, but she wields a withering deadpan when delivering such quotes.

This is a great fun read about a totally bizarre and discouraging subject. I highly recommend it!


Jasmyn, Alex Bell, Swans and CASTLES

I’ve been sitting on this for a while, so while my fellow writers go about rearranging their laurels for the purpose of sitting, please enjoy the following!


While window-shopping on Amazon (an absorbing pastime), I came across a book I very much wanted to read called JASMYN, by Alex Bell. Incidentally, ‘to window shop’ in French is ‘faire du lêche vitrine’. Now you know some French. Well done.

Although this incident interrupted my important mission to the library to acquire it, I was, neverthless, unthwarted! I finished it, and I LOVED IT. And I love to love a book. It justifies the time you spend reading it.

Jasmyn is about…well, Jasmyn (you couldn’t have guessed that, huh?) XD No, anyway, Jasmyn’s husband suddenly dies, and she begins a slow process of falling apart. But bizarre things start happening – dead swans fall from the sky at Liam’s funeral; a strange man she has never heard of turns up on her doorstep claiming to know her husband; she is haunted by dreams of feathers and roses. Jasmyn begins to uncover discrepancy after discrepancy relating to her husband, and nothing is quite as it seems. She enters a world of fairytales and magic, horror and splendour, but what is real? What is the truth?

In the immortal words of Robert Jordan: RAFO.

There were many, many things to love about this book, which is why it was such a satisfying read altogether: it masquerades most deceptively and convincingly as an unextraordinary modern-set story of a grieving young widow for a couple of chapters, and THEN sweeps you into this universe of fairytale, legend and folklore, without ever losing touch with the reader’s inner cynic. Although it was fantastical, it never strained belief – I don’t think I went into suspended-disbelief mode at any point – which is a good indicator of the skill of the author. Her characterisation was sympathetic, with the first-person narrative opening Jasmyn up to the reader.

Part of the delight of reading this is that you keep on trying to figure it out, and my theories changed every few chapters. I phoned my sister up several times just to share with her my speculations about what was happening and then forbidding her to either confirm or deny whether I was right (she read it before I did). One night, she asked me if I wanted a clue. I said no, because I hate spoilers. Then I caved and was all ‘omgtellme!’ And she said, ‘don’t think like a detective.’

WHAT? WHAT KIND OF A RUBBISH CLUE IS THAT? It drove me mad trying NOT to think like a detective, because of course IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. That is saying DON’T TRY TO FIGURE IT OUT.

So then the next day, I was EVEN MORE wound up in suspense, being in the last third of the book. A new theory suddenly occurred to me, and I phoned my sister up again, explained it to her…and she was quiet for a moment. Then she said, do you want me to tell you if you’re right or not? I told her, NO OF COURSE NOT! And then she said she would give me another clue and I protested but she told me anyway.

‘Read the back.’
‘WHAT! I’ve already done that! Like, a MILLION TIMES! IT DIDN’T REVEAL ANYTHING TO ME.’

And then later I kept pestering her to find out if she had figured it all out already before it was revealed, and she said she pretty much had. And then I was sad because I wasn’t clever enough to. And then when I FOUND OUT, I was like, WOAH DÉJÀ VU, and felt like I knew it on a subconscious level (or should have known), so although it didn’t surprise me even though I didn’t work it out, I thought it was BRILLIANT. And then, it didn’t just reveal the mystery and leave you languishing (yes, I languish! Everybody normal languishes! How can you NOT languish?!) – there was an aftermath, and the author gives you the satisfaction of following through and wrapping up. And then you can pester her by email to explain the things you are too stupid to get.

This is a spoiler – an absolute complete spoiler – so if you intend to read this book, DO NOT HIGHLIGHT THE FOLLOWING: It was a kind of analogue of Thursday Next and the mindworm, in First Among Sequels, with a magical twist. Okay, you can look now.

I loved the fact that the setting was real: it really feeds the (ravening) inner geek. While I was reading it, I wasn’t quite sure; it all sounded too fantastical to be true: a castle that Disney rips off? A mad king with an obsession with swans? A hotel made entirely of ice that is rebuilt every year? Surely not. But it really was! I loved that you could google it and look at the pictures: the front cover is a stylised version of the real castle mentioned, the Neuschwanstein.

Speaking of the front cover, isn’t it gorgeous? I admit I’m a sucker for awesome covers: if it catches my eye, I’ll pick up the book, and this one captured me the moment I saw it. YES, I AM SHALLOW AND SUPERFICIAL AND JUDGE MEN BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS.*

I really enjoyed the Bavarian setting, because I have a kind of personal interest in that area and its traditions. What was great to discover – and I didn’t realise until I had done some reading – is that Bavaria is a pretty hot player in the Western European cultural scene, and well-known for its food. And and! I loved the depiction of the Marktplatz in Munich: apart from evoking every memory of every exotic market ever, there were LEBKUCHEN HEARTS. And let it be known that I have been a complete Lebkuchen-junkie ever since I discovered them the winter after I came back from Egypt.

The writing is charming and whimsical – the only thing I was bothered by was an excessive and sometimes unnatural use of ‘for’ (i.e. ‘I didn’t go out for it was cold’): because the prose was quite contemporary, it didn’t always fit in, and yet it was the chosen form instead of ‘I didn’t go out because/as/since it was cold’. Not a big deal, but it caused a little cognitive dissonance each time it happened, for the first half of the book. The second half I was too keyed up to pay attention to a little word when MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THINGS were happening.

Oh, and my sister made sure to tell me that my pet-hate of English misuse turned up several times: the use of ‘antisocial’ to mean ‘unsociable’. A little disambiguation:

  • If you’re antisocial, you mug old ladies and do rude graffiti on the neighbours’ garage and probably spit on people you don’t like.
  • When you’re unsociable, you are surly and don’t like people and likely will avoid them at all costs, particularly if they are grieving sisters-in-law. But you probably don’t spit on them or mug them, or inform them with spray paint that Chezza Woz Ere ‘99. You’re much more likely to write a letter.

Fellow writers (and readers!)! You Want To Read This Book. And oh my, I almost forgot the Violectra! And that, Rivenheart and Chuuurls, should be enough reason to convince you to acquire this immediately. MUSIC AND VIOLINS. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an electric violin. And I wasn’t quite sure if the Violectra was real until I consulted the oracle Google image search. See? GEEKFOOD.

Alex Bell: ‘Jasmyn is…part fairytale, part thriller, part romantic suspense and part supernatural mystery’. This is clearly Fiction’s version of a platter of red velvet cake, samosas**, brownies and horseradish pasties*** ALL TOGETHER.

You will like Jasmyn if:
…you like Diana Wynne Jones, Susanna Clarke, (maybe) Jasper Fforde.


Coming up: Alex Bell being pretty awesome (also pretty and awesome, but we’ll talk about that later), was awesome enough to share with us a few things she learned from her mother, although some of it is hilariously haram. So come back and check it out!


* Allow me to mitigate that by saying most of my most-read, most-loved books have boring and even unappealing covers, but I hardly notice that because I LOVE THEM FOR WHAT’S INSIDE.

** I do apologise for the recurring samosa-theme. It isn’t deliberate. Really.

*** I’m not exactly sure whether that is or isn’t a culinary impossibility, but it does certainly seem like a supernatural mystery involving edible matter.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Review - Sew and Stow

It’s been too busy for me to finish up a new project or the March Pattern (it’s coming, I promise) so it’s time for another book review!  This review is for “Sew and Stow” by Betty Oppenheimer (Storey Publishing, 2008).

This book features 31 projects to “carry, hold, organize your stuff, your home, and yourself” including a grocery tote, shoe hideway, cleaning caddy, and gardening apron.  The projects themselves are geared towards confident beginners and intermediate sewers and most can be completed in the same day.

The author takes a very technical approach to sewing and the first two chapters go in depth on how to select the correct equipment, fabric, and tools, and then discusses techniques for cutting, sewing and finishing.  She gives details on the different elements to consider when selecting fabric including water resistance, durability, hand, and weave.  There are also tables that organize fabrics by weight and weave which are very useful when selecting the perfect fabric for your project.

In the techniques chapter she provides some specific ways to transfer patterns, layout the pattern pieces (you want to make sure the nap is going the correct way), and different stitching types.  Information is also presented on other techniques such as making casings, making gathers, forming pleats, creating bias binding tape, mitering corners, and so on.  Everything is clearly explained with detailed directions and diagrams.  You can learn a lot about sewing from reading these first two chapters alone.

The projects are all very useful and she has some great ideas for how to customize them.  Sidebars offer more hints and tips so your projects turn out right the first time (for example, positioning a zipper pull on a continuous zipper so it functions correctly in both directions).  The projects are also clearly explained with directions and diagrams, and each one has a color photo.

The last chapter of the book is my favorite, called “Stow it Your Way,” because it discusses how to design your own pieces.  In this section she walks you through the process of creating a customized sewing caddy, file box, and some other projects.  These projects don’t include formal patterns, but the author provides enough design information for a confident sewer create some quality customized projects.  As someone interested in creating patterns, I found the techniques discussed in this section to be very valuable.

I think the main shortcoming of the book is that some of the projects featured on the cover (the sewing caddy) don’t actually have a pattern in the book.  Instead, they are discussed in the last chapter and the reader has to design this – including calculating the cutting dimensions for each pattern piece, figuring out how many pockets to include, and in what order to sew the pieces.  This is actually pretty easy to do if you read the first two chapters and the design chapters (and reading through some of the other projects that have patterns won’t hurt either), and it gives you more freedom to create the project exactly as you want.  However, some people might be disappointed when they realize that the sewing caddy, dog bed, bedroll, and file box don’t include a full pattern.

Overall, this is one book I am happy to have in my library.  The technical information and diagrams are well worth it to me and I enjoy the challenge of designing my own projects.



The year is 1945. The war is over and 21-year-old Betty Lake has been invited to Europe to sing in a USO tour for American soldiers who now occupy Hitler’s Germany. The first nights performance is a hit.

Betty becomes enthralled with the applause, the former Nazi-held mansion they’re housed in and the attention of Frank Witt, the US Army Signal Corp Photographer. Yet the next night this songbird is ready to fly the coop when Betty’s dear friend, Kat, turns up missing.  Betty soon realizes Franks photographs could be the key to finding Kat. Betty and Frank team up against post-war Nazi influences and the two lovebirds’ hearts may find the answers…in each other.  But will they have a chance for their romance to sing? The truth will be revealed under a German moon.


About  the author:

Tricia Goyer is the author of twenty books including From Dust and Ashes, My Life UnScripted, and the children’s book, 10 Minutes to Showtime. She won Historical Novel of the Year in 2005 and 2006 from ACFW, and was honored with the Writer of the Year award from Mt. Hermon Writer’s Conference in 2003. Tricia’s book Life Interrupted was a finalist for the Gold Medallion in 2005. In addition to her novels, Tricia writes non-fiction books and magazine articles for publications like Today’s Christian Woman and Focus on the Family. Tricia is a regular speaker at conventions and conferences, and has been a workshop presenter at the MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) International Conventions.  She and her family make their home in the mountains of Montana.

In her fiction novels, Tricia writes contemporary and historical stories that feature strong women overcoming great challenges. She recreates historic wartime eras with precise detail through perseverant and comprehensive research.Each of her World War II and Spanish Civil War novels tell the inspiring stories of engaging characters—and a God whose hand is evident in the landscape of history and the obstacles of ordinary lives.

Q&A from Tricia Goyer.

My Impressions:

The setting for Songbird Under A German Moon is Bayreuth, the home of Richard Wagner and the opera house that played his works exclusively before WWII.  Adolph Hitler was enamored by Wagner’s work and was inspired to build his Reich by one particular opera.  He became close friends with Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Winifred, and spent many vacation with her family.  Bayreuth became a favorite with Nazi officials, because of the opera house and the spas that surround the city.  I was not familiar with the city’s history or Wagner’s influence on Hitler before reading this novel.   I found the historical background of the book very intriguing.

Goyer’s novel takes the history of Bayreuth and develops a mystery surrounding Wagner, the opera house, Winifred Wagner’s house and the surrounding area.  Evil continues to influence the events of the town even after the occupation by American troops.

The mystery is a good one, but I didn’t really enjoy the characters Goyer uses to expose and investigate it. Betty Lake, a naive USO singer, and Frank Witt, a seasoned combat photographer, are attracted to each other at first sight.   Their actions and responses are a bit too shallow and predictable.  I wish Betty and Frank had been developed more.  I also, would have preferred more mystery, less romance.  But the book is labelled romantic suspense.  The ending is also a bit predictable.  I would recommend this to those who like a little history with their romance!

Win a free copy of A Songbird Under A German Moon! Leave a comment on Tricia’s blog or email the answer to this question:  What era in history do you wish you’d lived in and why? You can increase your chances of winning by signing up for Tricia’s newsletter or become a Fan on Facebook.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Picture from Hachette Bookgroup

When Dinosaurs Die, by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, is one of my favorite books to use with elementary-aged children who have experienced death. The book demystifies the concept of death for those experiencing the loss of a loved one. It explains death in simple terms that are easy for young kids to understand.  Readers learn about why people die,  feelings that may arise from death, funerals and other rituals, ways to honor a loved one, and what comes after death, among other topics.  It provides school counselors with an easy way to talk about the many questions students may have about death, in addition to normalizing and making sense of death for children. The colorful pictures add to the comforting feeling the book provides and give kids a visual that is often helpful in making sense of the situation. I fully recommend it for any elementary counselor’s bookshelf.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"But Sanditon itself – everybody has heard of Sanditon"

It feels weird reading a book knowing that you’ll never find out how the author intended it to end. It also makes it hard to write a review of said book. Jane Austen started writing Sanditon in 1817, she stopped writing a few months later due to her declining health. We are left with the first twelve chapters of a novel. These chapters introduce a number of characters and a setting, but before the end of the manuscript you hardly know what’s meant to happen next. Yes, there is the smallest amount of intrigue to be solved and there are a few characters that seem to be set up to become entangled with the heroine of the story, Charlotte Heywood. Apart from that, who knows what Austen would’ve come up with? There are currently two finished versions of the novel, but I’ve decided to restrict my reading to the original twelve chapters. I remember reading one of the finished versions years ago and not liking it at all. Maybe I’ll end up reviewing the version I currently have at home, by “Another Lady”, in time.

I started reading Sanditon last Sunday because I originally wanted to participate in Austenprose’s group read titled By the seaside with Sanditon. However, due to a huge amount of required reading to be done and a obligatory conference starting tomorrow, I will not be able to participate in the discussion of the book. That’s why I finished reading the book last night, as my light bedtime reading before going to sleep and that’s why I’m writing about all twelve chapters of the book and not the planned first four. This book now counts towards both the Typically British Challenge and the Jane Austen Challenge.

Sanditon is strangely different and yet remarkably familiar to Jane Austen’s other novels. The introduction of Mr. and Mrs. Parker through their carriage overturning on their way home, and their subsequent meeting with a family that lives nearby the site of the accident, Mr. and Mrs. Heywood with their children, of which Charlotte is the older daughter seems a different sort of introduction to a story than Austen usually provides. The set-up of the story is different as well: instead of revolving around one family, the story seems meant to revolve around a small community of people. This community is Sanditon, a seaside resort that Mr. Parker and Lady Denham (a rich widow) hope to turn into a successful business establishment. Within the first chapters, Charlotte Heywood is travelling to Sanditon to stay with the Parkers. Presumably Sanditon is the setting in which the rest of the story was meant to evolve. What makes this a familiar Austen novel is I think predominantly her social satire and meticulous look at characteristics of certain persons. Sanditon reminded me of Northanger Abbey in a way, because I couldn´t help but shake the feeling that Austen was poking fun at the booming business of seaside resorts in this novel, just as she did with gothic novels in Northanger Abbey.

I think I might have gone into reading this story differently than I´ve done with other Austen novels in the past. Maybe just the thought that this story will never get to the finish line made me more perceptive of all the small remarks made in the narrative. Knowing that there´s no plot to find out about, makes wanting to know how it will end sooner rather than later a useless manner of reading this book. I think it has made reading Austen more enjoyable to me in a way. I cannot but look forward to rereading her other finished novels with just as much attention to detail.

What I loved about this novel was first of all her satire of hypochondria. Two sisters of Mr. Parker and one of his brothers is constantly complaining of being unwell. I once read that hypochondria was one of the means by which women could acquire some sense of power over a situation and that it functioned as a guarantee of attention. I did not know that people at the time realized much of what was going on in these situations. In chapter nine, Austen remarks:

“It would seem that they must either be very busy for the good of others or else extremely ill themselves.”

The hypochondriac behaviour of Susan, Diana and Arthur, and the subsequently inserted commentary on their situation by the author made for some very entertaining fragments.

I liked the attention for characters in general. Most of the time we see characters and their flaws through the eyes of Charlotte Heywood. I think I found it the hardest to depart from her thoughtful and entertaining views on the people around her when I got to the end of chapter twelve. Sometimes, the remarks of the author made me laugh out loud. As happened when the seemingly very silly, but full of himself character of Edward Denham starts one of his long-winding and boring conversations:

“Still extolling the pleasures of bathing, he sought to entertain them with his longest syllables and most edifying sentences.”

I also enjoyed the contrast between many of the characters. Lady Denham who seems to be involved in Sanditon’s sea bathing business principally for money and Mr. Parker who seems genuinely interested in making the place a popular hit. Mr. Parker who is all about travel and moving forward, and Mr. Heywood who seems most interested in staying in his safe home environment. And then there’s the poor Mrs. Parker who seems quiet and obedient and hardly able to have her own say, while she’s being pushed through all these modernisations, while her remarks on the house where she used to live with Mr. Parker suggest that she rather liked the way things were.

I honestly cannot share any thoughts on how I think it will end. I think possibly Mr. Parker’s  borther Sidney was meant to become the love interest of Charlotte and I expect Arthur Parker would’ve broken away from his hypochondriac sisters in due time, but apart from that I’m blank. I cannot say that I mind not knowing how it will end, because I think the story hadn’t progressed far enough to get that feeling that you really just have to know what will happen next.


Black Light by Stephen Hunter

Bob Lee Swagger is a man of few words, granite-like stillness, and complete calm. Even when pursued by the baddest of men, he finds a way to become the hunter and bring the fight to his enemies.

I’ve read two previous books starring Bob Lee Swagger, Point of Impact and The 47th Samurai. I enjoyed both of those books by Stephen Hunter, and I can say the same thing for Black Light.

This book takes place after Point of Impact, but well before 47th Samurai. Bob is coaxed from the quiet family life that he has carved out for himself, to go back to his hometown in Arkansas. A writer wants to do a book about Bob’s father, Earl, and the night he was murdered. Bob reluctantly agrees, but soon finds that the murder was much more than an arrest gone awry. The night of Earl’s murder resonates forty years later, and involves the CIA, night vision snipers, an Arkansas crime boss, and a Presidential hopeful.

Hunter rights a tight, technically sound novel. He has a number of great battles, a dose of mystery, and a dash of humor. And in the end, there’s a reveal that pretty well took me by surprise.

The Bob Lee Swagger novels have been a hit for me so far, and I plan on reading more of them as soon as I can.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (What’s this?)