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?)


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Salon: the Dreamy Post

The Sunday Salon.comWhile writing this post, I’m re-watching one of my very favourite Russian movies: Russian Ark. It’s a modern film, and it’s all set in the Hermitage. The narrator is a modern-day Russian who wakes up from an accident disembodied and transported back in time to the eighteenth century (there’s a strong implication that he’s a ghost). There, he meets another mysterious figure (who acts like the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia in the 1800s and wrote an unflattering book about their European pretensions) , and together they wander through the Hermitage, seeing scenes from three hundred years of Russian history and having discussions about art. It’s a gorgeous film, with thousands of actors, and perhaps even more incredibly, all ninety-six minutes was shot in a single take. It’s a visual feast, and if you’re at all curious about the Hermitage, you’ll get a wonderful idea of its appearance. Anyway, I’d encourage all of you to watch it, and it’s made me incredibly nostalgic for St. Petersburg. Good thing I was already planning to start Doctor Zhivago today!

But this is a book blog, not a film blog, and I have quite a few books to talk about today! I read 12 books this week and only reviewed 1, which is pretty bad arithmetic for a book blog. ;) This was also a high-quality reading week for me; with one exception, every book I read I really enjoyed: four and five star reads all over the place. So let’s get started!

I reread Jane Austen’s Persuasion for the discussion on Literary Transgressions. As if I ever need an excuse to reread her! ;) Two years ago, I wrote a long post about this novel, so this time I’m going to cheat and copy and paste a bit of what I said in the discussion! The fun thing about rereading a novel so much (this was my seventh or eighth reread) is that each time, something else jumps out at me. This time, I was simply enchanted with Admiral and Mrs. Croft’s happy, lovey-dovey marriage. It’s interesting, because Austen doesn’t usually portray actually-married couples in this happy of a light. The only possible equivalent I could think of was the Westons from Emma, but even then I don’t think it’s the same. The Crofts are shown as such equals, and perfect complements, and after so many years they still loving being in each other’s company so much, it was just lovely. :) They’re also childless, which is unusual for an Austen marriage. I wonder if those two things are at all related. Anyway, since Austen usually focuses on the unhappiness that results from an unequal marriage, it was nice to see such a change. I hope that if I ever get married, my marriage is like the Crofts. Even after decades, they still do everything together, and Mrs. Croft has accompanied the Admiral on many of his travels.

Now for the exception to my book gushing this week! I picked up In Search of King Solomon’s Mines by Tahir Shah as part of the Reading the World Challenge, for my nonfiction selection about Ethiopia. Shah has written several travel books that sound interesting to me, so I was hoping I’d enjoy this one and want to read the others. Not so much. You know the Great White Explorers who ‘discovered’ the heart of the Dark Continent, and all that tosh? Well, people like Stanley are heroes to Shah. That might give you an idea of how he writes about Ethiopia. I was disgusted by his attitude, his writing, his racism and sexism and class-ism. The further along in the book I got, the worse all of this became. Not to mention, travelogues need some type of narrative thread holding them together, and this one’s thread was tenuous at best, with an utterly unsatisfactory ending. Needless to say, I’ll be avoiding Shah in the future.

Fortunately, at the same time I was reading a wonderful nonfiction book: Microcosm by Carl Zimmer. I already wrote about why I loved it, so I’ll move right along to another travelogue: Kinky Gazpacho by Lori Tharps. Now, I originally had expected a travelogue, but this is much more a memoir of Tharps’ connection to Spain, and the world outside of the States. It begins when she’s in elementary school, covers her high school summer spent in Casablanca, then her college year abroad in Spain, and goes later than that. I’m very happy that I didn’t read the publisher’s blurb, since if you read it you’ll know something that doesn’t happen in the actual book until the last quarter and which took me by surprise! Anyway, I loved this memoir. :) Tharps brought me into her world, and it was so fun to see her experience things! She’s brutally honest about culture shock, which I liked, since I think it’s something anyone who studies abroad has to deal with, but it’s often glossed over in travelogues. I’ve never been to Spain, so it was fun to see it through Tharps’ eyes. I think the book was particularly effective since it began with a story from Tharps in elementary school; the large amount of time she covers made me feel as if I really got to know her and her motivation, well before the travelogue bits. Oh, and she’s really funny! So yeah, this book was everything I want from a memoir: smart, funny, and entertaining. :)

When I discovered I couldn’t renew it at the library, I immediately picked up Carpentaria by Alexis Wright. This was my first read for the Aussie Authors Challenge, and what a way to start things off! Wright makes the reader work in this book, but there’s a great reward if you stick with it. She’s merged Western storytelling traditions (aka novels) with more Aboriginale ones, into a book that’s untraditional and difficult, but also fascinating and a peek into lives led very differently from my own. It’s set in the coastal Australian outback, in a small white town and the Aboriginale community that surrounds it. Most of the story focuses on a few Aboriginale leaders, mainly men (but one awesome woman!), their lives and the events that bring them into conflict with the white Australians. For me, I loved the mix of reality with mythology (Dream Time is invoked several times), I loved the way the narrative wasn’t told in linear time, and while I was definitely confused on occasion, when I kept reading Wright cleared things up. I wouldn’t recommend this to readers who have to be constantly in control of their reading…with a book like this, you have to just ‘go with it,’ if you know what I mean. But if you’re willing to invest in the novel, and to work through the not-so-great bits (for me, pages 50-150 were pretty dull, but the other 400 pages made up for it), this is the kind of fiction that repays a close reading. It’s definitely one that I’d like to reread one day!

The other novel I picked up due to not being able to renew as The Bostonians by Henry James. I got this from the library not knowing anything about it, except that James wrote it. That’s good enough for me, since I have loved most of his novels that I’ve read. This one is no exception, and imagine my delight when I discovered it was set during the Reconstruction and about the suffragette movement! Two of the main characters, distant cousins, represent the most extreme versions that the movement brought out…Olive Chancellor is a well-off, independent Bostonian young woman who has decided to devote her life to the suffragette cause and pretty much hates men. Basil Ransom used to be a part of the Southern gentility, but after the war he ended up penniless and is now in New York trying to make his fortune as a lawyer. He subscribes to all the most backward beliefs of a patriarchal society (for instance, that the source of women’s happiness is making men happy). Both Olive and Basil say stereotypical things on a regular basis, and are both amusing and horrifying all at once. Torn between them is Verena, a beautiful young woman raised in the Bohemian lifestyle, who is a talented public speaker and suffragette. While she firmly believes that women deserve all the same rights as men, she also enjoys talking with the men she meets, and she doesn’t think that their whole gender is pure evil. Olive takes her under her wing, and she wants her to renounce everything but the Cause. Basil, meanwhile, wants to marry her and make her into a good little housewife. That’s where all of the tension of the novel comes from, and I couldn’t read fast enough to see how things would turn out! This lived up to my expectations of James, with its psychological nuances and sharply drawn supporting characters. While Olive and Basil represent stereotypes, they still feel like real people, which is entirely due to James’ talents. If you’re a James fan, I think you’re in for a treat with The Bostonians. If you’re new to him, I’d suggest starting with The Portrait of a Lady.

I read A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami in one sitting, in order to participate in Tanabata’s discussion. This is my second Murakami novel, but my first was Norwegian Wood, which everyone always tells me is nothing like his usual stuff. If A Wild Sheep Chase is more typical of him, I understand now! :) I really enjoyed this novel; it was zany, but it had its own internal logic, and the writing kept me clipping along. The characters didn’t feel real, but I don’t think that that was the point. They did feel compelling, and I was curious to see what would happen to them. I was taken aback, and then delighted, to discover that there are real sheep in the story! Anyway, despite its po-mo plotline, this felt lighthearted to me, and it was a fun, easy read. Next up I’ll be reading Dance Dance Dance for the discussion at the end of the month, and I’m looking foward to it. (If you want to know more about my thoughts on the novel, feel free to scroll down and find my comment on the discussion post.)

I’ve seen Cold by Bill Streever reviewed on a couple blogs, and I’m happy that I read it for the Science Book Challenge. While it’s not ’straight’ science, since it’s mixed with some personal observations and historical stories, I still think it’s a science book at heart. Within his theme of cold, Streever looks at everything from a horrible Midwest blizzard to the science of hibernation to various Arctic explorers to Snowball Earth and more. While his focus flits from topic to topic, the book’s held together by it’s chronological structure (each chapter in a new month, with the book starting in July, and Streever references what the weather’s doing in his home state of Alaska) and Streever’s tone. His writing is lyrical, and his enthusiasm for the cold really shines through. The book feels like a labour of love, and that certainly helps make it delightful to read. While at heart, my default is to warmer climates, I do love sitting outside when it’s in the 30s and 40s, bundled up in cashmere and silk, with a steaming thermos of hot chocolate and a good book to read. Cold is just that type of book!

I grabbed A Season in Mecca by Abdellah Hammoudi from the shelves on a whim for the World Religion Challenge, and I’m so glad that I did! It was a fascinating peek into the logistics of the haj* and Hammoudi’s writing veered from the intellectual to the everyday to the personal and back in a way I found very satisfactory. While I knew that the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medinawas one of the five pillars, I had no idea that the whole event was so orchestrated. I love that Hammoudi didn’t shy away from difficult issues, such as the treatment of women as the secondary gender, or the way that Saudi Arabia’s power has allowed the extreme sect of Wahhabism to dominate the Islamic world more than it perhaps ought to. I learned a lot by reading this book, and it’s one of those that makes me wish I was reading it with a book club, because there’s so much to discuss! It lived up to all my expectations and then some.

The Practical Nomad by Edward Hasbrouck is really a reference book for long-term, independent travel, but I’m sure those who know me well aren’t surprised that I ended up reading it cover to cover. ;) It’s packed full of helpful, practical information, which I really appreciated. Hasbrouk’s writing voice amused me; he reminded me of a kind of crotchety professor I had at college. He takes regular digs at the US (his native country), some warranted, some less so, and he sometimes seems to include things just to show off. But the book is a great resource, and I’m sure most people won’t read every page like me! lol When I have a job, I definitely want to buy a copy for myself. That being said, it’s not inspirational the way A Journey of One’s Own is. That’s not its purpose, so don’t pick it up expecting it to fire you up to go travel.

The movie’s almost over! Which means I need to get moving and wrap this post up. :) When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather for class, and I found the experience excruciating. All of these years, I’ve written Cather off as ‘not my style.’ But Allie has been mentioned her lately, and I decided it was about time I gave her another shot! So I downloaded the audio version of My Antonia and, with a bit of trepidation, began listening. You know what? I enjoyed it! The story’s told by a man looking back on his childhood in Nebraska, first on a farm and later in town, and Antonia, a girl who lived near him and had ‘that special something.’ Cather really brought pioneer Nebraska to life (of course, I’ve also driven across the state a few times and visited Omaha once, so I did have something to reference), and the stories of the farm days were so neat. Later, in town, the analysis of gender politics was fascinating, and gave me a lot to think about. So, my Cather experiment was a resounding success, and I’ll be trying out more of her work in the future!

I just finished Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf this morning, which I read not only because I love Woolf but also so I could read the nonfiction book about books The Things That Matter. This was Woolf’s last novel, and the preface by Leonard quietly broke my heart. It’s quite interesting; like Mrs. Dalloway it takes place over the course of a day, but it’s written in a different style. It starts out much more straightforward, about a family living on an estate in 1939, and then the focus moves to the village pagaent being held that day on their grounds. It’s a history of England, and the pagaent itself is full of pastiches that were fun to read and reminded me a bit of Orlando. There are several intermissions, during which we learn more about the characters as they wander about. While this isn’t my new favourite Woolf, I found it well worth a read and enjoyed every page of it. It’s full of quirky characters and unforgettable scenes, as well as meditations on the meaning of life and identity and history. What more could you ask for?

Finally, I finished Meet Me Under the Ceiba by Silvio Sirias, which I read to visit Nicaragua with the Reading the World Challenge. Now, Mr. Sirias was gracious enough to write a wonderful guest post on my blog, so I will admit that I began the book hoping I would like it. But I’m always honest in my reviews, so the fact that I’ve e-mailed the author a few times has no relation to what I’m writing about his novel. I say that because, this novel was incredibly good! It’s written in one of my favourite styles, wherein a main narrator has to piece together a story from talking to various characters and reading various documents. In this case, the story is the murder of Adela, a lesbian in a small Nicaraguan town. This book is full of life: each of the characters jumps off the page, Nicaragua itself seems to rise up around me (and I want to visit even more than I did before), and while it’s not a mystery, the book has enough urgency to keep you turning the pages. That being said, there are some hard things in this book. The prejudice Adela faces is hard. Even harder is the life story of her true love, Ixelia, whose body has been sold to any willing man by her own mother since she was 11. While the narrator is obviously repulsed, some of the people he’s interviewing (like her mother and the old man who eventually buys sole power over Ixelia) treat it matter-of-factly. There were moments when I was truly angry at Sirias for making me read these things; why did there have to be sexual abuse of children?! But then, I read the afterword, and discovered that the novel is based on a real case in Nicaragua, and that the real victim’s lover had the same history of sexual abuse. This didn’t in any way mitigate the horrible things, but it made me understand why they were in the novel and that they weren’t gratuitous. Sirias never plays things up to try to manipulate the reader’s emotions, which I think made the story even stronger. The sad things are told in a straightforward manner and calm voice, which allows the reader to be genuinely outraged. And there are happy moments too, and funny ones; I don’t want to imply that the book is unrelentingly sad. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who loves reading international fiction that really brings you to another place, or to anyone interested in LGBT issues, or to anyone who just enjoys a good story.

Whew! Perfect timing: I finished that paragraph just as the credits started rolling for Russian Ark! So, I’m off to get ready for the day, probably curl up outside and read for awhile, and later my mom and I will be watching The Motorcycle Diaries, which she’s never seen! I hope y’all have a great Sunday. :)

*For instance…women can’t approach the holy objects when they’re menstruating, but they’re allowed to take pills to ensure their periods don’t arrive while they’re on pilgrimage.


In the Mail: N.T. Wright's 'After You Believe'

It has arrived! In the mail today (courtesy of The Ooze Viral Bloggers program) was After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright. I am very excited about this book and I intend on sharing my thoughts as I read through it over the next several days. Again, if you are reading this book right now please leave a comment so I can interact with your thoughts on the matter.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

The British Melting Pot

I recently ran across these books, mentioned on an interesting British Web site providing glimpses and glances at cookbooks published in Britain, cookbooks that we here in the US of A rarely see. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems that the British cookbook market features more books concerned with other cultures and not so much with “slimming,” as our friends across the pond call dieting.

So here they are, some books to fascinate you on a rainy day in the kitchen, to salivate over by the fading embers of your fireplace! (Click on the photos for links to the mini reviews.)

Next stop: India, by way of France …

And then there’s Africa and the Middle East, together, an interesting combination:


Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link

CoverI have an interesting history with Kelly Link’s work. When her first collection, Stranger Things Happen, came out I read a ton of good reviews. I didn’t seek it out, though. I like so few short stories that I only read collections if I’ve already read something by the author and been really impressed. But I do sometimes read award nominees, so I read Link’s “The Faery Handbag” along with the other novelettes on the 2005 Nebula shortlist. I’m afraid I wasn’t too impressed. The story seemed like it was all style and no substance, the exact opposite of my tastes in fiction, short or otherwise. More on that in a moment. Later I read a second story, her novella “Magic For Beginners”, when it was also nominated for something, although I don’t remember which award since I didn’t write anything down and it was nominated for (and won) many awards. This time I was more impressed, getting caught up in the imagination of the fictional TV show “The Library” and intrigued by the story’s strange metafictional overlaps. Then the story ended without seeming to resolve anything. Frustrated, I wrote the story off as yet another one of those stories, so common in science fiction and fantasy, that is all setup and no delivery. An interesting story, certainly, but a tease.

But a funny thing happened. The story stuck with me. Several years later, I had forgotten almost all the details, but what little I could remember was fascinating. Was the story really that strange or was my memory playing tricks on me? And so I returned to the story. Yes, it really was that strange. In fact, it was far stranger than I remembered. It was also beautiful. Reading through it the second time, I read more slowly and this time was not impatient to get to the end of the story to learn the answers to its questions (since I knew none would be provided). It had been the almost deranged nature of “The Library” that stuck in my mind, but now I found so much more: the touching, understated anecdotes of the main character’s friendships, the way his parents marriage was breaking apart due to his father’s fiction, and most of all the simple but affecting prose that tied it all together.

I went back and reread the story a third time a few months later, and realized it was my absolute favorite short story. Now, understand, I don’t think I’ve read more than maybe a hundred short stories in my life. Well, two hundred, maybe, since I’ve plowed through a few big collections of stories I mostly didn’t think much of, like Ascent of Wonder and Arthur C Clarke’s collected stories. A lot of people online have read orders of magnitude more. But small sample size or not, I was amazed that somehow, even though “Magic For Beginners” broke all the rules I thought I had for liking stories, I loved it.

So far I’ve been talking mainly about the story “Magic For Beginners” and not the collection of the same name, which is what I am actually trying to review here. You’d think that after realizing how much I liked the story “Magic For Beginners” I would have rushed to read the rest of the collection. I’d like to say I don’t know what I was thinking, but I still remember: well, I liked that one story from Kelly Link, but that was some sort of amazing alignment, and the rest of her work must surely be the empty exercises in style I had originally thought she trafficked in. Eventually I realized how silly that was and sat down to read the collection, promising myself that at the very least I had another reread of the title story to look forward to. The collection’s first story is “The Faery Handbag”, and I felt apprehensive. On the strength of basically one story I now thought Kelly Link was some sort of genius short story writer, and I couldn’t believe “The Faery Handbag” was as weak a story as I remembered. On the other hand, if I read it and found out it was a great story, I’d have to come on here and try to explain why I was wrong.

Well, I’ve read it again, and it’s a great story. That was a really strong year for novelettes, and I’d have to reread Benjamen Rosenbaum’s “Biographical Notes…” and Christopher Rowe’s “Voluntary State” to be certain, but it’s hard to believe it wasn’t the best of those nominated. More importantly, it was way better than I realized the first time. So here I am. Why was I wrong? The story hasn’t changed, so I have to attribute the difference in reaction to myself as a reader.

Whenever I talk about short stories, I always say I like stories that, to me, are recognizable as stories. That is to say, a narrative that starts in one place and builds up to somewhere else. Maybe that’s not the dictionary definition of a story, but that’s what American culture has taught me to expect. For me the ideal short story writer is Ted Chiang, whose stories aren’t content to just move characters through a situation, but simultaneously move the reader through ideas in pursuit of synthesis. But all too many stories, especially shorter ones, don’t seem to go anywhere. They are content to stay in one place, paint a single image, moment, or thought, and that’s it. I call them mood pieces, and from me that’s not a compliment. While they might be pleasant to read, I don’t feel it’s worth my time to read even good ones, and they’re not always good.

So how does this relate to Kelly Link’s stories? Upon first reading, they almost always seem like “mere” mood pieces to me. They usually do not have action-driven narratives, for one thing, and one of Link’s strengths is the way she evokes different moods with her prose. When her stories end, the major issues they have raised, or at least what on first reading seem like the major issues, go unresolved. But when I reread her stories I find there is indeed narrative motion, just not in an obvious, conventional way. The best way I can describe the difference is that, where an ordinary story drives you down a road past interesting scenery to a perhaps surprising destination, Link’s stories seem to stay in one place, looking at one odd scene, but upon closer inspection have shifted the angle during the story so that the same scene now appears different. If you don’t pay attention, you won’t realize the angle is different at all, and if you miss that then you certainly won’t see what the story is really supposed to show.

I mentioned earlier that Link is very evocative, and while her different stories aim at different moods and emotions, they all have an underlying strangeness, a sort of dream-logic. There are other writers who achieve similar effects (Catherynne Valente’s story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew” is a recent example) but for me I associate this most strongly with Gene Wolfe, most notably in his Book of the New Sun. I think a quick comparison of Wolfe and Link is instructive. Reading Book of the New Sun for the first time (not long before I would first encounter Link’s “The Faery Handbag”) I marveled at how the story seemed to flow more like a dream than reality. I had absolutely no ability to predict what would happen, since events didn’t seem to proceed according to the usual rules. Yet in spite of it all, I felt sure that there were indeed rules. The story was not intrinsically surreal, it merely seemed so because I didn’t properly understand the story and its world. If I just studied it carefully enough, it would all make sense. It’s obvious I’m not the only one who feels this way, for over the years hundreds or even thousands of people have tried to piece together Wolfe’s puzzles, coming up with such elaborate theories and explanatory systems that the Wolfe mailing list sometimes seems more like the Talmud than a group of fans talking about a favorite author. But many others who encounter Wolfe’s work seem to miss the undercurrents entirely, and accuse the “scholars” of projecting on to a hopelessly vague text.

Reading “The Faery Handbag” for the first time I was in the latter camp. The story seemed like a series of strange facts without any satisfying logic to connect them. When I came to “Magic For Beginners”, I felt the same way, but this time I was particularly frustrated, because even a superficial reading of the story finds so many fascinating details that I desperately wanted to believe there was a secret knowledge that would illuminate them. Still, after my first reading, I wrote it off. I couldn’t figure out what the story meant, so there was no meaning. Maybe hipsters like this sort of thing, I thought, but I want stories to make sense.

Rereading those stories while reading the collection, as well as reading the collection’s other stories for the first time, I now think there is indeed plenty of meaning to be found in Links stories–if the reader is willing to search for it. Link’s puzzles are of a different nature than Wolfe’s, but they are indeed puzzles with solutions and not just exercises in style. Unfortunately, perhaps because other people have similar reactions to my initial one, there isn’t a lot of analysis of Link’s stories online. Writing about “Magic For Beginners” in 2006, Abigail Nussbaum wrote that she couldn’t explain the story, but believed an explanation existed and even asked, “Would somebody smarter than I am please start writing about these stories?” I’m definitely not smarter than she is, and I’ve spent a good part of this review confessing my faults as a reader, but since the intervening four years have gone by without a lot of analysis, I’m going to take a shot at it.

But before I get into that, this is still technically a review of the collection. If you can’t tell, I really like this collection. If you haven’t read it, I absolutely recommend you do so at the earliest opportunity. If you have read it, then stick around and I’ll try not to embarrass myself too much while reviewing and interpreting the individual stories. I should mention I haven’t even read Stranger Things Happen so I’m particularly unqualified to understand Link’s work, but this is a blog and not a dissertation, so I’m not letting that stop me. In any case, I certainly don’t claim to understand everything about these stories. In fact, having only read a few of them once, I’m confident that right now I don’t understand anything about those yet. But I’m going to reread them one at a time and then do the best I can to understand them. Still, even if I end up more confused than when I started, it’s an excuse to spend more time with some of the best short stories I’ve ever read, so I figure I’ll still come out ahead.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

[REVIEW] Need - Carrie Jones

Carrie Jones
Need (Need Pixies, Book 1)
Bloomsbury (US: 8th December 2009; CA: 22nd December 2009; UK: 1st February 2010; AU: April 2010)
Buy (US) Buy (UK) Buy (CA) Buy (Worldwide)

Zara White has moved from South Carolina to Maine, and it seems her stalker has come, too. She already has enough problems, following her beloved stepdad’s death, and her mother sending her away to live with her grandmother. Also, boys have been disappearing from Zara’s new neighbourhood…

Zara is one of the most appealing protagonists in recent fiction. Her obsession with phobias is realistic, and the reason behind her interest really gets to the heart. Her passion and participation in Amnesty International’s work is inspiring and endearing. Also, she’s not the traditional kick-arse heroine; she actually gets rather upset upon realising she’s grabbed someone’s arm. I’m anti-violence, so Zara’s conscience is most welcome and appreciated.

Her grief is so believable, and she never falls into emo moods. She does appear rather in denial at some stage, which is bloody frustrating for the reader, but is also understandable.

Betty is a lot like other grandmothers in fiction – totally kick-arse, and with her wits together. And yet those traits don’t make her seem entirely real (probably due to my own experience with grandmothers). The missing boys subplot isn’t as harrowing as perhaps it should’ve been, so it felt kind of glossed over.

The story is adequate, but Zara is the true drawcard: refreshingly real, and with a personality both relatable and lovable.


Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung

“God has a plan for your life.”

So when is he going to let me in on it? When is he going to present me with a folder full of which decisions I need to make to end up where he wants me? I don’t care if he uses visions, dreams or skywriting, I want God to tell me what to do. Otherwise I’ll end up doing the wrong thing and seriously ruin God’s plan for my life. I just don’t know what to do.

Ever feel like this? Ever feel like you just don’t know what to do with your life? Well Kevin DeYoung wants you to stop over thinking and stop waiting for a sign. He wants you to Just Do Something.

DeYoung challenges readers to put aside their indecision and actually make decisions. He puts forward that waiting for signs or direction from God is causing problems for many Christians. They have a mindset that if they make the wrong decision then God’s plans will be dashed into little bitty pieces. That your wrong decision is more powerful than the sovereign ruler of the universe. DeYoung calls out this attitude and tells the reader, lovingly, to knock it off.

This book encourages the reader, when faced with two or more decisions that are all godly and consistent with Biblical teaching, to use our God given wisdom and pick one. If we eliminate the ungodly and unwise decisions from selection, what’s left is open game. God is ultimately in charge of all things and will use your decision to further his purposes. It’s not possible to road block God’s plans with a bad decision.

Just Do Something is a great book. It builds on Payne and Jensen’s classic Guidance and the Voice of God, pushing the reader to make decisions. It is thoroughly based in the Bible, but doesn’t offer overly easy solutions. It encourages the reader to grow in godly wisdom, which is a beautiful thing. This is an important read for anyone faced with big decisions, especially for those trying to work out what to do after school or uni or for those considering marriage. I wish I had read this book ten years ago. Highly recommended.

You can find a copy of Just Do Something at the Bible Society NSW Bookshop.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Donna Kooler's Encyclopedia of Needlework


This book has a little bit of everything that adds up to greatness! It is divided into sections on needlepoint, embroidery, and counted thread with each section including an introduction to the technique, its’ history, the materials needed and basic instructions on getting started. Each section concludes with an extensive stitch directory containing diagrams, close-up full color photographs and easy to follow directions. Also included are a variety of projects for each technique. This book is one in a series edited by Donna Kooler, founder,president, designer and creative director of Kooler Design Studio, Inc. It is a worthwhile addition to your library.


Night Watch

2010.07 – 7. Night Watch – Terry Pratchett (2002)

Of the various story arcs and one-offs presented by Terry Pratchett in his wonderful Discworld series, the City Watch cycle is definitely my favorite. Usually, but not always, confined to the Discworld’s de facto capital city Ankh-Morpork, these stories are the least specific in terms of theme. Whereas many of the one-off novels deal with the Discworld-ization of a very particular subject, say, Rock ‘n Roll, Hollywood, or Newspapers, the City Watch books are most of all about people, who live in a city, and who do stuff. I.e., they’re about the human condition.

The protagonist of the Watch books (and Captain/Commander of the Watch itself) is one Sam Vimes, who as best as I can tell is the closest thing to an autobiographical character found in Pratchett’s writing. Vimes is an everyman, with failings and virtues and a nicely textured history and personality; when he complains about his boss, or kisses his wife, or feels overwhelmed by his quotidian responsibilities, one can forget that the setting of the book also includes trolls and dwarves, giant space turtles and wizards in pointy hats, etc.

Pratchett's everyman, Sam Vimes: Copper, Duke, Loving Husband, Dry Drunk

Night Watch is essentially a time travel story (featuring the wonderful History Monks), through which Pratchett is able to give us a full novel’s worth of exposition of his most sympathetic and realistically drawn character (Vimes), along with that of a few others (notably Dibbler the sausage vendor, and Lord Vetinari, the ruler of the city) and the city of Ankh-Morpork itself. The end product is an exploration of the life of little people in the big city, with themes like class, poverty and fear of authority taking a central role. (For anyone who hasn’t read Pratchett, I want to assure you that it’s also very funny and not all maudlin like I’m possibly making it out to be.)

There are some bitingly poignant scenes in this book, around the idea of friendship and grief – a fallen comrade, pining for one’s family – and I can’t help but think that the depictions of poor city dwellers is a mirror of Pratchett’s own childhood, growing up poor in post-WWII England. I don’t want to spoiler anyone but the marching song the soldiers sing is particularly moist-eye-making, and used to great effect by Pratchett (again, despite how it sounds, this is above all a humorous book!).


Sunday, March 7, 2010

A busy week and a book reveiw...

Yes I have had an extreemly busy week and I’ve not really stopped at all, then I got ill. So overall it hasn’t been the best of weeks! I’ve been reading lots though, although not as much because I haven’t had time! I finished three books so far. I will review two of them now.
Firstly The Double Eagle by James Twining.

I picked up this book in a rush at the library. I am looking out for Dan Brown competitors that I may just enjoy as much! I have to admit, I absolutely loved this book. Definetly is one of my favourites and is almost as good as Dan Brown. I loved the authors style of writing and the story was well paced and fast moving.

Before I tell you too much about the actual response I have to the book. It is about a theif Tom and an FBI agent called Jennifer. Both of the main characters end up working together after Tom is accused of stealing the rare Double Eagle coins. He strikes a deal with Jennifer, that if he helps find the coins then he will have his police record wiped in retur. He aggrees and their chase after the coins leads them across Europe.

As I was saying, the plot was adictive and although the book was a rather long one, it went so quickly that I ended up finishing and saying “Oh where did all that go”. I liked how James left the reader (me) hanging at the end of every chapter and i just had to read on and on and on! I loved the ending, usually this type of book is quite predictable but Oh My My… I was genuinly suprised and I loved it so much. I would reccomend it to everyone including Dan Brown fans. It was exciting and well written. I would definetly read it again.

My second book that I read was Falling Out of Fashion by Karen Yampolsky. I didn’t understand why the author bothered to write this story, it didn’t really even start to be honest. It began in the present tense and then it went back to the past and then carryed on in the past. The girl narrating it started telling all about her own history and then the story never began. I didn’t understand why she even bothered!! She told the story of her life basically and it was boring to read. I think that it would have been better if the book had focused on a couple of months of her life rather than all of it. It was sort of crammed into the book and it ended up not flowing very well from it. I wouldn’t reccomend this book to anyone, if you fancy a book like what I decribed then go ahead but I’m sorry it was just so bad.

This week… two very different books. In fact two completely different experiences! Thats what I enjoy about reading though, there is always that element that you’ll never know what lies behind the cover without reading it. And different words on different pages can really decide whether you will enjoy the book. To be honest every book has the same words in it, but everybooks words are arranged differently and this week I found out how the different arrangements of words can mean you either love it or hate it. Yes thats me done with my little theory. See you later. Meghan!!


Book review: Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan

At the foot of a waterfall on Tasmania’s Franklin River, river guide Aljaz Cosini lies drowning. In a torrent of images both horrifying and heart-wrenching, not only his own life but that of his forefathers pass before him. Through these visions we gain an idea of the torn, troubled, ruthless history of Tasmania, of the upheaval of lives removed from their roots, lives blighted by prejudice, lives subject to arbitrary cruelty, the cruelty of man but also the cruelty of a tough and hostile environment. Yet through all this and beyond all this, there shine through some shimmering moments of humanity: tree loggers rowing miles against the current, overcoming their own pain to save the life of a colleague who has had a terrible accident, Aljaz’s own valiant attempts to save the life of one of his clients. In between there is the story of how Aljaz comes to be where he is, his career as a guide on this treacherous river. His role as guide, whether on this river or in a more general sense, is questioned, is questionable, and through that the whole concept of guiding others is also called into question.

I found this truly magnificent, and kept having to remind myself that this was his first novel; it is impressively ambitious. Some years back I read his marvellous third novel, ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’, and I now have his latest, ‘Wanting’ very near the top of my To Be Read mountain. I think it has just moved up a place.

To see a picture and read an article about a Franklin River rafting tour click here. Not for me! I’ll be an armchair rafter.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

good read: Sistah Vegan

As I slowly make my transition to a raw food lifestyle, it’s hard to not think about the many factors that impact my daily life concerning what type of food i consume. Availability, location, price, knowledge, etcetera are a few of the things that pop into my head. Often times, as diverse people on this earth we have different experiences and being able to relate to someone whose experience may be close to yours is very comforting. Especially when trying out new things that will be life changing.

This new book, Sistah Vegan, is an attempt to connect what sometimes feels like an extremely small group of people and share their experiences on health, society, identity and food from a black, female, vegan perspective. This anthology features a range of women who share their experience living a vegan lifestyle. I just ordered it off of Amazon and can’t wait for it to arrive so that I too, can reflect on what this lifestyle means for me, my health, and my future.

Coincidently enough, Wonderroot is screening the documentary, Fowl Play, which is about the farming industry. As much as i love eggs, i will no longer be known for my famous western scramble omelette. Sad, i know ..but we all have to make sacrifices in life.

Enjoy your weekend.

Window Seat – Erykah


Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Ishmael-By Daniel Quinn

Like the first Ishmael, the Sequel is just as good as the first. It is a must read, it makes you think, and not just a bit but a lot. About how we live and if it really is the right way to live. Why we have gangs and cults beacuse we need that tribe protection and how we as humans crave that. We sometimes forgot that yes we have the “best” country/way of life but maybe we lost so much to get here we don’t really anymore. We forgot that for not just thousands of hundreds of thousands of years we lived a much different way, and now we are trying to live this “taker” lifestyle and we are learning fast that we can’t. We are not only hurting out selves but the earth we live on.
It talks about law, religion, education, life, all things we need to think about more. There is not one to live life and I think we are learning that now, that before with all the tribes we miss that. So yes maybe we have all these fancy things but we are missing the elements in life we NEED like community, protect, health care, freedom, sense of security.
I could go on for pages but everyone should read them both. And don’t just read them or get mad but really think about it.


Daniel Gordon - Flying Pictures

From Flying Pictures by Daniel Gordon, 2009 published by powerHouse Books

Daedalus with his son Icarus had to flee Crete and the solution to their problem was the wings that Daedalus fashioned to allow them to safely fly to freedom. Nevertheless, Daedalus had to admonish his son Icarus to not fly too close to the sun, else the wax will melt, the feathers would fall away and he would surly fall to his death. That man should fly has been a preoccupation for mankind since the early telling of this Greek mythological poem. Flight is also a fascination for Daniel Gordon, who has flown unaided, much like Icarus, ever it be so briefly, as told in his own mythological tale, Flying Pictures.

Gordon’s ephemeral performances are captured with mythical imagination at a brief moment near the apex of his wingless flight. He is seen suspended in the air, in a prone position, arms and legs extended outward. He appears, sans cape, much like the fictional character Superman in flight, performing a similar super feat. We quickly learn that Gordon is actually more like Icarus, although he does not come in close proximity to the sun; he nevertheless quickly experiences earth’s strong gravitational pull and as abruptly plummets back to terra firma.

Gordon has envisioned a life of flight, be it ever so brief, which he documents with a large format camera in partnership with his assistant. He initially pre-visualizes the photograph, setting up the camera and focus, and then positions himself for his “flight”. His assistant times the exposure to coincide with the height and position that has Gordon envisioned creating the planned illusion. Gordon has also chosen to capture his feats within the context of the rural landscape, as though his flight of fancy was a natural as a bird’s flight.

This body of work is a combination of color and black & white photographs. The images are sharp, with an extended depth of field and the color photographs are vibrant. In each of these photographs, Gordon features are sharply delineated, without any blur or appearance of movement. He shares with us that what we see is 1/125th of a second of the duration of his experience, a brief enough exposure to give the impression that he is indeed hovering in the air.  Somewhat like Icarus, Gordon has bare arms as well as shirtless, clad in tights and occasionally shoes, expressing a vulnerability.

I surmise that the black and white photographs were developed during the early phases of this project, as I sense an apparent awkwardness of Gordon’s gestures, both his arms and legs appear to be flailing, grasping in the thin air. In the color work, he appears to be more confident, reflecting a more self-assured prone position. In the few pictures in which we can see his facial features, his expression appears determined, neither smiling nor frowning, as though accomplishing what he has set out to do.

We do not see how he gains his flying height, whether it is from a firm leap off a rock, outcropping, and spring-board or bounce trampoline. Neither do we see his resulting fall, a sudden belly flop impact of or a graceful tuck and roll. By not revealing the ending of the flight, Gordon avoids the metaphoric implications of falling from grace or failure from having aspirations which are too high. Nevertheless, the photographs do hint at a catastrophic fall, perhaps none more so than a black and white photograph with a rock strewn and perilous appearing foreground.

His compositions and low camera placement further enhances the illusionary effect, with Gordon appearing to hover over grass, plants, even trees. In one black and white photograph, he appears to be flying over a number of airplanes, which paradoxically are grounded, while he is not. In another, he is suspended over a wispy cloud, as thought that is all that keeps him afloat, much like in a dream within a dreamlike state.

Gregory Crewdson in his foreword, writes;

“The medium of photograph has always had a direct relationship with truth and the representation of facts. These pictures present an intersection between Daniel’s compulsive desire to fly and photography’s capacity to capture the moment….On a fundamental level, the art of photography is about the miracle, and how to make the ordinary, extraordinary. These pictures do that in it’s purist forms. They capture suspended moments, perfectly situated between transcendence and doom.”

Like the poetic Icarus and Daedalus, Gordon’s act is very metaphoric, as an attempt to escape something that resides here on earth, be it relationships, responsibilities, cultural and society’s rules, or personal demons. It is not evident what he wishes to escape from, but he tries repeatable. It does appear that he has momentarily escaped the rigors of earth’s confines and obtained a fleeting and momentary freedom. But yet this is an unattainable quest, to escape the confines of earth’s pull and loosen the cultural ties that bind him.

When comparing the Fall of Icarus to the re-imagining of technology, Wolhee Choe compares the narrative flight of Icarus to a Freudian death wish, stating:

“…the foreground of imaginative action and the background of quotidian life…the imaginative act is initiated by dreams…through the principal of opposition and through the recorded imagination of our own mortality, our mind is activated, oscillating between life and death, construction and destruction. If an ordinary mode of experiencing the world is habitual, ideological and willful, an esthetic mode of experiencing the world is critical, formal and vitally transforming. This is a simultaneously rational and inspirational experience that allows a new perspective. Aesthetical pleasure is linked, as poets have described it, to this vital transformation of one form to another…to expand the self’s boundaries.”

Another analogical reading of Gordon’s photographs is that his flights are representational of all artists, that Gordon has become the “Artistic Everyman”. That an artist and their creative spirit will attempt to soar, a father (parental) figure may provide caution about the risks involved, that eventually there is an artistic flight that may require taking huge risks; financial, spiritually and personal. An artist will lay it all out on the line, taking a “leap of faith” and expose their artistic soul, to fly near the limits of the sun and damn the consequences. Essentially the artist is alone and exposed, who may momentary be levitated, with spirits high, regenerated and not fully cognizant of the all the risks that are lurking ahead. What we don’t see is that what remains at the end of the artistic flight, a hard and sudden impact, with nasty thump or a soft harmless roll in the fragrant flowers and plush grass. There is the aura of rich mystery as to what becomes of the Artistic Everyman.

The hardcover book has a linen text wrap cover with a photographic inlay. It was printed and bound in China. Photographs are all horizontal, maximizing the space on the page, with the plates surrounded by narrow white margins. The plates are printed one per page, one page per spread

by Douglas Stockdale


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In Which I Pass on Gossip about a Few Famous People Who May Be Mentally Ill

Mental Illness Image

Just one of the many sensitive portrayals of mental illness on

Over my Christmas break I read with interest Nicholson Baker’s provocative history of World War II, Human Smoke, in which the author assembles an impressive pile of evidence suggesting, among other things, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the bombing of German civilians for three months before Hitler began his air raids — in fact, there’s a good deal of evidence that the British government used both explosives and chemical weapons on native populations as a sort of dry run for the forthcoming World War. This runs counter to conventional wisdom, to say the least; Churchill is revered partly for his prescient insistence on Hitler’s intransigence. In Baker’s book, he comes across, um, poorly, looking essentially like a bellicose nutjob. Indeed, even his most admiring biographers acknowledge that Churchill relished war and probably wouldn’t have flourished if he’s been named Prime Minister in peacetime.

Baker’s book set off a fascination with Churchill that I’ve just began to explore. My first stop was Gretchen Rubin’s Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, since I thought her recent book The Happiness Project was downright genius. Here’s my thoroughly idiosyncratic take: though Rubin’s biography doesn’t investigate the issue, it provides a good deal of evidence that this British wartime leader was at least as bipolar as I am.

In fact, if Churchill wasn’t manic-depressive, I’ll eat my hat. He suffered from black periods of depression (which Rubin does discuss), and when he wasn’t depressed he seems to have lived a life of mild mania. For example: He was a spendthrift; he drank like a fish; he was grandiose from childhood forward; he had poor impulse control; he couldn’t shut up, and lectured his associates and fellow world leaders for hours at a time (a tendency that he shared with Hitler). I’m not the first to have put two and two together — a Google search on “winston churchill bipolar disorder” draws a whole series of provocative hits.

(By the way, Rubin’s book promises both to introduce the reader to Churchill and to comment through its form on the genre of biography. The latter is the sort of enterprise that might well annoy me, but Rubin’s lack of pretension combined with genuine erudition save the day, and it’s an excellent book.)

So, yes, Winston Churchill, for whom I still feel an irrational admiration.

Once I Googled Churchill in connection with bipolar, I felt moved to check on Peter Gabriel as well. He’s got a new album out, and I’ve long had a vague idea that he has some sort of mood disorder, since years ago he wrote the deceptively simple “Lead a Normal Life,” a moving song about psychiatric hospitalization, of all things. In fact, the untitled album that fans call Melt contains sympathetic interior monologues from a set of thoroughly mad characters — perhaps the best is “Family Snapshot,” which dramatizes an assassination attempt. (I know, I know, that sounds like a misguided subject for a song. That’s what I think every time I start to listen to it. It wins me over every time.) Sure enough, many commentators have suggested that Gabriel is manic-depressive. Ha-ha, I say — we are poised to take over the universe.

By now you may be asking yourself, What on earth is she driving at? Um, nothing really. Churchill and Gabriel have been on my mind lately, that’s all. Naturally Adam Ant is always on my mind, since he’s openly mentally ill and probably as queer as a three-dollar bill (and, no, I don’t mean gay). I’ve played “Friend or Foe” countless times and thought, “Yes, that’s it exactly! I am Adam Ant!” (I am also Marilyn Manson, but that’s another story.)

In other news, The American Psychiatric Association has posted a draft of changes to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) on the APA home page. Readers can comment on these changes through April 20. The diagnoses in the DSM drive insurance reimbursement, among other things, so they are, of course, tremendously controversial. Over the last several days, John McManamy for Knowledge Is Necessity has been issuing a multi-part report card for the sections of the DSM that address depression and bipolar disorder. His analysis is polemic, to say the least. Given the current public debate concerning treating kids with powerful psych meds, yesterday’s polemic post on pediatric bipolar in particular will ruffle feathers. Whether or not you ultimately agree with McManamy’s analyses, he bases his comments on years of reporting on mood disorders, and his undeniable expertise shines through.


Genghis: Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden

Bones of the Hills is the third book in Iggulden’s sweeping epic of the rise of Genghis and the Mongols. In Birth of an Empire, Iggulden traces Genghis’ rise from an outlawed boy to the uniting of the Mongol tribes. It was a great book and a promising start to what should have been an excellent trilogy.

In the second book, Lords of the Bow, the story started to unravel for me. I read the book on the heels of finishing Birth of an Empire. Looking back, perhaps I wasn’t prepared for the change in tone from following Genghis very intimately, to viewing the entire Mongol nation from a distance. The scope of the story changed, and I wasn’t that impressed. In it, the Mongols invade China and destroy hundreds of cities.

I took my time getting to the third book. I wanted to finish the series, but I was concerned that it was going to be more like the second book than it was like the first. In that, I was correct. It didn’t follow just Genghis like it did in the first. It did follow his sons, brothers, and top generals, though. Perhaps it was the time away from the first book in the series that made it more enjoyable in the third than in the first. Or perhaps it was the invigorating battle scenes and intricate discussions of Mongol tactics and their ability to change the rules of war when presented with challenges.

Whatever it was, it worked. I was captivated by this book from the first page and had trouble setting it down at night. A few scenes stand out as memorable: A cavalry chase across hundreds of miles in the dead of night, a mano y tiger fight to the death, and a scene of loyalty and sadness involving a wayward son of Genghis that was surprising, merciless and heartbreaking all at the same time. This book truly showed why Genghis was feared throughout the world. His army was mobile, fast, and devoid of mercy.

If you like historical fiction, you will be a fan of the Genghis series that Iggulden has crafted. The first and third books are truly memorable. I wasn’t a big fan of the middle book, but I may have to go back and revisit it. Maybe I missed something.

Rating: 4 out of 5  (What’s This?)


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Planet BB

UKCBD > Christian Book Reviews > Youth Work and Ministry > Planet BB

Planet BBPlanet BB
The Boys’ Brigade Around The World

David Chant
ISBN 9781858583334 (1858583330)
Brewin Books, 2010 (not yet published: expected April)

Category: Youth Work and Ministry
Reviewed by: Phil Groom

Sometimes a book seizes your imagination even before it’s been published, and this is one such book — which means, of course, that this is not a review: it’s a pre-publication plug. As per the subtitle, Planet BB tells the story of the Boys’ Brigade around the world — but more than that, its aim is to raise funds for that work in developing countries.

Its author, David Chant, is the manager of Wesley Owen Birmingham, one of the eight branches of Wesley Owen rescued by Koorong following last year’s collapse of IBS-STL UK, and for the last year or so whenever he’s not been holding the fort there, Planet BB has been more or less his entire life. One thing’s certain: if enthusiasm alone could sell a book, this would be a bestseller. I’ll let David take up the story:

Planet BB has taken up 14 months of my free time. Every evening, day off, holiday has been spent compiling/editing/plugging the book. When the publication was delayed, one of our planned first recipients of the royalties — Christian Children’s Centre — Nansana, Uganda — asked me if any money would likely to be forthcoming so they could put on a Christmas party, get AIDS/HIV testing for the children/decorate the centre. I put out an appeal (or 2!) and was blessed with £300 which I sent to pay for the party. I contacted agencies working in Uganda that secured funding for the Aids programme. So Planet BB is making money and helping children in need already!

There will be BB Companies near every bookshop in the UK. I know there will be a great demand for it. Sadly, UK folk are waiting to see it as they know it will be in the shops (but I do already have well over 100 individual orders at my shop). Overseas orders have been flying in (Indonesia, Australia, US, Singapore, Hong Kong etc) as they know direct from the publisher will be the only way to get copies. The publisher is still a bit jittery after the Christian booktrade troubles, and it looks like I will be asked to put money up front. This is something I do not have a lot of (working in the book trade!) so it is imperative bookshops order copies from Brewin Books.

We have plans to help a BB Company in Ghana, and Thailand. And money will be sent direct to Global Fellowship to use in their current BB projects. Please help the project by ordering copies, and advertising it around your local BB & GB Companies. We have already had adverts in The BB Gazette, Birmingham Battalion newsletter, and dozens of similar publications around the world.

Thank you for your anticipated very large orders.

If Planet BB captures your imagination, head on over to the Planet BB facebook page or follow Planet BB on twitter to find out more. Even better, of course, head on over to your nearest bookshop — ideally your nearest Christian bookshop — and order a copy.

Find Planet BB on facebook Follow Planet BB on twitter

Phil Groom, February 2010

Phil Groom is this site’s Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He’s a regular contributor to Christian Marketplace magazine and is the manager of London School of Theology Books & Resources. Any opinions expressed here are personal and should not be taken as representing the views of London School of Theology or of any other group or organisation.

Planet BB: Official Website | Brewin Books

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