2013 #50bookpledge - A is for Azzopardi
This is a very powerful and heartbreakingly sad book about an elderly homeless woman and the life that led her to her present circumstances.
It’s quite well written, though a bit uneven with a fairly slow middle that redeems itself with a sudden (too sudden?) burst of revelation at the end.
This is a very powerful and heartbreakingly sad book about an elderly homeless woman and the life that led her to her present circumstances.
I’m not sure if the main character was actually “simple minded” or just seemed that way by virtue of having been simultaneously shielded and neglected for so many years. Regardless it wasn’t easy to read about the many people who abused her trust and gentleness over the years, and the small cruelties that accumulated into a lifetime of shame and fear.
The novel would have benefitted from a bit more detail in some areas and perhaps less in others but overall very interesting and thought-provoking.
So I came close to achieving the #50bookpledge at 43 books read in 2012. I did much poorer with my blogging efforts, and that’s something I definitely plan to work on for 2013. And of course I want to meet or exceed 50 books.
I was looking at my to-read stack (truth: it’s an entire bookcase) and realized that I have books by authors representing almost every letter from A to Z, so I’m going to tackle 26 books in alphabetical order and then - if all goes well - go around again. I may have to get creative for X and Q but otherwise I think I can do it! Positive thinking!
50bookpledge - book 18 - July 1, 2012
Jenny Lawson is my long-lost twin, I just know it. It’s also somewhat comforting to know that millions of other women have read her book and felt the same thing. We must all be crazy!
I don’t even know what to say about this book except that it’s absolutely brilliant and I laughed throughout. A book every woman must read. My husband enjoyed it too, for that matter.
50bookpledge - book 17 - June 17, 2012
Sigh. Another wonderful children’s book thoroughly lost in the translation to my modern child. He would disagree, and insists he enjoyed it, but I could tell from the laughs in the wrong places (and lack of in the right ones) that he didn’t really get a lot of it. Will have to try this one again in a few years.
50bookpledge - book 16 - May 3, 2012
Finally reading grown-up books again! Or trying to. I still have a lot of painting and shipping to do.
American Dervish is the story of a Pakistani family struggling to build new lives in the US - a story that has been told many times, often (as in this case) as a fictional retelling of the more-or-less true experiences of the author. Hayat is a first-generation American boy, trying to cope with all of the usual challenges of puberty, compounded by the difficulties of fitting into an all-Christian neighbourhood.
However, much of the similarity to other such books ends there. Unlike the typical tale of parents pressuring their children to uphold the traditions, culture and religion of their homeland, Hayat’s parents are actually far less strict with him than he is with himself. When his mother’s childhood friend, the beautiful and spiritual Mina, comes to live with them, Hayat finds his religious mentor, and he strives to memorize the Quran both for his own redemption and to try to save the souls of his parents (especially his philandering, atheist father). Meanwhile the real crux of the story unfolds before his young eyes, which is the treatment of Muslim women by their families and their religious and social communities.
This book goes into far more detail than I have ever seen about the actual content of the Quran and specifics of the Muslim faith, particularly in contrast with the Jewish faith (both supposedly born from the same source). It offers tremendous insight into how racism and misogynism are justified by some interpretations of the Quran and denounced by others. Of course the adults in the novel have already cemented their beliefs in the rightness or wrongness of everything from anti-semitism to wife-beating, but seeing their arguments alongside the actual verses from the Quran through young Hayat’s eyes allows the reader to see the depth of the paradoxes in the Islamic religion.
This book is extremely fluid, focused and compelling, but frankly not all that enjoyable. Although atheist myself, I am very interested in world religions; however, the arguments became repetitive and the false way the characters interacted with each other despite their fundamental disagreements didn’t sit well with me. While it no doubt reflects reality, the fact that the main female characters let themselves be treated so poorly - essentially since “it could be worse” - was frustrating and painful to witness. I also found it impossible to believe that a woman who had gone through so much to escape her first husband would do so little to escape her second, particularly considering what her young children were being exposed to as a result. I’m not convinced Akhtar did right by Mina in the end, and that coloured my feeling about the entire book
50bookpledge - books 14 & 15 - March 30, 2012
Seems the only things I’m still reliably reading these days are children’s books. And since reading them aloud takes such a very long time, I’m going to count them too.
Most recently, I (we) read Winnie the Pooh (the original, non-Disney-ified version) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (ditto).
Naturally Winnie the Pooh was a hit, because as long as you do the right voices it can’t help but be loved. Alice was a bit of a different story. It’s filled to the brim with antiquated language, such that even the parts that were supposed to make sense didn’t. Since half the pleasure of reading it is in the poetry of the words, stopping to explain every third thing (like waistcoat, kid gloves and treacle) really detracted from the experience. I also had to explain that “leave off” means stop and “take a fancy to” means like and “out-of-the-way” means weird. And of course some of the things that I find most amusing are just not funny when they have to be explained, like the Mock Turtle’s description of his classes (Arithmetic: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision; and Art: Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils). For that matter, don’t get me started on explaining what a Mock Turtle is.
So a hit and a miss (for the child anyways, though I enjoyed both) - not too shabby.
I swore I wasn’t going to take any art orders this year. This year I would put the stress of deadlines behind me and just enjoy my down time. But, I couldn’t do it, could I?! Nope, I not only decided to take orders but to try a new product. They’re simple enough to make, but shipping is always the bottleneck, and it seems I have to have 45 of these (8” MDF initials, hand-cut and painted) sent out by the end of the school year for teacher gifts. Maybe 50 books won’t be such a piece of cake.
50bookpledge - book 13 - March 15, 2012
Love the Ondaatje book and yet cannot seem to stay focused on it. Thought I’d enjoy a bit of fun instead. LOVE Mindy Kaling!!
#50bookpledge - book 12 - March 2, 2012
This is a brilliant book, and a refreshing change from everything else I’ve read this year (most of which have been wonderful, but I seem to have fallen into a thematic rut).
It’s the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters (who, naturally, are brothers) - infamous henchmen for a man known as the Commodore. They are traveling from Oregon to San Francisco on a job to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a man the Commodore has rather dubiously accused of theft. Along the way we learn - through the narration of the somewhat softer-hearted brother, Eli - about the hardships of such a life and the struggles to separate the kind of people they are from the work they do. Eli’s relationship with his lemon of a horse and his attempts to find love are touching and funny, as are numerous other scenes - though I’m sure Eli in no way meant to be humorous.
The book is written as one might expect a moderately schooled man of the mid-1800s to write - properly and painstakingly, without flourish. Fans of the cable series “Deadwood” will probably feel quite comfortable with both the era and the manner of speaking, but others may find it harder to get used to the simple yet formal style. One might at first mistake the story for being likewise simple, but while it is an amusing little story, it’s also surprisingly thoughtful and moving.
A couple of times I got snagged on words or concepts that didn’t seem accurate to the era. For example, a character refers to ladies’ watches painted in “pastel” colours. That seemed like an odd word choice and when I looked it up I found that the first recorded use of the word to mean a pale colour was closer to 1900. I didn’t bother to research 1850s dentistry, but I believe the author took some liberties there too. Not a big deal in the scheme of a novel that doesn’t purport to be based on historical fact, but for such a seemingly authentic book I found these slip-ups a bit strange.
I’ve heard this book referred to as “Cowboy noir” and I suppose that’s apt, but makes it sound more formulaic than it is. I found it a very unique combination of story and style, and I’m sorry to say goodbye to the Sisters Brothers.
#50bookpledge - book 11 - February 27, 2012
I certainly don’t envy whomever has the task of classifying books by audience age. Especially these days when books that are so clearly meant for teenagers are being read and loved by millions of adults.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a book classified as an adult novel (and not surprisingly a bestseller among adults) but while I absolutely loved it, personally I would have put it under the young adult heading. Not just because the narrator/hero of the story and many of the other primary characters are young people, but also because the key scenes involve young people struggling to be understood by typically inflexible adults, and proving their fortitude and resourcefulness to be far beyond what most adults think them capable of. Additionally, the way the story plays out and the relatively simple way in which it is written is probably not what many adult readers would expect. The book is bound to get less-than-glowing reviews from many adult readers who weren’t expecting a bestselling adult novel to be quite so fantastical.
16-year-old Jacob grew up hearing his grandfather’s incredible tales of his own childhood following evacuation from Poland to an orphanage in Wales. His entire family was wiped out by the Nazis, and the titular headmistress and the other orphans became his family until he emigrated to the United States and started a family of his own.
As Jacob matured he came to the terrible realization that the stories his grandfather told him (about children with gifts like invisibility or levitation, and about the terrible monsters he fought against) couldn’t possibly be true. But when his grandfather was killed by a monster that only Jacob could see, he didn’t know what to believe any more, and his parents - declaring him insane - were no help. Thus began his journey to discover the truth about Miss Peregrine’s orphanage and his grandfather’s past.
This novel coincidentally seems to be a combination of several others that I’ve read recently - people with unusual abilities like in The Night Circus, a grandfather with mysterious stories like in The Tiger’s Wife, and a teenaged boy with dangerous secrets like in I Am Number Four. For an adult reader, I’d say this book comes second to The Night Circus as my favourite, but would by far my top choice for a young reader, with remarkable depth and layers both to the characters and the plot, and with truly unexpected turns all the way. The ending seems set up for a sequel, but I suspect it is intended more to allow the reader to have hope for the future of these characters, and to explore the possible results with their own imagination - another hallmark of a great YA novel.
I enjoyed this book tremendously, and particularly the photographs that inspired it. I love old photographs, and the fact that these are real photos collected by the author of extremely unusual subjects makes them all the more appealing. I can certainly understand the urge to write a narrative based on them and I can’t wait to read Ransom Riggs’ next similarly-inspired novel - Talking Pictures: Images and Messages Rescued from the Past, which is due out this year from Harper Collins.
#50bookpledge - book 10 - February 22, 2012
Within a page or two of starting The Tiger’s Wife I was already impressed with the beauty of Téa Obreht’s writing and the maturity demonstrated by such a young writer. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but here I am - two days after finishing it - at a bit of a loss for how to describe it or explain what it was trying to say. I feel as though I read several beginnings, almost as many middles, and rather fewer endings.
The novel is set primarily in three time periods. The present-day portion takes place in contemporary times in various parts of the former Yugoslavia. The narrator is a young doctor named Natalia, who is out in the field with her colleague providing immunizations to orphans and coming face-to-face with the remnants of political tension and a still-thriving culture of superstition. Her beloved grandfather (also a doctor) has just passed away - which is not in itself mysterious, as he had cancer, but he died in a tiny village that none of the family had ever heard of and with no apparent explanation for his being there - leaving Natalia feeling extremely unsettled. She contemplates her memories of her grandfather and the stories he told her, the retelling of which take up more than half of the novel.
Two particular stories are recounted in great detail, the first being the story of the “tiger’s wife” - a mythical-sounding woman from Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood in a tiny mountain village. The lengthy tale includes many rich and humourous characters, in a setting so remote and untouched by modernity that the story could easily have have been set a few hundred years earlier. The second story is compiled from various periods in the grandfather’s young adulthood when he encountered the “deathless man”, a very strange character who seems to appear at key times to impart wisdom about death and love. Natalia contemplates what truth there may have been in those stories, and what they mean now that her grandfather is no longer of this world.
I could quote passages from virtually every page that were beautifully written, and the tales from her grandfather’s past - particularly the story of the tiger’s wife - could easily stand alone as rich and complete short stories. However the threads connecting the three stories were fairly thin, and some of the leaps back into history lasted for so long that I felt jolted when the author returned to the modern story. One could safely say that the entire novel examines the history of Yugoslavia during various times of conflict (which is pretty much all of its history), and how people treat each other during such times, and the superstitions and traditions that they hold tight to particularly when times are hard. But that’s something I recognize in hindsight rather than as I read. I enjoyed each element in and of itself, but I was waiting for something to tie it all together, and I’m not sure I ever found it.
I can’t wait to read Obreht’s next book - I suspect that this novel was building up in her for most of her life, and it practically bubbles over to the point of being too much in spots and maybe too little in others. I think with a bit more pacing her work will be absolutely unbeatable.
ETA: I found this review from the Guardian that I think sums it up perfectly:
The Tiger’s Wife is a frisky tiger cub chasing its tail – it covers a lot of ground, growls a lot, and never quite gets there, but we have fun along the way. What the novel lacks in emotional depth, it makes up for in personality and sheer wackiness. But the real delirium – and the real emotion – doesn’t lie in the stories of tiger-men, bear-men, deathless men and their consorts. It’s found in the students of medicine in the war-stricken “City” trying to get skulls on the black market. It’s there when the grandfather is tipped off by Serbian mercenaries about their plan to bomb the Muslim-dominated town of Sarobor, and instead of getting out of there fast, he goes to an old restaurant, where a poignantly polite waiter serves him a last feast. He remembers his life here with his Bosnian wife, he bids farewell to the old Yugoslavia, and muses that “my name, your name, her name. In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.”
#50bookpledge - book 9 - February 16, 2012
I knew nothing about this book or the author when I bought it, I just loved the cover and the title. Then before reading it I visited the author’s website (see previous post) and fell in love with the inspiration for the book - a combination of a found piece of art, a smattering of intriguing historical facts, and a beautiful time and place in history (18th century Venice). Many of the places and key people described did exist, though the details, including most relationships and letters, are of the author’s imagination.
The story is narrated in two time periods by our heroine, Anna Maria dal Violin, who grew up as a foundling at Venice’s (real life) Ospedale della Pietà - a kind of school/orphanage where unwanted babies could be dropped off in secret to be raised until of age to get work, be married or join the church. The most unusual aspect of these Venetian institutions is that while the majority of children over age 10 were trained in trades or worked as servants of the school, promising girls - and only girls - were given the opportunity to study music and perform concerts.
In 1737, Anna Maria is 42 years old and a teacher of music at the Pietà. As she re-reads letters written by her 14-year-old self we learn more about her youth and her time as a student of the great composer, Antonio Vivaldi. She wrote the letters to her mother, though she had no idea who her mother might be, in the hopes that one of the nuns might know her identity and deliver the letters. Thanks to the societal ambitions of Vivaldi, and the adventurousness of her friends, Anna Maria sees more of Venice than most children of the Pietà, and therefore the reader gets to visit incredible places, meet fascinating people and learn about the rather strange society and customs of the time.
There is no doubt that the book was thoroughly researched, but at times it shows some of the flaws that such books can have; particularly in the early chapters it seemed like the author was trying harder than necessary to jam all of her knowledge into the book, and things like character development suffered under the weight of all the facts.
Oddly enough (considering the above) I found some things just didn’t jive, and snags like that tend to distract me from the narrative - like if a character in a story is carrying a suitcase, and then at some point it becomes clear that they aren’t, I’ll spend the next several chapters wondering what happened to it instead of focusing on what’s going on. In this case, on only the second page, I was confused by the fact that the girls in the music program were allowed on one day a year to visit any relatives they may have but that only Anna Maria had no one. Really? In an institution where almost all of the children are abandoned in secrecy, and only a select few nuns know even the tiniest details of their arrival, only one girl didn’t have any acknowledged family? I had a hard time reconciling this, as well as a few other similar puzzlers, and combined with the over-abundance of historical information (or perhaps just more detail than I was ready to absorb about select aspects of music and the school) it had me feeling a little discombobulated for the first several chapters.
Once this evened out, I thoroughly enjoyed the historical aspects and learning things that I would not have expected, like the fact that children at the Pietà received a better education than most of even the wealthiest children, and that the girls who studied music were considered highly marriageable despite their unknown heritage. The strange culture of secrecy and privacy mixed with relatively liberal attitudes towards sex and women was also very interesting.
I was disappointed in the fact that the solution to one of the key mysteries was too heavily foreshadowed, so while there were some twists in the ending that I didn’t predict, it still felt largely anticlimactic. And something in the style of the last few chapters read as though the story was over, though technically it wasn’t, and I felt like I was reading a drawn-out postscript.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the 200 or so pages in the middle where Anna Maria did most of her adventuring. My final impression is of having liked the book very much, but wishing that I could reach in and tweak just a few things to keep the early flow going and remove some of the “spoilers” that I feel it contained.
#50bookpledge - book 8 - February 12, 2012
Elizabeth Bennet, lifting her skirts to kick zombies’ heads off, and joking with Mr. Darcy about his balls … whatever would Jane Austen think?
If she were alive today I suspect she would be a pretty hip chick, so she’d probably find it funny. But, like me, she might wonder if it was really a notion worth dedicating an entire novel to, or if perhaps a comic book or short YouTube video might have sufficed.
At about 50 pages in I was quite sure that this mash-up simply wasn’t working. Maybe I would have been enjoying it more had I not known the original so well, but since I already knew exactly what was going to happen - give or take a few beheadings - I just wasn’t feeling the need to read the entire thing. I see the joke, ha ha, now let’s read something else.
But shortly after that I found myself absorbed in the love story all over again, and the bizarre addition of zombies and ninjas started to blend in almost as though they belonged. In fact, the ability of the characters to speak their minds a bit more openly than Jane Austen allowed made it somewhat less frustrating than the original version, where no one ever says what they really mean and a misunderstanding can easily extend for 100 pages or more. The writing was surprisingly good - the (only slightly) less old fashioned language was fluid and it was easy to become thoroughly engrossed. Once I got through my initial resistance phase, it turned out to be a very quick read.
While I was able to shift my mind enough to imagine the Bennett sisters at war with the undead, I found it more difficult to imagine that this new pursuit would have made them coarse in other ways. It seemed perfectly understandable that girls who had grown up in a time where zombies roamed the earth would admire firearms and compare sword techniques. It did not, however, make sense that this should make them more likely to talk ‘inappropriately’ (for the era) about sex, or be aware of the infidelities of their relatives. It seems ridiculous to say this in the context of such a parody, but these parts just didn’t ring true for me.
I’m undecided on whether I want to read another of these, which have become quite popular and spawned a whole series, including Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and both a prequel and a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Not all of the books are by the same author, though they are all published by Quirk Books, so there’s no guarantee that the writing will be as good.
New York Magazine said in their review of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters: “It’s hard to say, in the end, if this is an homage, an exploitation, a deconstruction, or just a 300-page parlor trick.” The same could probably be said of all of these books, and I think it’s probably a bit of each. The real question to me is whether the quality of the writing and the flow of the story are good enough to stand on their own, and whether the author can make you care enough about these ‘new’ characters to carry you through to the end.