Wednesday, October 14, 2015

It's MLB playoffs. What are you reading?

Recommended reading during the World Series playoffs:

Wait Till Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin (earned one of my only Goodreads' five stars this year)
This Dark Road to Mercy, Wiley Cash (earned one of my only other Goodreads' five stars this year)
Calico Joe, John Grisham
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, Howard Bryant
Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back, Josh Hamilton

What other baseball books have you read?

And, Go Cubs!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Gun Violence in Literature - A Sign of the Times?

I've just read both In the Language of Miracles (review here) and Jenny Hubbard's And We Stay. Both books focus on those left behind in a tragedy, and a high school shooting tragedy in particular.

(Fun side note: Jenny Hubbard and I have the same alma mater, Meredith College, and she was an English major like me. You should follow her on Twitter: @hubbardwrites.)

I can't imagine how tough it would be on a girl like Emily, the main character in And We Stay, to witness her boyfriend's suicide in the school library, and within a few days she's been forced by her family to undergo an abortion and has been transported from her school where she knows everyone and where her support system is, to a private all-girls boarding school in another state. She's forced to figure out what about her story to tell and what to keep private. She's forced to make new friends, go to new classes and be away from her family. She's fortunate to land a roommate who respects her privacy and cares about Emily.

But most of this tragedy Emily must bear and sort through emotionally alone. She finds solace in her own poetry writing and that of Emily Dickinson, a former student at , now Amherst School for Girls in Amherst, Massachusetts. As it turns out, Emily Beam is a good poet on her own and is encouraged by her peers and one of her teachers to enter her work in a contest.

It's this support system who helps Emily dig out of her deepest despair, and by the end of the book we get the sense that she'll be OK. 

Our country has experienced some terrible gun violence in recent months. It's my hope that with time, love and support, those affected will all be OK just like Emily and the tragic family in In the Language of Miracles.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Recent (and Fun!) Read: The Art Forger by BA Shapiro

A year and a half ago I read The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick. I'd just visited Atlanta's High Museum of Art's Dutch painters exhibit. I loved the exhibit, and the highlight was seeing the real "Girl with a Pearl Earring" as the last painting in the exhibit. I had built the book up and was so excited to read it, but was disappointed.

The Forger's Spell was a let down. Only a few parts interested me as a person who enjoys art but can only draw stick figures (my recent visit to a BYOB and paint-your-own-canvas thing produced a piece I'm not sure is worth hanging in my house).

Fast forward to this summer. I borrowed The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro from a friend, and this book has made up for the other in a sense. The book begins 25 years after the robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston (right about now). A talented painter named Claire has been trying to make it as an artist and win back a good reputation after accusations of a forging a painting a few years before. To earn money to supplement her own original works, Claire is paid to paint copies of famous paintings sold as fakes online by a large retailer. When she's approached by a trusted friend from the art world with a secret project with a large paycheck, Claire struggles to make a decision that's ethical and true to herself.

While I'd still be interested to read an interesting nonfiction book about the underground world of forging the works of famous artists, and the theft at the Gardner Museum, I enjoyed this book. The Art Forger was fun fiction, and was just the right amount of art for a person like me with good pacing and a character I could understand.

It's an interesting time to be reading a book like The Art Forger, as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the U.S. Department of Justice have just released new information on the heist this month. The two men who stole some of the world's most valuable paintings are now confirmed dead, though their names haven't been released. Now the investigation to locate those paintings continues.

Here's hoping they catch the thief and someone writes a good book about how they got away with it.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

Published by: Viking
Published on: August 11, 2015
Page Count: 272
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: ARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover, Kindle

My Review:

The Al-Menshawys, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt 15 years before, are living the American dream. Father Samir, mother Nagla, grandmother Ehsan, and teenage children Khaled, Hossam and Fatima are living comfortably in a suburban small town outside of New York City. For over a decade they've been best friends with the Bradstreets next door. Hossam's relationship with the Bradstreets' daughter Natalie has become more than a friendship until suddenly and violently, the worlds of both families are changed forever. What the Al-Menshawys chalked up to teenage moodiness was more serious than they anticipated. When Natalie ends their relationship, Hossam takes her life and his own in a nearby park. 

When the book begins, these two families have spent the year since the deaths of their children quietly removed from each other. The Al-Menshawys have carefully navigated their community. Samir's medical practice has suffered, Ehsan is keeping house while Nagla is still coming to terms with what has happened and Khaled is still getting harassed at school.

To commemorate the anniversary of their daughter's death, Jim and Cynthia are planning a tree planting and a memorial service at the park, and the public has been invited to attend. As a courtesy, Cynthia stops by the Al-Menshawys to make sure they're aware of the service. It's the first time the two families have spoken in a year.

Though the Al-Menshawys have grieved and struggled to make sense of Hossam's actions, the anniversary of the deaths brings to the surface the emotions that each family member individually has tried to keep quiet.

I liked so many things about In the Language of Miracles. The back-and-forth of the storyline works well as a structure, as it keeps the information dripping out for the reader a little at a time. I liked learning about the Egyptian culture of the Al-Menshawys and how it both changed and stayed the same as they settled into their American life. I liked this family of sad, believable characters. Hassib wrote convincingly about three different generations that although they still lived together under one roof, they were growing further apart. 

This book is a good reminder to appreciate and forgive cultural differences, realize that the grief process goes on long after a funeral service has ended and that everyone handles a loved one's death in their own time and on their own terms. This book is a good reminder to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, as you never know what they may be facing underneath the surface.

Four out of Five Stars

If you liked this book, you’ll like Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

So many people have asked me for my take on Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman: A Novel that I figured I'd just write about it.

The short version:  I really, really enjoyed it. I started it almost as soon as it arrived Tuesday a week ago and finished it about 48 hours later.

The long version:  To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book. Ever. When that is where the bar is set, everything else falls short of it. GSW is not TKM. But, it's a story that helped me feel satisfied, for the most part, about how characters turned out (GSW is set about 20 years after TKM in the 1950s). The best part about getting to revisit some of American literature's most memorable characters is that we get to see what tomboyish, precocious Scout is like as an adult. The best parts about her haven't changed. She's still sassy and she's still thinking for herself.

Scout's heart is still the same, but when she returns home for a long visit to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, she's aghast that it's not the same place she remembers from growing up there (Thomas Wolfe, anyone?). That's something I can relate to. After almost three decades in one county in North Carolina, I relocated to suburban Atlanta. My visits back were often at first, but since the first couple of years, the time between visits has increased. Now I go back once or twice a year. Something amazes me each time. Downtown Raleigh has become a place with great restaurants and other places to go after work and on the weekends instead of the ghost town it was after 5:00 15 years ago. The nearby town where I went to elementary, middle and high school has changed dramatically. Young families actually move there from Raleigh because it's a great place that's tripled in population size since I was in high school. I could go on.

What some readers and critics have focused on is the difference we see in Atticus, who is, in GSW an elderly man who has passed the torch on to another, younger lawyer but still shows up to his law firm most days. He's still a pillar in the community. Just as Scout sneaked up to the courthouse balcony to watch her father defend Tom Robinson, she finds her same spot one afternoon to see where all the men in town have gone. As it turns out, it's a meeting that has a pro-segregation bent to it.

Don't many of us have an idealized notion of who are parents are and what they stand for when we're kids? At some point, for most of us, that changes. Suddenly, we find out that our parents are real people. And most of the time, real people are complicated. Discovering who are parents actually are as people is a big part of what it means to grow up.

Seeing Scout as a grown up is my favorite thing about GSW.      

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - I'm reading. Are you?

Yesterday was a great day. Around midday, my mail carrier dropped off what I've been looking forward to receiving for months.

I was able to get some reading in before bed last night, and I'm looking for more today.

Are you reading Go Set a Watchman, or are you planning to?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Re Jane by Patricia Park

Re Jane by Patricia Park
Published by: Pamela Dorman Books
Published on: May 5, 2015
Page Count: 352
Genre: Fiction
My Reading Format: ARC ebook for Kindle provided by NetGalley
Available Formats: Hardcover, Kindle ebook, Audible

My Review:

Jane is a college graduate living in Queens, NY, with her uncle and his family, and working in the family business, an international grocery store, while she is job hunting. As she is unappreciated and brushed aside by her uncle and his family, they are the only family she has outside of Korea. When a friend shows her a want ad for an au pair in Brooklyn, she puts her dreams of a job on finance on hold and applies for the job. This live-in job will ensure that she can quit her job at the family business and move out from under her uncle's roof.

In her new role, Jane is caregiver for Devon, the Chinese adopted daughter of Ed Farley and Beth Mazer, two professors. In their home, she is out from the watchful eye of her uncle and his high expectations that she'll act according to her Korean upbringing. Jane feels freer to be herself and forms a friendship with Ed over late-night conversations in the kitchen, which develops into a deeper relationship. As Jane is falling more deeply in love, she and her New York family are summoned to Seoul for a family funeral.  

Jane stays in Seoul longer than expected, and while she is gone, September 11, 2001 happens in New York City, changing everything. She finds a job teaching English and makes new friends. In Seoul, Jane also becomes more self-assured. Her time in Korea makes Jane's attempt to balance the two parts of her life (Korean and American) and her family's wishes with her own even more difficult.

Overall, I liked this modern interpretation of Jane Eyre. As a modern woman, I wished Jane had a stronger resolve against her attraction to her boss. I was disappointed that she was so intrigued with Ed without getting a connection from his end. I found their relationship to be creepy, as Beth wasn't the madwoman in the attic but a very present parent in the same household as this developing romance. Ed went back to Beth, which I expected. Becomes more self-assured once she spends time in Seoul. She's tired of doing what's expected of her. Jane leaves Ed. She knows she can do better for herself. He knows it too.

I very much enjoyed watching Jane navigate her world, which included living in two cultures and balancing what she wanted to do with her life with what she was expected to do. By the end of the book, I was satisfied with the decisions she made for herself. And, even though she dreamed of a job in finance, she made a good au pair and I liked watching a warm relationship with Devon develop. 

Three and a half out of five stars

If you liked this book, you’ll like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (of course!), The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford and Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The importance of libraries (and Ferguson, Missouri's in particular!)

I’m a big fan of libraries going back as far as childhood. This won’t surprise any of you who know how much I love to read. Growing up, my mom, sister and I visited our library about once a week in the summer, and I distinctly remember when I could write enough to fill out the form to get my own library card. I was probably about 7 or 8.

A year and a half ago, the latest library branch in my county near Atlanta opened up. It’s beautiful. Every time I stop in I’m amazed at how many people are in there. In that community room on the left as you go in, it’s almost never empty. I’ve walked by county commissioners’ lunches, genealogy workshops, knitting classes and book clubs going on in there. I’m glad to see that libraries are noticing that patrons sometimes want a little something different from what a library has traditionally offered.   
If you can remember back a few months to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African American male, by a police officer, while most of the news coverage was focused on the protesters, the property damage and the police officer, did you notice that the Ferguson Library made the news?

The Ferguson library was determined to stay open to provide a place to go for people who didn’t have one and to be a pillar for this crumbling community.

According to ABC News, after Michael Brown’s death on August 9, the Ferguson Library used their social media platforms to tell Ferguson residents that they were open to provide respite for those who needed a place to go, a place to check email and a place to get a bottle of water. Their tweet read, “We are here for all of our residents. If you want to come, get water, read, check email, we are here….” That week while schoolchildren were delayed in starting their school year, people came to the library seeking a safe community. Teachers who were unable to start their school year, showed up at the library to meet their students and give lessons to any children who wanted them. One hundred and twenty children came to be with teachers that week.  

In November, a writer named Ashley Ford who lives in Brooklyn noticed this and tweeted out that her way of helping the people of Ferguson was to donate money to their library. Her idea caught fire online and was retweeted numerous times. I happened to notice it the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I kept coming back to Twitter to see people’s messages and the Ferguson Library’s tweets about how committed they are to their community.

According to the Los Angeles Times, in a matter of weeks, $350,000 had been donated to the Ferguson Library, and they have been the recipient of numerous book drives from around the country. $350,000 represents about 85% of their annual budget. With this money, for example, just this week, they have hired two full-time children’s librarians. No doubt they’ll be able to do countless other great things with this money.

The library continues to stay active on social media. Recently they've posted inspiring quotations by Martin Luther King, Jr., advertised that they have free after school tutoring and talked about their most recent award, the MLK Drum Major for Service Award, presented by President Obama.

And meanwhile, they’re still tweeting out uplifting happy messages from a town still in need of a lot of healing. For example, one of this week’s tweets has been: “Life can throw some pretty hard challenges but kids who read learn to believe in themselves.”