Monthly Archives: July 2010

Storm Report and Vacation!

So on Sunday, we had a fierce thunderstorm that knocked out the power in our neighborhood from about 3:30 or 4pm in the afternoon until 10 am Monday morning.  I was on the computer when powerful wind gusts started whipping around the trees outside my window.  The lights flickered and went out almost immediately.  And then the thunder, lightning and pouring rain came.

I paced in the apartment, sure that there was a tornado warning out.  The storm itself was very quick and when it left, there was half of a tree on another resident’s car, the windshield all smashed in.

With the power still out, I managed to finish the book I was reading (Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones) by planting a folding chair by the sliding glass doors as the sun set.  I could see other residents in the complex moving about their apartments with flashlights, and as in our apartment, the flickering of burning candles.

The next morning, I woke up early, as I tend to do when something isn’t normal, such as there still not being any power.  Where I work still had power, but I knew from my battery-powered shower radio that lots of traffic lights were not working. It was a very interesting commute to say the least.

I go through about twelve traffic lights on my way to work and only the last two were working.  Police were at a couple of intersections, but mostly it was a bunch of beleaguered drivers trying to remember how the rules of a four-way stop work in large intersections with three or four lanes of traffic.

I’m glad we got our power back on Monday though – apparently others in the area are still without power even now!

I’ll be glad to get away from the D.C. area humidity and craziness when I fly tomorrow to Maine.  Yes!  It’s vacation time!  As in: two weeks in Maine, which is where I’m originally from.  I’ll be staying at my parents’ home, going hiking, sea kayaking, seeing friends who are up there, and maybe even attending my 10-year high school reunion (yikes!).

But of course, you bookish people must be wondering, will I be doing any reading?  And the answer is oh yes absolutely.

Last summer, I almost perfectly calculated the amount of books to bring with me.  We’ll see how I do this time.  I am bringing:

Blood Cross by Faith Hunter

– 2nd book of a cool urban fantasy series I discovered this year

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

– I’ve heard nothing but praise about this sci-fi author

Evia by Sara Wheeler

– Wheeler is a travel writer and the author of the Terra Incognita which I read earlier this year.  Evia is a Greek island.  Sounds like perfect summer vacation reading to me!

And then I’m getting all ambitious about my “Read 19 Books older than I am” challenge:

A book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, including “Self-Reliance” which I remember loving in high school

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

– I think this should be a good summer read.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

– I had actually first picked Great Expectations for the list but I find myself more drawn to Our Mutual Friend.  It probably helps that I really liked the 1998 miniseries adaptation of Our Mutual Friend. This was Dickens’ last novel.

Now of course, including a tome like Our Mutual Friend is a risky move.  Reading Dickens is a risky move as I loved Bleak House but hated David Copperfield.  So we’ll see.

And because the Middlemarch readalong, hosted by Nymeth of things mean a lot is at the end of August, that book will be also in my bag, just to see if I can get a start on it. Now that, I’ll admit, may be wishful thinking.  (I am determined to read my “19 Books Older than I am” list in chronological order, so that is why I’m waiting to read Middlemarch until the others are done.)

So there you have it.  Now I probably will post some while I’m on vacation, so next time you’ll hear from me, it will be from up north.  Can’t wait!

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DNF – All-American Girl and Children of the New Forest

I’ve had two Did-Not-Finish [DNF] books this past month.  Sometimes when I put a book down, it’s not a final sign-off.  Sometimes a book just doesn’t match my mood at the time, or another book takes priority due to an impending due date at the library or similar reason.  But in the case of these two books that I checked out from the library, I don’t think I will try them again.

All-American Girl by Meg Cabot

I’ve actually never read a book by YA lit queen Meg Cabot before.  I read a review of All-American Girl on another blogger’s website that praised the narrator’s voice and the likability of the protagonist.  Unfortunately, though I liked the fact that the book was set in D.C., the narrator didn’t click with me.  Perhaps it’s that I just don’t like being in a teenager’s head – there’s an element of cluelessness there that I sometimes can’t put up with.  Also there were a lot of references to pop culture and it felt like too much clutter.

Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat

This was supposed to be my fifth book for my challenge of reading 19 Books Older than I am in 2010.  It was the book for the decade 1840-1849.  Unfortunately, Children of the New Forest managed to be boring even though the children’s family home is burned down and they must go in hiding from Cromwell’s soldiers.  Part of the dullness can be attributed to the characterization: the children are dutiful and two-dimensional.  There is no real personality there.

In addition, there is this gem of a line early in the book:

“But, mercy on us! What will become of the children?” said Agatha, as they walked along, her fears for herself having, up to this time, made her utterly forgetful of them. “Poor things! And Martha has left them.”

“Yes, indeed; what will become of the dear babes?” said the cook, half-crying.

Now Jacob, knowing that the children of such a Malignant as Colonel Beverley would have sorry treatment if discovered, and knowing also that women were not always to be trusted, determined not to tell them how they were disposed of.

Now I have read other books that have contained sexist sentiments and ideas, but it really is not worth reading a book that is both dull and sexist.  For 1840-1849, I think I’ll read a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays instead.

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Jack and Rochelle by Jack and Rochelle Sutin

A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance

Ed. by Lawrence Sutin

1995. 225 pages. Hardcover. Graywolf Press.

From: Public Library, Interlibrary Loan

For: Spotlight Series

Synopsis:

Jack and Rochelle Sutin tell their survival story, taking turns recounting all that they endured as Polish Jews during the Holocaust.   They start with a brief account of their family and their lives before the war.  Mere acquaintances before the Nazi occupation, the two met again after escaping the ghettos, hiding with other Jewish partisans in the Belorussian forest called Naliboki.

Review:

In December of last year, I read Nechama Tec’s book Defiance, about the Bielski partisans, who took in Jewish ghetto refugees and fought the Germans.  The Bielski otriad (partisan group) was in the Naliboki forest, as were Jack and Rochelle, who joined a different otriad.  The stories told in Defiance were incredible, and I was glad to return to the subject and read another story of the same place and time.

Jack and Rochelle is written with some passages by Rochelle and others by Jack.  They take turns, sometimes interjecting a sentence in the other’s narrative.  In his preface, Lawrence Sutin says:

My parents chose to speak openly of their experiences to us – to my sister Cecilia and myself.  I cannot remember at what age I first began to hear their Holocaust stories.

So it seems fitting that it is written as if they are telling the stories to us, the reader.

Jack and Rochelle are very candid and seem to hold very little back from the reader.  For instance, they openly admit that Rochelle did not trust Jack for a while after they met again in the forest.  He wanted to take care of her, but she thought he just wanted her for sex.  Considering Rochelle and her friend Tanya’s previous experiences with Soviet partisans, her distrust is understandable.

Although I knew of course that Jack and Rochelle survived the Holocaust and made it to America, that did not prevent me from feeling the intensity of their ordeals.  Consider a few quotes from the book:

We didn’t expect to live that long.  We just decided that we didn’t want to be killed the way the Nazis planned – slowly, as it suited their purposes, and after we had worked ourselves to near death.  We could die with some dignity.  We would try to get away, they would shoot us with their machine guns, and that would be it. (p. 73)

Then we realized that these two Germans thought we were Russian partisans.  So we explained the truth to them.  We told them what the Germans had done to our families.  When they heard that their faces turned white and they started to tremble. (p. 141)

For the most part, Jack and Rochelle are in agreement over the events that they jointly experienced.  However, Rochelle would mention several times how she worked to keep Jack from going out on the most dangerous partisan raids.  Jack was always quick to follow with a statement that: though she may have kept him from some raids, most of the time he did fight with the rest of the Zorin otriad fighters.  As a result, I wasn’t sure how much Jack went out on raids.

I definitely appreciate that Jack and Rochelle did not stop their story when the the Germans were ousted from Poland in 1944.  By continuing on, the book covered an aspect of the Holocaust experience of which I knew few details: what happened to the Jews immediately after their liberation from the Nazis.

For indeed, Jack and Rochelle’s troubles did not disappear with the defeat of the Nazis.  When they returned to their hometowns, the couple found that the majority of their Polish neighbors hated them and wished they had not survived.  The Soviets were conscripting the partisan fighters to their army, to fight and likely die on the front.  Jack and Rochelle wanted to live and start a family, so they fled west.

After many, many trials and hardships, the couple and their daughter finally ended up in St. Paul, Minnesota.  They were interviewed for a local paper and a story was published about them in 1949.  I was horrified to read that Jack and Rochelle subsequently received anonymous letters and phone calls “complaining about dirty Jews being let into America when there wasn’t enough to go around for real Americans.”

The afterword by Lawrence Sutin is essential reading after completing Jack and Rochelle’s story.  He has some keen insights about his parents, their stories, and his own experience of being the child of two Holocaust survivors.

Here, of course, lies the value of Holocaust narratives told by the survivors themselves.  These narratives confirm that, within the maelstrom of death, the lives lost or spared were individual lives that cannot be encompassed by the horrific statistic of “six million.” (p. 206)

I read Jack and Rochelle as part of the Spotlight Press Series Graywolf tour.  Check out the other stops here.

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Teaser Tuesday: Jack and Rochelle

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

My quote this week is from Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance by Jack and Rochelle Sutin, Edited by Lawrence Sutin.

When I think back, I’m not sorry for what I did.  I don’t think I could do it again now.  But at that moment we were all so filled with anger, anxiety, bitterness.  Seeing the enemy in our midst was all it took for us to explode.  We had been forced to live like animals and for that moment we became animals.

p. 143

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You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn

2010. 261 pages. Hardcover. Crown.

From: the public library

Where I heard about it: I saw this book mentioned briefly a while back on the blog Stuff & Nonsense.

For the challenge: What’s in a Name (plant)

In a nutshell:

Actress / writer Annabelle Gurwitch and television writer Jeff Kahn write about marriage, specifically humorous, warts-and-all stories about their marriage to each other.  It is also a story about raising their son, Ezra, who was born with severe birth defects.

Review:

In the introduction to the book, Jeff describes authors of previous marriage self-help books as “the Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts of the new frontier of marriage.”  He then says, “And if they are Boones and Crocketts, then you should think of Annabelle and me and our book as the Donner Party.”

As that quote indicates, Gurwitch and Kahn do not think of themselves as a model married couple.  Most of the book consists of self-deprecating stories of their courtship, marriage and parenthood.  The book is told in a he says / she says format throughout, where they often (with humor) contest the other’s version of events or perspective.

I definitely laughed aloud several times throughout the book.  My favorite passage was Annabelle’s description of their late-night discussions regarding baby Ezra’s fluid intake, which had to be measured and monitored carefully due to defects.  An excerpt:

If our house had been wiretapped, you might have thought that we were running a meth lab: Male voice: “How many ounces of liquid did you pour in this morning?  I can’t read your handwriting.”  Female: “I can’t remember!”

Though I would characterize the book as mostly humor writing, the authors do get serious on occasion.  This occurs particularly when talking about their son’s health condition and in their concluding chapter when they get down to why they are still married.

Though the book had its funny moments, after the halfway point, I realized that it was failing to charm me overall.  I had been reading the funniest parts out loud to my roommate, but as I told her later, she was getting the “trailer” version of the book.  You know how some movie trailers make the film look wall-to-wall laughs and then you find out the best bits were all in the trailer?  That’s the version she got.  I felt like for every genuinely funny anecdote, there were so many more jokes that fell flat.

For example, I didn’t understand why there had to be quite a few lame jokes about Republicans and right-wingers.  I just think that liberals’ jokes about conservatives, and conservatives’ jokes about liberals have been done to the ground.  There is often such a smugness and laziness to these jokes that I find grating.

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up was published recently, so I usually understood the various references to pop culture and current news.  However, references to the Rosie O’Donnell / Donald Trump feud, and the careers of Dane Cook and Gretchen Mol, already make the book sound dated, and it’s only going to get worse in future years.

At one point, when Annabelle says that her mother “indoctrinated me in the kind of feminist rhetoric she had been denied,” I suddenly was reminded of Ayelet Waldman who described her mother similarly in her book Bad Mother.  And once that connection was made in my head, I inevitably compared the two books, which cover similar territory (though Waldman’s book is focused more on motherhood than on marriage).  Bad Mother wins out for being more strongly written and more thought-provoking.  I actually intend to read Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon later this year (Waldman’s husband), where he talks about being a father.  Apparently, this is my year for reading husband/wife point and counterpoints.

As for You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up, I found Annabelle and Jeff to be likable, but their book has a certain forgettable quality that prevents me from recommending it in general.

Other reviews:

A Worn Path – who does recommend the book and also has an embedded video of Gurwitch and Kahn discussing their book

Citizen Reader

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

1831. 416 pages. Hardcover.  The Modern Library.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself

In a nutshell:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame takes place in fifteenth century Paris.  The title character, named Quasimodo, was discovered as a foundling in the Notre Dame Cathedral, unwanted because of extreme physical deformities.  He is raised by the archdeacon, Claude Frollo, whose spiritual profession does not counterbalance the fact that he creeps out all the other characters.  At the center of the tale is Esmerelda, a pretty Gypsy girl of sixteen who performs amusements to the Parisian crowds with a trained little goat.  Frollo desires to possess her, but she has a heart only for Phoebus, the vain womanizing captain of the archers.  When Esmerelda is accused of a witchcraft and murder, it sets off a series of tragic events that will culminate at the Notre Dame cathedral.

Review:

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I saw Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Dark as it was for a children’s movie, I was told afterward by a cousin that the book was even darker.  Namely, more people die in the book.  I haven’t ever rewatched the movie, but I did buy the soundtrack.  The opening song is my favorite:

So when I was researching 1830’s books for my personal challenge list, and saw this title, I thought it was time I read this classic, and found out the ‘real’ story.  (I totally listened to the soundtrack while reading it too.)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a tragedy set in a cruel world.  There is the cruelty of obsession as depicted by Frollo, of course, but more prevalent and arguably more evil, is the cruelty of indifference. Esmerelda is doomed to be judged unfairly because people just can’t be bothered to find out the truth.  The fickle crowds will root for whatever will provide them with the best spectacle.

Esmerelda’s innocence of character could be cloying on occasion, as she has the role of the suffering lamb.  But she is not a saint.  Though she shows kindness to Quasimodo, she is still largely repulsed by him and doesn’t hide it.  Esmerelda’s eternal pining for the worthless Phoebus made me want to shake her.

Quasimodo is a character of simple desires and motivations.  He is cut off from the world not only because of his ugliness but because his beloved bells have made him deaf.  His loyalty is wholly to Frollo, though that will be tested when Frollo seeks to harm Esmerelda, the object of the hunchback’s humble adoration.

Victor Hugo tells his story with a mixture of satire and sentiment, two tones that work to balance each other out.  For instance, in the height of a wrenching scene, Hugo might insert some unexpected levity.  In one such scene, a woman is trying to hide Esmerelda and lies about a cart smashing into her window a year ago.  (She is trying to explain its current broken state.)  The commander accuses her of making it up, when an archer pipes up:

“‘Tis true,” said another archer, “I was there.”

Always and everywhere people are to be found who have seen everything.

I love that line, the comical mock-weariness of it.  Hugo gifts us with many such snarks throughout the book.

Victor Hugo did have an irritating habit of screeching the story to a halt on several occasions.  The story gets off to a great start, introducing us memorably to its vast array of characters.  Suddenly, Hugo stops the story completely to describe the architectural history of Paris, lamenting about the modern styles that have corrupted such edifices as the venerable Notre Dame Cathedral.  On an earlier post, Lit Omnivore alerted me to the fact that Victor Hugo wanted to save the cathedral from its decrepit state at the time.  All well and good, but did he really have to make me slog through two chapters of the developments of each quartier and avenue?

The only payoff was that this narrative break concluded with an exquisite description of the bells pealing all over Paris.  It’s a passage that is wonderful to read aloud too, and one of many reasons why I find myself quite fond of the book.  As a conclusion to my review, I will leave you with this excerpt:

First come scattered strokes, running from one church to another, as when musicians give warning that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, behold!–for it seems at times, as though the ear also possessed a sight of its own,–behold, rising from each bell tower, something like a column of sound, a cloud of harmony. First, the vibration of each bell mounts straight upwards, pure and, so to speak, isolated from the others, into the splendid morning sky; then, little by little, as they swell they melt together, mingle, are lost in each other, and amalgamate in a magnificent concert. It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations.

Other reviews:

Reading with Tequila – who is not a fan of the book

If you have reviewed this book, let me know, and I’ll add a link to it.

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Buying Time by Pamela Samuels Young

2009. 419 pages. Paperback. Goldman House Publishing.

From: I received this book for a virtual tour review from Pump Up Your Book Promotions.

Short summary:

In this legal thriller, someone is murdering terminally ill people.  These crimes link together an array of characters: a man with chilling ambition and a sordid secret; a former lawyer whose new job makes him wealthy but morally compromised; an assistant district attorney who is in denial about a growing threat in her personal life.

Longer summary:

In the viatical industry, brokers buy life insurance policies from terminally ill people.  The sellers get a portion of the policy’s value – immediate cash – and the investor gets the full value of the policy when the ill person dies.  Facing imminent disbarment and a high-maintenance wife, lawyer Waverly Sloan becomes a broker in this industry.

When people who sold their insurance policies start dying in suspicious ways, Sloan finds himself scrutinized by a task force of Los Angeles federal prosecutors.  Heading this team is Assistant D.A. Angela Evans.  She’s good at her job, but is engaged to a controlling man who belittles her.  When she tries to get out of that relationship, and start a new relationship with easy-going Dre, she finds that both men have a hidden side she did not expect.

Successful lawyer Lawrence Erickson is on track to become the next U.S. Attorney General, but he too has something to hide.  His greatest enemy is his wife, who hates him and knows a career-destroying secret.  She is also slowly dying of cancer.  Erickson and his loyal law partner Becker hatch a plan to accelerate her death, but secrets have a way of coming to light.

(Note: Buying Time does contain some strong language and sexual content.)

Review:

I decided to read and review Buying Time based on the author’s biography from her website.  The first two sentences of her bio read:

Corporate attorney Pamela Samuels Young has always abided by the philosophy that you create the change you want to see. Fed up with never seeing women or people of color depicted as savvy, hot shot attorneys in the legal thrillers she read, the Compton Native decided to create her own characters.

I like that: an author filling a gap, writing the books she wants to read.

Samuels Young’s experience as an attorney is clear from the legal knowledge that is convincingly worked into the story.  I like legal thrillers that dig into the details of the work.   I get suspicious if things are too easy, if the characters are not restricted by things like technology, jurisdictions and politics.

Of course, hard-working and ethical Angela Evans is who I was rooting for, but I liked how some of the main characters were morally gray if not downright evil.  Erickson’s buddy Becker was a particularly interesting and slippery character.

I loved when, near the end, some of the characters find themselves unexpectedly hiding out together.  They don’t all like one another but are forced to cohabit a small apartment for a while.  These scenes were still tense, but had some rather funny moments as well.

Midway through the book, I suspected the truth of how the central murder went down.  However, the thriller still had some revelations in that corner, and I definitely didn’t know how it was all going to end for the characters.

Though I gravitate toward thrillers as a genre, they are not all hits with me.  Thanks to its grounding in legal know-how and interesting characters, Buying Time can be counted as one I enjoyed.

Other reviews:

Just One More Paragraph

The Literary Omnivore

the little reader

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