Welcome to my blog. If you're addicted to books, like I am, then you've come to the right place. I mostly write about books and my experiences reading them. These are very personal book reviews. (If you can even call them book reviews...) I’m a true believer that none of us lives in a vacuum. When you read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, etc., you absorb that art form into your life experience, and it changes you. But you also change it, because no two people see anything the same way. The way I interpret a novel may be totally different from the way you will. It’s still the same novel, but the meaning for each of us is unique. Once you express that meaning, it changes the art. So these posts are about how these books fit into my life. I’d love to hear how they fit into yours. Please make comment and share your experience.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review of Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

I’ve only met one real con-man in my life.  I worked for a small IT firm at the time and he was hired as the regional director.  He came off so smooth, so polished.  He seemed like he knew everything and was going to fix all our problems.  But it didn’t take long for us to realize that none of his stories made sense if you scratched the surface a bit.  Quickly the lies became a black hole, swallowing up everything about him.  When they had enough evidence, they fired him for embezzlement.  Those of us left in the office picked up the pieces, feeling foolish and angry and frustrated and sad.  In the end, I could let it go because I wasn’t really attached to him in any way.  But his 5 year old son couldn’t escape him that easily.  It would take quite a tractor beam to keep that little boy from getting sucked into the black hole.
Await Your Reply  by Dan Chaon is a story about the people getting sucked in.  These people start out wanting something simple: a new life, a close relationship, an understanding of self.  They fall fast and hard into a harsh reality of lies and worse.   It’s a story about wanting to be connected and at the same time, it’s a story all about separation. 
It begins with what seem to be three different story lines: the high school grad that runs off with her former teacher, the man searching for his twin brother, missing for more than a decade, and the college student who finds out he was adopted and goes to live with his uncle/biological father.  We’re riveted as our protagonists realize just how much the people they are with or seeking are not who they seem to be.  It’s a tragedy in that you really get to like these characters and slowly their worlds just crumble around them.   I really enjoyed that Chaon told the story from the perspectives of the ones who start out as innocent and naive and end up as somewhat willing participants in a mess of crime and intrigue.  They don’t know how get out, nor even if they want to... 
The beauty of this book is that you keep guessing all the way through.  It’s a crime drama, a thriller, and a mystery.   You think you know what’s happening and then the author drops a line that throws you into a whole other direction. 
Other reviews I’ve read say this is a story about identity theft.  I’m not so sure I would say that, although that is part of it.  It’s about the question of closeness and separation.  How much does one person have to separate themselves from the things that make them who they are in order to gain what they desire?  Each of these characters struggles with this question.  They think they want someone/something so badly and they lose most everything else in the process, their entire identities.   The character most separated from reality, identity, and self, is the one who most desires personal closeness and connection.  The irony for this character is that his complete separation from those things makes being close to anyone impossible. 
For those of you who want a happy ending, you won’t exactly find one here, but Chaon does leave us with a shred of hope for each of our characters at the end. 
Rating time:
CF (Crack Factor)---8.  This book goes fast.  You get sucked into the black hole, too
DF (Distraction Factor) – 8.  This is a haunting tale.  It will bother you for a while.
PF (People Factor) – 9.  The characters are really rich.  I was invested in their lives.  I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to find out what was going to happen to them.
STF (Story Telling Factor) – 9.  It’s a twisty plot but it has to be.  That is part of the joy of this book--you keep guessing.
WS (Writing Skills Factor) – 9. Chaon knows his craft.  The words do not disappoint. 
Total rating – 8.6

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review of Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

My Junior and Senior year of college I lived in a student co-op: 50 college kids in two old Victorian houses, yellow with red trim. It was a dump, like most student housing is, but it was home because of the people and the attachments you made within those walls.  Camaraderie and interesting conversation were some of the many benefits of living there.  I remember one dinner table discussion:  What would you have been if you had been born in a different time?   (Or maybe it was a past life kind of conversation…I’m not sure, it was a long time ago.)  My roommate (who is still one of my very best friends umpteen years later) said “a medieval beer wench.”  We all laughed.  One of the other women, whose name I don’t remember, but whose small, delicate face and pin straight blond hair are still vivid in my mind, said “With the lack of options available to most women, I’m sure I would have been a prostitute.”  Discussion ensued and I don’t remember the rest, but that comment stayed with me.  It made me so thankful to live now, in a time and place where I have options.
Plenty of people in the world still don’t have the options I have had.  I know how fortunate I am.  Not to trivialize that thought, but one of the many benefits to living here and now is that I get to read fabulous books which drive that point home.  Pope Joan by Donna Wolfolk Cross is one of those books.  A friend recommended it to me, knowing that I like historical dramas; it was one of her favorites.  It is based on the story/legend/rumor/(fact?) that a woman (may have) sat on the papal throne in the 9th century.  Cross crafts a great story around this idea and then at the end, she gives us the details of all her research, both the things that point toward this conclusion and away from it.  Apparently there are more than 500 references in historical documents that this actually could have happened.  And yet the historical record during this time is so patchy, and this is the kind of thing the church would have wanted to bury, so it’s anyone’s guess if it happened or not.  So we begin with this mystery---was there a female pope?  Cross’s book makes you want to believe she was real. 
To sum up the plot, Joan is a very intelligent little girl, in a time when girls were not educated and when women had almost no power or control over their own lives.  She has to go to great lengths to learn to read, in secret, with fears of even being killed for her attempt at knowledge since current religious understanding was that an educated woman was unnatural and therefore against God’s law.  During a barbarian raid, her brother and everyone they know are murdered by invaders.  With so few options before her, Joan assumes his name, his clothes and his life.  She enters a monastery.   As a boy, all the hardships she had faced as a girl, being persecuted and ridiculed for her wit, disappear.  In the monastery, she quickly earns the respect of her peers and is able to continue to study, learn, and use her knowledge openly.   Turns of fate bring her to Rome and her reputation as a skilled physician enables her to work closely with the current pope.  Her popularity among the Roman people is widespread and amidst political upheaval, they elect her the new Pope upon her predecessor’s death. 
The biggest surprise for me in this book, however, was a love story thread that weaves through almost the entire novel.  As a teenager, Joan meets Gerold, a wealthy, intelligent and educated man.  He becomes her benefactor of sorts, her protector, and her friend, which quickly turns into something more.  He’s the only person with whom she can truly be herself and let her knowledge and intelligence shine.  (It was disruptions in this storyline that made me skip ahead---Will they ever get back together?-----I MUST know!!!!)  This part of Joan’s life is what brought the question of option and choice into the forefront.   Gerold appreciates her knowledge and intelligence, and wants to share his life with her, but it comes to a point where she has to choose: Stay with Gerold and be (to all others) an “unnatural” woman who has no power or influence and can’t speak her mind in public, or hide her gender to continue her education and live a life where her intellect and education are encouraged and appreciated openly.  
Another theme in the book that I found particularly fascinating was the question of true faith or forced submission.  The only avenues for education for anyone in that time came via the church.  Naturally that is where Joan goes to quench her thirst for knowledge; yet the author never explicitly says that Joan believes in Christianity.  Joan has a deep, personal understanding that many people of the day only pretended to believe in the church’s teachings to escape starvation, poverty, torture and/or death.  The author brings this idea up several times throughout the book, with several different characters.  Joan’s pagan mother was one of them, only marrying a priest for food and protection.  Outwardly she complied with expectations, but inwardly, she never gave up her pagan Gods.  To Joan, her mother represents love and tenderness.  Her Christian father is the complete opposite:  hateful, oppressive, and abusive.  His harsh understanding and interpretation of his faith directly correlate to the pain and misery Joan feels in her situation.  As an adult, Joan preaches Christianity because it is only within the church structure that she is able to learn, speak her mind, and be a productive, helpful member of society.  Yet she resents that same institution for not allowing her to be herself and for forcing her to give up life as a woman with the people she loves.  So perhaps she was also one of the many who pretended to believe only to serve their purpose.  How ironic that she should rise to the highest level of the church if we never know for sure that she’s a believer? 
All in all, I really loved this book.  Joan’s struggles and triumphs, hopes and heartaches become your own as you travel with her from birth to death.  It’s got it all:  politics, religion, drama, family dynamics, love, hate, sex, betrayal, romance, medicine, war, murder and more. 
Here are my ratings.  I got a little feedback that my rating system was hard to understand.  There is a Rating System Key page to explain it, but I figured I’d do a little more explanation for each category in this and probably future reviews. 
CF (Crack Factor)---10  I really couldn’t put this book down.  I consumed 200 pages and stayed up past midnight the day I cracked the binding.  You will get hooked.
EF (Enrichment Factor)—8  I definitely learned new stuff in this book, especially with the author’s  description of her research at the end of the story. 
PF-People Factor-9  Joan & Gerold are really great characters, so are Joan’s parents and teachers and the popes and several of the other minor characters, but since it is a book mainly about one person, all the minor characters aren’t as richly drawn as they maybe could have been. 
TSF (Tears Shed Factor)—7 There are some heart wrenching parts; it will get to you. 
WSF-Writing Skills Factor—10—She’s good. Really good.
STF-Story Telling Factor-10—The author has a gift for storytelling.  She takes a blip in the historical record and creates a story that is hard to forget.  (I’m just realizing that maybe this factor is redundant as it would be hard to rate this one lower if the Crack Factor is high…Oh well, it’s here now.)
BABF (Bad Ass Babe Factor)—9  Joan is cool.  She’s a really smart, compassionate heroine.    
HTAF (To be explained soon Factor)--8  This is the only rating factor not yet explained in my Rating System Key because I have a whole post in the works about this one.  Basically this is the hot guy factor.  Gerold ranks pretty high on this scale.  He’s an all-around good man, smart, incredibly attractive, very loyal to Joan, and a tough guy to boot.  He doesn’t get a 9 because I did find him a little puppy dog-ish toward the end.  Joan jerks him around for years and while he gets a point for sticking with her, he gets two taken away for putting up with that crap.  I guess I found it just a tad unbelievable that he would have stayed with her so long, and yet the romantic in me loved that he did. 
Average/Total rating:  8.875

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review of Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Product DetailsConfession time---When I’m reading a book, I skip ahead.  And sometimes I read the end early.  It’s really a shameful trait for a reader.  I don’t always do it, but if some plot twist happens mid-book,  and I’m particularly worried about one of my favorite characters, I’ll skim ahead until I know they’re okay again.  I just can’t stand waiting to find out.  It’s a very bad habit. My dad scolds me all the time.  So do other book lovers who must have more patience than I.  With Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, however, I was able to read straight through, front to back, not because it wasn’t filled with intense parts, but because of the way the author structured it.  He didn’t follow the main character’s life chronologically.  Kidder skipped back and forth between his character’s childhood and young adult years in Africa, and then his later life in the US, so I knew he’d be okay in the end, because I’d already read about him 10 years later.   I found this structure a very comforting way to deal with a very intense, sometimes scary and disturbing story
This is the true (non-fiction) story of Deogratias (Deo).  You follow him from his childhood, herding cows in Burundi, through his medical school training in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, into the outbreak of civil unrest and genocide in that country.  He wanders through the Burundian and Rwandan countryside as a refugee for a time and then escapes to the US, where he works delivering groceries and sleeping in Central Park.  Eventually he finds friends to help him go to college (at Columbia!) and then medical school at Dartmouth.  There are no spoilers here, since Kidder jumps from time to time, you already know all these things about Deo as his story evolves. 
I love to encounter a story (either fiction or non-fiction) that brings a big historical or world news event out of the headlines and into the life of a single person or family. Intellectually, I knew about the genocide in Rwanda (though not in Burundi) and I knew it was horrible, but having heard only bits and pieces, I could still retain a sense of detachment.  But once that Hutu/Tutsi conflict had Deo’s name and face and experience plastered all over it, I felt it in a whole other place.    
In the second part of the book, Kidder switches from a third person narrative to first person, as he inserts himself into Deo’s tale as chronicler.  At first this switch really bothered me.  I couldn’t move past the change, but I found the reflection that this change enabled brought about the more thought-provoking parts of the book.  Kidder details his interviews with the people that helped Deo along the way and his and Deo’s return trips to Burundi. 
As a spiritual, but non-religious person, I am always intrigued by theological ramblings.  There were a few parts in the 2nd part of the novel that really had my wheels turning.  At one point, Kidder and Sharon, one of Deo’s friends and benefactors, speculate on the role of God when trying to understand how something like genocide can happen.  How do we understand suffering if God exists?  Kidder’s thoughts mirror my own in that I can’t understand how someone can say “God helped me” or “God spared me” when so many others aren’t helped or spared; is he really choosing one over another?  Sharon’s answer to this is an all-loving and inclusive God—He loves for every moment of every one’s existence.  Evil exists but that’s not God’s will. 
Deo’s own reconciliation of this came down to the free will argument.  God gives us free will and intelligence and then he lets us be.  “And I think He’s been sleeping too much,”  Deo says.  This is so fascinating to me.  It’s something I’ve thought so many times when hearing about wars and conflict and genocide.  I just came across another “absent Gods” reference in some completely fictional books, The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold that also really intrigued me.  In these speculative fiction books, the Gods were absent because of a betrayal by the people.  When the people tried to take the Gods into themselves, they created an Evil in that act, and the Gods abandoned them.  It rings true in real life.  People create evil, God doesn’t.  Perhaps that’s why people don’t feel God’s presence in evil acts, but they do in the salvation from them. 
Another part I really loved is when Deo was explaining how after all the killing and destruction and heartbreak he could befriend and help the Hutus, who often had been responsible for killing Tutsis like Deo.  He spoke not of forgiveness, but of flexibility, of not setting your thoughts in stone and realizing that uncertainty and hardship are not necessarily bad things if you learn something and survive it.  He was giving them all the benefit of the doubt.  I could mull on this stuff for days. 
One part that resonated in my own life was when Kidder talked of how Deo transformed when they arrived in Burundi.   He had known him as a refugee, a stranger living in a country not his own, and therefore, never quite comfortable.  Once in his own country, Deo took charge of their situation, and as kidder said, he “had become a size larger.”  Not to reduce the Kidder/Deo relationship to a filial one, I’ve been on both sides of this.  As an exchange student, I felt the pride of being my parents’ tour guide in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language and didn’t know the city.  I knew where to go. I knew how to take care of them and it was truly the first time I felt like an adult; the first time I felt capable and self-sufficient.  Even though I’d been doing it by myself for six months already, when my parents came and were dependent on me, suddenly that responsibility made me acknowledge that growth in myself.  As a parent, when I watch my child demonstrate some knowledge or capability that they couldn’t do before, I feel that that pride from the opposite end and they grow larger in my eyes, too. (Although I keep telling them to stop growing so I can savor the now for a little while longer…)
This is a really beautifully written and constructed book.   I found the telling of Deo’s story to be gripping, scary, heart wrenching, and heartwarming.  It kept me coming back page after page.  I enjoyed re-visiting the story from the perspective of the author and the people that helped Deo in his new life in the US.  And I loved mulling over all the philosophical bits scattered throughout.  I know this story will be with me for a long time.
Here’s my ratings: 
Overall rating—9
Check my Rating System Key if my ratings don't make sense to you yet.  :)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My First Post

It’s been a few weeks since I decided to start this blog and so far I have about a half a dozen “book review” posts all in the editing stage.  It’s taking me a lot longer to do this than I anticipated, so I started asking myself if I was just scared to make a first post.  I haven’t convinced myself one way or the other, but I decided to just post something and get it over with.  Then (hopefully) the 2nd post won’t be that big of a deal.   Soooo…I’m going to write out a list of all the books I’ve read so far this year.  My plan is to write a review for all of them and then keep going forward with the new things I read. 
1.       Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (I haven’t finished this yet)
2.       Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
3.       Foundation by Isaac Asimov (I didn’t finish this yet)
4.       World Without End by Ken Follett
5.       Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
6.       What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell (I haven’t finished this yet)
7.       Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
8.       Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
9.       Twilight by Stephenie Meyer     
10.   Voyager by Diana Gabaldon
11.   New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
12.   Mission of Honor by David Weber
13.   Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich
14.   Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon
15.   The Sharing Knife: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
16.   The Sharing Knife: Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold
17.   Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
18.   Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder (Just finished this one last night)
19.   Await your Reply by Dan Chaon (Just started this one last night)
Okay, that wasn’t so hard...