Thursday, December 18, 2014

Completed: The Sisters Brothers

Dear Jenny,

I know you have read this book (winner of the 2012 Tournament of Books!) so I feel the freedom of not having to give you too many details. Heh.

First I must say that this book cover design is one of my favorites of all time. Seriously brilliant -- I might have to frame this dust cover and hang it up. It's just terrific.

Okay... now. Onto the book. In a nutshell, I loved it. Can I just stop there? Heh. All right -- I'll say a bit more... but just some random thoughts. This is an incomplete list, but the orange "Publish" button is calling my name...

Random thought #1: Eli's intelligence
Because I was feeling "under the gun" (that's a pun. Har har.) I did a aBook/pBook combo on this one -- reading the pBook when I had time to sit and read and listening to the aBook when I was on the move. And I must say that this sort of affected my reading. Because... the narrator of the aBook probably sounded more intelligent than I think the author intended Eli to be.

I had some notes to talk more here about Eli's "intelligence," but I can't remember what I was going to say. Basically, he is supposed to be dumb, but his language and the thoughts that he has are... not at all dumb. Mostly, I found this to be charming, but every once in awhile, I did think, "Waaaait a minute...." But if he came off as dumb as he is supposed to be, the book probably would have sucked.

Random thought #2: Violence
I was a bit reluctant to read this book because I understood it to be violent and rough, but actually... it wasn't so bad for me. Which makes me feel like, "What kind of psycho am I that I wasn't bothered by that horse's eye getting removed with at spoon?!" I mean, sure, I was bothered by it. But it wasn't intolerable. Perhaps it was one of those situations where I had heard how terrible everything was, I was braced for it and it ended up being not so bad.

I'm curious about your reaction, because you had certainly heard far less about it: Was the violence horrific for you?

Random thought #3: Story telling
The writing was pretty fantastic. One notable example is the graceful way we find out exactly what "Sisters Brothers" means. We get early on that they have been hired to kill someone, but we do not know that these are notorious and feared killers.

The first time the reader gets an inkling, Eli says something like: And so I told him my full name and let it sink in. And then again awhile later, with the direct reference to the "Sisters Brothers" and seeing the panic on the person's face. It's just really artfully done. (I am not reporting it artfully at all here, but I'm sure you know what I mean. Bear with me -- gotta get this done!)

Random thought #4: Words!
I love the name "Hermann Kermit Warm." That is all.

Random thought #5: New cover? Nooooooo!
I just looked this book up and saw this seriously craptacular book cover  that apparently went with the paperback. What?! First of all, why mess with one of the best cover designs ever? And secondly... Eli is supposed to be overweight. Who is overweight in this weird picture? UGH. Publishers!

And... that's it. I thought this book was fantastic. I burned through it and did not want it to end. I will be recommending it to many, many people. (I've already passed it on to two others!)


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Completed: Arc of Justice

Dear Jenny,

Okay. Time to churn these puppies out -- I've only got 14 days left!  I don't know why I have gotten so bogged down this year talking about my books -- I just feel like I have so much to tell you. This is my most recently finished book. I actually wrote a preview for it in October. Gonna burn through it here.

This book tells the true story of a black doctor (Ossian Sweet) and his family who moved to a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925. Predictably, the neighbors were not happy and mobbed the house. Once the mob started throwing stones, the family and friends inside the house fired some shots into the crowd, killing someone on the street.

So, of course, everyone in the house was arrested and detained in jail for many months (that's a total of 11 people. For, you know, one shot.) In the end, everyone was (miraculously) acquitted. Take note: That was a short sentence I just wrote there, but the jail time and the prolonged trial did not pass nearly that quickly.

While much of this book made me feel like "nothing has changed in this world!" the fact that the innocent black people were found innocent (whoa!) actually made me think, "Aw, crap... we're actually going backwards." Sigh.

It's a good story well told, but the exhaustively reported research was sometimes a bit too much. Beyond the key story (in which eight full pages were devoted to jury selection), the author went into great detail describing the historic background of the main characters, their extended families, and, delving even deeper, the history of race relations in our country for a couple of hundred pages. It's valid reporting, but not key to the story and I did find myself slogging through it.

Of course, I will admit some reader bias there... the ground covered was not new to me. But... I have to think that anyone who would pick this book up in the first place would know at least a bit about the history of race relations in our country. If not, I guess it's a good thing to have this in-depth primer.

Okay. Now I'm just going to fire off some random comments/observations about this book and be done with it. Cause... I have 6 more to do in the next two weeks.

1. The hospital where Dr. Sweet worked was in the news earlier this year because it went up for auction with a starting bid of $3,800. I actually said to Bill at the time, "Let's buy this!" cause it's amazing. It sold for $198k, but has since been recovered by the Detroit Medical Society.

2. The Sweets' house is still standing in Detroit (no mean feat in a city where 40,000 buildings were recommended to be torn down earlier this year). It's a historical site, so it will probably remain for awhile, but it's still a private residence and, of course, not in a great neighborhood. The house itself looks to be in decent condition (check it out here) but... I did a little Google Wandering and found this one directly across the street. Traveling down that street via Google finds more and more blight. Oh, Detroit.

3. In an effort to speed my "reading" along, I also listened to the aBook. It was well narrated except that the narrator kept pronouncing the NAACP as "N-A-A-C-P" (vs. "N-double-A-C-P") and that was distracting. It's a minor nit, but it comes up a lot in this book and just sounded so odd. Other than that, her reading was spot on and engrossing, which was helpful when I got distracted during the really deep delving into history.

Aaand... done. I am doing this book a disservice, because this story is an important one ("The most famous civil rights trial you never heard of," according to the New York Times) and this book tells it well, but... I gotta get sh*t done around here. I do think that this book will stick with me, though... I finished it a few weeks ago and still find myself thinking about it.

How's your list going?


Sunday, December 7, 2014

I'm not actually sure I can pull this off, Kelly.


It's December 7th. I just want you to know that this may be the year I don't make it across the finish line. I am hopeful for a last minute sprint across the finish line once Winter Break seems so daunting. I am finding The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet sort of boring, and I still have at least three or four hundred pages left in Postwar.


How about you?


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Completed: Please Look After Mom


I'm not sure I wrote a preview post about this one. I bought this book a few years ago when it won the Man Asian Prize for fiction. As you may remember, I try to read the big prize winners ever year---which has come in handy for my Tournament of Books reading! However, there are lots of less mainstream reading awards out there. You may also remember that I feel a little stuck in the "American authors" rut, so I'm pretty sure I picked this up at a time where I was looking to expand my reading horizons. I'm glad I did---this was an enjoyable, interesting, and quick read.

Please Look After Mom is set in modern day South Korea, and was translation from Korean. It won the Man Asain Literary Prize in 2011. This is the author's first time being published in English. The story is about a sixty-nine year old woman who goes missing from the Seoul train station one day. She's with her husband, but he's walking too fast and gets on the train without realizing she's not with him. The story has four major sections, with each section being told through the lens of one of her family members---her daughter, son, husband, and finally herself. Here's the weird part, though, the narration is told mostly in second person. It's a strange hybrid that doesn't seem like it would work, but somehow it does. You get to experience Mom through each character, experiencing their worries, fears, hopes, and memories.

I'll admit, this one kind of snuck up on me. Even though it's about an older mother with adult children, it still hit home. There's a lot of poignant and pointed observations about motherhood. At one point, the daughter asks Mom if she enjoyed cooking. "Mom held your eyes for a moment, 'I don't like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to. I had to stay in the kitchen so you could all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like? There are things you have to do whether you like it or not.' Mom's expression asked, What kind of question is that? And then she murmured, 'If you only do what you like, who's going to do what you don't like?'" The novel makes clear that Mom is a woman who always fulfilled her duty to her family, even if they didn't always reciprocate. This pull between duty and freedom is experienced by each character, but only after Mom goes missing do we realize the extent to which Mom herself was torn.

Each character reveals some different part of Mom's life, her secrets, and her fears. The daughter is a famous author, but Mom is illiterate and cannot read her own daughter's books. Her son reveals the lengths to which Mom went to make sure all of her children were educated, which only makes sense when her husband reveals how his younger brother desperately wanted to go to school and they couldn't send him. Mom loved the boy, and when he dies tragically, she blames herself for never going to school. Mom reveals her long-standing friendship (affair?) with a young man in her village. The book unravels all of the small secrets of an ordinary life. There's something delicate and lovely about the careful unpacking of Mom's life.

I enjoyed reading about Korean culture and family life. The book's ending was lovely and sad. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I'd definitely recommend it. It's a short but lovely exploration of motherhood, family, and identity.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Completed: The Poisonwood Bible

Dear Jenny,

I feel like I am the last person on the planet to read this book. It was extremely popular when it first came out (1998) and I feel like I have heard every reader I know talking about it. Now I know why -- cause it was really good.

Took me a little while to get into it, but once I did, it was definitely one of those "I cannot wait to get back to reading this!" books. I won't bore you with a plot summary -- I know you (and everyone else) have already read it. The story was engrossing and what impressed me the most was that it was told with 5 different voices and each one of them was *so* distinct... I could literally open the book at any place and know exactly who was "speaking." That's impressive.

I didn't really know much about the Belgian Congo/Zaire/Republic of Congo, etc. when I picked this book up and, since reading it, I have spent some time learning. Like much of world history, it is interesting but heart-wrenching (perhaps that is why I can't get into history -- I'm too soft. I can't handle the truth!) and this book did a good job of following a difficult time in the history of that place with a personal heart-wrenching tale. The domestic issues of this dysfunctional family played well against the larger national issues going on around them.

I was so happy when the mother finally just bailed on the crazy preacher father, although I was sad that it took the death of their youngest to be the catalyst -- I guess she finally found out what the "last straw" was for her. I really enjoyed all of the different "lenses" of the book -- the shallow oldest sister truly did come across as being totally shallow and dumb from her own perspective (even misusing and misspelling words) and to view her from her sisters' point of views only confirmed that.

For me, the only real misstep in this book was... the end. Which is a rather common issue, right? I wonder what percentage of books really do stick the landing for me. Perhaps I should start making a notation next to books -- StL or not? This one did not.

I was not terribly thrilled with going all the way through with their "future selves" (the injured twin becomes a doctor and manages to heal her life-long physical ailments, the other twin stays in Africa and manages to reunite with her husband after a long jail sentence, the shallow oldest sister runs a hotel in Africa for rich white men and manages to succeed at that endeavor, the mother finds peace growing flowers...) but the nail in the coffin was the "observations" from the dead youngest sister of their lives and her afterlife. After such pitch-perfect narration throughout, this tacked-on ending was a little bit disappointing to me.

However! It's been over a month since I finished this book and I barely remembered that problem with it -- if I hadn't marked the pages to write about on this very blog, I probably would have blocked them out already and been left with the general feeling of: "I enjoyed this book."

And there! Another post done! (Still not sure why I have struggled so much in 2014 to write these posts, but oof... I have many more before I am done.)


PS -- Back on the acacia tree sunset treatment observation -- click that link and notice the last book.  Is that.... The Poisonwood Bible? Indeed it is!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kelly's Book 9.14: Arc of Justice

Dear Jenny,

Yes, yes -- I still have 4 other posts to write. But I also have 4 more books to read, so let me write a preview post on one of those: Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle. I am about 40 pages into this book and just wanted to jot down some thoughts before I go any further.

First of all... I thought this book was fiction. Really paying a lot of attention to these books, eh? Sheesh.

My mother-in-law gave it to me a few years ago when it was the "Great Michigan Read" for 2012 (kind of a neat idea -- the whole state is essentially in a giant year-long "book group" together where everyone reads a single book written by a Michigan author). I've never participated in the "Great Michigan Read" but for some reason, I thought all of the books were fiction. They're not. This book is not. Nope. It's a true story.

We've talked before about how I don't read much non-fiction, so I am laughing at myself that I chose a book I thought was fiction but it's not. (Also! I have just realized the 4 of the books I have read this year are non-fiction! How did that happen?! Maybe that is why I am struggling to write about them? Hrmm.)

Didn't take me long to realize this was non-fiction -- the endnotes were a dead giveaway. (Ha) Aaaand they're also kind of annoying -- I always feel compelled to stop my reading and go straight to the endnotes. But in this case, they are literally *all* just sources, so I have done a good job of skimming straight over them. Go, me!

The subtitle (long subtitle -- another giveaway that this book would be non-fiction, right? Duh.) is " A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age."

It's a story about a black doctor who moves to an all-white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, and then all hell breaks loose. I've actually already read that part, and it was difficult. Pretty much exactly what you would expect to happen, happens: Day after he and his family move in, a mob of white neighbors gather outside his house. As tensions mount, someone throws a rock through the window and one of his friends fires a shot into the crowd, killing one white person and injuring another. He and everyone in his house are immediately arrested and taken away. It's a bad scene. (And made me think "1925 or... 2014?" Which is just f*cking depressing.)

Once I realized this was non-fiction, I recalled that I actually do know some of this story. The man's name is Ossian Sweet. As I recall, against all odds, he was acquitted. I'm curious now how that all goes down because, honestly, it seems like an unlikely outcome.

As a side note, this book also won the National Book Award in 2004 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Sooo... has everyone and their brother heard of this book while I'm all, "Oh, my MIL recommended this book to me so I guess I'll read it. (La-la-la...)?" Probably. And now the Internet knows. Heh.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Jenny's Status Report


I like this status report thing. Keeping me honest. Hah!

Well. My plan to "listen" to Postwar is a total and utter failure. I basically feel like I have been listening to that sucker *forever*, and then today went to check my progress in the actual book to find out that I am only about a quarter of the way through it. Argh!

I think there are a few problems. One is that the material is just too dense for an audiobook. I'm having trouble keeping track of all the facts and figures, etc. Also, I don't love the narrator and find it sort of hard to listen to for long stretches.  I am sort of annoyed by how I notice the change in audio...I don't know how to describe this because I don't have a great vocabulary for it. But, I can tell when the recording switches, as if he's reading on a new day? There's not smooth transitions and sometimes it's a little louder or softer or his pacing seems different. There are obviously lots of foreign names and places, and I can tell that he went back later and rerecorded just the names. It's super distracting. I think I have to abandon the audiobook plan. I'm honestly not sure where that leaves me. Maybe I'll just try to knock out a few chapters every week with the goal of finishing it by the end of the year.

I also abandoned one of my books this year, Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Presuming I can finish Postwar, that means I have to choose 2 out of the remaining: Please Look After Mom, All the Names, or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I'm thinking it's going to be All the Names that's left on the road, but we'll see. 

I'm at that point in October when I really want to wrap it up and thinking about next year's list---so excited we're making plans for that! 

Maybe I just need to read a little more Postwar today to feel that sense of forward progress.