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.)

love,
kelly

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.

love,
kelly

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Jenny's Status Report

Kelly,

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. 
Jenny




Thursday, October 2, 2014

2014: Kelly's Status Report (October)

Dear Jenny,

2014 hasn't gone quite as smoothly for me as our first few years of doing this and I'm not sure why.  I've been reading, but I've been getting bogged down posting. My last status report was in June. I have since read all five of those books, but only posted about 3 of them. So let's see how it's going...

 

Books that are DONE! (Woo-hoo!): 4

You already know about these, but hey -- I gotta pat myself on the back for getting something done around here!

Completed books, awaiting blog posts: 4

I have finished all of these, but still need to write about them:
  • Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binellimk
  • Digressions on Some Poems By Frank O'Hara by y Joe LeSueur
  • On Being Brown: What It Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan by Scott Huler
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
If I write one of these per week, I can be done by the end of October -- that seems doable, right? Sure.

 

Books in Progress: 2

I am reading two books at one time right now (the Baker is essays, so I spread them out) and they are:
  • Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle
  • The Size of Thoughts by Nicholson Baker 

 

Have not even started: 2

I'm not 100% sure what these will be yet, but I think I finally have to give up on Don't Know Much About History. After February, I did not stick to my "chapter-per-month" plan and since I've been on a crusade to "abandon books with abandon" this year (I have abandoned 9 books!), I think that's got to go.

After that, the longest page count is Stones from the River, so I'll just give it the boot right now. That leaves:
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  • Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet by Tim Gunn
(Unless I cannot get through one of those and then I will bring back Stones.)

I have, once again, done a year-end page count and I have to read a little over 15 pages per day to make it, which is totally doable (there are 90 days left in the year today, FYI). The key is the writing! Aaaaand yes, I do realize I have just spent 30 minutes writing this "status" post... aaaaand I could have been writing a book post instead. Whatever.

How's it going over there? You're already planning 2015, aren't you? ;)

love,
kelly

Monday, September 29, 2014

Completed: Cry, the Beloved Country

Dear Jenny,

As I mentioned in my status post (that I wrote back in JUNE!), I knew pretty much from the start that this book would be a downer, and I was correct. It is set in South Africa the year before apartheid came into being, so you know things are going to be f*cked from the start. Add to that a pretty depressing personal tale and... whee.

Ok! I deleted a few paragraphs here where I tried to tell the story right after I read this book and just got bogged down. It's convoluted and tragic -- some of the same sorts of "Weird-coincidence-results-in-crazy-tragedy" business that I also saw in Hunchback. (Aaaand... this may be the first time in history that someone has drawn a connection between Cry, the Beloved Country and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame...)

When I was in college, I was in a show called the South Africa Project and we did a lot of reading about apartheid, so I have some knowledge of it, but this book was set in the years leading up to it, which is an interesting (and kind of nerve-wracking) perspective -- it definitely adds a certain tension to the story (which is already pretty tense).

While I was reading this book, you sent me a link to this blog post, showing how almost every book about Africa gets the "acacia tree sunset treatment."

Second row, first book? Yup. That's Cry, the Beloved Country. My copy also has the acacia-tree-sunset treatment, as you can see at right.

What if every book set in the US got the same cover treatment? What would that look like? And eagle flying in front of the stars and bars with a gun and/or hamburger clutched in his talons?

One thing that I found of interest in this book -- things are falling apart in the rural areas, so the people are fleeing *to* the cities for salvation. Of course, that is the exact opposite of what is happening in many modern US cities, where people are fleeing to the suburbs to get away from the sh*t that's falling apart in the cities (hello, Detroit!)

I understand the reasons -- very different times, of course. Just particularly struck me on the heels of reading Detroit City is the Place to Be (yes, another one of my TBR books that I have not written about yet...)

Well, I feel like I kind of pooped out this "review."  It's another book that I wouldn't necessarily recommend, unless someone is really into reading a fictional story set in pre-apartheid South Africa. The writing style is very poetic, which can sometimes be lovely and sometimes feel like a slog, depending on one's mood.
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that's the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing. Nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him if he gives too much. [80]
See what I mean? It's lovely and it's tragic.

love,
kelly



Friday, September 26, 2014

Completed: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Dear Jenny,

First, a bit about my TBR progress (or lack thereof). Even though this is only my third post of the year, I have actually read eight of my books. This is the ninth month, sooo... reading-wise, I am *sort of* on track. (Ignoring the fact that the ninth month is nearly over... moving on!)

My problem with most of my books so far this year is that... I have soooo much to teeeellll yoooou. Heh. And so I need to make the time to get that all down (before I forget it all!) Or maybe now that so much time has passed, I will have forgotten what I read, so the writing will be easy ("I read this book. Done.") So this is all out of order, but The Hunchback of Notre-Dame* is pretty easy to talk about, so I'm doing it.

My mom bought this book for me when she was in Paris, and then she took a photo of herself holding it in front of Notre-Dame. That's pretty cute, so I committed to reading it. I've never been terribly interested in it, but I have always had a sort of vague notion of: "I... sort of know what that story is about... right?" Which is based on, I guess, "cultural literacy" -- some dude named Quasimodo who rings the bell at Notre-Dame and is in love with a chick named Esmerelda...?

But... when this image comes into my mind, I know there's probably more to the actual story than what we've gotten so far in in life (although I have never seen the Disney version, either.)

So I was somewhat prepared for it to be pretty dark (basically, the opposite of a Disney story) and... it was. It was also a little longer than I think it needed to be. Some have called this book a "Love letter to Paris" and I can see why -- there is a verrry extensive part of the book that is dedicated to describing Notre-Dame in great detail, as well as many, many other buildings all over Paris. I admit: I glazed over. The most interesting part of it was Hugo's condemnation of the changes that have been made to the various architecture -- he's basically pissed about a lot of the renovations/modernizations and his criticism is biting, well-written, and not-at-all veiled.

In discussing the changes to architecture around the city, he acknowledges that yes, time has a hand in any changes (ruination, decay, repair of said issues) but the egregious changes come from humans. About Notre-Dame, he writes: "Upon the face of this ancient queen of French cathedrals, beside each wrinkle, we constantly find a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior -- which we would willingly render thus: Time is blind, but man is stupid." [138]. This made me laugh out loud -- tell us how you really feel, Victor!

The only other book I've ever read by Hugo was Les Miserables and the person who recommended it to me said, "You can skip the 400 pages about the sewer systems of Paris... " It was good advice -- I skipped that. (There was also a 500 page detailed description of the war that I also skimmed... I was really in it for the love story.) I am grateful that Notre-Dame is about a third the total length of Les Mis, meaning that his digressions did not go on for nearly as long.

While I was reading the "I love you, Paris" part, I did think, "Could we just get to the story already?" but the story ends up being so convoluted that the reprieve into building description might have been a good thing, after all.

Overall, the story is tragic and well-told -- lots of confusion, unexpected reunions of "long-lost" relatives, convoluted situations where people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unrequited adoration. But it's also pretty weird -- a few times, I had a sort of "Wait... what now?" reaction to some of the business that Hugo was putting down. Aaaand... If this write-up was for an academic paper, I would have made a note to support that statement. But it's our personal reading blog, so I'll just say: "There was some weird sh*t in this book." (Almost... magical realism, I guess? But then it kind of gets explained away in the next chapter, so there's a sort of, "Just kidding" thing that happens a few times.)

Overall, this book was decent. Cleared up some of my "I think I know what this book is about" misconceptions, but a visit to Wikipedia could do the same thing. The writing is excellent but I'm not sure I would necessarily recommend it to anyone (unless they were super interested in Paris architecture in the 15th century. Then... go for it!)

love,
kelly

PS -- I just realized this book was a carry-over from 2013. Go, me with the cleaning up! (Spoiler alert: 2014 could be the year that Don't Know Much About History gets played off the stage before it's done.)

* I hate the title of this book. I've had a couple of friends over the years with kyphosis and it makes me feel icky to use this out-dated term. The name of the book in the original French is Notre-Dame de Paris and I wish that we could just go with that here as well. /rant

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Completed: Solar by Ian McEwan

Kelly,

My friend Judy gave me this book, it was a "We're done with it, want it next?" sort of situation. I like free books, I've liked books by Ian McEwan, and of course I'd read a review of it. So why not?

I wish I would have done a little more investigating before putting it on my list. Because as soon as I opened it, I knew I was in trouble: the epipgraph in the front of the book is a quote from one of Updike's Rabbit books. I actually groaned out loud when I saw it.

Oh no. But having already abandoned one book this year, and being unsure about my ability to finish Postwar, I didn't think I could give up on this one. I decided to just read the damn thing despite my misgivings.

The main character, Michael Beard is a Nobel-prize winning physicist and an absolute and unrepentant dickbag. The book has 3 major sections, in 2000 as a loser coasting along on his Nobel win from at least a decade earlier. In this section, he witnesses the accidental death of someone, and rather than calling the cops, he decides to set up his wife's lover for the murder. Nice. In the second section, five years later, he has stolen all of the intellectual property of the dead man and is trying to make a business out of it, mostly through solar panels. He also finds out one of his girlfriends is pregnant. In the last section, he is about to get his whole solar array started when he is sued by a former co-worker who has proof he stole all the intellectual property.

Kelly. This book was so tedious. This character so self-absorbed. The themes so heavy handed---oh, unlikeable people can attempt to do good things for the world? Oh, the solar scientist is ignoring his own skin cancer? /rolls eyes. He treats every woman he meets with disdain and possessiveness. All his lovers and wives are one-sided and malleable, just a series of generous lovers willing to put up with his bullshit. There was a lot of science talk that I just skimmed through. As the book when on, he drinks and gets fatter, and I just kept hoping the thing would come to a sudden end with a massive heart attack.

Sadly, it was not to be.

Like all of McEwan's books, there was lovely writing and astute observations about the human condition. But mostly, I just wanted it to be over. And now it is.

Jenny