Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Anchor March 2014
589 pages
From my shelves


Americanah follows the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, a young Nigerian couple. She immigrates to the United States to pursue her education but Obinze stays behind in Nigeria. Ifemelu finds that nothing is the way she anticipated in this new place incluing her reactions to American life. 

She seems to spend her entire life finding a place to belong. Her first love in Nigeria is Obinze.While they have similar cultural backgrounds, they have financial and familial differences. When Ifemelu goes to the United States for further schooling, she and Obinze have plans to reunite. As they spend time apart, the differences between them grow wider. After a bout of depression in the United Sates, Ifemelu breaks things off with Obinze and begins to date a white man. But she soon finds herself unsatisfied with that relationship. Ifemelu then dates a professor who seems to match her in every way - race, education, political beliefs - but finds herself always feeling inferior to her boyfriend and his family.

She often feels like an outsider until she decides to start a blog examining and sometimes skewering the ways that race is perceived in the United States. When she hits "publish" on her posts, she finds a whole online community of people just like her who feel like they just don't fit into American culture. Adichie, through the eyes of Ifemelu and Obinze, is laser sharp as she hones in on the evils of racism and the pain caused by presumption. But her observations are never cruel. 

One of the most interesting things for me was to see the ways that race is perceived in different places and situations. Ifemelu shares that she never thought of herself as black until she immigrated to the United States. After she arrives here, she cannot escape it. We see hierarchies of blackness put into place by people and institutions and the bizarre notion that everyone who isn't pale and covered in freckle has the same beliefs in spite of their differing backgrounds and histories.

This book is an insightful examination of race in the 21st century, but it is also a universal story about leaving home and feeling homesick, knowing a relationships is good while dreaming of a first love, and discovering that following all of the rules doesn't mean you will find success.

I always find it a testament to a good writer and a great story when I want to keep reading after the last page. In this case, I would have been happy to read Ifemelu's observations about life, love, and race for the rest of her life. If you haven't read it yet, don't miss this excellently written story that will make you reconsider what you think about race and the assumption that you know anyone's story.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

It's Monday and I have so many books!

This week, I finally read The Language of Flowers and then tackled Girl At War. If you tell me a book is like Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I will be there every time.

        Girl at War  The Language of Flowers

On the blog, I wrote a post to check in after a few days of radio silence. Then I reviewed Deeanne Gist's historical fiction novel Tiffany Girl and shared my reasons for reading short story anthologies.

So what's happening this week? Well, the husband is out of town for a few days which might mean lots of reading time or not. I'm just not sure yet! I've been listening to Murder on the Orient Express during my commute and I'm loving it. Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey is a fantastic narrator and I'm really enjoying Hercule Poirot. What a character! I started reading Church of Marvels and I'm looking forward to A God In Ruins. Have you read either one?

Murder on the Orient Express  Church of Marvels

That's all for me today, my bibliophile friends. What are you reading this week?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Why Should We Read Short Stories?

There is something wonderful about really sinking into a novel or biography. You know that you will have several hundred pages to learn about these people and experience all of the things that they go through. But there is also something captivating about a short story collection. If you are a devoted short story reader or someone who is apprehensive about them, read on! It's time to break down all of the ways short story collections are great!

1) They are perfect for the reader pressed for time.
Making time for reading is sometimes difficult. Some days you barely clean up the dinner dishes before you fall asleep, so who has time to read 700 pages of The Goldfinch? The short story collection was written just for you. Do you have a few minutes while waiting for the kids to get off the bus? Maybe your doctor is running late for your appointment? It's short story time! Most stories are under 30 pages, which means you can feel the accomplishment of actually finishing a story in a short amount of time.

2) You can experience old favorites and new authors all in one place.
The short story collection that I most recently read - The Best American Short Stories 2013 - features respected authors like Junot Diaz and Alice Munro, but I also got to experience writers like Joan Wickersham and Steven Millhauser, who I had never read before.

3) It's the best place to experience a plethora of styles and stories.
 Where else can you read one book and find a story about a couple hoping to get pregnant, a teen who sleeps with an older woman while worrying about the impending apocalypse, and a woman trying to get a donation from a wealthy author for an organization at-risk for teen girls? In one place, you can find stories told in stark prose that break your heart in just a few pages and gorgeous descriptions that take you to new and distant places.

4) It stretches you as a reader.
Your reading brain can grow complacent if you only ever read one sort of book. If you only ever read historical tomes about WWII or fantasy featuring dragons, your reading might need a bit of a shakeup! I find short story collections a great way to break out of a reading slump or just give my mind the opportunity to experience a different length and a different kind of writing.  

5) Short stories force authors to work at the top of their games.
Have you ever read a book where you wish a discerning editor had cut 150 pages or so? It can happen easily in novels or nonfiction, where there is no page limit. In short stories, every phrase has to count. Writers craft some of their greatest sentences and most ingenious plot twists within the parameters of 30 pages. 

I just saw that the ladies at the Socractic Salon have been discussing short stories too! Make sure to stop by and see what they think.

Do you read short story collections? Why do you enjoy them?

The Best American Short Stories 2013

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: Tiffany Girl

Tiffany Girl
By Deeanne Gist
Howard Books May 2015
512 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tiffany Girl 

Flossie Jane has decided to become an independent woman. She leaves the life she has known with her parents and moves into a boardinghouse with a colorful cast of characters including a stern landlady, a kindly old woman, and a handsome yet infuriating newspaperman. Flossie is an artist, so she is thrilled when Mr. Louis Tiffany himself attends her art class and asks her and several other classmates to come work for him. Tiffany is in crisis as his workers go on strike and his deadline to create beautiful stained glass windows for the 1893 World's Fair is approaching. He takes the unconventional route of hiring women to take the place of his men, hoping that they can complete the difficult work in time. Flossie and her companions must prove to Mr. Tiffany and the world that they are artists, all the while proving to their families and peers that they are capable of running their own lives and determining their futures.

Tiffany Girl went just about exactly as I would have predicted. There aren't really any twists or turns in this story. Flossie is outspoken but with an innocent heart of gold. She, of course, attracts the begrudging attention of her fellow boarder Reeve Wilder. He is a writer for a local newspaper with a tragic backstory. Reeve finds the whole concept of "new women" to be ridiculous and takes great pleasure in mocking Flossie and eventually writes a satire based on her. Obviously he thinks it is irritation, but the reader (and some of the other characters) are able to see that Reeve is actually falling head over heels. 

While I found the story totally predictable, I have to commend Gist for finding the balance between being a modern writer imagining men and women of the past. Oftentimes in historical fiction, characters have attitudes and beliefs that seem much more at home in 2010 than in their own time periods. While Flossie and her coworkers are pioneers for their time, they have to deal with heckling from men on the streetcar and the ones who are picketing in front of the Tiffany building, judgement and condemnation from many of their families (including Flossie's), and the knowledge that their jobs may very well be temporary because they are still seen as less than the male workers. In fact, a handful of Flossie's peers leave the company because they get married and while it is upsetting for a single woman to have a job, it is downright unacceptable for a married woman to have one. 

Sometimes we just crave a nice, sweet story where we know all will end well and everyone will live happily ever after. If you are looking for such a book with a glimpse into life in 1890s New York too, Tiffany Girl would be a perfect pick.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Still here!

I have this bad habit of going away for a few days and thinking that I will definitely be able to blog while I am gone. But then I never do.

We spent Father's Day with our dads and the next few days spending time with family, going on a very rare date (!) and finally seeing Jurassic World. We are home again and I promise that reviews will again appear on this very site.

How are you doing? What is new in life and reading?

Recent Reads:
The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio                         War of the Encyclopaedists
The Millionaire and the Bard                   War of the Encyclopaedists

Current Adventures:
The Language of Flowers                         Girl at War
The Language of Flowers                          Girl at War

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Review: My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend
By Elena Ferrante; translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions September 2012
336 pages
From the library

My Brilliant Friend
Elena and Lila grow up together on the poor, violent streets of Naples in the 1950s. They stand out as smart students in their class, but their lives grow apart as Elena continues her education and Lila starts working in the family business and considers starting a family of her own. My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls becoming young women but it is also an intense character study of a specific neighborhood and people who live there. 

As I read through this book, I was cautiously optimistic. I was interested, but not in a "I stayed up way too late to read another 100 pages" way. All of a sudden, though, I had to know everything that happened to Elena and Lila. Ferrante creates some sort of literary sorcery where the characters start to live off the page and you are spellbound by the everyday occurrences of their lives. 

There are not a lot of stories about friendship. While Elena and Lila experience things that are specific to the time and place in which they live, there is a lot in these pages that is universal to friendship. How do our relationships change when our lives look different? Can we continue to be friends when one stays in school and the other pursues a career and a family? How do we find common ground when our days no longer look the same? The two girls sometimes excel at this and other times, their attempts are foiled by jealousy and uncertainty.

Elena feels second in their friendship in almost every way - Lila is smart without trying and attracts the attention of boys and the admiration and jealousy of girls. But the tables turn when Elena is the one allowed to continue her education and Lila begins working in the family business. Suddenly, Elena has something that Lila desperately wants. While she seems indifferent, Elena is sure that she struggles with the changes in her life. But like all friendships, some things are revealed and some are kept hidden even from the people we love most.

The people who are closest to us are the ones with the greatest ability to hurt us, and so we watch Elena and Lila adore each other and wound each other in equal measure. At the end of My Brilliant Friend, we leave Lila in a brand-new marriage and Elena continuing her education. I am intrigued to see where Ferrante takes these two unforgettable women.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: A Little Life

A Little Life
By Hanya Yanagihara 
Doubleday March 2015
720 pages
From the library

A Little Life 

Four best friends move to New York City to pursue their dreams. Willem is an actor surprised by his success, JB is an artist looking for his big break, Malcolm is an architect making his way up the corporate ladder, and Jude is a lawyer with a dark past. As the years pass, the friends become closer and are pulled apart by outside forces and their own decisions. The friends find their greatest challenge in Jude, whose past continues to threaten to demolish a promising future and every bond that he creates. 

A Little Life revolves around commitments that we make to other people. Willem, JB, Jude, and Malcolm have no bonds of family or marriage to keep them in the lives of the others. Readers also meet the other people who bring the friends into their lives and refuse to let go. There is something wonderful about reading about friends in a literary culture that is so often consumed with romantic love.

The characters, and ultimately the readers, must grapple with how far you can push someone you love. Jude is notoriously silent about his past and his current struggles. The people who love him respect his limits until they can't ignore them anymore and must make tough choices to save their friend from his demons.

It's easy for us to hope in our reading and in reality that someone meets a challenge and is able to overcome it. But that's not always real life. In the case of Jude, it's a constant one step forward and two steps back. At times, you may wonder how much more the characters and the reader can take. But continuing to immerse yourself in this dark, painful story is an immensely rewarding experience.

This book is receiving acclaim all over the place and it is well-deserved. A Little Life is heartbreaking and devastating in the way that only beautifully crafted books can be. You will fall hard for Jude and his friends and hope against hope that there can be a happy ending for this bunch.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

It's Monday and I'm reading about Shakespeare!

Hello literary friends! How are you?

I am happy to report that I got back to a normal reading rhythm this week. I read two books this week for the first time in a while. But blogging-wise, I am lucky to get one review per week these days. I am going to do my best to get back to some more regular blogging this week. Fingers crossed!

Read This Week:
Tiffany Girl                      The Folded Clock: A Diary
Tiffany Girl                                               The Folded Clock
By Deeanne Gist                                       By Heidi Julavits

 Up Next:
The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio                   War of the Encyclopaedists
The Millionaire and the Bard              War of the Encyclopaedists
By Andrea Mays                                     By Gavin Kovite

What are you reading this week?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Inside the O'Briens

Inside The O'Briens
By Lisa Genova
Gallery Books April 2015
352 pages
Read via Netgalley

Inside the O'Briens 

Joe O'Brien is a police officer working outside of Boston. He is proud of his job, his community, and especially his family. He has been married to Rosie, the love of his life, for years and they have four very different grown-up children - Katie is a yoga instructor, Megan is a ballet dancer, JJ is a married firefighter, and Patrick is a bartender.  Being a cop is a stressful job, so when Joe unexpectedly falls, gets angry over little things, and finds it difficult to keep his train of thought, he blames it on the job. But Joe soon learns that he has Huntington's Disease, which is 100% fatal and each child has a 50% chance of getting the degenerative illness.

I applaud Lisa Genova for shedding light on a disease that doesn't get a lot of attention. Huntington's is a horrible illness and she spares readers none of the pain. We see the frustration as Joe's body and mind refuse to do what he wants and the terror as he wonders which of his children will die in the same awful way. We watch Joe's wife and children as they are helpless to do anything to help the man they love. 

This book could have easily become overly sentimental. But Genova strikes the perfect balance here. Joe, Rosie, and each of the children have to come to terms with living the life they have been given. For some of them, it will mean the knowledge of a terrible end. Others choose not to know if they have the gene for the disease. Each one of them pushes their loved ones away and then clings to them anew as they recognize the frailness of life and their familial bonds.

Inside the O'Briens is a difficult book to read, as we contemplate our own mortality along with the characters. Gigantic choices about health and the future are juxtaposed with the everyday joys and frustrations of family life. The O'Briens are a family you can't help but love as you bear witness to their most joyful days and their darkest moments.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

It's Monday and I'm reading the same books...

So this has been quite the week. I'm still getting used to a new work schedule and a long commute. We drove seven hours one way to my cousin's bridal shower this weekend and then came back home on Sunday. My husband had a death in the family. I am hopeful that this next week will be the last crazy one and then I will be able to really dig into a huge pile of books! But for right now, I must confess that I finished reading A Little Life and started two new books, but I haven't finished either of them yet. Soon, I hope!

             A Little Life   Tiffany Girl   The Folded Clock: A Diary

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review: Gummi Bears Should Not Be Organic

Gummi Bear Should Not Be Organic: And Other Opinions I Can't Back Up With Facts
By Stephanie Wilder-Taylor
Gallery Books April 2015
256 pages
Read via Netgalley

Gummi Bears Should Not Be Organic: And Other Opinions I Can't Back Up With Facts 

Stephanie Wilder-Taylor is a mom to three kids. Parenting can be a tough gig, especially when you are constantly bombarded by a new method or trend every week. "There are more experts, books, and parenting philosophies than you can shake a positive EPT stick at, and a lot of them have differing views. Should I force my kids to play the violin until their fingers bleed while yelling at them in Mandarin and Cantonese, a la the Tiger Mom? Or, as per the French, should I be raising my kids on three buttered croissants a day while smoking, drinking red wine, and having a menage a trois?" She proposes that maybe we all need to relax and go with whatever works.

In this book, Wilder-Taylor invites us to reflect on our need for every child to be gifted, our fixation on family dinners, and the ridiculousness of forced volunteering at your kid's school. She writes about attempting to give her daughters some independence as she let them walk around a room of the museum and waited at the entrance. It was only moments before another mother marched her daughter back to her, as if she had abandoned her in the middle of an intersection.

Wilder-Taylor is endlessly snarky and willing to point out any idiocy or hypocrisy she sees in parenting styles. But the good news is that she isn't above admitting her own foibles too. You probably won't read anything life-changing here, but it's nice to feel like someone is in the trenches of parenting along with you. Gummi Bears Should Not Be Organic will make you laugh and allow you to relax for a moment as you realize that you are probably doing just fine as a parent. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

May Wrap-Up

So, May. That was fast.



Let's see what happened. The hubs and the baby girl had birthdays. My sister got married. I started working part-time again at my dad's office. I am hoping that June will be a bit quieter!

Books reviewed in May: 10
Pages read:3,581
Fiction/non-fiction: 8/2
Male authors/female authors: 3/7
My books/library books/books for review: 0/8/2
Most-read May review: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
My favorite May reads: Saga and Tiger Lily 

Seconds   Glaciers  Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)

The Bullet     The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy    Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

What was your favorite May read?