Saturday, December 31, 2011

Col’s “Books Most Likely To” Awards 2011

In any year there are good books, and there are not so good books. But in the final analysis, only a few books actually make you feel, think, or do something. These are the books that make your reading year. So I thought I’d share this “Books Most Likely To” List with you all – because reading shouldn’t be a spectator sport!

Book Most Likely to Provoke a Strange Liquor Store Purchase: Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

Book Most Likely to Make You Wish You Knew Your Grandparents’ Love Story: A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka

Book Most Likely to Propel You into a Long Discussion about Point of View and Pizza: Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous

Book Most Likely to Send You to the Internet for Pictures of UTEP’s Campus: Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli

Book Most Likely to Make You Think Twice About a Your Husband’s Totally Innocent Lunch with a Friend: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (I’m just saying…)

Book Most Likely to Have You Planning a Safari: In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith

Book Most Likely to Allow Burning A Philosopher in Effigy to Cross Your Mind: The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

Book Most Likely to Help You Get Your Nerd On: The Bog People by P.V. Glob

Book Most Likely to Make a Child Run to a Reference Book: The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

Book Most Likely to Have You Thanking Your Stars You’re Not Popular: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Book Most Likely to Cause You to Miss a Hair Appointment Because You Can’t Stop Listening: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, narrated by Frances McDormand (Please don’t tell Jeremy!)

All in all, a satisfying reading year. I finished all 12 of the challenges I entered (by the skin of my teeth), and managed to review 53 titles. Translated fiction, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, 19th and 20th century classics, cookbooks and non-fiction titles all found their way to the top of my TBR pile – and wormed their way into my heart. Female authors dominated my reading this year, and I read books by authors from every continent (but only because Ngaio Marsh was from New Zealand – I have to do something about my lack of Australian titles). Wishing you a happy, healthy, active year of booking in 2012!


Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges

Sometimes, even the most serious person must feel the need to play around. President Richard Nixon escaped from the Cold War by bowling. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote comic operas. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played in the Par 3 Tournament before the Masters.

Jorge Luis Borges, along with Margarita Guerrero, wrote The Book of Imaginary Beings (El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios).* And a great diversion it is!

The book is just as the title implies: an encyclopedia of the strange and fantastic creatures that inhabit the literary world. Some, like the Harpies, have a long and varied history that comes down to us from classical mythology, both from European and Asian traditions. Others people modern works by authors such as C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Borges wrote two editions of the book, first in 1954 (entitled The Anthology of Fantastic Zoology (Manual de Zoología Fantástica), and an expanded version in 1967. He obviously hoped to expand the book further, as the prologue to the 1967 edition notes:

A book of this nature is necessarily incomplete; each new edition is the core of future editions, which may be multiplied to infinity. We invite its eventual readers in Colombia or Paraguay to send us the names, reliable descriptions, and most conspicuous habits of their own local monsters.” p. xv (English language edition)

Alas, a further edition was never issued. I can only imagine the incredible entries that might have come from the communities of the Africa and Oceania.

Still, the 120 beasts described in the volume provide important glimpses into the potential of the human imagination, as well as insights into the cultures that provided the myths. Take, for example, The Ink Monkey (El Mono de la Tinta), which comes to us from China:

This animal is common in the northern regions and is about four or five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its eyes are like carnelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick China ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink; which done, it squats down as before; and does not frisk about unnecessarily. – Wang Tai-hai (1791) p. 134 (English language version)

Such a monster could only come from a culture where ink was highly prized and expensive, and hints at the frustration of running out of such a precious commodity. Other mythological creatures, like dragons, seem to pop up in multiple locations. Borges refers to these as “necessary” monsters in the preface to the 1954 edition, but not in the 1967 version, so maybe he didn’t find them so “universal” upon further review.

I found this book because of an early review for the Read-A-Myth Challenge from The Parrish Lantern. His review was outstanding, and includes a really fun “monster quiz” I urge you to take. I enjoyed this book tremendously, as it was fun to read over a period of months, one entry at a time. My daughters and I referred to it while watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and agreed that JK Rowling had taken some real liberties with the Basilisk. But that’s what mythology is for, isn’t it? The monsters we create – and recreate – tell us about ourselves and our world, while linking us to our past.

Okay, last review to finish the last challenge of the year. I really enjoyed the Read-A-Myth Challenge, and I made it to Level 3 Mimir: World Myth! I included myths from both the Greek and Sufi traditions, two non-fiction books about mythology, a modern reinterpretation of a classic myth, and an anthology. Bellezza and I were able to organize a read-along of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad for this challenge, which was really a lot of fun, and introduced me to a number of new blogs. So thanks to JoV and Bina for hosting this wonderful challenge. It was a blast – even if it did take me the entire year to complete it!

*I read the Spanish version of the book, a gift from my in-laws. But I used the English language version, illustrated by Peter Sis, for reference. Of course, the order of the two books is completely different, as they are alphabetized by noun, but the content is the same. So in this case, the English translations given were actually approved by the author.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: The Manual of a Warrior of Light (Manual del Guerrero de la Luz) by Paulo Coelho

Okay, I’m ’fessing up here: this is not the book I planned to read to finish the Book Bloggers Abroad Challenge 2011. This is supposed to be a review of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I took it out of the library after reading boatloads of great reviews, and eagerly started to read. But it just didn’t grab me. I have no idea why. So I put it down and figured I’d get back to it at a different time.

And then, well, time ran out.

A week left in the challenge, at a very busy time of year, and I had to reassess. I absolutely hate to leave a challenge incomplete. So I went back to the Judith’s list on Leeswammes, and saw Paulo Coelho was on the author list. I had The Manual of a Warrior of Light (Manual del Guerrero de la Luz) on the shelf. And it was mercifully short. So I did a late game substitution to finish the challenge.

Generally, I enjoy Coelho. I have appreciated his focus on personal responsibility and the spirituality of books like The Alchemist and Veronika Decides to Die. His simple, direct style of writing is easily accessible, and I find it a good way to practice Spanish*. But unfortunately, Warrior of Light has no real narrative flow. Rather, it is a compendium of axioms and quotations informing the reader (ostensibly training to be Warrior in the army of God) how to live a life in the active service of goodness. In this framework, everyone must choose to wage a metaphorical war against the forces of evil. Some of Coelho’s battle instructions are principles borrowed from other works, such as The Pilgrim’s Progress or the I Ching. But most come directly from Coehlo’s own spiritual Christianity (Coelho is a Jesuit-educated, devout Catholic), full of the same kind of paradoxes that are the hallmark of a similar book, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, which I reviewed earlier this year.

The warrior of light is pure as a dove, and prudent as a serpent.

When he meets to talk, he doesn’t discuss the behavior of others. He knows that the forces of darkness use an invisible network to spread their evil. This network captures whatever information is released into the air and transforms it into the intrigue and envy that sap the human soul.

In this way, everything one says about another is always picked up by that person’s enemies, and supplemented by their own dark load of venom and evil.

Because of this, when a warrior of light discusses his brother, he imagines the brother is present, listening to him.
p. 81 (My translation from the Spanish, so my apologies to Mr. Coelho if I haven't captured it exactly)

Warrior of Light provides a good summation of Coelho’s philosophy. And certainly it offers a framework for understanding his other novels. But it’s really too choppy to read straight through like a novel, as I did. Reading it again, I would look at each of the pages as a kind of “meditation,” the kind of thing to read and reflect on early in the morning, or right before going to bed. Still, it’s a very interesting little book, and I imagine Coelho fans will love it like his other works. Students of philosophy and those who enjoy spiritual titles would also enjoy it. I just wouldn’t recommend it as a place to start reading Coelho’s work.

So that’s the Book Bloggers Abroad 2011 Challenge complete. I read some very diverse titles for this challenge, representing 5 continents: North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. I thank the bloggers whose recommendations led me to the books for this one. And thanks again to Judith for hosting!

*Coelho actually writes in Portuguese, but since I don't read it, I buy the Spanish editions.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

How quickly do we form our impressions of others? How dependent are those impressions on the way someone appears? What determines whether or not we simply interact with another person, or truly form a connection with them? It is when Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog explores these deeply human questions that the novel is wonderfully successful.

Madame Renée Michel works as a concierge for an upscale condominium in one of Paris’ most elegant neighborhoods, and occupies a small apartment in the building. The building’s other residents include the upper crust of French society: food critics, members of Parliament, government ministers. To the building residents, the widowed Madame Michel appears in every way a model concierge: aging, ugly, unfashionable, and a bit dim. But in reality, Madame Michel is an autodidact, voraciously reading everything she can get her hands on. She spends her time off seeking out great books and great art. But she conceals her erudite nature from the resident of 7, rue de Grenelle, believing that her job is safer if the elites she works for believe she is not trying to reach beyond her social class.

But a few people in the building see through Madame Michel’s ruse. Portuguese housemaid Manuela, Renée’s one true friend, knows that beneath her crusty exterior Renée is a person of great passion – even if she doesn’t guess the depths of her friend’s thirst for knowledge. The newest resident in the building, wealthy Japanese businessman Kakuro, recognizes a line from Tolstoy that Madame Michel carelessly inserts into a conversation. And Paloma, the all-seeing 12-year-old daughter of high-minded French socialists who make time for every cause save their family, notices the intelligence in Madame Michel’s eyes, and senses a kindred spirit. Madame Michel’s interactions with these individuals, and the lessons we can draw from them, are truly surprising and inspiring. It is significant that all of Madame Michel’s friends come from outside of French culture, including Paloma, the only French member of the bunch, who does her best to place herself outside of what she sees as a hypocritical order. This is, no doubt, a part of Barbery’s treatise on the French social system, which makes up a significant portion of the book.

And that, unfortunately, is where the book fell down for me. Barbery was trained as a philosopher, and a great deal of the book comprises essays on the nature of being, moving and knowing, as experienced by the characters of Madame Michel and Paloma Josse. Some of these pieces are quite interesting, such as her discussion of Dutch still lives. But in other parts of the book she opines on topics like phenomenology and aesthetics for chapters at a time, without drawing any interesting conclusions. As with Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Afternoon Philosophy Club series, at those times I had the distinct feeling I was being schooled, rather than entertained. Also, I’m no expert in French sociology, nor am I a Marxist scholar, but I am pretty sure there are worse examples of classism on the planet than modern day France – even if there is a lingering elitism that the fifth Republic has yet to address.

Still, there is so much to like about this book. There are some laughs and some extraordinarily tender moments. I will probably never look at a camellia the same way again after reading this book, and that’s a powerful thing. I particularly loved the incident when Madame Michel and Monsieur Ozu are leaving for dinner, and the wealthy ladies of the building have no idea that the woman on their new friend’s arm is their concierge: they simply don’t see it, because in their world it simply can’t happen. Barbery captured the moment perfectly.

I hated the ending of the novel – no quibbling about that – but it didn’t ruin the book for me. (It did cross my mind after reading it that I wouldn’t enjoy having dinner with the author, but that was just an idle thought, and not an issue I’m likely to face any time soon. However, it should signal how very much I thought the ending was somehow mean-spirited). Lovers of literary fiction, translated fiction and philosophy should definitely have this book on their TBR lists – although I imagine many of them have read it already, considering the extraordinary success of the novel around the world.

This is my third book for the Europa Challenge 2011. My last review, of Amara Lakhous’ Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio will appear on the Europa Editions Challenge site this week – but I’ll hold off posting it here on Col Reads until my buddy Jess at Desperado Penguin is ready with her review. I am already looking forward to the 2012 Europa Editions Challenge. Thanks so much to Marie at The Boston Bibliophile for hosting!

Book Review: The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear

One of the places where I am flat out behind the curve is in the area of German literature. And since I try to use challenges to make up for those kinds of inadequacies, I went with one of the German recommendations for Judith of Leeswammes’ Book Bloggers Abroad 2011 Challenge, and ordered a copy of Walter Moers’ The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear.

About 20 pages into the book, I had to admit I wasn’t enjoying it very much, despite the author’s engaging illustrations. About 50 pages into the book, I realized that what was killing the book for me was the publicity I’d read about it in the first place.

So I’m here to disabuse anyone who reads this post of the idea that The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear resembles A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in any but the most superficial of ways. Yes, both Bluebear and Arthur Dent hurtle from adventure to adventure, encountering new (to them) and strange life forms along the way. And both Bluebear and Arthur Dent can call upon the seemingly comprehensive knowledge of an Encyclopedia to explain (after a fashion) said life forms. But that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. The five-book A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (hehehe) is a masterpiece of British humor and biting social commentary, very definitely for adults. And The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is a pleasant-enough children’s fantasy. Yes, there is some social commentary, but it is very subtle and nestled firmly in a hopeful tale of the goodness of almost everything – once you just understand it.

Once I got past the hype, at around page 200 – of a whopping 703 pages – I realized that I’d actually be enjoying the book if I were reading it with my daughter, who’s in 5th grade. Or to a class of children. There really would be a lot to discuss with kids. I would love to get their thoughts on “bacterial intelligence,” for example. And I wondered what children would make of the 1600H character – how can a “bad idea” be good? I can imagine all kinds of exercises that could go along with teaching this book. It would be hilarious to have children write their own congladiator boasts, for example. Or to describe a day on the SS Moloch. With those possibilities in mind, I liked the book way more toward the end than I did at the beginning, even though I found the story was a bit slow a lot of the time.

So in the end, I would recommend The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear -- to children. And to lovers of children’s literature. And to those who enjoy cartoons, as Moers is a talented illustrator. It probably wouldn’t be something I would have picked up on my own, so I’d say it was a good stretch of my boundaries, and that’s always a good thing. So thanks again to Judith at Leeswammes for hosting the Book Bloggers Abroad Challenge. I have the last one for that one read, and a review will be up later this week!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Weekend Cooking: A Christmas Carol Edition

There is little doubt that tonight I’ll be watching A Christmas Carol with my family. I prefer the 1951 Alistair Sim version, but I’ll watch pretty much any version that’s on. (I have never seen the Muppet version, but I’d probably sit through that one if it was the only game in town.) What I really like about A Christmas Carol is it’s simple expression of the possibilities of the holiday season. And unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, another Christmas movie with a loyal following in the “best Christmas movie ever” category, good old Ebeneezer Scrooge and company provide a heaping helping of humor to balance out the treacly sweetness of their message.

Knowing of my Scroogeophilia, my parents gave me a copy of A Christmas Carol Cookbook about 10 years ago. It’s a small book, illustrated with stills from the Reginald Owen 1938 version of the movie. The book, written by Sarah Key, Jennifer Newman Brazil and Vicki Wells, has recipes for a traditional Victorian Christmas, some inspired by characters and incidents from the book, such as Old Fezziwig’s Mead and Humbug Lemon Curd, which like Scrooge is “rich enough.” This year, putting together her cookie list, my youngest daughter included the Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies from the book – and they were so delicious they were gone before I could get a picture! Here’s the recipe, though, with a warm wish for a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and a Happy New Year to all my blogging friends!


Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies from A Christmas Carol Cookbook
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 2/3 cup all purpose flour
½ cup chopped hazelnuts
Pinch salt
¼ cup sugar
1 cup cold butter, cut into ½ inch pats
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ tablespoons cold water (but I added Frangelico instead, to keep with the hazelnut theme)

Place dry ingredients into a food processor and pulse to grind hazelnuts. Pulse to incorporate butter, egg, extract and water. Pulse just until dough forms (don’t overmix). Divide dough into two, scrape dough onto plastic wrap or wax paper and roll into two logs, and chill for at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Slice cookies into ¼-inch rounds, and bake about 10 minutes. Let set for about 5 minutes on the pan before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I remember how jarring it was to find out about the Japanese internment camps that dotted the country during the Second World War while reading Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston’s touching story, Farewell to Manzanar, in middle school. “My government would actually do something like that?” I wondered. I remember asking my father, who admitted that it was the case – and he was also honest enough to admit that he didn’t think right after Pearl Harbor most European Americans felt very bad about what was happening to Japanese Americans, even if in hindsight it makes absolutely no sense.

But I haven’t read anything else about that particular period in American history, so I was happy to see that Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was on the reading list for my book club’s December meeting. I was hoping to get more of an “adult” view of the time period, since Wakatsuki Houston was writing a memoir of her childhood. In retrospect, that expectation may have been my biggest problem with the book, because what Ford gives us is a very interesting novel told from the perspective of a Chinese American child, Henry Lee, who loses his closest friend, a Japanese American girl named Keiko Okabe, to the internment camps.

I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it. I did think Ford did a good job of bringing to life a tension that I frankly never thought about: the rift between the Chinese and Japanese diasporas living on the West Coast of the US during World War II. Pan-Asian tension over Japan’s actions during WWII, and accusations about the country’s subsequent attempts to “whitewash” those actions, still flares up regularly in Asia – in fact, it’s so common there’s a Wikipedia entry called “Japanese history textbook controversies.” Henry’s family in China was clearly at risk during the war, and his parents’ feelings might have been rendered comprehensible to the reader, even if they remained unjustified. Instead, Ford leaves Henry’s family completely unsympathetic throughout the book. I saw that as a major flaw, considering Henry’s decisions toward the end of the novel.

My other big problem with the book was the relationship of Henry and Keiko. Sure, my dad is always saying that people “grew up faster” during the Depression and the War. But I had a really hard time buying into a love story centered on 12-year-olds. If they had been friends for years before the internment order, the story would have made more sense to me. Or perhaps if they’d been older when they met, it might have worked better. The action seemed kind of abrupt, and the rationale simply wasn’t well-developed enough to capture me completely.

My book club had mixed opinions on this one. Many agreed that the characterizations of two of the supporting characters, lunch lady Mrs. Beatty and street sax player Sheldon Thomas, were the best in the book. We also loved the way Ford used the device of the abandoned items from Japantown in Seattle to anchor the story. “Sweet” was a word that came up often in our discussion. But while some were enthusiastic about Ford’s writing style and narrative flow, others weren’t as impressed. Some thought the book had a YA feel, which isn’t necessarily bad, but indicated a lack of character development and ambiguity. I can see why this book has a real following, especially for those who love historically based romances. It is definitely a standout first novel and I would definitely read another Ford title.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology by Marcel Detienne

Marcel Detienne’s The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology was one of the first books I put on my list for the Read-A-Myth Challenge, because it seemed to combine three things I love to read about: food, history, and mythology. And it definitely did that. But despite the title, the emphasis of the book is more on the way the evolution of the myth of Adonis – a myth affirming the renewing cycle of birth and death that symbolizes the calendar year – reveals prevailing societal attitudes and beliefs in classical society.

For those of you who, like me, stowed your copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a box in your parents’ basement after college with a promise to retrieve it “once you had the room for it,” only to have said box’s decaying contents hauled to a local used book seller when the parents finally retired and moved to Florida many years later, a refresher of the Adonis myth might be in order. In what is arguably the most famous version of the myth, Myrrha is cursed by the Furies to fall in love with her father. Her nurse helps her seduce him during the harvest festival of Ceres. When he realizes of whom he’s had carnal knowledge, he vows to kill his daughter. Myrrha flees Cyprus for Arabia (the place where spices come from) and wanders for nine months. She finally begs the gods to have mercy on her, and they grant her wish by turning her into a myrrh tree, (because after all, what could be more merciful than losing your body and gaining some foliage?). Realizing that Myrrha is pregnant, Lucina, the goddess of childbirth, goes and touches the myrrh tree and it splits open to spew forth Adonis*. Myrrha continues to cry sappy, scented tears for her lost son that are the basis for the perfume trade.

The young Adonis is so beautiful that Venus falls in love with him while he is still a child, but for some reason has Proserpina foster him in the Underworld. Once he becomes the most gorgeous man on the planet, both of the goddesses want him for their own, so Jupiter intervenes, and decides Venus can have him for a third of the year, Proserpina for another third, and that Adonis can choose for the last third. Like Paris, Adonis chooses beauty (Venus) over power (Proserpina), to predictably bad results – Proserpina sends a wild boar to kill him while he’s waiting around in a lettuce patch for Venus, providing a one-way tour of the Underworld for Adonis. Venus cries foul, and Jupiter intervenes by declaring Adonis dead only part-time, giving him to Venus for half the year (spring and summer) and to Proserpina for half the year (fall and winter).

So where do the spices of the title come in? According to Detienne, the true significance of the Adonis myth is its ability to link the botanical, classical world with the exoticism of the East, the place where spices, so significant for the culinary, ritual and sexual lives of the Greeks and later Romans, originate. But more than that, the Adonis myth provides a powerful reminder of the dangers of unbridled emotion in women, who are linked alternatively to both virtue (through Demeter, motherhood and the harvest) and licentiousness (through Venus, carnal love and spices) throughout the mythological cycle.

In fact, the title refers to gardens that were planted by the secret Adonis cults, groups of women who came together to mourn the death of Adonis by planting quick growing seeds, like herbs, that would sprout during the festival and quickly die, leaving behind their scent. This, of course, made Greek men like Plato very uncomfortable, because women were getting together without men – and you know how much trouble those women could get into when there wasn’t a man around to control things! (Who knew planting a terrarium could become a means of subverting hegemonic masculinity?)

In contrast to a festival such as the Thesmophoria which was celebrated in public and in very official manner, the Adonia took place in private, in some private house where women would meet together, each the confidant of the other’s secret love affairs, for a fleeting moment rejecting, in a way, a social order noted for its public and masculine character. pp. 129-130

This is a short book, especially by scholarly standards, but Detienne has a rambling style, shifting between myths and Greek sects with no introduction or explanation. I didn’t find it an easy read, but that may be a matter of style more than substance – I found myself having to put it down and pick it back up multiple times. It may just be a cultural thing – the book is translated from French, and it’s entirely possible that French readers do not crave the organization that an American reader would. But I certainly learned a lot, and I think those interested in ancient cultures, food history and feminist history will all find something to enjoy with this book.

This is my fifth book for the Read-A-Myth Challenge hosted by JoV and Bina (only one more to go!), and the last of the titles I committed to for the Dewey Decimal Challenge (even though I wound up reading a bunch of additional non-fiction for that challenge) hosted by Jen at The Introverted Reader. So thanks to all of you for hosting!

*I included a kind of creepy rendering of that moment from Franchesi. The screaming tree reminds me of the ones from The Wizard of Oz!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Persephone Secret Santa Revealed!

The very first item beneath my Christmas tree,

Is once again a book from Persephone!

This is my second year participating in the Persephone Secret Santa Event, kindly hosted by Verity at CardiganGirlVerity and Claire at Paperback Reader. It’s quickly become a highlight of my book blogging year!

Yesterday when I opened the pretty pink Persephone wrappings I found a gift from Katherine at A Girl Walks Into A Bookstore. And I’m thrilled to say it’s a book I’ve had on my TBR pile for quite a while: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. The really funny thing is that I wanted this book so much that I sent it to my own “Secret Santee,” and I hope she’s just as thrilled as I am to receive it. I’m hoping to save it for Persephone Reading Weekend in February, but I’m not sure I can wait that long!

A Girl Walks Into A Bookstore is a completely new blog to me, and I’m very happy to have found it because of Persephone Secret Santa. If you aren’t familiar with it (although I assume many of you are), Katherine reviews a wide variety of contemporary and classic fiction. It’s a lovely blog and you should really take a look!

I can’t wait to see who everyone else was paired with in 2011 – there will be a listing of posts at CardiganGirl today. I hope my last-year Santa (Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza) and Santee (Astrid of The Literary Stew) were able to participate this year! I’ll reveal my 2011 Santee once I make sure her post is up!

EDITED THIS MORNING: Now I can reveal that my Secret Santee was Allie from A Literary Odyssey! Her post is here. I am so happy she is looking forward to reading her Whipple too!

With warmest wishes for a peaceful holiday season,

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: Ama Ata Aidoo's Changes, A Love Story

How does a university-educated Ghanaian woman independent enough to divorce her first husband despite the objections of her traditional family wind up the second wife of a handsome philanderer?

Is it possible that the best way to really think about marriage is to approach it from a completely different perspective?

That perspective is the amazing gift of Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes: A Love Story, a book that grabbed me from minute one, and still had me turning pages until the last one. Esi is a wealthy, educated civil servant who loves her job. Her husband, Oko, feels neglected by her devotion to duty. Their clashes eventually lead to the dissolution of their marriage, although Esi’s “Western” notions of autonomy find little support even among her staunchest allies – her grandmother, her mother and her best friend are all perplexed by her desire to leave a perfectly good man.

If her dissatisfaction with her marriage is based on imported Western values, her fascination with Ali, the well-to-do travel agent, is completely primeval: they are attracted to each other from the second they meet, and soon start a steamy affair. Ali is obsessed with Esi, so much so that he becomes jealous of her, despite the fact he is himself cheating on his own family. The fact that he’s already married is not an insurmountable problem to possessing Esi in Ghanaian society: Ali can make Esi his second wife.

And that’s the most fascinating issue in the book. Living in a traditional society with a host of non-traditional ideas, Esi starts to see the things a marriage provides to women: security, partnership, networking. These are the things that Western ideas about marriage, focused almost completely on love, tend to ignore. She also looks at the negative aspects of marriage for women, including their presumed subservience to men in traditional relationships. Is it possible to find the perfect balance of freedom and dependency in any marriage? Could being a second wife allow a woman to live a less conventional lifestyle while still operating within the comfortable framework of a traditional society? I certainly never thought about it before I read Changes, but I will admit that the novel really forced me to think about relationships in a completely unique way.

It’s probably obvious that I loved this novel, and I’m really grateful to have found it because of Judith’s Book Bloggers Abroad 2011 Challenge at Leeswammes! I would absolutely recommend this book to lovers of world fiction and feminist fiction, as well as those who are interested in African literature. But I really believe the book deserves a wider audience, as it speaks to the very essence of what makes society work. Aidoo writes beautifully and with great compassion – I will definitely seek out more of her work.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Digital Cooking Edition

This week’s Weekend Cooking post is really more of a question. Can I turn this:

Into this?

When I had an iPhone, I downloaded a bunch of food-related apps. Whole Foods and Food Network both have apps that allow you to enter an ingredient – say kale or pork tenderloin – and get recipes for it. I thought those would be really useful, but in the end I didn’t use them very much. I usually make a menu for the week on Saturday or Sunday, and I never could change my habit of going through cookbooks while deciding.

One app we do use often is Seafood Watch. Designed by the Monterrey Aquarium, it’s a guide to the best and most sustainable seafood available in your geographic area. My husband takes that one with him to Wegman’s and checks out what’s available against Seafood Watch’s sustainability measures, and picks accordingly!

But the real prompt for this post was the increasing availability of cookbooks in e-book form. They’re almost invariably less expensive than the traditional paper versions. And they’d solve that obvious space problem on my kitchen bookshelves. So I’ve been tempted to give e-cookbooks a try. Two things are holding me back. First, the tactile part of me is wondering if it would be fun to explore a cookbook in digital format – I just love to read cookbooks. Second, the practical side of me is wondering how it would be possible to follow a cookbook in e-format. Would it be reformatted and optimized for my Kindle? Or would the recipe text flow awkwardly, making me toggle between pages?

Can you imagine how nice it would be to travel and have a bunch of your favorite cookbooks with you? Or to actually have the recipe that someone asks for at a potluck? That’s the part that’s tempting me! So what do you think, Weekend Cookers? Has anyone joined the e-cooking revolution? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review: Phoebe Taylor Atwood’s The Cape Cod Mystery

I took this book out of the library twice previously this year, and had to return it for one reason or another. But the third time was a charm for Phoebe Taylor Atwood and me, because The Cape Cod Mystery, the first of her Asey Mayo series, wound up being my favorite book for this year’s Vintage Mystery Challenge, hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block.

Author Dale Sanborn takes a cottage in Cape Cod to escape the summer heat and work on his latest sensational novel. But he can’t escape the many people who are furious that he’s used thinly veiled versions of their own lives to people his books. Sanborn turns up dead hours after he runs over wealthy Bill Porter’s beloved dog – and the only clue seems to be a can of sardines, a type the local dry goods store stocks especially for Porter, making him the prime suspect. The sleepy little seaside town doesn’t even have a jail (can you imagine when the Cape was so remote?), so the local sheriff puts poor Porter in the stocks (the actual stocks left over from the Pilgrims, no less). Porter puts his life in the hands of the man he trusts most in the world: Asey Mayo, a former sailor with a long and probably jaded past. Mayo sets out to find the real killer in a weekend to avoid Bill winding up in a big time Massachusetts prison.

The murder represents a good mystery, but Mayo is what makes the book great. At first he appears to be just an ordinary old handyman for a large estate. But Atwood quickly reveals a man with a near-encyclopedic memory and a veritable Rolodex of personal acquaintances from all walks of life who are ready to help him solve the mystery. He’s totally smart without being a bit flamboyant – kind of an anti-Poirot. His dialogue is written in dialect, so you can really get a feel for his strong New England accent, which I absolutely loved, because it doesn’t seem condescending – just spot on. Reading it really did make me think of those great accents you hear Down East in Maine, where I used to spend my summers.

The best thing about joining this year’s Vintage Mystery Challenge was pushing myself to read seven different female authors. I found a whole new set of writers to seek out in addition to Atwood, including Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham. So thanks a million Bev for hosting. I’m already working on my own “Vicious Vacations” list for 2012!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: Alina Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

When I dislike the main character in a novel, I usually don’t like the novel. So how can I explain my fascination with Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine? Rosalinda represents all that is wrong with motherhood – she constructs her relationships with her daughter and later her granddaughter completely strategically, always thinking how she might benefit from their interactions. She’s seems almost completely unaware of how she is viewed by others. It’s totally over-the-top. Which is probably why she’s makes such a compelling unreliable narrator.

Rosalinda is inordinately proud of her Tartar heritage (which comes along with a host of folk medical remedies that are truly hilarious). She’s proud of her beauty and youthful appearance (especially her shapely legs, which she believes men swoon over). She’s proud of her family (or at least she believes she could be, if they’d simply do as she tells them). Her lack of self-awareness has benefits, as she walks around Russia and later Germany convinced of her own important place in the world, even if she’s cleaning someone else’s toilets – or rifling through someone else’s private papers.

Of course, her megalomania has disastrous effects on the people in her life, especially on her daughter Sulfia, who can never quite escape Rosalinda’s sphere of influence and therefore misses every chance at happiness with her own daughter, Aminat. Aminat herself watches Rosalinda with a keen eye, and the reader has the impression that she’s just waiting for her chance to act – she reminded me of a mouse eyeing a big, Persian cat, just waiting for the cat to lower it guard enough for the mouse to make its move.

What Bronksy gives the reader with The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is a true tragicomedy, which succeeds only because Rosalinda is so totally outrageous that it’s funny, in a thoroughly disturbing way. It reminded me of Voltaire’s Candide, but without the main character’s growing realization that perhaps everything wasn’t alright with the universe after all – despite tragedy after tragedy, Rosalinda remains convinced of her own omnipotence from start to finish. This book really worked for me, although I can appreciate that it might not work for everyone. With a good sense of gallows humor, I think the reader will enjoy the novel despite their feelings about the narrator, a pretty interesting feat for Bronsky to pull off, in my opinion.

I was planning on this being a weekend cooking post, but after reading the novel, it doesn’t seem right – the only thing foodie about the book was the title. But it still counts for the Europa Editions Challenge, and I’ll be cross posting this on the Challenge Blog. The semester ends on Friday, so I’m still hopeful I can finish up a couple of the challenges I have lingering before then. If only I had some little elves to do my grading for me, so I could just read my holiday break away!