Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Audiobook Review: Bitter Sweets

Scandalous lies. Sweet lies. Treacherous lies. Nimble lies. Lies of omission. Roopa Farooki’s Bitter Sweets tells the story of a Bangladeshi family built on a lie – and of three generations of suffering because of all the subsequent lies it takes to hold the unhappy group together.

Henna, a lazy and illiterate shopkeeper’s daughter from Dacca, convinces wealthy Anglophile and Oxford student Rashid (Ricky) Kareem that she is his poetry-loving, tennis-playing soulmate – a pretense that she manages to keep up until their wedding night. The first lie yields a second, as Ricky covers up his wife’s inadequacies for the sake of family honor. And the lies continue from there, each piece of happiness marred by some part of the truth missing.

Henna and Rashid’s only child, Shona, lies to keep peace. She falls in love with Parvez, a Pakastani, and they elope to London, where they start married life living over a confectioner’s shop. Intelligent and driven, Shona works tirelessly to create a perfect world for her little family. But even her kindly-meant lies take their toll, and eventually have repercussions for her twin sons, Omar and Sharif. (**Digression: Yes, that’s Omar and Sharif. Like the actor. It makes total sense when you read the novel, I promise.**)

Bitter Sweets is a solid family saga, romantic, funny, sad, and suspenseful in turns. I liked the complexity of the characters. Everyone has mixed motives, so their actions aren’t predictable. In fact, the ending provided a great plot twist that I never saw coming. I love that.

I thoroughly enjoyed this audiobook. Tania Rodrigues is a wonderful narrator, with a range of accents and voices that take the reader from Bangladeshi high society to the streets of London effortlessly. I had a couple of “driveway” moments while listening to the book, sitting in the car to listen to the end of a chapter – she has a great voice that you don’t tire of.

I’m starting to realize how very important the narrator is to the success of an audiobook. Actually, this book has me thinking about doing an experiment: I plan to read the actual book, and compare the two formats, to see how much of my enjoyment was because on the narration. Based on the mixed reviews I read of the book, and my own enthusiastic response, I wonder if Rodrigues’ masterful performance may have accounted for quite a lot my positive review.

Or maybe this is just my cup of tea. I will report back.

This book counts for THREE challenges: that’s a personal record. It counts for Evil in the What’s in a Name 4 Challenge, as well as for Immigrant Stories and the South Asia Challenge. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads, Colleen at BooksNYC and Swapna at S. Krishna’s Books for hosting.

Oh, and I’ll also be putting up a link on Audiobook Jukebox. It’s a great blog I recently found out about, with links to hundreds of reviews for audiobooks.

Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

When I wrote up my goals for the year, I said I’d like to do more short reviews. This is one of those.

I picked up Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress in an airport bookshop where the pickings were pretty thin (unless you happened to be a Danielle Steele or Stephen King fan, which I’m definitely not). The premise was certainly interesting: a worldly college professor, recently dumped by her newly out-of-the-closet husband, goes back to her Mennonite family to convalesce after surgery.

I generally like memoirs, and Janzen’s is both raw and real. It was good – it just wasn’t great. Maybe that’s because the cover design and copy made me think this would be hilarious, and it really wasn’t. There were some funny parts, but the overriding emotion of the memoir was bitterness, not mirth. Maybe she wrote it too soon after her divorce. I could really feel the sting of it, but I found it oddly deflating.

Still, the book demystifies Mennonites, appreciated because I live in an area with a significant Mennonite population, and didn’t really know very much about their traditions and history. I would recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about the group. It would probably also be appropriate for someone going through a divorce, as it does have a positive message about resilience, and learning to appreciate what you have. Not at all a bad book, it just didn’t fit my life or mood at the moment – thank goodness.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bloggiesta Update #3: Labels and Wrap-Up

Okay, here is what I found out, participating in the Labels Mini-Challenge hosted by Beth Fish Reads: I have WAY too many. So A) I added the Labels gadget to my site, and B) I'm now in the process of removing titles and author name from my labels. This will be a big job, but it may finally make the Labels useful. Thanks for the inspiration, Bloggiesta.

I've gotten a great deal done this weekend, and also realized how much I ought to do! I still have one more backlogged review I'd like to get to, but with both of our teams playing today (he's a Packers fan, I'm a Jets fan), that may not happen today. But it's been a blast, and I'll definitely sign up for this challenge next time!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Audiobook Review: One Corpse Too Many

The New Year’s resolution to rock a bathing suit for my 20th anniversary trip to the Caribbean has been thoroughly productive from one perspective: the audiobook perspective, that is. Looking for something light and engaging enough to keep my mind off the treadmill miles, I chose the second Brother Cadfael mystery, One Corpse Too Many. As expected, it was very entertaining.

Set against the backdrop of the siege of Shrewsbury Castle during the dynastic struggles of King Stephen and Empress Maude, the novel follows the scrupulous Brother Cadfael’s search for the murderer of a minor noble whose death was not warranted by King Stephen, unlike the other 94 men of the castle who were brutally but legally hanged for their participation in the siege: the “one corpse too many” of the title.

What I love about the Brother Cadfael novels is the unfolding of the deductive reasoning process. The unorthodox monk, who lived the worldly life of a Crusader before taking up the cowl to tend the abbey’s herbarium, brings his life’s experience to bear on every problem. And this book presents a lot of problems. Along with the solving of a murder, Cadfael also must save the life of a courier, outwit the cagiest of nobles, protect a young woman from the King, and hide the truth about a crime from an innocent orphan.

One of the most charming parts of the audiobook for me was Patrick Tull’s excellent narration. His accent changes from heavy Welsh to proper British falsetto effortlessly. And his voice is soothing, but not at all dull. As mysteries go, this is good, clean, historical fun. I liked this one even better than A Morbid Taste for Bones, and I think it would stand on its own, even if you didn’t read the first one. This book is highly recommended for lovers of deductive mysteries and historical mysteries.

This is my first book for the What's In A Name 4 Challenge: A Number. It's such a fun challenge, and the categories are so open that you can always fill them with something you wanted to read anyway, but didn't make time for. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting. And it clears some of my backlog, so it's a Bloggiesta chore as well!

Bloggiest Update #2: Another new look

I loved the flowers, but they didn't have enough “oomph” somehow. Then I thought about another photo I took in Argentina this summer, of the Caminito, home to the early Italian immigrants to Argentina. The buildings in the portside district are still painted in the same hodgepode of colors that have defined the area since the beginning of the 20th century. Just looking at the picture reminds me of how much fun we had walking around, enjoying the sidewalk scene.

How's that for “oomph?”

Bloggiesta Update #1: A New Look

I am not a very technical kind of girl, but i do love to take pictures. Usually, they're of my beautiful daughters. But I also love to take pictures that my husband describes as “lovely decay.” The picture in the new background (now tiled) is an example. I took this in Tigre, Argentina, on the grounds of a restaurant that can only be reached by water taxi. I was drawn to the mix of cracked plaster, hard iron grates and soft flowers.

I may try some other photos out, but I do like the feel of this one. And since I took the photo, I hope it gives the blog a more personal feel. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!


I'm participating in Bloggiesta, a blog improvement event hosted this weekend by Maw Books Blog. The cute little guy in the logo is named Pedro, which stands for Plan, Edit, Design, Review, Organize.

Bloggiesta is technically an 8AM to 8PM event, but since part-time bloggers need to fit their hours in wherever and whenever they can, I'm up at 5 to start working on one of my New Year's Resolutions, which is to improve my blog! My Bloggiesta goals are modest:
  1. Expand the Blog Roll. So many blogs are part of my weekly reading now, and I'd like to give them credit.
  2. Clean up Review Central. It's the The thing. Everything is under "T." I realized the problem a while ago, and started filing under the second word, but now it's inconsistent and making me nuts.
  3. Play with the look of Col Reads. Can I make it more personal? More fun? That's what I want to find out.
  4. Catch up on some posts. I read a few books over break that I never blogged about. I'm thinking about this as a chance to clear the decks!
  5. Participate in a Mini-Challenge. I've never done that before, so I thought it would be fun.
I'll report back here throughout the day! Thanks so much to Maw Books for hosting!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Firebrand: Of Feminism and Prophesy

The generation of readers who grew up rooting for Elphaba in Wicked may not realize how much they owe to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, which in its time was a groundbreaking piece of revisionist literature, presenting a feminist interpretation of the Arturian Cycle as told from the point of view of a traditional “villain,” Morgan Le Fay. I remember reading it on summer break from Georgetown, where I was an undergraduate. As a medievalist, I had had the opportunity to study Wolfram von Eschenbach and Chretien de Troyes, and I found Bradley’s take on the classic tales electrifying.

But it wasn’t until I was looking for titles for the Read-A-Myth Challenge that I realized Bradley had also reinterpreted the story of one of the most frustrating and hopeless characters in Greek mythology: Kassandra. In The Firebrand, Bradley revisits the doomed prophetess of Troy, cursed to always be right, but never believed. (**Digression: Any woman who has ever tried to share the assembly directions while her significant other boldly struggled to put together the IKEA furniture with brawn and intuition alone should be able to put herself in Kassandra’s place pretty easily.**)

Bradley is at her best describing the day-to-day life of women, and The Firebrand is crammed with social history lessons, from marriage customs to household duties. I’d say she was less successful in the actual “history” portion of her books, as the ancient world she seeks to recreate requires some suspension of disbelief. For example, we’re asked to believe that Amazons and Centaurs (although she calls them Kentaurs) lived in highly evolved, monosexual groups which allowed women to be wholly autonomous. In fact, some of the dialog during Kassandra’s time with the Amazons reads more like a Ms. Magazine editorial than a great work of literature.

Like its precursor and parent, The Iliad, proper relationships are at the center of this novel. Bradley takes some liberties here as well, making Kassandra the twin of Paris, with whom she shares a bond of sight, something Paris finds unseemly. The novel’s men are almost uniformly bellicose, vainglorious, and imperious in their treatment of women, although the gentle Aeneas is a notable exception. It is the relationships among the women that are most satisfying, as Bradley allows us to see not only Kassandra but Helen and Hecuba in far greater detail – and sympathy – than any previous treatment of the classic tales I’ve read.

I really enjoyed this novel. It is LONG, though, and since the outcome was never in doubt – Troy was certainly going to fall – there were times when I grew a bit impatient with it. And the last chapter, an attempt I think to link the main characters to the Iron Age Earth goddess-worshipping societies of Western Europe that MZB knew so well, had the feeling of an afterthought. But those are quibbles. I would definitely recommend the book to those who enjoy revisionist and feminist literature, those who enjoy Greek mythology, and those who enjoy historical novels. All in all, a great start to the Read-A-Myth Challenge. Thanks to JoV at Bibliojunkie and Bina at If You Can Read This for hosting.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lessons from the Bog People

If I had to conjure a coherent theme for my Winter Break reading, it would have to be “quirky non-fiction.” Cleopatra, Charlie Chan, and then this: Bog People.

It seems that nineteenth- and twentieth-century peat diggers throughout Northern Europe unearthed bodies so perfectly preserved that the local police were regularly called out to investigate possible murder. As it happens, the victims were ritually murdered – around 2,000 years ago. P.V. Glob’s The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved, written in 1965 and brought back into print by the New York Review Books imprint, was the first comprehensive archaeo-anthropological look at Denmark and Germany’s bog people, and the clues to Iron Age Germani society they provide.

P.V. Glob was Denmark’s Director General of Museums and Antiquities, as well as Director of the National Museum of Copenhagen, which afforded him particular access and insight into that country’s bog people. Some of the black and white photos throughout the book struck me as totally gruesome, but also fascinating in their detail, right down to a perfectly preserved Swabian hair curl, which had been described by Roman chroniclers, but not actually seen. (**Digression: I can’t get my hair to keep a curl for one swanky evening – apparently, some enterprising hairdresser needs to come up with a peat bog treatment for the wavily-challenged.**)

Think of this book as the literary equivalent of a very comprehensive National Geographic special, and you have the idea. Glob starts by describing the individual finds in detail, but by far the most interesting part of the book is the last third, when Glob uses the mummies to piece together the day-to-day life of Denmark’s Iron Age society, as well as speculating very convincingly about the meanings of these particular deaths.

For me, it was the photo of an intricately knit bonnet that really brought the dichotomies of Iron Age society home – it’s impossible to call a society that produced something so beautiful, without a written pattern or a machine, “barbaric.” And yet ritual sacrifice was clearly part of the fabric of their lives. How much have we changed?

The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved is a good, nerdy read. Highly recommended for readers who love anthropology and archaeology, readers who enjoy nonfiction, and who enjoy reading about ancient history. The pictures are pretty graphic, though, so it’s not the kind of thing I’d leave on a table for very sensitive little children to find.

This book counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge -- if you like reading nonfiction, you should check it out over at The Introverted Reader. Thanks to Jen for hosting!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Charlie Chan history brings a cultural icon into focus

To know forgery, one must have original. ~ Charlie Chan

Maybe, like me, you loved to watch Charlie Chan movies as a kid. You might not have known many Asian or Asian American people – I didn’t – but you thought that if you met them they’d be really honest and smart and likeable, because that’s the kind of guy Charlie Chan was. (I know this is ridiculous now, but that’s how kids think.)

And then maybe, like me, you spent the 80s and 90s feeling guilty about liking those movies, because you found out many Asian Americans found them offensive. You didn’t actually believe you were a bigot for liking that wise family-man of a sleuth, but hey, you weren’t the one being offended. Like me, maybe you hadn’t thought about Charlie Chan in years, unless some controversy brought him back to mind, as when FOX recently caused an uproar by restoring and releasing some of the classic movies from the 30s and 40s.

If this is anything like your experience, Yunte Huang has written a book you’ll probably appreciate as much as I did. Huang, a Chinese-born English scholar with a PhD in Poetics, became fascinated by the love/hate relationship that Americans have with Charlie Chan after reading some of the original Earl Derr Biggers novels while in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo. With Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History, Huang seeks to contextualize Charlie Chan for the modern reader, providing significant background on Hawaiian history, Hollywood race relations, author Biggers, and the larger-than-life, ethnic-Chinese Honolulu Police Department detective who provided some of the inspiration for the honorable detective, Chang Apana, in the process.

Huang’s book provides a solid, critical history of the Charlie Chan phenomenon, from its foundations to its eventual fallout. The book captures the amazing personalities that made Charlie Chan an American cultural icon, including Apana, Biggers, and the non-Asian actors who played Chan on screen, Warner Oland and Sidney Toller. It also examines the differences between Chinese and Chinese-American reaction to the Charlie Chan series. In fact, Huang points out, the Charlie Chan movies were wildly popular in China, and Oland was treated like royalty in Hong Kong when he visited, although his characterization of Charlie Chan has been largely derided by American intellectuals.

Since Huang did not grow up in the US, he adds an interesting, “outsider” perspective to the Charlie Chan debate. Not having lived the “model minority” experience, he sees both the positive and negative aspects of Charlie Chan iconography. I did see that outsider status as problematic at some points of the book, when his arguments lacked subtlety and sophistication. For example, he seems to conflate British and American sentiments through the characters of Dr. Fu Manchu (written by British writer Sax Rohmer) and Charlie Chan (written by Ohio-born Biggers), as if there was some collective “Western” or “Anglo” perspective on race. I simply don’t believe that’s true.

But for the most part the book was very enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking. Do I think that the US is at a post-racial point where we can rediscover Charlie Chan? Probably not. But l do believe that like Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the popular Charlie Chan novels and movies have something to tell us about the time in which they were conceived. Huang is an academic, and I think media studies and Asian studies scholars will appreciate his work. But it’s not overly scholarly, and I’d also recommend this book to old movie buffs, those who enjoy media history, and mystery lovers.

As Charlie Chan once said, “Trouble, like first love, teach many lessons.” Huang’s book suggests we still have something to learn from the honorable detective.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The unsatisfying nature of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I start 2011 with a simul-blog on a food-related title, shared with my very dear friend (and incidentally, the maid-of-honor at my wedding), Jess of Desperado Penguin.

Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake represents an interesting strain of magic realism in current U.S. literature. It has a really cool premise. And some really interesting characters. Still, I have to admit that in the end it’s not a book I can easily recommend to others.

The totally cool premise is this: a girl finds out that she can “taste” the emotions of whoever has prepared her food. This presents a particular predicament in her case, as her mother is unhappy in her marriage – hence, the “sadness” associated with the lemon cake so devotedly prepared for her birthday celebration. Ironically, Rose tastes her mother’s hollowness and bitterness every day, in every lovingly prepared school lunch and every carefully crafted family dinner. She comes to love the mechanized, mass-merchandised foods that are never touched by human hands, as their inhumanity allows her a respite from the feelings that are thrust upon her by others. This is a weird and counter-intuitive message, to say the least.

I see this book as an indictment of both the “helicopter” parent and the uninvolved parent, although the uninvolved parent is by far the biggest loser in Bender’s calculus.

If I was quiet enough, he wouldn’t send me to bed. We colluded in this way: as long as I didn’t announce that I was a kid, he wouldn’t rise up as parent, and for an hour, we could both have a little respite from our roles.

Rose’s helicopter mom counts on her brilliant older son to guide her through life. Her absentee father never bothers to share with his children the one piece of information that might have helped them make sense of their lives. But Bender never gives us an example of a “good” parent, so I’m not sure what she would change about either of the parents she portrays so unsympathetically in this book.

One of the unique aspects of this book is the relationship between Rose Edelstein and her older brother, Joseph. Rose, as might be expected, adores her older brother. But in the end the reader is left wondering how her selfish brother could possibly deserve her adoration. Only Joseph’s best friend, George, seems to care about each of the members of the family as an individual, but in the end he realizes he cannot make them be “normal,” no matter how much he cares for them. They are who they are – but George’s withdrawal leaves the family without an anchor in the normal world.

I have spent some time thinking about this book, and I have to admit I don’t understand what Bender wants me to take away from it. The ending is so unsatisfying that I felt agitated when I finished: “THAT’S where this was going?” was my final thought. It’s not a bad book, but not a good read either. The lack of quotation marks was annoying to me, a mark of laziness, not creativity, from my perspective. I think magic realism devotees will be interested in this highly Americanized iteration of the genre. But aside from that, it’s not my cup of tea – or my piece of cake. I can honestly admit that if I wasn’t simul-blogging this book with buddy Jess, I would have shelved it.