Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell

This book only took me a few days to read. It's about 250 pages and written in stanzas like a poem. It's the story of two sisters who have been sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the nation's first off-reservation school for Native Americans. Inspired by true events from the author's ancestors who attended the school, Sweetgrass Basket is a poignant glimpse into the lives of children who were taken from their homes in the late 1800s.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger

So Brave Young and Handsome tells the story of a discouraged one-hit wonder, Monte Becket. After publishing a wildly successful novel, he has found his imagination running dry. Just when he reaches his limit of frustration, an enigmatic neighbor on a boat enters his life and takes him on a journey that will change Monte's perspective on life.

Rereading that summary makes me feel like it is inadequate. Yes, that is what happens in the book, but there is so much more to it than that. Most people who like Leif Enger know him from his first novel, Peace Like a River, and most people I know enjoyed it much more than So Brave, Young and Handsome. However, I fell in love with SBY&H almost immediately.

I think in the plot department, SBY&H may be short of the mark when compared with Enger's first book. This book is quieter, more meandering, with some thoughtful, introspective sections. However, there are several moments of excitement, especially in the middle sections of the novel when Monte Becket is trying to protect his friend Glendon from the untiring, unpredictable, and violent Siringo (who, it turns out, was a real person). There are chases, shootings, and one irascible snapping turtle before the book quiets down to a peaceful orchard in California.

Enger's writing in this book is elegant and slow. He uses rich language that left me satisfying after reading a sentence. His style is somehow different from anything else I've read - I keep using the adjective quiet, but that is the best way I know how to describe it. When I read it, I felt like someone was reading it to me very softly by firelight - it is conversational but it takes its time getting where it needs to go, and takes a little time to introspect. Here is an example of a couple of lovely sentences: "There we stayed in the breathless night. Love is a strange fact -- it hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. It makes no sense at all." (32).

I loved the story and the writing, but the true love for me in this book was in the characters. They are rich and vivid - the ineffable, smiling, ever-positive Glendon, who just so happens to be wanted by the law; the vibrant artist Susannah, who encourages Monte to find himself despite sacrifice by herself; the quiet, firm Blue, the powerful, peaceable Claudio, the exuberant, gusto-filled Redstart, the twisted, manipulative Siringo. And of course, Monte Becket, the voice of the novel, often confused, often imperfect, usually not living up to his own expectations, but lovable in that he is an incarnation of all of us as we try to break out of our mediocre selves and live exceptional lives. The story was really about two things - for Glendon, it is about being absolved of his former crimes so he can start his life over as an honest man, and for Monte, it is about living a life he can be proud of and being a man worthy of Susannah. While the plot was exciting, it was secondary to the character development.

There were a couple of other silly little things that endeared the book to me. One was a telegram Susannah sends to Monte, where it says, "I miss your face. Come home." I had to laugh because I send those exact words to my husband all the time, in the form of a modern telegram - the oh-so-convenient text message. I also had to laugh at a conversation Monte eavesdropped on in the train, where two Mormon elders were arguing about Christy Mathewson, a baseball player for the Giants who wouldn't play on Sunday. (My husband and I are big Giants fans and members of the LDS church so this was kind of entertaining for us). Anyway, reading those bits made me feel like I had some kind of inside joke with Leif Enger that made the book even more fun to read.

So to sum it all up? Love, love, love, love, love. I think I enjoyed this book even more than Peace Like A River, although I definitely enjoyed that novel as well. I can't recommend it enough, and I can't wait to meet Leif Enger!

Readability/Accessibility - You might need to look up a word or two, but the story flows.
Aesthetics/literary merit - 5. Beautiful.
Plot - 4
Characters - 5
Personal Response - 5
Overall: 4.75

PS: Guys, I just reposted my review from my book blog. Is that ok?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Three Cups of Tea

Wow. Wow. Wow.

I had to put a picture up of Greg Mortensen because this book is about the AMAZING accomplishments he has had in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As of 2009 he had built 81 schools for children. Not only does he help with educating children (especially girls) but he helps remote, rural villages in the Himalayan region with projects to improve their quality of life like providing pipes for sanitary water and supplies basic medical care.

What inspired me the most about this book is that Dr. Greg (as the people call him) never planned on becoming an icon for humanitarian aid in the middle east. He literally stumbled his way into a village and promised them a school and when he got back to the U.S. he had no idea how he was going to be able to keep it. He is just a normal guy who took it upon himself to help. I want to go on and on about the amazing things he has done, but I will let you read it.

Another thing that I liked while I was reading it is how you could see God's hand in making Greg's work progress. There are times when you don't know how Greg is going to get out of a situation and just when you think there is no way out, something simple but miraculous happens and things work out. I love the quote on the cover of the book that says "proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world" (Tom Brokaw). It's true.

Something I read yesterday from Standing for Something by President Hinckley confirms what Tom Brokaw said, "I have concluded that the work of the world is done by basically ordinary people who have learned to work in an extraordinary way. . . One does not have to be a genius to get ahead. One does not have to be brilliant to make a difference in this world, to reach out and help and serve and lead others."

Apart from inspiring the reader to help his/her fellow man, this book taught me a lot about the character of the Muslim world. The ones who are causing all of the trouble are a very small percentage of the population of those countries. Most of the people just want to make a living and be with their families. It softened my heart for the people who are suffering the most from this war and who have absolutely zero responsibility for the problems over which the war is being fought.

Read it. If you don't read it, donate to the Central Asia Institute. The fight against terrorism will be resolved from the inside out. Through education and not violence.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Anna Karenina

I finally finished listening to an unabridged audio version of Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.  It was a long book and I felt it.  I'm not one who regularly tackles long books, so maybe I'm just a wimp, but if I were to do it again, I would try an abridged version.

What made it so long?  I think Tolstoy got carried away with descriptions of social issues and philosophies of the time.  In his defense, most of the issues he has his characters discuss or think about endlessly are still quite relevant today; things like social classes, labor issues,  and women's vs. men's rights.  That is probably why the book is seen as classic literature even after so may years.

Did I like the story?  At times.  I really liked some of Tolstoy's descriptions and comparisons, though I couldn't think of any to share.  However, I  found an article through Google that included a lot of my favorite lines in her list of favorites.  Go here if you want to read some of them.  I don't know if they will be meaningful if you haven't read the book, but in case you are interested, it is there.  

The problem was I  really didn't like a lot of characters.  The upper class and nobility in this time period are so awful. Their arrogance,their pampered lives and the amount of time they spend thinking about themselves and their mostly petty problems like what to wear, the latest fashions or who is going to invite them or who they will invite to some snobby social function, wears on me.  

However, I genuinely liked the character of Levin.  Though he was of the noble class too, he was a good man and I liked that he didn't know how good he was. Throughout the book, he struggles with his religious beliefs and with the meaning of life and his flaws.  Near the end of the book, he comes to terms with religion and his beliefs.   His realizations are so genuine.  That was my favorite part of the book, I think.  I liked Kitty too, though I didn't think she was as interesting or her character as well-developed.  

I never mustered up much sympathy for Anna though.  After I finished the book, I read a few reviews of it.  The reviews pointed to reasons that her character was worthy of sympathy for her tragic life, but it just didn't happen for me. She just seemed controlling and selfish to me most of the time.  Her lover, Vronsky, seemed shallow to me.  I didn't find him very interesting or likable either. 

  If I am going to read about people like this, I need it to be laced with humor and that is one thing I thought this book seriously lacked.  I only remember one brief comment by one of the characters that made me even smile.  Okay, maybe two, but I needed more.  When I have read books by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, I have found enough humor in them to keep me happy.  Maybe I value humor too much, but I'm glad my ancestors were English and not Russian.  If Russians were funnier, maybe they wouldn't have to drink as much vodka in order to cope with life.

So, would I do it again?  Yes, but I think I would get an abridged, printed version.  That way, I could mark the passages of thought or description that I really liked so I could enjoy them again.  That is one drawback of listening to audio versions of books.  BUT  this book was so long, I was glad I could listen to it while I was doing dishes or walking or something, and you can't do that while reading an actual book.  

There are lots of different translations, abridgments, and audio versions of this book available.  The one I listened to was narrated by Davina Porter.  She was an excellent narrator.  It didn't say who did the translation.  I definitely give it a thumbs up, and if we are giving stars, I think I have to say 3.75 out of 5.

I'd be interested to hear impressions any of the rest of you have about it or if you think tackling War and Peace would be worth it.      

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Power of One

Oh my goodness I loved this book. It's probably going into my list of top 5 if you take out all the Harry Potter books. It's about a boy growing up in South Africa, starting when he's five years old in about 1935 and taking the reader through his childhood and teenage years. It's historical fiction, so you learn about the Apartheid and WWII, but I mostly loved it because of the great characters that are portrayed. There are so many people to love and hate! Read it, please do.

Disclaimer though... this has terrible language. Bad enough that I can't actually recommend it to anyone without putting that out there. I almost feel like a heathen for loving the book so much.(but let's justify it here: it's a cultural thing, not an "I'm the author and I just want to swear" thing)

Another thought- The book is 500 pages long, which to me is super long, but not a hard read. However, there is a young reader edition you could look into that doesn't have the swearing (or half the story).

Little Bee

I finally finished Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

And I will warn you right now that I won't be giving you a lot of info in this post about what the book is actually about BECAUSE inside the back cover of the book itself asks you not to tell others what the plot of the story is, but just to tell them to read it.

I am going to tell you more about it than that though because I think it would be unfair if I told you to go and drop all other books you are reading and blindly start this book (as I would suggest with a book like The Help or The Book Theif).

So what I will tell you is that the book is written from the perspective of two very different women from very different life situations and whose lives criss-cross twice (or possibly you could say 3 times).

And the book really  is good. I'm glad I read it, but it wasn't one that I could not put down. I would probably give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Uglies Series

I recently read the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld.

This is what wikipedia has to say about it:
Uglies is a 2005 science fiction novel by Scott Westerfeld. It is set in a future post-scarcity dystopian world in which everyone is turned "Pretty" by extreme cosmetic surgery upon reaching age 16. It tells the story of teenager Tally Youngblood who rebels against society's enforced conformity, after her new found friends Shay and David show her the downsides to becoming a "pretty". Written for young adults, Uglies deals with adolescent themes of change, both emotional and physical, and dealing with the revelation that "some of what you’re taught isn’t true, your parents are flawed human beings and the world isn’t constructed for your benefit.” The book is the first installment in what was originally a trilogy, The Uglies series which includes Pretties and Specials and Extras.

This is what I have to say about it:
I liked this series okay. Obviously I liked it enough to finish the original 3 books of the series. I did not read Extras because I heard it didn't really have a lot to do with the storyline of the other books, and I was just done with reading these books for a while. Anyway the point is I liked the books. I would probably give them a 3 out of 5 stars rating. The thing I didn't really like about the book was all of the slang and made up words they had (i.e. "pretty-making" "bubbly" (which I realize is a real word, but Mr. Westerfeld invented a new definition for it) and others that I currently can't remember). Anyway, it bugged me to read those and to listen to them (I listened to the last 2 books of the series on cd, which also could have contributed to my hate of the slang and made up words because the reader was ANNOYING to the max) to the point where I have made it one of my new year's goals to start cutting slang and annoying words out of my own daily vocabulary out of fear of me causing this pain on the people that surround me. 

So yeah, overall 3 out of 5 stars. They kind of reminded me of The Hunger Games series, but were written a little too juvenile for me (which says a lot :) )


Emma. Written by Jane Austen.
(I think we all know that, but. . . tradition, right?)

So I read Emma a while ago. It is a book that I couldn't believe that I hadn't read before now because I knew the story so well from watching the movie countless times (which I think I have determined that I like the new BBC version the best because I feel like it gives the most accuracy to the book, which of course it can when it is much longer than the other versions, but still. . . and I also know that Erin the most-lover of Emma will disagree with me on this and that is okay).

Anyway, back to the book. I really liked the book. I can't say that I like it better than Pride and Prejudice because I don't. I just have something that I love about Elizabeth that makes her win out over Emma, but I did like this book and I think that everyone (no matter how many times you have seen the movie) should read this book because it is a good story and teaches good things about real life.

I am going to assume that most of you know the basic story of Emma (whether it is from watching one of the movies based on the book and/or from reading the book itself) but one thing that I loved about the book was that we got to know the dad a little more (which until I read this and watched the BBC movie, I never understood what a HUGE worry-wort he was) and we get to know Emma a little more. She is a little self-centered for me but I really do love her and it made me realize how young she was and almost made her a little more real because I am guessing that most of us are pretty self-centered when we are 18 or 19. Am I right?

Anyway, I feel silly even posting about this book, because most of you have probably already read it, and have your own opinions about it, but if you haven't read it yet, I would recommend it.