Friday, December 30, 2016

Human Acts

Title:  Human Acts
Author:  Han Kang
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  1101906723 / 978-1101906729

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In early 1980, South Korea was a heap of dry tinder waiting for a spark."

Favorite Quote:  "I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race. And that includes you, professor, listening to this testimony. As it includes myself."

Even before reading the book, the cover and the title of this book alone leaves an impact. Human Acts. The actions of human beings towards other human beings so often wreak havoc. The human family becomes the cause of its own destruction and leaves haunting tales of sorrow. It has happened so many times throughout history and continues to happen again and again. The wish remains for human acts to be those of love and kindness not hate and oppression.

The city of Gwangju, South Korea is a metropolitan center with its history reaching back centuries to the 50s BC. In 1980, the city and country were under the newly installed military rule of Chun Doo-Hwan. In May, 1980s, protests by university student supporters of democracy began the so-called Gwangju Uprising, also known as the May 18 Democratic Uprising and the Gwangju Democratization Movement. These protests led to an immediate, severe military response from the government. Over the course of about ten days, May 18 through 27, the protests continued, and the government continued its militarized response. Records disagree on the the death toll, with lists ranging from 150 to 2,000.

This book comprises memories about that uprising, narrowed down to the memories surrounding the death of one young man named Dong-Ho. In interconnected chapters, the book depicts the events and their aftermath through different perspectives:
  • The Boy, 1980
  • The Boy's Friend, 1980
  • The Editor, 1985
  • The Prisoner, 1990
  • The Factory Girl, 2002
  • The Boys' Mother, 2010
  • The Writer, 2013 - This epilogue is really the inception of the book for the epilogue is about "the writer" who "was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising." The author describes her connection to the story, the reasons her interest grew, and her research.
Through these eyes, the book depicts imprisonment, questioning, torture, grief, loss, and death. The chapters often describe the details, allowing the reader to step back and envision the horrific whole.  The details and the individual experiences deepen the impact of these human acts, something that cannot be reached through broader historical descriptions. At the same time, the chapter heading with generic people in the titles suggests the broader impact of the events beyond just the specific young man and the lives he touched. The movement of the book through time shows the ripple effects of the events years and decades later. "Some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded."

This book, though fiction, bears witness to a dark event in history. I admit that I knew nothing of this history before reading this book, nor would I have been likely to read South Korean history. The power of fiction is such that it allows a broader audience, an audience that may read the fiction and be inspired to research the true history. Fiction is not history, but can certainly point to history for those willing to learn more. A tragic and haunting book.


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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Title:  The Second Mrs. Hockaday
Author:  Susan Rivers
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1616205814 / 978-1616205812

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On my deathbed I shall remember that April day if I remember anything at all."

Favorite Quote:  "Honesty has become my creed and my salvation; it is my only habitual practice. If by telling the truth I cause harm to someone blameless, someone who acted selflessly in my interest, then I cannot say anything. I will be silent on the matter."

Major Gryffth Hockaday and a considerably younger seventeen year old Placidia Finchler meet in 1863 in war-ravaged South Carolina. Within the next day, they are married. Placidia leaves her beloved father and travels with her husband, a man she barely knows, to start a new life at his farm. They arrive and begin their married life. A mere two days later, Major Hockaday leaves to resume his post on the front lines of the Civil War.

Placidia is left to cope with her new life. This life includes a farm that must be run, with livestock to be cared for and crops to planted and harvested. It includes Charles, Major Hockaday's son from this first marriage. It includes the slaves and workers on the farm; some are receptive to their new mistress, and some are not. It includes new neighbors and townspeople. Again, some are receptive to the newcomer, and some are not.

Fast forward many months. Placidia is in jail for the death of her newborn child, who is found dead and buried on the farm. Major Hockaday has returned but, given his time away, is clearly not the father of the child. Placidia stands accused of adultery and murder. She refuses to name the father and refuses to say how the child was birthed or how the infant died. She may hang for her lack of defense.

What happened at the farm? What happened while the Major was at war? This is the mystery of this book. The author's note at the end explains that while fiction, this book is inspired by the actual case of Elizabeth and Arthur Kennedy. The note also includes the sources used as research for the book.

The book comes at the mystery from multiple directions. First, the book depicts Placidia through her letters to her cousin from where she is held pending the inquest. Second, journal entries and other documents build the events of what happened while the Major was away. Third, Major Hockaday and Placidia's adult children attempt to unravel the complex relationship of their parents years after they are gone in an attempt to understand their own history.

Interestingly, although the inclusion of the children's perspective does not answer the mystery, it does immediately say that whatever occurred was resolved between the Major and Placidia for they go on to create a married life together. It answers the question of the outcome of the case - Placidia does not indeed hang for her supposed crime.

The books weaves back and forth. I do guess at what happened on the farm but not the specific characters involved. Thus, when that climax comes, it is not a surprise. In other words, the mystery is not that much of a mystery. What keeps me reading in this book is the author's ability to place the reader in the civil war era and to see the trials of the women the soldiers left behind. The first person epistolary format works well to bring to life the images of scarcity, deprivations, raiders and looters, survival and slavery. For that history, the book is a captivating story.


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Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Patriots

Title:  The Patriots
Author:  Sana Krasikov
Publication Information:  Spiegal and Grau. 2017. 560 pages.
ISBN:  0385524412 / 978-0385524414

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On a Sunday in August, a boy and a one-armed man appeared on the platform of the Saratov train station."

Favorite Quote:  "Only, the first rule of diplomacy, he reminded her, wasn't to say or do the right things, but to avoid saying and doing the wrong things."

Florence, a young American woman in the 1930s is disillusioned with the way life is going. She goes against her family and moves to Russia. This perspective makes this book unique for most books I have read depict immigration in the opposite direction into the United States. I look forward to seeing culture and politics depicted in a different way.

The two reasons behind Florence's move are a young man and a vision of being part of something bigger than herself. Neither one works out quite as she envisions, and she finds herself caught in a web, unable to escape. Yet, Florence stays, first by choice and then by force.

Her son ends up in an orphanage, but then, at a young age, he is forced to leave all he has known to begin again back in the United States with a parent he barely remembers. His own sense of "foreignness" follows him his entire life. His memories color his view on both the home he left and the land he now calls home. His memories also color his view of his mother.

His son, in turn, goes full circle back to Russia as a businessman and an entrepreneur. Despite his parents' misgivings, he seeks his own future as his grandmother did, and that future to him is in Russia.

This book tells two stories - Florence in the 1930s and Yulik aka Julian and his son Lenny in the 1980s. Florence's story is one of a choice her son never understood. "Why she came to Russia never struck me as odd. Why she stayed is a different question, and one I've often found myself wonder about." Florence's story is about the ramifications of that choice - the pressure, the questioning, the mistreatment, the imprisonment, and the labor camps. Yulik's story is about searching for the past of his parents and protecting the future of his son.

I love the historic premise of this book, the idea of exploring what happened to the foreigners in Russia in between the two World Wars. Unfortunately, I have a really difficult time getting through the book itself. First of all, the book drags in sections. The writing style at times is exaggerated and verbose. Two quotes illustrate my point: "...while I inhale the flatulence of car exhaust, the faint reek of wet varnish, the after-scent of spilled beer..." and "the skin of my arms and things and buttocks become a carapace of gooseflesh..." This story is dire enough to not need the embellishment of such descriptions.

Second, my interest in the book is in Florence's story; I find Yulik and Julian's modern day sections a distraction. I think Florence's story needs no additional filler but rather more depth into the characters. Third, the story is mostly narrative with many long passages. At times, I feel like a voyeur of history rather than a part of the story.

Finally, this is Florence's story, but ultimately, the book does not explore Florence's thoughts and emotions. Here is an idealist pursing a dream that shatters into a nightmare. Here is a young woman who loses everything and begins again. Now, that is a story worth exploring further.


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Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Perilous Undertaking

Title:  A Perilous Undertaking (A Veronica Speedwell Mystery)
Author:  Deanna Raybourn
Publication Information:  Berkeley. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0451476158 / 978-0451476159

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "'For the love of all that is holy, Veronica, the object is to main or kill, not tickle,' Stoker informed me, clipping the words sharply as he handed me a knife."

Favorite Quote:  "The hardest lesson I had learnt upon my travels was patience. There are times when every muscle, every nerve, screams for movement, when every instinct urges escape. But the instinct to fly is not always a sound one. There are occasions when only stillness can save you."

London. 1887. Victorian England. A time of the royals. A time of scientists and lady detectives? Perhaps not as expected, but there lies the interest in the mystery. Veronica Speedwell is quite a character. She is a lepidopterist, a scientist who studies butterflies. She is engaged in a project to catalog the treasures of a certain nobleman, while awaiting her next expedition. She is also a detective; apparently, she did not set out to be, but she has become embroiled in mysteries she has successfully resolved. Did I mention she is connected to the royal family? This connection reveals the more unsure, vulnerable side of Veronica which rounds out her otherwise self-assured, sometimes smug, stance.

To add further interest, her partner in crime (or crime fighting, I suppose) is the Honorable Ravelstoke Templeton-Vane, aka Stoker. He is a historian and scientist. He seems to be the black sheep of his family, but perhaps with reason. Glimpses of his back story are found throughout the book, but this book is clearly Veronica's story first.

Veronica and Stoker are colleagues and friends, but the underlying tension leading to more is abundantly clear. Will the relationship get there? Perhaps. Time will tell, but meanwhile, their interactions are fun to follow and their caring for each other sweetly evident. They seem to have achieved both a professional and personal partnership.

The mystery of this book is the murder of a young woman in a home that is more an artist's colony. A man is convicted and stands to be hung for the crime. He may or may not be the actual murderer. Some believe that he absolutely is not. Perhaps, they know that he is not. Hence, they involve Veronica and Stoker as detectives who may get to the heart of the matter and who may do so discretely to protect reputations. The mystery in the book leads to an exclusive club for certain **ahem** activities that society may deem inappropriate. The people involved could be irreparably damaged by any association; so, discretion is of up most importance.

The one thing I do not care for in this book is the phallic humor and the many off-color remarks. It is too much and oddly placed in a Victorian setting. Surprisingly, the references do not stem from the mystery but rather the main characters. I do not have a need to know about anyone's sexual experiences or expertise. When these conversations start to repeat, it undermines the characters and stories, which are otherwise delightful.

When I started this book, I did not realize that is the second in a series. That becomes quickly clear in this book. The story stands on its own, but previous relationships are alluded to and built upon in this book. Enough is explained for the book to stand on its own. In some cases, the lack of knowledge can become a hindrance to the enjoyment of the book. In this story, it adds to the intrigue and mystery of Veronica Speedwell herself.


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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Under the Tuscan Sun

Title:  Under the Tuscan Sun
Author:  Frances Mayes
Publication Information:  Chronicle Books (original). 1996 (original). 288 pages.
ISBN:  0811808424 / 978-0811808422

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "'What are you going to grow here?' The upholsterer lugs an armchair up the walkway to the house but his quick eyes are on the land."

Favorite Quote:  "Living and writing in a foreign country shakes me to the core. I think that's a positive thing because we are creatures of our culture. We tend to vote the way our peers do, value what those near us value, worship and eat and dress pretty close to home. Sometimes we can't truly see ourselves or those we care about because the background absorbs us into it. To leap out of all that changes us. Drastically. And perhaps it allows you to graze truths you did not know you knew."

This book has so long been on my to read list. I have heard so many people rave about the book and even more the movie that came from it. I have not seen the movie because generally I always try and read the book first. (The book is always better, right?) I suppose all that set high expectations in my mind. Having read it, I am unsure. Did the book suffered from high expectations, or am I not the reader for this book? Perhaps, I enjoyed glimpses of the story but overall found it challenging to stay engaged in this meandering memoir.

A brief summary of this book would be as follows. Find the perfect house. (Big caveats: Is there such a thing as a perfect house? Would you have the ability to afford it as Frances Mayes did?) Go through the trials and tribulations of a real estate transaction across continents and currency exchanges. Enjoy something about the house or make a discovery. Find another repair or renovation still to be done. Find some interesting character who can do it but who does it in their own way and on their own schedule. In between, cook some Italian food which always turns out amazing. Repeat many times from the start to the finish of the book.

Buy an old house and spend years restoring it. Sounds like life. Buy an old house as a summer home in Tuscany and spend several summers restoring it. Now, it's a story set in the beauty of Tuscany and brimming with what should be delightful characters, culture, and food. Add recipes and you should have even more. Unfortunately, for me, the book stops well short of delightful.

As the preface states, this book is based on a notebook the author has kept since her first summer in Italy which evolved into "a chronicle of our first four years here" and then further evolved into this book. That explains the loose structure of the book. It is like a series of essays or travel articles strung together on a chronological string. The chapter headings are topical, for example, Summer Kitchen Notes, Cortona Noble City, and Rose Walk. Summer Kitchen Notes along with Winter Kitchen Notes are literally that - a couple of pages of text descriptions like the ingredients they transport to Italy followed by a set of recipes. Each chapter in the book could likely be published and read as a stand alone article, but does not necessarily flow one into the next. I don't walk away with a sense of story, and that is what I miss in this book.

Some paragraphs and phrases stand out and capture my attention because they capture the beauty of the area and sometimes they capture an idea that resonates. It is these glimpses that keep me reading through the book. For the most part, though, the book reflects a stream of consciousness journal and travelogue, and I can only read so much of that. I wonder if I should perhaps try the movie?


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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Everything You Want Me to Be

Title:  Everything You Want Me to Be
Author:  Mindy Mejia
Publication Information:  Atria/Emily Bestler Books. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501123424 / 978-1501123429

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Running away sucked."

Favorite Quote:  "Acting is becoming someone else, changing your thoughts and needs until you don't remember your own anymore. You let the other person invade everything you are and then you turn yourself inside out, spilling their identity on to stage like a kind of bloodletting. Sometimes I think acting is a disease, but I can't say for sure because I don't know what it's like to be healthy."

Henrietta "Hattie" Hoffman is  a lovely young woman. She is a senior in high school. She is an actress. She has dreams of leaving her small Midwest town and moving to New York. Hattie Hoffman is found dead, her body desecrated. A small town reels from the murder. Who would kill Hattie and why?

This book tells Hattie's story - of the investigation into her death and of her life in the year leading up to her death. The title, Everything You Want Me to Be, describes Hattie's approach to life. She is actress on and off the stage, always playing a role. She has learned that "the first and most important lesson in acting is to read your audience. Know what they want you to be and give it to them." She "put[s] on the show, waiting for your real life to begin someday." This is the perspective the reader sees through Hattie's eyes. Her eyes are always on the next thing.

The story gradually reveals all the roles Hattie played in her life, the role so many of us take on in life. Daughter. Student. Friend. Girlfriend. Her last acting role is that of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. Read the symbolism into that! Somewhere deep inside is the real Hattie. Perhaps that is relevant. Perhaps that is not for it is one of her roles that possibly leads to her death. Which "audience member" sees through Hattie and kills her?

Set in a small town on Pine Valley, the cast of characters is fairly small. There is the sheriff Del Goodman, through whose eyes the reader sees the investigation. He is not just the sheriff but also a family friend who has known Hattie since the day her parents brought her home. There are Hattie's parents. Their son is a soldier, and they have prepared themselves for his possible death. However, they never imagined that they would have to bury their daughter. There is Portia Nguyen, Hattie's best friend with all the drama that a high school best friend entails. There is Tommy Kinakis, Hattie's boyfriend. There are Peter and Mary Lund, a high school teacher and his wife who have recently relocated from the big city to this small town. Peter's is the third perspective in the book. Why? The reason becomes very clear a short way into the book and makes him perhaps the least likable character in the book.

Is the killer one of them or is it someone else entirely - the director of Hattie's play or a "friend" from Hattie's online activities? This question keeps me guessing and turning the pages until the very end. My guesses keep going back and forth between different possibilities. A solution presents itself, then another, and then yet another. Based on characterizations and behavior, I think the culprit should be one particular character. All this guesswork combined with the intriguing character of Hattie herself makes for a great mystery read. Just for the record, my guess as to the guilty party proves wrong by the end.


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Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Magdalen Girls

Title:  The Magdalen Girls
Author:  V. S. Alexander
Publication Information:  Kensington. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1496706129 / 978-1496706126

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The nuns convened near the doorway like a swarm of black flies."

Favorite Quote:  "I've learned you  can't erase the past no matter how hard you try."

Mary Magdalen was a follower of Jesus Christ and is said to have witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection.  Some have deemed her a saint. At the same time, history has often also labeled Mary Magdalen a repentant fallen woman. The historic and religious significance of the title is clear. These are not the saints. The Magdalen Girls is the story of women - girls - that have been labeled as "fallen" and who need to repent. Whether or not the label is warranted is a part of this story.

The Magdalen laundries or asylums were church-run institutions for the rehabilitation of these women. Truly, they were places for families to walk away from these young girls. These institutions were prevalent in Ireland even as recently as the 1960s, but they were also found in many other nations. Life in these institutions was harsh, and the living conditions were abysmal. The Magdalen Girls is the story of one such institution - those who ran it and those who were essentially incarcerated there.

Teagan, Nora, and Lea are three of the Magdalene girls. All three have been committed to the convent by their families but for different reasons. Teagan, or Theresa as she is called at the convent, is judged guilty on the word of a priest. Nora comes to the convent because of a young man and because of her father's anger. Lea is there simply because she is different. The three become friends, joined together by their individual rebellions against the authority of the convent. Will they escape? Do they escape? These are the questions that drive this story.

The book has religious and mystical overtones. Set in a Catholic convent, it would be surprising if it did not. The nuns see punishment as a depiction of love and pain as a route to absolution. Visions of Mary and other souls appear in this closed environment. What is surprising is that Tarot cards also feature in this setting.

This book is a page turner because I begin to admire the girls' resilience and their ability to survive. I am shocked by their families' decisions. I become part of the friendship they find in these trying circumstances. I root for their escape while wondering what path might be open to them if they do escape. I turn the pages and go through their trials and tribulations with them.

Many surprises await on their path. In each twist and turn, the book captures another element of the history of the Magdalen girls. Society's treatment. Power of the church. History of mass graves and abuse that follows the Magdalen laundries. One twist, however, tacks an element on to this story that I find unnecessary. No spoilers but I will say I would find the story stronger without the idea that the nuns' treatment of the girls could be based on more than their absolute belief and faith in what they were doing.

Regardless, the book keeps me reading until the very last page, and then turning the page again to find out what happens next. I almost hope for a sequel to see what happens next.


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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Separate Lives

Title:  Separate Lives
Author:  Kathryn Flett
Publication Information:  Quercus. 2016. 288 pages.
ISBN:  162365114X / 978-1623651145

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I know it's a cliché, but it was the text on Alex's phone that did it."

Favorite Quote:  "I don't believe in regrets - why dwell on the past when there's so much future to fuck up and then pretend not to have any regrets about?"

A statement in the book about summarizes the book. "And I can see that if this was all written down, it might look quite funny, on paper, but in real life it's not funny at all. None of it." That's about how I feel. The premise of the book sounds good in a summary writeup. The cover poses the question of whether a woman leaves or stays upon the discovery that her husband may be involved with another woman. The premise implies this is to be a book about relationships and especially as relationships start to flounder. It could be a book about powerful emotions that apply to real life. Written in a certain way, I suppose it might even be funny. Unfortunately, that is not what the book delivers for me. Not emotional, powerful, or funny.

Alex and Susie are a couple with two children. They are not married but have been together for a long time, comfortable in their relationship. Yet, strains appear. It would appear that Alex is having an affair. That introduces "P" as Susie knows her. "P" suggests that Alex may want to live a different life. The identity of "P" is not a mystery in the book; only Susie remains unaware at least for some time.

The book is told from the perspective of these three people - Susie, Alex, and "P." Susie's sections are a straight up narrative. Alex's sections are told through emails and text messages, primarily to his other siblings. P's story is told through letters to her mother. Also involved in the story are friends and family, particularly Alex's siblings.

This book starts off slow, as no real introduction is given for the characters. They pop up in this big circle of family and friends. Gradually, the perspectives clarify, and the plot picks up. The middle part of the book is perhaps the most interesting with the individuals revealing their back stories and trying to figure out their path forward. Unfortunately, the ending circles back, with new ideas popping up suddenly.

A lot of the book becomes about keeping straight who is sleeping with who and who has slept with who in the past and who might sleep with who in the future. This is true right up until the end of the book. I suppose the twist introduced is supposed to be a surprise. However, at that point, I don't really care who has done what or what happens to any of them because the biggest issue is none of the narrators is a sympathetic or even likable character.

The book is a set of characters for whom infidelity is the norm and for whom respect for family and family relationships is sorely lacking. These are adults with children, but the children appear as just placeholders in the story rather than actual concerns of the parents. For me, the book is not emotional or funny as the cover claims, but just sad for the behavior of these supposed adults. This book reads somewhat like a soap opera minus the hero or heroine to root for.


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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Far Afield

Title:  Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World
Author:  Shane Mitchell (author). James Fisher (photographer)
Publication Information:  Ten Speed Press. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1607749203 / 978-1607749202

Book Source:  I received this book through the Blogging for Books program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was not a soft landing."

Favorite Quote:  "Travel should be about expanding your universe, even if that means venturing beyond other people's comfort zone."

Far Afield both satiates and triggers my wanderlust. This book combines some of my favorite things -  a book about food, travel, and people around the world composed with amazing photography. The aim is not to cover the globe but "to sit longer in one green valley" and savor the individual interactions. It is a culmination of journeys over the course of a decade.

If you lay out a traditional world map, the destinations in this book going from west to east are as follows:  Hawaii, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Iceland, France, Kenya, India, and Japan. The destinations within these countries are not the cities or the commercial areas but rather completely off the beaten path. A Maasai warrior in Kenya. A refugee in France. A gaucho in Uruguay. A tribeswoman in India.

All told, the book comprises ten profiles, each focused on an individual and community in one location. Each section of the book includes text, photographs, and recipes. The text is not facts and figures. Nor does it attempt to capture every detail about the culture or tradition. It is a brief story that captures people, place, tradition, and, of course, food. It is a very personal recollection of the author's visit. It is that personal recounting that takes this reader along on the journey with the author.

The photographs are full color, with many full page and many double page photographs. They include portraits, landscapes, and, of course, food. You could not read the text and simply look through all the photographs and still walk away with a complete sense of the people and place. The portraits particularly capture an intensity and a depth that make the book come alive. The physical size of the book - 9 inches by 11 inches in hardcover - and the glossy paper it is printed on enhances the impact of the photographs. For this book, I think the medium (print vs. electronic) will definitely make a difference.

This book has recipes but is not truly about the recipes. As the introduction says, "The recipes ... are souvenirs of this long journey. They are a highly personal reflection of meals shared in the moment." In other words, the book is about the journey and the people. The recipes that are included from all over the world are approachable for a home cook. That might seem surprising at first because of the range of cuisines and cultures covered. However, it really isn't These recipes are not restaurant food but rather "dishes intended for the family table." Most of the ingredients are relatively straight forward. Where a recipe calls for a specific, perhaps unfamiliar, ingredient, the author mostly includes a more familiar substitute - for example, oregano for epazote or shiitake mushrooms for hamakua mushrooms. In addition, the book includes a short list of resources for ordering ingredients or spices online.

In reading and looking through the photographs in this book, Maya Angelou's words come to mind. "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike." In today's world, we need this reminder more and more. The commonalities in this book - food, food traditions, and hospitality.


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Friday, December 9, 2016

The Bishop's Girl

Title:  The Bishop's Girl
Author:  Rebecca Burns
Publication Information:  Odyssey Books. 2016. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1922200646 / 978-1922200648

Book Source:  I received this book from the author free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The old woman who kept the priest's house had told them that he was away at Amiens, seeing to those still recovering, so the men who stole into his churchyard worked quickly but without fear of discovery."

Favorite Quote:  "Be true to what you want to do. Don't be constrained by the perceptions of other people."

Who was the Bishop's girl? Remains of a young woman are found in Bishop Anthony Shacklock's graves. Many have tried but failed to identify the young woman. Who was she? How did she die? What was the relationship between her and the bishop? Why was she given a nameless burial in his grave?

The answers to these questions are the crux of this book. The book comes at the questions in different ways. It tells the story of Jess, wife to Alec, mother to Marie and James, and research assistant to Professor Waller. Professor Waller has made it his life's work to determine the identity of the young woman. As his assistant, Jess has spent countless hours researching the question. She sometimes resents the task but ultimately is caught up in giving this nameless skeleton a name, an identity, and a story.

What I so enjoy about Rebecca Burns' writing in this book is how "real" it sounds. I almost begin to research the bishop thinking that surely this book must be historical. It is not but manages to convey that feeling. Bishop Anthony Shacklock also reminds me of Ralph de Bricassart, the main character of The Thorn Birds, a memorable book I read a long time ago. This story does not have the same intensity, but these main characters are similar in what drives them. The multiple generations and the stories of the past and present take this book in a different direction.

As many books do, the book goes back and develops the story of the Bishop and the young woman. The Bishop's story travels through time and place; we meet multiple generations of women all tied to the Bishop. "His church was more important to me." This statement is at the heart of the story of The Bishop's Girl. It is the heart of the relationship of three women and one man, who was a friend, a lover, and a father. The one thing he could not or would not do was stay.

The book moves back and forth between past and present as books with this type of structure do. The first half of the book is primarily Jess's story with glimmers of the other as Jess's research progresses. Jess's story is a modern day one with jobs, husband, kids, friends, and dreams of the path not taken. The second half of the book is more the story of the past. Interestingly, the story of the past set in the 1800s parallels Jess's story. The specifics are of course dependent on the time period, but the story of Constance, Allegra, and Violet also is one about choices, societal norms, and the pull of family.

The common threads between the past and the present become the idea of family, fidelity, and priorities. Because it comes first, at times, it is unclear why Jess's story goes the way it does, but these common themes ultimately join the stories of all the women in this book. "When you have a family, your life is no longer black and white." This statement holds true for the women past and present and influences the choices they make and makes this book memorable.


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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Lucky Boy

Title:  Lucky Boy
Author:  Shanthi Sekaran
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1101982241 / 978-1101982242

Book Source:  I received this book through Netgalley and the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Clara, patron saint of television and eye disease, stood three feet tall in the church at the end of the road."

Favorite Quote:  "And good intentions? These scared him the most:  people with good intentions tended not to question themselves. And people who didn't question themselves, in the scientific world and beyond, were the ones to watch out for."

Lucky Boy could have ended no other way. At the same time, it is an impossible ending, with joy and heartbreak. Then again, from the very beginning of the book, I know that the ending will be both joy and heartbreak for this is the story of two mothers. Ignacio "Iggy" El Vento Castro Valdez is one lucky boy. He is deeply and enduring loved by both his mothers - Solimar and Kavya. Each woman lives a life completely different from the other except that each is "a mother rabid for her son."

Solimar Castro Valdez is eighteen years old. Born and raised in Santa Clara Popocalco. she buys into the dream of America and the ability of one man to get her there. That dream is shattered along the way, but she holds on. She finds herself in California, pregnant and documented. She finds support and friendship; she gives birth and falls unequivocally in love with her child. She begins to hope that she may make it. Then, a run-in with the law lands her in the the criminal and immigration justice system. The system is not kind to undocumented aliens. She loses herself and loses her child. Her dream begins to dissolve into a nightmare.

On the other hand, Kavya and Rishi Reddy are a Berkeley couple with jobs, a nice house, and a prosperous Berkeley lifestyle. They are not out conquering the world and find themselves lacking in comparisons, but nevertheless, they lead a quiet stable life. Their life seems complete except for one thing; they have been unable to have children. Gradually, that fact begins to define and consume Kavya; a sense of desperation pervades their household. Upon Solimar's misfortune, Kavya and Rishi become Iggy's foster parents. They fall unequivocally in love with him, and life begins to feel perfect.

Iggy is surrounded by love and care in both home. He is a US citizen by birth. His birth mother is an undocumented alien from a poor Mexican village. She loves him and wants him and wants to give him the best life she possibly can. His foster parents are economically stable in the United States. They too want him and want to give him the best life they possibly can.  The courts attempt to look at the welfare of the child.

Through this heartbreaking story, this book documents so many serious societal issues. Infertility. Motherhood. The conundrum when a child is a citizen but the parent is not. Adoption. Debate surrounding immigration and the treatment of immigrants. The book grounds the big issues through the characters of Solimar and Kavya. I empathize with both.

I know throughout the book that this book is going to end in sadness for one of them, but I keep unrealistically hoping that somehow it will work out for both of them. I read the book straight through almost in one sitting to find out and am left with the question posed close to the end that applies to both Solimar's and Kavya's lives. "Sometimes the things that happen can be changed. Sometimes they cannot. Which time is this?"


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Friday, December 2, 2016

Leopard at the Door

Title:  Leopard at the Door
Author:  Jennifer McVeigh
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399158251 / 978-0399158254

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The steward has said we will dock at 9:00 o'clock, but I am too excited to sleep, and I walk to deck in the dark, log before the sun comes up, watching for the first sight of land."

Favorite Quote:  "Men have legitimate voices, even if they are not sanctioned by your press ... Authority is not a substitute for the truth."

I requested this book because of the beautiful cover and because it is set in Kenya, a location about which I have read very little. I was intrigued by a story that delves into the history of Kenya during British colonial times.

That is indeed the setting of this book. However, this is not really a book about Kenya and its history brought to life through the story of one young woman. It is a book about a young woman who survives traumatic experiences that happen to be set in Kenya. This book is Rachel's story in Kenya during the 1950s, not Kenya's story through Rachel's eyes. The glimpses of political history are interesting, but they are a distant second to the main story of the book which is Rachel.

Rachel has a traumatic childhood. As a child, in one day, she witnesses a man killing another and loses her mother in an accident. Her widowed father cannot cope and sends her off to England to live with relatives. All this happens prior to the start of the book. Fast forward a few years, Rachel returns to Kenya. She thinks she is returning home, but in her case, the cliche holds true. You really cannot go home again.

She returns, but the home she left behind is completely different. Her father is basically in the background, with seemingly no voice of his own. He has not remarried, but is living with someone. Think Cinderella's evil stepmother, and you might get close to Sara. Sara has a son of somewhat indeterminate age. He is old enough for the army but comes across as a young boy to be sheltered; his role in the book is unclear. Her mother, of course, is gone. A former teacher, who happens to be of Kenyan origin, suddenly seems to appear to her in a completely different light. A British officer is a stereotypical bad guy.

In other words, the political history of this book is interesting, but the characters around which the story is based are difficult to engage with. I do not care for any of them, not even Rachel. For a bulk of the book, it is unclear to me how old Rachel really is. She is old enough to go off on her own and partake in some "adult" activities; yet, at the same time, she often comes across as a little girl looking to be saved and protected.

Her story would have more power if the character showed reflection or introspection about the broader history of the book. However, this book stays pretty narrowly focused on events that happen to Rachel. Some are related to the politics, but most occur because of the bad guys wanting to keep their agenda going. The further I get into the book, the more narrowly the book focuses on what happens to Rachel.

Unfortunately, Rachel's story just does not connect with me so I wish the book had explored the broader history or the grand vistas and beauty of Kenya more.


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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Butter: A Rich History

Title:  Butter:  A Rich History
Author:  Elaine Khosrova
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2016. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1616203641 / 978-1616203641

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "... catch up to his mother."

Favorite Quote:  "Indeed, one of the best lessons learned from my career in food and cooking is that gratification is something of a paradox:  To much of a good thing often diminishes the pleasure we derive from it. (Would you really want to eat your favorite dessert every day?) Call it the Goldilocks principle. Balance isn't just right for your body; I think it also assures real satisfaction."

Butter - Yum! What's not to like? A book about butter perhaps does not have the same wide appeal as butter itself, but for foodies, it absolutely does. After all, most of us have some in our fridge. These days, it could be a stick, a tub, a tube, or the many other ways in which butter can be bought. Butter at times has gotten a negative reputation. Eat it. Don't eat it. Cook with it. Don't cook with it. The advice changes with the research you read.

At the end of it all, how much do any of us really know about butter itself? For me, the answer is not a lot until reading this book. This book starts in the mountains of Bhutan and travels the world through the different sources and uses of butter. For many of us, the search for a specific butter from a specific milk from a specific farming technique may not be affordable or practical. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to read about, and the global economy of today may put it more within reach than we think.

This book is structured in two main parts - The Story and The Recipes. The Story is not a chronological history but rather a set of chapters centered around specific topics such as the advent of butter, the role of women in the butter trade, tools and techniques, sacred traditions that surround or use butter, the invention of margarine and its purported health claims, and the rise of artisan butter today. (Note:  The galley I received has certain words missing in this section. I assume that is a function of the galley and not the final book. I am able to infer much of the information from the surrounding text so it does not impact my enjoyment of the book.)

The Recipes are just that; as the author states, since butter is such a widely used ingredient, the selection here is a limited one. "I chose to include classic dishes that owe their character to butter, to both its flavor and behavior as an ingredient. It's a collection of Butter's Greatest Hits, you might say."  About half the recipes, as you might suspect, are for baked goods. The next selection is for sauces and toppings. The final section is on making variations of butter such as smoked butter and brown butter. The recipes have a European / North American bent, as far as cuisines go which differs from the the global focus found in the narrated story of butter.

The fact that the book has the subtitle "A Rich History" gives me an indication that the author approaches her storytelling with a sense of humor. This holds true throughout the book. Books such as this one can at times be dry reading. Fortunately, this one is not. The book packs in a lot of information, but in an easy to read package. The photographs, the quotes from other sources at the beginning of each chapter, and the conversational tone of the book help with the readability of the book.

A fun, informative book for foodies that will leaving you craving "butter's most common and beloved application ... a thick melting smear on toasted bread." Yum!


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Sunday, November 27, 2016

To Capture What We Cannot Keep

Title:  To Capture What We Cannot Keep
Author:  Beatrice Colin
Publication Information:  Flatiron Books. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250071445 / 978-1250071446

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The sand on the Champ de mars was powdered with snow."

Favorite Quote:  "Were beautiful things more beautiful when you couldn't keep them."

Caitriona "Cait" Wallace is an impoverished widow who takes a job as a chaperone to brother and sister Jamie and Alice Arrol. Their uncles sends them on a European tour to get some "culture." Their wanderings around Europe of course bring them to Paris. The year is 1886. The story in Paris is the construction of giant metal tower, expected to be completed for the World's Fair. Some call it a coming monstrosity. Some argue its dangers to the surrounding neighborhoods. Some question the judgment of those who work on the project. Today, we call it the Eiffel Tower.

A chance encounter in a hot air balloon introduces Cait to Émile Nouguier, an engineer working of Gustave Eiffel's tower. She is poor, Scottish, and a widow. He is the son of an affluent French family, in line to inherit the family business. Their worlds couldn't be more different. Yet, they are pulled together.

Surrounding them are a cast of characters with their own stories. Gabrielle is an artist's wife but Émile's mistress with all the complications that brings. Jamie Arrol is young, selfish, and irresponsible. Alice Arrol is young and naive; she wants only to be admired and to find an eligible husband. Émile's mother has dreams for her son which differ from his own. Alice has admirers, or so she thinks. Cait has admirers, and many who think that, as a widow, she should settle for whatever is offered.

The individual characters and their stories don't really grab my attention in this book. Some of the events seems implausible. Too many connections are left completely unexplained or unexplained until too late in the book. Why is Émile with Gabrielle? Why is Gabrielle with him? How does Jamie Arrol's relationship begin and progress? Why is a lovely young woman like Alice so unsure of her prospects at a time when physical beauty seems to be the a determining factor in the eligibility of a young lady? What else lies in Cait's past other than losing her husband in an accident?

The ending in particular seems to come out of nowhere. No link exists between the story told throughout the book to the revelations towards the end and then the ending itself. I won't give a spoiler, but to me, that ending truly seems to not belong with the rest of the book.

What gives this story its substance is the historical time and place. Paris in the 1800s is a time of class structure and of strict societal rules; it is also a time for the subversive breaking of those rules in affairs and brothels. The importance is to maintain appearances. The artist's community and the rise of impressionism also finds its way into this book. All of it is set against the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the so-called metal monstrosity that is now the symbol of the city. The details of the design and construction, down to the number of steps and the number of rivets is fascinating. It is this history I will remember from this book not the character or the story.


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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Orphans of the Carnival

Title:  Orphans of the Carnival
Author:  Carol Birch
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  038554152X / 978-0385541527

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This is where your lost toys went, the one the dog chewed, the one your mother threw out without asking when you left home, the ones you always wondered about."

Favorite Quote:  "Names are important ... When a thing has a name, that's when it really counts."

Julia Pastrana is a young woman who speaks multiple languages and sings and dances beautifully. She performs on stages around the world. She learns how to manage her career from a business perspective. Yet, none of that is her claim to fame and none of that is why she is remembered. Her place in history is because of her physical appearance. She is billeted on the freak show circuit by different names - ugliest woman, half ape, half bear, and monkey woman to name a few.

I started reading this book wondering at the author's imagination in creating the character and the world she inhabits. Then, I started the book over when I discovered that Julia Pastrana actually existed. She was a real woman, and this story is a fictionalized account of what her life may have been. The shell of the story is fact based; the details are the fiction. This realization totally changed my outlook on the book and my feelings towards the characters.

Julia Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834 with a genetic disorder and a rare disease. As a result, her face and body were covered with hair. Her facial features were large and irregular. The whole, put together, gave her an animal like look. Underneath the physical appearance, Julia was a young woman with a great capacity to love and a young woman looking to be loved for who she was not what she looked like.

The way in which this story is told is interesting and unclear until close to the end of the book. The bulk of the story is Julia's. In a nutshell, this story is Julia's quest for acceptance and love. It seems, at time, that she may have found it. Fame, success, financial stability, love, marriage, and children all may be possible. I hope such a life is possible for Julia. The book is slow-paced, traveling the world but revolving around this main theme until a major twist.

Throughout, the book moves between Julia's search and segments from the life of a young woman in the 1980s. Rose is alone and a collector of old broken things that others have forgotten. At first, no connection exists between the two. Rose is an interesting character on her own, but it's unclear what role she plays in Julia's story. Eventually, the two stories are connected in a tragic and horrifying way that compounds the impact of Julia's story.

The twist in this story is just that - a twist I could not have seen coming. Without a spoiler, I will say that this story is so unbelievable that it could only be true. I did look up a biography, and the gist of what the book describes is actually what happened to her.

Juila Pastrana was real, and her search for love and the world's judgment on appearance are universal. It is these facts that hold my attention in this book. I want to know what happens to Julia, and I hope that things work out for her. I grieve at the eventual outcome. Julia Pastrana's story is one I will remember for along time.


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Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Clothing of Books

Title:  The Clothing of Books
Author:  Jhumpa Lahiri
Publication Information:  Vintage. 2016. 80 pages.
ISBN:  0525432752 / 978-0525432753

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the house of my father's family in Calcutta, which I visited as a child, I would watch my cousins getting dressed in the mornings."

Favorite Quote:  "The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that a cover is a sort of translation, that is, an interpretation of my words in another language - a visual one. It represents the text, but it isn't part of it."

Don't judge a book by its cover. How often do we hear that idiom applied to so many different aspects of life? This book brings that idea back to an actual book. The main idea - Don't judge a book by its cover as the author often has nothing to do with the design of the cover. The cover represents an artist's interpretation of the author's words. In that sense, to the author, it can represent understanding, acknowledgement, or criticism of his or her work.

I understand and agree with the idea of the book. As an avid reader, a lover of books, and an amateur photographer, I love the connection between words and visual images. So, when I read that Jhumpa Lahiri explores that connection in this book, I was intrigued. I have never really considered a book cover from the author's perspective and looked forward to learning more. Having read it, I am not sure what to make of this book itself. 

First of all, this is not quite a book. At only 80 pages, it is a very slim volume. In the afterword, the author herself states that "I wrote this essay..." I could see it as an essay and am not sure how it evolves into publication as a book. The amount of content is better suited to a short essay format. I expected more - maybe input from other authors, maybe some information on cover design, and maybe some visual images analyzed for their connections to the written word. This book is none of that; it is a philosophical statement that repeats several times during the book - the book is not its cover, and the cover is not its book.

Second, the book to me has a negative tone. The book puts forth the idea that the author has very little (no?) control over a book jacket, but then speaks about her conversations with cover designers about the covers of her own books. The book has several references to her dislike of certain book covers - "ugly covers" and "one that pains me." Finally, "there is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me an almost violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book." The issue is that the negative comments are not backed up with why. Why do some covers appeal and some don't? What determines a reaction to a cover? That cover, too, is someone's work. If this book is to be a personal one, then I would hope to understand her reasons.

Third, the book skirts certain issues that would be fascinating to learn about. A few times, the book mentions different covers for different editions and different language printings. How do cover designs incorporate cultural nuances? The book also skirts the topic of the changing role of book covers in a digital world. Does our reaction differ based on the medium? Does the presentation medium drive the design? Again, this book is a personal essay, and unfortunately does not get into the substance of these topics.

Had I read this as an essay in a magazine, I would have appreciated the sentiment. In a book format, I expect more. Interestingly, it is unfortunate that I am not fond of the cover of this book. Ironic in a book about book covers, don't you think?


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