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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Before I launch into my peanut butter cookie debacle, let me just say that Old Man Winter slapped me in the face last night.  Remember my last post?  It seemed like me and winter were on the verge of getting along, right?  I was about to embrace winter and do all kinds of fun, feel-good, winter activities.

Well, last night, I left work at my usual time, 4:30pm.  And I walked outside into a blizzard.  Seriously Milwaukee? 

Apparently around 3:30pm or so, the old man decided it was time to drop a few inches of snow in Milwaukee, and to do it as fast as possible (about 4 inches/hour).  Anyway, the bottom line is that I left work at 4:30pm, and I got home at 7:00pm.  So, winter and I are back to square one.

Luckily, I spent those glorious 2 1/2 hours sitting on the bus trying to finish my book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  I didn’t quite finish it, but I did finish part of the mystery so at least that was satisfying.  By the way, if you are interested in reading a great mystery, this book is beyond great.

Okay, moving along to more important things, like PEANUT BUTTER!

If you can believe it, I actually have not ordered any Girl Scout cookies this year.  This is quite shocking considering my all-time favorite cookie is the Tagalong.

mmmmm… tagalong…

I was feeling rather depressed about this when my brother in law Chad, aka my new favorite person, introduced me to a little thing called Keebler Fudge Shoppe Filled Peanut Butter Cookies. 

And now all is right with the world.

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poisonwoodThis book was another book club choice.  Unfortunately, I am the only person in our group of 7 that actually finished it – ha.  So, our discussion was rather one-sided.  The book wasn’t bad, it just took awhile to get through.   I have never been very interested in African history, but reading this book definitely got me interested in learning more, and I think that makes it worth it.

The story revolves around a missionary family, the Price’s, who move to the Congo on a mission in 1959.  It is narrated by the five women of the family – the mother, Orleanna and 4 daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, all of whom seem ill-equipped to handle the harsh conditions and cultural differences of Africa.

The patriarch, Nathan Price, is portrayed as a bullying, self-righteous preacher who tries desperately to convert the natives of the Congo to Christianity.  Throughout the novel, the girls begin to learn more about the political upheaval in the Congo and start to question their father’s stubborn efforts to save the souls of the natives.  Eventually, the political instability in the Congo clashes with the father’s mission, and the tragic consequences that result split the family.  From that point on, we follow the girls as they grow and change over a period of 30 years.

I recently read an excerpt from Kingsolver that I think explains one of the purposes of the novel that I really enjoyed.  The book is meant to be a political allegory, comparing the events of the characters’  lives to the larger world events.  The Price’s, in particular Nathan Price, went into Africa with their ideas and beliefs about religion, politics, culture, etc., the same way the US and Europe went into Africa and other developing countries imposing their beliefs, certain that they were right.  We, as US citizens, didn’t make the decisions our government imposed on Africa.  We are just innocent observers, like the Price daughters were with their father.

And that idea brings up my favorite part of the novel, which was the last chapter told from Adah’s perspective.  She discusses the balance of nature and life, and the African word muntu, a word that encompasses all being – past, present and future, living, dead, and yet unborn.  I’ll leave you with a few excerpts from that chapter.

“The carrying capacity for humans is limited.  History holds all things in the balance, including large hopes and short lives. When Albert Schweitzer walked into the jungle… he meant to save every child, thinking Africa would then learn how to have fewer children. But when families have spent a million years making nine in the hopes of saving one, they cannot stop making nine… Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill… Africa has a thousand ways of cleansing itself… If you could for a moment rise up out of your own beloved skin and appraise ant, human, and virus as equally resourceful beings, you might admire the accord they have all struck in Africa.”

Overall, I think Kingsolver accomplished something that she must have set out to do – to tell a story of Africa and try to get the world to see Africa in a different light. Did it get a little too political in the last third of the book? Maybe. But this is still a novel, and it certainly causes you to think and want to learn the facts of that history.

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duncesI have to admit I put this book off for a long time. I thought it would be a tough read and not really my “style”. Boy, was I wrong.

One fascinating thing that probably would have forced me to read it sooner if I had known, is that the author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969. His mother found the complete manuscript of the novel and tried unsuccessfully for years to get it published. The book was finally published in 1980, through the efforts of writer Walker Percy. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1981.

The title comes from a Jonathan Swift quote:
When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

The main character of the book, Ignatius J. Reilly, would definitely agree with that quote. According to Walker Percy, who wrote the forward to the book, Ignatius Reilly is a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Ignatius is educated, ridiculous, obese, idealistic, and has a great disdain for modern life. He prefers the philosophy of the Middle Ages, and often refers to the modern world as in need of some “theology and geometry.”

In short, and in my opinion, Ignatius Reilly is one of the most brilliant literary characters in all of fiction. I loved this character, and I really felt as though no other character in fiction could possibly match him. He’s hilarious, ridiculous and tragic, and although you will really hate him, you will love him at the same time.

The plot of the novel follows Ignatius as he tries to find a job, tortures his widowed, drunk mother, and interacts with various New Orleans characters. Overall, I loved the writing, I loved all the supplementary characters, and I definitely recommend you guys give this one a try.

I dust a bit…in addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.
-Ignatius J. Reilly

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The-Book-Thief-AU-coverIt’s just a small story really, about, amongst other things:
a girl
some words
an accordionist
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist-fighter
and quite a lot of thievery.

I will start by saying that if you ever read any books that I recommend on this blog or in person, please let this book be it. It’s a truly beautiful story, with wonderful characters that I will never forget.

From the back cover:
It is 1939, Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down. 

This book is a story about words. The power of words. The beauty of words. And it is narrated by Death, who sees moments through shades of color. I can’t really spoil anything in this story for you, because Death provides enough foreshadowing thoughout the book that you know who is going to die before it even happens.  But for some reason, it works. I guess the reason being that even though you know death is going to happen, it’s still a shock, and you will still ball your eyes out even if you are on a public bus on your way to work. 

With such a dark and depressing subject being narrated by Death, it’s probably no surprise I left this book in a puddle of tears. But there is so much love in this story – you just end up feeling hopeful about love and life and the human spirit.

Confession:  I have already read this book twice.

I really just can’t say enough about how much I am in love with this book. I will leave you with some of my favorite quotes, although I wish I could just quote the whole thing.

“Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the color of Jews.”

“”How does it feel, anyway?”
“How does what feel?”
“When you take one of those books?”
At that moment, she chose to keep still. If he wants an answer, he’d have to come back, and he did. “Well?” he asked, but again, it was the boy who replied, before Liesel could even open her mouth.
“It feels good, doesn’t it? To steal something back.””

“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world. She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”

“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

“I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I even simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant. A small note from your narrator: I am haunted by humans.”

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cover“Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend the rest of his life answering.”

A friend of mine started a book club, and our first meeting was last week.  We read The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.

The two main characters are an old man named Leo Gursky who lives alone in New York, and a young teenager named Alma. The novel opens with Leo explaining how he spends most of his days just trying to be seen – posing for a nude drawing class, making a mess at Starbucks – because all he wants is “not to die on a day when I went unseen.”  Leo is extremely endearing, funny and tragic. We book club members all agreed he was our favorite character and I think a character I will remember for a while.

We learn that Leo fell in love with a young girl in Poland named Alma and wrote a book about her called The History of Love. Leo believes the book was lost, but it was plagarized and later published in Spanish.

In present day, we meet a teenager named Alma. She was named after a character from her parents favorite book, The History of Love. After Alma’s father dies, her mother is hired to translate the book from Spanish to English. Alma sets out to find the real Alma and the author of The History of Love.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I will just say that I thought this book was very well written, very poetic or prose-like, which is a style I love. Both Leo & Alma showed a lot of humor and imagination.

About having worn her late father’s sweater for 42 days in a row, Alma explains: “On the twelfth day I passed Sharon Newman and her friends in the hall. ‘WHAT’S UP WITH THAT DISGUSTING SWEATER?’ she said. Go eat some hemlock, I thought, and decided to wear Dad’s sweater for the rest of my life.”

This is the opening line of the book. Love it. “When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, Leo Gursky is survived by an apartment full of shit”

The main complaint from the book club members (including me) was that  jumping between the different storylines created a lot of confusion. This is definitely a book you need to read slowly. I thought the ending was lovely though. It didn’t tie up all the loose ends perfectly like many novels, but it was still very moving.

Anyway, overall, thumbs up. Surprisingly great read. Anyone else want to chime in?

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n&sMichael:  Abraham Lincoln once said that “If you are a racist, I will attack you with the North,” and those are the principles I carry with me in the workplace.

Okay, so that is a quote from The Office, but I just had to include it in my book review. Ha.

I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while because I’ve been engrossed in the John Jakes Civil War Trilogy:  North & South, Love & War, and Heaven & Hell.

This series has everything an epic literary series should have: romance, war, intrigue, tragedy, love, betrayal, etc. The story revolves around two families, the Mains and the Hazards, before, during and after the Civil War. The genre is Historical Fiction, and I definitely find it accurate. John Jakes puts each of his characters directly into actual historical events and it reads wonderfully. It’s like a historical fiction soap opera, which I happen to love.

If the idea of historical fiction sounds incredibly boring to you, please don’t let that stop you. These books may take place during the Civil War, but to me they are truly just storytelling at its best. This is the kind of series that I will read over and over again, so I’m glad I purchased the first two. I will definitely be buying the third.

By the end of the third book, I found myself wildly in love with the characters (particularly Charles Main), and I was so sad to put it down. John Jakes played a little trick on me toward the end and *spoiler alert* had me thinking one of the characters died. I was so angry.

Luckily a few chapters later he was *sob* alive! I literally cried tears of joy. On the bus. Don’t you judge me.

I know there is a TV Series based on these books, but surprisingly I am reluctant to watch it. I normally do well with separating books and movies and am able to enjoy both. I just have a feeling (after reading some summaries) that they completely botched the TV version so I’m afraid to watch. I think maybe I’ll wait a year or so to get over my initial impressions and then watch the TV version.

So, have any of you read this series? Or have you seen the TV version? Is Charles Main one of your all-time favorite leading characters now or what?

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book coverI suppose if I keep giving glowing book recommendations, none of you will actually believe me, but that’s okay. Once again, I really enjoyed this book. This is a non-fiction book that weaves the story of the construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair by lead architect Daniel Burnham, and of the crime spree by H.H. Holmes during the Fair (he is often considered America’s First Serial Killer).Yes, you read that right. This book is non-fiction. But to me it reads just like a great fiction novel. The chapters alternate between the stories of the two men, so it kind of bounces around a little bit. It really feels like you are getting a great history lesson, but it’s also incredibly interesting and suspenseful.
The author paints a great picture of the World’s Fair, and some of the most interesting parts of the book are the small anecdotes and name-dropping (perhaps for the benefit of those of us who have forgotten our history lessons).
original ferris wheel
A few examples
– the creation of the Ferris Wheel by George Washington Gale Ferris – the architects of the Fair were looking for something to surpass the shocking Eiffel Tower revealed at the Paris Exhibition in 1889 (by the way, the original Ferris Wheel at the Fair is not the same one located in Chicago today – most of the buildings built for the Fair were burned down. Also, the original Ferris Wheel was WAY bigger than the one at Navy Pier)
– Annie Oakley’s arrival at the Fair
– Description of the “Windy City” nickname
– Introduction of the first zipper, moving pictures, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, and the Pledge of Allegience, which was written for the dedication ceremony
court of honorOne of the best parts of the book for me was reading the story of how the architects of the Fair wanted to tap water from the springs of Wisconsin’s own BIG BEND(!) and run a pipeline down to Chicago to prepare for the thousands of visitors. The Village of Big Bend refused. Some pipe-layers from Chicago came to Big Bend in the middle of the night intending to dig a secret pipeline all the way to Chicago. The Villagers caught on to the plan and met them with guns-blazing. I still can’t even believe this stuff is true!

In contrast, the story of H.H. Holmes is incredibly disturbing and sad. Larson didn’t have much to go on besides newspaper accounts and Holmes’ unreliable prison journal. Larson uses some imagination in his account of the murders and the “House of Horrors” that Holmes built, so these sections of the book definitely read more like fiction and would make for a decent suspense novel.
worlds fairPersonally, I enjoyed the sections on the World’s Fair more than the stuff about HH Holmes, so I don’t know what that says about me. I was just fascinated with the history behind the Fair, and pretty embarassed that I knew almost nothing about it before. Some of the chapters on the Fair drag a little bit, but this is non-fiction so it’s kind of expected. My only other complaint is that I was desperate for more pictures to see what all the buildings/landscaping really looked like. Of course, I just dug for these online and have posted some here.

Anyway, has anyone else read it?  What did you think? Or have I convinced you to give a non-fiction book a try?

p.s. Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!

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