Sunday, November 8, 2015

Girl at War by Sara Novic

The past is always with us. Most people even believe (correctly in my humble opinion) that the past is what makes us the people that we are today and will be in the future. It always seems that the more painful memories linger longer and are more deeply etched into our psyche than the happier ones. This is the case in this novel, Novic's first novel.

Ana is the protagonist and lives suspended in between the worlds of the living and dead. She witnessed numerous atrocities during the Croatian War of Independence. Violence quickly becomes the main staple of her life and consumes her along with her mom, dad and baby sister.  At the time that the war is occurring, she is the ripe old age of 10. At ten, she doesn't understand the magnitude of the dangers and violence that she faces so she and her best friend Luca ride bikes, go to school and try to otherwise be normal children. When it finally takes a personal toll, it's on a magnitude that can only be described as all or nothing.

We meet Ana at 20 as well, where she is a college student in NYC and refusing to discuss her history with anyone outside of her family. She is constantly aware of the pain and attempts to find a resolution to her history.

Novic is amazing in capturing the pain and inner turmoil that Ana must feel as she goes through life.  She does a wonderful job changing the voice to reflect the age, maturity and development level of her narrator. Novic's voice is remarkably self assured in detailing the horrors experienced during this war.  This is truly a remarkable and compelling story about one girl's struggle with war. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Trigger Warnings by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman isn't your average joe. In fact, he's really quite odd, but that's what makes him a truly great author. He writes everything from comic books, to adolescent fiction, to more mature stories and novels/fiction for adults, making him, in my opinion, one of the better authors out there. His newest collection of short stories, "Trigger Warning," encapsulates everything from Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Who (I'm sorry, but if you don't like Dr. Who, we can't be friends or even associates!!).
As one might expect, however, in a book with this title, the stories usually don't end well for the protagonist. There is material in the book that will mess with your head - and he's up front about that in the introduction. If you can't handle that, this book isn't for you. For instance, there's a woman who wears a bone from her dead son as part of a necklace. Yeah, it's just that weird and haunting. There are ghost stories as well. For instance, there's one story that is literally just a list of answers to questions about aliens and abductions that leaves the great majority of the best holes to the readers' imagination. And yet, I loved them. They were like the box of chocolates or the bottle of wine that I wanted to just sit down and indulge in, knowing that it could help or be absolutely terrible for me at the same time. You just need to get this book. Now.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

In this day and age, it's very unusual to go a month or a week even (sometimes days) without hearing about some sort of injustice in the criminal justice system. It just seems that there are so many exonerations and overcrowded jails. Our politicians are trying to figure out ways to reduce the prison population. Studies are constantly coming out that cast doubt on parts of cases that were once considered airtight. But most recently, in addition to the racial dynamics that exist between police and suspects, there has been much debate about capital punishment, particularly in light of botched executions.
I heard about this book on NPR and saw it being sold in Starbucks.  In a prior life, I did criminal defense work so I'm always interested in books that come out on this subject and this book in particular intrigued me because it was written as a memoir by a guy that actually practiced and did capital work.  Bryan Stevenson grew up poor and a minority in Delaware and his great-grandparents had been slaves in Virginia. He attended Harvard Law school and afterward began defending poor people in Georgia through the Equal Law Initiative. He eventually moved to Alabama and began capital work.
This book focuses on that work with Walter McMilian's case forming most of the story for it. Stevenson was representing him in the late 80's after he got put on death row for murdering a white woman in Monroeville, AL - if that name sounds familiar it's because it's been made famous by To Kill a Mockingbird. I found myself quickly drawn in to the story. The book does have quirks though that sometimes made it hard to get through. A lot of the stories are 30 or more years old and yet, you get the impression that they just happened last year or are currently happening now. Dialogue has to be reconstituted - there's no way it can be verbatim. There is little that makes you feel connected or intimate with the person in the story, even though Stephenson tries.  I think much is probably because of confidentiality issues, but it still leaves much to be desired.
That being said, we are very familiar with how he feels about things.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gray

It's no secret that I went to school at a women's college in Massachusetts. It's also no secret that while I was there, I took an interest in and took many classes in what was then called women's studies. I have a passion for that particular topic as much as I do for reading, so when I heard about this book on NPR (I know, a shocker), I immediately procured a copy because it seemed fascinating to me to read about the intersection of gender and race.

Roxanne Gay, herself, is a fantastic person. She was at Yale for a while studying but then literally, as a woman in her late teens or early twenties, fell of the face of the earth. She boarded a plane to San Francisco t meet a man that she had just met online. What no one knew about her at that time was that when we was a child, she had been the victim of a sexual assault at the hands of a 44 year old man. So when the man in San Francisco proposed traveling she jumped on board. She then spent a year there, without her family's knowledge (although they eventually tracked her down about a year later!). 

I knew that I was going to enjoy the book when I read, in the opening, she openly and lovingly and confidently accepts the label "Bad Feminist" because, as she puts it, she's human and flawed. Loved it! SHe admits that as a black, Queer woman, she didn't always feel that feminism was for her because it dealt mostly with the issues of white, straight women and didn't leave room for her or allow for people to make mistakes - again LOVE it! This book is, therefore, a collection of essay about how she comes to terms with feminism and how she agrees with its basic aims : equal opportunities for men and women, affordable health care and reproductive freedom.  These essays examine body image, pluralism, race, Orange is the New Black and competitive Scrabble. 

While her writing is intensely personal (she uses lots of personal stories to make her points), there are definitely times when she jumps into wider themes. For instance, in her essay "Not Here to Make Friends," she jumps from a story of a note that she wrote while in school to another female classmate to a discussion of female characteristics - need to be nice etc. Her voice is witty and her arguments ar logical and well thought out. Don't get me wrong, i don't want to give the impression that she imiraculously solves all of feminism's problems in this book. her essays are more of middle and beginnings then anything else, which i also kind oDefinitley a must for people to read and add to their library!f really like because I see it more of a way of starting conversations then anything else. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

50 Shades of Grey by EL James

I read this book because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  The book that started out as fan fiction to the Twilight series.  The Mommy Porn of my generation. I wanted to read it before I watched or attempted to watch the movie - that's my M.O. I always read the book first.  And quite frankly, after I was about two chapters in, I was like "Why the HELL is this so popular?"

The story is told from Anastasia Steele's perspective - known affectionately to her friends as Ana. She's living in Seattle and a senior in college, just about to graduate and is a virgin (of course) who hasn't had any sexual interest in anyone whatsoever - that just doesn't seem right at ALL. Wasn't she a teenager at one point?  I'm pretty certain that teenagers, with their raging hormones, have sexual interest in anything that moves. So yeah, doesn't make sense. She meets Christian Grey, the sexy business owner right away because she has to interview him for the graudation edition of the college newspaper. She's pretty much smitten and intimidate at once - mostly by his intensity and his money. He seems to be somewhat of an enigma as well. She learns after he grooms her by buying her a first edition of one of her favorite books, rescuing her from drunks, showing up at her work and taking her ona helicopter flight that he's into BDSM.

This book was laughable at best and terrible at worst. It is terribly written and utterly and disappointingly predictable.  It perpetuates damaging stereotypes of sexuality and sexual identity in general and about BDSM specifically. The characters are flat and boring and there is NO conflict in the book that is resolved. Really - vanilla v. BDSM?  The prose is robotic and boring. Childish even. There is no room for nuance in this and I felt like either the author herself didn't understand nuance or she thought that I, as her reader, couldn't be counted on to understand nuance and subtlety. It is uniformly predictable and utterly boring.  

Ugh, this book is so not worth your time or money.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

My book Meccas

So, I know I haven't posted in a while. Since my divorce, things have been hectic but I have lots of things that I want to blog about now and now that I have a great space to do it in, I'll find it more enjoyable to actually do it. See! Here's my new little "me" space:

The first topic that I want to come back to blogging with is what my book Mecca is. I attribute it to listening to an episode of Books on the Nightstand. I love wandering around in bookstores - my ultimate Mecca of a bookstore would be a place where I could just wander aimlessly for hours or days and not get bored ever. It's my Holy Land of books - wehre I can feel the books, pick them up and smell them and flip through the pages, where I can sit and read a few and/or have conversations about them and maybe meet an author or two.

I have a few that I have been to and one or two that I really want to visit. The ones that I've been to are below.

  • The Boston Public Library - what other place has a museum  AND a library filled with hundreds upon hundreds of any sort of book that you could ever want to read???  In the heart of a truly wonderful and historic city?  I mean, really. I could LIVE there if I put my mind to it. 
  • The NY Public Library - this is the infamous library from the beginning of the movie, Ghostbusters. The one with the steps and the lions out front that is in Midtown Manhattan.  The architecture on the inside, the wooden tables with the lamps and the sheer size of the place make it wonderful.
  • The Harvard Bookstore - this is an independent bookstore in Harvard Square in Cambridge.  It has author events/signings and sells a fantastic number of bestsellers and local favorites.  The staff is knowledgeable and friendly.  Also, the basement has a used book section - always a plus for bibliophiles like me that are looking to sell/trade/buy books and it was a pretty decent selection.
  • I went to Powell's once and only once when I was in Portland for a training.  First of all, I loved Portland - there's a shocker right?  I think that I would totally fit in in an episode of Portlandia. Secondly, Powell's is just amazing.  It had the largest used book section that I had ever been in.  People were all over the place just browsing, sitting down and reading, discussing books intelligently and passionately, and I felt completely and utterly at home.
There are a few places that I'd like to visit that have the potential to be added to the bookstore Mecca list. 

  • The Strand - as someone from NY, I am ashamed to admit that I have never once been to the Strand.  I've heard amazing things from everyone that I have spoken to that has been there - one day that I take a trip back to NY, I will make it a priority to go to this book store.
  • Northshire Bookstore - I mean, just LOOK at it - so cute!  And they have Booktopia there!!
What makes something a book Holy Land for you? What are yours?

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Secret Place by Tana French

This is the latest in Tana French's murder squad books and in it, not only do we see a familiar face but we also see murder brought to a private, Catholic girl's school. Stephen Moran, who we met in Faithful Place, is revealed to be extremely ambitious. He's a part of the Cold Case Squad who wants to be a part of the Murder Squad. He sees his opportunity when Holly Mackey, the teenage daughter of another detective and a student at St. Kilda's, arrives and asks to speak with him. She brought a message with her that she spotted on a board in the school where girls may reveal their most private thoughts and feelings anonymously. A picture of the murder victim, a boy named Chris, has been placed on the board along with the words "I know who killed him" in the style of a ransom note.

Moran then finds out who the detectives on the case were - one is retired and the other is Antoinette Conway - a tough detective who is still on the force. Moran is permitted to accompany Conway to St. Kilda's to help with the follow up investigation prompted by the postcard. The novel takes place over the course of one day and the chapters alternate between the present day and the past. The novel is told from the point of view of Moran and Holly and her friends. I loved how she drew the girls and the competing cliques: Holly's vs. Joanne's. Joanne's group is more of the Queen Bee type of group. She also was fantastic in showing the gender divides. They are especially apparent between the two detectives; however the boys and the girls interactions were also very enlightening. The claustrophobic world within a world of the boarding school, like nesting dolls, is rendered well in this novel. Loved it. It's not a speed read but well worth it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe

There is a lot about female American soldiers in today's news. Commanding officers and administrators are being called onto the carpet for sexual assaults that are occuring. Female soldiers have been kidnapped and then released and also participate in atrocities (think Abu Ghraib). Women's roles in the military are also subjected to much debate - will they be allowed into combat? But in the midst of all this discussion, the actual individual women and their motivations are forgotten - they are nameless, faceless and storyless. Who are they? Why are they there? In this book, Helen Thorpe seeks to answer that question by following the stories of three very different women as they serve in the national guard.

All three women enlisted in the National Guard before September 11, 2001 and all seemed to hope that the enlistment would help them to improve their stations in life. Michelle Fischer, the youngest, was from a dysfunctional family and wanted to use the national guard to go to school. Desma Brooks had children, was impulsive and joined on a dare. Debbie helton was the oldest and became a grandmother while she had been deployed. The women drilled on weekends, were grateful for the extra paycheck and went on with their civilian lives. When 9/11 happened, a lot of men and women were deployed including the three women that Thorpe followed. This book detailed the deployments and the relationships that the women experienced. It covered everything from deployments and their returns to the experiences that the women had while deployed, including the relationships they experienced with fellow soldiers and commanding officers (even though that's a huge no no).

What I loved about this book was how accessible it made the experiences and the questions that it raised about the ever changing role of the military, the roles of women in society and the military in particular and the struggles that our society has with it. It became readily apparent that women and men experience military life and deployment differently and raised tremendous questions about how we and the military must deal with those. Love it and highly recommend this book.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...