French Dirt by Richard Goodman

Guys, don’t live in Maine. I know everyone talks about the brutal winters, but this summer is killing me. It’s been above ninety (about 32 degrees Celsius, for my not-American readers) regularly between the hours of eleven and eight. The air does not cool down until the sun disappears over that horizon. And it was in this weather that a friend and I decided to make the hour-long drive from Gardiner to Albion in a beast of a monster car that lacked air conditioning.

We were going to Albion to visit my sister, who works on a farm, outdoors, all day. So I’m going to stop complaining right about here, as I sit typing on my computer directly under a ceiling fan on ‘hi’.

From Albion, we drove to Banger (which is almost longer than the drive from Gardiner to Albion, but at least we were on the highway- I spent the entire time lying in the backseat with my feet out the window) to go to the mall. For those unaware, I am a rigorous saver of money. I’m very good at not spending money on what I don’t need. Emma, my sister, was determined that I spend some of this hard-earned dough, so she took me to a book store. Specifically, she took me to the Borders in Bangor.

I have a system when it comes to buying books: I very rarely buy a book I haven’t read, because I’ve discovered with startling consistency that I’m much less likely to read it, finish it, or like it if I spend money first. I don’t understand exactly, but it means that I spend a lot of time at the library (there’s something nobody knew. Shocker. Also, what’s the verb form of the word ‘patron’? I don’t think I’m patronizing the library, but I might be). If I read a book and really like it, then I’ll go spend money on it. So yesterday at Borders, I finally bought myself a copy of Water for Elephants. It’s nice to have.

Let’s talk about Borders. I’m sure most of you are aware that the entire superchain has recently gone out of business. Right now, everything in their stores is at least ten percent off, and many things are marked down even further. I was surprised when I heard their initial announcement about closing one third of their stores, but I was shocked when I heard that they were all going down.

I would like to state right now that what I’m about to say is entirely unresearched, and if I’m completely wrong in my ignorance, feel free to comment. I’d be happy to discuss this, but I’m not researching right now. I’m sleep deprived and I will bite you.

I think that Borders’ downfall is the fault of ereaders. But not just ereaders; also Netflix, and iTunes. With our relatively new ability to bring everything to us in the blink of an eye, superstar bookstores are feeling the pressure.

So are independent bookstores doomed? I don’t think so, but I can’t really explain why. Basically I think there’s a big enough percentage of people who really want these places to stay open. A few might fall through the cracks here and there, but for the most part I think they’re safe because they fill a little niche market.

Is Barnes & Noble about to go down? No, because they’ve cashed in on the ereader market. I remember the first time I entered B&N and saw the hardcover table replaced with a Nook station I was absolutely horrified, but now I’m mostly indifferent. I’m not about to switch to an ereader, in any case. B&N is safe because they’ve marketed the most popular ereader out there, and they’re making good money off the sales of Nooks and eBooks.

About an hour ago, I didn’t know if Borders had actually attempted to cash in on the eReader revolution. I had assumed not, because I’d never heard of an eReader developed by Borders, but a quick search on their website quickly corrected me. Borders did make an eReader- it’s called Kobo. It sells for almost the same price as the Nook and Kindle, but for some reason it never took off. As I said, I’d never heard of it.

So, to sum this all up, I don’t think the downfall of Borders is the bird in the room that signals death. I think Borders’ failure is Borders’ folly.

French Dirt is a book my father gave me a few months ago, right in the middle of my foodie-memoir spree, attesting that “gardening seems like the next step.” The book is a memoir by Richard Goodman, who took a year with his girlfriend, Iggy, to stay in a village known as St. S├ębastien de Caisson, population 211. They rented a quaint little stone building with two stories, a fireplace, and friendly neighbors. Soon, Richard finds himself falling in love with the strong, earthy gardeners that fill the village, and dreams of having on himself. At the end of the year, he’ll return to New York City, and the possibility of his creating a garden to rival what he’s seen will all but vanish. Generously, a friend gives him the land he needs to get started. It’s a small patch in the middle of a larger field, located near a healthy stream. He works.

At first, this seemed like the first sort of quick read that I would be able to get through quickly after being unable to finish a few novels previously. Indeed, I read the first half or so in more or less one sitting. After that, though, my pace stuttered to a painful crawl. I could say I was busy, because I probably was, but I managed to read about twenty pages in three days, and my interest was waning. Yesterday, my bookmark fell out somewhere around the 130-page mark, and I didn’t both to find my exactly place again. I picked up at page 155, and finished it a few hours later. It’s a slim novel, only 201 pages, with unusually wide margins. It is a quick read.

However, just because it didn’t keep me attached doesn’t mean the book is without merit. I think that if you were interested in gardening, you would find this book as interesting and inspirational as I find any of my cooking books. Richard’s accomplishment- he did create a thriving, impressive garden in the south of France, despite having next to no experience, a brutal summer, and conflicting opinions flying at him from every direction- is worthy of praise. He writes about it with passion and affection and a fun tone that makes the book an enjoyable read. I wish that I could care a little more about his success.

Richard also writes very warmly about everyone he met in France- he literally liked every single one of them, and he tried to get to know them all closely. In a village of only 211 people, it was’t entirely difficult, and everyone was willing to lend him a hand where they could. Everyone has a history and a garden. Everyone has time for a chat and food to spare. It was very friendly, very quaint. It can make one nostalgic for France, even if you’ve never been there.

Okay, next on the list is a book I got from the library because I need something to read while all of my out-of-states books take their sweet time getting here. This one (French Dirt) actually came from my pile of books that I own and which is oft neglected because I can’t stay out of the library for more than three or four days. The pile is getting smaller, because I never add to it and very occasionally subtract from it.

Goodnight, Wesley. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.

Published in: on July 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Alright, this has been an exciting week. For those who don’t already know, I graduated from high school this past Sunday. Then I got a job. Being a grad apparently makes all the difference. Well, I’m not complaining. I’m actually still trying to get more work- the better to save faster, you know.

Last week, at the library, I checked out a particular book by Neil Gaiman and gave it to my mom. She finished it in all of three hours, and the next day I returned and checked out two more, and one for myself. See, I’d been thinking about The Graveyard Book- it’s sort of stayed with me, you know- and decided that I wanted to read more by the amazing author who produced it. So while Mom’s been reading American Gods and Anansi Boys, I read Neverwhere.

As I was sitting across the room from my mother, she reading American Gods and I reading Neverwhere, she would occasionally look up at me and proclaim, in a slightly wary voice, “Brigid… This book is very odd.”

I would hum a tired, “Mm-hm,” in reply.

I haven’t read American Gods, so I don’t actually know what my mother was going through at that moment, across the room from me. I have, however, read The Graveyard Book, and as I was in the process of reading Neverwhere, I was more or less coming to terms with the fact that ‘odd’ is par for the course with Gaiman.

Neverwhere is about a very normal man named Richard whose life goes a little haywire when he comes across an unconscious girl, bleeding in the streets of London. Calling an ambulance proves fruitless, so he leaves his livid girlfriend and takes the injured stranger back to his flat. When the girl (whose name happens to be Door) comes around, she immediately sends him on a crazy mission that makes less sense as it goes on. When he returns home, having completed the tasks she assigned him, she thanks him, apologizes, and vanishes.

The next day, something is very wrong in Richard’s world- no one seems to know who he is. In fact, all evidence of his existence has somehow been wiped from the planet. Meandering pointlessly, Richard discovers a part of London he never knew existed- London Below. It is this mysterious world from whence Door appeared, and it is into this world that Richard now ventures.

Neverwhere is exciting and mind-bending. The people from London Below are- well, not all people, for one thing- unexpected, dangerous, and very different. Gaiman has taken this situation of magic and otherness and thrust into it’s center a very ordinary person. Richard is embarrassingly human, with his fair share of flaws and even a crippling phobia. Through the trials and ordeals of the book, he illustrates a powerful resilience that, honestly, we probably all have and will never need to draw on.

Have you ever wondered how you would react if something like this were to happen to you? The very skeleton of the book isn’t original- it’s basically Alice tumbling into a much darker Wonderland and being unable to find her way out. Naturally, Gaiman crafts this into something extraordinary- don’t get me wrong here, the book was fantastic. But those bones of the plot aren’t beyond the average imagination. Do you imagine yourself going crazy when everything stops making sense? Soldiering on and taking everything in stride? Rejoicing at a break from normality and becoming ruler of your underground domain?

Personally, I count myself into that second category- the ‘take it in stride and try to survive’ type, I guess. While it’s easy enough to think of myself going crazy and sobbing into a pitiful grave, the practicality of that option, if the situation were to actually take place, would quickly reveal itself to be lacking. I think that’s the point of Richard as a character: you may just be human, but you can almost certainly take on more than you think you can. It’s a comforting thought.

As I’ve said, we do have two more Gaiman books in the house right now, but I don’t actually see myself reading those right away. A very good friend gave me a gift card to Barnes & Noble for graduation, so on Tuesday I went to go buy a book. Usually I don’t like to buy books I haven’t read before, but this time a novel presented itself that was completely unresistable. So that’s what I’ll read next. I’ve also ordered a couple of books into the library, so I have something of a line up at this point.

As a final note, this book did indeed come off of V’s list of awesome, and I’ll be linking this review there immediately. If you enjoy books, but can’t really get behind most of what I read, give V’s list a chance- our tastes in books are very different, even if they do occasionally mesh favorably.

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Host by Stephenie Meyer

It’s a joke between my sister and I that she needs way more sleep than I do. I try to get by on seven hours- eight if I can, six if I have to. Very normal. She makes it to ten hours and is still asleep. On a regular school night, she’ll get nine. And she takes naps. Emma is a cat.

That said, there hasn’t been one morning this week that I could sleep in. I survived the entire week on six hours or under, per night. I know that I’ve got readers who are insomniacs and get much less than that, but as I said, I am normal, and I like normal hours of sleep. Since I’ve been so tired, this week has been very long. The weekend isn’t a break, either, because of the cakes. I am getting very tired of the cakes.

It’s also been very uneventful. Most of my classes are over now, so when I’m stuck at school waiting for things to happen, I just have hours and hours of free time. It’s kind of really phenomenally boring. But not too terrible, because that’s reading time. And that was kind of necessary if I wanted to finish this book in a reasonable space of time, since it’s twice as long as what I usually read.

When I started reading this book, and I would carry it around with me everywhere (as I do), everyone had an opinion. One friend said, with a twist of her lips, that the last hundred pages were really terrible. Another just announced that she really liked it. One person couldn’t make it further than eighty pages before the sap got to her. The general consensus, though, seems to be approval. Even the one who complained about the ending agreed that the book is really good, even though Twilight was not.

This one was recommended to me by Val, who is not a fan of Twilight. The Host is about an alien parasite, a “soul”, named Wanderer, who is inserted into a host named Melanie Stryder. Generally, when a soul is inserted into the host, the host is squashed and fades and the soul continues to live their life in their body. Melanie, however, came from a group of rebels who had been fighting against the soul invasion (though “fighting” is not a very accurate word, since the souls don’t believe in violence). As a host, she was very resistant. She refused to fade away. Wanderer could hear her like a voice in her head, and worse, she was using her memories to influence Wanderer’s behavior. Soon Wanderer was falling in love with Melanie’s love, and caring deeply for her younger brother.

The story is that the souls can exist only in a host body, and can’t survive for very long on their own. Their species is extensive, and has in fact “conquered” (for lack of a better word) several other planets already. Their coming to Earth is fairly recent, but they spread quickly. Wanderer has been to nine different planets, but none quite like Earth. She has never inhabited a species quite like humans. She says that she’s not used to their strong emotions or their resistance. So really this book is an exploration on being human.

Souls don’t have a very high opinion of humans. We are violent, crass, untrustworthy, dangerous, and passionate. When the souls take over Earth, all of this goes away- there’s no fighting, no swearing, no breaking of laws, no cheating. They don’t use money, because everyone is trustworthy. They’re a species of Mary Sues. Perfectly pleasant people. Even Wanderer is like this, but it’s harder than her- she still has a human influence in her head. Over the course of the book, her vision of humans changes (especially as she soon finds herself surrounded by them).

This was a good book. And to keep things straight- I did like Twilight when I first read it, but I didn’t like the sequels nearly as much, and I pretty much dropped out when the fans started going crazy. I saw the first movie and didn’t care for it. That was my last interaction with the Twilight fandom. Speaking as someone who doesn’t think very highly of Twilight, The Host was a very good book. This tome is proof that Stephenie Meyer is a talented writer- as Val says, she’s a gifted artist who made the unfortunate mistake of publishing Twilight first.

On the other hand- as I was reading this, I was looking for things that could be better, as I don’t think I’ve ever done with another book. I had already judged Stephenie Meyer, and I was waiting to see if she could impress me. The fact is there were places that I found annoying- for roughly the last quarter of the book, I thought Wanderer needed to tone it down a bit. It’s easy, when you see something like that, to roll your eyes and scoff at Stephenie Meyer’s formula writing (there is a formula, you can see it- she does it much better in this one, though), but I tried my best to suppress this reaction and give the book a chance. It was enjoyable. It was worth finishing. It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but you should give it a chance.

I don’t know what comes next. This week looks long, but all weeks do. Graduation is in four weeks and then I won’t have any demands to meet. What am I going to do with that?

For interest- Val created a fan trailer for The Host, using her dream cast; Sophia Bush as Wanderer/Melanie, Jensen Ackles as Jared, and Ian Somerhalder as Ian. Not who I’d cast, but she has editing skills so we’ll forgive her.

Published in: on May 15, 2011 at 1:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard

Today has been eventful. I spent the earlier part of the day in Portland, sitting quietly in Mom’s office waiting for her to be done with work so that we could go to William-Sonoma at the mall (I’ve never been there). A Chinese woman talked us into buying very sparkly hairpins from a kiosk. Then we drove home and, on the way, stopped to pick up my bike from the shop. I rode that the rest of the way home, stopping for a short time to visit my newest friend, Pauline, who is 86 and lives down the road from me. She’s a very sweet lady and her kids don’t visit her, so I do instead. After that I biked to the library, but halfway there I realized that there was something very wrong with my bike. The tire was on loose. As soon as I tried to take it up a hill, it tilted and started rubbing against the frame. I was pissed, and I walked the bike the rest of the way to the library. It’s there now, locked to the bikestand, until we can borrow someone’s truck and pick it up.

This was all very stressful because my plan was to got the library via bike and return via bike and for the entire excursion to take no more than an hour, since I had two hours before I had to meet with my teacher and go meet my observing expert for my astronomy class. I got my brother to pick me up from the library, and half an hour later I was in Readfield with my teacher and we were on our way to Norridgewock, which is a good hour’s drive or so.

For those who don’t know, I’ve been taking an astronomy class this semester and it is finally drawing to a close. This class has been completely kicking my butt and I have not enjoyed a second of it, and now it’s almost done. Tonight I went to meet a local expert who has a private observatory and I had to prove to him that I could find constellations and things… I actually did much better than I thought I would do. Looking in the night sky, I was able to find Ursas Major and Minor, Leo Major (Leo Minor is an annoying bugger who continuously evades me), Corvus, Auriga, Cassiopeia, Corona Borealis, Bootes, and Hydra. Kind of. Hydra snakes across the entire annoying sky and I personally find it almost impossible to follow, especially with light pollution.

I am so tired.

Now, this past week has been school vacation for us here in Maine, and I haven’t baked that much because I’m trying to be good or something, but I’ve been in a very foodie mood anyway, which is likely why I got through this book so fast.

This one’s been in the pile for at least a couple months, I think. I bought it at the same time as I bought Cleaving, if that helps you put it in perspective. I was in a very foodie mood that way as well, which of course made me daring enough to buy a book I’d never read before. Gasp!

I know.

Not only another foodie book- but another memoir as well! I’m getting predictable or something. But actually, as I read this one, I was kind of stunned by how amazingly relevant it was to my life.

I just turned on my hyper playlist to wake me up enough to get into this review. Okay, here we go.

I really enjoyed this book, but it’s not one I’ll recommend to people because it’s very slice-of-life with no real plot. It’s about this woman, Elizabeth Bard (yar), who took a trip to Paris one summer, had lunch with an attractive French man, and then never left. Okay, she did leave, but ultimately she wound up in Paris, married to her attractive French man. From this point (page four or so), the book is about an American adapting to living in Paris- getting to know France, as she says, one meal at a time.

Is it ironic that I keep reading foodie books about food I can’t pronounce?

My current life’s goal is to live in Ireland- there’s even a culinary school there I want to go to, that I need to save the money for- and more than one person has kind of looked at me funny when I explained that situation. Ireland is not exactly known for it’s haute cuisine. I sort of brush them off and say that gourmet food exists everywhere, but as I was reading this book I was kind of like, “This, this is why I don’t want to live in France.”

Now, that’s not entirely fair, since I had nothing against France before I read this book and I still don’t, but it definitely doesn’t seem like the place for me. Artsy, sure. Foodie, duh. But also kind of…. elitist. And this is the part where I mention that I personally have never been to France and my only experience with true French people was unbelievably pleasant and wonderful, but this is the impression that I got from the book, which is what this space is for talking about.

Elizabeth’s husband, Gwendal, explained to her that when he was in grade school and he told a teacher what he wanted to do when he grew up, that teacher told him that the job was impossible to get and would not make much money anyway, and actually told him he couldn’t do it. Gwendal, raised French, chose another job with which he would be able to earn more money, leaving his dream behind. To an American raised with a “follow your dreams” attitude, even if those dreams lead you to a wacky culinary school in Ireland, I actually couldn’t believe that teachers would discourage children from what they want to do.

Another thing about France is that the women there are very petite and healthy and if you’re big-boned, they think you’re fat. That was the response Elizabeth got, anyway, and she explained that she had never even had body issues in America, the country geared towards helping teenagers develop body issues and eating disorders. Even if I were to turn my lifestyle completely around and love all of the fat on my body, I would not be skinny enough to not have French women look down on me, and I definitely don’t need that kind of pressure all the time.

The third and final thing is that, in all of the books I’ve read about French food, this is the first one where the cuisine has actually seemed intimidating. It’s been unfathomable, unpredictable, even baffling, but this is the first book with recipes that I actually felt incapable of succeeding with if I really tried, you know? I mean, I could probably punch out an aspic, with a little effort. I would never want to, but the process makes sense to me. In this book, there were a few recipes which I would like to try, but for the most part every meal in this book is a big ordeal for a bunch of people really meant to impress.

I’ll try these, at some point- if I really want to be able to cook, I can’t run away from every recipe free of pasta and shrimp. Try new things! Yes. Tomorrow. Because I am very tired tonight.

This was a very good book for people interested in other cultures, and food, and love. And also moving to a new country. Like I said, relevant to my life, more than a little. Goodnight, all.

Published in: on April 23, 2011 at 12:48 am  Comments (11)  
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Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

I don’t even know where to start except, hey, who loves grandparents? Grandparents are amazing. Let’s just all agree on that statement, okay? Grandparents are amazing. They deserve love and hugs and ladybugs.

The past few days have been fuzzy for me and I really don’t remember what I’ve done. Yesterday was cake day and yes, it was fun, frustrating, there was yelling and three runs to the store- that’s how cake day goes. This week was twelve inches, red velvet with buttercream frosting. I fed nine people with it, and half of it was left. I need more people to feed cake to. Really.

Today, thoroughly annoyed at how long this book was taking me, I sat down and very steadfastly read the last sixty pages.

This one is yet another memoir about a woman, Deborah Rodriguez, who traveled to Afghanistan with a non-government organization (NGO) that was going to build a clinic to improve the quality of life of the Afghanis. That would have been all well and good, if Debbie had had any practical skills that made her helpful in the effort of building and maintaining a clinic- but she was a hairdresser. Surrounded by doctors and dentists and surgeons, she was a hairdresser, chosen for some reason to go on a mission Afghanistan. Still wanting to help, she decides to offer what assistance she can by giving haircuts and manicures to NGO missionaries.

That’s only the beginning of the story. Debbie becomes friendly with many Afghanis in her first few months in the country, and she realizes how stacked the gender powers are here. Men have all the power, and women, practically none. She decides she has to do something to enable the women in the country, to help them get jobs and earn money for their family’s, to empower them and make them strong. She opens a beauty school to teach the Afghan women how to do hair and makeup and run their own salons.

Still it’s not that easy. Debbie is a foreigner, a Westerner, at least partially exempt from the strict gender guidelines followed in Afghanistan. In this country, women are dogs or slaves who are sold into marriages with wealthy men who could be loving, but are more often cruel and violent. They must get permission from their husbands to attend Debbie’s beauty school, by convincing their husbands that they can earn money for the family.

Oftentimes, they can. Vanity is a big deal in Afghanistan, despite the fact that women are required to cover most of their skin all of the time. Afghani makeup is loud, gaudy, and colorful compared to the typical American “au natural” look. Afghani brides in particular need to be very, very bedazzled for their engagement parties, which are celebrated prior to the wedding.

This is the kind of book that I find really fascinating because it explores a culture about which I know absolutely nothing. As usual with these sorts of things, it didn’t take me long to realize that we here in America have it nice. We’re allowed ample self-pampering and vanity, and we dress to impress and appeal sexy. We get to date whom we’re interested in, and decide whom we want to marry. If our partner is cruel to us, we can leave them. These are all privileges that Afghani women don’t have.

I always find myself a little surprised when I read a memoir, particularly when I didn’t know it was a memoir until I was fifty pages in. I have nothing against memoirs; they’re just as exciting as novels. It’s like what they say on The Moth when they’re signing off (does anyone listen to The Moth? It’s great, I love it, google it), “Thank you for listening, and we hope you have a story-worthy week.” Memoirs are about story-worthy weeks, or months, or in this case, years. When you’re living the novel, you get to turn it into a memoir.

Personally, I feel like I’m living a chick flick with this weekly cake thing. You know the one, where the woman gets commissioned to bake a cake and she doesn’t know how (check) so she decides that the only way she’s going to learn is to bake one every weekend (check), so that she can practice all of the sizing, get the baking times, the batter amounts, and learn the tips before the big day (check), but she now has a whole bunch of cake that she needs to feed to people (check) so she starts inviting a gazillion people over to her house every weekend (check) including people she doesn’t know very well (check). Soon, somehow, the man of her dreams hears about it and shows up to eat her cake, and they have a gorgeous chick-flick ending (uncheck).

This would be made even better if she was new to her town and didn’t know anyone, so she establishes a cast of friends by inviting them all over for cake.

Next in line is a foodie book. No wait, actually, I’m currently reading something very short that my sister gave me. I’ll include it in the foodie review post. Tonight, though, I’m going to relax, drink my cocoa, and watch some Criminal Minds. Or a chick flick.

Published in: on April 17, 2011 at 10:14 pm  Comments (4)  
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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I think I’m pre-menstrual.

Seriously, I’m unstable. Unhinged. I am currently at home alone reading, contemplating homework, and NOW writing this review while my entire family is out eating Chinese food because I needed space. After a fight last night with my mom, my brother thinks I’m stupid and crazy (he actually said those words, so yes, stupid and crazy, WATCH OUT) and everything I do is met with judgement and criticism.

So, I’m hurt and angry and upset, and I wanted my space. Well enough, anyway. I used it to finish this book.

In this case, I have to agree with the popular opinion, because I LOVED this book. I loved it so much it might actually be my new favorite book. It was everything, everything that I wanted, complete with an unfair amount of unputdownableness. I can’t actually find the words to describe how much this book has meant for me in the time that I’ve read it. So let’s start with a summary.

One of the things that stopped me from reading this a long time ago was that I could NEVER find a blurb of what the book was actually ABOUT. And don’t try looking on the book for this blurb, because it’s one of those annoying paperbacks that’s all covered in critical praise. So, you read it here:

Water for Elephants is about a young man, Jacob Jankowski, training to become a veterinarian, about to sit his exams after four years studying veterinary medicine at Cornell. Out of nowhere, the week before his exams, he’s met by the police, who tell him that his parents have died in a fatal car accident. On top of that, their entire estate and practice (his father was also a vet) has been seized to pay off their mortgage and debts. So young Jacob is left with nothing at all. When he fails to sit his exams, Jacob spends some time isolated from society when he is passed by a train, and decides to hitch a ride.

This train, it turns out, is actually a circus; the Benzine Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. At first, he gets a job as a working man; mucking stalls and such. However, when it’s revealed that he has vet training, he is hired on as the show’s vet.

Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with a performer named Marlena. Insert complications.

Oh, but also- this story is told alongside the story of Jacob Jankowski, now a man of ninety or ninety-three, living in a rest home for the elderly but still in possession of most of his mental facilities and even his body, thinking back on his seven years as a circus vet, and then his life after.

And that’s the story. And it’s amazing. I’m going to say that what really sells it is the FANTASTIC characters. I was in love with Jacob, I really was, but I was also sincerely affectionate for his roommate, a grouchy dwarf named Walter (but only to his friends). There was Camel, an older working-man trying to avoid the authorities and not get redlighted. One of my favorite characters was probably the relatively minor Earl, a security guard who does his job in the most gentle way possible, and is clearly on Jacob’s side.

Then there are the antagonists. Uncle Al, the nearly heartless owner of the Benzine Bros. show, and the dangerous and unpredictable August, the equestrian manager.

Oh, and who can forget the elephant? This elephant was the sweetest. Her name was Rosie, and she was definitely a special creature.

The other selling point, I think, was how wonderfully authentic everything felt. I didn’t doubt for a moment that Sara Gruen did the research (and she did, extensively, as stated in the interview at the back of the book). But everything from descriptions of circus life (it had it’s own entire culture), the language, the interactions between the various characters (working men and performers), and the emotion was all so very real. Oh god, the emotion.

I’m not ashamed to admit this: I almost cried. There was one part, about fifty pages from the end, where my heart was breaking! I still feel terrible thinking back to it! But I can’t tell you what it was, because it’s a hefty spoiler for the older Jacob’s storyline. Just know that it completely wrenched my heart from it’s cold steel socket. And there was even a slightly smaller one earlier on, in the younger Jacob’s storyline.

Finally, the setting was interesting as hell. I mean, this story follows a circus. All of the character socialization takes place on a moving train, and everything that happens happens in context of the fact that they live in a circus; it’s unreal, but at the same time so grounded.

Now, really: if you haven’t read this book, read it now. Now, before the movie comes out. And rather than Robert Pattinson, try to imagine James McAvoy as Jacob- or, to match his red hair, Rupert Grint. I could imagine him in this role. The driving force to my reading the book now is that I needed to read it before the movie comes out, because I do want to see the movie. I’m going to go watch the trailer for it, actually…

I think this book is gaining popularity, judging by the number of people at school I see reading it. Sort of like the Hunger Games, though I don’t think it’s that popular. ANYWAY. This book made me feel things, guys. Everyone should read it. Everyone. OH. But when you do, I enjoin you- after reading through the climax, go back and reread the prologue. See what’s different.

Next on my list, I’ve a couple of books I meant to read a fair time ago, and one I bought myself recently. I have so much on my plate, though, I only gave myself the time to finish this because I really needed it. This semester is already hitting me hard, and it’s not even in full swing yet. So, until next time!

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 7:26 pm  Comments (7)  
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When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

I’ve reached the point of the semester where I’m literally just exhausted by the workload and the worry on the workload. By Monday night, I have to write an essay on economics, and once I escape class on Monday I will begin worrying about reading two chapters in my psychology textbook for Thursday. This past Thursday, yesterday, I had my psychology midterm (not as scary as I expected it to be) which I had panicked about for days beforehand, and I also have to complete a painting (for which I am utterly uninspired) and a chapter of Latin work for high school.

All together, I’ve had very little reading time.

Now, this book fell into my hands during that week where books were practically throwing themselves at me. One day I was having a conversation with a teacher about the book I was currently reading, which was Shanghai Girls, and about how I was becoming very fond of books that settled strongly in cultures different than mine. She mentioned that she knew of a very good one and would let me borrow it if I wanted. I said sure, because who am I to refuse a credible recommendation (I love you, Val), and two days later she lent me the book. Which was actually kind of strange, because usually people recommend me a book and then forget about it until I ask them again. And then that cycle repeats and I have to pester them. And that all depends on how much I actually care about reading the book. So this was a pleasant surprise.

Alright… so basically, if I don’t like a book, I don’t usually finish it, so if I review a book I’ll almost always say I liked it. I’m like the scary critic from Ratatouille. “I don’t like food, I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.” I love that movie…

But yes, I liked this book. ‘Tis the coming-of-age story of young Esmeralda from Puerto Rico, beginning when she is about four and concluding at the beginning of her tenth-grade year (about fifteen years old). This book is a memoir, and so is in first person (like everything I’ve read recently, holy crap), and I haven’t read many memoirs and usually don’t seek them out, but you know what, a story is a story, and a good story is a book. And novels in first person are practically the same things as memoirs, only they’re more… fictional. Yes.

So, this book wasn’t so much a novel about sequence, where it draws you through the timeline, one event to the next, and they’re all connected. It was more like a series of vignettes, displayed in chronological order, that, together, built a picture of what her life was like, and what it made her to be. None of it was purposeless, and they were all interesting, but they weren’t necessarily substantial. Oftentimes she would discuss events that would go unmentioned and were basically irrelevant to the rest of the book, but they’re part of her story. Like I said, they all pieced together into who she was.

I’m a little bit annoyed, because this book could have been a very quick read if I’d actually had the time to do so. As it is, I think it took me five days to read, if I started last Sunday and finished today… But the reading usually occurred in short bursts of time around studying, worrying about studying, and browsing tumblr. And once this review is complete, I will return to worrying about studying. But but.

So. I liked the book, I liked the vignette style, I liked Esmeralda (commonly known as Negi). Negi is the oldest of her siblings, the number of which grows constantly throughout the entire book, topping out at eleven by the time she finishes high school. As the oldest, she’s given a number of responsibilities at a fairly young age as things beyond her control or understanding happen around her, pushed and pulled by the hurricane force of her parents through different homes, schools, and relatives.

At the same time, she deals with living in Puerto Rico at a time when Americans were doing their best to Americanize their lands (I can’t remember the word for what Puerto Rico actually is to America), so she’s going to schools where they are making her speak English and eat American foods such as powdered milk and eggs. The homes she goes through are various manners of small and unpleasant in ways that most people I know wouldn’t actually put up with.

As she grows older, Negi matures from an uncontrollable tomboy into some semblance of a mature, responsible woman (though she’s only fourteen, so she’s obviously still getting there) who is on her way to something Big and Better. When she is thirteen, her mother moves them once again, only this time she takes them to New York, without their father (this isn’t a spoiler, you learn it in the prologue). In New York, she learns about racism and the harshness of the city, living in what is essentially a ghetto. Still, she’s intelligent and quick to learn, and she manages to give herself a chance at a worthwhile future.

The book starts out a bit slow- it reminds me of the novel Me & Emma by Elizabeth Flock, though this one gets better around when Negi is nine or ten, and her awareness and understanding are heightened, whereas Me & Emma was a little on the boring side with an amazing ending. I liked this one better.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. This must be even more scattered than usual, I think. I’m excited because finally, after a month of waiting, the book that Val sent for me arrived in the mail, just today. I have to get through a library book (also Val-recommended) first, and then I shall certainly read that one. After that, I have a book my brother wants me to read, then one my dad lent me, then one he gifted to me. So many books, and so much work to fit around them. What’s more important, books or grades? From an honest, objective point of view, which is more important in the long run?

I think books…

Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 11:28 pm  Comments (3)  
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Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

My life right now is busy, yet most of the time I still feel a little like I’m not doing enough. Like if someone were to ask me what I did today, I wouldn’t actually have much to tell him. Homework takes up hours of my time, but I’ve also done a bit of baking and moviewatching. Music is a constant. Has anyone ever heard of Renaissance? They’re rather hard to find- I have the CDs because my mom had them recorded from the vinyls.

The reason I mention this is that I would like to be able to talk a little bit about my week outside of books before I get into the book, because the book will be the bulk of the post. I have a book cover to design, a paper to write, and a class to go to in an hour and a half. But for now, I would like to give this book a proper goodbye.

So, this is a historical novel which takes place between 1937 and 1957, showing us the bulk of the lives of the Pearl and May Chin, young sisters from Shanghai. When the story begins, Pearl is 21 and May is 18, and both enjoy their well-to-do lives as upper-class beautiful girls.

To say they’re ‘beautiful girls’ doesn’t just mean they’re girls who are beautiful- it’s actually their titles, because both Pearl and May are models whom artists will paint to sell products. They are carefree and happy, and they love the magic of Shanghai and their gifted lives.

Then, things go wrong, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a book.

Their father, a greedy man with little compassion in his heart, has gambled away the family’s wealth and now must pay off a debt to the notorious Green Gang. His only option is to arrange marriages for Pearl and May to the son’s of a Chinese-American man named Old Man Louie, who will then take responsibility for his debts. Pearl and May, however, are modern girls, and don’t wish to follow their husbands from China, their beloved home, to San Francisco, where they are hardly welcome.

Meanwhile, we are constantly absorbing hints that all is not well in the neighborhood- things like dead babies in the street, men starving to death pulling rickshaws for hours every day, and food that must be avoided in case it’s been tampered with. These are all things that Pearl and May see around them and yet refuse to acknowledge, because as upper-class women, it isn’t their concern.

Very suddenly, without any warning, it becomes too dangerous to stay in China, and Pearl and May are forced to go to San Francisco, where they are told their father-in-law has great wealth and will keep them safe.

There were two reasons behind my choosing this novel to read: one is that I absolutely adore culture shock novels, where someone for some reason has to leave their home country and learn how to make due in a new country with new beliefs and expectations that they know nothing about, and how they must grow accustomed to it. I love these books. The other reasons is that it’s a sister book- the most important relationship, in a novel rich with characters and ties and love, was always the one between May and Pearl, two sisters, but completely different. More-or-less similar to sisters from The Summer We Read Gatsby, May is carefree and silly, even once they arrive in America, while Pearl must be the responsible one who, alongside her mother-in-law, must take responsibility for the house, her husband’s happiness, and producing a Louie grandson.

I. Loved. This. Book. THIS BOOK is raw, honest, and tragic. These two sister are forcibly shoved from their comfortable live in Shanghai and after that, it’s just one tragedy on top of the other. Each bitterness they swallow is cushioned by refuge sought in their extended family, whom they love more and more as time passes, and the hard work they must perform to keep their household running.

I don’t even know how to describe the magnificence of this novel- my heart was in my throat the entire time, yet I was never WAITING for the shoe to drop. There were a few shocks, yet only one was truly unexpected- the others had been hinted at through the book, and their final revelation was like a blunt force driven slowly against the foundation the family tries to build.

I was able to read this at a rate of about 50 pages per day, because whenever I had a free moment, THIS is what I wanted to be doing. It’s not a quick read, but so much happens that you don’t notice. There is SO MUCH going on on a single page, you’re never tired, it’s never tedious, and it’s absolutely never boring. You become amazingly attached to each and every one of the characters, even Old Man Loui, grouchy Yen-yen, and the boy-husband Vern. You ache with each sadness they bear, you WANT their happy ending.

All that said, this is absolutely not a happy book. Very little good things happen to Pearl and May, but they each have their blessings to count. Their lives are humble, but they’re as elegant as they could ever have wished for in America. They began with nothing, and by the final page they had much to account for their twenty years as wives and mothers. But, there is some graphic content, a lot of anger, violence, and blood, lies, confusion, shocking revelations, and hurt feelings. The ending isn’t happy. But it is incredible.

I would definitely read this book again if I ever had the chance (yes, I do reread books) when I didn’t have a sizable pile on my table. This week has been magnificent- books have been falling into my lap. I even had one recommended by my brother, who hardly reads. I had a conversation with a substitute teacher about how well I like books with a culture-shock theme, and the next week she leant me a new one. I have another one from the library. And goddammit, I’m still waiting for V’s to arrive in the mail. I’m rather distressed that I don’t have it yet.

I have class in 50 minutes, and my largest responsibility this weekend is an English essay that must be revised and edited. If I have a chance, I would be excited to get my next book started tonight. Either way, it probably won’t take me this long to finish. But but. I’ll see you when I see you, right?

Oh, forgot to say, I’ve added this book to my recommendations page, so you should go check it out and choose a book you haven’t read. Then read it. And let me know what you thought, because remember, those are my favorite books in existence.

Published in: on October 21, 2010 at 4:12 pm  Comments (4)  
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