Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone


Two years ago I was in Chicago and I sought out The Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute because I had heard about the book The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone and was intrigued. It was a really cool exhibit, and finally, I have read the book that inspired my visit!

Ruthie and her friend Jack are visiting the museum with their school and they find a mysterious key. When Ruthie holds it, she's able to shrink down to five inches tall, the perfect height to go into the Thorne Rooms and everything is perfectly sized. The kids figure out how to get Jack to shrink too (the magic seems only to work for girls) and they go exploring! Jack tries on armor and Ruthie is determined to sleep on the satin sheets of the canopy bed in the French Empire bed. Then they are intrigued to discover that the exteriors of the rooms aren't painted dioramas - they're real. They can go out into the era and place of the rooms and they can even find people and talk to them!

Where did this key come from? How does it work? What's in the mysterious French journal they find? And what's the story behind the out-of-place yellow Number 2 pencil Ruthie finds in one of the rooms and a pink plastic barrett in another?

Meanwhile, Jack's mother, an artist, is having financial troubles, and a guard at the museum, a former renowned photographer, has confided to the kids and Jack's mother that he stopped taking photographs when a precious album of his best works disappeared. Naturally, these problems are solved, some perhaps a bit too conveniently. There's also a family friend who runs an antique store who appears conveniently, and Ruthie's big sister is inappropriately lackadaisical about Ruthie's whereabouts, but most children won't pick up on either of those minor flaws. Kids will appreciate the attention to detail in the scenes in the museum when Ruthie and Jack have to navigate problems such as how to get up to the rooms when they're tiny, how to get to the rooms on the other side of the hall, and how to use the bathroom! Kids often obsess over these type of practical, particular details, and Ms. Malone has solved them creatively. There were a few too many coincidences for my taste, but again I don't think middle grade readers will notice those as the story itself is so exciting and intriguing.

The book gives kids a taste of history, hopefully making a couple of historical periods more real and relatable to them. Well-written, interesting, and featuring magic (a perpertual favorite topic among the age group), I think this series will do quite well. The second book in the series, Stealing Magic: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure, just published this January 2012.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Beginnings on Friday: The Killer of Little Shepherds


Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr

"On a drizzly evening in 1893, in the French provincial city of Besançon, nineteen-year-old Louise Barant was walking along the riverside promenade when she crossed paths with a man wearing the dress uniform of the French army."

Uh-oh. Run away Louise! Here's a hint, the soldier is the guy mentioned in the book title. Not a nice guy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Beginner's Goodbye


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Tyler gives us a wise, haunting, and deeply moving new novel in which she explores how a middle-aged man, ripped apart by the death of his wife, is gradually restored by her frequent appearances--in their house, on the roadway, in the market.

Crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron has spent his childhood fending off a sister who wants to manage him. So when he meets Dorothy, a plain, outspoken, independent young woman, she is like a breath of fresh air. Unhesitatingly, he marries her, and they have a relatively happy, unremarkable marriage.

But when a tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed, Aaron feels as though he has been erased forever. Only Dorothy's unexpected appearances from the dead help him to live in the moment and to find some peace.

Gradually he discovers, as he works in the family's vanity-publishing business, turning out titles that presume to guide beginners through the trials of life, that maybe for this beginner there is a way of saying goodbye.

A beautiful, subtle exploration of loss and recovery, pierced throughout with Anne Tyler's humor, wisdom, and always penetrating look at human foibles.

Publishing April 3 by Knopf.

Monday, March 26, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr (audio)
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Up next:
Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James
Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson


Many people told me I would love this book, and while I did like a lot of what I heard, other things worried me and I put it off fearing it would be saccharine and cloying. Luckily, my fears were completely unfounded! That said, I think the people who will enjoy this book most are ones somewhat familiar with British society. Somehow this book manages to be sweet and heartwarming without being sentimental and a few times I’ve laughed out loud! I've also read a couple of quite profound lines aloud to my BF.

Major Pettigrew, a widower, lives in the small town of Edgefield St. Mary's, and his brother suddenly dies. Still distraught when the owner of the village shop, Mrs. Ali stops by to collect for the newspaper, she makes him tea and comforts him. And Major Pettigrew finds himself looking at the widowed shopkeeper through fresh eyes. A traditionalist who shares his love of books and his feelings of loss, Major Pettigrew is surprised to find he has met a kindred spirit in this woman of Pakistani descent who the entire village has spent years now pointedly ignoring. Will the town accept them as a couple? What about Major Pettigrew's son, Roger, who is so concerned with success and appearances? And his new American girlfriend? And Major Pettigrew's sister-in-law, who refuses to part with his brother's gun, the one that matches his and was bequeathed by their father? As the Major and Mrs. Ali both navigate murky waters, they discover what is important, what parts of their lives they are willing to change, and whose preconceptions they are willing to bear and whose are intractable. And regardless of what they decide, Major Pettigrew's life will never be the same again.

Everyone in book club loved this book (which is a rarity). Myself, I could hardly bear to put it down and frequently found myself itching with anticipation in the moments I wasn't reading it. There were moments when I despaired, when I was overjoyed, and when I laughed out loud. One danger that makes me avoid books described as sweet is they're often very earnest, but Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was not. Frequently snarky, occasionally hilarious, capped off with a farcical holiday party at the local golf club, the book did not take itself too seriously, and did a fine job of marrying sweetness with reality. Most of the characters were nicely three-dimensional (particularly as the book went on) and I even found myself towards the end rooting for a couple of characters who I had started off disliking. The book has issues of race, stereotypes, class, prejudice, religion, and parenting, and there is tons to discuss. It was written so masterfully, I find it hard to believe it is Ms. Simonson's first book. I loved it.

I don't remember how I got this book but I did not buy it. I think I got it from the publisher when I still worked at Baker & Taylor but unfortunately I did not note it.

Book Beginnings on Friday: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson


Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

"Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother's wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking."

Who is there? And what did his brother's wife say to make him so upset?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: The Song Remains the Same


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

The Song Remains the Same by Allison Winn Scotch

Synopsis from the publisher:
One of only two survivors of a plane crash, Nell Slattery wakes in the hospital with no memory of the horrific experience-or who she is, or was. Now she must piece together both body and mind, with the help of family and friends, who have their own agendas. She filters through photos, art, music, and stories, hoping something will jog her memory, and soon, in tiny bits and pieces, Nell starts remembering. . . .

It isn't long before she learns to question the stories presented by her mother, her sister and business partner, and her husband. In the end, she will discover that forgiving betrayals small and large will be the only true path to healing herself-and to finding happiness.

Publishing April 12, 2012 by Penguin Group USA.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth


This is how history books should be written! No, it doesn't read like a novel (which only works really in a biography and also is highly difficult to pull off - and stay nonfiction - unless there are extensive background notes which there often just aren't.) But it reads like history should: informative, knowledgeable, and occasionally funny.

A previous boss had recommended this book to me, and so when I was on my third date with my boyfriend at a bookstore (shoulda known when he suggested it that this was meant to be!), who I knew had been a history major specializing in ancient cultures (mostly Greek and Roman) and I saw this book, I had to get it. After all, this book tells the story of whatever happened to the Roman Empire. In school we're taught about Greece and Rome until it's inconvenient and then we switch to Europe. Occasionally the Holy Roman Empire or Byzantium pops up out of seemingly no where, something big happens, and then they disappear again. To say that the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium gets a short shrift in American schools is an understatement.

Mr. Brownsworth starts with Diocletian in the third century and ends with Constantine XI in 1453. Some emperors were insane, some lazy, more than a few drunk and not just with power. In between were brilliant statesmen, gifted leaders, and trusted generals. There are certainly lessons to be learned about things they did right (don't let the aristocracy get too powerful or too rich) and wrong (hereditary succession). Many Byzantine lessons political leaders could afford to learn today about effective diplomacy, not letting the tax inequality grow too great, and the power of civic building projects to reinforce loyalty. But lest this sound like a pedantic list of emperors and their construction projects, let me tell you some of the more juicy tidbits Mr. Brownsworth throws in from time to time, unfairly relegating the best ones to footnotes. Some of them are quite gross, I warn you:

"While walking in the Forum of Constantinople, Arius [a powerful priest] was suddenly seized with a desire to relieve himself. Squatting down in the dust behind a column, his intestines spilled out, along with his liver and kidney, killing him almost instantly." (25)

When Britain was attacked by Saxons they asked Emperor Honorius for help but he told them "Look after your own fates." "Such advice was typical of the rather pathetic Honorius. When informed that Rome had fallen, he thought at first that something had happened to his pet rooster Roma and was relieved to find that it was only the city that had been sacked." (53)

"In 1004, a Byzantine aristocrat named Maria sparked enormous interest in Venice by eating with an ancient Roman double-pronged instrument. Touted as the latest word in sophistication, the device became enormously popular, and soon the fork was common throughout the West." (219)

"As a Muslim, the Mongol warlord didn't want to shed the blood of the heir of Muhammad, so he had the caliph wrapped in a carpet before trampling him with a horse. The invaders then settled down to a thorough sack of the city. According to legend, so many books from its great library were hurled into the Tigris that the river ran black from the ink for six months. The story is an obvious hyperbole, but Baghdad has never been the same since." (273)

It was fascinating to read about how, while the West and Europe were wallowing in the feudal Dark Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire was still a place to great learning where the arts flourished. Without Byzantium, all of the great classical works of Greece and Rome would have been lost forever. I was surprised to learn that while of course Catholicism endorsed the Crusades, the Orthodox church did not, condemning anyone who thought warmongering could lead to martyrdom, instead to excommunication.

I loved the author's thoroughness, but he skipped the boring parts which was great. I also loved that he didn't treat his subjects with too much reverence, a common flaw among historians I've found. Instead, Mr. Brownworth sometimes calls the Emperors idiots or worse, and I appreciated him calling a pot a pot. He does stick up for the great Emperors too, many of which were not recognized as such at the ends of their lives and therefore were buried ignominiously. And while the book was a great, galloping read, it sadly had to end, not with the fall of Rome, but the fall of Constantinople once its enemies acquired a cannon, rendering the walls which had protected the city for a millennium, impotent. Despite a valiant effort, the Turks ruled the day.

Lost to the West is a must-read for anyone with any interest in history, politics, or how the world got to where it is. I will think twice before using the adjective "byzantine" in the future as it has negative connotations I now find unfair.

I bought this book at Joseph-Beth booksellers, an independent bookstore which has since closed.

Teaser Tuesdays: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson


Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

"To tell Mortimer that he had never begrudged Bertie the gun had been a damn lie. Sitting on the seafront, his back pressed against the wooden slats of a park bench, the Major turned his face up to the sun."

Bertie was the Major's brother and was supposed to leave the Major their father's gun in his will, but he did not, which the Major blames on both Bertie's wife, and the family attorney.

Monday, March 19, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr (audio)
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Up next:
Conviction by Richard North Patterson
A Brave Vessel: The True Tale of the Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest by Hobson Woodward
Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Beginnings on Friday: Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth



Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth

"I first met Byzantium in a pleasant little salt marsh on the north shore on Long Island."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Wild


“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

synopsis from Goodreads:

A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Publishing March 20, 2012 by Knopf.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth


Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth p. 28

"It's one of those quirks of history that the last pagan emperor was a member of the empire's first Christian dynasty. Perhaps not surprisingly, Constantine had put very little thought into who would follow him on the throne."

Monday, March 12, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
The Snowman by Jo Nesbø, Don Bartlett (Translator)
Many Waters by Madeleine L'Engle

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr (audio)
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Up next:
Les Miserables (Abridged) by Victor Hugo, Charles E. Wilbour (Translator), Laurence Porter (Introduction, Notes) (This abridgement is longer than the one I read in high school but still shorter than the unabridged.)
True North: A Memoir by Jill Ker Conway
The Fatal Shore: The Epic Of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: Many Waters by Madeleine L'Engle


Did you love the Time Trilogy when you were a kid? A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet? Well when we were in high school, Madeleine L'Engle wrote another one! And this one is about Sandy and Dennys, the twins who were always the "normal" ones in the Murray family.

One day after school while looking for cocoa, Sandy and Dennys go into their parents' lab and accidentally mess with one of their father's experiments. Next thing they know, they're in a blindingly bright, scorchingly hot desert where they meet a small brown man with a mini mammoth who manages to take them back to his oasis, with the help of a couple of unicorns. Hard to believe? Yes indeed! Especially for these two no-nonsense boys who've never tried to understand particle physics or parsecs or mitochondria like the rest of their family.

While they recover from sun-poisoning in two separate tents, the twins are apart for the first time in their lives. They both fall for the lovely Yalith and are wary of the tempting but too easy Tiglah. They don't understand exactly who the seraphim and nephalim are, or where or when they are and how they can get home. Eventually, they find out that the patriarch of Dennys's tent is named Noah, and his great-great grandfather was Methusalah, and the pieces start to click together.

They help Noah start to build his ark, but wonder even more urgently how they will get home. And what will happen to Yalith? Are the unicorns really real? Why are the nephalim so curious about the twins? Will the boys figure out how to get home before the rains begin?

Madeleine L'Engle was always such a fascinating author to me, the way she mixes hard science and religion so well. The twins know that science lies at the heart of how they came to be here and how they will get home, but they also know the story of Noah and what's going to happen. The story involves angels and fallen angels, mammoths, unicorns, manticores, and other mythological creatures. In L'Engle's world, everything can coexist equally which I really appreciated as a teen. When kids are exploring their beliefs and religion, authors as open as L'Engle can really help kids understand that they have options and that some of the closed-minded black-and-white opinions they may be running across aren't the only options.

As an adult, I appreciated a little more irony than I did as a teen. For instance Noah and his father Lamech have had an ongoing feud over water. Lamech has the best wells on the oasis and even though he's old he won't let Noah take over his land. Wait, so Noah is mad at his father over water? Well, he's going to have more water than he knows what to do with soon enough. Some of the explanations came across a little clunkier to me as an adult, and the love-interest parts were less fraught with emotion, but I loved this book when I was a teen, and it's a worthy addition to the Time Quartet series.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

I have owned this book since I was a teenager.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Book Review: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett


I don't usually read mysteries, certainly not gory ones, but I heard great things about this book, and I ran across a free copy at a WNBA Book Swap night. Normally I wouldn't have read it so fast (it's only been in my house for 2 months!) but another WNBA member also wanted it and she loves mysteries so I felt guilty that I had snagged it first. I read it fast so I could pass it along to her.

Wow, I am so glad I did! And I'm also really glad I waited until the chance of snow was well past or that would have freaked me out. Detective Harry Hole, a renowned expert on serial killers (even though Denmark has never had one) is called to work on what could be the first Danish case. Women have been disappearing but since they were so far apart in both time and place around the country, no one noticed the pattern for many years. But the latest case, in Oslo, left a very strange and temporary clue - a creepy snowman wearing the missing woman's scarf, looking at the house.

Hole's team is understaffed and on a tight schedule. Not only did his boss only give them a few weeks to work the case, but other women have started disappearing, so it seems as if the killer (assuming that's what he is as they can't find the bodies) is escalating.

Normally I would hate to start with the 7th book in a series but all of the Harry Hole books have been published in the US. While there were some obvious allusions to backstory that wasn't explained, they didn't hurt my enjoyment of the book at all. The book was quite suspenseful and creepy. One day I was reading with my back to a sliding glass door after dark and I just got too freaked out and had to stop.

About halfway through the book, I figured out who the bad guy was. But this wasn't a bad thing. Nesbø gave just the right amount of clues so it wasn't a shock or out of the blue when it was revealed. Also he planted enough red herrings that I second-guessed myself more than once. This book was very smart. It really made me think, keeping up with the twists and turns and clues and suspects.

If you (like me!) only read one mystery a year, this is the one to pick up! Nesbø won't disappoint you at all. The book is atmospheric, tense, and just plain scary. I loved it!

I got this book free at a book swap.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Beginnings on Friday: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø


Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett

"It was the day the snow came."

Well that's an appropriate first line for a book titled The Snowman, isn't it?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

“Waiting On” Wednesday: Some Assembly Required


"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted here, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. This week's pre-publication “can't-wait-to-read” selection is:

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son by Anne Lamott, with Sam Lamott

synopsis from Goodreads:
In Some Assembly Required, Anne Lamott enters a new and unexpected chapter of her own life: grandmotherhood.

Stunned to learn that her son, Sam, is about to become a father at nineteen, Lamott begins a journal about the first year of her grandson Jax's life.

In careful and often hilarious detail, Lamott and Sam-about whom she first wrote so movingly in Operating Instructions-struggle to balance their changing roles with the demands of college and work, as they both forge new relationships with Jax's mother, who has her own ideas about how to raise a child. Lamott writes about the complex feelings that Jax fosters in her, recalling her own experiences with Sam when she was a single mother. Over the course of the year, the rhythms of life, death, family, and friends unfold in surprising and joyful ways.

By turns poignant and funny, honest and touching, Some Assembly Required is the true story of how the birth of a baby changes a family-as this book will change everyone who reads it.

Publishing March 20, 2012 by Penguin Group.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø


Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by Should Be Reading

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett p. 58

"He knew that when he had said this out loud, there was no going back. 'Too many people have disappeared,' Harry said."

Disappearing people is not a good thing in a murder mystery. I hope Harry Hole figures it out before many more people disappear.

Monday, March 5, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


This meme is now hosted by Sheila at One Persons Journey Through a World of Books.

Books completed last week:
Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over by Geraldine Brooks

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
The Snowman by Jo Nesbø

Up next:
Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan
My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Book Review: Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over by Geraldine Brooks


When you read a book by Geraldine Brooks, you know you are in the hands of a master. In Foreign Correspondence, she not only gives a typical memoir, but she adds the twist of looking up her childhood penpals. Most memoirs with a twist or angle, really feel forced, but Ms. Brooks's does not. Largely because of how important her pen pals were in her childhood.

While growing up in staid suburban Sydney, Geraldine felt closed-in, restricted, and boring. Despite being surrounded by immigrants and refugees - something she only realized as an adult in retrospect - she felt her upbringing was conservative, closed-off, and uninteresting. But also, leaving the country is something that was simply expected in that era. Australia is so far away from everything else, which leads to it being so behind, that all the young people leave, at least for a little while, usually after college. Geraldine was particularly chomping at the bit for her walkabout. When she was still too young to travel, she looked for foreign penpals to introduce her tot he world abroad. She started with a girl on the other side of Sydney (which was actually quite foreign to Geraldine), expanded to an American, a French girl, and two boys in Palestine and Israel, a Christan Arab, and a Jew.

As she grew up, she did travel herself, extensively, as a foreign correspondent. She married an American Jew, settled eventually in Virginia, and spent time all over the world in war-torn places, bringing news stories to the public. And as she travelled, she had opportunities to find her old penpals. She was mostly inspired by her relationship with Joannie, the American, who had a rough life but was always optimistic. Geraldine felt guilty when her own life went well as Joannie struggled so much with mental issues and yet really worked hard to overcome them. Joannie was really Geraldine's best friend for ten years, and when Geraldine got in Columbia University's journalism school in New York, she was so looking forward to finally meeting Joannie in person!

I had worried that this book would be entirely about the penpals, but it was largely about growing up Australian. And not the Australia of kangaroos and koalas that the rest of us usually think of - the Australia that was a little behind the times, a little innocent, and yet going through changes as it pulled away from England's grasp and tried to forge its own path more. It's interesting to see another country taking such interest in America's presidential elections, and Geraldine's father influenced her international flair with his Zionism and his own travels (an American, he had been a big-band singer in the 1930s).

Her writing is so excellent that you don't notice it at all. It's smooth, precise, and eloquent. I admire her way with words and how she's happy for her writing to be in the background, and isn't showy or flashy. I enjoyed it very much and I think anyone would really like it.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Book Beginnings on Friday: Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks


Book Beginnings on Friday is a meme hosted by Katy from A Few More Pages. Anyone can participate; just share the opening sentence of your current read, making sure that you include the title and author so others know what you're reading.

Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down Under to All Over by Geraldine Brooks

"It is a hot spring day and I am in the basement of my parents' house in Sydney, sorting though tea chests."

In this tea chest, Geraldine will find the only memorabilia that her father saved that was something of Geraldine's, was her letters from her pen pals.