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The Grade: B+

Why I Picked It: I read A Discovery of Witches, and wanted to read the second in Harkness’ trilogy

Reading Challenge2012 Witches & Witchcraft I reread ADOW prior to Shadow of Night, so I’ve read two of my 5 books for the Initiate level of this challenge!

Book One or Book Two: Definitely Book Two

My Thoughts: I definitely preferred Shadow of Night to A Discovery of Witches. For one, while Matthew and Diana are still my least favorite part of the world, they didn’t annoy me as much in this chapter of the trilogy. The first book is mostly about the two of them falling in love. In Shadow of Night, they time travel—excuse me, time walk–back to Elizabethan England in search of the mysterious alchemy manuscript Ashmole 782, and to find some witches to train Diana.

I was concerned when I finished ADOW that Book Two would be all Diana and Matthew in Elizabethan England. They were my least favorite part of ADOW, and I wondered if Shadow of Night would hold my attention without their far more interesting friends and family members to fill out the narrative. Shadow of Night starts slow; I wasn’t really on board until they went to Matthew’s family’s home in France and we meet his vampire father, Philipe. We meet more of Matthew’s friends and family members in 1590′s Europe, and again, I found these vampires, daemons, and mortals more entertaining than our lovers. Though Matthew and Diana did grow on me.

Fans of ADOW shouldn’t be disappointed, and those who had a more temperate reaction to Book One may find themselves a little more compelled by the couple and their exploits. I’m now looking forward to Book Three.

This Month in Books: July

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

The Grade: B

Why I Picked It: The Good German is one of my favorite novels, and Istanbul

Quick Take: I loved the setting of post Wold War II Istanbul. Kanon’s newest novel furthers my resolve to read more book set in Istanbul, and learn more about the city itself. It’s hard to follow The Good German, and Istanbul Passage lacks the emotional heft and moral dilemmas of Kanon’s previous post war novel. He touches upon the same themes, but the characters, their conundrums and the plot in Istanbul cannot compare to Berlin. Still, though Istanbul Passage is not as meaty as The Good German, it’s still a pretty good yarn, and for me, well worth it to be in 1945 Istanbul for a few hours.

Juliet Gordon Low The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts by Stacy Cordery

The Grade: A-

Makes Me Want To: Get involved in Girl Scouting beyond simply buying cookies, and read Cordery’s biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Quick Take: Although I was a girl scout (Daisy to Junior Girl Scouts) all I knew of the founder was that her nickname was Daisy, so the very youngest girls in Girl Scouting were in Daisy troops. Juliet Gordon Low was so much more, and Cordery has done a great service in chronicling her remarkable, inspiring life. Here are two of my favorite anecdotes. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, those around her were understandably sad. Low said she was disappointed that no one had remembered her birthday. Her hosts through a grand party, and it wasn’t until the celebrations ended that they remembered it was not actually her birthday. She confessed to the subterfuge and said she wanted to cheer everyone up. On one of her crossings between England the U.S., her companions wouldn’t go with her to a costume ball. She wore old white sheets, tied a rope with empty liquor bottles around her waist and went as departed spirits.

Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan

The Grade: A-

Why I Picked It: Recommended by the unabridged chick; my interest in Iran

Quick Take: Bijan is an Iranian American. While on vacation with her family, the Shah was toppled and the Bijan’s became exiles. Bijan become a chef and uses recipes and memories of food to tell the story of her life, and her memories of her parents. I love the language, and the idea of telling stories through recipes. I’m a vegetarian, so I won’t be sampling all of them, but I do intend to try some and adopt others. I loved the atmosphere of this book; I savored it and knew as I was reading it I would add Maman’s Homesick Pie to my personal library.

Favorite Quotes: “I cooked the way my father practiced medicine–with joy, precision, heart, and soul” (205). “The desire for food, security, and love is a shared thing” (243).

My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family by Zach Wahls

The Grade: B+

Why I Picked It: Like the millions of other viewers, I was moved by Wahls’ testimony to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee in support of same-sex marriage

Quick Take: Operating by the maxim that we fear what we don’t know, Wahls, an Eagle Scout, lets us get to know his family. Wahls is an Eagle Scout and shapes his book by the principles and values of the Boy Scouts. Each chapter focuses on one of the values or character traits of an Eagle Scout, such as being brave, reverent, and helpful. Like his testimony, My Two Moms is forthright, honest, and relatable. I suspect many people will see their own families in Wahls’, which is the point.

ETA: One of my favorite quotes from the book:

Opponents will often talk about the struggles and challenges that children of gay couples have to go through. I will say only this: We have to go through those challenges because you put us through them. We only have to experience that pain because you insist on inflicting it. By trying to tell us that there is something wrong with gay marriage, that there is something wrong with families led by gay couples, you create something wrong—you become the source of our pan. Knowing the challenges that little boy will have to face and the things he will have to deal with–that’s we’re still not at a point when he can live a childhood untouched by fear and unsullied by hate–breaks my heart. This book is for him”(209).

The Grade: A-

Why I Picked It: Co-creator of The Daily Show and Planned Parenthood activist=my kind of humor

Quick Take: Comedian Lizz Winstead writes a series of “messays” about  her life, from growing up Catholic in Minnesota, to discovering comedy and making a living as a comedian.

My Thoughts: This is a great quick read. I hesitate to call it a beach read, as I would have likely received strange glances and possible medical attention from snorting with laughter as I read Winstead’s essays, or “messays” as she calls them. “Two Dogs and a Cup,” about adopting a dog from the local shelter, had me laughing so hard I couldn’t hold on to the book.

Winstead is the co-creator/founder of The Daily Show, and Air America Radio. Interesting trivia: while preparing to launch Air America, her friend Paul sent her a tape of a local in Western Mass he though Lizz should hire. Lizz did, and thus began the rise of Rachel Maddow. Awesome.

Winstead is also a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood. She did a series of shows in 2011, the “Planned Parenthood, I’m Here for You Tour,” to raise money, and after reading her book, I’m even more disappointed I didn’t see her when she was in New England.

Winstead is a smart, funny, feminist and political satirist. I love her; she’s my favorite. Check her out.

The Grade: B+

Why I Picked It: Jane Austen plus Latin America

Quick Take: English professor Amy Elizabeth Smith takes a sabbatical to spend the year traveling to six countries in Latin America, holding a book group (in Spanish) to discuss one of Jane Austen’s novels in each country.

Makes Me Want To: Take Spanish classes in Guatemala and go to Buenos Aires, learn more Latin American history, and read Latin American authors.

Favorite quote: Thank god for feisty women, rich or poor. Thank god for anyone who’ll fight for the right to sit down with a good book—and then, the right to sit down with some good friends and that good book (164).

My Thoughts: I read this in a couple of days, mostly while riding on the metro in D.C. during a business trip. It’s an interesting premise, though I would have appreciated a bit more depth from Smith and her book groups. In her preface, she says Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, a personal favorite of mine, inspired her to write this book. The discussions she chronicles lack the insight and meat of Nafisi’s work, and the reference increased my expectations. Smith, a self-described feminist, touches upon gender relations in some of her book groups, and I would have liked to have heard more of those discussions. For example, while discussing Pride and Prejudice in Ecuador, one of the participants says, “If you don’t fight for space in your life for art and conversation, so much will pass you by—for anybody, but especially for women, since we’re always taking care of others” (164). Smith noted that her couples in Mexico and women participants in Guatemala have stronger demands on their time, which makes it difficult to read and participate in a book group. I wanted to hear more.

In each country, Smith followed the same basic blueprint: settle in, get recommendations for books written by native authors, buy lots of books, provide a little history of country and chronicle major tourist excursions, hold book discussion. In short, if my Spanish were better, she’s living a dream of mine.

Smith further enhanced my desire to visit Buenos Aires. I’ve heard it called the Paris of Latin America, and I love the Argentine Tango. Buenos Aires is also a literary capital and one of the stereotypes about Argentineans is that they love to read. Clearly, I must visit.

One pet peeve and one delight I have to mention: Smith is fond of writing “I couldn’t help but wonder.” By Mexico (the second country), I was already tired of this phrase and wished she’d had an editor to remove it. I was literally wincing when it appeared again and again. Am I overly sensitive to this? Does anyone else find that wording as annoying as I do?

Each chapter opens with a beautiful illustration. I adored these! Smith references some of the Jane Austen merchandise now available, and I would love to have these drawings as bookplates. See the image for Guatemala below.

The Grade: B

Why I Picked It: My adoration of Jane Austen, and the good reviews for this novel

Quick Take: Six years after Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy’s familial bliss is disturbed when Elizabeth’s wayward sister Lydia shows up at Pemberley screaming that her husband, Wickham, has been murdered.

My Thoughts: First, this novel is definitely more P.D. James than Jane Austen. That said, if you enjoy a good murder mystery/historical fiction mystery, this is an enjoyable read. Austen created wonderful characters and it’s only natural others seek to employ them in their own tales.

James is a renowned mystery writer, and she’s written a decent yarn. There are suitable twists and turns, villainous rogues and well-intentioned bystanders. I would have done better to read this novel as a mystery novel that happens to feature people with the same names as the beloved characters of one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice, than as a further adventure of Darcy and Elizabeth. This my approach to the 1999 film version of Mansfield Park, and viewed from that perspective, a nice period piece.

Jane Austen’s novels are about women, and  their lives. Her novels depict interesting, fully realized women worthy of their own stories. Death Comes to Pemberley is Darcy’s story; Elizabeth is a minor character who fulfills the traditional role of supportive woman to her protagonist husband. I was disappointed. The Lizzie I know and love would not have dutifully waited at Pemberley and functioned primarily as a comfort to Darcy. She had her own thoughts and opinions, and while she may have jumped to conclusions, been prejudiced, her flaws make her human and lovable. My Lizzie has spirit and spunk. James’ Mrs. Darcy is none of these things.

 

The Grade: B-

Why I Picked It: I’d come across the series through Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter recommendations.

Quick Take: Sabrina and Daphne Grimm have bounced around orphanages and foster homes since their parents disappeared two years ago. Now they’ve been taken in by a woman claiming to be their grandmother who also tells them they are descendants of the Brothers Grimm and the fairy tales are actually the case files of their ancestors.

My Thoughts: I didn’t love this book. Even though it came first, it reminded me of Once Upon a Time, which I’ve been watching. I also found it annoying the elder sister Sabrina spent half the book disbelieving the premise, and arguing against it. When readers know something protagonists don’t, it can be difficult to sympathize with the character. I wanted Sabrina to quit whining, accept what I already knew to be true, and get on with the story.

I like that the protagonists are two young women, but was disappointed that the boy characters are chauvinist brats. There’s potential for the series, but stereotyping is stereotyping, regardless of which gender is maligned.

The Grade: B

Why I Picked It: The hype, quite honestly.

Quick Take: In a dystopian future, North America is divided into 12 districts ruled by the Capital of Panem. As punishment for a rebellion 70+ years ago, each year a boy and a girl are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle to the death for the entertainment of the Capital. When her 12-year-old sister is selected, our heroine Katniss Everdeen volunteers to go instead.

My Thoughts: Full disclosure, I spoiled myself for the ending of this book. I’d heard all this talk of The Hunger Games series, and didn’t quite understand the appeal, so I went on wikipedia and did a little skimming. Says my mother “you ruined it for yourself!” Maybe, maybe not.

First, Katniss is kickass. I don’t know how you could spoil yourself from loving her. She’s strong and tough and independent and loyal and smart and rebellious, and she takes care of her family–especially her little sister Prim. Personally, part of the appeal of The Hunger Games is that Katniss is the anti-Bella Swan, without being so dark she goes into Lisbeth Salander territory.

My mother read the books first, and said she could see why they were so appealing, since they are such quick reads. I noticed immediately that Collins wrote in the present tense, instead of the past tense, which increases the immersion factor.

I was reluctant to read the book because I wasn’t sure if I could get past the kids killing kids for entertainment premise. My teenage cousins read the books and loved them. One explained to me that while the world is very dark, the story itself is kind of inspiring. Another friend said no it’s completely dark and depressing but the books are so good you have to read them anyway.

The story isn’t finished, and perhaps I’ll be more in love with the trilogy as a whole. I liked the first book, but I haven’t crossed that threshold into obsession that so many of my friends have. I have some thoughts on the violence, but there are spoilers, so look below the jump.

I do love a heroine who has little interest in romance (so refreshing), doesn’t want to get married or have kids. I like that she’s rebellious without being a poser rebel, that she’s a fighter. and that her I-love-you-so-much-I’ll-die-without-you performance is indeed a performance (take note Bella Swan).

In reading, I also found myself thinking about the Harry Potter Alliance’s Hunger is #notagame efforts surrounding the release of the film. Did Collins do any research to write her descriptions of hunger? Are they accurate? Will these books increase our awareness of food insecurity, or make us more likely to help address those issue? Will Oxfam America or Mercy Corps or local food banks see an uptick in their donations? Probably not, which is too bad. Personally, I’ll be dropping off some canned goods when I pick up book #3 at the library. I’ve already started reading book #2.  Continue Reading »

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