Travel Plans!

Friday, February 28, 2014

So the Huz and I are officially going to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji this fall! We bought our plane tickets and I am over the moon! We have been planning and saving for this trip for years and now it's really happening, just in time for our 5th anniversary.

We are planning on taking a Lord of the Rings tour of spots in New Zealand, camping and road tripping through NZ's south island, seeing the Opera House in Sydney, maybe kayaking at Milford Sound, relaxing in Fiji and so much more. But as we start planning out the details I would love to hear your input. There are two major things I would love to know.

If you've been, what should we make sure we don't miss?

I love reading fiction and nonfiction set in places I'm going to visit.

What books are set in those areas that you would recommend?

Photo of Milford Sound from here.

The Goldfinch

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a unique novel in so many ways. It is definitely a book that focuses on characters over plot. It’s incredibly Dickensian and particularly reminded me of Great Expectations. An orphaned boy who ends up being the unexpected ward of a stranger, a romance kindled in youth that leaves our hero pining throughout his life, and a best friend who is a bit scrappy; all the elements are there. Add some devious dealings in the art and furniture world and a drug addiction and you’re spot on.
The story is one that you can really sink into. Theo and his mother experience a traumatic event in the MET art museum one day and life as he knows it is shattered. We follow Theo through more than a decade of his life and across thousands of miles. Each new setting has an abundance of well-drawn characters. From the aging Vegas bartender to the wealthy middle-aged New York City socialite, there’s no shortage of excellent descriptions. After the first time we meet Boris’ father I felt like I would recognize him in an instant if I met him in real life.
"He was as thin and pale as a starved poet. Chlorotic, with a sunken chest, he smoked incessantly, wore cheap shirts that had grayed in the wash, drank endless cups of sugary tea. But when you looked him in the eye you realized that his frailty was deceptive. He was wiry, intense, bad temper shimmering off him—small-boned and sharp-faced, like Boris, but with an evil red-rimmed gaze and tiny, brownish sawteeth. He made me think of a rabid fox."
Although all of the characters are fascinating, it’s actually the supporting cast that has my love over Theo himself. Theo’s self-destructive personality put me on edge at times, but I loved his eccentric friends. Hobie is my favorite and no one does more for Theo than he does. He writes to him when he is in Vegas and makes him feel connected to NYC. He gives him a true home and skill. He is unwavering in his support and encouragement of Theo.
Boris such an odd friend; he’s exactly what Theo needs and the worse thing for him all at the same time. He introduces him to dangerous and unhealthy habits, but he also makes him feel accepted. His unstable and dangerous life almost makes Theo's seem normal in comparison. Boris is also fiercely loyal and accepting, which Theo desperately needs during his time in Vegas.
Tartt’s fans tend to site The Secret History as the best work by their beloved author, but I enjoyed this one much more. I feel like it had more depth and I’m looking forward to her next novel, even though it’s probably a decade away.
BOTTOM LINE: Worth every second for the characters you meet along the way. The story lost its footing at times for me, but I still enjoyed it. Tartt writes in a way that made me not care exactly where the story was going as long as I got to be along for the ride.
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway.”

Wordless Wednesday: Jefferson Memorial

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thomas Jefferson Memorial 

More Wordless Wednesday here.
Photo by moi.

Red Key Tavern

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Buzzfeed recently released a list of the Top 12 Historic Bars Every Book Nerd Needs to Visit. Among the notable locations are the infamous Bird and the Baby (Eagle and Child) in Oxford where Tolkien and Lewis used to meet with the Inklings. Then there's Heminway's hangout, El Flordita in Cuba and the Beat hot spot Vesuvio in San Francisco. Imagine my surprise when I saw an Indianapolis bar as #10 on that list!
"Die-hard Vonnegut fans will want to add this one to their next road trip. The no-nonsense bar — opened by a WWII Veteran and Prisoner of War, and decorated with model airplanes hanging from the ceiling — is said to have been Vonnegut’s favorite watering hole, with many regulars claiming to have seen him writing and drinking in his booth. The tavern also made an appearance in Dan Wakefield’s 1970 novel Going All The Way."

I'd actually been to some of the other bars, but never the one in my own hometown! Obviously I needed to check it out. I'd driven past the hole-in-the-wall spot  hundreds of times when I lived in the neighborhood a few years ago.
When I finally visited the first thing I heard when I walked through the door was, "Oh my gosh, we have a real customer!" The comment was more for the amusement of the regulars at the bar than for me, but I still laughed. The small place has a few tables and antique model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. The original owner's son and granddaughter were at the bar. 
My friend and I got a drink and enjoyed the atmosphere. It's a cool place, one that clearly hasn't changed in decades. You can absolutely picture Vonnegut nursing a drink while working his way through a pack of his beloved Pall Malls. My only complaint is that there's not a single reference to him in the place. Obviously it's not something the regulars care too much about, but for people stopping in after a trip to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library it might be a disappointment.
Photos by moi.

Lean In

Monday, February 24, 2014

Lean In
Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
by Sheryl Sandberg

I tend to avoid books like this like the plague. They often strike me as self-help nonsense that only tells people what they want to hear or what they already know. For me, this was not that at all. Sandberg’s goal with the book is to help women in the workforce to step up to the plate and get involved in their offices. So much of what she talked about (women not noting their own accomplishments, women being viewed in a negative light if they took on authority roles) were things I had seen for myself in my own career. Oh and did I mention she’s the COO of Facebook?

“A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.” 

Though we have come a long way in gender equality in the workplace, we still have stigmas connected with certain decisions that affect the way we see ourselves. There are “working” moms and “stay-at-home” moms, yet we never quantify our male counterparts in the same way. Sandberg addresses these issues without ever condescending or saying that one choice it right for everyone. The important thing is to understand that you have a choice as a woman.

“For many men, the fundamental assumption is that they can have both a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life. For many women, the assumption is that trying to do both is difficult at best and impossible at worst.”

One thing that particularly stuck in my mind was the Howard/Heidi study. People were asked to evaluate a potential employee based on a detailed resume with past experience, education, expertise and more. The only difference was that the name was female for some and male for others. Again, all the details of past jobs and experience were identical, yet people saw the female job candidate as someone who was aggressive or overly ambitious. They thought she might be qualified, but no one wanted to work with her. This was the response from both men and women! When a man is in a position of power he tends to be respected. When a woman is in the same position her actions are often seen as harsh. I kept thinking of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s SNL Weekend Update bit about “Bitches get stuff done!” It’s the same idea. Women are seen as bitches if they make hard decisions, while men are seen as strong leaders.

After reading The Feminine Mystique just last month, I found this one infinitely more applicable to my current life. She talks about the problems but she also provides actual advice and logical steps to take to overcome those hurdles. It was interesting to read them both and see how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. She doesn’t simplify matters and make it seem like there’s an easy answer, but she addresses the problems without flinching and often the problem is the women themselves. She talks about this without blame or guilt. We’ve been trained that it’s more important to be liked than to be successful. Her approach is not to disregard out self-doubt completely, but to be confident in our abilities moving forward.

BOTTOM LINE: I really loved it and want to get my own copy for future reference and lending (I read a library copy.) Having just started a new job I hope that I can incorporate some of these tips into my daily interaction.

“The cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth.”

“In today’s world, we no longer have to hunt in the wild for our food, our desire for leadership is largely a culturally created and reinforced trait. How individuals view what they can and should accomplish is in large part formed by our societal expectations.”

“Searching for mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.”

February Classics Club Meme Question

Friday, February 21, 2014

Here’s the question for Classics Club members this month:
“Dead white guys” are all too often the focus when it comes to discussions of the Western Canon. We’d love to see members highlight classic works or authors that are overlooked in the canon that deserve recognition.”
This question immediately made me think of the incredible female authors who had to publish under male pseudonyms. They were just as talented as their male counterparts, but when they would submit a manuscript to the publisher they were often turned down because of their gender or if the work was published it was assumed to be a light romance because it was written by a woman.
George Eliot, the author of Silas Marner and Middlemarch, is actually Mary Anne Evans. Wuthering Heights’ author Emily Bronte published under the name Ellis Bell, while her sisters Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre, Villette) went by Currer Bell and Anne picked the moniker Acton. Louisa May Alcott chose the name A.M. Barnard when publishing her thrilling short stories. Jane Austen published most of her work anonymously.  
The Dead White Guys stereotype that is associated withe classic western canon is not incorrect, especially considering how many great and successful authors fit that description. But it’s important to realize there are hundreds of other authors out there with just as many wonderful books to their names.

The Name of the Star

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Name of the Star
by Maureen Johnson

Rory, a Louisiana native, moves to England with her parents and begins life in a boarding school. At the same time a serial killer is making his way around London, mimicking the style of Jack the Ripper with his murders.

One part Anna and the French Kiss and one part Torchwood, this YA book was really fun. I picked it up when I was in a bit of a slump and blew threw it in a day. It’s a light and fun book with a fast moving plot. It’s also the first in a series. The “twist” was very predictable from early on, but not in a bad way. I wasn’t expecting to be shocked by a big reveal and I just enjoyed the pacing.

I loved how Johnson worked the historical facts of the Ripper case into the story seamlessly. It never felt forced and it was interesting to learn more about the case. The last time I was in London I took a Jack the Ripper night tour and I couldn’t help remember that while reading this book.

English boarding schools, the impending threat of murder, unexplained occurrences and a teenage crush, all around a really entertaining read. I’ll keep my eye out for the sequels at the library.

“Fear can't hurt you," she said. "When it washes over you, give it no power. It's a snake with no venom. Remember that. That knowledge can save you.”

Wordless Wednesday: Savannah Cemetery

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Savannah Cemetery

More Wordless Wednesday here.
Photo by moi.

Reading the States is Updated

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

If you're planning on traveling soon or just want to explore a new state through a book, I've just updated my Reading the States posts (at the tab above.) There is one post for every state and a bonus one for cross country road trips.
Each posts includes fiction and nonfiction books set in the state. It also includes authors who live there or frequently write about the state. There are also links to bookstores and literary places to visit in each state. 
Feel free to let me know if there's a book, bookstore or literary tourist spot I should add to a post!   

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
by Gordon S. Wood

It’s important to understand that this is not a biography of Franklin in the normal sense. It does tell the story of his life and his rise to political influence, but it’s more about how his reputation and image was molded into something different over the years. Wood’s goal was to remove the myths and get to the heart of who Ben Franklin truly was, but answering that question isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Franklin was the youngest son of 17 children. Despite his huge family and low stature, he managed to get a position as a printer’s apprentice and start to learn a trade. He was one of the first truly a self-made men in America. Over the years he wrote columns for his newspaper under dozens of pseudonyms. He was vocal about his beliefs and never shied away from stating an opinion, though he might only do it anonymously.

He was a scientist, political leader, ambassador, inventor, post master, printer, free mason, and a self-made gentleman. He fell hard for London society and then later France, and lived in both places for years. It was interesting to learn that he was a staunch loyalist to the crown until late in life when he felt like he had been passed over for a position in England.

Over the centuries his image has been distorted by historians. He is sometimes painted as prudish, miserly, or as the all-American tradesman. Depending on what the historian decided he needed, Franklin’s legacy was warped to fit a mold.  His incredible talent as an ambassador was often overlooked.

It felt like the author admired his influence, but he didn’t like him as a man. Honestly, the more I learned about his personal life the less I respected him.  When he lived in England he left his wife and daughter in America, rarely writing them and skipping his daughter’s wedding. He took his illegitimate son with him, but later disowned the son when he was loyal to the country (England) that Ben Franklin had taught him to love.

BOTTOM LINE: Wood paints an honest portrait of Franklin. There are no rosy glasses with which to view his life, but he sticks to the facts and I appreciated the candid portrayal. I am in awe of how much Franklin did for our country, especially since he received little thanks for it. No man is perfect and Franklin’s impact on the founding of our Nation and the alliance that was formed with France was truly priceless.

“‘The players of our game are so many,’ he told a French correspondent. ‘Their ideas so different, their prejudices so strong and so various and their particular interests independent of the general, seeming so opposite that not a move can be made that is not contested. The numerous objections confound the understanding. The wisest must agree to some unreasonable things that reasonable ones of more consequence may be obtained and thus chance has its share in many of the determinations so that the play is more like trick track with a box of dice.’”

Chronicles of Barsetshire Readalong

Friday, February 14, 2014

Through a flurry of Twitter conversations Amanda of Fig and Thistle and I realized that we have never read anything by Anthony Trollope. We both decided it's high time to check out his famous Chronicles of Barsetshire. We are going to read one book each month in the order they were published. We're starting with the first slim novel The Warden in March. 

March: The Warden
April: Barchester Towers
May: Doctor Thorne
June: Framley Parsonage
July: The Small House at Allington
August: The Last Chronicle of Barset

Fun Trollope Trivia:
1) The fourth book in the series inspired Jo Walton's novel Tooth and Claw.
2) Alec Guinness, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, never traveled without a Trollope novel. 
3) Trollope traveled to Australia in 1871. 
4) George Eliot said she couldn't have "embarked on so ambitious a project as Middlemarch without the precedent set by Trollope in his own novels." 
5) He wrote 47 novels!
Obviously if we hate the first 3 books or something we can stop reading them, but that's the plan for now. Read at your own pace, post when you want and share your thoughts on twitter as you go. You can read all of them or just a couple of them. We're planning on posting at the beginning of each month when we start a new book and at the end of each month with a wrap-up post. 

Let us know in the comments if you want to join in the fun! 

Wolf Hall

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
There’s been no shortage of praise for Mantel’s award-winning book, but if fell a bit short of my expectations. The book follows the life of Thomas Cromwell; from his early years spent under the oppressive thumb of his blacksmith father, to later in life as he juggled Henry VIII desire for a divorce and the political upheaval that followed.
Cromwell makes for an interesting character, but not one that’s particularly enthralling. He has a cold air about him and it was hard for me to feel like I was seeing the real him the majority of the time. The parts I liked the best gave the reader a view into Cromwell’s personal life, his relationship with his daughters and the grief that he eventually faces. I also enjoy the political games that were played in court. Mantel does a great job describing the rapidly shifting loyalties and favor among King Henry’s advisors and subjects.
I tend to enjoy historical fiction, but I think I felt a little lost without a clear story arch. There’s a mess of characters all vying for the reader’s attention and Mantel doesn’t seem to have a strong opinion about who should be the headliner. Yes it’s Cromwell’s story, but he almost seems to be the glass through which we see the action and not the central focus of the book. Is it really Cromwell’s story, or is it Anne and Henry’s, Catharine’s, Mary Boleyn’s, Thomas More’s, Princess Mary’s, Thomas Wolsey’s? By the end I didn’t feel too invested in any of their lives. I’ve read so many books, (fiction and nonfiction,) about Tudor era England that much of the plot covered felt repetitive.
BOTTOM LINE: I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it; I just felt ambivalent towards it by the end. There were some interesting parts and I like learning more about Thomas Cromwell, but perhaps my expectations were too high after hearing nothing but praise for the last couple years. I haven’t decided if I’ll read the rest of the trilogy yet.

Wordless Wednesday: American Players Theatre

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Outdoor Shakespeare Theatre in Wisconsin. 

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Titus Andronicus

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Titus Andronicus 
by William Shakespeare

Ever wish Shakespeare had written something incredibly dark and violent? Well lucky you, he did! In Titus Andonicus fans of the Bard can get their Quentin Tarantino fix in old English. This is one of Shakespeare’s first tragedies and by far one of the most violent. See if you can follow me as I give a quick and wildly confusing rundown of the plot... 

A Roman general, Titus, is in a perpetual battle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Things escalate throughout the play, building to a disturbing pinnacle of violence.

Titus is appointed the new Roman Emperor but he turns the throne down, supporting Saturninus instead. He offers his daughter Lavinia to Saturnius, even though she’s already engaged to Bassianus, Saturnius’ brother. Titus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son after taking her and her sons prisoner, which further instigates her wrath. In a surprise move Saturninus marries Tamora and Titus is furious.

Tamora’s living sons, Demetrius and Chiron, kidnap and rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia. When they’re done they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. You can see why this one isn’t performed a lot. They also kill her original betrothed, Bassianus, which infuriates his brother (the emperor) Saturnius. Titus’ sons Martius and Quintus are framed for the murder and executed by Saturnius.

After that there are sliced hands and heads going back and forth in the mail. Let’s not forget Tamora’s lover Aaron, a moor who fathers her child while she is married to Saturnius. He’s a tricky one and causes quite a bit of mayhem.

The ultimate disturbing detail that made the play famous comes when Titus to be the Master Chef of Revenge. He kills Tamora’s remaining two sons and then uses their blood and bones to make her a fancy dinner. He then feeds it to her at a feast before revealing his secret ingredients. Gag. Then the bloody meal concludes with just about every main character being killed. 

BOTTOM LINE: Cue Debbie Downer’s sad trombone noise, "wah waaah." I can’t say this is my favorite Shakespearean play, but I’m glad to know what all the fuss was about. Unlike his later tragedies, this one is missing the crucial element of emotional grounding. While we’re horrified by what happens to the characters we aren’t necessarily invested in them, which lessens the impact. Ultimately we are reminded that revenge, just like jealousy in Othello, destroys everyone in its path.

Strong Poison

Monday, February 10, 2014

  Strong Poison 
  by Dorothy L. Sayers
Now this is what I was hoping for when I read Whose Body? last year! That was the first book in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, but definitely not the best. After reading it I wasn’t sure I wanted to try any others, but I’m so glad I did. Everyone who told me that the series improved the second Harriet Vane showed up was absolutely right.
From the first moments the book hooks you. It starts with a judge speaking to a jury as they deliberate on a case. A man was either murdered or committed suicide by arsenic poisoning and they must determine if the accused is guilty of the crime. Many of the facts point to his estranged girlfriend, Harriet Vane, who is on trial for her life. As the case heats up Wimsey decides Vane is innocent and he needs to prove it if she’s going to be acquitted.
One of the best elements in the book is the focus on characters outside of Wimsey and Vane. We follow a secretary as she tries to obtain evidence from her slippery boss and later Miss Climpson, who must travel to a small town in search of an elusive will. These side trips and stories kept the plot moving quickly.
BOTTOM LINE: I will definitely read more of the books from this series as long as they contain Harriet Vane! Wimsey needs her intelligent repartee to balance his and together their chemistry makes for a great mystery novel.

The Feminine Mystique

Friday, February 7, 2014

  The Feminine Mystique 
  by Betty Friedan

When Friedman’s book was first published in 1963 it was a completely revolutionary text. It’s credited with starting the second wave of feminism and changing the way people view working women. Though much has changed in the past 50 years, the issue of gender inequality is still very much present today.

There are elements in the book that I strongly agree with. For example living through only your husband and kids’ lives will end up a frustrating mess for everyone involved. Pursuing interests outside of your spouse and kids is crucial to remind yourself that you are your own person outside of their sphere. However, I think that comparing being a stay-at-home mom to being sent to a concentration camp is a bit much. I understand what she’s saying, the similarity lies in the stripping away of outside relationships and interests, but it’s taking it too far to compare the two. I know that many “stay-at-home” moms in the 1950s were addicted to tranquiller and alcohol because of a deep-seated unhappiness, but getting married and having children is a choice. Being shipped off to a concentration camp and watching your fellow prisoners be killed is not.

In the past 50 years expectations of women have changed and there are now different factors affecting the roles women take. It's much more socially acceptable for women to work and for men help with household chores than it was in the 1950s. Regardless of whether or not the woman stays home with the kids, the roles seem to have become more equalized.

I love the role that pop culture has played in continuing to change views. TV shows like Parks and Recreation and The Good Wife continue to discuss women’s evolving roles without letting that become the central focus of the show. They are shown in positions of power in the working world but that’s never an issue on the shows. In this season of Grey’s Anatomy they’ve discussed the difficulties working moms face and the pressure put on women to have children when they don’t want to.

Women also now have the option of working from home, something that was unheard of in the 1960s. A woman can run a photography or freelance business from a home office instead of from a corporate office. Options like these have changed the playing field, but that doesn’t mean women are being paid the same salaries as men in the same positions. The line between "career woman” and “stay-at-home mom” might have become blurred as the possibilities increased, but it hasn’t been eliminated. 

The feminine mystique talks in detail about how women’s sexual lives have often corresponded with their role in society. I think it's important to remember while reading those sections that when they talk about a woman enjoying sex it's not about the act of sex as much as it is about the fact that she thinks she has the right to enjoy it. Throughout history sex has often been treated as an obligation for women, something they are expected to provide for their husbands; their enjoyment was not a factor. What the feminine mystique points out is that women's enjoyment tends to correspond with how they view themselves and how they view sex. Is it an obligation they have to suffer through or is it something that they are doing with the partner out of a mutual desire.

In the book Friedman talks about some research done on how long housework takes if your stay-at-home mom versus a working mom. The conclusion was that most working mothers got it done in half the time. The author’s theory is that women stretch the work to fill their days to justify being at home. I don't know if that's true or not but it's interesting. Especially since this was written when huge advances were being made in household appliances. Dish washers, washers, dryers, kitchen mixers, these devices supposedly cut work time in half but the author and researchers found that the women just made more complicated recipes and did the laundry twice as often, washing sheets twice a week instead of once. One bachelor even made the claim that he could run most households in half the time that women did. When outraged women told him to prove it he did, taking over the four child household of one woman for a period of time. At the end of the time she even admitted he was the better cook.

This book gave me so much to think about and there’s a lot to be learned from the experiences of other women. I don't have kids and I've never been a stay-at-home mom so take my opinion with a huge grain of salt, but there’s a lot to be said for maintaining your own interests and friendships outside of your husband and children. I think it boils down to the pressure we put in ourselves to do the "right" thing in society’s eyes. Whether that is being staying at home or having a career, we create these standards that we have to hold our life to and then we can't help but feel overwhelmed when we fail. Finding the right balance in your own life is crucial and it’s different for every person.

The Irregulars and Gods in Alabama

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Irregulars
Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington
by Jennet Conant

As a huge Roald Dahl fan, both of his children’s books and adult short stories and memoirs, this nonfiction piece was a no-brainer for me. After being injured during his stint as an RAF pilot Dahl is sent to America to insinuate himself into the political society in Washington D.C. He’s been recruited to work for an obscure British intelligence agency that gathered information in America during World War II. 

Conant tells of Dahl’s liaisons with a gossipy intimacy that makes the book read like a novel. He was a bit of a rake, unfettered by marriage and able to find friends and lovers wherever he went. A wealthy publisher, Charles Marsh, took Dahl under his wing and helped him along in the publishing world, which eventually led to Dahl’s career as an author. Fellow spy and friend Ian Fleming went on to write the James Bond novels.

I love that this book fills in an important gap in Dahl’s life. It picks up where his first two memoirs, Boy and Going Solo, leave off. It explains how he became a writer while also giving the readers fascinating details about his work as a spy.

A must for fans of Dahl, Fleming or spy novels in the style of John le Carré. It’s not an action packed story, but a look at what went on behind-the-scenes during WWII.

Gods in Alabama
by Joshilyn Jackson

For some reason I thought this book was the basis for a Melanie Griffith movie (Crazy in Alabama in think,) so for years I avoided it. It wasn’t until I finally took Sandy’s recommendation and picked it up that I realized the two were completely unrelated. Instead of finding some kooky story about a wannabe actress, I found a thoughtful tale of woman who rebuilt her life after a childhood trauma.

Lena Fleet left her small town home in Alabama after high school and never looked back. After a horrible thing happens to her as a teen, she makes a promise to God and she believes that if she holds up her end of the deal He will too. Lena lives in Chicago and the story of her past is slowly revealed throughout the book as she journeys back to Alabama with her African American fiancée. 

I was so impressed with Jackson’s ability to deal with heavy subject matter; racism, rape, jealousy, abuse, and regret and yet maintain a sense of humor throughout the book. Lena’s relationship with her aunt and her farfetched reasoning behind some of her actions work well because we feel like we know her. We make allowances for people in our lives because we understand that everyone is flawed. Lena is the same, we take her actions with a grain of salt, understanding all the while that there is a bigger story that we don’t understand yet.

Burr, Lena’s boyfriend, is one of my favorite characters in the story. He knows how to push her just far enough without making her shut down. He wants what’s best for her, but he has priorities too and he won’t let me get away with as much as others will. Her Aunt Florence is the same; both individuals are good for Lena because they love her enough to push her.

BOTTOM LINE: I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. It’s a great piece of southern fiction, entertaining, with well written characters and a fast-moving plot.  It reminded me quite a bit of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

“God gave us crying so other folks could see when we needed help, and help us.”

Wordless Wednesday: Gulf Coast Shrimp Fest

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Gulf Coast National Shrimp Festival 

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Top Ten Books That Will Make You Cry

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

This week's Top Ten from The Broke and the Bookish asks for the Top Ten Books That Will Make You Cry.

1) The Book Thief - I ugly cry every time I read this.
2) The Time Traveler's Wife - Beautiful romance, impossible obstacle
3) Song of Achilles - The Trojan War never felt so personal.
4) Anne of Green Gables - One word: Matthew
5) The Sparrow - Tragedy on an epic level
6) Still Alice - If you know anyone who has had Alzheimer's this one will get you.
7) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - 9/11 heartbreaker
8) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Just about my worst nightmare, but also incredibly inspiring story of the human spirit.
9) Jude, the Obscure - Leave it to Hardy to redfine tragedy.
10) Little Women - Do you guys remember Joey's reaction on Friends? Exactly.

The End of Your Life Book Club

Monday, February 3, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

From the first pages we learn that Mary Anne Schwalbe is dying of cancer. Her son Will's nonfiction book chronicles this trying time in their lives while also delving into Mary Anne's past. It deals with grief and joy in equal parts, giving a balanced look at one woman's reaction to being diagnosed with a serious illness.

One thing I loved about this book was the focus on life and not death. Yes it is about his mother's struggle with terminal cancer, but it's truly about the life she lived before she was ever diagnosed. She was an incredible woman! She gave herself and her time to so many causes. She started international organizations to help refuge women and children. She raised her own children to be unique and intelligent individuals who take risks in life. She was kind and generous with both her time and her money and she expected a lot from the people around her.

I love that reading was such an integral part of Will and his mother's lives that sharing the books they were in the middle of was a natural part of their interaction. As he comments at one point, people always used to discuss what they were reading but nowadays it's safer to ask what people are watching on TV , because they might not be reading anything at all. The Schwalbes take the lessons they get out of different books and apply them to their lives. They discuss them in detail and compare notes about themes and outcomes. When you read about other countries or lifestyles it allows you to live a bigger life. They recognize that and expanded their horizons with each new book they chose.

"...books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose - electronic (even though that wasn't for her) or printed, or audio - is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in human conversation.”  
Will's description of his childhood was captivating to me. I'm sure some of it can be attributed to seeing things through rose-colored glasses; our memories often become sweeter with the distance of time. But the fact that reading and culture were part of their lives was undeniable. That's not always the case with families, but if I have kids that's how I would want to raise them.

BOTTOM LINE: As I've said before, I'm a sucker for books about books. This is one of those, but it's also about living a life worth celebrating and remembering. It's about refusing to lose hope or give up. It's inspiring, but not in a saccharine way. I loved it and have already picked up a few of the books that Will read with his mother.
"He was the smartest and best read person any of us have every known, but he wore his learning so lightly and had such curiosity about other people that he had the ability to make everyone around him feel smart and well-read."

“Mom had always taught all of us to examine decisions by reversibility--that is, to hedge our bets. When you couldn't decide between two things, she suggested you choose the one that allowed you to change course if necessary. Not the road less traveled but the road with the exit ramp.”

"I often forget that other people's stories aren't simply introductions to my own more engaging, more dramatic, more relevant, and better-told tales, but rather ends in themselves, tales I can learn from or repeat or dissect or savor.”