Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - review

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.

Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”

Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly described. These included her ambitious, perpetually scheming mother; her weak, bullying husband, Peter (who left her lying untouched beside him for nine years after their marriage); her unhappy son and heir, Paul; her beloved grandchildren; and her “favorites”—the parade of young men from whom she sought companionship and the recapture of youth as well as sex. Here, too, is the giant figure of Gregory Potemkin, her most significant lover and possible husband, with whom she shared a passionate correspondence of love and separation, followed by seventeen years of unparalleled mutual achievement.

And here's what I thought:  While the size of this book may be a bit daunting, it has a fast pace, which makes reading it pretty enjoyable.   It also has enough drama and intrigue packed into it to make anyone who loves soap operas or telenovellas a fan of Catherine the Great.  

Robert Massie does a great job of packing in a lot of information, while at the same time making Catherine very human.  Using a timeline approach for the first part of the book, you learn about her upbringing and history, and the events that bring her to Russia, and then, about halfway through the book, when she takes over the throne, the author switches to a writing style that sometimes jumps a bit back and forth in time, but which shows some of the decisions Catherine made, and the history surrounding them, as well as the impact they had.   She really was an extraordinary woman, who was clearly ahead of her time, and whose leadership brought Russia into the enlightened age.   She certainly wasn't afraid to be herself, an intelligent women with a strong will, and it's pretty impressive to think about all she accomplished.   Considering that she was a contemporary of some of our founding fathers (she died in 1796), it's intriguing to think about how  they would have received her here, in America --- basically, I like to imagine her sitting at a dinner with Benjamin Franklin and having some pretty lively conversation.

While I don't think that every reader would love this book, if you're interested in history, especially that of women rulers, I think this book is quite good.  It's written in a way that makes nonfiction read like fiction, which is appealing, and it really brings the history to life.

First lines:  Prince Christian Augustus of Anhalt-Zerbst was hardly distinguishable in the swam of obscure, penurious noblemen who cluttered the landscape and society of politically fragmented eighteenth-century Germany.  Possessed neither of exceptional virtues nor alarming vices, Prince Christian exhibited the solid virtues of his Junker lineage: a stern sense of order, discipline, integrity, thrift, and piety, along with an unshakable lack of interest in gossip, intrigue, literature, and the wider world in general.

Chunkster Challenge info:  This is the first book I read for this challenge, and it weighs in at a hefty 625 pages.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Wordless Wednesday - Illinois State Library

State Library statue 2-Springfield.JPGSee more WW

A Floating Life by Tad Crawford

Summary (courtesy of goodreads):  A Floating Life will delight lovers of Kafka, Murakami, and the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It immediately draws the reader into a fantastic world of multiple journeys that make the hallucinatory feel real. A nameless narrator awakens to the muddle of middle age, no longer certain who or what he is. He finds himself at a party talking to a woman he doesn't know who proves to be his wife. Soon separated but still living in the same apartment, he is threatened by a litigious dachshund and saddled with a stubborn case of erectile dysfunction in a world that seems held together by increasingly mercurial laws and elusive boundaries. His relationship deepens with an elderly Dutch model maker named Pecheur whose miniature boats are erratically offered for sale in a hard-to-find shop called The Floating World. Enlivened by Pecheur's dream to tame the destructive forces of nature, the narrator begins to find his bearings. With quiet humor and wisdom, A Floating Life charts its course among images that surprise and disorient, such as a job interview in a steam room with a one-eyed, seven-foot chef, a midnight intrusion of bears, the narrator's breast feeding of the baby he has birthed, and an encounter with a goddess in a maze of caves beneath a volcanic island. A Floating Life is a rollicking, unforgettable, and inventive journey--and it is also a source of insight, solace, and inspiration.

And here's what I thought:  When I was contacted by the author about a review, I was intrigued because the book sounded like nothing else I've read.   I went and looked for more information before I agreed to a review, and found that Booklist had a review which said, " The elements of the picaresque and magic realism, blended with quirky, surreal humor, should appeal to readers with a taste for the literary and the strange. "   Well, that sounds intriguing, right?  So I gave it a try.

And I've now revised my review .... because I had promised it back in December, and had written it up and had it sitting in draft .... and completely forgot about actually posting it.  This is why I'm now just scheduling reviews and not keeping them as drafts.   I went back and re-read what I had written, and have just tightened it up a bit, as I found my original review was a bit rambling.  So this is what I thought about this book:

Strange.  Odd. Unpredictable. Compelling.  And what's the word for when you have a strange dream that you wake from, wondering if it had bits of the real in it, and unsure of what just happened?  I don't know a word for that.  It's difficult to articulate the reaction I had to reading this book.  As you can see from the summary, the book has a nameless narrator who is in the middle of his life, going from situation to situation.   There is a surrealism that runs through this book that reminded me of what I like about Jonathan Carroll's books -- that sense of feeling like you should know more about where you are, and who you're talking to, and what's going on, even as you're in the midst of something.   I found I would start the book and stop, and then pick it up a day or two later --- it wasn't something that felt comfortable reading at a non-stop pace.  What I mean is, I would periodically have to stop and just think about what I had just read, almost as if I had to center myself, so I could get a grasp on what was happening.

I think this is one of strengths of this book, even though at times it made me feel a bit off-balance.  I sometimes have really realistic dreams, ones where I wake up and have an uneasy feeling because I'm not if I've been dreaming, or have been awake the whole time.  Sometimes, this book gave me the same uneasiness because I felt like I couldn't get a good hold on it.   I think it's just me .... maybe this book is over my head, and that's why I didn't have a clear connection to it.

I never did really feel a connection to the narrator, but maybe that's what's supposed to happen; maybe it's all an exercise in exploration, and stretching the boundaries of what you expect from a book.   I never felt quite comfortable reading it, even while there were parts that I really enjoyed.  I think if you're a reader who enjoys Kafka (and I do not, particularly), this book would really appeal to you.   I found it an unusual book, but one which I'm not sure I'd come back to right away.  I'm not giving the book a rating, as I really have no idea how I'd do it ---- it gets a great rating for the writing, which is superb.  However, it didn't really resonate with me enough for me to say I loved it.

There are many reviews on Goodreads which are written much better than mine, so if this book sounds intriguing to you, I'd suggest checking out what those readers had to say.

First lines (from one of the chapters):   "I wrote him a letter," the strange woman said to me.  She looked in her late thirties, about my age, slender and smallish.  When she spoke, she emphasized every word and her gray eyes took on a steely gleam behind her horn-rimmed glasses.  "I told him exactly what I thought of him.  No edits.  No prisoners.  Nothing left out."    I had no idea who she was or who she was talking about.  In the large room around us a storm of people moved turbulently, back and forth, a lot of them dressed up in tuxes and glittering gowns.  They carried presents, and I had the feeling I must be at a birthday party.  But for whom?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Buddy: How a rooster made me a family man by Brian McGrory

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  Award-winning journalist Brian McGrory goes head to beak in a battle royale with another male for a top-spot in his home, vying for dominance with the family’s pet rooster. 
   Brian McGrory's life changed drastically after the death of his beloved dog, Harry: he fell in love with Pam, Harry's veterinarian. Though Brian’s only responsibility used to be his adored Harry, Pam came with accessories that could not have been more exotic to the city-loving bachelor: a home in suburbia, two young daughters, two dogs, two cats, two rabbits, and a portly, snow white, red-crowned-and-wattled step-rooster named Buddy. While Buddy loves the women of the house, he takes Brian's presence as an affront, doing everything he can to drive out his rival. Initially resistant to elements of his new life and to the loud, aggressive rooster (who stares menacingly, pecks threateningly, and is constantly poised to attack), Brian eventually sees that Buddy shares the kind of extraordinary relationship with Pam and her two girls that he wants for himself. The rooster is what Brian needs to be – strong and content, devoted to what he has rather than what might be missing. As he learns how to live by living with animals, Buddy, Brian’s nemesis, becomes Buddy, Brian’s inspiration, in this inherently human story of love, acceptance, and change.

And here's what I thought:  I admit it --- I picked up this book just because it was on the new books display of my library, and the title and cover caught my eye.   I wasn't sure what to expect from it, and figured I'd be in for a fast, humorous read and move on to my next book.   Instead, I got a bit more --- I got a book that had parts that made me smile, and parts that made me get choked up, and an overall book that made me think.   And not just think about roosters, either.

As you can see from the summary, the book is about the author's change of life from living as a bachelor in the city to moving to suburbia with his new wife, her daughters, and a number of animals, including a rooster, Buddy. However, Brian McGrory doesn't just focus on Buddy, but also gives us his experiences with his beloved dog, Harry.   At first, I didn't quite get where the author was going with this.  I mean, where's the rooster?  Why is the author talking about this dog?   But then, I started to understand what was happening, and why the author was writing about Harry.  His experiences with Harry shaped who he was, and how he saw life, in general.   It made complete sense to give some back-story so that the reader has more of an understanding of just how much an adjustment it was for the author to not only move to the suburbs with his new wife, and her daughters, but also how much of an adjustment it was to live with a rooster.

Living with Buddy is certainly full of .... adventure.  As you might expect, since Buddy is a rooster, and the author is the only man in the household, Buddy never quite sees Brian in a friendly way.   So, it's pretty entertaining to read about Buddy, and what it's like to live with him.  The author has a great writing style, so not only did I get a clear picture in my mind of Buddy, but also clearly got the author's mood coming through.  My husband had encounters with a rooster on one of our trips to Italy, which was enough to make me believe we'll never live with our own rooster.

But, as I said, this book isn't just an entertaining story of living with a belligerent rooster.  When Brian is writing about Harry, from the first day he met the dog, and onwards, there's a thoughtfulness.   Having Harry in his life gives the author not only new experiences, such as getting to know more people in his neighborhood, but also, insight into himself, and his relationships with other people.  I liked how he reflected on his marriages, and especially, what it was like to make the adjustment to his new marriage (and his wife's daughters).  In fact, there's a thoughtfulness and honesty running through this book that made me take my time with it.  Not everything the author shares in this book is funny, or even happy, and I appreciated that that, in turn, made me reflect on my own experiences when I was reading it.   It was a happy surprise to find this book and have it turn out the way that it did.

First lines:  Try as you might, you never forget that first time a rooster announced the dawn of a new day from your very own yard.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor --- review

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads):  In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.

And here's what I thought:  The first word that comes to my mind after finishing this book is: transformative.   I've never read anything quite like this book, and felt not only transported to a different place when I was reading it, but I felt like every time I put it down, the characters and story stayed with me.

The author does such a great job of pulling together realistic and fantastic elements, and combines this with unforgettable characters.  I found Onyesonwu so compelling; she has admitted flaws, but so much inner strength.  Her journey to understand not only herself, but her place in her world, and her destiny, is a long one, and filled with difficult tests.  The author doesn't shy away from subject that are difficult, or make you recoil, and instead, faces things head-on, unflinching.  There isn't any prettying-up of ugliness. You don't want to look, but you cannot look away. There are dark moments, to be sure, but I found that didn't keep me from turning the pages.  I've read several nonfiction books about different regions of Africa, and maybe that's why certain things that happened in this book, as awful as they were, didn't surprise me.  I think it's especially interesting that while this book is set in a future version of Africa, some of the things found in today's Africa still remain.  I felt the story and characters were very grounded, even as the story brought in elements of a future-imagined place and peoples.

This book was nominated for several awards, and won the 2011 World Fantasy Award.  It's a book that has been on my TBR list for a long time, and now that I've finally picked it up, I'm already looking forward to a re-read.

First lines:  My life fell apart when I was sixteen.  Papa died.  He had such a strong heart, yet he died.  Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop?  It's true that nothing could take him from his work, his art.  He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop.  So what was it that killed him?  To this day I can't be sure.  I hope it had nothing to do with what I did back then.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wordless Wednesday --- reading angel

Portland library angel At the Portland, OR public library.   See MORE WW!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Blogger Confession -- blogging goals for 2013

I'm determined to get back on track with this blog, so I'm starting off this week with my Book Blogger Confession.   Hosted by Karen at For What It's Worth and Pam from Midnyte Reader, the Book Blogger Confessions is a meme for the 1st and 3rd Mondays of every month.    

So, this Monday's question is:   Question for Monday January 7th – Happy 2013! What are your blogging goals for the new year? Are you making any changes or testing out new ideas for reviews or organization? Have you joined any challenges?

What are the trends you noticed in blogging from 2012 and what do you hope to see for the blogging community in 2013?

For the new year, my big blogging goals are:
  • Get back on my usual schedule of trying to keep to one review per week, with a Wordless Wednesday post at least every other week.
  • Not kick myself if I don't keep to that schedule.
  • Leave more comments on other people's posts.  It's easy, and I just need to do it.
My smaller goals are:
  • Keep to the one challenge I signed up for.
  • Read more from my own shelves (the books I own, not the ones I get from the library) and write thoughtful posts about re-visiting those books.
  • Keep up with my regular posts over at my other blog (MarbleTowns).
Last fall, I took an online public library administration class, and usually, an online class isn't enough to slow me down by too much.   But, then work got crazy for a few months.  And my personal life popped a few little extra challenges up.   Before I realized it, my personal reading was slowing down, and then my blogging started slowing down.  And then, the worst thing happened: I started feeling sulky about blogging.  I turned into a petulant child --- "But I don't wanna write a blog post!  I wanna sit and watch TV!!  And NAP!!!!"    

But, the class ended in December, and I got through the holidays, and now, feel invigorated and ready to pull up my socks and get back to blogging.   The fact that I signed up for another library administration class is something that I'm determined will not be slowing me down (fingers crossed).
Either way, I'm determined to keep moving .....
And there was a second question today: What are the trends you noticed in blogging from 2012 and what do you hope to see for the blogging community in 2013?

I don't know if what I saw as trends were actually trends, or just things that I was noticing in what seemed to be a lot of places.   But, I do feel like I'm not the only person who felt overwhelmed at times by blogging, and I'm hoping that in the new year, that we all relax a little more about this and remember why a lot of us started blogging, which was to have fun, and share our thoughts.  I did notice some of the scandals last year (authors behaving badly, bloggers behaving badly, etc) and I'm hoping that this year, things are a bit quieter.  I don't tend to get involved at all when something blows up in the blogosphere, and while it can make for entertaining reading, it's disappointing, as well.  I hope that in this new year, we can all get along.   And write our own content (or give credit when we get some ideas from someone else).   And agree that it's okay to disagree about how we feel about a book, and it's perfectly okay to not like a book.

Okay.   Whew!    Happy New Year!!!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

I've decided on the one book challenge for me for 2013

I tend to hopelessly fail at book challenges.   At the beginning of every year, I'm all enthusiastic, and ready for a new, fresh year of reading, and I feel like I can definitely handle a book challenge .... or two ... or three.     Woo Hoo!!!!!!

Librarian by day; reading super-hero by night

And inevitably, by October, I'm looking at the challenge, and my time left in the year, and know that by the end of December, I'll have to admit defeat.

Even if the challenge sounds like it's completely within reason, I can reach the end of a year without completion.   That happened with the one challenge I signed up for in 2012, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen challenge.   I started out all happy and primed for some good reading .... and I got through a few books, and thought oh yes, the challenge is there and I shall be triumphant!   And ... no, actually .... um, not.

So, I had vowed to stay away from book challenges in 2013.  I would resist the temptation and instead, admit my inability to maintain my momentum and stick with it.   Until I saw the Chunkster Reading Challenge.

This is right up my alley.   In fact, in January, I'll be reading Catherine the Great for a book discussion, and Reamde for another.   These books alone weigh in at 625 pages, and 1044 pages, respectively.  And I had thought seriously about starting George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series (and look at that --- Game of Thrones is 694 pages!).   So.....   I think I can do this one.   And because I can't help myself, I'm aiming big and signing up for this level:   Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big?     oh yes, if you knew the size of my booty, you'd see this was a natural choice on my part.

So, that's it.  One challenge.  One big book challenge for 2013.   Stay tuned for the reviews.  

And if you'd like to learn more, or sign up, please visit the Chunkster Reading Challenge.

The Lazarus Machine --- review

Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): An alternate 1895... a world where Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace perfected the Difference engine. Where steam and tesla-powered computers are everywhere. Where automatons powered by human souls venture out into the sprawling London streets. Where the Ministry, a secretive government agency, seeks to control everything in the name of the Queen.

It is in this claustrophobic, paranoid city that seventeen-year-old Sebastian Tweed and his conman father struggle to eke out a living.

But all is not well...

A murderous, masked gang has moved into London, spreading terror through the criminal ranks as they take over the underworld. as the gang carves up more and more of the city, a single name comes to be uttered in fearful whispers.

Professor Moriarty.

When Tweed’s father is kidnapped by Moriarty, he is forced to team up with information broker Octavia Nightingale to track him down. But he soon realizes that his father’s disappearance is just a tiny piece of a political conspiracy that could destroy the British Empire and plunge the world into a horrific war.

And here's what I thought:  I liked how creative the author was with combining elements of the Sherlock Holmes character with an alternate version of 1895, while keeping some things that were real to London in 1895.    There are things that existed in 1895, like the interest in spiritualism, put together with re-imagined things, like Tesla's ideas and theories, so that there's a realistic feel to the story.   When one of the characters pulls out a "Tesla gun," I could completely imagine how cool that would be.   I also liked how creepy some of the things in the book were, like the masked gang that's terrorizing the city (um, gas masks?  super-creepy!!).  

I also liked that the book made me think.  There's a dark feel to the story, and the author brings some elements into the plot that are a little disquieting, like having human souls in automatons.   I don't want to reveal any spoilers here, so it's a bit tricky to really talk about the book.  But, needless to say, the author packs a lot of story into this book, along with some thought-provoking things, as well.

And there was something else about this book that made me think; if I didn't have some familiarity with London in this time period, and Sherlock Holmes, and who Tesla was, would I still have enjoyed the book as much?  What I mean is, if I were a reader who had no idea who Nicola Tesla was, would there still be as much fun in reading about some of his inventions in this story?   If I had no familiarity with Sherlock Holmes as a character, would the book resonate as much?   There seems to be some assumption that the character of Moriarty means something to the reader (along with Tesla, for example) .... but what if the reader doesn't know who that is?    I'm not sure if it would really matter to a reader, but it was something I thought about.

First sentences:  Tonight, seventeen-year-old Sebastian Tweed was going to be the voice of a fifty-year-old woman.  More specifically, he was going to be the voice of a Mrs. Henrietta Shaw -- missing and presumed dead for over a year now.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wordless Wednesday -- outside the Nelson-Atkins museum

Starting off the new year with a WW post from my recent Christmas trip to Kansas City.  Happy New Year!
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