Amsterdam (Booker Prize)

I've just finished my first book for this challenge, "Amsterdam," by Ian McEwan (Booker Prize). Reading “Amsterdam" was a little like watching a train wreck: I knew something ghastly was going to happen, but I couldn’t turn away.

The novel opens at a funeral and follows the subsequent events in the lives of two men, both former lovers of the dead woman. One a composer, one a newspaper editor, each faces a moral dilemma and ends up making a terribly wrong decision. The consequences? See train wreck analogy above.

I’ve read some reviews that suggest the ending is too contrived or predictable, and I tend to agree, but that didn’t stop me from being completely enthralled, mainly due to the great writing. This is my third McEwan novel, and what I love about them is their dead-on descriptions of the characters’ internal states and thoughts. And how can you not love a little gem like this description of the newspaper editor: “Within his profession Vernon was revered as a nonentity.”

However, “Amsterdam,” in spite of its graceful and incisive writing, seems much less fully developed than “Atonement,” so it seems odd to me that this novel won the Booker Prize while “Atonement” did not.

Since this is my first post (I'm a little late to the party), here's my list of the books I'm going to read for this challenge:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Pulitzer Prize)
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (Prix Renaudot)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Pulitzer Prize)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Booker Prize)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Hugo Award)
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (Booker Prize)
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (National Book Award)
Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (National Book Award)
Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett (National Book Award)
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (National Book Award)
The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright (Pulitzer Prize)

Booker Award: The Remains of the Day

I chose to read The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for this challenge for a number of reasons. I remember really enjoying the movie and that made me want to read the book. Now that I've read it, though, I think I need to see the movie again because the book is not at all how I remember the movie! I also read this book because I read Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go earlier this year and really enjoyed it. So, I've been anxious to check out this award winning novel.

The Remains of the Day has to be one of the most depressing novels I have ever read. The main character, Mr. Stevens, is a butler in a grand English house. He has spent the majority of his life serving one man, Lord Darlington. The novel actually takes place in the years following Lord Darlington's death when Stevens is serving an American gentleman who bought Darlington's house (yes, Stevens' service seems to have transferred along with the sale of the house). Throughout the novel Stevens reflects on his life and his years of service to Lord Darlington. Throughout the novel there are so many obvious opportunities for personal happiness and chances to make a difference on a personal level that Stevens seems to miss. Instead, Mr. Stevens believes his contribution to the betterment of the world is through his service to a great man.

By the end of the novel, however, the reader, and Mr. Stevens himself, is forced to question just how great Lord Darlington actually was. At best he seems to be a fool who dabbled in world affairs without a genuine understanding of what was going on. At worst he was a traitor to his country. It seems that Mr. Stevens lived his life almost entirely for another person's gain. Now he sees the changes in his profession and doesn't know how to adapt but he has no reason to retire either.

The novel is lovely and the character of Mr. Stevens simultaneously sympathetic and ridiculous. Still, reading it practically threw me into the depths of despair (to quote Anne of Green Gables). And I really need to re-watch the movie...was it this depressing?

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha -- kookiejar's review

This is an excerpt of my full review which can be read here.

I wasn't sure, at first, where this novel was going - if anywhere.

For the first half of the book we simply follow 10 year old Paddy Clarke through his day to day life in Barrytown, Ireland. We see (always through his eyes) his interactions with his parents, his baby sister and his younger brother whom he calls Sinbad. We go to school with Paddy and Sinbad and are witness to all the schoolyard antics and adventures that seem universal to all children that age.

Throughout, we are treated to Paddy's thoughts and the inconsequential actions that make up the lives of children.

"My ma read books. Mostly at night. She licked her fingers when she was coming to the end of her page, then she turned the page; she pulled up the corner with her wet finger. In the morning, I found her book marker, a bit of newspaper, in the book and I counted back the number of pages she'd read the night before. The record was forty-two."

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller--Gautami's 4th Book

Title: Death of a Salesman
Author: Arthur Miller
ISBN: 0141180978
Publisher: Penguin classics/May 1998
Pages: 144
Rating: 4/5

Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," is an overwhelmingly crafted play that takes drama to the next level. It asks the big question: When it comes time to take our own life's account, as Willy has, will we look back with pride and a sense of accomplishment? Alternatively, will we find ourselves sidestepped and alone, lost in despair? Arthur Miller asks some of life's crucial questions in this powerful play. This won the Pulitzer Award in 1949.

The story is about a broken-hearted sales man, Willy Loman. He is a man who is no longer living in the real world but trapped in his own delusional world. He cannot let go of the past no matter how hard he tries, and it is eating him up inside......

Read the rest of it here on My Own Little Reading Room.

BookGal's list

I just couldn't resist this book challenge. The idea is to read twelve award winning books over one year's time. I liked the fact that I could pick from any award list so I got to include Pulitzer Prize winners and Newbery winners as well. Here's my list:

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize, 2003)
2. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Man Booker Prize, 2002)
3. Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins (Newbery, 2006)
4. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (Newbery, 2004)
5. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh (PEN/Hemingway, 2003)
6. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Book Sense Adult Fiction Winner, 2000)
7. City of Bones by Michael Connelly (Anthony Award, 2003)
8. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Pulitzer Prize, 1995)
9. California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker (Edgar Award, 2005)
10. Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Newbery, 2007)
11. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Pulitzer Prize, 2007)
12. March by Geraldine Brooks (Pulitzer Prize, 2006)

I tried to keep the book list current because I tend to read older books. I also picked books that have been recommended by friends and on blogs.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
281 pages
First sentence:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the

Somehow I missed having to read this book in high school. It has been reviewed to death lately with the Southern Reading Challenge this summer. And with so many glowing reviews I didn't think I could pass up reading it for myself any longer. I chose it for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. When Robin recommended listening to Sissy Spacek read it on CD I took her up on it.

As pretty much everybody now knows, this is the enlightening story of "Scout" Finch, growing up in Maycomb, Alabama. It starts out at a leisurely pace, describing the summer antics of Scout, her older brother Jem, and a neighbor boy Dill, as they imagine the mysterious Boo Radley in the creepy, rundown Radley Place down the street. We become familiar with Scout's precocious ways and her propensity to find trouble. As the intrigue of Boo wears off, a new interest takes it's place: the trial of Tom Robinson. Scout, and the reader, learn a lot about the mindset of Maycomb County in general, and Atticus Finch specifically, in regards to humanity, honor, and right and wrong.

I can see why everyone lauds Atticus Finch so greatly. He is a man of integrity and compassion. Scout is easy to sympathise with. Jem's character is being influenced strongly by his experiences and his growing respect for his father. It is truly a beautifully written story. I love how a vast and rich vocabulary is combined with the local undeveloped dialect of the south. And I especially love the ending.

I am disappointed that there are no other books written by this Pulitzer Prize winner. And I'm curious as to what prompted her to write this book in the first place. I would highly recommend this title to anyone. It will be a candidate for a future summer reread.

Holes by Louis Sachar

My eleven-year-old daughter and I both read this Newbery Medal winner this summer, and we both think it is a terrific book. You can find out more here.
The Devil in the White City is a terrific non-fiction book. It is in the incredible story of the 1893 World's Fair held in Chicago and Dr. H. H. Holmes, America's first serial killer. The author, Erik Larson, has written a well researched book that is highly recommended, particularly to those interested in American history. You can read my full review at my blog.

Everyman by Philip Roth: Dewey's review

Cross-posted at my blog.

Everyman is the first Roth book I've read, and it definitely makes me want to read more of his work. But it was terrifying. It begins with the funeral of the main character, then flashes back through his life, ending with his death. I'm not uncomfortable with the idea of death -- I've worked in a funeral home. But I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the increased health problems that often become the focus of life as one ages. The unnamed main character, like Roth himself, finds himself suffering repeated hospitalizations. I found the detailed descriptions of the illnesses of this man in his 70s frightening and disturbing. His death almost came as a relief for me, as I imagine it does for many chronically ill people. By the way, mentioning his death isn't a spoiler; the book opens with his funeral.

The main character's life is fairly empty due to a lot of burned bridges with his family members and the loss of connection with his friends once he retires. He's been married (and divorced) three times, and his two children from his first marriage, angry their entire lives about the divorce, aren't on speaking terms with him. He does have a close, rewarding relationship with his daughter from his second marriage, but he's very aware that being the only person she's close to may be somewhat a burden for her. He has very little or no contact with his former wives; his parents are dead; and his brother, though probably the person he's cared most about in his life, has a very active life rich with family on the other side of the U.S., and the main character feels a bit disconnected from him and his children. He's a lonely man, as many older people seem to be.

He doesn't seem to have much to do during the day; he keeps active, exercising twice a day, but that's about all he has planned for each day. He used to paint and even give painting classes to other retirees, but gave up on it. He doesn't seem to read. Unlike most of the elderly neighbors I've had, he doesn't spend all day watching TV.

I guess I've always expected to be an older person much like Wallace in Wallace and Gromit. I expect to have a companion, though preferably a human (my husband, I hope!) instead of a dog. I expect to have passionate interests, such as Wallace's mechanical contraptions, his gardening, and his self-employment. I've assumed my interests as an older person would be pretty much the same interests I have now. But in Everyman, the main character seems to lose interest in what he used to love, even in what he had spent his younger life assuming he'd pursue during retirement, his painting. I'm not sure that's true for everyone; I have friends and acquaintances the age of the main character who still keep active and busy.

I marked a few favorite passages:

"There's no remaking reality," she told him. "Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes."

I both love and loathe this passage. I love it because it's the main character's daughter, at his funeral, repeating a maxim she'd heard her father use many times in the past. I loathe it because it's so resigned, so defeatist, such an assumption that life will always be a trial.

It was inexplicable to him -- the excitement they could seriously persist in deriving from his denunciation. He had done what he did the way that he did it as they did what they did the way they did it. Was their steadfast posture of unforgivingness any more forgivable? Or any less harmful in its effect?

This is the main character thinking about his broken relationships with his sons. He goes on to think that as he had never abused them or even been strict, they shouldn't hold a life-long grudge against him because he could no longer tolerate marriage to their mother. I like the spirit of letting go of grudges here. I agree with the main character that one should save long-term unforgivingness for more heinous transgressions such as abuse.

Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn't stand the complete unadultness -- the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.

This passage is part of the section that Roth chose to read aloud in an NPR interview with him, and I appreciated being able to hear him expand upon his feelings about religion. Although I like to consider myself more tolerant of others' beliefs than the main character of Everyman is, I do share his puzzlement about it. Roth's interviewer seems to find herself puzzled by Roth's descriptions of religion as "irrational" and "delusioned," since she brings the topic back to religion a couple times in the interview, seemingly trying to get him to admit that he does have some sort of religious beliefs, or at least that he does understand why others do. He remains polite but firm in his stance.

I think this firmness is one of the things I found most interesting in the novel. I kept expecting the main character to develop religious convictions as I've seen some of the older people in my family do after a lifetime of indifference to it. I've always assumed that this is driven by a fear of death, of wanting to reconcile with whatever higher power one might meet after death. But the main character (and Roth himself, exactly the same age as his character) remain secular as mortality approaches.

At the same site where you can hear Roth's NPR interview, you can also read the first chapter.

Reading a Guardian interview, I came to the conclusion that Roth would despise this post, and probably book blogging in general. He says:

I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two.
Originally posted here.

I know that most everyone has already read this book(and probably the next one by this author as well) so I don’t really feel the need to give a synopsis. So, straight on with my thoughts.

This is an amazing book. The characters are vivid and the story is haunting. It is a story of how to love someone when they act unlovably, forgiveness, atonement, sacrifice, redemption, war, etc. There are so many enduring themes in this book that I could go on and on.

It helped me to understand Afghanistan and the Afghan people more and the author paints a clear picture of what life was like there before the strife and also shows us what it is like now. The sadness that the Afghan people must feel for their homeland is palpable.

Once I started reading this book, I did very little else. It was that good. It will, without a doubt, go down as one of the highlights of my reading year. (5/5)
I just reviewed Number the Stars by Lois Lowry on my blog (HERE). I won't review it in depth here since someone else just wrote about it. I would like to recommend a couple of related books for people interested in reading more about the rescue of the Danish Jews.

A Conspiracy of Decency by Emmy Werner
Darkness Over Denmark by Ellen Levine (This is a Juvenile title)
The Rescue of the Danish Jews by Leo Goldberger

I really enjoyed all of these titles and think the details of the Danish rescue are fascinating!

Pulitzer Prize: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

What if you lived your life for just one person? And that person lived just for you, so you were ‘each other’s world entire’? I think there’s a romantic sense of that feeling, of being consumed by a new love affair, a new baby, a feeling that without that person, life would not be worth living. But we all have other reasons to live, whether we acknowledge them or not. There is family, friends, helpful strangers, animals, nature, books, work, music, whatever it is that gets you through. But what if we didn’t? No family, no friends, no helpful strangers, no faith in God, not enough food, no clean water, no trees, no animals, no blue sky? What if all you had was one other person, and a long, difficult journey, in a world where snow comes down gray, where every living thing, save a few wandering humans, has been killed, either by a nuclear bomb, or by the ferocious first years following the explosions? Would we want to travel that road?

That is the road on which the unnamed father and son must travel in The Road, a post-apolyptic novel that is so bleak, so sad, that there were pages when I had to close the book and struggle not to cry. But it’s so well written, I found myself getting past the nausea brought on by some of the images, and coming back to the story.

The man and the boy are trying to stay alive. The man wants to get them to the warmer weather at the coast, and further south, so that they won’t freeze to death come winter, which seems to come earlier every year. They have to travel the roads with care, always in the desperate search for food, trying to stave off starvation, always on the lookout for ‘bad guys’, marauders who resort to cannibalism and slavery in order to stay alive.

In the evening they tramped out across a field trying to find a place where their fire would not be seen. Dragging the cart behind them over the ground. So
little of promise in that country. Tomorrow they would find something to eat. Night overtook them on a muddy road. They crossed into a field and plodded on toward a distant stand of trees skylighted stark and black against the last of the visible world. By the time they got there it was dark of night. He got a fire going. The wood was damp but he shaved the dead bark off with his knife and he stacked brush and sticks all about to dry in the heat. Then he spread the sheet of plastic on the ground and got the coats and blankets from the cart and he took off their damp and muddy shoes and they sat there in silence with their hands outheld to the flames. He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’s had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom short of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.

The man promised the boy that they are the ‘good guys’, they they carry the fire with them; that they will not eat other people, even if it means their own death. He tries to maintain their own humanity, and for the father, it is as much humanity as he has left. Having the son as his ‘world entire’ means that nothing else matters. Just keeping his son alive. Not others who they meet on the road, some who desperately need help. Simply put, if the man and the boy stop to help, if they share their food and energy, they will die. That’s all.

The dialog is sparse, and reveals the honesty and love between the father and son…and at times, it is the dialog that is the most brutal and honest.

It was harder going even than he would have guessed. In an hour they’d made
perhaps a mile. He stopped and looked back at the boy. The boy stopped and
You think we’re going to die, dont you?
I dont know.
We’re not going to die.
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
Why do you think we’re going to die?
I dont know.
Stop saying I dont know.
Why do you think we’re going to die?
We dont have anything to eat.
We’ll find something.
How long do you think people can go without food?
I dont know.
But how long do you think?
Maybe a few days.
And then what? You fall over dead?
Well you dont. It takes a long time. We have water. That’s the most important thing. You dont last very long without water.
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
He studied him. Standing there with his hands in the pockets of his outsized pinstriped suitcoat.
Do you think I lie to you?
But you think I might lie to you about dying.
Okay, I might. But we’re not dying.

Keeping his emaciated son alive is all that the man has left. The goal, and the love for his son, his need to protect his son against all threats, his fear that someday, he will have to kill his son, in order to protect him from a fate worse than death. Already, every night as he tries to sleep, hungry, cold, and scared, he envies the dead. The boy, born into the post nuclear world, craves a bit more humanity than this bleak survival. A bit more assurance that their struggle hasn’t turned them into ‘the bad guys’.

I found this story to be harrowing, devastating, and still, not without its own beauty, and even a tiny glimmer of hope. Cormac McCarthy won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Road, and I read it as part of my award winners book challenge.
I've just finished reading my first book for the Book Awards Reading Challenge -- Mrs Kimble by Jennifer Haigh. This book won the 2003 PEN/Hemingway Prize for first novel.

Mrs Kimble is the story of 3 women who were all, at different times, married to Ken Kimble. Ken begins as a teacher and minister, and he ends up being a real estate developer.

The three wives, Birdie, Joan, and Dinah are all very different women, but they do share one very strong bond. They were all, in one form or another, betrayed by Ken Kimble. How each of them handles their own personal betrayal forms the basis for the rest of the novel.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stories about women and how vastly different they all are and yet how very similar.

My longer review is at The Old Book Bag.
1997 Booker Winner
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

What lovely prose and a compelling story. Roy's debut novel tells the tale of twins Rahel and Estha, during the 1960s and in the present. The spiralling story deftly carries you along, gradually introducing characters and more and more information about an event that happened one day and affected both twins. I found the suspense building and building as more layers of details are revealed.

We are shown a slice of life in one family in Kerala, India but also the political climate of the day, the caste system of course and how both contributed to the event in question. The story is well written and the language is beautiful, as Roy plays with words and with the idea that twins have a special connection.

also posted at my blog
"The Plague" by Albert Camus
1957 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature

I've got a longer review on my blog. "The Plague" explores how a city copes with a plague that closes it off from the rest of the world. This was an insightful view into the collective psyche of a civilization on the verge of destruction. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

Number the Stars

Original review posted here at my blog.

My first book for this challenge was Number the Stars. I chose several Newbery winners for my challenge because I missed out on a lot of them when I was younger. Plus, I have an 11-year-old who is reading through them and it helps us discuss if I have read them. I chose this one because I love tales of World War II.

This was a very fast and engaging read. I zipped through it in approximately two hours last night. It is the story of Annemarie Johansen and her best friend Ellen Rosen. They live in Copenhagen, Denmark , and the story begins in 1943, three years after the Germans have come to occupy Denmark.

The citizens get by alright, living to blend in. Ellen’s mother tells her often “Never do anything to make them remember your face.” However, things begin to rapidly deteriorate once the Danes begin to understand that the Jews are being singled out.

As I read through this book, I confess, that I believed a lot of the events to be fictitious. However at the end of the book there is an afterword from the author. She describes item by item which events were true. I was amazed at the courage and heroism displayed by the Danish people.

This is a Newbery winner that my 11-year-old will not be missing. (5/5)

The Wreath

Oops, posted this on my blog a while back, but forgot to put it here. It's my first challenge read. Sigrid Undset won the Noble Prize for her portrayals of the Norwegian Middle Ages in novels such as this one. And it is lovely. It is the first of a trilogy, and I can't wait to read the other two. I forgot to order them, though, so wait I must.

In some ways this is straightforward historical romance fiction. Young girl grows up on remote farm in medieval Norway, falls in love with a bit of a rogue, and accordingly compromises her chastity, which leads to a number of awkward situations. But the beautiful depictions of the places and seasons, the portrayals of the tensions in the society (between Christianity and Paganism, for example), and most of all, the finely drawn, heartfelt but often pained relationships, make this novel something special.

When I think about novels set in or drawing on the Middle Ages, I start by asking why? Why was the Middle Ages deemed necessary for this story? What does this particular representation of the Middle Ages reveal about the desires and assumptions of the author? I guess a fairly obvious question is how accurately is the Middle Ages represented, but this question is not always the most interesting one. In this case, I think Undset did a lot of careful research, and integrated it into the story sparingly but lovingly, though not being an expert on fourteenth-century Norway, I can't say for sure. Using a medieval setting can often serve nationalistic purposes (especially for countries which have medieval pasts). Perhaps there is a bit of this here. But my instinct says its main purpose is different.

I think Undset turned to the Middle Ages because it offered a template for a society with rich kinship systems, formal relationships and obligations, especially for women. It is these constraints, together with the threads of nature and religion, that shape the novel. While Kristin's illicit love affair drives the plot, her relationship with her father and with a wandering monk, and her parents' relationship, are actually the most interesting elements. Expectation, disappointment, affection, desire and loss are brought into painful relief in brief, intimate moments scattered throughout the narrative. Kristin's mother, Rangfrid, prays for her family at night: 'As her body gradually grew stiff with the cold, she set out once more on one of her familiar night journeys, trying to break a path to a peaceful home for her heart.'

Kristin's childhood vision of purity and brilliance proves difficult to sustain, but her first glimpse of a stained glass window remains one of the most beautiful scenes in the novel:

On the grey stone wall above her, Kristin saw strange, flickering specks of light, red as blood and yellow as ale, blue and brown and green. She wanted to look behind her, but the monk whispered, 'Don't turn around.' When they stood together high up on the planks, he gently turned her around, and Kristin saw a sight so glorious that it almost took her breath away.
Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicoloured specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monk's face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl the colours of the picture were dimly reflected. She gave him a questioning glance, but he merely nodded and smiled.
It was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven.

I'll be checking back in with some more Norwegian writing soon....

The Echo Maker

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

Rating: 5/5

First Sentence:

Cranes keep landing as night falls.

Recommend: Highly! This is an immensely powerful book! Simply staggering. At the core of this novel is a search for self. Who are we really? Are you who you think you are or are you who others think you are? The 3 main characters are all struggling to find their true self: Mark, a man who received a traumatic head injury in a car accident, his sister, whom he believes is an impostor and the famous neurologist who takes on the case.

I found the medical information about the brain and the case histories absolutely fascinating. As a fan of shows such as ER and House, this was right up my alley! I found myself relating to all the main characters and becoming fond of them all in different ways. On top of all this there is a riveting mystery story concerning the cause of the car accident. An extremely satisfying read!

Come visit me on my blog!
I enjoyed Atwood’s book very much. I have often found myself a fan of works which explore possible dystopias, those futures that we do not fear, but perhaps should. The land of Gilead is, perhaps, the scariest I’ve encountered yet (after all, books are contraband!).
I loved that we are left wondering what exactly happened; are the people who come for Offred at the end really part of the underground movement or have her “uncouth” actions been found out? We are left with several different possibilities – did she escape, did she become an Unwoman, was she caught crossing the border? We can believe whichever we choose; we are forced, like she was so often forced during her time as a Handmaid to wonder what happened, what fate became these people.
I appreciate what Atwood seems to be saying about self-delusion in the novel. Offred knows Luke is probably dead, but is able to trick herself into imaging numerous possibilities for him. I think we all delude ourselves at times, in order to make our lives easier. Though our situations most often are not so dire, I think her ability to fool herself is what allows her to survive. Otherwise, she may have ended up as one of those women who took their own lives, because that is probably when suicide happens – when one can’t see any other possibility.
But perhaps most striking is the thought that this world is possible, that the reader is able to believe in this possibility, that the world could move in this direction.

A Favorite Quote:

“The things I believe can’t all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, all at the same time. The contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.
This also is a belief of mine. This also may be untrue.”

Crossposted at my blog.

First sentence: When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

Finally. I can finally say I have read To Kill A Mockingbird, an achievement that is long, long overdue. I'm not sure how I managed to make it through school without having to read this modern American classic. It was also a delight to read one of the original reviews, About Life & Little Girls, published in Time in 1960.

In Maycomb, Alabama, which is rumored to be based upon Lee's hometown of Monroeville, everybody knows everybody else, and almost everybody is related to you in one way or another. And, as I'm sure many of you are familiar with the unforgettable characters of Scout, Jem, Atticus, and Dill--and the many wonderful neighbors Miss Maudie, Miss Rachel, and the Radleys--I will not rehash the storyline here.

I'm always hesitant to begin a book that I have heard so much about, and To Kill A Mockingbird certainly has its fair share of acclaim. Fortunately, I feel it completely lives up to the hype. I was drawn in to the story from page one, and felt it was a wonderful portrayal of many of this issues going on in the 1930's South: racism, social class differences, Southern chivalry and what that meant at that time, and what courage is.

You can read the complete review here.

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Imagine if you suddenly became blind - your eyes glaze over with a white light, and one by one, your loved ones, neighbors and enemies all become infected by this same white blindness. How would the government respond? How would the medical community deal with this epidemic? And more importantly, how would you survive when you cannot see? This sense of despair is the central theme to Nobel Prize Winner Jose Saramago's novel, Blindness(more).
Cross-posted at my blog.

Holes, written by Louis Sachar, is a novel for kids from about ten years old to fourteen. It won the 1998 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, the 1999 Newbery medal, and many smaller awards. In 2003, it was made into a Disney film, with numerous changes from the book. In 2006, Sachar wrote a companion book, Small Steps, which includes some of the same characters.

The main character is Stanley Yelnats. Stanley is a nice kid, but he has bad luck which is tied to one of the back stories. He ends up being sent to a juvenile detention camp where he is forced, along with the other detainees, to dig holes in the hot sun every day. There are a couple intertwining back stories, and as the reader puts together these stories, it is gradually revealed why the boys are digging the holes. Between flashbacks to these other stories, we see Stanley gain the respect of the other boys. You can read an excerpt (the first chapter) here.

I really enjoyed Holes and would recommend it to a pre-teen kid who was looking for a good book. There's subtle humor throughout, and the characters are all interesting. Stanley, a bright kid with a lot of integrity, is particularly likeable. What I liked best, though, was the structure, which alternated stories from Stanley's time at Camp Green Lake with some of his memories of his family life, a backstory about the history of the Green Lake area, and another backstory about Stanley's ancestors.

My son has read the book twice. A friend of his who enjoyed it gave it to him for his 10th birthday (at the Harry Potter sleepover party!) and then he was assigned to read it in school. I asked for his opinion of the book, but maybe it wasn't such great timing to ask while he was playing a video game. All he said was, "Mm-hm, pretty good."
Cross-posted at my blog.

I read The View from Saturday for the Newbery Challenge. I'm enjoying reading the Newbery books for this challenge so much that I just might set myself a personal challenge to read every Newbery Medal winner.

In this novel for kids from about 8 to 12 years old, four sixth graders form a trivia team. Their coach is their social studies teacher, who has been away from teaching for ten years due to a car accident which left her confined to a wheelchair. The four sixth graders are connected in other ways, mostly through their grandparents. Their strengths complement each other, and this, combined with dedicated practice, helps them become an unbeatable team.

I found the dialogue, especially that of the kids, stilted and not a very good reflection of how kids this age actually speak. Nadia, the only girl on the team, doesn't use contractions at all. In theory, I think this sounds like a good way to portray Nadia as a serious, intelligent girl, but in practice, it makes her sound pompous. I'm pretty sure that in real life, Nadia would be mercilessly picked on by the other kids, who would imitate and mock her odd speech patterns. Instead, Julian (my favorite character) is picked on because he wears shorts with knee socks (which I do think is realistic). None of the four kids care about what their peers think of them, though; in fact, they don't seem interested in any social interaction with anyone but each other.

Other than some problems with dialogue, though, this was an enjoyable story, and I particularly liked the sections taking place in Florida, where three of the kids' grandparents live.

My favorite character, Julian, is Indian, and he has grown up on cruise ships, where his father has worked. At the time the novel takes place, though, Julian's father has bought a bed and breakfast in the town where the others live, and Julian becomes friends with them by inviting them to a tea party via coded messages.

As I suspected, Konigsburg herself was a teacher. Children's books that take place mostly in schools so often seem to be written by school librarians or teachers. And why not? Who else could even try to write realistic scenes taking place in a classroom? It's funny when Snape verbally abuses the kids at Hogwarts, but kids know that Snape couldn't get away with that in a real, non-magical school.

Konigsburg has a new book being published this year, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. I can't really say yet that I'm looking forward to reading it, but I am looking forward to seeing reviews about it that will help me decide whether to read it.

Karen Connelly was an annoyance to fans watching this year’s webcast award ceremony. For instead of fulfilling her allocated role by silently accepting her statuette for the Orange Broadband for Debut Writers, smiling to the cameras and exiting stage left, she stood her ground and delivered a political acceptance speech of some three minutes - thus blowing webcast timings to the winds and ensuring that those watching did not get to hear who had won the main gong. I freely admit this was a turnoff despite the fact that minutes earlier Jackie Kay had described The Lizard Cage as “extraordinary, lyrical and compelling”. In the months since fellows bloggers have waxed passionate about this novel. That coupled with the fact that Connelly is Canadian (and Canadian Literature is an ongoing strand in my reading) has finally persuaded me to read.

The lizard cage is a prison where Teza, a musician, is spending 20 years in solitary confinement for writing political protest songs. Prison conditions are barbaric; the guards are sadists. Connelly does not flinch from delivering graphic descriptions of starvation, torture, drownings, beatings, rape and the resulting physical consequences. Think Midnight Express – only this time the prisoner is innocent. The author’s outrage is evident yet she avoids polemic and didactism. Teza uses the opportunity afforded by his imprisonment to practice the 8 precepts of Buddhism, transcending the brutality of his environment and, ironically becoming a better Buddhist than he would have become had he remained a free man.

The novel can also be seen as the story of prison contraband, in this case paper and a cheap pen “made-in-Thailand ... its plastic casing carefully marked, at the bottom and the top, little cuts with a razor blade. Identifiable” and the centre of a sting, conceived by the authorities to entrap political prisoners and ensure a lengthening of their prison terms by 5-10 years. Teza is a prime target and defenceless in his solitary cell. At this point the novel ignites. As Teza realises the danger, the pounding in his heart echoes the pounding of the guards' boots as they march to his cell, echoing the pounding of my heart and the blood in my head as I become part of the scene ..... it's too intense, I have to stop to reading.

That pen (symbol for words and the capacity for freedom of speech) provides narrative continuity. For wherever it lands, trouble and danger follows. Ownership passes from Teza to Nyi Lay to Chit Naing. Nyi Lay is a innocent 12-year old rat-catching orphan, scratching out a living within the prison complex; Chit Naing, a humane prison guard who befriends Teza. Yet innocence and humanity are as dangerous as possession of the pen, and both child and guard are inexorably drawn into sympathetic complicity (at least in the eyes of the authorities). Safety depends on disposal of the pen and fittingly, in view of its symbolic meaning, neither Nyi Lay nor Chit Naing, chose to dispose of it (despite this reader at times figuratively screaming at them to do so!).

I haven’t read thrillers that have increased my blood pressure as effectively as this novel. Yet this is undoubtedly a literary offering. The colour palette is not as black and white as at first appears. The villains, while evil, are products of their time and place. In chapters written from their point-of-view, Connelly allows us, the readers, to inhabit their skins and confront the possibility that those choices, the choices of the masses after all, are ones we would make ourselves. Connelly is an award-winning poet and it shows. Yet she hasn't delivered a poem in prose and, therefore, lost her novel and theme to the language. Her prose is controlled, by turns gritty and graphic, lyrical and rhythmic, as here:
“Teza closes his eyes again. Before he’s settled back into his mediation, he thinks how mysterious, how ordinary the breath is, this thin line of air cast between spirit and death, always here. Until it’s gone.
He shakes the thought away and breathes

A meditation to calm the most agitated of souls ... and this, at times, hyperventilating reader.

Dana's List (a little late but still raring to go)

Apparently I never posted this here, although it's been on my blog for over a month

The Sparrow (Arthur C Clarke Award)
The Life of Pi (Man Booker Prize)
Disgrace (Commonwealth Writers Award)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Costa/ Whitbread Award)
A Complicated Kindness (Governor General's Award)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (Hugo Award)
Out Stealing Horses (IMPAC Dublin Award)
G (James Tait Black Memorial Prize)
The Great Fire (Miles Franklin Literature award)
Cold Mountain (National Book Award)
All the Pretty Horses (National Book Critics Award)
Bel Canto (Orange Prize)
Independance Day (PEN/ Faulkner Award)
Housekeeping (PEN/ Hemmingway Award)
Middlesex (Pulitzer)
I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company (Spur Award)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy won a Pulitzer Prize for this, his most recent novel set in a post-apocalyptic world. In sparse language he tells the story of a father and son who travel “The Road” in search of a better world. Essentially, they are trying to escape to an un-named location where they hope to find food, shelter, and a better life. There are grim scenes in this novel, when we realize that the boy’s mother has killed herself so as not to have to live in this nightmarish situation. There are scenes of gruesome cannibalism when we realize that, desperate to survive, some people have captured their fellow human beings and are keeping them in the cellar, eating them a little at a time.

Although I found the story to be compelling and, in the end, hopeful, I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, liked it, or would even recommend it to someone else. I have read other books in a similar post-apocalyptic setting, such as Adam Rapp’s excellent book The Copper Elephant or even Lois Lowry’s The Giver (which, although not post-apocalyptic, is, in essence, about a dystopian society). I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t like it, but I just never cared for the characters.

On to my next book in the Reading Challenge!
-Katie M.

Juli's List

I realized I never posted my list of books to read for this challenge.


Booker Prize
1997 The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
2000 The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Gold Dagger Award
1993 Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell

National Book Award
1980 The World According to Garp by John Irving (DNF)
2003 Three Junes by Julia Glass completed 8.5.07
2006 The Echo Maker by Richard Powers completed 11.26.07

Pulitzer Prize
2003 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides completed 1.26.08

1988 The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton

Newbery Award
1994 The Giver by Lois Lowry completed 1.27.08

NBCC Award
1985 The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Royal Society Prize
1996 Plague’s Progress, Arno Karlen
1998 Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
2004 A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Bram Stoker Award
1992 The Blood of the Lamb by Thomas F. Monteleone completed 2.2.08
2001 American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Giller Prize
2006 Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

World Fantasy Award
1989 Koko by Peter Straub

Laura's Review - The Optimist's Daughter

Eudora Welty
180 pages
First sentence: A nurse held the door open for them.
Reflections: The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and is a short but stunning work. Set primarily in Mississippi, it's the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, currently living in Chicago, visiting the South where her father is failing. Judge McKelva was a pillar of his community. After the death of his first wife (Laurel's mother), he remarried a woman younger than Laurel herself. Welty, through small but significant descriptions of second wife Fay, makes the reader despise her in the first few pages. She is introduced on page 1 when Fay, Laurel, and the Judge are meeting with a doctor about the Judge's condition: "Fay, small and pale in her dress with the gold buttons, was tapping her sandaled foot." And two pages later, as the Judge is describing his medical problem: "Fay laughed -- a single, high note, as derisive as a jay's."
Laurel and Fay are forced together as the Judge's condition deteriorates, and he subsequently passes away. Fay is tremendously put out by his death, since it happens on her birthday. After the funeral she leaves town to be with her family. Laurel remains to sort through some of her father's effects and, since Fay has inherited the house, to remove memories of her mother, which she knows Fay will not respect. Welty's writing is beautiful throughout, evoking a strong "sense of place". Here are just a few examples:

"The ancient porter was already rolling his iron-wheeled wagon to meet the baggage car, before the train halted. All six of Laurel's bridesmaids, as they still called themselves, were waiting on the station platform."
"The procession passed between ironwork gates whose kneeling angles and looping vines shone black as licorice."
"The gooseneck lamp threw its dimmed beam on the secretary's warm brown doors. It had been made of the cherry trees on the McKelva place a long time ago; on the lid, the numerals 1817 had been set into a not quite perfect oval of different wood, something smooth and yellow as a scrap of satin."
I was fully immersed in this book; wrapped in a blanket of beautiful prose. I will likely read more of Welty's work.

N.Vasillis's "Vasilly" list

I signed up more than a month ago and I cannot believe that I haven't posted my list. (Maybe because it took me forever to figure out what I'm going to read.) Here goes:

1. The Singing - C.K. Williams
2. Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
3. Love Medicine - Louise Erdrich
4. The Inheritance of Loss - Kiran Desai
5. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6. Vernon God Little- DBC Pierre
7. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
8. anything by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk
9. anything by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez
10. anything by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck
11. anything by Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon
12. On Beauty - Zadie Smith


1. Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones
2. Vandal Love - Dy Bechard
3. Collected poems of Howard Nemerov
4. New and selected poems - Mary Oliver
5. The Shipping News - E. Annie Proulx
6. The year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion
7. The Echo Maker- Richard Powers
8. The Worst Hard Time - Timothy Egan
9. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
10. Passing Through: the Later Poems - Stanley Kunitz
11. Out Stealing Horses - Per Patterson
12. When I lived in modern times - Linda Grant
13. The Penderwicks - Jeanne Birdsall
14. Small Island - Andrea Levy
15. Bel Canto - Ann Patchett
16. anything by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky
17. This Blinding Absence of Light - Tahar Ben Jelloun
18. The Elementary Particles - Michael Houellebecq

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Bridge to Terabthia by Katherine Paterson
Newbery Award Winner
Recommended?: Yes.

This book reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in its setting and main characters. Both books takes place in the south. While the core themes of it differ, both are essentially stories about growing up. Katherine Paterson seems to capture childhood so well. When Jess and Leslie create and explore Terabithia, I remember my own childhood of imagining other worlds, fantastic creatures and adventures. They even refer to Narnia. I remember reading that series, and trying desperately to find a wardrobe. I’m sure I hid in a wardrobe once, but alas, not gateways. The only thing that bothered me about this book is that I predicted the ending early on, and initially found it a bit contrite. I do not blame the book because if I had read it when I was 10, I probably would not have found it contrived since now I’m marred by years of books, movies and television. It’s hard for me to review very well written books, especially children’s ones such as this because it just comes down to the writer’s ability to write prose and experiences that capture readers. Paterson allowed me to be nostalgic, and I only wish I had read this when I was younger because I know I would have loved it and understood it even more than I do now.

For a review of the movie as well, go over to my blog entry.

To read the original review of this book, please check out my blog.

This was not on my original list, however I've added it as an extra read!


Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain. -From The Great Fire, page 1-

Shirley Hazzard's award winning novel, The Great Fire, follows the parallel lives of two men at the end of World War II - Peter Exley, an Australian living in China to investigate war crimes; and Aldred Leith, a Brit who has traveled to Japan near Hiroshima to record the effects of war on the survivors. Both men struggle to come to terms with life after war ... and the novel explores their psyches through flashbacks of memory interspersed with their adjustment back to civilian life. Of the two, Peter is the least developed character - but nonetheless, the reader empathizes with his struggle over whether to pursue a life in music or return to toil in his father's law firm.

Hazzard spends more time refining the character of Aldred Leith who arrives in Japan to stay with an Australian Brigadier and his family. Brigadier Driscoll and his wife are unlikeable people who have two children - Ben and Helen. Ben, at age 20, is dying from Friedreich's Ataxia. His sister, Helen at age 17, provides the love interest for the adult Leith. The difference in their ages lends a subtle conflict to the novel. Leith's former preoccupation with his work is gradually replaced by his obsession with Helen ... and it is through this love, that he begins to understand how he will recover from the psychological effects of the war.

Hazzard's writing is beautiful and hypnotic, yet at times ambiguous. Entering the world of her novel feels a bit like plunging into a vast and complicated art museum where everything must be slowly considered and the meaning is not always clear. At times I felt tranquilized by Hazzard's descriptions, such as when Leith has a memory from childhood:

Aldred shifted his chair to look at the logs. These were among earliest memories: the heavy loads dragged in out of evening air, or out of rain, to dry in the warm kitchen. The Tarpaulin spread, and the pieces brushed off roughly, one by one. Loose bark, wood dust. The kindling struck off and set aside. The child, who was himself, squatting silent on the periphery, peering into shapes, textures, colours; the mottlings and dapplings. The scrubby bark, coruscated, or the smooth angular pieces like bones. Forms arched and grooved like a lobster, or humped like a whale. Dark joints, to which foliage adhered like bay leaves in a stew. Pinecones, and a frond of pine needles still flourishing on the hacked branch. And the creatures that inched or sped or wriggled out, knowing the game was up: slugs, pale worms, tiny white grubs, scurrying busily off as if to a destination. An undulant caterpillar, and an inexorable thing with pincers. Or the slow slide of an unhoused snail - the hodmedod, as they called him here - revisiting the lichens and pigmentations and fungoid flakes that had clung to his only home - freckled growths dusted, seemingly, with cocoa; red berries, globules of white wax. Wet earthy smell, forest smell. The implements set aside; the elder Laister stern with him: "Dawn't tooch the axe. I'm warning you." -From The Great Fire, page 222-

This is a slowly unfolding novel - quite literary in style and phrasing. It is a novel about love and recovery from war, about friendships and the complications of family. For those readers who enjoy a gently paced story and want to be enveloped and lost in words, this one is for you.

Recommended; rated 4/5.

The Giver

My third book for this challenge is:

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Pages: 180
Finished: Aug. 9, 2007
First Published: 1993
Awards: Newbery Medal
Rating: 5/5

First Sentence:

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.

Recommend: Highly recommended! This book was a re-read for me but I read it long enough (7-8 years) ago that I didn't quite remember all the details. This is a compelling story of a dystopian society. A quick yet thought-provoking read that should be on everyone's to-be-read list. This is definately a story that makes you think and will stay with me.

Please visit me on my blog.
For my 2nd book selection, I chose a Newbery winner, Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins. As I explain in my longer review here, I was very disappointed in this book and quite confused by it as well. I would call myself a "deep" reader and this book just went incredibly far over my head.

Told in many vignettes and some poems, Criss Cross follows Debbie and Harry, two 14 year olds on journeys to make themselves better. Harry feels as if something about himself is missing and Debbie just wants to be another person altogether. A multitude of secondary characters is also involved in the story, as are strange drawings on many of the pages which adds to my interesting confusion.

Overall, I do not quite understand why this book won the Newbery Award and would looove for one of you to help explain that to me. Maybe I just missed something. Again, for my longer review, go here. Hopefully September's book selection will be better received on my part!
Book number four in the Book Award Reading Challenge is Atonement by Ian McEwan. Having read other novels by him, I decided to finally read this much acclaimed novel. I am very glad I did! And it is a good thing too, because it is currently "in production" as a movie and I would rather have read the story, without all the Hollywood hype. I very seldom reread novels, the old so many books, so little time theory, but this one breaks that rule. I will definitely be keeping my copy on the shelf for some time to come.

Set in the era of World War II, it is the story of a young adolescent named Briony. At first, her precocious attitude bothered me. I just didn't care about the story much. I almost gave up, but I am so happy I kept on reading! I will not give away the plot just in case this one is on your list. But she witnessed an "event" in which she lied and changed her life, and the lives of everyone around her. As the story progressed, it went into great detail about life a s soldier during the war. The characters became fully developed and they all become very real. With vivid descriptions, you become fully immersed in the life of an upper class British family at the brink of the War. A war, that like the event in the beginning, will dramatically alter their existence.

This book gave the reader quite bit to think about and reconsider. It is an awe inspiring book and I think Mr. McEwan will be one of our generations greatest novelists. I am eagerly awaiting my copy of his newest book, "On Chesil Beach". (Which I just found out is on it's way from PBS!!! YAY!!!)

Murphy's Law / Rhys Bowen (Agatha Award)

murphyMurphy's Law / Rhys Bowen
St. Martin's, 2002 - 978-0-312-98497-7 (paperback)

I'm not a big mystery fan. Apart from a few Agatha Christie classics, I've never felt compelled to explore the genre. In fact, if not for the Book Awards Reading Challenge, I'd probably never even realize there were awards dedicated to the genre, and more tragically, I would never have come across Murphy's Law by Rhys Bowen, a fantastic historical mystery and winner of the 2001 Agatha Award for Best Novel.

The rest of the review (because I got a little wordy) can be found here.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2006

I enjoyed this historical fiction set in the early 19th century and in the early years of the U.S. Civil War. I liked reading about the Underground Railroad, John Brown, and the transcendentalist movement (Thoreau, Emerson). I think it helps to have read Little Women first so March's descriptions of his wife and daughters become more familiar.

More book information here.
Booker Prize 2000

Margaret Atwood's ambitious story, set during the depression in Ontario, told as a story within a story. The Blind Assassin is the name of a science fiction story written by one of the characters that is also about two lovers carrying on a secret affair. There are several other reviews already about this book; see wendy, tammy, matt, steven and nicola, so I won't go on too much. They have written great reviews.

Overall, just OK. I never go immersed enough in the story to care what happened, and the suspense didn't build up because things seemed pretty obvious. Atwood is a terrific writer, her idea was intriguing, I loved the setting in Ontario during the depression, and the high life in Toronto, and the newspaper clippings.

next up: The God of Small Things

2007 Booker Prize Longlist


* Darkmans by Nicola Barker (4th Estate)
* Self Help by Edward Docx (Picador)
* The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon)
* The Gathering by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape)
* The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
* The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (Sceptre)
* Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (John Murray)
* Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (Viking)
* On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape)
* What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn (Tindal Street)
* Consolation by Michael Redhill (William Heinemann)
* Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster)
* Winnie & Wolf by A.N.Wilson (Hutchinson)
My Name is Red is a somewhat convoluted murder mystery that takes place in late 16th century Istanbul. The main characters of the story are miniaturists, artists who draw and color the illustrations for books prior to the printing press, when books might be taken apart and rebound in a different sequence, depending upon who is paying for the story that is being told.

The Sultan has commissioned a a new book, and he wants part of it to be painted in the new European style, showing things as they appear to people, rather than in the Ottoman tradition of showing the world through the eyes of Allah. For instance, European portraits were painted with the subject of the painting in the center foreground of the painting. This would be considered blasphemous, because to put someone or something in the center of a painting would be to invite viewers to worship it on the same level that one would worship Allah. The miniaturists in the story are divided in their ideas of what to do about this development…some wanting to stick with the tradition that says nothing has been painted well and properly until it has been painted at least a thousand times before, and to sign your name on a painting is an admission that your work is so forgettable that no one would know who had painted it without you pointing it out to them; others wanting to explore this strange new world in which you paint a person with distinguishable features where, upon seeing them in a painting, you could pick that person out of a crowd, even without ever having met them before. Amongst all of this wondering what to do and what to think, one of the miniaturists is murdered, followed by another, even more shocking murder. The suspects? The other miniaturists in the guild.

The story is told from many different points of view: the various miniaturists, including the murderer and another miniaturist named Black, who is trying to win the love of his beautiful cousin by solving the second murder. In addition, chapters are told from the perspectives of a dog, a corpse, a coin, and the color Red, amongst others.

The strengths of the book, for me, were in the traditional narrative…the solving of the murder, and the love story between Black and his beautiful cousin, Shekure. These were well written and gripping, and drew me in, making me want to know what was going to happen, and if Black and Shekure would end up together…or even if they SHOULD end up together.

The weakness of the book is in the chapters devoted to the art of the era. While I found some of the detail to be interesting, and certainly learning of the cultural reasons behind that era’s views on individuality, style, and pridefulness was fascinating, other chapters were cumbersome and tiring, and I found myself wishing they would end.

I won this book in a drawing on Lotus’ blog, and I’m also including it in my list of award winners, as it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think My Name is Red would appeal to those who are interested in Persian art, and in the ways that Persian art, European art, and Chinese art influenced each other during this era of ‘globalization’.

Giblin, James Cross. 2002. The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler.

You might be wondering why anyone would spend time reading a book about the world's most notorious evil villain, Hitler. I remember when I first read it a friend told me a story about how she felt more comfortable removing the dust cover so no one would see her reading a book about Hitler and think she was 'weird.' (We were in college, so it's normal to read in public.) For someone who is well-read in Holocaust literature, the choice seemed an easy one. I devour almost anything World War II related. Throw in the fact that this one's an award winner, and just happened to be required reading at the time, and well, there you have it. This one was one of my favorites of the semester though. It was well-written. It was interesting. It was fascinating even. It was detailed. And there were just so many pictures and other visual aids. I remember how shocked the teacher was to see how yellow-tabbied (aka postied) my copy was. Almost every chapter bore witness to some little detail, some little fact, that I wanted to remember and make note of. Anyway, I took some teasing from my classmates that I was too "into" the assignment. But I didn't mind.

So when it came time to choose books for this list, I wanted to reread it. It had been four years since I had read it. I certainly wasn't blogging at that time in my life. And I wanted the chance to blog about it and share my thoughts.

The book is difficult to read in some places because the content is just too intense--and the revulsion of the subject is just too much to take in at some places. But it's a good read. Beginning with his childhood, Giblin traces the life of Hitler. In his childhood, he almost came across as normal. There were no indications that he was an evil genius in the making. He was an abused child. His father was horrid. But he had a good, solid relationship with his mother. And things might have been a lot different except a few circumstances turned a moody teen into a hate-filled monster. What were some of these events? Well, he wanted to be an artist--desperately wanted to be an artist--and he was turned down by the Art school twice. He lost his mother to cancer. He was living in poverty. For a while he was renting a room to sleep in, but soon he couldn't even afford the shabbiest of he was homeless for a bit. But the thing that really turned him inside out and upside down was World War I. As a soldier, he was fed and sheltered. He was within a structure. He was surrounded by peers. And he liked the soldier part. It was the losing part...and the lack of morale of his countrymen that made him turn. When the Germans lost the war, on the very day peace was signed upon or agreed upon, the seeds of World War II were planted.

What the book shows is how Nazism took hold and took root. If the conditions hadn't been just right--if there hadn't been an entire nation in social unrest, if the whole country hadn't been angry and bitter--then Hitler would never have come to power. In fact, the book shows that if it hadn't been for Communism, he would never have risen to power. It was people's fear of Communism that led to their acceptance and promotion of Nazism. It took people--individuals--to give him that power. To give him that control.

Several things struck me as I was reading this book.

*Why wasn't anyone surprised or suspicious that a political party not only had an army but a large army?
*Why were people so willing to give up their civil liberties without a fight, without a protest? They lost their freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, privacy of their mail and telephone, they lost the sanctity of their home (I'm assuming meaning that means search and seizure as well as the government or army could take your home and dislocate you), the freedom to assemble, and they lost their right to form organizations.
*Why did librarians and teachers join in on the book burning? Why didn't they recognize this as the act of a crazy man?
*Why did the Pope support Hitler and Nazism?
*Why did the rest of the world stand by and do nothing? Why did they watch him conquer surrounding countries and not speak up? Why was peace at all costs more important than anything? Why did they let Hitler feel invincible to begin with?

On a slightly odd note, why is it science fiction seems to draw so much from Hitler and Nazism? Star Wars is a mock Nazi nation almost with its storm troopers and with its evilness in general...and it's voting of no confidence of the chancellor so the villain masquerading as the good guy can be appointed. And Star Trek...well the original series has at least two shows where there are direct references to Hitler. One is when they enter an alternate universe where Hitler won the war because a pretty woman was saved by Dr. they have to go back in time and watch her die. And the second is when they see Nazi Germany recreated on another planet. Both great shows by the way. And Hitler's policy on never retreating from battle and always holding your ground...that it is better to die in his service...than appear weak and retreat...and his stand on never surrendering...well that sounds like a goa'uld to me.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation

An abridged review from my original one here.

I never studied this in school, but I think I would have liked it more if a passionate English teacher had done so especially with this translation of the story. My mind wandered quite a bit while reading this text. It was not the most enjoyable thing I’ve read in awhile. On the other hand, I really appreciated the translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. There were some margin notes and the original text on the left page to guide you through the book. There is something in the prose of the translation and the arrangement of the text that makes me aware that Heaney is a poet, and this work has been well thought out. Even with a good translation, this is still Beowulf. I think part of the problem is that these stories are so different from present conventions and not created originally for a literary text form or modern prose. I would have much rather listened to this story as it is meant to be. These stories are meant to be recounted by a talented storyteller with a booming bard voice. I’m pleased to say that Seamus Heaney has recorded an audiobook, and exerpts from it can be heard at Northon Anthology. In the end, I’m still glad I read this classic as it does give me more ideas of the Dark Ages and the literary traditions that have derived from this era. I doubt I’ll read

This text won the Costa/Whitbread award and Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.

The Blind Assassin - Wendy's Book Review

To Read the original review of this book, please visit my blog.

Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get? At the very least we want a witness. We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down. -From The Blind Assassin, page 95-

In Margaret Atwood's Booker Prize winning novel The Blind Assassin, we are treated to a novel which is a story within a story - a memorial of sorts to the life of two women...Iris Chase Griffin and her sister Laura. The novel opens with the death of Laura...and a mystery. Atwood builds her story through a series of newspaper clippings, flashbacks from Iris' perspective on her life, and a piece of fiction about a man and a woman and the story they weave.

True to Atwood's style, the characters are painstakingly created and come alive on the page. No less detailed, Atwood constructs a small town setting within the bigger context of World War II. The result is a tale Gothic in feel, full of shadowy half truths and complex relationships which come together for a satisfying finish.

To give more detail about the novel would be to reveal spoilers - and so I will simply say "Read it." Atwood is a brilliant novelist that continues to amaze me with her scope and talent.

Highly Recommended. Rated: 4.5/5

Seeker - 2006 Nebula Award Winner

I recently finished the science fiction book Seeker and posted a review on my blog. It is a decent book but not one I would assume worth of winning an award. The most impressive thing about the book is the knowledge of astronomy displayed by the author. Please check out the full review!
I've finished my first book for this challenge - E. L. Konigsburg's The View from Saturday. (This book is also on my lists for the Newbery Challenge and the "Something About Me" Challenge. Thank goodness for cross-listing!)

I thoroughly enjoyed this 1997 Newbery Medal Winner! I've posted a review on my book blog (here). I look forward to seeing what the others who chose The View from Saturday for this challenge think of it!

This is an excerpt from my review of Robert Heinlein's 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress'...

I'm not a fan of hard science fiction because frequently the writers just throw out terms and ideas that I am unfamiliar with and they don't bother to explain what they mean. It makes me feel like I'm missing out on something. Heinlein is guilty of this as well. He also frequently just drops articles (such as 'the', 'an' and 'a') which I found very irritating as it interrupted the flow of the words.

However, the relationship between Mike, the computer and his human friends was wonderful and that is what kept me fully involved with the story. I wonder if it was intentional that the most sympathetic character in the novel wasn't even a human being.

The rest of the review is at my blog, which you can find (as always) here.

The Blind Assassin

Book #2 for me in this challenge.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Pages: 521
Finished: Aug. 2, 2007
Reason for Reading: yahoo book awards group read for July
First Published: 2000
Awards: 2000 Booker Prize, 2001 Hammett Prize
Rating: 5/5

First Sentence:

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.

Recommend: Highly recommend! This has moved to the top of my list as best book read this year. Wonderful story. At first it seemed simple and I thought it was good but why did it win an award, I wasn't sure it really deserved it but by about page 250 I realized just how much depth this book had.

This is a book within a book within a book within a book and the plot unfolds layer by layer. At first the story appears to be the memoirs of an elderly woman who is nearing the end of her life. The memoir is two-fold recalling events of the past within her daily life of the present. But woven between the pages of this memoir is the text of the book "The Blind Assassin" written by her sister in the early 1940's. "The Blind Assassin" itself is a book within a book which switches between a clandestine love affair and a science fiction novella. All four stories gradually merge together and the ending is fabulous. I really enjoyed this book!

Visit my blog at Back to Books

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

NOTICE -- This review contains SPOILERS

This multi-layered tale tells us the life story of Iris Chase Griffen and her sister, Laura Chase, through a combination of flashbacks, present-day events, and what we are told is Laura's posthumously published novel, entitled The Blind Assassin. The two women are born into a well-to-do family, but wealth is not all it's cracked up to be. The girls' mother dies of a miscarriage during their childhoods, the father suffered severe injuries in World War I and is never much of what we would think a father should be. The family's wealth is threatened and eventually lost, and Iris makes a marriage to her father's competitor in an attempt to save the family business and the family itself. But, not surprisingly, the marriage provides Iris no happiness or comfort, and is doomed from the start.

The story is interesting, but the characters are somewhat one-dimensional -- Iris is that all-too-familiar picture of a powerless woman in a loveless marriage, the husband and sister-in-law have no redeeming qualities, the sister Laura is described as "different" and "odd" but we aren't provided with enough information to truly understand her. The plot itself held my attention, but mainly to see if I was right about various details -- I thought I had it all figured out by no more than halfway through, and the end merely confirmed my deductions.

This is not my first Atwood book, so I was not surprised to find female empowerment (or the lack thereof) a theme of this novel as well, but I was hoping to find at least a likable, if powerless, heroine. However, Iris's lack of power just made her more irritating to me as the book went on, for the reason that she makes no attempt to help herself. It's no surprise to find characters intent on keeping a woman "in her place," but it is, if not surprising, at least very frustrating to find the woman content to let herself be kept "in her place." This is Iris in a nutshell, a woman willing to let herself drift through life with no spoken opinions, no knowledge of what was going on around her, no assertiveness of any kind. This is a type of female that I will never understand and whom I find it nearly impossible to sympathize with.

In addition to Iris's docility, she's full of negativity, seeing the downside in just about everything. I've no doubt that she'd be a full believer in Murphy's Law -- "if there's the slimmest chance that something bad will happen, it probably will." This makes her not only unsympathetic but also unlikable. Thomas Mallon wrote in his review of the novel (published in the New York Times, September 3, 2000) that Iris "comments on the difficulties of her own aging with an endless, rote sourness that seems more adolescent than geriatric." I believe that this can be attributed to Iris's emotional immaturity, that she never advances beyond childhood. Iris and Laura were both raised to be spoiled children with no responsibilities and no knowledge of how to take care of anyone, not even themselves. They had little schooling, no practical abilities, nothing that would prepare them to face the world as adults. While we can't blame a child for the failures of its parent(s), at some point you expect the child to grow up. Iris never does.

The novel within the novel tells us a story of a blind assassin hired to murder a sacrificial virgin the night before the sacrifice. There's not much doubt that we are intended to see Iris in this story, and the knee-jerk reaction is to see her as the sacrificial virgin (who, incidentally, has had her tongue cut out to keep her from protesting at an inopportune moment), and I'm sure this is how Iris would see herself. But I see her equally as the assassin. Though hers is a willful blindness, it brings about the same pain and destruction as does the assassin blinded through forced labor. And, in viewing Iris as both the assassin and the virgin, we can see a truth that, unfortunately, Iris never seems to learn -- that the only person who can save you is you.