28 March 2010

The Lotus Eaters

Let me begin this review with thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with the opportunity to read and review this book. The Lotus Eaters is a beautifully written novel winding through the nightmare that was the Viet Nam War. It takes me back to the summer I graduated from high school. In 1971, the student president visited Paris for Peace Talks and returned in sadness that the war was to continue, even in the strange and different form it had taken.

Soli’s novel is the story of Helen Adams, who is an American photojournalist, trying first to recover what she has lost in Viet Nam – her brother, who was killed. Adams is unprepared for the life she will live in Viet Nam. As she adapts to her new normal, which includes dead women and children as well as suffering on both sides, Helen falls in love with Darrow, a fellow photojournalist who is constantly chasing the next big story. Linh, Darrow’s assistant and a man torn between two countries, becomes Helen’s lover and friend. Soli explores the complex relationship that blossoms between these three people who are experiencing their own inner wars over the span of the novel.

What intrigued me most about this novel is the development of Helen. When she first arrives in Viet Nam, she begs to be embedded with the troops. Her first experience was this:

Her mouth was dry, air scraped the shallows of her lungs, as the reality of where she was took hold. Shivering from the foreign rush of terror, she felt a warm, wet sensation, and burned at the realization that she had peed herself….Nothing had prepared her for the smallness of the moment. The moment to moment boredom. Intellectually, yes, there were people on the enemy side trying to kill them. American men might die, but that was all television stuff. Being on the flat land, pricked by the dying grass, the idea that she herself could be the target of a bullet became real. (p. 92)

Over the years, Helen lost her fear. But of course, the reader wonders what else was lost with the fear. And what was gained. The novel allows for several voices to be heard and Linh’s portrait of both North and South Viet Nam during the war is beautiful and harrowing. In the end, with the war neither won nor lost, Helen wonders as she prepares to leave:

Ten years ago it had seemed the war would never end, and now all she could think, was More time, give us more time. She would continue till the end although she had lost faith in the power of pictures, because the work had become an end in itself, untethered to results or outcomes. (p. 5)

So different from the statement made by Darrow regarding why they were in Viet Nam:

“Sometimes you have to fulfill a promise in order to deserve the love you’re given. Don’t you think it’s a calling to live in danger just to capture the face of those who are suffering? To show their invisible lives to the world?” (p. 89)

Don’t miss this phenomenal book. Reading, Writing and Retirement also has a review of The Lotus Eaters. If you have time, sneak over and read her excellent review. If you are interested in the topic of Viet Nam, I also recommend Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

TITLE: The Lotus Eaters: A Novel
AUTHOR: Tatjana Soli
PAGES: 386
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: I highly recommend this book as it is beautifully written and carries a powerful message.

Sunday Sidelines

I have a new meme, Sunday Sidelines. Many of us have blogs dedicated to one thing or another. Reading the many posts by different bloggers, we come to know them. Sunday Sidelines is an opportunity to step outside of the normal blog post and share something that is on your sidelines. If you would like to join in, just leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.

Perhaps it is possible
to be gentle no matter what, to seek not restraint
but surrender entirely, to turn
from the snarling reproach not into the keening
dismissal of hope but to whatever bright
fluttering is next, the bright fluttering
of wisteria petals, a felicitous
phrase, fingers touching
a face. ...
- From "Fuschia" by Charlie Smith

I love this single fluttering of wisteria petals on my back fence. It reminds me that spring is coming. Soon the backyard will be filled with people swimming, sunning, and eating...family time will be tripled. I am anxious for this to begin.

Poem: "Fuschia" by Charlie Smith via PoetryFoundation.org From Indistinguishable from the Darkness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Cupcake Giveaway

Click on the photo above for a chance to win Bertie, a beautiful Kitchen Aid mixer or three other wonderful prizes.

26 March 2010

The Bread of Angels

Let me begin this review with thanks to LibraryThing and Doubleday for providing me with the opportunity to read and review this book. The Bread of Angels is a memoir by Stephanie Saldana in which she remembers her year in Damascus, Syria studying Islam, culture, as well as other religions of the world. Trying to run away from herself and her family, her Fulbright Scholarship gave her this perfect opportunity. After a year of running, Saldana finds that she has stopped running away and is running to her future with an open heart and mind.

I would rather not say too much more about Saldana’s story other than the fact that while she is praying in a centuries old monastery, she meets and falls in love with a novice French monk. Away from the monastery, Saldana’s days are spent learning Arabic, studying the Quran, having coffee with Grandfather, and learning how to love herself and her family. The beauty of the book is in her intricate descriptions of places and people that most of us will never encounter. In a post 9/11 world, Saldana navigates the Middle East with some trepidation, but finds that she is as horrified as her new neighbors by the violence that is occurring in Iraq and Lebanon. Visits to the desert monastery are more journeys of the soul than the body and as I read, I longed for the silence of the places she walked – places she met Jesus and Mary. In absolute balance, Saldana met the Jesus and Mary of the Quran as well.

I enjoyed this book from start to finish. Culture and religion and love fill the pages of this memoir and after a bit of time has passed, I might just read this book again.

TITLE: The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith
AUTHOR: Stephanie Saldana
PAGES: 303
TYPE: non-fiction, memoir
RECOMMEND: A wonderfully peaceful book to read, even in the midst of chaos.

23 March 2010

Teaser Tuesday

Here is my Tuesday Teaser:

"You had a dream, didn't you?"

"I nod, How did you know?"

He looks out across the railing. "I felt it. I had it too." p. 135

This teaser came from Stephanie Saldana's The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith. Although I have only gotten a few chapters into this memoir, I love the detail provided by Saldana. She offers her experiences in Damascus, Syria as a student of religion. Her humor and honesty are refreshing.

21 March 2010

Hershey's Better Basket Blog Hop


  • Copy and paste these rules to your blog post.

  • Create a blog post giving a virtual Easter Basket to another blogger – you can give as many Virtual Baskets as you want.

  • Link back to person who gave you an Easter Basket.

  • Let each person you are giving a Virtual Easter Basket know you have given them a Basket.

  • Leave your link at BetterBasket.info/BlogHop comment section. You can also find the official rules of this #betterbasket blog hop, and more information about Better Basket with Hershey’s there.

  • Hershey’s is donating $10 per each blog participating to the Better Basket Blog Hop to Children’s Miracle Network (up to total of $5,000 by blog posts written by April 4th, 2010).

  • Please note that only one blog post by each blog url will count towards the donation.

My daughter, who is now thirty years old, was born in Pensacola, Florida and she was a patient at the Children's Hospital at Sacred Heart Hospital for thirty days. Without their care and love, she would have died and my life would have been only a shadow of what it has been. Because I believe in the Children's Miracle Network, I am sending a Better Basket to the following people in hopes that they will pass it on:

Holly at Pieces of Me

Girl From Florida

Marie at Boston Bibliophile

Amanda at Stansel Journey

Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books

Wishing you all and everyone who stops by a wonderful Spring and a Happy Easter or Passover.

Friday Firsts

I have been looking for some good memes to follow and I like this one. I think the first sentence in a book is so important.

Side note - a class I took required that we write a 30 page paper on original historical research that was 95% of our grade. All semester, I researched and read. When it came time to write the paper, I could not get that first sentence on the computer (which mind you was a relatively new thing at our house in the early 1990s). I finally got the best sentence written and was delighted with the prospects of creating a beautiful paper. The computer crashed, I lost my sentence, I cried. I finally wrote another one and made sure to hit save almost immediately.

Fist line: The city teetered in a dream state.

This is the cover of the Advance Readers' Edition which I have just finished reading and will review soonish. The back cover tells me that "As the city of Saigon falls, Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, must leave the devastated country she has come to call her own." So knowing these things, the first sentence drew me right into the book.

Book: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjama Soli ISBN: 978-0312611576
This is the cover of the book as it was published March 2010. I really liked this book although it was somewhat sad and melancholy.
I hope that you will allow me to participate in your meme - I promise to try to get it done on Friday in the future. I look forward to seeing what you are reading.
My Twitter name is LibrarysCat.

The Survivors Club

Thank you to Library Thing and Hachette Book Group for the opportunity to read and review this fantastically informative book. I feel much better about my potential for survival. My husband and I both took the associated online Survivors quiz - I am a Thinker, he is a Believer. Surely between the two of us, we can survive!
Sherwood has put together a phenomenally interesting and fact-filled book about who survives. And the why certain people survive. Through interviews with survivors world wide in every imaginable situation, this book presents a wide ranging profile of how we too can survive. As I completed the section on flight, I wanted to give the book immediately to my son who will be flying to Chicago next Thursday. Instead I told him about the Plus 3, Minus 8 rule which refers to the first three minutes of a flight and the last eight minutes before landing - these are the most likely times planes crash - and that in the event of a crash, you have about 90 seconds to get out of the plane, so sit within five rows of an exit and make note of where it is.
The book is not meant to frighten people or make for OCD watchfulness in every situation. Rather it is meant to make us all more aware of our surroundings and to know how to begin to act, not react, if danger should arise. I am better for having read this book.

TITLE: The Survivors Club: The Secret and Science that Could Save Your Life
AUTHOR: Ben Sherwood
COPYRIGHT: February, 2010
PAGES: 373
TYPE: non-fiction
RECOMMEND: I certainly want everyone I love to read this book. Once you read it, you will too.

13 March 2010

Girl Who Fell From the Sky and Forest Gate

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow is an amazing book and the winner of the 2008 Bellwether Prize for Fiction. Thank you to Algonquin Books for the opportunity to read and review the Advance Reading Copy.
The Bellwether Prize is given only in even-numbered years and "consists of a $25,000 cash payment to the author of the winning manuscript, and guaranteed publication by a major publisher. The author will collect royalties in accordance with a publisher’s contract. The Bellwether Prize is unique; no other major North American endowment or prize for the arts specifically seeks to support a literature of social responsibility. Its intent is to advocate serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. The prize is awarded to a previously unpublished novel representing excellence in this genre." (Description taken from http://www.bellwetherprize.org/info.html) The award was founded by and is fully funded by Barbara Kingsolver, who describes The Girl Who Fell From the Sky as "Haunting and lovely, pitch-perfect."
I couldn't agree more. With multiple narrators, as well as a variety of plots and subplots, we discover what it feels like to be a young biracial girl in Portland during the early 1980s. Rachel begins her story in Germany where she lives with her Danish mother, her black American father and her younger sister. Returning to the United States, Rachel is the sole survivor of a tragedy in Chicago where her mother and sister die. Rachel must learn to live with her Black paternal grandmother in Oregon. To further confuse the sad yet developing young girl, she faces racist attitudes that nearly crush her spirit. Over time, we learn her history and how she will face her future.
Another strong voice in the novel is Jamie - a young black boy who lived in the public housing unit near Rachel in Chicago and actually saw what happened to her family. Jamie faces racial discrimination as well and runs from his mother who is more interested in drugs than her own child.
Both young people develop friendships and relationships that both hurt and help them. I thought it was interesting that the author chose to describe Europe as more accepting of biracial relationships and people in general. And to place Rachel in northern and northwestern cities where typically racism is portrayed less negatively.
In many ways, this is partly Durrow's own story. On her Web site, she relates that she is biracial and faced many of the same questions as the title character when she was growing up in Oregon.
A wonderful book which examines racial attitudes and how far we have to go in mutual understanding in this country.

TITLE: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
AUTHOR: Heidi W. Durrow
PAGES: 560
TYPE: fiction, based on a true story
RECOMMEND: I loved it.
AWARDS: 2008 Bellwether Prize for Fiction

It was interesting that I received Forest Gate shortly after I completed the book mentioned above. It, too, deals with racial issues, but from a very different perspective. I could not have planned my reading any better and I would like to thank Simon & Schuster Free Press for the opportunity to read and review this first novel by Peter Akinti.

For me, this book was an incredible work of genius. I read the book very quickly and realized only on the very last page that this was a novel. This is a testament to the authenticity of voice, place and character crafted by Akinti. I typically try not to learn too much about a book I am about to read and I honestly thought this was a personal memoir written by two people, together. I was truly amazed when I found that it was not....so what was it?
It begins as the story of two young Black boys, both living in the Forest Gate area of London, England. This is an impoverished area and both boys felt that they had no opportunities in the future - they decided to commit suicide together by jumping off twin towers. One boy lived, the other died. The boy who lived spent time recovering living with the sister of the dead boy. The story is told in alternating chapters with the boy and the girl narrating. The feelings of hopelessness are palpable. Sadly, the suicide attempts are not the worst aspects of the lives of these three young people. And the racist attitudes of the people in their part of London and the surrounding areas are in stark contrast to the European model portrayed by Durrow in the previous book. I suspect this is because human attitudes, good and bad, can be seen in every situation, in every place and time. Hopefully, as we all begin to explore the negative impact of these attitudes through fictional accounts such as these we will slowly begin to move beyond stereotypes and racism.

TITLE: Forest Gate
AUTHOR: Peter Akinti
PAGES: 198
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: I thought this was a very thought provoking and beautifully written book.

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is a fascinating novel with a number of story lines. While I enjoyed the book (and stayed up until 12:30 in the morning to finish it, which speaks volumes), I wonder if the seconday story lines will be understood by young readers who might not have previous knowledge to support full interest. Certainly it appealed to the Newbery panel!
The novel takes place in 1979 and is narrated by twelve year old Miranda, who lives with her mother. Miranda experiences the pains of growing up while a mystery surrounds her. Miranda's mother is excited about being on the $20,000 Pyramid, a television game show which was popular in the 1970s. Along with her mother's boyfriend, the family helps the mother practice for the show. This story line might be an unknown for young people today.

Another story line, which is at the heart of the mystery, focuses on Madeline L'Engel's book A Wrinkle in Time and the idea of time travel. Marcus, who becomes a friend to Miranda, has theories on time and space. If one were unfamiliar with L'Engel's book, perhaps this story line might also have some gaps. Of course the simple answer to this problem is to read L'Engel's classic book and start over.

I liked this book. I didn't love it. The writing and tone were good and I wanted to get to the bottom of the mysterious notes. Overall, When You Reach Me should hold broad appeal for the age range Grade 5-8, which is where we have placed the book in our collection at the library.

TITLE: When You Reach Me
AUTHOR: Rebecca Stead
PAGES: 197
TYPE: fiction
RECOMMEND: A slightly off-kilter book for middle school students - should spark good discussion