Book Review: Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

I haven’t been posting as often because I’m in the throes of the first trimester yuckies (the technical medical term). And while I’m thrilled to be pregnant again, it’s certainly not doing great things for my writing at the moment.

However, book group continues to provide me with some intellectual stimulation.  Left to my own devices, I’d curl up with some brainless bestseller and kill time until the nausea abates. (And now you know what reviews you can expect next.)

We read Grave Goods because our group recognized a lack of mystery titles in our repertoire.  I’m not much of a mystery person.  I feel that they’re often too formulaic with less of the focus on character development than I’d prefer. But I was pleasantly surprised by this one that challenged the typical mystery conventions and crept into the historical fiction genre a bit.

I don’t recommend starting a series with the third book, but that’s what we did. The author did an admirable job of catching us up on important details, but I felt that all that backstory was a bit rushed.  I will gladly seek out the first two books to see what I missed, but I can’t comment on them, since I’ve only read this one.

The story is set in England in the 12th century, which is enough, right there, to pique my interest.    The main character’s name is Adelia Ailar, Mistress of the Art of Death (quite the title).  She serves as King Henry II’s forensics expert, in a day long before CSI: Miami. It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to expect a woman in the dark ages to do any authoritative kind of medical examination, but as with many elements of the story, it’s best to suspend doubt and enjoy the ride.

Adelia was trained as a doctor in Salerno, Italy.  She travels with a motley crew, most importantly including Mansur, an Arab attendant who poses as the actual doctor (and her as the translator) to appeal more to back water dark ages types who don’t see many woman doctors.  It’s a clever ruse but seems pretty thin most of the time. Also along for the ride is Adelia’s illegitimate daughter and her nursemaid.

This particular quest is focused on whether or not recently uncovered bones belong to the famed King Arthur and Guinevere.  King Henry commissions Adelia to find out for sure.

The attitudes presented in the story are astoundingly modern, earning guffaws from me at several points in the book.  But once more, the suspension of disbelief comes in handy.

If you’re not much on mystery but like a good historical romp, especially one involving Arthurian legend, then this is a good book for you. But if you have a hard time stomaching feminism and liberalism forced into a Dark Ages setting, I’d look elsewhere for a fun read.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on November 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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Book Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais

This is a book for foodies, especially ones that are fascinated by the French restaurant business.

I like how Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times describes the book:  “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille.

Hassan is a Muslim Indian who leaves his native country after tragedy hits his family. His larger than life father directs his family in a culinary journey across Europe, eventually settling in France and opening Maison Mumbai, a flamboyantly Indian restaurant in a small town in the Alps.  Across the street, Madame Mallory is the proprietress and head chef at a well respected Michelin two star restaurant.

I wish the story settled here with the relationship between the young Indian man and the classically trained French chef, because the pages devoted to their relationship are the best parts of the book.

But the book follows Hassan as he climbs the French cooking ladder, gaining Michelin stars along the way, and making friends in the French food industry.

Rags to riches isn’t a bad storyline, but I think this book has so much more potential than this simple story of ascent.  As the story left behind Madame Mallory, I grew more and more dissatisfied, anxious for it to return to her and the small town in the Alps.  It never did, even though she’s fondly recalled throughout the story.  Her reach into Hassan’s life never completely disappears.

Another peeve of mine is how Hassan abandons his rich Indian culinary heritage once he begins training in the classical French style. I was looking forward to hybrid Indian/French cuisine and instead got a return to the most classic French style possible.  Hassan had so much more to offer!

There’s one powerful spiritual moment for Madame Mallory that is so poorly depicted (and understood by the author), that I was very put out.  Mallory has an encounter with Jesus in a roadside chapel, but the author doesn’t realize that’s what’s going on.  It’s a powerful, transforming moment that changes the entire trajectory of the book, and the author gives credit to an inspirational painting. Only Jesus is capable of that kind of transformation in someone’s life. But sadly, he doesn’t get the credit.

Despite my minor annoyances with the book, it is truly enjoyable and a great chance to dive into the world of high cuisine, with a focus on supreme quality ingredients and extravagant preparations.  Read it for the relationship between an old French chef, stuck in her ways, and a young Indian boy with a unique gift for preparing food.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on September 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Here’s the great thing about book groups: they challenge you to read all sorts of books that you’d normally avoid.  This is one of those books.

The subtitle for this book is “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”  The family in question is the Dodd family, a US senator and his wife and two grown children, entering Berlin in 1933, as Hitler is gaining power.

Dodd himself is a bit of a bore. He’s a professor type (of history), and he goes to bed early and continually whines about missing his farm in The South and his lack of time to write a massive history book about The South.  He’s a bit of a cheapskate and steps on all the wrong toes by trying to convince every other diplomat to pinch pennies like he does.

It’s his daughter that provides much of story, as she’s a wild child who seems to have little inhibitions when it comes to men, especially ones in high power positions.  Through her we learn about the lives of high-ranking Nazis and other diplomats and high profile figures.  She gets a little too much attention, but sex sells.

What fascinated me about this book was the antisemitism that was rampant throughout the world at this time. It’s easy to point the finger at Germany, but it was really bad in The States as well.  And it’s heartbreaking to watch the progression of the persecution of the Jewish people go unheeded by the US because the US didn’t want to offend Germany (largely because Germany had lots of unpaid bonds we were hoping to collect).  Also, high ranking US diplomats felt a bit hypocritical to call Germany on their persecution of the Jews when we still hadn’t worked out our civil rights issues yet.  But you can bet that the Jews in the US were making a big noise from very early on, trying to convince our countrymen that something very wrong was happening to German Jews.  Nobody was listening.

The amount of research that went into this book is staggering.  It’s an impressive feat to weave that much historical material into the story of one family.  It loses focus a lot of the time and leaves a lot of story lines unfinished, but if this doesn’t bother you, then it might be a great way to learn about a period in history we don’t focus on much (we focus more on the war itself). I think it’s helpful to know how evil comes into power, so we can be on the lookout for it in the future (and stop it before it goes out of control, as there were many opportunities in this case).

Larson is a local writer (living in Seattle), which is one of the main reasons we picked this book. It’s great to support local writers, wherever you live. And you never know when you’ll bump into them, which for book nerds like me, is a thrill.

Oh, and for movie buffs, rumor has it that Tom Hanks is making the movie (playing Dodd), with Natalie Portman potentially playing the daughter.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on September 24, 2012 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  

Book Review: Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman

As a bit of a Francophile myself, Pamela Druckerman picqued my interest in a recent NPR talk about her new book, Bringing up Bébé. I sat in my car, riveted, until it was over.  She told wild tales about how French children sit through several course meals and eat green foods when prompted to do so.  She explained how French children sit on beach blankets and amuse themselves for hours on end while their parents hold adult conversations.

Needless to say, I immediately ordered the book.

This isn’t to say my little Lizzy isn’t an angel, which she is. But there are times when I’d like a little of the French spirit of autonomy and independence infused into her.

Of course, the French don’t have all the answers to every parenting problem, but it’s fascinating to see the cultural mindsets that go into child rearing, especially when compared to the American ones.  It also helps that Druckerman is a bit of a comedian. I found myself laughing out loud a lot and reading excerpts to Dan.

Briefly, the French focus on educating one’s child to become independent, just about from the moment the children come out of the womb, is fascinating in comparison to our culture where it seems like mothers are continually finding ways to make themselves more attached to their children (i.e. attachment parenting). I’m not saying all attachment parenting ideas are wrong (I wore Lizzy around during fits of colic for months on end), but the French might have a better approach to helping the kids help themselves.

While I don’t necessarily like their attitude toward institutionalized childcare from a very early age, I certainly can appreciate their focus on giving children a chance to try things for themselves (instead of always rushing to their assistance when they merely want comfort or a distraction).  It’s tough, as it goes against all our motherly instincts to run to the child at any sign of distress.  But there’s wisdom in letting the child have a moment to figure out how to entertain himself/herself or soothe himself/herself.

Lots of food for thought here.  And while I don’t plan on raising Lizzy to be French, I think I have a lot to learn from a different culture’s child rearing perspective, one where public tantrums are rare and meals aren’t stressful events.

Here’s a link to the radio program that prompted me to read the book.

Book Review: The Dovekeepers

I miss doing book reviews, and with less time to dedicate to the blog these days, I’ve come up with a way to keep talking about books.  This is my first “10 minute” book review.  Basically, I’ve got 10 minutes to talk about whatever book I’ve just finished reading.

If anyone has tips for making the most of a short book review, please let me know! This is tough for someone who has a lot to say and far too little time to say it (read: rambles a lot).

10-Minute Book Review #1:  The Dove Keepers by Alice Hoffman

This book inspired me to get back into the book review business.  It’s been one of the books I’ve enjoyed the most in the past couple years—highly captivating and hard to put down, with realistic characters and a sense of urgency, of life and death that keeps you reading. Plus, you learn a lot of very interesting history in the process.

It’s historical fiction, set in the years around the time of the destruction of the second Jewish temple (A.D. 70).

It’s the story of several women but told from the perspective of four women who lived during the final years of the stronghold of Masada in the wilderness of Israel.

Each woman has a journey to reach Masada, and their lives there become interwoven, as they all are given the job of taking care of the doves that fertilize the fields of Masada.

If you know much about history, you’ve probably heard about why Masada is famous, how things ended there. But even if you don’t know its history, you’ll be captivated by journeys and struggles for these women.

What intrigued me the most was its focus on the magical side of the Judaism of this era.  This is the dark, forbidden magic practiced by women, but still acknowledging the Jewish God and traditions.   We often hear the stories of men in this time, and it’s refreshing to hear what women were doing back then, even if some of them are practicing on the outskirts of orthodoxy.

Published in: on August 30, 2012 at 9:02 am  Comments (2)  

Book Review: A Reluctant Queen

If you could turn one book of the Bible into a love story, which would it be?

Ruth might be your choice, with the whole maiden in distress theme in there. Maybe you prefer the Song of Solomon variety, a little spicy perhaps? Then again, you could argue the whole Bible is a love story, one between Jesus and his bride, the church.

In her latest novel, A Reluctant Queen, Joan Wolf focused on another story, Esther, and she read between the lines of the Biblical story to find the romance between a young Jewish woman and a powerful King.

I love historical fiction, especially set in Biblical times. Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe has been one of my favorite books for a long time. So, this book seemed like it was my sort of thing, especially considering that Wolf is an accomplished writer, best known for her Arthurian tale The Road to Avalon (which is now sitting on my nightstand in queue to read).

Wolf demonstrates a strong mastery of the historical fiction genre. She interweaves historical facts with dialogue so as not to bog down the reader and keep a fast pace. To tell the truth, I had a really hard time putting the book down.

What keeps me from giving the book a ringing endorsement is its lack of faithfulness to the Biblical story. As someone who appreciates both secular and Christian historical fiction, I have nothing against setting fictional stories within Biblical contexts. However, there is a line that I don’t like to see crossed, which is the altering of Biblical facts to suit a fictional storyline. I’m fine with authors adding things, since it’s part and parcel of the genre and necessary to fill in significant blanks. But those blanks need to be filled with material that doesn’t negate any part of the Biblical story. I even have a hard time with changing around the sequence of events in the Biblical account. And Wolf does this liberally.

I don’t want to pick at each difference between Wolf’s story and the Biblical account, but suffice it to say that there are many incongruities. Wolf recognizes their existence and in her author’s note, attempts to justify them for reasons of character development and pacing. Even so, this bothers me.

But, as long as you keep the Biblical story nearby, not allowing yourself to adopt Wolf’s version as Truth, I don’t see the harm in enjoying the book. I know I did. Just make sure you read the Biblical version as well, perhaps even at the same time.

So what are your thoughts about using the Bible as source material for historical fiction? What are the appropriate guidelines for it? Is it ever appropriate to fictionalize God’s word? I’d love to hear what my reader AND writer friends think about this, since I know a couple who are writing in this genre.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson publishers and Litfuse Publicity for providing me with a review copy of this book.  If you’d like to win a copy of the book or a brand new Kindle, enter Joan Wolf’s contest, ending June 21.

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 1:00 am  Comments (1)  

Book Review: The Hunger Games

I haven’t done a book review for awhile, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Dan’s kind enough to feed Lizzy her last bottle of the night, so I can escape to bed a little early and read (he’s done this from very early on, and it’s meant a lot.).

One book series that I’ve been plowing through deserves some attention because it’s certainly gaining a lot of interest from young adult readers. If you have a high schooler in your life, you’ve probably already heard of The Hunger Games.

When I first heard the premise, I thought it sounded revolting. It’s a distopian novel about a future time in North America, where children are forced to battle for their lives in an arena so their families have food. Who wants to read about kids killing each other? But apparently, lots of people do, because these books are flying off the shelves.

If you’ve read my other book reviews, you know my philosophy about reading these books. They are very popular, and therefore, to fully engage the culture, it’s worthwhile to read them. I sort of look at these as the latest fad book in line with Harry Potter and Twilight. And regardless of their entertainment value or even their moral value, these books can function as a lens from which to view our society.

You can find more extensive summaries of the book elsewhere (it’s the first in a trilogy). Here, I merely want to touch on some themes that are worthwhile to consider.

  1. Sacrifice

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but people offer their lives in exchange for others. This happens a few times in the book. Some of the most climatic and key points in the book focus on these sacrifices. This is by no means a Christian story, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find elements of Truth in it. And what better way to discuss Christ’s sacrifice for our sake than to talk about it in terms of the familiar, how favorite characters willingly offer themselves for others.

2. The “haves” and “have nots”

    Similar to other famous distopian novels, such as 1984 and Brave New World, the government is an all powerful entity that oppresses certain groups of people, creating a “haves” and “have nots” kind of culture. In The Hunger Games, the “haves” live in “The Capitol,” where excess characterizes their lives. The “have nots” live everywhere else, making sprockets for the Capital’s conspicuous consumption while they are starving.

    Let’s not get Marxist over this, about redistribution and the proletariat and all. But let’s think about how despite a recession, we still have a heck of a lot more than most of the world. We’re the conspicuous consumers, the “haves,” benefitting from the back breaking labor in sweat shops. This isn’t a reminder to be thankful for all we have but to think about what we do with it. Are we like the folks in the Capitol, binging and purging just to taste new party foods (a book two reference, but it really hit me hard)? How do we share our bounty to bless the “have nots,” instead of inventing more ways to waste it on unnecessary things?

    3. What is real?

      There’s a lot of deception and strategic double dealing in The Hunger Games. The Capitol stages the games, but there’s a lot of artifice involved, from the created game area, to the way contestants are presented to the public. Those living in the Capitol, getting entertained by the games, aren’t aware of all the behind the scenes work that presents a fraud for a fact.

      On the most basic level, its easy to see how this is like the “reality” TV that is so popular these days. But I also see it as very similar to what it’s like to be a Christian in this world.

      We Christians are in a world that isn’t our home. The games people play here aren’t our games. Chasing after money, sex, power, and the like is the pastime of most everyone else. But we play by different rules, seek different things, serve someone else.

      Katniss, the main character, sees through the artifice in these games and is a citizen of a different world. She has to hold to the very tenuous balance that we Christians have every day, to be in the world of artifice but not be of that world. And it’s not always crystal clear what that means, how to act in this strange place that makes unsavory demands of us. But in the struggle, she has companions to help her, and we have them too: our friends, our Church, God.

      I’d love to hear what others think of this book. It’s due to be out as a movie in a year, meaning it will get even more widespread exposure. Why not dive in now to be ready to discuss it then?

      The Moral of the Story

      For Christmas, Dan got me a book that I’d been salivating over for awhile, waiting patiently for my turn to come on the library’s hold list. David Sedaris’ latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is a very different type of book than his typical humorous memoirs. This book is a collection of short stories, fiction, with animals as the protagonists.

      It’s funny in dark ways, much like the rest of his writing. It’s like fairy tales for slightly disturbed grown ups.

      What I find interesting about this book is that it flagrantly delivers morals, in a post modern age where moralistic writing is very gauche.

      Most fairy tales contain a moral. Don’t get greedy. Don’t leave your home, ever. Don’t trust anyone. Things like that.

      So it’s surprising that a writer that typically embraces a thoroughly postmodern worldview would choose a genre that’s so preachy. (It sounds like an oxymoron to write postmodern morals.) In his other writing, Sedaris embraces the anti-establishment, do your own thing, make fun of religion attitudes that dominate our culture.

      It seems slightly hypocritical to at once lambaste those promote a particular belief system (he goes after the positive thinking folks, such as those who embrace The Secret, in one story) and then preach your own values.

      In an interview for NPR, Sedaris fervently denied that these stories were fables because they didn’t have a moral (though he might be willing to concede a few). That’s one way to seem less hypocritical, but he’s succumbed to the same delusion that a theme and a moral are so different.

      As an English instructor, I use one of the many textbooks that boldly proclaim that a theme and a moral are not the same thing. But on the other hand, the texts say a theme is something that can be stated as a universal truth and applied outside the context of the story. That sounds like a moral to me. But if you’re anti-religion, the term moral sounds bad, too preachy, too limiting. And post-modern folks don’t like universal truths that are very…well, universal.

      I’ve also read that a theme is far more complex than a moral. And this is only true if you believe a moral only deals with what is right and wrong, black and white. Morality is extremely concerned with grey areas. What do you think rabbi’s and pastors do for a living, but sift through the grey areas?

      Morality is far more complex than the post modern world believes. They think they’ve got the final say in complexity, in their anti-Truth, open ended belief systems. But morality, at least in the Christian sense, finds messes and attempts to reconcile them with a righteous God. When faced with a standard that is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnicient, fullly man, fully God, just, and merciful God, how much more complex can you get? Only simpletons and those who misunderstand God’s complexity reduce morals to right and wrong, black and white.

      To be truly moral, to conduct oneself rightly in relationship to God, one must humbly concede the complexity and, yes, impossibility of morality, and turn to the only person who lived a truly moral life. His name was Jesus. And at once he makes morality simple, because its end is Him. But he also makes it complex, because morality is far too complicated and impossible to comprehend without him.

      Children’s Bible Wisdom

      Have you read a children’s bible lately?

      We’ve been reading to Lizzy from two different children’s bibles, pretty much since the day she was born. The first one was written in the 60s and was my bible as a wee one. It’s a little dated, so you’ll find phrases like this: “It is because of the money that was returned in our sacks the first time we have been brought here, so that he may find fault with us, and fall upon us, and take us for slaves, and seize our asses.” Up until the last month, she was okay staring at its limited pictures and was more interested in listening to us read.

      Nowadays, she wants more pictures to look at while we read, so we got her the Jesus Storybook Bible, something our pastor recommended. And it’s been a big hit, partly because of the pictures, partly because the stories are told in a way that emphasizes sounds, repetition, movement, and words kids can understand.

      But I never expected this was going to be a learning experience for me. I thought we’d read all the stories I already know by heart, help Lizzy learn them, and that would be about it. But I’m finding that I’m seeing stories in a new way and am getting take home messages of my own from them.

      For example, we read the story of Jesus and the disciples on the the Sea of Galilee when the storm hit and Jesus calmed it. That was especially fun because of all the noises I could make to mimic the storm. But the message hit me in a profound way. The retelling emphasizes the fact that as long Jesus is in your boat, you have nothing to fear. What a simple fact. Jesus is always in my boat. Why in the world do I fear the big storms?

      Lizzy thought the passover section was a bit boring, guess the pictures weren’t up to her standards, but I managed to learn a bit. That’s humbling, considering that Dan and I have been holding or attending passover seders every year since we’ve known each other (Almost 14 years! Now I feel old.). Jesus’ action of cleaning the disciples’ dirty feet is significant because Jesus also cleans the worst kind of scum out of our hearts. Not sure why I didn’t see that so clearly before

      So, I’m realizing the proud attitude I’ve had towards bible stories, how I already know them and don’t need to reread them. Or worse, I only should read adult versions, especially the type with lots of footnotes, since I’m more complex.  But of course, they’re more than just children’s stories, even though they make great stories for little ones.

      Our morning bible time is turning out to be an enriching experience for the both of us. I might be getting more out of it then her. And like most aspects of parenting, that was a huge surprise.

      Book Review: Dewey’s Nine Lives

      So I’m still struggling to find time to write, but I’m managing to find a little time here and there to work on bits and pieces. Lizzy is doing well and bringing us both a lot of joy, and I’m sure I’ll be sharing much more about her in coming days. But for now, I’m going to share about a book that I’ve been reading and give you a chance to win your very own copy of it.

      During the first few weeks of parenthood, I got an e-mail from a publicist asking if I’d be interested in reviewing a copy of the second Dewey, the Library Cat, book called Dewey’s Nine Lives. At first, I sighed and passed on to the next e-mail, but I eventually went back and took the publicist up on her offer, as a sort of project to keep me committed to writing.

      I’ve finally finished the book, and I happily encourage all you cat lovers, especially Dewey fans, to pick up a copy.

      Whereas the first Dewey book was focused entirely on Dewey and his librarian owner, Vicki Myron, this book is a collection of stories, largely told from Myron’s perspective, about other cats and their owners. The book’s claim that Dewey inspired these particular cats is a bit of a stretch. It’s more like a collection of stories from people Vicki knows or others who contacted her with similar, heartwarming cat stories, after they read the first book.

      Don’t get the book expecting Dewey part II, because there’s little about Dewey in there. I can see how Myron has tried to tie Dewey into the stories, but it actually is more of an interruption to the flow of otherwise stand-alone stories. Her narration pops in here and there to explain how a certain story reminds her of Dewey or her own life, and I didn’t think it was necessary. Plus, many of the connections were a big stretch.

      There are nine full stories, all but one re-told from Myron’s perspective. I thought the stories rambled on a bit and went into too much backstory on each of the cat owners, but overall, there were some heartwarming and sweet tales in there. And it’s not all crazy cat ladies either. Some of the owners aren’t what you’d expect, such as the heavy drinking vietnam vet who rescued an injured cat, only to become best friends with it, even making a special seat for it to ride on his motorcycle.

      So if you’re a cat affectionado or just like reading warm, fuzzy stories about felines, this is a great book for you. And for those of you who would like to own your own copy, to sit by the fire and read while curled up with a purring cat, just leave a comment here, sharing the name of your favorite feline and maybe a “tail” or tidbit about it. The publicist has offered to send the contest winner a copy of the book. I’ll accept entries until December 16th (2 weeks), and then I’ll pick a random number, probably from an online number generator since that worked so well last time.

      I’ve also included a copy of the book’s prologue here, for those of you who want to get a feel for Myron’s writing voice and the backstory behind Dewey.  If you’d like to read my review of the first Dewey book, you can find it here.

      Excerpt from DEWEY’S NINE LIVES © 2010 by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter.
      Published By Dutton.
      Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.

      Thanks to Dutton Publishers for providing me with a review copy of the book.

      Published in: on December 2, 2010 at 5:03 pm  Comments (6)  
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