Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Mark Roskill) – Review

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh (edited by Mark Roskill)
Age: Adult/Teen
Genre: Nonfiction/autobiography/biography
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2008
Translation copyright 1929
ISBN: 9781415680867
344 pages

The title of this book is pretty self-explanatory. This book is a collection of letters written from Vincent Van Gogh to his younger brother Theo over the course of 7 years. The letters encapsulate much of what we already know about Van Gogh, but they also bring a much more human light to this iconic artistic figure of western civilization.

The majority of the letters are heartbreaking and honest with Van Gogh’s desire to just find somebody to love and with whom to start a family. This unrequited and unfilled love and need to devote in his life accounted for much of his internal pain and struggles. His relationship with his brother Theo is frighteningly strong and supportive. The two brothers are almost one entity, they are so close. Theo funded almost all of Van Gogh’s work, constantly sending his older brother money for painting resources. Van Gogh tried working various jobs, but nothing ever stuck. While Theo worked at an art gallery in Paris, Van Gogh moved from city to city, to country to country until he finally found his muse in Arles, France. In this beautiful little city in Provance, Van Gogh found his inspiration and painted the majority of his best-known artwork: Starry Night, The Yellow House, Sunflowers, The Bedroom, etc.

I stayed in Arles for 3 days in April as part of my honeymoon, and I was equally captivated with the sights and sounds of such a mellow, yet bustling city.

My only caution with this book is to read it with the bible & a detailed book of art in tow. Van Gogh makes numerous references to bible passages and discusses thoroughly his opinion of contemporary and past artworks and artists. I often had to look up the images online to get a better sense of Van Gogh’s opinion.

I think the term “misunderstood artist” was really coined for Van Gogh. He had such an earnest heart, but sold only 1 painting in his lifetime (2 if you count the one he sold to his brother), he was tortured, suffered mental breakdowns towards the end of his life, and was driven mad with desires and passions. His life in letters is at times cryptic (hardly mentioned his marriage to the subject of his drawing Sorrow), and at times a brutal reflection of himself and others around him.

Editor Mark Roskill has also included a series of photos of Vincent and Theo as well as Van Gogh’s artwork mentioned throughout the course of the letters. I definitely recommend this book to any fan of art, Van Gogh, and history.

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Book 47 of 2011

When She Woke (Hilary Jordan) – Review

When she woke : a novelWhen She Woke by Hilary Jordan
Age: Adult
Genre: Dystopia
Source: Algonquin Books
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: October 4th, 2011

When Hannah Payne awoke, her skin was colored red. She had been chromed. Her skin was altered with a virus that changed the skin pigment to indicate the nature of her crime. Alone in a cramped cell, televised for 30 days for the public to view, Hannah relives the crime she committed that sentenced her to more than a dozen years of punishment. The crime? Adultery and having an abortion, something illegal in her home state of Texas.

As a retelling of The Scarlet Letter, I found that Jordon did an amazing job with When She Woke. This book also reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I couldn’t put this book down, I wanted to know what was going to happen to Hannah Payne. She goes through many channels of change, internally as well as externally. Hannah questions her faith, her family and all those around her. Set in a not to distant future, Jordan set up an oppressive environment that is actually not to far off the mark at the moment. Women’s rights are in question, or non-existent in the Christian community that Hannah was a part of in her former life.

I loved how well Jordan handled religion and extremists in this book. She balanced the left with the right, and sent Hannah through a search for a faith that best fit her, not a faith that was forced upon her. The only thing that bothered me was Hannah’s sudden deep introspection of the people around her. The author never clearly explained why Hannah all of sudden could guess people’s ulterior motives and see through their lies. The author even makes note of this a few times throughout the book with Hannah wondering where her naive views dissipated to.

I’ve already informed my bookclub that this will be our October book choice. I’m very eager to hear their points of view about the book. There are so many talking points in this novel, it has endless possibilities. Women’s rights, cruel & unusual punishment, abortion, religion, politics, self-awareness, metamorphosis, violence, etc.

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Book 46 of 2011

 

La Grand Therese (Hilary Spurling) – Review

La Grande Therese : The Greatest Scandal of…La Grand Therese by Hilary Spurling
Age: Adult
Genre: History/Biography
Publisher: Profile Books, 1999
ISBN: 186197132X
119 pages

The author of a number of French history books brings us a neatly packaged tale of one of the greatest liars and swindlers of the Belle Époque era, Therese Humbert. A girl of poor means from southern France, Therese quickly developed a talent for creative lies and story-telling that elevated her family’s status among the eyes of their community. Wracking up a number of unpaid debts, Therese and her family eventually found their way to Paris. Through Therese’s ability to craft lies, charm vendors and blend in casually to any group, her family had the honor of hosting parties for a number of political and literary dignitaries, even associated with artist Henri Matisse through marriage. However, the well woven web of lies and deceit soon begins to unravel and Therese finds herself penniless and alone in jail. Her dream castles shattered into a million pieces.

I was drawn to this book for its size as well as its main feature, Therese Humber. The book is about 119 pages and roughly 4×6 in size. Its a small book, a quick expose of Therese’s life. There isn’t much meat in the book, and I’m sure much of it was left to the author’s imagination as the bibliography sources were quite limited and there were few if any citations in the actual book. Although Therese’s life seems to be incredibly interesting, her story was not told well. I found the narrative difficult to follow at times and I still can’t figure out how her lies almost destroyed the French Third Republic. The narrative felt more like a draft or outline of what could be a really interesting and detailed account of a rags-to-riches-to-rags Cinderella story.

This book is not available in the United States

Book 45 of 2011

Food Rules (Michael Pollan) – Review

Food rules : an eater's manualFood Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan
Age: Any
Genre: Nonfiction / Food / Health & Nutrition
Publisher: Penguin, 2009
ISBN: 9780143116387
140 Pages

The author of the high acclaimed In Defense of Food & An Omnivore’s Dilemma manages to fit all the major tidbits of information from the first two books into a concise set of 64 rules. The rules are divided into three parts.

  • Part 1: What Should I Eat? (Eat Food)
  • Part 2: What Kinds of Food Should I Eat? (Mostly Plants)
  • Part 3: How Should I Eat? (Not Too Much)

Of the 64 rules, I’m glad to say I follow almost all of them. I think at times Pollan re-used the same rules, he just cleverly re-worded them. For example: Rule 46: Stop Eating Before You’re Full and Rule 61: Leave Something On Your Plate. 

Each rule receives about a page of explanation, some rules receive no explanation as the meaning is pretty evident. I like that Pollan keeps his explanations simple, and I love that this little booklet is not preachy. I think it’s the perfect book for someone looking to change their eating lifestyle. It’s an easy to follow guide that you can apply when shopping at the grocery store.  What Pollan is promoting is not just a healthy diet. It’s a change in our consumer habits both financially and regarding food.

To be honest, making a change like this is not easy and it does not happen overnight. My husband and I used to eat corn dogs and tater tots for dinner, regularly. Our excuse was that we were too tired or lazy to cook. Having read books like Fatland &  In Defense of Food, and having gotten addicted to Bravo’s Top Chef, we slowly began to experiment with meals in the kitchen. This experimentation led to us realizing just how terribly we ate in comparison to how healthy we could be eating. Add frequent trips to the farmer’s market and voila. 3 years later, we have a healthy container garden on our balcony, we eat more fruits and veggies than we eat meat, and we have eliminated soda almost completely from our lives.

The important thing to remember, and something Pollan only touched upon in this book, is that food should be fun and food should be enjoyed.

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Book 44 of 2011

 Book 5

Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!

One of England’s most celebrated (and wordy) authors would be celebrating his 200th’s birthday today.

The Guardian is celebrating this occasion with a really cool interactive Wallchart of Dickens and some of his most famous characters. Miss Havisham is my standout favorite. Who is yours?

She had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about.

 

 

                                                             The Guardian is working with The Observer to promote a 6-week celebration called Book Season:

Here on the books desk the season of reading never ends, but we’ll be running our Books Season for six weeks. Inspired by the folks atBookcrossingReadItSwapIt and Book Swaps for Londonwe’re planting 15,000 books around the country between now and mid-October as part of a nationwide Book Swap. The first drop happened on Saturday, and as the weekend went on news spread around the world, with tweeters from as far apart as NigeriaCanada and Hanoi wondering how to get involved.

The Bookswap mentioned in the quote above is referring to a nation-wide book drop off program that took began last weekend on Saturday. The Guardian acquired 15,000 books from various publishers and authors and will be leaving the books all over the place in parks, restaurants, subway stations, for anyone to pick up and peruse.

Also, check out the Guardian’s Book Power 100 list to see who’s-who’s in the influential world of literacy, publishing, and bookselling. JK Rowling is the #2 most influential person in the book industry, who is number one? The answer might not really surprise you…but it should.

Earth: A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race (John Stewart) – Review

Earth (the audiobook) : a visitor's guide to the human raceEarth: A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race by John Stewart & The Daily Show
Age: Adult
Genre: Nonfiction / Science / Social Science
Format: Audio CD
Hatchette Audio, 2010
3 discs, 3 hours & 38 minutes

On a recent road trip to Southern California, I picked up this audio book hoping for entertainment for the long drive. My husband and I were not disappointed. My husband is a tough one to please with audio books, but we are both big fans of John Stewart and the Daily Show. This audio book is thoroughly informative, entertaining and amusing in a satirical way. John Stewart narrates the majority of the book, which is written as a guide of the human race to a future alien race that finds planets Earth long after the human race has gone completely extinct.

Samantha Bee, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones and John Oliver provide wonderful color commentaries by elaborating and interpreting certain points. From disc 1 to disc 3, Stewart and crew discuss the origin of planet Earth, the solar system, the history of culture, of religion, of food, pop culture, the continents, industry, etc. The delivery is dry and satirical. There is a black humor throughout the book as Stewart points out the aspects of life we avoid and aspects of life that we can proud revel in. This book leaves a lot of ideas up for discussion. I like that about this book. Although there are times where the human race is shamed for its actions, I never felt that any one guide was singled out unjustly and I didn’t feel as if Stewart and Co. forced their views onto the listener.

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Book 43 of 2011

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My Summer of Southern Discomfort (Stephanie Gayle) – Review

My summer of southern discomfortMy Summer of Southern Discomfort by Stephanie Gayle
Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow, 2007
ISBN: 9780061236297
244 pages

After her relationship with her married boss turned sour, Harvard law graduate Natalie Goldberg finds herself working as a district attorney in Macon, Georgia, a far cry from her life as a corporate lawyer in New York . Her civil rights activist/lawyer father cannot fathom the sudden change in his daughter’s life, and Natalie’s friends are hard-pressed to understand the move. Now Natalie is forced with trying to find a place to just fit-in and find a community that she can call her own.

When I first began reading this book, two things popped into my head. 1: CHICK LIT and 2: Law Puns & cliché jokes. While those two elements are present in the book, I did find myself really enjoying the narrative and I did develop a sympathy for Natalie. Although the book had all the elements of being a cheesy chick-lit novel, Gayle managed to keep the attention focused on Natalie’s  internal and mental growth in Georgia with her new surroundings and a new culture to adapt to. I like that the author didn’t stick the main character into any overtly obvious romantic situation as part of the healing process. I did find that the book had a lot of happy endings and all loose strings were neatly tied up in the end, but sometimes a book that cleans up nicely is a perfect read for a listless weekend.

I do have to say that the librarian in me loved Natalie’s organizational habits. The Birthday Card Tickler? Genius. Her packing methods of numbering each box and making individual lists for the contents of each box…also genius. I really liked Natalie’s character. I found her to be tough yet vulnerable, bratty yet humble. Confusing and erred like a normal human being. One thing that did strike me as odd was Natalie’s father’s reaction to her career choice. How a civil rights attorney is OK with his daughter working for corporate big-wigs, but abhors the idea of her putting away the bad guys just didn’t sit well with me.

This book was read as part of the Southern Belles Reading Challenge for September.

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Book 42 of 2011

 

Sin in the Second City (Karren Abbott) – Review

Sin in the Second City : madams, ministers, playboys, and the battle for America's soulSin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott
Age: Adult
Genre: History
Publisher: Random House, 2007
ISBN 9780812975994
343 pages

Back Cover Synopsis

Step into the perfumed parlors of Chicago’s Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history — and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation.

The Everleigh Sister, Ada and Minna, tried to elevate the brothel culture in the early 1900’s Chicago by making sure their girls were treated with respect, fed gourmet food and listened to literary lectures on a regular basis. Despite their attempts, the progressive era reformers wanted to take down all brothels in Chicago and eventually in the nation. Stating claims of “white slavery” reformers were able to enact laws of Congress to bolster their actions.

I found this historical narrative to be incredibly mesmerizing and well written. Abbott states in the introduction that any and all dialogue is taken directly from transcripts and there are a number of footnotes to back-up her claims. The book is well researched and is really an interesting look into American history, particularly the sordid history of Chicago. It was in this Levee district where Alphonse Capone first stepped into a career of thuggery and crime.

One note of criticism is that it seemed like Abbott painted the Everleigh sisters in a highly glamorized light while other brothel keepers, as well as the reformers were represented as cruel and prudish. I was hoping for a more balanced look on history, but I can see how Abbott would develop a fondness for the Everleigh sisters given their formidable personalities and propensities for the outlandish and over-the-top exaggerations and embellishments of their life stories. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book.

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Book 41 of 2011

 

The Borrower (Rebecca Makkai) – Review

The borrower : a novelThe Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Format: Audio CD
Publisher: Highbridge Audio, 2011
10.25 Hours, 8 Discs

Recent college graduate Lucy Halls works as a children’s library for a small town called Hannibal Missouri. Although she dislikes most things about her job, the one element of joy in her life is the spirited ten-year-old borrower, Ian Drake. He is the son of over religious and over-protective parents, and Lucy does her best to funnel books to Ian that his parents would most likely not approve of. One day, when Lucy finds Ian hiding in the library, having run away and spent the night in the building, the two set off on an adventure that takes them through state-lines, past the boundaries of librarian-borrower and changes their lives forever.

I can really only explain my review of this book in bullet points. I did not enjoy this book.

  • Lucy is a children’s librarian. I am a children’s librarian.
  • Lucy believes in the good of books and their abilities to change lives. I believe in books, and have seen them change lives.
  • Lucy is obnoxious, preachy, whiny and self indulgent.
  • Ian is likewise obnoxious, bratty, and very annoying.

That about sums up my feelings for this book. I found it to be much too preachy for my taste. I understand the value of books, but I felt it thumped over my head a million times through Lucy’s self-righteous rants. The only saving grace of this book was the narrator, who added a sympathy to Lucy that would have been lost in print.  

The entire book felt forced. Forced issues of censorship, forced issues of parental failures, forced issues of religious malfeasance. A forced story about a grown woman who can’t put her foot down and take accountability for her actions. It took me over a month to get through the audio book, mostly because I didn’t care to finish it. I didn’t care about the characters, or who Lucy hurt with her selfishness. I would have probably given up on the book. 

I hate to write a negative review like this. I was really excited for this book and the premise. I’m a librarian, this book should have been completely copacetic with me, but it wasn’t. It was too full of issues that should have been toned down.

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Book 40 of 2011
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The Slayer Chronicles: First Kill (Heather Brewer) – Review

First killThe Slayer Chronicles: First Kill by Heather Brewer
Age: YA
Genre: Vampire/Supernatural
Publication Date: Sept. 20th, 2011
Publisher: Dial Books, (Penguin Groups)
Source: Publisher

Although lonely and friendless at school, 10-year-old Joss McMillan was looking forward to spending his entire summer with his cousin Henry, his best friend. The night before Joss’s departure, he witnesses the brutal death of his beloved 6-year-old sister at the hands of a vampire. When his slayer-uncle recruits Joss to join the Slayer Society, Joss does not hesitate, ready to avenge his sister’s death. Called to boot camp years later, and 5 year before his 18th birthday, Joss learns to fight his demons, literal, mental and emotional.

This book is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Supernatural. It’s very action packed and violent, although the violence is not very graphic. At only 13 years of age, Joss goes through a tremendous amount of beatings that are normally reserved for the 18-year-old slayer recruits. His uncle Abraham is the leader of their troupe, and is determined to scare Joss into going back home, believing that Joss’s empathetic nature will lead to his downfall. As he trains, Joss discovers abilities within himself that could make his the strongest and youngest Slayer in history.

Although I haven’t read them, Brewer’s earlier series, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod is an incredibly popular series at the library, especially among boys. I was very excited to find this book in my mailbox and it did not disappoint.

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Book 39 of 2011