Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Adoption Memoirs

I have always had an interest in adoption. Perhaps it's because I am convinced I was a Georgia Tann baby, stolen at birth and sold to my parents. I have several good reasons for suspecting my adoption, including a missing birth certificate and no newborn baby pictures, but that's a discussion better left for my therapist.

I am fascinated by adoption and obsessed with Ukraine. Not surprisingly, I am particularly interested in the Ukrainian adoption process and recently read two memoirs on the topic: Two Little Girls and The Pumpkin Patch.

I read Two Little Girls several months ago, and I was astonished by Theresa Reid's honesty. She is very open about her feelings, or lack thereof, for her two adopted daughters. On several occasions, she talks about not loving her second daughter as much as her first.

I appreciate Reid's honesty. She wants to give an accurate description of the adoption process (or, at least, her adoption process), but I couldn't help but imagine her daughters reading this account as teenagers or adults. They would definitely need therapy as much as I do.

The reviews I read about the novel, however, focused less on Reid's honesty about her children and more on her descriptions of Ukraine. One reviewer was deeply offended on behalf of Ukrainians. Reid's descriptions are bleak, often heartbreaking, and honest.

Ukraine is like a family member to me. I can say whatever I like about her, but no one outside the family has the right to make any criticisms.

But Reid's evaluation of Ukraine did not offend me. Indeed, her descriptions made me miss the country. The inconsistencies and inconveniences she comments on are two reasons why I love Ukraine. I often have nightmares that I return to the country to discover it completely Westernized.

For some reason, though, I was offended by Margaret Schwartz's descriptions of Ukraine in The Pumpkin Patch. Now, I will acknowledge that I just finished the book tonight, so maybe her descriptions are simply fresher in my mind. But I think my reactions are based on more than that.

Schwartz approaches Ukraine as a complete outsider. As far I could tell, she does little, if any, research on the country before visiting there. She criticizes the nation and its people for corruption, poverty, and a crumbling infrastructure.

Her criticisms do have merit, but it doesn't sit well with me from a person who does not even make the effort to fact check her book. She includes incorrect city names, Russian words, and even currency exchange rates.

She may not want me, but Ukraine is my adopted motherland. And I've apparently appointed myself her literary guardian.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Book Sale

I am a sucker . . . for a book sale. Last week, the university bookstore had a sidewalk sale, and I could not resist. Every book seemed like a great deal, and soon I had a huge pile.

At the point when I had more books than I could carry, I naturally ran into a librarian from work.

“You know,” he said. “You can get those books for free from the library.”

He had a valid point—although he is the same man who wouldn’t buy a book because it still cost $4.99—and I am a great fan of libraries. I use the library for most books, usually because they are so expensive to buy.

But when they are for sale for less than $5, how can I resist? Don’t I need a dozen more books to add to my “to read” pile?

Here are my finds:

  • After the Dancing Days ($2.99): I remember reading this book as a teenager. And I remember liking it and being devastated because the romance did not end up as I’d wished. I have no recollection of the particulars, so this is definitely a reread for me. I had to buy it.
  • Beauty ($3.99): This retelling of Beauty & the Beast by Robin McKinley was a favorite when I was younger. I couldn’t believe I didn’t already own a copy, so I had to buy one.
  • Cranford/Cousin Phillis ($2.99): I was hoping to find a cheap copy of Gaskell’s North and South. I settled with two novellas. Granted, I don’t know what happens in either story, but I liked Wives and Daughters . . .
  • Bleak House ($3.99): I haven’t read this Dickens’s classic, but I have seen the Masterpiece Theatre version. Since it’s over a thousand pages, though, I suspect it might languish for a while in the pile.
  • Vanity Fair ($2.99): Once again, I’ve only seen movie versions of this book. To be honest, I didn’t really love the movies. But the book was $2.99.
  • Romola ($2.99): How is it that I've never heard of this George Eliot novel? Clearly, it’s been overlooked. Perhaps I’ll be the one to rediscover it.
  • The Big Over Easy ($4.99): This Jasper Fforde book is the perfect example of why I buy books. I’ve checked this book out from the library several times—and have run out of time before finishing it. Now that I own it, I will finish.
Since these books are now in my possession, expect a flurry of book reviews.

Friday, July 27, 2007


My friend called on Sunday when I was finishing The Deathly Hollows. She was appalled. “You’re reading Harry Potter,” she said, “But you haven’t read Twilight yet?”

Over the last several months, dozens of people have told me that I must read Stephenie Meyer’s book. It—and its sequel New Moon—have been the hot books at the library where I work—and it’s an academic library.

So, I finally read Twilight. My reaction:

Meh. “M-E-H: Meh.”

Now, the book is not entirely to blame. It has suffered from all the hype surrounding it. And this is definitely not the first time I have been sorely disappointed by the hot item.

I finally saw The Sixth Sense in the dollar theater (yowzers!) and couldn’t understand why people were proclaiming it the best movie of the year.

Imagine my disappointment when I finally read The Da Vinci Code—after hearing all the outrage and news coverage—to discover the book was the nothing but dreck. Entertaining dreck, but dreck nonetheless.

Twilight is fine. It is fine, but I am confused by all the buzz. Stephenie Meyer is not a great writer—or even a good one. As embarrassing as it may be to admit, I have read plenty of romance novels in my day. And Twilight is nothing more than another romance novel.

It may be sour grapes because I am eternally single—and easily irritated by the naïveté of young love—but I wanted to retch several times at Meyer’s constant descriptions of Bella and Edwards’s physical relationship:

“I caressed his cheek, delicately stroked his eyelid, the purple shadow in the hollow under his eye. I traced the shape of his perfect nose, and then, so carefully, his flawless lips. . . . He raised his hand to my hair, then carefully brushed it across my face” (277).

Eww. Enough of the creepy touching already. Kiss properly, or do not touch at all.

Of course, since I’m addicted to series, I put New Moon on hold at my local public library. There are over a hundred people queued ahead of me. Apparently, my community is full of people who are suckers for a schmaltzy romance.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Little Tom Thumb

Now that I’ve actually read Charles Perrault’s “Little Tom Thumb,” I can see how clearly the story inspired Mourlevat’s The Pull of the Ocean.

Tom is small, does not speak, and has six older brothers—all twins—just like Yann. Tom and his brothers are stalked by an ogre with seven daughters. Yann and his brothers are also threatened by a man with seven daughters.

Unlike Yann, though, Tom and his brothers do not run away from home. Because of their poverty, the parents abandon their children in the woods—they abandon them to their deaths.

One character in The Pull of the Ocean speculates that Yann and his brothers fled for similar reasons. Like Tom Thumb, he thinks, maybe Yann believes he and his brothers are in danger. And instead of being left in the woods—instead of being killed—the boys flee to safety.

Ultimately, Tom Thumb becomes a rich courier. He returns to his parents, and they all live in luxury.

The Pull of the Ocean ends with Yann’s fate unclear. Since Mourlevat deliberately patterns his book on Tom Thumb, though, the reader could assume that Yann will also be successful. He will also find wealth, and his family will benefit from it.

I suspect, though, that Yann simply isn’t so altruistic.

Perrault ends his story with a moral:

Having many children seldom brings unhappiness,
Especially if they are attractive, well-bred, and strong.
But if one is sickly or is slow of wit,
How often is he despised, jeered at, and scorned!
Although sometimes it is this oddest one
Who brings good fortune to all the family!

I am banking on this moral to be true. Surely, I am the oddest one in my family (actually, I do have some pretty odd siblings). Perhaps that means I will find fortune.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Pull of the Ocean

I just finished reading Jean-Claude Mourlevat’s The Pull of the Ocean, and I am struggling with what to write about it.

Yann, the main character, is described in the book as a ten-year-old “dwarf” or “midget.” He has six older brothers—three sets of twins—and does not speak, yet he is the ringleader of the group. On Yann’s say, the seven boys run away from home, but it isn’t until the very end that we actually hear from Yann and his reasons for leaving are revealed.

The young adult book—a translation from the original French—is fascinating. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective: a social worker, a truck driver, one of Yann’s many brothers—and each chapter has a different tone to it. In many ways, it reminded me of reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Each character has a distinct voice. For example, Yann comes from an undereducated farming family. As such, his parents do not speak fluently (or should I say, grammatically correct?) and this is reflected in their speech. More than anything, I wish I read French and could compare the English version with the original. What does redneck (forgive me for using the term, but I can’t think of a better one) French read like? I don’t know whether to credit Mourlevat for creating these distinct voices or his translator, Maudet.

Despite enjoying the book—it truly is interesting and well written—I now have a vague sense of blah as I write about it. Perhaps I have ennui (it is a French book, afterall). Perhaps I am still suffering from my self-diagnosed case of heat exhaustion. Or perhaps I really missed something in the book.

The characters refer several times to Charles Perrault’s Tom Thumb. I am vaguely familiar with the story, but I wonder if reading it would add another dimension to my understanding and appreciation of Mourlevat’s book. I’ve decided. I will read Tom Thumb and report back tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Annotated Bibliography

This annotated bibliography contains young adult books that take place during modern-day genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Germany, and Rwanda.

Baillie, Allan. Little Brother. New York: Viking, 1992.

  • Vithy and his older brother Mang are caught in the Cambodian conflict with the Khmer Rouge. They flee their village to seek refuge on the Cambodia/Thailand border but are separated along the way. Vithy continues alone in hopes that he will one day be reunited with his brother.
Chotjewitz, David. Daniel, Half-human: And the Good Nazi. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Filipović, Zlata. Zlata’s Diary. London: Penguin Books, 1994.

  • This autobiographical narrative is the actual diary of Zlata Filipović. She begins keeping a diary several months before the conflict in Bosnia begins. Her entries evolve from reflections on her favorite television programs to grasping the meaning of the war, death, and deprivation surrounding her.

Hicyilmaz, Gaye. Smiling for Strangers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

  • Nina and her grandfather are her family’s only known survivors of the Bosnian conflict. When militants attack her grandfather, Nina must journey on her own to safety. She has found a letter from her mother’s friend in England, and she does everything necessary to find refuge with him.

Ho, Minfong. The Clay Marble. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991.

  • Dara and her family flee their village during the Cambodian conflict with the Khmer Rouge. They reach the refugee camps in Thailand only to discover they are not out of danger. In the camps, Dara learns a new definition of family and the power she has within herself to survive.

Jansen, Hanna. Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 2006.

  • Hanna Jansen recounts the experiences of her adopted daughter, Jeanne, during the Rwandan genocide. Jeanne, a Tutsi, is only eight years old when her Hutu neighbors and “friends” go on a murderous rampage against the Tutsis. The book recounts the atrocities Jeanne experiences as well as her miraculous escape.

Orlev, Uri. Run, Boy, Run. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

  • “Based on a true story. Srulik has been alone since he was eight years old. During World War II, he lives day to day in Poland's countryside working and repeatedly escaping those who would capture and kill him because he is Jewish” (Database of Award Winning Literature).

Stassen, Jean-Philippe. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda. New York: First Second, 2006.

  • This graphic novel explores the effects of the Rwandan genocide on Deogratias, a young Hutu man. Deogratias clearly suffers from delusions and substance abuse. Stassen uses flashbacks to reveal what led to Deogratias's madness—the horrors he had both seen and committed during the genocide.
UNICEF. I Dream of Peace: Images of War by Children of Former Yugoslavia. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
  • UNICEF collected and published both artwork and poetry created by children affected by the war in the former Yugoslavia. The images and words reflect the terror and desperation these children feel. They use both mediums to cope with and to make sense of the tragedies that surround them.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

My eyes are bleary, my head aches, and I’m a bit of a grump. The culprit? Harry Potter. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My drive to finish the book wasn’t fanaticism—it was spoilers. I work in a library, and libraries are full of the kind of nerds who read Harry Potter and can’t wait to talk about it. I knew if I didn’t finish the book before work, it would be ruined for me.

Keeping this in mind, I will not ruin the book for anyone else. Instead, I’ll just make some general observations:

  • Library employees have been speculating for days (actually years) about what would happen in the book. They have reread the previous six books for clues. I did not participate in this speculation because I am lucky if I can even remember what I wore last week—let alone the intricate details of books I read years ago. However, many of their speculations were correct, so kudos to them.
  • Like I mentioned before, I have little interest in moody teenagers, and this book abounds in them. There were several moments when I wanted to give both Harry and Ron a slap. They are on the most important journey of their lives and they act like petulant two year olds? Give me a break.
  • I hate unnecessary epilogues. They detract from the integrity of a book. That is all I shall say.
  • Just because she is a billionaire does not mean that J.K. Rowling does not need an editor. I may be drawn-and-quartered for saying so, but The Deathly Hallows was way too long. The book could have easily been half the length without sacrificing anything. In fact, chopping out all the unnecessary drivel would have made the book stronger. Do I have to know every single person who attends a wedding and what they are wearing? No. Another problem with making the book so long is that readers are rushed to get to the meat of the story and may lose out on important details in their hurry.

Of course, none of my criticisms will stop anyone from reading the book. After all, if you are reading the seventh book, in all likelihood, you have also read the six books before it. Having made such a huge commitment, The Deathly Hallows could be the worst book ever, and everyone would still read it just to know what happens. It isn’t the worst book ever, and nothing could have stopped me from reading it either.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You

After complaining about it for weeks, I finally finished Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You by Hanna Jansen. Not only did I finish the book, but I gave it four stars on my LibraryThing page.

Now, I am not going to take back all of my previous complaints. This book was very difficult to get into. Weighing in at over 300 pages, Jansen would have done well to cut out the first 100 (and her editor should have advised her to do the same).

I understand why she included the first section. Those pages give background information on Jeanne, her family, and their life in Rwanda. Yet, I felt those first 100 pages did little to engage me as a reader.

I knew going in that Jeanne and her family would be affected by the Rwandan genocide and Jeanne would end up in Germany living with Jansen (who adopted her), so I was anxious to get to the heart of the story. I wanted to know what happened to Jeanne and how she, alone, could survive the tragedy.

For lack of a better term, Jeanne’s story is heartbreaking. The account is unflinching in its details of the genocide. Jeanne is only eight years old when her former neighbors, former “friends,” attack the Tutsis for being Tutsis. She watches loved ones slaughtered and must cope with survivor’s guilt. What affected me most was the knowledge that at some point Jeanne related all of these devastating details to Jansen.

Jansen begins each chapter from her own perspective, providing her reflections on living with Jeanne. I found these passages both interesting and distracting. She could (and maybe should) have written two separate books: Jeanne’s story and her own.

Jansen has clearly lived an interesting life. According to the author blurb, she has adopted 13 refugee children. She also makes mention of her guilt at being German and growing up in post-WWII Germany. I wonder if she adopts these children as some sort of retribution for her ancestors’ crimes. I would like to know her story—but in a different context.

Each time Jansen intrudes into the narrative, I am reminded that Jeanne’s experiences have been filtered through another, and I must question the book’s level of authenticity.

For example, Jansen goes into extreme details in her descriptions. Yet, Jeanne was only eight when the events occurred. Were her memories really so vivid? Also, could Jeanne’s grasp of German, a language new to her, have been so fluent as to express these details? Or has Jansen taken creative licenses? She does comment at one point about how excellent Jeanne’s memory is, but I still have to wonder.

Regardless of authenticity, I recommend this book. It is as strong and disquieting as Deogratias without the vulgarity, and the story is even more effective because of its biographical nature.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Guest Blog--Two books by Elizabeth Buchan

This afternoon I finished the second half of Elizabeth Buchan's stories about Rose and Minty and the man in the triangle, Nathan. When I started reading Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, I discovered that I was really grumpy. I am used to reading cozy or English country house mysteries which are puzzles and are great escapist reading but demand nothing of me emotionally. I wasn't handling the desertion of Rose by Nathan for a younger woman well. The adult children of Rose and Nathan were not handling the situation well either. I thought about putting the book aside and starting something else, but Marg had recommended it so I thought, "I'm a hundred pages into this, I'll hang in awhile longer." When I finished reading it, I realized that I really liked the main character Rose and was cheering for her to succeed and overcome all of the problems in her life. I also realized that probably no one under 35 would enjoy the book - or anyone who isn't a woman!

I opened the second book cautiously. Wives Behaving Badly is the story of Minty told in the first person. So this was going to be life from the "home wrecker's" perspective. It takes place seven years later and Nathan and Minty now have six year old twin boys. Life has changed a lot.

As I read the same story from a second view point, I began to realize that I was caught again in the emotional upheaval of these fictional people's lives. And I cared about each of the characters. Each of them made choices that hurt other people and each of them made choices and reached out in valiant ways trying to heal the heartache within their family.

When I read The Memory Keepers Daughter I kept wondering why this book had been recommended by so many people. Now I realize that I did not enjoy that book very much because I really didn't identify with any of the characters or care about any of them. Reading these two books by Elizabeth Buchan, I recognized parts of myself and of many people in my own world and I cared deeply about them; the real people and the fictious characters. Some times I felt pain, sometimes sorrow and sometimes joy and satisfaction as I read. And I think that is the key to deciding that Buchan was worth reading.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Love is a Many Trousered Thing

I hope I don’t bore anyone by piggybacking on The Aspirant’s post, but I just finished Love is a Many Trousered Thing and have to echo her sentiments.

Trousered Thing is the eighth book in Louise Rennison’s the Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series. To be perfectly frank, very little has happened in those eight books. Georgia doesn’t appear to have aged (or matured), and none of her relationships has progressed.

Unfortunately, Georgia is not the only character caught in a time warp. Death of the Maid is the 22nd (22nd!) book in the Hamish Macbeth series. Poor Hamish is perpetually 35-ish and constantly thwarted in love. I am secretly (well, not-so-secretly) in love with Hamish. And for his sake, I long for some sort of progression or closure.

But I continue to read the M.C. Beaton’s series—although I didn’t realize until now there had been so many—because Hamish entertains me. He is smart and clever (are those the same things?) and can solve any murder that comes his way.

And I will keep reading about Georgia Nicolson. She may never age and the stories may never progress, but the books actually make me laugh out loud.

How can I not be delighted by a girl who uses words like “lippy,” “bum-oley,” and “nervy spaz”? How can I not enjoy a crazy little sister who “laughs like a loon” and has imaginary phone conversations along the lines of “Mr. Bum Bum is coming to school today in his poo pants” (135)—just like a few little girls I know in real life.

As long as they continue to entertain me, I will continue to read about both Georgia and Hamish. Now, that would be an interesting couple . . .

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Guest Blog--Unsatisfied in many more ways than one

I had just closed Startled By His Furry Shorts and felt anxiety spread over me. "How am I ever going to handle waiting until July 3rd for the next book to come out? This is going to kill me!!" Luckily I lived until July 3rd and quickly purchased the next in The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series. I had used my special skills to charm my mother into buying me Love is a Many Trousered Thing at the local Barnes & Noble in La Jolla, CA. I had to call my sister while my mom was paying at the register - I couldn't keep my excitement in. When I got home, I opened Trousered and dove right in. Within a few hours, I was done and feeling like I was still dangling but not in the usual excited way that I had been after reading Louise Rennison's previous novels. I felt completely unsatisfied. Don't get me wrong - I always love a dose of Georgia Nicolson - but this particular novel just felt like so much was said but nothing meaningful came out of it. None of Georgia's dilemmas have really been solved and I don't know which Sex God she and I truly love. Sigh! I guess I better wait the many more months for Georgia's next installment. I hope I can live until then - but as of right now, just like a Magic 8 Ball may say, the "Outlook not so good."

Monday, July 16, 2007

Smiling for Strangers

This weekend, I chatted with my sister-in-law’s sister (could I get more complicated?) about the latest Harry Potter movie. Although I’ve read all the books (only once), I would not consider myself a Harry Potter fanatic. As such, I only have vague memories of Order of the Phoenix.

I do remember being rather put off by Harry’s bad attitude. He was grumpy, moody, and often just plain rude. And I did not like it at all.

Some would argue he was just acting like a typical teenager. And that may be so. I’m sure teenage boys can be moody and rude. And that’s exactly why I do not hang out with teenage boys (oh, and because it would be rather odd and disturbing behavior from a grown woman).

When I read for pleasure, I want the experience to be, well, pleasurable. I do not want to be annoyed by moody teenagers in my free time. I take no enjoyment from that.

I had a similar experience with Smiling for Strangers by Gaye Hiçyilmaz. Granted, I did not read this book for pleasure, but I found Nina’s bad attitude irritating.

Nina has a difficult life, and she has plenty of reasons to be moody. Her family is killed in the Bosnian conflict. She escapes into Italy and then to England. Finally, she finds refuge with an old friend of her mother’s, Paul Fellows.

Nina has seen death, suffered deprivations, and traveled a thousand of miles for safety. She has every reason to be angry and upset.

Yet, her bad behavior doesn’t start until after she finds refuge with Paul. He gives her food, clothing, and a home. And she responds to him with anger, rudeness, and ingratitude.

Logically, I know a teenage girl moving in with a complete stranger in a foreign country could not be a smooth transition. But would it be completely unbearable?

Perhaps Hiçyilmaz’s account is realistic and accurate—in fact, it probably is. If nothing else, the book serves as a good reminder of why I decided not to teach high school (or junior high for that matter). College students have enough attitude as it is.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Culture and Customs of Afghanistan

A few posts back I committed to actually doing something to benefit the world. I haven’t yet figured out how to end the conflict in Darfur, but I have volunteered with an organization that matches native English teachers with Afghani women.

Twice a week, I spend half an hour talking with my Afghani pupil via the internet (Skype). My student is an English professor at an Afghani university, and after our first session together, I realized I know nothing about Afghanistan and the Afghani people.

My ignorance is rather surprising—and embarrassing—considering the U.S.’s presence in Afghanistan since 2001. I listen to NPR religiously, so names like Taliban, Kandahar, and Harmid Karzai are familiar to me. I’ve read The Kite Runner (a book a have mixed feelings about), started (but did not finish) The Bookseller of Kabul, and have Kabul Beauty School on my “to read” list.

But what do I actually know about Afghanistan?

Very little. For example, during our first conversation, my student talked about Dari and Pashto. Dari and Pashto?

I felt my ignorance and immediately turned to books for information. I was disturbed to discover my library has only one recently published book: Culture and Customs of Afghanistan.

After reading (okay, more like skimming) the book, I am far from an expert on Afghanistan. But I do know that Dari and Pashto are the country’s two official languages (and over 30 other languages are spoken there). I know that education for women—particularly higher education—is uncommon so my pupil is something of a phenomenon.

Backed with a bit more information, I felt more confident during our second meeting. As we spoke, though, I realized that despite the differences in our landscapes, governments, and religious beliefs, we also have a lot of similarities.

We are both driven in our educational goals, we both live in societies with certain expectations about women (and neither of us have met those expectations), and we both come from loving and supportive families.

I know it sounds like a platitude, but I am discovering that women really are the same worldwide.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Film Adaptations

I confess I didn’t read a book today (I did start one, so I should get some credit for that). Instead, I watched a film adaptation—almost like reading a book, right?

I watched The Best of Masterpiece Theatre a few months ago and immediately put The Fortunes & Misfortunes of Moll Flanders in my queue. I mean, how could I resist a movie with Daniel Craig (even if he does have the nastiest long hair ever and ends up being a cad) and a faux-puritanical Emma Peel, I mean, Diana Rigg?

I admit I have never read the book before. But if the film adaptation is to be believed—and all movies are faithful to the books, right?—the book is all about sex (and, as a warning, the movie does contain nudity). I did read Daniel Defoe’s Roxana as an undergrad. Roxana basically sells her body for money. So, if I remember correctly, that book is also all about sex.

Last weekend, I watched North and South—not the Patrick Swayze North and South but Elizabeth Gaskell’s—for the second time. John Thornton (Richard Armitage) is strong and sometimes brusque but oh so dreamy. I would marry him anytime—even if he is in trade. Once again, I must confess that I have not read the book. But I have read Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

To be honest, I read the book after watching the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation. I was enchanted by the story and could not wait to read the original. Of course, it wasn’t until I reached the end—until after I’d invested 720 pages in the book—that I discovered Gaskell died before finishing it. And the Masterpiece Theatre ending is completely, well, fictional.

In fact, watching the film adaptation has inspired me to read several books. I didn’t read Jane Eyre until after watching—and weeping through—the Timothy Dalton version in seventh grade. I caught Looking for Alibrandi on WE before ever reading the Australian young adult classic. And, though I was only two when it premiered, I clearly remember watching Flambards on Masterpiece Theatre.

Though it may be heresy to say so, watching a movie adaptation of a book can sometimes be just as enjoyable as reading the book itself. Think Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion (can you tell I’m a Janite?), Henry V, The Last of the Mohicans, Bleak House, Horatio Hornblower, The Importance of Being Ernest. (And, forgive me Jane, I will admit I found the movie adaptation of Mansfield Park more entertaining than the book.)

I could go on an on listing movie adaptations I’ve enjoyed (The Bourne Identity, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Princess Bride), but I think I might watch Eloise at the Plaza instead.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Today I read The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho (my looming interlibrary loan due date spurred me on).

The book is told from Dara’s perspective. She is a twelve-year-old Cambodian girl and often sounds far older than her age. At times her voice sounds unauthentic. However, because I am trying to become less critical, I will acknowledge that a child who has experienced death and war could reasonably sound like an adult.

In fact, I remember hearing a group of girls in one of my undergrad English classes complain about Jane Eyre as a child. They insisted she sounded too old and unrealistic. I was obsessed with the Brontës. I had read all of their books, multiple biographies, and—most importantly—their juvenilia. I was convinced that a young Charlotte Brontë would, indeed, have sounded exactly like the young Jane Eyre. I knew if asked how she could avoid going to hell, young Charlotte would have answered, “I must keep in good health, and not die” (43).

But I digress.

The Clay Marble is the second young adult book I’ve read about the conflict in Cambodia—the other was Little Brother by Allan Baillie. Baillie is a Scottish-Australian who worked as a reporter in Cambodia. Ho is a Cornell-educated Thai woman who worked as a relief worker on the Thailand-Cambodia border in the 1980s. I mention this biographical data because despite their differing backgrounds, both authors wrote very similar books.

Dara’s story starts as she flees with her family to the refugee camps on the Cambodia-Thailand border. Before The Clay Marble begins, Dara and her family have suffered through years of famine and war; she has lost her father and grandmother.

Vithy’s story starts as he and his older brother, Mang, try to reach the security of the border. Before Little Brother begins, Vithy and his family have suffered through years of famine and war; he has lost his parents and sister.

Although both Dara and Vithy suffer throughout the books—they must avoid soldiers and shelling, they often go without food, and they experience death—their stories start too late. It was like reading the last chapter of a book, and I longed for the full picture. What were their lives like at home before they became refugees? How did these children process conflict and famine?

I wanted more—I wished for some of the honesty and grit of Deogratias—but ultimately, these books were written for older children and young adults (and not for me). Dara and Vithy flee to the refugee camps because they are survivors. Each book, then, has a sense of hope—and that is the message these authors want to leave their young readers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I am a crab. I’ve spent the last several weeks dealing with broken things: roof, internet, phone, car, air conditioning, and even my doorbell. I am hot and headachy and grumpy and never want to talk to a customer service representative again. My attitude is straight out of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day—except my terrible days have extended into terrible weeks. I am definitely Alexander.

Or maybe I am more like Pierre. I loved him as a kid—and I’m turning into him as an adult. “I don’t care,” said Pierre. That’s exactly what I’ve felt like saying all week. I don’t care! And I’ve been close to it, too. In fact, I’m on the brink of losing all semblance of civility. (I am also often tempted to adopt Bartleby’s refrain: “I would prefer not to.” That phrase would serve me well on a daily basis.)

Or maybe I’m Ampalaya, the Bitter Gourd: I read a translation of the Filipino folktale The Legend of the Bitter Gourd a few weeks ago. (The book is available through the International Children’s Digital Library.) Ampalaya is “pale” and “bland.” He feels jealous of all the other colorful and delicious vegetables. According to the book’s blurb, the story “teaches the evil of envy and greed.” Ampalaya, though, never seems to learn this lesson. He becomes shriveled and bitter—just like me.

Or maybe I’m the Grumpus. The Grumpus Under the Rug was my youngest sister’s favorite book growing up. In fact, we still use the word Grumpus to describe anyone in a “mood.” The family in the book blames everything naughty or wrong on the Grumpus. Someone spilt the milk? It was the Grumpus. Someone break a glass? It was the Grumpus. Of course, in my family, we always blamed any problem on the clowns who live in the basement. No lie. No wonder I’m so odd.

Or maybe I’m Edgar Mint. Edgar has the worst luck—ever. He is abandoned, abused, and practically stalked by his doctor. Although the book falls apart at the end, Brady Udall starts The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint with one of the greatest first lines ever: “If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.” Okay, even I can admit that Edgar has it worse than I do.

But isn't this exactly why books are so great? No matter my mood—depressed, delighted, romantic—I can find a character I can relate to completely.

Monday, July 9, 2007

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You

I am a daydreamer—I think most readers are. As a freshman in high school, I had a recurring fantasy about being a spy. At the time, I was taking Russian classes (back when the Cold War was a recent memory) and spent hours imagining what life would be like if I’d been bred for espionage. What if I were fluent in fourteen languages? What if I could kill a man (or woman) with a ketchup bottle?

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter is my teenage fantasy come to life.

Cammie Morgan has an elite spy heritage. Her mother is a former spy, and her father died plying his trade. She attends Gallagher Academy, an all-female spy school, and knows over a dozen languages, several forms of martial arts, and the tango. Cammie is the epitome of female empowerment.

So, why did this young adult novel leave me disappointed?

I often had the sense that the book, the first in a series, is just a glorified screenplay. The action scenes—and there are several—do not play well on paper and seem better suited to the screen. In one scene, Cammie’s friend, Liz, dangles precariously from a rooftop: “She tried to hang on to a gutter, but slipped, and soon she was swinging off the side of the . . . house” (112). I couldn’t help but wonder if Carter envisioned a movie as she wrote these scenes.

I love young adult novels—and sometimes I worry I still have the mentality of a 13-year-old. This book, though, allayed my fears. One of Cammie’s teachers—Mr. Solomon—is a sexy former spy. I kept wishing for more of Mr. Solomon. I wondered if there was a possible romance brewing between him and Cammie's widowed mother. I cared more about his love life than Cammie’s. And that is not a good sign.

I am, officially, old.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Reading for a Hot Climate

The West is in the midst of a heat wave—100+ temperatures for the last week—and my only relief from the heat is a fan. One measly fan.

Not surprisingly, my thoughts turn to “hot” literature. And I’m not talking about Paris Hilton hot. If I have to be miserably uncomfortable, then I wish I were somewhere exotic. Instead, I'll just write about a few books that take place in a hot climate:

  • I Dreamed of Africa: I read this book years ago—not long after the movie version came out. I thought the movie looked interesting. Rather than see it, though, I decided to read the book. I, like Kuki Gallmann, have always had a certain fascination with Africa. As such, I could sympathize with her to some extent; ultimately, though, the author garnered little sympathy from me. She left her son in a boarding school to live in Africa—she chose a country over her own child.
  • Dear Exile: One of my other secret desires is to join the Peace Corps. Dear Exile is an interesting exchange of letters between two friends—one who joined the Corps and one who stayed behind. Although I am one who has stayed behind, I felt more kinship with Kate Montgomery—who was posted in Africa—than Hilary Liftin. Maybe one day I, like Kate, will garner the courage to actually join.
  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: I had to include this series even though I know these Alexander McCall Smith books are old news. However, I recently read the eighth book in the series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, and I enjoyed it as much as the first. When the first book was published in the United States, I admit some reluctance to read it. How could a white male write from the perspective of a black female? I was skeptical, to say the least. In general, I don’t believe a writer can authentically write about another gender or culture. Yet, McCall Smith does it. Granted, I have never been anywhere in Africa—let alone Botswana—but Precious Ramotswe sounds exactly as I imagine Precious Ramotswe should sound. The books have a light tone and rhythm and are not simply pleasure reading—they have genuine literary qualities to them.

I’m growing even warmer writing about these books. Perhaps I should read something from a cold climate to cool me down. Don’t I have a copy of Doctor Zhivago laying around somewhere?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

"To Read" Pile, Part II

I’ve just started Shopaholic & Baby. I promise once I’ve finished it, I will never write about the series again. Instead, I’ll become obsessed with some other books. The truth is, once I find a series I enjoy, I’m devoted to it. Looking through my catalog on Library Thing, the same names appear over and over again: Hamish Macbeth, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Thursday Next . . .

Not only am I obsessed with series, but I’m devoted to certain topics. As I mentioned in my last post, I love to read books about Eastern Europe. Last summer, I went on a kick buying books on the topic; however, I might have overdone it because my “to read” pile is full of these books:

  • Voices from Chernobyl: I bought this book—accounts from Chernobyl survivors—to reach the $25 mark and receive free shipping on Amazon.
  • The Kitchen Madonna: I found this book during my genocide research. I know nothing about it—but isn’t that a great title?
  • One of the Fifteen Million: I found this book about the Ukrainian Holodomor (see previous post) searching eBay (keywords: Ukraine, Soviet, USSR). The description said it is a first edition. How could I resist a first edition?
  • Soviet Laughter, Soviet Tears: I started this memoir of a couple who spent six months farming in Ukraine during the Soviet era. Unfortunately, it reads like a farmer and his wife wrote it—and I’ve yet to be hooked.
  • Escape from Warsaw: My mother was kind enough to buy me a bunch of used books about Eastern Europe—which I did read—and this was a bonus book she threw in. It’s for young adults, and I will read it. I will.
  • Babi Yar: This is another eBay find. Babi Yar is the location of a Nazi massacre of Jewish Ukrainians near Kyiv during WWII.
  • Honey and Ashes: Janice Kulyk Keefer is the Ukrainian-Canadian writer. I started the book but found her writing dense and uninviting. I guess I better try again, though, since she is the “it” writer.
  • Dreams of My Russian Summers: This is another book my mother found for me. I also started it but just didn’t get into it. I’ll give it another try, eventually . . .
  • Rasputin’s Daughter: I saw this book at Target. It looked interesting. Why haven’t I even cracked the cover?
  • Kobzar’s Children: I found this collection of stories about Ukrainian immigrants while, you've guessed it, researching my paper. I’d like to use it in my paper, so I guess I better read it soon.
  • Pumpkin Patch: I’ve started this memoir of an American who adopted two children from Ukraine. I got distracted by other books—darn Shopaholic—and plan every day to return to it.

I am incredibly backed up in my Eastern European reading—I have dozens more on my “to read” list—but I am open to any suggestions. Maybe if my pile grows big enough, I’ll start reading out of guilt.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Short Stories

Predictably, I stayed up way too late last night finishing Shopaholic & Sister. I now remember why I felt compelled to read every book in the series (okay, I do have one more to go). Despite her enormous faults, and they are enormous, Becky Bloomwood somehow redeems herself at the end of each novel. This redemption apparently gives me amnesia, and I forget all the pain of slogging through the calamities of the book's middle section. But I won't prattle on and on about Shopaholic like a twat.

I’m now reading a collection of short stories called A Hunger Most Cruel. I stumbled on it while researching my genocide paper. The book is a collection of short stories, translated into English, about the Ukrainian Holodomor—a Stalinist manmade famine that killed an estimated 7-10 million people.

I am particularly intrigued by Olena Zvychayna’s short stories. The characters in "Socialist Potatoes" must sort through piles of rotten potatoes and grains while millions go hungry; Hanna of "'Lucky' Hanna" abandons her daughter in hopes she will be fed in an orphanage only to discover she has been discarded by the government as easily as the dead bodies that litter the streets. The topics are grim, yet Zbychayna’s writing is subtle and understated.

I am not much of a short story reader. There seems to be something so heavy—so literary—about a short story; each word has to count for a dozen. As such, my short story experience is limited, but here are a few collections I’ve recently read:

  • The Red Passport: Stories - Katherine Shonk’s short stories—mostly told from an American perspective—take place in post-Communist Russia. I was particularly struck by the story "Our American" as two young Russian men fall in love with an American girl—or, rather, they fall in love with the possibility of her rescuing them from the desperation of their current circumstances. The authenticity of this story is resounding; I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. I even reread the story—something I rarely do.
  • When Luba Leaves Home: Stories and Natasha and Other Stories - I lump these two together because they have similar themes. Bezmogis’s protagonist in Natasha is a young Latvian immigrant to Canada. Luba is the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants in Chicago. In each book, the characters cope with balancing “old world” tradition and family responsibility with living in North America. Although I admit to an Eastern European bias in much of my pleasure reading, these books have a larger appeal as the multicultural experience is quickly becoming the norm in the United States.
  • Interpreter of Maladies - If you have not read this Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection, do it. Now. Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories also explore the multicultural experience; they take place in two often overlapping worlds of the East and West. I was particularly drawn to "Mrs. Sen" who deals with loneliness and culture shock after moving to the United States for her husband’s work. There is a grace in Lahiri’s writing and a truth to her stories. (As a side note, I was terribly disappointed by Lahiri’s follow up, The Namesake. The book is equally as well written as Interpreter, but perhaps Lahiri set my expectations so high I couldn’t help but be disappointed.)

Monday, July 2, 2007

My Palace of Leaves in Sarajevo

I’m feeling so frustrated by Becky Bloomwood’s debt and deceit in Shopaholic & Sister that I just have to put the book down. Why am I putting myself through this? These books are so painful for me—painful on the level of watching American Idol auditions—yet, I know I will stay up way past my bedtime tonight finishing the book; and, though I tell myself I won’t, I’ll probably read the final book in the series since I’ve already committed to the first four. Plus, I do need some brain candy to counteract my descent into genocide literature.

Shopaholic & Sister is not the only book I’m frustrated with. I’m still plodding through Over a Thousand Hills. And I read a book this weekend I just don’t know what to do with: My Palace of Leaves in Sarajevo by Marybeth Lorbiecki.

Since My Palace of Leaves is so short—around 50 pages—I picked it up only minutes after finishing Zlata’s Diary. As I said in my previous post, I enjoyed Zlata’s Diary; it inspired me. Zlata’s Diary clearly also inspired Lorbiecki. In fact, there were several passages in the book that seem to be lifted directly from Diary.

I am not accusing Lorbiecki of blatant plagiarism—her writing is not nearly as eloquent as the preteen’s—but she clearly “borrows” events and descriptions from Diary. Granted, at the end of the book, Lorbiecki acknowledges that she is “thoroughly indebted to Zlata Filipović, the young Sarajevan woman who wrote Zlata’s Diary, 1994” (51). And I probably would not have realized how indebted she is to Zlata had I not just finished Diary.

I might be able to forgive Lorbiecki for being so heavily "inspired" by Filipović. I cannot forgive her writing style.

Zlata’s Diary was written originally in Croat and translated into English. Although clearly written by a young girl, the book is rarely awkward or unwieldy. In contrast, My Place of Leaves in Sarajevo is a clunker.

The book is written in epistolary form as Nadja Didović, a ten-year-old Sarajevan, corresponds with her cousin Alex in Minnesota. Nadja writes her letters in English—and English clearly is not her native language. I grudgingly admire Lorbiecki’s attempt to recreate letters written by a non-native English speaker. However, having lived in Ukraine and corresponded for years with ESL students, Lorbiecki misses the mark.

Nadja does not sound like a young Croatian-speaking girl; she sounds like a robot or Frankenstein—“Spring finally here, pretty and warm. I want to fly kite and walk in puddles and play ball in park with Ana” (24). Instead of hearing a child’s voice in my mind, I honestly heard Borat's. Nadja’s English is simply comedic in its awkwardness.

Alex’s letters, written in perfect English, read like an adult masquerading as a child—“[M]y secret spot’s behind some junk in the garage. That’s where I keep things away from my nosy sister, Judy. YECH!” (2). Although the letters span several years, neither Nadja nor Alex seem to age or mature—despite Nadja’s firsthand experience with war. And Nadja’s command of English never improves.

I know I’m being hard on this book. I genuinely respect Lorbiecki’s desire to write about this war, but there is a fine line between respecting and reverencing a topic and unintentionally creating a mockery of it.