Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mistress Oriku - Matsutaro Kawaguchi

Title: Mistress Oriku - Stories from a Tokyo Teahouse
Author: Matsutaro Kawaguchi
Date Finished: Dec 31, 2008 #73
Pages: 270
Rating: 3.5/5

I stumbled upon this book while searching for others for the Japanese Challenge. I was looking specifically for Snow Country by Kawabata, and this one just happened to take its place on the shelf. Lucky me! This is my second read for the Japanese Challenge, and it was a great companion to Snow Country.

Mistress Oriku is a collection of eleven interrelated stories about the proprietress of a fancy teahouse outside Tokyo. Oriku is an extremely likeable character--she is middle aged, independent, kind, loving, and a little bit of a firecracker. The stories tell of how Oriku came to run the teahouse and the relationships that she has created over the years. While Oriku isn't a geisha like the characters in Snow Country, her teahouse is a sort of hotel where guests come to stay, especially when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Because of the circumstances, Oriku encounters many colorful characters--especially artists and actors.

I loved getting a closer look at the Japanese culture through this book. It is set mostly around the turn of the century (I'm not sure when the book was originally written and couldn't find anything on the Internet). The Japanese arts were in full swing and this book felt like a really nice cross between Memoirs of a Geisha and Snow Country. While Snow Country focuses mostly on the relationship of the two main characters, Mistress Oriku is a well-balanced combination of relationships and events.

If you're looking to learn more about pre-WWII (or even pre-WWI) Japanese teahouse culture, I'd recommend this book. It was a fairly quick read, the stories were all captivating, and there is a ton of dialogue, which was a great switch after the absence of dialogue in Lolita. Sometimes the stories are subtle, but sometimes they can be quite funny (though not laugh out loud funny...), and there is a constant sense of the end of the era--especially with the bittersweet ending. A good read to wrap up the year!

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bringing Down the House - Ben Mezrich

Title: Bringing Down the House
Author: Ben Mezrich
Date Finished: Dec 26, 2008 #72
Published: 2002 Pages: 257
Rating: 3.5/5

After attempting to watch the movie 21 and falling asleep (not because of the movie...unfortunately I have a tough time staying awake while watching any movie at home), my dad told me he read the book and enjoyed it more than the film. So, instead of renting 21 again, I decided to make this my quick holiday vacation read. And quick it was!

Bringing Down the House tells the true story of Kevin Lewis and a group of other students from MIT who use their math skills to beat the Las Vegas casinos at blackjack thus winning several million dollars. The book was very entertaining and oftentimes a page turner as Mezrich discusses the strategies used in order to win thousands of dollars in a matter of hours and the close calls the group faced as casino managers began to catch onto their scheme (although card counting is not illegal you can be thrown out of a casino).

The characters are colorful and well-developed, although according to wikipedia, many of the events and even characters are exaggerated or even fictionalized. Kind of burst my bubble, especially as I was really excited about this book and kept relaying the events to hubby. It's still a really fun and interesting read--not very deep or thought provoking, but definitely great for a short break from heavier reading.

Woohoo! Year's shortest review. :P I'm still really swamped, but here's to hoping that next week will bring back the slower pace in life. Hope everyone is well!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov and Classics Challenge Completed!

Title: Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Date Finished: Dec 23, 2008 #71
Published: 1955 Pages: 309
Rating: 4/5

What to say about a book that so many people have talked about or have predisposed notions about? I went into this book with partial trepidation and partial anticipation and ended up being both amazed and revolted--first by the writing and second by the subject matter. Pretty much just as I expected.

Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, as told from his perspective, and his passionate love affair with the twelve-year-old Lolita. Humbert, always trying to recreate a childhood relationship, is obsessed with nymphets, and when he first meets Lolita, he falls immediately in love with her. The first sentences has been repeated and repeated, but I'll repeat it again here: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tape, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." There are so many derogatory things that can be said about Humbert--and it is true that he is a pedophile, rapist, conniving and manipulative man, but there is also something so sad and heartbreaking about his delusions.

This is the type of book that I wish I had read in grad school so that I would have secondary sources and discussion in order to grasp a better understanding of all the intricacies. There is so much social commentary that Nabokov presents to his reader that I can only graze the surface. Not only is the relationship between Humbert and Lolita perverted (both because of the monster that Humbert is and because of the way that Lolita reacts to him), but society itself is heavily criticized. The hotels Humbert and Lolita stay at, the activities and schools that Lolita is involved in, the people they know, the towns they visit--everything is grotesque. Even though Nabokov's words and descriptions are beautiful, I had the feeling that nothing he discusssed was beautiful.

Since I've been reading this book for two weeks on and off, Laura asked me a few times how I was liking the book and I never knew quite how to answer. It wasn't easy reading, partly because of the richness in language, but also because at times I was reading the types of descriptions that would turn my stomach. I often wondered how this book would have been received if a less crafty author had written this story. Would it be discarded as pornography? (hopefully this post doesn't send my keyword searches to the gutter!). But the writing. The writing is the type of writing that keeps me in search of the next book that I can drown in. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I note that every single word is so carefully thought out and well placed. Although it is heavy, it is some of the most delicious writing I have encountered (this whole experience is a big paradox...beautiful/delicious writing about such a dark and horrid subject).

This book is bigger than I am. There are so many things to talk about, and I can't do this book justice. I can see this book as being the type where you can look past the subject matter and get to the meat or not be able to get past the subject. Or get tied up in all of the erudite language and get lost or bored or become entranced with the writing. I don't believe this book is for everyone, and I'm not even sure it was for me, but I do know that is one that I could see myself revisiting years down the road or even seeking out other works of Nabokov. I think this is just one of those anomalies.

They read it too:
Melody; Bellezza; Nymeth; Book Chronicle; Rhinoa; Chris; Ramya
(If I missed yours--as my google reader went crazy when I typed in "Lolita" let me know. But please be patient if I don't get it linked right away as I'll be away from the computer for a few days).

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On to another and lighter topic--this was my last pick for the Classics Challenge, so I am finished!! Yay!!

Lolita
Emma (favorite)
My Antonia
Death of a Salesman
The Swiss Family Robinson (least favorite)
Bonus: Neverwhere

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FINALLY: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!! I've been absent, I know. And I have over 300 posts in my reader...most of which will be marked "read." :(

I'm leaving town for the rest of the week to spend the holidays with my husband's family, and I won't have access to a computer. I know things will slow down again after the new year, and I can't wait!!! Best wishes to you all!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Classics Challenge Information


It's the time of year when everyone is wrapping up both presents and unfinished projects. The Classics Challenge ends at the end of the month, and some of you finished weeks ago, some are just now finishing, and others (like me) are working hard at getting those last classics of the year read.

When you've finished, hop over HERE to the classics challenge and enter the link to your wrap up post to be entered into a drawing for a book of your choice from Amazon.com ($20 limit). I'll be drawing the name after December 31st, so you still have a little bit of time left to finish.

While you're there, please take a few minutes to answer a few poll questions so that I can have some direction for the 2009 classics challenge. I'm thinking I'll move it up in the year--because let's face it--December is hectic enough!! Since I'm also hosting the Non-Fiction Five next year, I think I might host them at the same time (thinking April-September?).

I'd love feedback from you!! You can leave it either here or at the classics challenge blog.

One thing I'm really interested in knowing (and didn't think to create a poll for): Are you interested in having the same Mister Linky format OR a blog where you can post your actual reviews??

What other challenges do you have lined up for next year? I haven't made any lists yet, but I have my eye on a few!

Hope everyone is doing well--life is crazy here and I haven't been getting any reading or blogging done the past few weeks. Hopefully things will settle down soon and I'll be back in action!!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris and Blogger Advent


I have to admit that today is Wednesday, even though this post will publish on Friday. December is an incredibly busy month not only because of the holidays but also because of extended hours at work (which cuts into my morning and lunch reading time--which means very little blogging time). Thursday is my husband's work party and Friday is my work party--so here I am on Wednesday. Not procrastinating. Must be a first! :P

So, since I gave my husband the ole holiday decorating guilt trip, I thought it only fair to post about our holiday tradition before moving on to the book review. When I told him that I was going to post holiday pictures and his wouldn't be included if he didn't finish his decorating, he hopped into high gear and started finishing his work.

So what is the tradition? A few years ago, I decided to start a Christmas village. I really really wanted Scott to take an interest and get involved in the new tradition, so I dragged him to the holiday store on the coldest day of the year (when we were living in Lubbock). I showed him the village I wanted, the New England series, and he took one look at it, and said, "sure...I'll take an interest. I'll start my own village and we can compete." Yup, thanks Scott for the support. So, thus began our tradition of competing villages. While both villages are Department 56, mine is New England and his is Christmas in the City (Scott's picture is on top--his village still isn't complete; My village is on bottom--complete. Both villages butt right up against each other).


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HOLIDAYS ON ICE
Author: David Sedaris
Date Finished: Dec 10, 2008
Published: 2008 (new edition); Pages: 166
Rating: 3.75/5

I've never read anything by Sedaris before, so I was really excited to get my hands on Holidays on Ice. This book was a great break from all of the challenge reading I've been doing lately and will be doing for the rest of the year. Plus, because my reading time has been cut the past few weeks, the short stories (at least in the second part of the book) were perfect for stealing away for a few minutes to read.

Holidays on Ice contains 12 different stories about, um, the holidays--mostly Christmas but a few Halloween as well. Sedaris's humor is just how I like it--sharp and dark. The stories, particularly "SantaLand Diaries," "Jesus Shaves," "Us and Them," and "Let it Snow," made me laugh out loud and even sometimes gasp in shock. Sedaris certainly doesn't hold anything back in his humor (there is a little bit of off-color and language, but I didn't find it overwhelming).

Other than the fact that these stories all provide social commentary on how we silly people act and react during the holidays, the stories are varied--even ranging from personal accounts and essays to more fictionalized stories. I preferred the personal stories and actually could have done without some of the others ("Based on a True Story" and "Christmas Means Giving"). Each story, though, makes us take a look at how we are celebrating the holidays.

I would recommend this little book with a little bit of reservation. This isn't your normal feel-good Christmas book. But it will make you laugh, and it will make you think, and if nothing else it will get you a little closer to the Christmas spirit. Thanks Miriam and Hachette Books for the great laughs.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman

Title: The Zookeeper's Wife
Author: Diane Ackerman
Date Finished: Dec 7, 2008 #69
Published: 2007 Pages: 323
Rating: 3/5

From the back cover:
"After their zoo was bombed, Polish zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski managed to save over three hundred people from the Nazis by hiding refugees in the empty animal cages. With animal names for these "guests," and human names for the animals, it's no wonder that the zoo's code name because "The House Under a Crazy Star."

More than the story of how the Zabinskis saved over three hundred people, The Zookeeper's Wife is also a history of Warsaw during WWII, especially during Nazi occupation. Not only were the Jewish targeted during the occupation, but Hitler determine to rid the world of Poles--starting with Jews and Polish intellasia. Ackerman discusses the Polish Underground, which Jan Zabinski participated in extensively, and its efforts to find safe homes for thousands of people. The Zabinskis, along with many others, bravely sacrificed their comforts and safety for years to ensure that others also remained safe.

This book is our December book club read, and I had been looking forward to it for months. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in the book. Most times when I read an encounter of the war, I have a tough time even rating the book (and usually don't), but there were some formatting issues that I had with this book. There is a wealth of information provided, and Ackerman has certainly done extensive research in order to write this book. But the way that the material was presented was choppy and at times even incoherent. For several chapters, it seemed that every paragraph dealt with a different subject, and it was difficult for me to keep track of what was going on and even what the current subject was. Ackerman often wandered onto tangents, and the purpose of the tangents were often unclear until later. The book flowed better when Ackerman focused on actual stories, but when talking about the war/events in general the organization was difficult to follow. The writing, however, is actually very lyrical and easy to read.

I hate to be so negative about the way this book was written because the material in the book itself is fascinating and the story of the Zabinskis is an amazing one. But even their story often took second place to other story lines. The paragraph I provided from the back cover suggests that the main focus will be how the Zabinskis hid so many people in the zoo, but aside from a few anecdotal stories and daily activities within the zoo and attached villa, I learned very little about how the Zabinskis hid and helped so many people.

But, so many other people have really loved this book--so please don't make my review the deciding factor. Read theirs also: Corinne; Heather J.; Ramya; Fyrefly

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County - Tiffany Baker

Title: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County
Author: Tiffany Baker
Date Finished: Dec 1, 2008 #68
Published: 2009 Pages: 341
Rating: 4.5/5

It always feels so great when I have high expectations of a book and those expectations are met. I try not to get too excited about certain books because I'm sometimes disappointed (I think I've come to accept the fact that I'm picky and tough on my books--I expect a lot!). The Little Giant was every bit as good as I had secretly hoped it would be!

The Little Giant of Aberdeen is the story of Truly Plaice, a woman of giant stature--both in size and in heart. Even from birth, it was clear that Truly was different from other children. Where her sister, Serena Jane, was beautiful, blonde, and fragile, Truly was plain, dark, and substantial. She never fit in at school, her teacher was unkind and unfair to her, when she had no place to go after her parents passed away she was separated and outcast from her sister because she was different. Misunderstood and unloved by many, Truly eventually found her place as her nephew's caretaker at the rotten Dr. Robert Morgan's home.

Although the time spent at Robert Morgan's home was awful, she uncovered centuries-old secrets that would change the lives of several forever. While Robert Morgan had a power over Truly, especially as he claimed to possess the medical secrets of her size, Truly claimed a power of her own and finally reclaimed her own fate instead of allowing others to control her destiny.

I really enjoyed this book and can see it becoming a big hit next year, perhaps even seeing the same success as Water for Elephants. Baker is a natural storyteller and developed the complicated plot of Little Giant with ease. Truly, despite her differences, is a wonderful character--one that I grew to love. Even though I was sometimes frustrated at her tendency to roll over and take the next hit from whoever was dishing, she often showed extreme strength in the difficult situations she found herself in.

This book was one that I had a difficult time putting down and couldn't wait to pick it back up again. The story is suspenseful from the beginning, there are elements of the fantastical while still remaining realistic, but most of all the book was engaging and a pleasure to read. My one complaint was that the story was a little predictable near the end and wrapped up a little too neatly and quickly. But really, it is a minor complaint. I heartily recommend this book! It has a little bit of everything for everyone--mystery, romance, folklore, and best of all tough sticky debatable questions.

This book will be available January 2009 from Hachette Books. Thanks Miriam, for allowing me to devour this one with so much pleasure!

Monday, December 1, 2008

In Memory of Dewey


Dearest Dewey, you touched all of our lives and we will miss you
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