Quickie Reviews – From Brooklyn to Mississippi

There are a few books that I’ve recently finished which are listed below with my brief review attached.  They are all newer titles that currently sit on or very near the latest best seller lists. Friends will often ask me if I have read a particular title, or for the suggestion of a solid personal or book club read. Because it takes a lot of time and thought to do a detailed review of each book, I am posting these “quickies” for your reference and perusal.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I’m not surprised Brooklyn made the Man Booker Prize longlist this year. This tight novel about a young woman who makes her way from small-town Ireland to big-city Brooklyn caught me completely off guard. I’d heard the title being tossed around quite a bit, but I’m glad I went into the story blind.

The hitch is Toibin’s simple prose which runs counter to the emotional juice fired sentence by sentence. Small movements, choice descriptions, and spare yet perfect dialogue enhance the sensitivities of each character, ultimately entangling the reader as active participant. I’m not quite sure when it happens, but you’ll see that Brooklyn: A Novel subtly morphs into Brooklyn: A Mystery which keeps you guessing right up to the last page.

*This is a an interesting literary work on all fronts. There is much to discuss in both content and form. As a book club read, everyone will have an opinion; the book begs it. If it feels slow, look for the undercurrents. As a personal read, it depends on your tastes. This is not fast-paced action as you know it, but trust that you will get involved.

Alex Cross’s Trial by James Patterson & Richard DiLallo

I haven’t read James Patterson since Along Came A Spider which was so long ago I don’t even remember it. However, when I noticed this book rocketed to #1 and held its standing, I decided to see what the fuss was about.

This is a bit tricky because while the book is made-for-movie material, its subject matter is utterly disturbing. Dealing with the KKK, white supremacy mentalities, and lynchings of the Old South, I felt nauseated reading this novel but pushed on needing to see how it would resolve. I suppose one might call it entertaining if it wasn’t so distressing, and hopefully this discomfort is the impetus behind Patterson and DiLallo’s latest work. Assuming the wrenching events in the book are research-based, this novel could be used as a teachable moment rather than mere fiction based on the historical plight of Southern Blacks.

*I would recommend this book as a personal or book club read only to enhance sensitivity/awareness toward our volatile racial history in America.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Sunday, Lovely Sunday

– A Weekly Post By Megan Shaffer

September 28, 2009

I love nothing more than a quiet Sunday morning. Hot coffee, quiet house, and hours to peruse the New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, and surf to my heart’s content. A book lover’s dream, Sunday holds the most current reviews, weekly bestseller lists, and articles of literary interest. Seeing as this happily takes the better part of my day, it usually isn’t until Monday morning that I can share the week’s latest and greatest with you.

COMMENTS AND CLARIFICATIONS

I wrote a Whimsy entry titled Def-initely Not Too Late about Def Poetry and the newly released Book of Rhymes by Adam Bradley. I loosely mentioned that his book “tanked” in the reviews based solely on the review in The New York Times. My apologies to Mr. Bradley for the blanket statement. I should clarify that this was my interpretation of the Time’s piece only, and stressed “review” in the singular.


Of National Interest


*BANNED BOOKS WEEK – LINK TO AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION (ALA) FOR EVENTS BOTH LOCAL AND NATIONWIDE

-It is certainly worth noting on both a national and local front that Michael Moore will release his documentary Capitalism: A Love Story on October 2nd. It was 20 years ago that Mr. Moore released Roger and Me, categorizing him as “…an irrepressible new humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain and Artemus Ward.”

-I know we are all exhausted by Bernie Madoff and stories of his unrelenting greed. Madoff’s Other Secret: Love, Money, Bernie, and Me, gives Sheryl Weinstein’s account of her “romantic entaglement” with the ill-reputed financier. Reviewed by the New York Times as “a relationship not so much remembered as embalmed”, one wonders if the Madoff-bilked Weinstein isn’t trying to recoup her losses.

-NPR aired two wonderful interviews with Francine Prose and E L Doctorow that should not be missed. Author Francine Prose (I’ve always loved that name) discusses her incredible new project Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife while E L Doctorow digs into his writing process behind his bang-up novel Homer & Langley (yes, I caved and bought it).

Talking Head’s David Byrne has released a book titled Bicycle Diaries. A collection of   Mr. Byrne’s travel entries. I’m more curious than interested and hope to post a blog on  this book upon further investigation. See NYT’s review of Bicycle Diaries here.

Local Voice

-The Detroit Free Press has a great cover story in Sunday’s paper covering Mitch Albom’s upcoming book launch for Have a Little Faith: A True Story (see Readings and Events).  His first non-fiction work since Tuesdays With Morrie, Albom calls it “…the most important thing I’ve ever written.” All proceeds from the Fox Theatre event will go to his charity S.A.Y. Detroit.

Bestseller Lists

New York Times

Publishers Weekly

Indie Bestsellers

Banned Books Week

It’s hard to believe that anything might be banned in today’s world. Between bawdy television shows, suggestive advertisements, and risque cinema, I honestly thought we had already broken through all thresholds of tolerance. Archaic as it may sound, there are people who still challenge books and move to have them banned.

September 26th through October 3rd is Banned Books Week (BBW). Sponsored by several literary societies and associations, BBW was designed to celebrate intellectual freedom and embrace the power of literature. The American Library Association (ALA) has a trove of information about Banned Books Week as well as compiled lists of books that have been challenged/banned over past years.

What is the difference between a banned book and a challenged book?  To lift directly from the ALA, “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.”

If you think about tangling with your local librarians, think again. The following definition of intellectual freedom by the American Library Association follows:

ALA actively advocates in defense of the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.  A publicly supported library provides free and equal access to information for all people of that community.  We enjoy this basic right in our democratic society.  It is a core value of the library profession.

So really, how much does this affect me?  Did you read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini? Not only did I love this book, but empathetically learned a tremendous amount about both Afghanistan and the Taliban.  According to amazon.com’s Recently Banned and Challenged Books of 2008, it has been both challenged and removed from several high school curricula. Prep, The Lovely Bones? Maybe not high-brow literature, but are these titles worth challenging? Can you imagine being stripped of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, or Native Son just to name a few?

What this week is all about is the protection of your rights. Librarians, teachers, and booksellers go to great lengths to feature threatened books, reiterating the importance of your personal freedom to choose. This is a nationwide celebration of awareness, so check your local library and book stores for Banned Book Week events.

Post by Megan Shaffer

Michigan Notable Books

Author and Washington Post editor Steve Luxenberg was kind enough to comment on my recent review of his book Annie’s Ghosts (see Annie’s Ghosts-Made in Detroit). At the end of my piece (which I have since changed), I questioned why he was overlooked as a Michigan Notable Book for 2009. As Mr. Luxenberg explains, “Books published in 2009 become eligible for the 2010 list, which will be announced in December…” thus, in my opinion, leaving him a top contender for next year’s list.

What Are Michigan Notable Books?

Each year, the Library of Michigan selects up to 20 published titles over the last year that celebrate Michigan people, places, or events. Stretching back to 1991, the Michigan Notable Books began as the Read Michigan program but switched its name in 2004.

Anywhere between 250 to 400 Michigan-related titles are reviewed each year. Book selections are highly competitive and are reviewed by a board of 10-16 members who come from various literary backgrounds. The program is supported by sponsors and grants handled by the Library of Michigan Foundation.

*2009 Michigan Notable Book List

Megan Shaffer

Annie’s Ghosts – Made In Detroit

Annie's GhostsI first heard about “Annie’s Ghosts” on NPR.  A Journalist Uncovers His Family’s ‘Ghosts’ was both an interview and a book promo with author and Washington Post editor Steve Luxenberg. Half-listening while  driving, it was interesting enough for me to scribble down the title and subsequently reserve it at the library… and I’m so glad I did.

Annie’s Ghosts – A Journey Into a Family Secret must have been an extremely difficult book for Steve Luxenberg to write. It is honest in the face of dishonesty and loyal where he could have turned away. Digging into the dark corners of his family’s past, Mr. Luxenburg exhumes the complicated history of his ancestors in hopes of revealing a family secret once mentioned by his now deceased mother.

I don’t know how I was born in the Detroit area and never heard of “Eloise”. The psychiatric hospital which closed its doors in 1979 would have at best been historical information, and at worst a schoolyard jeer. One would think that an institution that once housed “nine thousand mentally ill, infirm, and homeless people” from the state of Michigan would have caught my attention at some point. However, it wasn’t until I read about Annie that I learned of its existence.

Having always eagerly described herself as an only child, Beth Luxenberg (the author’s mother) did her best to conceal a sister long hidden away at Eloise. However, after her doctor mentioned a mysterious comment to Mr. Luxenberg, the author felt compelled to prove the existence of an aunt he’d never met. With the deftness of his trade, Luxenberg tempers his unyielding journalistic skills with empathy and sensitivity as he coaxes his older relations into pasts best left forgotten.

“Pursuing the secret would ultimately lead me back to the beginning of the twentieth century, through Ellis Island to the crowded streets of Detroit’s Jewish immigrant communities, through the spectacular boom of the auto industry’s early years and the crushing bust of the Depression, through the wartime revival that transformed the city into the nation’s Arsenal of Democracy, through the Holocaust that brought a relative to Detroit and into my mother’s secret, through the postwar exodus that robbed the city’s old neighborhoods of both population and prosperity.”

And  this is exactly what Steve Luxenberg does.  As we move back in time, the anticipation builds as more pieces fall into place ultimately bringing us closer to solving this mystery. At times horrific, Luxenberg holds your hand as unbelievable truths come to light. Poignant yet informative, this is the gift that keeps on giving. Full of Detroit’s colorful history, this true mystery is without a doubt destined to be a  Michigan Notable Book.

A NOTE: When I began asking people if they had heard of Eloise, they usually talked about it as a sight for paranormal activity. When I tried to look at footage of Eloise, YouTube seemed to back that up. However, there are legitimate sites and some pretty cool information on Eloise and its remaining structures. My condolences to those of you whose relations remain nameless and faceless in the mist of Eloise.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

 

And the Winner Is…

I don’t know how I missed it! I wait for this moment and guide my reading by the Man Booker Prize 2009 Short List hoping to read them all before the winner is revealed. Announced on September 8th, these six books were selected from the longlist of thirteen titles. Here we go:

A S Byatt for The Children’s Book

J M Coetzee for Summertime

Adam Foulds for The Quickening Maze

Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall

Simon Mawer for The Glass Room

Sarah Waters for The Little Stranger

Having won in 1999 with Disgrace and in 1983 with Life & Times of Michael K, J M Coetzee will be going for a triple crown victory, the first in Booker Prize history! How can anyone think literature is boring!?!

If you are interested in the other potential contenders, click on this Longlist. The winners will be announced on October 6th and I am way behind! I welcome any comments or recommendations you might have on any of these candidates.

If you are unfamiliar with the Man Booker Prize, it was created to promote “… the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year.  The prize is the world’s most important literary award and has the power to transform the fortunes of authors and even publishers…the prize, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, aims to reward the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.” For more info see The Man Booker site.

NLR post by   Megan Shaffer



Sunday, Lovely Sunday

Sunday, Lovely Sunday – A Weekly Post By Megan Shaffer

September 28, 2009

I love nothing more than a quiet Sunday morning. Hot coffee, quiet house, and hours to peruse the New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, and surf to my heart’s content. A book lover’s dream, Sunday holds the most current reviews, weekly bestseller lists, and articles of literary interest. Seeing as this happily takes the better part of my day, it usually isn’t until Monday morning that I can share the week’s latest and greatest with you.

Of National Interest

*BANNED BOOKS WEEK – LINK TO AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION (ALA) FOR EVENTS BOTH LOCAL AND NATIONWIDE

-It is certainly worth noting on both a national and local front that Michael Moore will release his documentary Capitalism: A Love Storyon October 2nd. It was 20 years ago that Mr. Moore released Roger and Me, categorizing him as “…an irrepressible new humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain and Artemus Ward.”

-I know we are all exhausted by Bernie Madoff and stories of his unrelenting greed. Madoff’s Other Secret: Love, Money, Bernie, and Me, gives Sheryl Weinstein’s account of her “romantic entaglement” with the ill-reputed financier. Reviewed by the New York Times as “a relationship not so much remembered as embalmed”, one wonders if the Madoff-bilked Weinstein isn’t trying to recoup her losses.

-NPR aired two wonderful interviews with Francine Prose and E L Doctorow that should not be missed. Author Francine Prose (I’ve always loved that name) discusses her incredible new project Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife while E L Doctorow digs into his writing process behind his bang-up novel Homer & Langley (yes, I caved and bought it).

Talking Head’s David Byrne has released a book titled Bicycle Diaries. A collection of   Mr. Byrne’s travel entries. I’m more curious than interested and hope to post a blog on  this book upon further investigation. See NYT’s review of Bicycle Diaries here.

Local Voice

-The Detroit Free Press has a great cover story in Sunday’s paper covering Mitch Albom’s upcoming book launch for Have a Little Faith: A True Story. His first non-fiction work since Tuesdays With Morrie, Albom calls it “…the most important thing I’ve ever written.” All proceeds from the Fox Theatre event will go to his charity S.A.Y. Detroit.

Bestseller Lists

New York Times

Publishers Weekly

Indie Bestsellers

Angels and Sweet, Sweet Pie

There are two books that I recently finished which are listed below with my brief review attached.  They are newer titles that currently sit on or very near the latest best seller lists. Friends will often ask me if I have read a particular title, or for the suggestion of a solid personal or book club read. Because it takes a lot of time and thought to do a detailed review of each book, I am posting these “quickies” for your reference and perusal.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I did not read The Shadow of the Wind, Zafon’s first novel which was a biggie with the book clubs. However, if it is anything like The Angel’s Game, I think I’ll pass. This bizarre mystery reminds me more of a Harry Potter meets Dante’s Inferno, and seemed to me a poor attempt at chills and thrills.

Dating back to the early 1900’s, The Angel’s Game spins the tale of David Martin, a struggling author who takes on an eerie writing project which ultimately throws him into the depths of his own personal hell. An abundance of dark alleys, secret doors, and hidden rooms left me both confused and exhausted as it stretched out over the span of its 531 pages. The word plodding comes to mind and a finger must be pointed at Lucia Graves for what is, in my opinion, a weak translation. I find it hard to believe Ruiz-Zafon’s original version would have a hooker in the 1900’s ask someone to “invite me in for a snack.”

*Take a pass on this one

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie,

who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?

This book is so different, so engaging, and so much fun that I can’t stop suggesting it to people.  After a stretch of hum-drum fiction, I was pleasantly caught off guard by this Debut Dagger Award winner. I’m typically not a mystery reader, but this is not your average mystery as it holds one of the most plucky, winsome main characters I have ever met.

Flavia de Luci is only eleven but trust me when I tell you, she’ll keep you busy for 373 straight pages. An aspiring chemist, Flavia’s intellectual capabilities might be a bit of a stretch, but author Alan Bradley had me clearly convinced that this girl can do it all. As Flavia dukes it out with her two sisters, Bradley’s hot, literary knowledge tucks itself neatly into the family discord adding serious prose to the dialogue. The biggest treat… life through the eyes of an eleven-year-old.

*This witty, sharp, and charming novel is a must. A quick read, I would suggest it as a great personal choice and an entertainer for any book club.

Def-initely not too late!

There is a new book out called “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop” by Adam Bradley which draws a parallel between authors of the classic canon and lyrics of current hip-hop artists. Though its New York Times review was mixed, it does bring us face to face again with that curious term “Def Poetry.”

I first heard about Def Poetry when I was living in Chicago; most of it hype surrounding  the “Def Poetry Jam” airing on an upcoming HBO series. However, I didn’t take the time to investigate this new breed of poetry a decade ago (or two), so I now find myself asking the ignorant question, “What exactly is Def Poetry?”

The word def in my online dictionary is defined as an informal adjective originating in the 1980’s, and is likely a shortened form of definite or definitive. The urban dictionary defines it as “cool, ill, dope.” One might say, “That’s a def tattoo!” I personally have never used the word def in my exchanges but was horrified to see it was also defined as an archaic term circa 1981(ouch). Whatever the meaning is, it is extremely powerful stuff.

After YouTubing (yes, verb), I was stunned listening to Suheir Hammad who lashed out at the 9/11 aftermath bringing tears to my eyes. On the lighter side was Michigan’s own Poetri who brings a bit more humor to his work. Regardless of subject matter, this is the serious verse which lies at the heart of the aforementioned “Book of Rhymes.” Def Poetry is a quick-lipped, free verse genre which carries with it the emotional word of the street.

I know I’m quite late to the party, but there still seems to be plenty of Def Poetry to go around. Listings abound in the Detroit metro area, and why shouldn’t they? We certainly have enough talent and raw material upon which to draw.

Free Press Article

-post by Megan Shaffer

Travels With Tolstoy

This summer, I chose for myself a lofty goal: I was going to read a few classic literary works from the Russian canon, beginning with the big daddy of them all; Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I honestly didn’t know much about this epic tale except that it was really long…about 1200 pages, and had to do with the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. I anticipated a struggle with both the high brow material and my commitment as titles like “The Help”, “Mudbound”, “The Forever War”, and “Brooklyn” stared anxiously at me from my to-read stack, but I promised myself I would stay true.

Not typically classified as a “beach read”, Leo and I became close friends despite his size. He made quite a nice traveling companion, albeit a cumbersome one, as we made our way around northern Michigan. Indifferent to the raised eyebrows and stares we received from curious bystanders, he remained composed and dignified as complete strangers rudely inquired why I would choose to read such a heavy tome.

Well, I decided to read War and Peace because I felt that as a reader I needed to understand why this novel, and Tolstoy for that matter, have weathered the test of time. What is it about this particular work that gives it such staying power?  I wanted to know what psychological draw a book written in the 1800’s could possibly have on the readership of our contemporary culture. And, until I achieved this personal frame of reference, I simply felt that I couldn’t engage in the Russian conversation.

I’m not going to lie and tell you it was all peaches and cream. I stalled out at around 900 pages. I just couldn’t accompany Andrei into another battle seeing as I had already completed two tours. Although I was heartily pushing for peace over war at this point, I must say I was dumbstruck by Tolstoy’s astute reflections on religion, economics, politics…and war. As our current talking heads jabbered through June and July, Leo would wink and prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same…

-The more we try to explain sensibly these phenomena of history, the more senseless and incomprehensible they become for us…man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The height a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.

-… we must assure a preponderance of virtue over vice, we must try to make it so that the honest man already attains in this world the eternal reward for his virtues.  But we are very much hindered in these great intentions by present-day political institutions. What are we to do in such a state of affairs? Are we to favor revolutions, overthrow everything, drive out force by force?…No, we are very far from that. Every violent reform is blameworthy, because it will not set evil to rights in the least, as long as people remain as they are, and because wisdom has no need of violence…

Though some 300 odd pages still await me, and I never made it to Nabokov, I now deem War and Peace a true reader’s privilege. Read slowly enough, I was allowed to savor Tolstoy’s deeply personal passages and absurdly modern insights which add to the wonder of dating back almost 100 years. Now as I gaze at my battered copy, I realize by the wine stains, sun-screen smears, and flagged edges that War and Peace was in fact, the perfect summer read.

– Post by Megan Shaffer