Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review - Comet's Tale, Steven Wolf

Comet’s Tale: How the Dog I Rescued Saved My Life


Steven Wolf, Lynette Padwa

Category:  Nonfiction: Memoir: Animals; Dogs; Disabilities

Synopsis: Wolf, suffering from a spinal condition, rescues a retired greyhound, Comet, and teaches her to be his service animal.

Date finished: 8 August 2013

Rating: ****

I simultaneously love animal books and loathe them. But mostly I loathe them because they can be so sad. I save the last couple chapters of Marley and Me for months before I had the guts to finish it. It all started with Where the Red Fern Grows in Mrs. DeJarlais’ third grade classroom. (Raise your hand if Where the Red Fern Grows destroyed you.) Of course, that doesn’t stop me from buying them, letting them sit on the shelf awhile, then taking a deep breath and digging in.

This one came highly recommended, but while it was good, it wasn’t great. The author is opposed to the anthropomorphizing animals, but he does it in this book. A lot. And that didn’t really bother me, per se, but it did make me feel the teeniest bit manipulated. And it made me distrust the story. I really liked Comet, but I’ll never know how much of what I like is Comet and how much is in the imagination of Steve Wolf.

The idea of a greyhound being a service animal is interesting in and of itself. I enjoyed reading about how Comet was trained, and how much of what she learned she learned intuitively. And I for one would love to see a greyhound pulling a man in a wheelchair through an airport at top speed!

My trouble with the book was the humans, not the dog. I wasn’t enamored of Wolf, but his wife and daughters were childish, selfish people. It bothered me that they seemed to sever ties with Wolf as he became more and more disabled and came around when he had a successful back surgery. Wolf seems to brush it away and doesn’t seem all that bothered by it, but either I missed something or he did, because what he relates of the mean way his wife talks to him and how his daughters just stop talking to him altogether was unpleasant enough that I didn’t want to read about it.

So, my rating is for Comet and Comet alone.

And at least one half of a star is given for the very fact that the book doesn’t end with a dog death like all the others do! Hurrah!

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, I think so.

You might also enjoy:
Marley and Me by John Grogan (naughty dog)
The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery (huge pig)
Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper (blind cat)
Dewey by Vicki Myron (library cat)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review - When We Were the Kennedys

When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine


Monica Wood

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Death & Grief

Synopsis: Wood recounts the time following her father’s death in 1963, just months before JFK’s assassination.

Date finished: 3 August 2013

Rating: *****

This is another book I decided to read because everyone else had. Its central theme, death, hadn’t appealed to me in the least. And reading a whole book about grief? Didn’t sound like the way I wanted to spend four days.

But I am so glad I read this book.

Not only was the writing stunning, but it was intelligent and well-controlled. It wasn’t sloppy or sentimental or indulgent. Wood told the story she meant to tell, and she told it plainly and with dignity.

This book reminded me a lot of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think it was tone, more than subject matter, though, that prompts the comparison. Both Wood and Smith are masterful at telling a story through a child’s eyes.

There is almost no action in this story whatsoever. But there are little adventures and memorable characters. And something that surprised me a great deal was how very little time the author spent describing her father. We knew little about him, but just enough to bring us into the family and allow us to feel grief. Any other author telling this story would have bombarded the reader with facts and stories about the man, at the very least, including a chapter introducing us to him. The fact that she didn’t made the story even better.

I found myself analyzing how the story was put together as much as enjoying the read. This would be a great book for a nonfiction literature class or a memoir writing curriculum. There’s much to study here in technique—most of it so subtle you don’t realize it’s technique at all.

This is a book I anticipate returning to again and again. In an odd way, it’s a very comforting read.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Bout of Books Update - Sunday

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is now over. I only got another 30 or so pages in on Sunday. Sunday's my busy day. Saturday is errands day, and Sunday is a work day (church & teaching Sunday School, laundry, balancing the checkbook & paying bills, various church duties, making a big supper, etc.). I was happy to sneak in a few minutes of reading while the laundry washed.

So, here are my stats:

books finished:
Food Rules
Murder on the Orient Express

books abandoned:
Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading (70 pages)

book in progress:
The Wilder Life (2/3 through)

estimated hours spent reading:
24 - the equivalent of one whole day!

Not a bad week, I'd say. Can't wait for next year!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bout of Books Update - Saturday

I didn't get much reading in on Saturday, but I normally don't read at all on Saturday. I did get 15 pages in while hubby slept in. Then we decided on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Minneapolis--book store for me and guitar repair shop for hubs. I bought four Agatha Christie mysteries, As Always, Julia (Julia Childs' letters to Avis DeVoto), The 100 Best African American Poems edited by Nikki Giovanni (love her poems, so this should be a great collection), and Persuasion (the Austen book I want to read next). So instead of chipping away at the reading list, I added to it. My favorite kind of day!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bout of Books Update - Friday

Spent yesterday at work after three wonderful days off. So I was back to my usual hour and 15 minutes of reading time. Only got 40 pages further in The Wilder Life. Friday night here is grocery shopping and Sci Fi movie night, so no more reading. Maybe I should have chosen shorter books, you know, for better numbers. :)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Bout of Books Read-a-thon Update

(I must apologize. I didn't realize I was supposed to be writing daily updates and linking them to the Bout of Books website as part of the read-a-thon. Following are my Monday through Thursday updates.)

I spent three whole, glorious days this week reading.

Monday evening, I finished Michael Pollan’s Food Rules

and Winnie-the-Pooh.


(If you can believe it, this was my first time through this treasure.)
Tuesday, I read Murder on the Orient Express all day and nearly finished it, but kind of hit the wall.

Tuesday morning, I finished Murder on the Orient Express and began Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading.

Tuesday evening, we spent an hour or so without power. Let me tell you, there is NOTHING to do without electricity. I was shocked at how fidgety I was without the ability to read, cook supper, watch TV, or even go online. And without lights, we couldn’t even play a board game. Note to self: buy some candles. Or a lantern.

Wednesday, I returned to Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading and after a few pages, I finally admitted to myself this was not the book I’d expected, and I hadn’t enjoyed a page of it. I hate abandoning a book after getting so far (70+ pages plus a LONG introduction numbered in Roman numerals so as not to count in the page count—what’s up with that?), but I found the author so arrogant and the writing so boringly academic that I couldn’t go on. I had to cut my losses.
I’d planned on beginning My Life in France this week, but it didn’t feel right, so I went to my shelves in search of something lighthearted and adventurous. I chose The Wilder Life.

All in all, I’d hoped to finish more books, but my false start with Leave Me Alone set me back. Doubt I’ll finish another book this week, but I’ll keep going.

The read-a-thon was a success as far as I’m concerned. I finally read Winnie-the-Pooh, and I fell in love with that silly bear. I allowed myself to end a book I wasn’t enjoying; that’s personal growth. And I found that I could really love Agatha Christie mysteries.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review - The World's Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family


Josh Hanagarne

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Disabilities & Diseases (Tourette’s); Religion (Mormonism)

Synopsis: Hanagarne, a librarian, takes up weightlifting to deal with his Tourette’s Syndrome.

Date finished: 30 July 2013

Rating: ****½  

I can see why all the bookish librarian-types I know have read this or have put this book on their reading list. There aren’t nearly enough books out there about librarians. And funny Mormon weightlifting librarians with Tourette’s should be writing books, in my opinion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

I enjoyed the horrendous stories of manning a library. Who knew Salt Lake City had so many crazies? Our university library deals mostly with men looking at porn and confused middle-aged women going topless—and being on third floor, I see none of it.

I also enjoyed the discussion of Mormonism. There seems to be a hush rule in Mormon Temples. Mormons never talk (write) about the details of their religion. Perhaps it’s a “pearls before swine” fear. But here, our author discusses the Book of Mormon, the two-year mission that young men go on, giving blessings, and even a bit about the marriage ceremony. He’s “lost his testimony,” or suffered a crisis of faith, and he discusses this in a simple and heartfelt way, and the elders seem to deal with the news lovingly and without judgment.

I enjoyed the way he talked about his parents. They were real and exceptionally caring people. There aren’t enough books that deal with parents this way.

I even enjoyed his adventures in weightlifting and his herculean efforts to control his Tourette’s tics.

The humor and honestly with which he approached all of these subjects as well as infertility, his wife’s miscarriages, and becoming a father, was refreshing and uplifting. I would recommend this book to most anyone.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Heaven is Here, Stephanie Nielson

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Join the Bout of Books read-a-thon...

Bout of Books
...I did. I'll be taking Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off next week to read, read, read. I spent the first 12 years of adult employment (working for the state, no less) without vacation. When I finally got vacation time, I had no idea what to do with it. Now I know: READ.

There's still time to join the fun. (See below for information and a link.)

What's on my Bout of Book book pile?

A.A. Milne
Winnie-the-Pooh (finish up)

Agatha Christie
Murder on the Orient Express

Julia Child
My Life in France

Maureen Corrigan
Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading

Michael Pollan
Food Rules

Theron Humphrey
Maddie on Things

Barbra Streisand
My Passion for Design

More Information:

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, August 19th and runs through Sunday, August 25th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure, and the only reading competition is between you and your usual number of books read in a week. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 8.0 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book Review - Yes, Chef, Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef: A Memoir


Marcus Samuelsson


Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Food & Cooking; African-American; Living Abroad

Synopsis: Chef Samuelsson recounts his life as an Ethiopian orphan reared in Sweden, an apprentice in Europe, and a chef in America.

Date finished: 24 July 2013

Rating: ***½

I read this book because of peer pressure. Everyone’s been raving about it, and I’ve seen it everywhere. And I figured if that many people are excited about it, I must have missed something when I first checked it out and decided against it.

But I’m here to say I don’t get it. I don’t understand the hype. It’s not a bad book, not poorly written, not uninteresting, but I found it just sort of average. In culinary terms, it’s a simmer, not a boil.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out why this book missed the mark for me. I normally love a good memoir about displacement and the search for home, about chasing flavors (as Samuelsson calls it), about food, about different cultures and parts of the world. So why didn’t I like this one? I wonder if a lot of people reading this book don’t read a lot of memoirs, so it felt new and fresh to them. I can understand that. I tend not to read a lot of memoirs by men because they just don’t seem to resonate with me—could that be it?

I don’t know. Maybe it was as simple as not really liking the guy. He’s not a bad guy, and his book seemed honest enough, but there was something about him I just didn’t trust, I just didn’t buy. Seems judgmental, but there it is.

Or maybe it falls more squarely into the “celebrity” memoir category than I originally thought. Celebrity memoirs are generally only so good.

Lest you think I thought it was all bad, I’ll have you know that I really liked the peek into three-star restaurant kitchens. It was definitely eye-opening. I appreciated the talk of mixing food flavors, but was surprised that he doesn’t refer to this as “fusion” cooking—has this term been kicked to the curb? And I especially enjoyed the parts about his childhood in his grandmother’s kitchen.

I just felt something was missing, or maybe that something was overemphasized, and I was disappointed.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Maman’s Homesick Pie – Similar story to Samuelsson’s—she was born in Iran, raised in America, taught to cook in Europe (France, esp.), and opened her restaurant in America. She talks about fusing different flavors, ingredients, and techniques into something new.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review - Coming to My Senses, Alyssa Harad

Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride


Alyssa Harad

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Being a Woman; Perfume

Synopsis: Harad shares her passion for perfume and how she evolved as a woman because of it.

Date finished: 17 July 2013

Rating: ****½


You had me at vetiver….

Rarely do I read a book by an author so passionate about her subject as Harad is about perfume. I’m not a perfume wearer myself, but my husband has a deep and abiding love for cologne. We have a friend, Mary, who works at a department store, and much like Harad, studies scent out of an all-abiding love. She can recite the top, middle, and dry-down notes of any perfume in the case—and most produced in the last thirty years. What I’ve absorbed from Mary was very helpful when approaching this book.

I enjoyed the parts of the book where she waxed poetic about perfume, its origins, its notes, and its sway over a person. She was a poet, and her language is so lyrical, so engaging and earnest, I was captivated. She could have been talking about farm machinery, and I would have been enthralled.

At other points in the book, however, she talked about her myriad of gay and questioning friends, and she bored me. Especially in the case of her friend Lynn/Parker who was shedding her female persona and donning a male one. This, of course, mirrors (well, reverse-mirrors) her own gradual change from “a serious, Birkenstock-wearing feminist in her mid-30s” to a softer, more feminine and romantic woman. And frankly, those Lynn/Parker portions of the book made me feel like I was being played, like she was being a Writer and using Metaphor and creating Drama through Juxtaposition. Too heavy-handed. And frankly, I don’t really get into GLBTQ literature. It turned me off.

That aside, when she got down to a discussion of perfume, and detailing the obsession, she was at her best. I especially enjoyed her New York sniffing quests and her perfume-themed bridal shower.

The fascination she has with perfume translates for all obsessed folks. It’s how I feel about reading and books, a more culturally accepted passion. And it’s also how I feel about collecting antique portraits, a passion that makes folks scratch their heads. She, like all coinsurers of oddities, had to let go of the embarrassment of eccentricity. She had to learn to not care what others thought (and sometimes what she herself thought) and just do her thing. And more importantly, she was forced to let go of her perceptions of herself in order to embrace something that brings her great joy. I liked reading about this transformation, because I identified with it.

I took copious notes while reading, mostly because I enjoyed the writing so much. She’s a writer’s writer, and when she’s not overwriting or manipulating (which isn’t often), she’s brilliant. Her voice is similar to Gretchen Rubin’s but with a very sensuous flair.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read that actually taught me something. But this is not just a book about perfume or obsession, it’s about the need to continually shape one’s identity, even when you think you already know who you are.

I’ll leave you with a section from the opening paragraphs:

Perfume tells a story on the skin. It has a beginning, a middle, and—if it’s good—a long, lingering end. To try a new perfume is to give yourself over to this story for at least an hour or two, sometimes much longer….

     The story a new perfume tells is dangerous—and exciting—because it is so unabashedly intimate. It depends on the heat of your body to give it life, and on your memories and fantasies to give it depth. (page 3)

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and Happier at Home.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Book Review - Maman's Homesick Pie, Donia Bijan

Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen


Donia Bijan        

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Food and Cooking; Middle East; France; Living Abroad

Synopsis: Bijan recounts her journey from Iranian childhood to American chef.

Date finished: 10 July 2013

Rating: ***

I was disappointed with this book. I had high hopes for it; after all, it was about three topics I love to read about: food, Iran, and mothers. I even enjoyed the writing sample I’d read online before purchasing it. I’m not sure why it was such a disappointment. The best reason I can come up with is that Bijan didn’t know what she wanted her book to be about. It covered food, becoming a chef, leaving Iran, becoming an American, Le Cordon Bleu & France, her father’s disappointment in her becoming a “cook,” and her relationship with her mother. That’s too many things to cover well in a 250-page book. And the book suffered for it. I think she’d intended the book to be about blending her life experiences on, and the flavors of, three continents, but she never quite brought it together.

I loved her mother. She was very much like the mother in The End of YourLife Book Club. When the revolution happened in Iran in the late 1970s, the Bijan family was on vacation in Spain. They could not return to Iran or they’d be executed because of the mother’s work in the parliament prior to the revolution. Whether this is truth or overblown, the family makes its way to America, where the mother embraces her new circumstances while the father wallows in resentment, and after failing the exam that would allow him to practice medicine in the U.S., his anger and resistance eats him whole.

So, the mother (and father, too) fascinated me. But the parts about the author seemed glib and boastful. Perhaps this owes itself to nothing but her lack of time spent fleshing out the story. I found my mind wandering while I read, and that almost never happens.

Other disappointments: Iran was barely discussed. The recipes weren’t very clear considering how complicated they seem. There was no mention of “Maman’s Homesick Pie,” so the title didn’t make sense to me.

I did, however, learn a few food-related tidbits, and there were several wonderful moments that I’ll quote here:

quince must be cooked before eating (page 45)

Crème Fraîche is made of heavy cream and buttermilk (page 177)

We told her the best way to know [if a persimmon is ripe] is to ask her husband to hold a persimmon in one hand and her breast in the other. When the two feel the same, the persimmon is ripe. (page 66)

France had given me a lasting gift: to leave a place with longing in your heart to return. (page 163)

You were made of stone if you didn’t fall for this dish. (page 169)

I never tired of the pattern of assembling a dish, falling in love with it, sending it away. You shrug and start all over, but each time it feels different—you and your dish in perpetual courtship. (page 169)

Working beside [chefs from France’s one- and two-star Michelin restaurants] I couldn’t help measuring my skill against theirs. I knew it wasn’t magic they possessed, but magic they practiced. (page 171)

So, there were some transcendent moments, but all in all, this was not the read I was hoping for.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
I don’t think so.

You might also enjoy:

Books about studying at Le Cordon Bleu:
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter,and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, Kathleen Flinn    

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Bob Spitz


Books about Iran:
Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, Alison Wearing   

Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review - Becoming Sister Wives

Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage


Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Brown  

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Religion (Mormonism); Marriage; Families; Polygamy

Synopsis: The polygamous Brown family shares the story of their four marriages and one family.

Date finished: 7 July 2013

Rating: ****

Let me just say, I’m probably as surprised as you are to see this rated as a 4-star book. Honestly, I never expected this to be more than a 3-star voyeuristic read, with poor writing quality and lots of drama (or else an utter lack of drama, which would have been worse). I was pleasantly surprised. It’s hard to know how to review books on controversial topics. Reviewers, I believe, have to be careful not to review the lifestyle presented in the book instead of the book itself. In situations like these, I tend to distill it down to “how much did I like the book?” Thus, the four stars.

This was kind of five memoirs in one, because each of the wives (Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn) and Kody (the husband) have a story. Each of these marriages was discussed individually by the wife and by Kody. After that, Kody bows out and lets the women write the book. This was a good move.

They were honest and forthcoming about their shortcomings as individuals, wives, and sister wives. This was a not a tawdry tell-all or a chance to air dirty laundry or bash other wives. Neither was it “safe.” I was sometimes surprised at how frank the women got about their problems with each other—past and present. I think in a family that contains five adults and four marriages—ten relationships total—they’re getting a difficult but rewarding opportunity to learn how to communicate with different types of people, how to be heard without dominating, how to listen without comparing, and how to get their needs met without bowling over another wife’s needs. 

Over and over again the women talked about how they lost themselves at various points in their marriages and relationships with the other wives. I believe this is a common feeling for American women, but I can imagine it could happen more in a family with four marriages.

There wasn’t much missing here in my mind except for a couple small things, such as Robyn not discussing what it was like for her three children to come into a polygamous family and gain three mothers and 13 siblings overnight. Also, although I’ve heard it discussed on their show, they didn’t discuss in the book what the likelihood is of their 17 children, some of which are college-age, choosing polygamy. How would they handle a child turning his back on that part of their faith? Lastly, there was no in-depth discussion about celestial plural marriage. I got the idea that it is considered too sacred to discuss out of family, but I wish I would have at least been told that. I wanted to know why polygamy was so important to them, from them.

But there was one big glaring pink elephant in the corner of the room that they didn’t address: legality. Regardless of how they want to live and what they want for their children, regardless of how successful they are at managing their family, regardless of their feelings that we should all live and let live, polygamy is illegal. Only one of the four marriages is recognized by the government as legal. The other marriages, in the eyes of the government, are nothing more than “shack-ups.” Someone—Janelle I think—did say that Kody’s first wife is his only legal wife, but there should have been a larger discussion in my opinion. How can you write a whole book about polygamy without really addressing this? How do they reconcile their church’s view with the state’s view of polygamy? What do they tell their children about being an “illegal” family? Do they believe it should be legal because it’s a sacred part of their religion? Or do they even care if it’s legal or illegal?

Watching the Sister Wives show is one of my guilty pleasures. I enjoy the couch sessions when they all get together and discuss things. They agree and disagree; they pout, blame, encourage, and appreciate each other. At the same time, I’m not sure I should be watching the show, because for me, it comes down to this: Any “principle” (which is how they refer to their call to plural marriage) that is based on illegality is not, by definition, principled. And unprincipled things live to be destroyed. Perhaps this is what the Latter Day Saints church realized in 1890 when they removed it from their practices. (Or perhaps they did so only to gain statehood….)

At any rate, the book turned out to be a thoughtful and worthy read. The writing, though not stellar, was much better than anticipated. And although they often glossed over things, they didn’t often gloss over big things. Likewise, the wives didn’t repeat things in their individual sections. Either they had help writing the book (no one was credited) or they had a very good editor, because the book flowed well considering there were five authors.

What I learned (my comments in italics):

Kody: Being in love with four women is easy, but not easy at the same time. (page 7)
Can you imagine having four marriages, each going through ups and downs, perhaps two or more struggling at the same time?!

Kody: Of course, a man must have the permission of his wives to consider a courtship. (page 8)

Kody: Our biggest struggles have been financial. (page 9)
After reading the wives’ sections, I wonder if they’d agree. I wonder if they’d say interpersonal relationships were their biggest challenges.

Kody: Quite often in our faith, it’s the woman who approaches the family she is interested in. …typically she builds a relationship with the first wife or wives, then she will tell her father, who then speaks to the father of the husband in the family. (page 43)

Robyn: The majority of men in our faith have two wives. Fewer have three wives, and hardly any have four. (page 73)

Janelle: Comparison is the death of plural marriage. (page 130)

Robyn (newest wife): I thought at first that my sister wives would just insist that their kids look at me as a mom, but I’ve realized that it is up to me to claim that role. (page 202)

And lastly, here’s a bit of their family tree that I had to draw out to make sense of:

Janelle (wife 2) was married to Meri’s (wife 1) brother. Janelle’s mom married Kody’s father. So, Kody and Janelle are siblings and husband and wife. And Meri and Janelle were in-laws before becoming sister wives and after becoming sister wives.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

I’d say if they’re interested, read it.