Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Where to Find Me

The time has come for me to stop posting new material here on Book Clutter for good.  No unhappy feelings here, or any dramatic reasons for departure.  I think I just realized I'm not really a blogger anymore. Such great memories and experiences though!

If you want to find out what I'm reading, you can follow me on Goodreads here, or just click on the widget on the right to find out what I've recently finished. 

You can try me on Twitter, although I'm much less regular on there. I'm hoping to keep up with some bookish events and that will bring me there more frequently.  

Thanks to anyone who visited or commented over the years. You have filled me with joy!

I will most likely spend any freed-up time working on my teaching credential, hopefully opening an Etsy shop soonish, and listening to Hamilton over and over again, anxiously awaiting its arrival in Southern California August 2017. Wait for it. Wait for it.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Classics Spin #14 and Rethinking My Goals, Maybe

I started out the year totally gung-ho about the blog, and then spent a few months ho-hum, and lately back to gung-ho.  I know this is the nature of book blogs--it's an old story.

One of my goals was to review every book this year. I have not been as diligent as I had envisioned. To get back on track I printed out all of the books read this year and crossed out the ones I've done, and then of course I'll cross the others off as I do them.  Kind of fun!


Last night, though, I was in one of those "What's the point?" kind of moods and I thought I should really just throw in the towel on the review goal.

So, until I make any decisions, I'm going to join in on the latest Classics Club spin. Last time I got Germinal, which I actually finished, and loved, but it's over there on the "to-review" list.  Soon.  But for now, here's my list:

1. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper ***Winner***
2. The Europeans by Henry James
3. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
4. The Ambassadors by Henry James
5. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
6. Possession by A.S. Byatt
7. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
8. White Noise by Don DeLillo
9. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
10. One of Ours by Willa Cather
11. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
12. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
13. The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek
14. Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
15. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
16. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
17. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
18. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
19. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
20. The Reef by Edith Wharton


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Nightingale

Author: Kristin Hannah
Published: 2015
Length: 440 pages
Source: Library e-book

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5


"I know now what matters, and it is not what I have lost. It is my memories. Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain."

"How fragile life was, how fragile they were. Love. It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between. It didn’t matter that she was broken and ugly and sick. He loved her and she loved him, All her life she had waited -longed for - people to love her, but now she saw what she really mattered. She had known love, been blessed by it."


Keep a box of tissue nearby while reading this one.  You'll need it for the inevitable blubber-fest, and a tissue makes a convenient bookmark for when you're reading into the wee hours of the night and you're too tired to find the sleek metal one engraved with a George Eliot quote that you paid ten dollars for and never seems to be there when you need it.

This is a widely-book by now, so I'll keep the summary brief. Hannah tells the story of two sisters and the different courses their lives take in response to the invasion of France by the Nazis during World War II.  Vianne lives a quiet life with her little family, very much dependent upon her husband until he leaves home to fight for France.  Initially, she accommodates herself to the new circumstances, hoping to keep her family safe and keep a low profile.   Her younger sister Isabelle is by nature rebellious, and passionately resists the occupation in any way she can.  Through the many harsh and emotional experiences they have as the war rages on, they learn about themselves, and what they are capable of.

Vianne's slow and sometimes frustrating transformation was a little terrifying for me to read because I saw myself in her.  You always wonder (at least I do) what you would have done in different historical events. Would I have been a Loyalist or a Patriot?  Would I have opposed or supported desegregation if I lived in the South? Would I have backed Hitler when he brought order and pride back to prewar Germany or recognized him as a monster? Of course I'd like to think that I would have resisted the easy path. But I could see myself making some of the same choices Vianne did.  I'd like to think that I wouldn't have offered my best friend's name to the list of Jews the Germans were compiling. But without the hindsight we have now of what happened to the Jews, would I have rationalized the way Vianne did even thought she sensed something was off? But thankfully Vianne grows and changes, and becomes just as much the hero as her impetuous sister, but in her own way.  There is hope for me!

In contrast, Isabelle's story is one of  reckless bravery and passionate romance. Yeah, I really can't relate to that at all. However foreign to me, her narrative contributes the main drama that keeps the finger swiping across the tablet. Under the false identity of Juliet Gervaise, she transports Allied airmen across the Pyrenees into the safety of Spain. She survives a gunshot wound, nurtured by the dashing Gaetan who finally submits to his love for her. As unlikely as some of the romance scenes seem to me, I found myself a little swept away.  Except for their first kiss. Isabelle thinks about how her romantic novels finally made sense, and she realizes that the "landscape of a woman's soul could change as quickly as a world at war"(57). All I could think about was how they probably hadn't brushed their teeth for the three days, and were covered with "sweat and blood and mud and death"(56).  Oh, to be 18 again, I guess.

Overall, this is great historical fiction that is entertaining and empowering, poignant and inspirational. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Author: Marie Kondo
Published: 2014
Length: 213 pages
Source: Overdrive e-book

Personal Enjoyment Factor:  3.5/5

"Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle."

"If sweatpants are your everyday attire, you’ll end up looking like you belong in them, which is not very attractive. What you wear in the house does impact your self-image."

But what if my sweatpants speak to my heart??

This little book truly changed my life! I will never again go into my closet without thinking that my blouses have spirits and my socks are having a party in the drawer--at least as long as I've folded them right. Add to that the traumatic realization that these quasi-sentient articles of clothing have all seen me naked!! I am riddled with new-found guilt because I have neglected for years to thank my purse each day for a job well done. I feel like  a failure because I still hang on to that toilet brush that does not "spark joy."  

But seriously, I appreciate the overall message that Kondo is trying to convey: get rid of the clutter in our lives and only hang on to those items that bring us joy so that we can lead our best lives.Cleaning out definitely resets my mood, and most importantly, it keeps me from buying more useless crap. But I will not get rid of any of my books. I will continue to wear dumpy clothes around the house if I want to.  There are mementos that I just don't want to get rid of, even if they have already served their purposes. And I just can't quite get myself to talk to my possessions, whether it be a "thank you" or a "goodbye." (Sometimes I call them "stupid," but don't tell Marie that.)

Overall, I admit I found the book inspirational--I cleaned out some closets and my boxes of memories with gusto after reading it. But I also laughed so hard I cried in certain sections, which I hope doesn't indicate some sort of cultural insensitivity on my part. I've internalized the lessons I learned from it--many of them pop into my brain as I'm currently helping my husband clean out the garage. I don't go so far as to ask him "Does it spark joy?" Just reasoning, sometimes pleading with him to get rid of so many things that we don't need anymore. It will truly take magic to get it done.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy

Author: David E. Hoffman
Published: 2009
Length: 592 pages
Source: Local library
Award: Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction (2010)

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5

     Reagan escorted his guest [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko] down the long colonnade from the West Wing to the main White House mansion for a reception...A small chamber orchestra played classical music. Reagan introduced Nancy.  At the end of the reception, Gromyko took Nancy aside and said, "Does your husband believe in peace?"
     "Of course," she replied.
     "Then whisper 'peace' in your husbands ear every night," he said.
     "I will, and I will also whisper it in your ear," she said. And with that she leaned over with a smile and whispered softly, "Peace."


If only simple whispers of peace in the ears of Soviet and American leaders could have prevented the misguided suspicions and nuclear arms buildup that characterized the Cold War. In The Dead Hand, David E Hoffman offers a new understanding of both sides of the conflict, aided by his access to internal documents of the Soviet Defense Department, as well as memoirs, diaries and interviews. These sources provide an inside view of the attitudes and reactions of the Soviet leadership in the last years of the Cold War. What were Soviet leaders thinking? What did they say to each other behind closed doors? Interwoven with a detailed account of Reagan's horror at the prospect of nuclear war and his reasoning behind "Star Wars," the capture of both perspectives gives the sense of listening in on an intense conversation--a dysfunctional one, but it keeps the pages turning. 

Hoffman includes a terrifying history of the Soviet Union's covert biological weapons program. Brilliant scientists, afraid to refuse assignments from the government or convinced that they needed to counter an alleged secret U.S. program, worked feverishly to genetically engineer pathogens that could wipe out huge populations--smallpox, plague, tularemia, anthrax. The program was so secretive that it is questionable whether Gorbachev knew of it. In contrast, United States stopped research and development of biological weapons in 1969, reasoning that nuclear weapons were a sufficient deterrent. As Nixon said, "If someone uses germs on us, we'll nuke 'em." 

Nixon's statement is a good example of militant rhetoric on both sides that camouflaged the extreme abhorrence with which leaders such as Reagan and Gorbachev viewed the possible use of their massive and costly stashes of nuclear weapons.  Each side was convinced that the other side was ready to push the button, and they had to be prepared. The "Dead Hand" refers to the Soviet plans to create a Doomsday machine that would launch a retaliatory strike if their leadership was wiped out by an initial U.S. strike. This horrifying scenario of a nuclear weapon launch free of human decision was never actually operative. Instead, they developed a semi-automatic system called Perimeter.  As for the U.S., Reagan's vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative was never realized, but it showed his concern that an attack from the "Evil Empire" was possible at any time, and we desperately  needed a way to defend ourselves from a fate imagined in "The Day After."  In reality, both sides hoped to avoid WWIII, but the realization of this unfolded at a slow, painful, and costly pace.

I was born in 1973, so I lived through the last chapter of Cold War hostilities. I was blissfully unaware of the frightening possibilities. I saw headlines here and there, and I remember when "The Day After" was televised, but it never really sunk in. I was happy watching MTV and spraying my hair with copious amounts of Sun-In. I would have never imagined that the Soviets were cooking up ways to kill me and my family with smallpox or the plague.  As terrifying as their biological weapons program  was, the real horror is the present danger triggered by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the "leftovers" of the Cold War. The highly enriched uranium and plutonium that sit unguarded in warehouses. The engineers and scientists ready to sell their knowledge and/or weapons to the highest bidder just so they can feed their families. Who will end up with these weapons and the knowledge to develop and manufacture more?  Now that MTV sucks and my hair is gray, I'm a little more aware of what's going on in the world. As frightening as the idea of the Dead Hand was, the legacy of the Cold War is the bigger nightmare.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Author: Colin Dexter
Originally published: 1975
Length: 282 pages
Source: Local libaray

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 3.5/5


"And please let it not be forgotten that I am Morse of the Detective as Dickens would have said.  Oh yes, a detective. A detective has a sensibility towards crime-- he feels it; he must feel it before he can detect it." 

With the last season of Inspector Lewis airing on PBS this month, I was possessed by the binge-watching demons and decided I needed to re-watch all the previous episodes before the grand finale. I have the very last episode on deck, and I must make the viewing of it an Event. I will miss the Lewis-Hathaway duo, but am looking forward to Season 3 of Endeavour, and also going back in time by watching the original Inspector Morse episodes. I've only seen one or two, and as a bookish sort of person with too much time on her hands, of course I decided I needed to read the books that inspired the show and the spin-offs first.

Honestly, if I didn't have this great love of the television series to buoy me, I probably would have been rather ho-hum about Last Bus to Woodstock. Inspector Morse (no Christian name given) teams with Robert Lewis to solve the murder of the young blonde Sylvia Kaye, who also appears to have been raped. Morse almost haphazardly explores one theory and then another as Lewis observes in bewilderment: 
Morse jabbered on, his mouth stuffed with fish and chips, and with genuine concern Lewis began to doubt the Inspector's sanity...Or had Morse been drinking? 
Insane, drunk, or just in agony after injuring his foot falling off a ladder? Or maybe that's just Morse. The unveiling of his character entertains more than the solving of the mystery (as is the case with most of the mystery books I love).  He can be abrasively candid one moment, hopelessly in love the next, and finds an appropriate bit of poetry to apply in both instances.  Although he appears overly confident, he doubts himself miserably when he's alone.  But a hot shower and a shave can pull him out of his doldrums instantly. His love of Wagner is only briefly touched upon in this first installment, but I could still hear opera in my mind as I read. I liked Morse, but sometimes I felt like I was watching a train wreck. And that made me love him.

I didn't find the mystery itself very remarkable.  A lot of information is withheld from the reader until the end. The assumptions about rape are antiquated and offensive. Red herring characters having affairs and pornography addictions are not particularly intriguing. I would have loved more of a connection to Oxford and more literary allusions that tied into the crime, a la Lewis. But maybe you have to have a Hathaway for that to work.  Or maybe that's to come in subsequent novels.  Which I am planning to read still. Twelve more to go.

Overall, this was a quick and light read, and a modest beginning to all things Morse, Lewis, Hathaway, and the prequellian Endeavour.

Random note:  I just realized while I was writing this post why I've had "The Last Train to Clarksville" by the Monkees stuck in my head this last week.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Classics Club Spin Update: Germinal

I've been away from all things blogging for a couple of months, but I really wanted to make sure I read my Classics Club Spin pick Germinal by Emile Zola. I didn't quite make yesterday's deadline, but I'm making progress:

 
I'm on page 362/532.  At this point in the book, the miners on strike are terrorizing the bourgeois declaring "We want bread!" M. Hennebeau, manager of the Montsou mine, has a cheating wife and an unhappy life.  When the strikers come around he's angry with them because he would "gladly have swapped his fat salary just to have their thick skin and their unproblematic sex." I guess the grass is always greener on the other side!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Out of My Mind

Author: Sharon M. Draper
Published: 2010
Length: 295 pages
Source: Local library

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 3/5

Thoughts need words.  Words need a voice.
I love the smell of my mother's hair after she washes it.
I love the feel of the scratchy stubble on my father's face before he saves.
But I've never been able to tell them. 



In many ways, Melody is a typical 11-year-old girl. She enjoys music, watches television, loves her family, and yearns for a good friend. One thing that sets her apart from her peers is her high intelligence and a photographic memory. She is also extraordinary in another way--she has cerebral palsy and lacks the ability to walk or talk. No one knows that her favorite song is "Elvira" by the Oakridge Boys and that she sees colors when she listens to Mozart. Her intelligence is not even considered a possibility by her doctors, teachers, and fellow students. Her thoughts and words are trapped in her mind, desperate to be released and to reveal her personality and talents. Melody's life changes when she switches from a communication board to an electronic communication device a la Stephen Hawking. With an effective way to speak and a place on the Whiz Kids Quiz Team, it seems probable that things are going to look up for Melody.

Unfortunately, Melody goes to what must be the worst elementary school in the history of ever. Snotty fifth graders and insensitive teachers are the norm rather than the exception at Spaulding Street Elementary School. When they practice questions for the Quiz Team, Melody is accused of cheating by the other kids and the teacher actually says that because Melody got them all right then the questions must not be hard enough! They say and do more heartless things as the story unfolds. Luckily, Melody has enough strength and spirit to rise above the ugliness.

I love that Draper's novel gave me a perspective into what might go on inside the mind of someone with cerebral palsy. I would recommend it as a great read-aloud selection for middle grades, whether at home or school, to teach empathy towards individuals with special needs.  However, the important message of the book did not make me wholeheartedly love the story in which it was set.  The drama relied on the over-the-top meanness of the characters, lending to a contrived feel and, in my case, book-throwing. Maybe Draper was trying to increase the appeal among young readers by including the kind of dramatic yet unbelievable situations you might see in a Disney Channel show. Perhaps she felt this was a better vehicle for teaching compassion to kids? I only know that I don't regret reading it, I just wish I could have loved the whole shebang. 

And because I used to love this song when I was little, just like Melody does, here's video of "Elvira", one of the funnest songs to sing along to.  "Giddy up oom poppa oom poppa mow mow" :)



Monday, March 28, 2016

3 Reasons Why I'm 13 Reviews Behind

My goal this year is to review every book I read.  I'm not giving up that goal, but I'm going to have to spend some time catching up. I've got 13 books that I have finished but have not reviewed yet. Oops! My excuse is that I've been busy with a few other things:

1. Fitness/Guest Room

It started out something like this:



And ended up like this:




It's all set for me to work out. I can read, go on my laptop, watch movies, or listen to music while I'm on the treadmill.  I also have some old workout DVDs and can do workouts online. The bed we got from IKEA can be pulled out to fit two twin mattresses so we're all set for guests to visit, or it can be used to sit on like a couch.  I like to call it my "Chick Cave" but really anyone can go in there.


2. Food storage closet

I wish I had taken a true "before" picture with everything stuffed in our under-the-stairs closet, but I only thought to take a picture after emptying it and taking the carpet out.  Here are a few photos taken along the way.






This is for long-term food storage--food to have on hand in case of emergency or challenging financial circumstances. We mostly have grains, beans, and freeze-dried fruits and vegetables from Thrive Life. I also threw in some other emergency supplies and will add more a little bit at a time.

3. And last but certainly not least, we got a puppy! Meet Radar, our 14-week-old Miniature Schnauzer:




He's pretty good so far, and loves being held.  He has discovered the awesomeness of shoes which we are trying to discourage and he's a little bit clumsy.  I clean up a lot of accidents in the house!  Ironically, I don't think my floors have ever been so clean.

I've been listening to a lot of audio books while working on the house projects, but since we got Radar most of my time is spent house training him and enjoying his cuteness.  I'm hoping to get back into the reviewing routine next week. I've read/listened to some amazing books.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Classics Club Spin #12

I forgot about Classics Club Spins!  Apparently I've missed about ten of them while I've been away.  Here are the details for how it works and my list:
  • Go to your blog. 
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.) 
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday. 
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce. 
  • The challenge is to read that book by May 2, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!) 

Five I'm hesitant to read/ am not sure if I will like:
1. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
2. The Europeans by Henry James
3. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
4. The Ambassadors by Henry James
5. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Five I can't wait to read:
6. Possession by A.S. Byatt
7. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
8. Germinal by Emile Zola ***Winner***
9. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
10. One of Ours by Willa Cather

Hefty books:
11. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
12. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
13. The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek
14. Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
15. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Random picks:
16. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
17. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
18. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
19. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
20. The Reef by Edith Wharton

Monday, February 29, 2016

Landline

Author: Rainbow Rowell
Narrator: Rebecca Lowman
Published: 2014
Length: 9 hours, 3 minutes
Source: e-library
Personal Enjoyment Factor: 3.5/5

You don't know when you're twenty-three.
You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten - in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.



Georgie McCool, a workaholic sitcom writer, is married to Neal, stay-at-home-dad extraordinaire. They have two beautifully quirky little girls and a home in sunny, fast-paced Los Angeles. When Georgie decides to miss Christmas with Neal's family in his hometown in Nebraska to write scripts for her dream show, she suddenly has to face challenges in their relationship that began even before they married. Their love for each other is undeniable, but is it enough to bridge two imperfect people with different personalities and backgrounds?

When Neal does not answer any of Georgie's calls while he's in Nebraska, she goes into a nosedive.  She can't concentrate on writing, despite the efforts of Seth, her long-time work partner/best friend who just happens to look like he walked off the cover of GQ.  She ends up staying with her mom, in her old room, where she calls Neal on her old rotary landline.  He answers (Yes!) But it's not present-day Neal on the other end of the line. She realizes she is talking to Neal from 1998--before marriage, after a quasi-breakup, and separated again (or before?) by the miles between L.A. and Omaha.

The conversations on the landline and Georgie's recollections of their courtship reveal a heart-warming love story in the context of reality-- tough choices, incompatibilities, demanding work schedules, the sacrifice of personal dreams, conflicting loyalties, the challenges of parenthood. How powerful does love need to be to overcome real life?  How much do our choices and actions add to or diminish that power?  The unlikely magical yellow phone is just the tool that Georgie needs to figure out her marriage and if she and Neal were meant to be together, or if Neal would be better off without her.

I'm ashamed to admit that for most of the book I took a side--Neal's.  I was annoyed with Georgie.  I thought she was more clueless than she needed to be--if only she took some time out of her busy schedule to consider Neal's feelings, their marriage would have had a more solid footing.  And of course Neal feels threatened that Georgie spends more hours with Seth than him and the girls and chose to miss Christmas with the family for work. Who wouldn't?  But Neal probably could have done a better job of communicating.  I guess. Maybe I was blind to his weaknesses out of a sense of solidarity for stay-at-home parents.

However, the book is not really at all about taking sides, hence my shame. It's about relationships and their inherent flaws and vulnerabilities. It's probably been mentioned hundreds of thousands of times that Rowell is a master of writing about relationships. I've only read two of her books so far, but I would enthusiastically agree. She delves deep, looks at everything from all angles, and manages to make you laugh through it all. 

It's a testament to Rowell's writing skills, and/or some sort of soul-sister bond, that I enjoyed something that could be categorized as romance or chick lit.  If you are scared of "cheese" as I tend to be, let me declare this book "cheese-free."  I know that may be hard to believe since the plot hinges on a phone capable of time travel, but it's true. Sci-fi + chick-lit somehow works when Rowell writes it.

Note on the audiobook:  Rebecca Lowman did a great job reading this--the narration was perfect.  I was riveted while I Got Stuff Done. A warning to those who don't like bad language: you'll get an earful of the f-word.  I think it's by far Rowell's favorite expletive ;)


Monday, February 22, 2016

Star Wars:Darth Plagueis

Author: James Luceno
Narrator: Daniel Davis
Published: 2012
Length: 368 pages/14 hours, 49 minutes
Source: ebook/eaudiobook from library

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 3/5

"For now, Sidious, know that you are the blade we will drive through the heart of the Senate, the Republic, and the Jedi Order, and I, your guide to reshaping the galaxy. Together we are the newborn stars that complete the Sith constellation."



I love Star Wars.  I missed out on the theatrical releases of IV-VI because my family didn't go to the movie theater very often.  It's possible we saw one or more of them at the drive-in, but I  never actually saw movies at the drive-in--I usually fell asleep quickly in my snuggly sleeping bag laid out in the back of our station wagon. But thanks to VHS I watched them as a teenager and fell in love with both the story and Harrison Ford. Like many others, I experienced the excitement and subsequent disappointment of the prequels in the theater, but learned to appreciate them a little more as I saw them through the eyes of my son.  I recently watched Epidosde VII (not right away and only once-what kind of fan am I?) and loved it. I cried a few times, most notably at the beginning when the music started, and then when the Millennium Falcon was uncovered.  Who knew that a "piece of junk" spaceship could make me cry as much as when Matthew proposed to Mary on Downton Abbey? (And as long as I brought up Downton Abbey, why do both of these shows want to mess with the characters I love?!)

So I'm a big fan, but I am not an expert. I have visited Wookieepedia on occasion, but have not memorized all the species, droids, and planetary systems in the galaxy. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) If I were given a Star Wars exam, I'd probably get a high C at best. This is all just a warning that my thoughts on Darth Plagueis will NOT be an in-depth analysis or critique. (Think Jar Jar Binks rather than C3P0).

Summary
The main purpose of this installment of Star Wars Legends is to flesh out the backgrounds of three Sith: Darth Plagueis, Darth Sidious, and Darth Maul. Darth Plagueis is introduced to the reader in a scene in which he kills his master and reveals his obsession with manipulating midi-chlorians in order to defy death. Known as Hego Demask in public, Plagueis uses his influence as the CEO of a prosperous financial group to eliminate anyone who threatens his power.  He has an uber-creepy lab where he conducts his midi-chlorian experiments.  He is cold, calculating, and cruel. 

He of course needs an apprentice, which he finds in a young, ambitious Palpatine who has murdered his entire family.  Impressed by this and sensing that Palpatine is strong in the Force, Plagueis trains him and christens him Darth Sidious. He becomes an ambassador and then a senator of Naboo, and then seeks to become Chancellor of the Republic as seen in The Phantom Menace. While visiting Dathomir, Sidious adopts a cute little Zabrak named Maul and trains him in the Dark Side. After killing Plagueis (who never quite gains master over death), Sidious takes on Darth Maul as his apprentice. 

The novel is filled with assassinations and maneuvers orchestrated by Plagueis and Sidious to create an atmosphere conducive to securing ultimate power. The philosophies of the Dark Side of the Force and the Sith organization are discussed, as well as the origins of the Clone Army in greater depth than explained in the movies. Anakin's future role as envisioned by Palpatine is touched upon at the close of the book.

Review
I really enjoyed all the background information on these characters.  The book reads almost like a history book, with emphasis on economics and politics. The strength is in the details rather than an engaging plot. It is very dark, understandably so since it is concerned almost exclusively with evil characters.  I usually appreciate some balance between good and evil, which this book lacked. I think it just needs to be placed in the context of the entire story and you need to have Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker ever present in your mind as foils so things don't get too depressing. Flashes of Han Solo couldn't hurt either. (I love you.  I know.) 

Audiobook Review
I switched back and forth between the ebook and the audiobook, which is sort of a new experience. The most exciting thing was that the audio version, read very dramatically by Daniel Davis, had sound effects!  It took a little while to get used to, but eventually I felt like they really enhanced my listening experience.  I would definitely try out an audiobook version of another Star Wars novel.

Other Star Wars books read recently: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller (really liked it, has the feel of a western), Star Wars: Jedi Academy (kids graphic novel, lots of laughs).



Friday, February 19, 2016

BBAW Friday: Wrap up and Burnout

Many thanks to the BBAW hosts for organizing this event.  It was a blast and I'm sure we all appreciate the time and effort that went into it!

A few takeaways from this week:
  • Read The Sparrow, Tiny Beautiful Things, and anything by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Reread Harry Potter at least ten more times, maybe backwards.
  • We still miss Google Reader.  What were they thinking?
  • Introverts unite!!
  • There are a lot of new-to-me, high-quality book blogs out there that I'm excited to visit!
And since I didn't post yesterday, a few thoughts on connecting:
  • I'm really bad at social media, but from the handful of posts I read yesterday, I'm not alone.
  • And I think that's okay.  I think a lot of us book bloggers feel comfort and support from a community that shares our love/obsession for hardcore reading even if there are not a lot of concrete involvements like a comment or twitter post. 
  • I love you lurkers!  It's good to know you're out there.
  • Having said all of that, visiting and commenting is one of my favorite things. I think we all would like to comment more but are limited by time, darn it!
  • I WILL master Twitter.  
  • I have lots of warm and fuzzy feelings about bloggers that I have felt connected with over the past 9-10 years since I started my blog.  However, I find that I hold back because I know that there are going to be times when I need to step back from the book blogging community depending on what's going on in life, and I hate the idea of forging a friendship, and then backing away into my cocoon when things are stressful.  Does anyone else feel this way? Maybe this is an introvert thing.
And concerning burnout/keeping things fresh:
  • I don't think I've experienced burnout.  I just stop blogging when my priorities shift and then jump in when I can again.  My longest break was very recent, for about 2-3 years because I went back to school and other things.  Yes, I lost followers, but it happens.  As long as I get one comment on a post I'm happy.  Zero is depressing I have to admit :)
  • My blog is pretty unprofessional, and that works for me. My main focus is to write reviews so that I remember my experience with a book. Because of that, I don't do a lot of different types of posts.  
  • Having said that, I do have GOALS this year, which is a bold step for me.  I plan to review every book I read this year (even geeky Star Wars books and 1,000 page history books) and even have it on the calendar to write a review every Monday and Thursday (have failed at this just a bit already). I also would like to include some other things that go on in my life, mostly because I love it when other people do so.
  • With that in mind, here's what has been keeping me from completely immersing myself in BBAW this week.  We're redoing a room (that my adult kids used to sleep in before they left, boo-hoo).  That big thing in the middle is a treadmill.  This is going to be a guest room/fitness room.  We've had to do a lot of wall repairs and replace all the trim and frame the window.  I'll post pictures when it's done.  I plan to do a lot of reading while on that treadmill when it's all in place!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

BBAW Wednesday: Blame a Blogger

Day OneIntroduce yourself (16)
Because I've been away from the book blogging world for a time, I can't remember specific books that I've read because of specific blogger recommendations, but I know there are SO MANY.  I know I added several to my TBR shelf after reading all the intros on Monday, and the ginormous number of want-to-reads on Goodreads is thanks to reviews from blogs over the years.  So I blame you all!!

An author that I push/strongly suggest/gush about too much is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I urge friends to read her books and watch her talks. I've picked works by her for two book clubs now. My success in creating Adichie groupies has been marginally successful. When one book club met at my house to discuss Half of a Yellow Sun, a couple of guests pretended that they finished the book (they later confessed that they didn't want to hurt my feelings) and talked about how much they loved one character without realizing that he did something pretty horrible later on in the book. They felt a little awkward and we still joke about it. Just recently I hosted a book club with another group of ladies to discuss Purple Hibiscus, which I had already read and loved. Less people attended than usual, but I'm not sure if that was due to lack of interest or just busy schedules.  But one person there loved Purple Hibiscus, and immediately read two of her other books, and she loaned me We Should All Be Feminists.  That made my night!  One Adichie fangirl born!

Other books that I get really excited about and want everyone to read are All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, Middlemarch by George Eliot, anything by Graham Greene, Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.  Oh, I could go on and on but I think the prompt said just one so I should stop!


Monday, February 15, 2016

BBAW Monday: "Me" in Five Books



This was hard but fun!  I focused on book titles more the content:

1.  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  If you ask people that know me one word they would use to describe me it would probably be "quiet."  Or "homebody." I'm a total introvert. I elaborate on this in my review of this book.

2.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is all about television!  My favorite show is Sherlock, and all of the shows that fit into a fairly predictable set, mostly British: Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, IT Crowd, Doc Martin, Mr. Selfridge, Endeavor, etc.  I'm sure there's more. I won't even start with the Brit Lit Chick Flicks.

3. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  I just really love food, and am willing to defend it!! Always planning to eat as Pollan suggests...

4. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.  I have four kids that I tried to train to be morning people like me. But I failed.  They are all night owls. So is my husband.  Over twenty years of living with them has not converted me into a night person.

5. I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron.  Seriously.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Forge

Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Published: 2010
Length: 292 pages
Source: Local library
Series: Seeds of America Book 2
 
Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4/5

"What shall be my rate of pay sir?" I asked.
"Pay?" His brow wrinkled again.
"I know that many officers have hired soldiers to be their manservants, but I do not know what they are paid."
"Ah." He grasped his hands behind his back and stared at my bare foot before looking at me straight in they eye. "Curzon," he said softly, "I own you."

I read the first book in the Seeds of America series, Chains, about six years ago.  I loved it, stamped it with five stars on Goodreads, and eventually forgot everything about it!  So when I opened up Forge and began to read, Curzon was like a new character that I had never met. But I liked him right away, as I'm pretty sure I must have in Book 1. 

As the story begins, Curzon and Isabel have run away to freedom, but are soon separated when Isabel insists on journeying to Charleston to find her sister Ruth. Curzon ends up right in the middle of the action of the Second Battle of Saratoga and then moves on to Valley Forge as a soldier in the Patriot Army. He forms a complicated but rewarding relationship with Eben, a friendly guy with a huge heart who doesn't quite grasp the paradox of fighting for America's freedom while denying freedom to the slaves. But you can't really blame him because no one at the time did. 

At Valley Forge, Curzon suffers through all the deprivations that the encampment is known for, as well as a devastating return to slavery under his old master. Curzon's trials are not enough to keep him from thinking about Isabel. And suddenly there she is--but also enslaved again.  Their renewed relationship is a little rocky, but Curzon will do whatever he can to escape with her to Freedom, Take Two.

On an intellectual level, Forge is satisfying in its juxtaposition of America's fight to break the shackles of Britain's power and the efforts of Curzon and Isabel to gain lives of self-determination. But it's also just a really great story, with a colorful cast of characters (loved Benny injecting the Greek myths into everything), page-turning suspense, quirky humor, and even a touch of romance. I also loved the quotes from primary sources at the beginning of each chapter, and an awesome appendix with questions about the historical details of the book. 

My only regret is reading this too soon--Book 3, Ashes, is scheduled to be published October 4 of this year.  Will I have forgotten everything by then?  Maybe, but this time I think I will at least remember Curzon--he truly won my heart.

Monday, February 1, 2016

War

Author: Sebastian Junger
Published: 2010
Length: 287 pages/7 hours, 21 minutes
Source: Personal library/library audiobook

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4/5

War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is a smaller game that young men fall in love with.

These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees where the men feel not most alive--that you can get skydiving--but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger took five trips to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, a volatile area "too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off." There the insurgency engaged in raids and ambushes at a level of intensity and frequency unequaled by any other area in Afghanistan. Junger chose to be embedded with Battle Company, Second Platoon precisely because of the high stakes involved. His goal was to find out how soldiers function in a hyper-dangerous situation in an isolated area. How do they deal with fear? How do they feel about killing?  What kind of relationships do they form and how does that affect their effectiveness? 

For the most part setting aside the big picture--the context of the war, political wrangling, and ramifications of the counterinsurgency--Junger focuses on the most primal emotion--their need to survive. A successful unit (one that "survives") is one that choreographs its actions best, in which each member makes decisions not about what is best for himself, but for the group as a whole. Whether they live or die can depend on this group functionality based on a complete sacrifice of self. 

This reveals the somewhat uncomfortable truth that Junger exposes that even though war is horrible, it is not all bad. Often these young men have a sense of purpose and a clear self-identity that they never had before. They have a brotherhood with a rock-solid assurance that each would sacrifice himself for another in a heartbeat.  As Junger points out, this is not a situation that is often replicated in every day life. But in the Korengal Valley, it was a certainty that was empowering for both individual and team:
You could be anything back home--shy,ugly, rich, poor, unpopular--and it won't matter because it's of no consequence in a firefight, and therefore of no consequence, period. The only thing that matters is your level of dedication to the rest of the group, and that is almost impossible to fake (page 234).
Combat is also very exciting--an adrenaline rush. Scary as hell, yes, but also potentially addictive. Junger suggests that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up and return to a normal life. They "miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted."  Nearly everyone who died in the Korengal Valley died at unexpected times, making them aware that anything they did was "potentially the last thing they'd ever do." How does this affect life after service?  For one soldier it could mean a life always yearning for the intensity of combat and the inability to create as strong of a bond with anyone other than his brothers that fought by his side. Another soldier might continue  to serve many years to hold on to the structure and relationships forged. After returning to normal life after his time embedded with Battle Company, Junger experienced an amplification of emotions, finding himself moved to tears at weddings and other happy occasions. Junger illustrates poignantly that war is bad, but it is not all bad.

War gave me a unique perspective on life in the military. I've been reading different war memoirs and accounts over the last year or so to better understand the sacrifice that individuals make to serve our country. Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie and With the Old Breed:At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene B. Sledge are both excellent memoirs about WWII. American Sniper by Chris Kyle made me realize that a hero might very well be someone I would dislike in real life. Fearless by Eric Blehm is not so much a war account as the road to the decision of a drug addict to become a Navy SEAL. Although it was seemed overly sanitized, I admit that I cried like a baby through the whole book. War delved deeper into the psychological, physiological, and emotional experience than these other accounts did. 

No matter how much I read I know that it is impossible for me to fully understand the experience of a soldier, but I feel the need to a least try to get a glimpse into the lives of those who put their lives on the line for a cause larger than themselves. Some might not enlist for patriotic reasons. Maybe they are trying to escape a life of trouble, or feel a need to prove themselves. Or maybe they feel like they were made for combat. Additionally, as War shows, once in combat the larger picture of the war is usually the farthest thing from their minds. Their "cause" becomes having each others backs through firefight after firefight. But intentions and tactics don't make their sacrifice any less. I'm grateful.

 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Author: Khaled Hosseini
Published: 2013
Length: 404 pages
Source: Library

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5


All good things in life are fragile and easily lost.

Cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.

I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that.



A bedtime story should have a balance between delight and comfort--a tale to send the listener off into the land of Nod with positive, peaceful vibes. This is not the case with the story that Saboor, a loving but impoverished father living in a small Afghan village, tells his children Abdullah and Pari at the opening of this book. "So then," he begins.  "You want a story and I will tell you one." 

He then continues to tell them about a poor farmer who must sacrifice his favorite child to a div or the whole family will be killed. They must "cut off the finger to save the hand."  When he travels to the div's fort to kill it and retrieve his son, he is given a choice.  He can take his son home, depriving him of the joyful paradise that the div has provided, or he can let his son stay, which means the heartbroken father will never see his son again.  He chooses the less selfish choice--to let his son stay and live a better life than he would back home. Mercifully, the div gives the farmer a potion that wipes away his memory, a reward for choosing his son's happiness over his own. 

Thus the tone is set for the rest of the novel. Not a narrative to send one off into sweet dreams, but rather a heavy load to keep one awake. Hard choices. Separation from loved ones. The haunting or forgetting of memories. Guilt. Hopeless causes. The morning after Saboor tells his children the story of the div, he sells Pari to a wealthy couple in Kabul.  She will have a better life.  Saboor's family will not starve the next winter. But Abdullah, who has a deep connection with his sister, will be heartbroken for years.

The separation of Abdullah and Pari frames a collection of stories of other characters that have some connection to the pair, but with timelines and heartaches all their own.  Pari's Uncle Nabi is in love with Nila Wahdati, the rich woman who buys Pari.  But she is always beyond his grasp, and she takes Pari to Paris with her after her husband has a stroke and he never sees her again. Mr. Wahdati has feelings for Nabi that will never be requited even though Nabi stays with him for the rest of his life. Pari's mother has a tragic past riddled with guilt, which she lives with everyday. These characters and several more all try to find meaning in tragedy while at the same time grappling with the potential for poison or distance in any relationship.

Hosseini also introduces a couple of other characters with weaker connections to the siblings, but they allow him to explore what people do (or don't do) to ease the suffering of others. Idris is a doctor (and former neighbor of the Wahdatis) who visits Afghanistan and meets a young girl, Rashi, who has been mutilated.  He promises that he will make arrangements and pay for her to have surgery.  Once he returns to America, though, he gradually rationalizes away the need to help her. On the other hand there is Amra, a foreign aid worker who gives up a normal life to help people like Rashi. She seems to be a naturally altruistic person who is genuine and dependable.  We also meet Mr. Markos, a plastic surgeon who works in turbulent places like Afghanistan (and lives in the Wahdati's old house).  We watch his growth from a child who shuns an acquaintance because he is horrified by her dog-mauled face to a self-centered young man traveling the world. But ultimately he takes on the role of a surgeon willing to risk his own personal safety to help other people. The message is clear--intentions are not enough.  If we want to make a difference and ease the pain of a troubled world, we need to take action, even though it is inconvenient, or even dangerous. 

It is the inclusion of these stories of selflessness that prevent this collection of heartbreaking narratives from reducing the reader to complete misery. The chapters leap around in time which lends to a bit of confusion, but I just let go of the idea of having it all clear in my head.  The historical timeline is much less important in this book than Hosseini's others.  And the Mountains Echoed is more psychological, and the characterizations more complex than The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and these take center stage over the events in Afghanistan and other settings in the story. 

One complaint: I'm not a fan of using letters as a device in novels when they are much more personal than any letter would ever realistically be. Nabi writes a letter to Mr. Markos explaining the history of Abdullah and Pari, which is important, but he also includes details about his infatuation with Nila, Mr. Wahdati's obsession with him and other things. It's a long letter. I think an author needs to choose between a letter that is as impersonal as a letter to a stranger would be, or choose another style/device that allows all of the inner/personal details to be revealed in a more organic way. I don't know--maybe people are more open in their letters than I would be...

All in all, it's a beautiful book. Hosseini has already established himself as a masterful storyteller in his previous novels.  He applies his talents to a new format and a different focus in And the Mountains Echoed, and I loved it.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mini Bloggiesta January 16-17

Winter Mini Bloggiesta 2016





This mini Bloggiesta is just what I need right now.  I really feel like I'm starting all over, so my to-do list is pretty basic:

  • Rediscover and add links to my favorite blogs.  I've started this but haven't been able to devote a huge chunk of time to it yet. Every time I remember or come across an old favorite it makes me happy.
  • Visit other participants and see what they're up to. And other blogs too. I should probably put a number goal on this but I just can't even figure out what that number would be. 
  • Complete at least two mini-challenges
  • Write a post with mini-reviews of my favorites reads over the past year or two since I've been absent from blogging
  • Update my index pages of reviews
  • Tweet.  Something.  I'm finding I like Twitter better than I did a couple of years ago.  Probably because I now have a phone that has internet.
  • Relearn some basic html. I seem to have forgotten some things.
That's all I can think of for now, and that list might be too much. But it will be fun, no stress involved!  


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Phantom Tollbooth

Author: Norton Juster
Originally Published: 1961
Length: 256 pages
Source: Nook
Challenge: Back to the Classics 2016

Personal Enjoyment Factor:4.5/5


When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going.  Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him--least of all the things that should have.


Young Milo is letting the wonder of life pass by unobserved and unappreciated.  Youth truly is wasted on the young! But that's all about to change when he arrives home to find a mysterious tollbooth waiting in his bedroom.  Without much hesitation, he takes the bait and embarks on a journey to a land filled with whimsy, wonder, conflict and uncertainty. Milo learns to live in the moment and open his mind to new ideas, all while becoming an unlikely hero determined to bring Rhyme and Reason back to a land embittered by a battle between words and numbers. 

I read this because my daughter told me to and you always read what your daughter tells you to read.  I remember seeing this book in my school library when I was in fourth grade. (I can still vividly picture my elementary school library and many of the books I checked out.  I wonder if that's normal?) I never read it, and I've always assumed it was about a ghost named "Tollbooth." And that Tollbooth was a dog with a clock on him.  I was obviously wrong, but there's really no way to anticipate what this book has in store for its readers. A symphony that composes the colors in the world. A Valley of Sound plagued by silence. A market of words.  I loved the witty puns and the power of words. One of my favorites was the wagon that moves when everyone is silent--it "goes without saying."  And I  loved the banquet where they gave "speeches" listing foods, because they "ate their words." My speech would go like this: 

"Avocados, enchiladas, asparagus, Chex mix, Diet Coke Lime, banana cream pie." 

 I think I'd be sick, but in this case I wouldn't mind eating my words.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016



My first challenge of the year and the first in a long time!! The Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 is hosted by Karen from Books and Chocolate.  Here are my picks:


1.  A 19th Century Classic - Our Mutual Friend  by Charles Dickens or Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Two fat books that I've wanted to tackle for a long time. 


2.  A 20th Century Classic -  A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. I have the cutest little hardcover of this one.  It has been collecting a handful of dust on the bookshelf.


3.  A classic by a woman author. Felix Holt, the Radical by George Eliot.  One of the last of hers that I haven't read.  Not sure what to expect. 


4.  A classic in translation.   The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek.  This one sounds so intriguing to me.  It's quite long, so I hope it's good.

5.  A classic by a non-white author.  Twelve Years a Slave by Simon Northup.  Just on my radar with the movie out fairly recently.


6.  An adventure classic -  Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Just for pure fun, I hope.

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  I started this before deciding to do the challenge, but luckily started on January 1, so it's in keeping with the rules.


8.  A classic detective novel.  The Long Goodbye Raymond Chandler.  This will be the second I've read by Chandler.

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson or The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.  I've tried this one once before and was lost.  A friend from a book club was talking about how much she loved it so I'm inspired to give it another try.  Hopefully the second time is a charm. 


11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college).  Undecided.  First I need to remember that far back. 


12. A volume of classic short stories. Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton.  I love Wharton and have heard good things about this collection.

(The formatting is coming out weird on this post and I can't figure out how to fix it.  Clearly I don't know what I'm doing anymore!)