Monday, April 12, 2010

Why I Read YA

After Dr. Irwin’s lecture last Thursday night, I started thinking about why I read YA.  I’ll be up front and say that I don’t read widely in YA.  My experience with these books is in the fantasy genre only.  I can’t think of any other YA book that I’ve read since becoming an adult.

So why go back to YA now?

Firstly, adult fantasy authors don’t really do it for me.  They have decent worlds, but I think in general they try too hard.  I love The Lord of the Rings, so it’s not like I’m averse to weird names, but most of the time I feel like fantasy authors are slinging around the most obscure words they can fathom simply to remind me that I’m reading a fantasy.  I don’t have that problem with YA fantasy.

There is also that pesky issue of leisure time.  I try to find an hour to read every night, but most days I’ve been reading technical material all day at work, and that is usually followed by some reading for class.  At the end of the day, my brain is tired, and reading a YA book is so much more relaxing.

Mostly, though, I think it comes down to making up for lost time.  As a personal preference, my parents don’t like fantasy.  I was soundly discouraged from reading or watching anything not firmly grounded in the real world.  I didn’t see Star Wars until I was 23, and I didn’t even know there was a book called The Lord of the Rings until I was 19.  (By the way, that’s 2003—2 years after the movies started coming out.  I was raised to be that oblivious.)

I’m not really that much like my parents.  I understand why they’re realists, and I respect that about them.  But I’m a dreamer and a mystic and an idealist. I’d much rather be in a spaceship or an elf kingdom. That’s how I find truth—by first seeing it in an imaginary world.

I was going to use this blog post to rant about the Twilight article we read last week.  (I take issue with anything or anyone who claims Twilight is a good book).  But I think Flanagan really does have a point.  When we feel that we’ve lost something, we cling to whatever gives us pieces of it back. Because I didn’t realize how much I love fantasy until I was an adult, I skipped right over all the wonderful YA books I could have been reading.  I read these books now, partly, to reclaim something I never had in the first place.

Hopefully that’s not too saccharine.  I apologize if my reminiscing made anyone gag.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Readers Advisor is In

Reader A
Reader A is a voracious reader and sometimes finishes five or more novels in a single week.  I started off with a pretty standard question for all of these interviews: ‘What are you interested in reading?’  I barely got a word in edgewise after that question.  It was clear she loves books, has read a lot, and knows exactly what she likes.

She mostly reads Christian Fiction because she wants “safe” books.  What I found out with follow up questions was that Reader A enjoys history, particularly World War II.  Her definition of “safe” does not mean non-violent.  In fact, her favorite reading subject is the Holocaust.  Not the ‘we escaped the Nazis’ plots, but the ‘we’re in Auschwitz and everybody died’ books.  I asked if she was willing to read outside of Christian Fiction, and she said that she was, but emphasized they couldn’t be “filthy” books.

Since Reader A wanted “clean” books, I immediately knew I would have to stick to Gentle Reads.  I turned to our textbook since Saricks has long lists of Gentle Reads.  I first recommended The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer because it is set during WWII,  but all the copies were checked out of Reader A’s library.

I had recently read a book called The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell.  I asked Reader A if she had ever read any books about China during WWII.  She said no, and then her face lit up.  She immediately decided that was the kind of book she wanted to read.  Maybe a personal recommendation wasn’t the right way to go, but the book truly did fit Reader A’s interests.

After Reader A finished the book, she called me to say that she really enjoyed it and that she would like to read more novels set in Asia.  I guess I did something right, because she asked if I was available for more recommendations.  I get the feeling I’m going to end up being her personal MPAA complete with rating and warnings.

Reader B
Reader B was Reader A’s polar opposite.  It was like pulling teeth to get any information from her.  I finally got something useful when I asked: ‘Do you have any hobbies, topics, or interests that you like to read about?’  Reader B enjoys non-fiction books about professional ethics and character values.  She reads to better herself as a teacher and person.  Her favorite books are character profiles and memoirs that discuss family sociology and traditional values.  

I’ll admit it.  I was completely stumped by this one because I hadn’t read any of the information on non-fiction Readers Advisory yet.  I sat there for a few minutes, wondering how I could trick Reader B into accepting a fiction book.  Then I remembered that Readers Advisor Online has tools for nonfiction.  (This was a great learning moment for me!  I normally panic if I don’t know the answer.)

The first book I recommended was a memoir called Out of Silence: A Journey Into Language by Martin Russell.  Reader B was really interested in it, but said she’d just finished a book about a disabled child, and she didn’t want to start another one.  With rising dread, I browsed some more and included the search term ‘teacher.’  I finally found a book called I am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories by Sam Swope, and Reader B decided she would give that one a try.

I was really nervous about Reader B’s response.  I felt I had done a spectacularly bad job in the interview, and she hadn’t seemed very enthusiastic about my recommendation.  I was surprised to find that she liked the book and really admired the teacher who wrote it.   

Reader C
Reader C said reading is one of her favorite hobbies, but she usually rereads her favorite books and branches out only when a friend recommends a new title.  She said her favorite topics are historical, especially the Civil War and Ancient Egypt.  When I asked who her favorite authors were, she said J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling.  I was pretty surprised considering they don’t write about the Civil War or Ancient Egypt, but I didn’t mention it.

These authors are pretty diverse, so in the interview I tried to pinpoint what she wanted.  My next question was: ‘So what do you like about those authors?’  I started to suspect she was telling me what she thought I wanted to hear when she answered, ‘Their writing styles.’  I realized I wasn’t going to get straight answers with such board questions, so I narrowed down my inquiries.  When I commented that those authors write about the supernatural or fantastical, she acknowledged that was her favorite thing about them.  We decided we would look for books about the supernatural in an historical setting.

I remembered reading about a series of Egyptian mysteries in our textbook.  I found a summary of one of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels Crocodile on the Sandbank, and Reader C responded that she wanted “realistic supernatural stuff.”  I asked her to clarify, and found out that she thinks mummies are too unbelievable, but witches and vampires are okay.

Because we were looking for something so broad, I went to Readers Advisor Online so I could search and then narrow or expand the results very easily in the sidebar.  Anne Rice was in every group of search results, so I suggested The Witching Hour and Interview With the Vampire.  I also recommended The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

Reader C decided to read Interview With the Vampire.  After finishing, she said that she liked the book, but she wasn’t sure if she would read others in the Vampire Chronicles series.  Rice’s mythology wasn’t exactly what she wanted.   She said it “wasn’t as bad as Twilight,” but she was looking for more supernatural elements, and Rice’s vampires are too human for Reader C.   

Reader D
I think Reader D is most like the patrons we’re likely to see at the desk for readers advisory.  My other participants were avid readers and could give a quick yes or no to my recommendations.  Reader D was a lot more hesitant.

He does not spend much time reading, so he didn’t really know what he was looking for. Questions like: ‘What are you interested in reading?’ came with long, rambling answers followed by ‘I’m sorry.  I just don’t know.’  His only favorite book is My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  I used that as a starting point to ask more specific questions, like ‘Would you be interested in reading a book about nature and survival?’

I used Fiction Connection and NoveList because they had the best information about My Side of the Mountain.  I recommended Last of the Breed by Louis L’Amour.  Reader D read the first paragraph, and I could tell from his expression he was only accepting the book because he didn’t know how to ask me for something else.  I also gave him Call of the Wild by Jack London.  I offered to find some true survival stories, but he’d already decided on Call of the Wild.

After several weeks of hearing nothing from Reader D, he finally admitted to me that he hadn’t finished the book.  I asked him his opinion, and since he’s the type of person who takes you at your word, he let me know exactly what he thought about it.  He said that he didn’t dislike the book; he hated it.  We talked for a few minutes about what he didn’t like, and I realized that I’d made a huge error giving him a book published in 1903.  He wanted a contemporary author, but he hadn’t known how to tell me that in the interview.

I told Reader D I would look for another book that he might like more, but he was adamant that I shouldn’t waste my time.  He has no intention of reading another book for quite awhile.  He did agree that I could help him whenever he does feel like trying again.  I have a feeling I probably wouldn’t be given a second chance if he didn’t know me, so I’m going to take him up on the offer and see what else I can learn the second time around. 

Reader E
In some ways, it was easier to interview Reader E because we use the same vocabulary.  She was full of references to “genre” and “OPAC” because she’s a librarian.  It was also very difficult because she assumed RA was the same thing as telling her what she should read.   I tried to reassure her that this was all about her, but I don’t think she ever really believed me.  She was pretty defensive about her reading preferences from the start.

Reader E said she enjoys Christian Fiction.  Unlike Reader A, she was very hesitant about reading anything else.   At this point, I felt like I was interviewing Reader B all over again.  If there’s anything I’ve read less than nonfiction, it’s Christian Fiction.  In discussing the themes and topics she enjoys reading about, I realized that her favorite titles would be considered Women’s Lives and Relationships if they weren’t Christian Fiction.

The first place I went was Fiction_L and did a search for Reader E’s favorite series, The Yada Yada Prayer Group by Neta Jackson.  I found a few suggestions, but she had already read Sisterchicks on the Loose by Robin Jones Gunn, and I felt like it was cheating to suggest Neta Jackson’s next series.

I turned to our textbook to see if I could find any overlapping books between the Gentle Reads and Women’s Lives and Relationships chapters.  I found one that sounded promising, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik.   Since that’s the only possible title I found there, I turned to my favorite RA tool, Readers Advisor Online.  The last suggestion I found was Saturday Morning by Lauraine Snelling.

Reader E decided she would take a leap and leave Christian Fiction for a little while.  She read Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons.  Unfortunately, leaving the Christian Fiction comfort zone didn’t work out as well for Reader E as it did for Reader A.  She said that the story was fine, and actually pretty enjoyable, but she really missed the messages of faith and scripture references.

My Reflections
I’m really big on talking about experiences, and I think that’s what a blog is for anyway, so I’ve decided to add some of my own reflections here.  This assignment was very fun and very stressful.  I had a blast talking about books and looking for recommendations.  It was the waiting to hear back from the readers that I found so unnerving.

I have a pretty even spread of reader responses, and all of my readers gave me helpful feedback whether they liked the book they read or not.  I’m really relieved that my friends and family felt comfortable giving me constrictive criticism instead of just placating me.

I’ve identified some things I know to work on before I do readers advisory again.  I think I probably started searching for books before I thoroughly understood what the readers wanted, and my course correcting in the middle of the interview didn’t always work out so well.

Doing this type of project was definitely outside of my comfort zone, but I’m really glad that I picked this lab.  The whole experience of connecting readers with books was very rewarding.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Success! My Secret Shopper Experience

I’m not the type to ask questions at the reference desk, and I’ve certainly never needed help finding my own books to read.  I approached the desk uncertainly, and the librarian seemed to pick up on my hesitancy.  He was very friendly and approachable.  When I asked if he could help me find a good book to read, he looked a little uneasy, but then he smiled, nodded, and answered: “I might be able to help you with that.”

He asked me some of the standard questions:  What are you looking for?  What have you read in the past?  Do you want something newer or older?  Do you want a series or a stand alone? Because I was asking for science fiction—something I’ve read very little of—I volunteered my favorite sci-fi television shows as well. The librarian was familiar with Firefly, so we talked a little about what I liked about that show.  I mentioned that I wanted something ‘accessible’ and not a lot of ‘technobabble.’  It felt like we were having a conversation instead of an interview.

There was a line forming behind me, and the librarian said he’d need a little time to do the searching.  He showed me to the Science Fiction shelves so I could browse.  I watched him as I browsed for 10 minutes, and he was kept occupied by other patrons’ questions.  It was a Sunday afternoon, so there was a rush to pay for printing and get computers.

I happened to find a really promising book as I was browsing.  It was a novel about colonizing Mars.  When the librarian came to get me, one of the books he said fit my description was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles – a series of short stories about colonizing Mars. In the interview, he’d clearly grasped exactly the kind of book I was looking for.  (For you cynics out there – no, he could not see which books I was browsing.)

Since I was browsing and the librarian was at the desk, I don’t know what tools he used to find the book.  When I asked for a description, though, he pulled up Wikipedia for me to read.  After I said I thought that book sounded promising, we had a short discussion about science fiction.  Apparently, he recommended the book because he had read it before and liked it for the same reasons I said I liked Firefly.

In our textbook, Saricks wrote that librarians fear the dreaded question of science fiction recommendations more than most other genres, but even reading a few titles makes the process easier.  This librarian is proof of that.  He said he’s not a science fiction fan, but I could tell he had clearly read enough to have some grasp of the genre.

The librarian was friendly and helpful, even though he was alone at the desk on a busy afternoon.  He found a book that matched what I asked for with a plot I think is interesting.  Whether I actually enjoy the book or not (I do plan to read it!), I consider this secret shopper assignment a success, and I grade the librarian well for his work.

And here’s something interesting:

When I was checking out the book, I mentioned to the clerks how helpful the librarian was.  They told me he had just graduated from library school at IUPUI!  Since we have a common college, I need to introduce myself properly sometime.  I dread telling someone they were “secret shopped” so I might just mention the book was for a class.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock

On the first day of class, I stated that I never read nonfiction because it’s “boring.”  Andrea challenged me to read in nonfiction for one of my annotations.  I rose to that challenge.  Reading the nonfiction book rotated between torturous and wonderful.  I pushed through the less interesting parts, though, and I’m a big enough person to admit that the end product was not at all boring.

I read Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock.  Some readers will already be familiar with the basis of Hancock’s work.  If you’ve seen Stargate, 10,000 BC, or 2012 you’ll recognize the research behind those films.  It’s no coincidence that all were directed by Roland Emmerich.  In truth, that’s why I decided to read this book.  I’m a voracious Stargate fan.

Fingerprints of the Gods presents a view of history that, like the films based on its research, has earned the scorn of traditional archeologists. It point-by-point contradicts the established timeline of human civilization.  As a historian (or at least, someone with a BA in History), I’m trained to scoff at these types of books.  And yet, Hancock’s evidence is so much more comprehensive than traditional archeologists’ that I find myself unable to ignore the research in this book.  In fact, I find myself convinced.

Hancock starts the book by presenting a series of maps.  Despite being drawn circa 1531, they look familiar enough to modern readers.  And that is why Hancock presents them first.  He poses a very simple question.  How does a map drawn in 1531 have an accurate representation of Antarctica when the southern continent was not discovered until 1818?  It is possible Antarctica was not discovered, but rediscovered in 1818?  From there, Hancock examines myths, histories, and architectures from across the ancient world.  The most compelling portions of the book are the astronomic, geologic, and anthropologic evidence that suggests a global, technologically advanced civilization has been lost to history.

Historians generally accept that monuments such as the pyramids in Mexico and Egypt were built to align with the stars.  Hancock points out that in all cases, the alignments do not match the modern sky, but would have done so perfectly circa 10,450 BC when human civilization was supposed to have been primitive.  Geologists have unanimously agreed that the evidence suggests water damage was done to the Great Sphinx at Giza, but Giza last flooded during the most recent Ice Age, meaning that its attribution to the Fourth Dynasty must be incorrect.

Equally thought-provoking as the scientific evidence is the anthropologic arguments Hancock makes.  There is no evidence of early cultural evolution in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, or the Americas.  These ancient civilizations seem to have sprung out of the ground fully ready to build the Great Pyramids and Chichen Itza.  This confounds all social science theories.  Furthermore, in what logical world could the ancient Americans calculate an accurate solar calendar, but lack the science to invent the wheel?

And these are only a few of Hancock’s compelling arguments.

There were places where the science was over my head.  Much as I loved my Astronomy and Geology courses, they were only introductory classes.   The photographs and diagrams help to visually explain, and Hancock does a diligent job writing out all the mathematical calculations for the readers who have not studied Trigonometry or Geometry.  This book is fifteen years old, and so some parts do seem slightly dated, but only in the sense that some astronomical events Hancock calls ‘future’ have already taken place.

Fingerprints of the Gods raises more questions than it answers, but I’m comfortable with that.  I read to be challenged by ideas, not to be bludgeoned with facts.  Furthermore, my mind has always been open to new theories.  It was no great leap of faith for me to accept that there is more to our history than what we know.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys “secret histories” or Roland Emmerich’s films.  I also think it would make excellent reading for patrons who are willing (or eager) to challenge traditional academia.

Book Information:
Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock.
Three Rivers Press, 1996. 592 pages.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles

When it came time for me to pick a Fantasy novel for this class, I knew I was going to read an Arthurian fantasy.  I love Camelot in all its many variations, but my favorite legend is that of Tristan and Isolde.  Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles is the first in the Tristan and Isolde Novels series.

Tristan and Isolde is a star-crossed lovers tragedy.  As the most recent film adaptation tagline read: “Before Romeo and Juliet, there was Tristan and Isolde.”  This book is a feminist retelling of the classic legend.  Miles uses Morte D’Arthur as the source material for this series and stays remarkably close to the original text, but also infusing it with the matriarchal culture of pre-Christian Britain.

The novel opens as the Queen of Ireland, Isolde’s mother, is urged into attacking Cornwall by her lover, Sir Marhaus.  Marhaus challenges King Mark of Cornwall to single combat. Knowing Cornwall has no knight that can best Marhaus, Merlin goes in search of Sir Tristan of Lyonesse, who is the nephew of King Mark. 

Led to Cornwall by the Lady of the Sea, Tristan arrives in time to answer the challenge.  In the duel, Marhaus is killed, but Tristan is wounded by a poisoned dagger.  Feeling responsible for his injury, Merlin takes it upon himself to protect Tristan.  He boards a boat to Ireland in search of the best healer in the British Isles, Isolde.

As Tristan recovers, he and Isolde fall in love, but circumstances are against them.  Tristan cannot stay in Ireland while the Queen seeks revenge for the death of her lover, and soon Isolde finds herself betrothed to King Mark in order to make peace.  On the voyage from Ireland to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde admit their love for each other and begin a secret romance. 

Miles adds layers to Tristan and Isolde that most of the older classic legends are lacking.  She also includes a great deal of Irish and Cornish history and culture into the story.  Although this book is a fantasy, the legend of Camelot is founded in British history, and Miles expands the worldview appropriately.  I am curious to know if the subplots that don’t seem at all related to Tristan and Isolde will come to mean something more in later novels in this series or if they are Miles’s way of broadening the setting.

I don’t like to judge a series by the ending of the first installment.  They often have ‘conclusions’ that I don’t particularly care for, but I love the overall story. Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle has one of those endings.  I feel like the hopeful finish betrays the essential theme in this legend.  Considering how closely Miles stayed with the source material, however, I can only assume the last novel will end according to the legend.

This book is high on my recommended list for anyone who loves Arthurian legend.

Book Information:
Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles.
Three Rivers Press, 2003. 368 pages.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quality AND Demand

Quality versus demand always seems to come down to a black-and-white, all-or-nothing argument.  The options presented are almost exclusively circulation-based or expert-based collections.  In my experience, these kinds of debates are circular and go nowhere—especially not towards any resolutions.

Libraries are not museums; libraries are not bookstores.  Therefore, we shouldn’t act like we are either.  It’s my personal opinion that we are a unique combination of both.  Libraries are one part responsible for housing our culture and one part accountable to tax payers in our communities.  To that end, we shouldn’t be debating quality versus demand.  We should be having conversations about balancing quality and demand.

How do we have both quality and demand in a collection?

One option is leasing a rotating collection of popular titles.  Subscription services such as McNaughton exist for this very purpose.  Any of the leased books can be purchased from McNaughton for a discounted price if the library wants it to become part of the permanent collection.  That decision to purchase can be made by librarians and patrons.  Librarians could select books based on quality.  Patrons, on the other hand, show their reading preference through check-outs.  The collections manager could decide that after a McNaughton book has been checked out a certain number of times, it becomes part of the permanent collection.

One justification for discarding quality classics is that libraries have limited shelf space.  With a rotating collection, that becomes a moot point.  If there are too many McNaughton books to fit on the shelves, we see which ones have been checked out the least and send them back to make room for new titles.  When the permanent collection gets too large, it would be a matter of responsible weeding.  That is, not using circulation as the only reason for discarding books.

As to the budget, I think this is also the more responsible model.  Quality books are a one-time investment that will stay in the collection for years.  Although they may be checked out less, it is not a “waste” of money if a $30 book remains in the collection for 30 years.  It also fulfills the obligation to the people who fund the library.  Instead of purchasing 30 copies of a book that will be popular for a year, we can lease 30 copies of that title.  When its popularity fades, we can ship the 30 books back to McNaughton and get 30 copies of the next big thing on our shelves.  Or if its popularity doesn’t fade, we can move as many copies into our permanent collection as we think we need.

Is this the perfect resolution?  Probably not.  Subscription services cost money, and libraries are always scrambling for funding.  There is also the added hassle of negotiating a contract that fits your library.  But I think it is an idea with many merits, not the least of which is compromise.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Historical fiction is among my favorite genres.  I was so looking forward to reading in historical fiction that I had a really hard time narrowing down the stack of books to just one.  In the end, I selected The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory.

Gregory is famous for her series of novels about the Tudor royals, especially The Other Boleyn Girl.  I decided on The Constant Princess because the main character is Katherine of Aragon, and she is a historical figure I have always greatly admired, whereas I have regarded the other Tudors with mild disdain.  I like the Plantagenet kings, especially Richard III after reading his biography by Paul Murray Kendall.

The Constant Princess begins with a scene from Katherine’s childhood on the battlefields of Spain.  From the earliest moments, Katherine (born Catalina) is trained to be a ruling queen by her mother, Queen Isabella, and her father, King Ferdinand.  When Catalina leaves her home and travels to England, she is confronted by a whole new world.  She finds that the weather is extreme, the social norms strange, and the courtly manners uncouth.  Born to be Queen of England, however, she must adapt herself to her new home.  Catalina finds comfort in her husband, Prince Arthur, but their happiness is short-lived.  They have been married only nine months when he dies.

The politics of England are harsh for Catalina following Arthur’s death.  The only way to fulfill her ambitions of becoming Queen of England is to say her marriage to Arthur was not consummated and convince the Kings of England and Spain to betroth her to Prince Harry.  This she does, though she first lives in poverty and insignificance at court.  As queen, Katherine is every bit as adept as her mother, Isabella.  She feels threatened by only one fact – her inability to produce a male heir.  The novel concludes with the birth of Princess Mary, Katherine’s only surviving child, who will become Queen Mary I follow the death of Henry VIII.

As opposed to most depictions of Katherine of Aragon, Gregory does not write about her in contrast to Anne Boleyn.  In fact, Anne Boleyn is mentioned only in the epilogue. I found it a refreshing take on the story.  Given the turmoil Henry VIII created for Anne Boleyn’s sake, it is her story we remember most, yet Katherine was queen for 20 years, and very much beloved by the English people.  More so, in fact, than Anne Boleyn ever was.

I began this novel a great fan of Katherine of Aragon, and though I still remain one, Gregory’s novel has sobered my opinion of her.  While depicting Katherine as a strong woman and great queen, she reminds readers that to survive in a royal court takes courage, resilience, and more than a little scheming. 

In novels like this, there is a chance that the story will not be engaging.  After all, we know the ending of Katherine of Aragon’s story.  What I loved about Gregory’s novel was the insight into Katherine’s actions and character.  I’m curious now about how she depicts the Tudors.  Despite my love of the Plantagenet kings, I know I’ll be reading more of Gregory’s novels in the future.

Book Information:
The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory.
Touchstone, 2005. 393 pages.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I’ve had a strange relationship with A Thousand Splendid Suns.  I knew it would be an amazing book because it was recommended by a good friend with nearly identical reading preferences to my own.  All the same, I didn’t want to read it.  I avoided the book as much as possible.  I took different paths around my apartment, shelved it incorrectly on my alphabetical bookshelves, and stuffed it into a bag for a week.  Yet when I did pick it up and start reading, I couldn’t put it down.

I didn’t want to read the book because I knew what was coming – a glimpse into the lives of Afghan women.  In some respects, I read about the existence I knew I would.  There was all the oppression, abuse, and violence I knew there would be.  But I also found something else in this book that I did not expect – hope, grace, and moments of happiness.

A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two Afghan women set against the chaotic political turmoil of the last thirty years.  Miriam is born a harami—an illegitimate child—in Herat and raised in a small country shack.  At the age of fifteen, she is given in marriage to Rasheed and taken far from her home to Kabul. 

Laila is a child of the next generation.  She is born the night the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and her life is marked by that war.  Both brothers killed in the jihad fighting for the Mujahedeen, Laila is left to care for her inconsolable mother and fulfill all the aspirations her academic father had for his children.  For comfort, she has only her friends.  Among them is Tariq, whom she has fallen in love with.  At age fourteen, Laila is cast adrift by Tariq’s departure for Pakistan and the missile that kills her parents.

Miriam and Laila’s lives collide in a way as violent as the wars ravaging Kabul.  Taken as the second wife of Rasheed, Laila is pitted by him as Miriam’s rival.  The women find solace in each other, however, when the lowliness of their lives unites them. 

I was, at first, unsure if Hosseini could do justice to this story.  I am naturally skeptical of men writing about a woman’s life (and vice versa) because I believe we experience the world in different ways.  I thought the same thing when I read She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb.  Hosseini won me over much more quickly than Lamb with his sharp insights and empathy.

A Thousand Splendid Suns reminds me of the ancient Greek tragedies.  There is no happiness for Miriam and Laila.  I found hope, however, in the way these two women refuse to submit themselves to the life they are proscribed.  Whatever they endure, they still find the strength to continue on, and that strength comes from their ability to love.  I won’t say this is an uplifting story.  I cried plenty while reading this book, and at some unexpected places.  I will say that this book celebrates the human spirit and, for that reason, the story is not as depressing as it seems at first glance.

Book Information:
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Trade, 2007.  432 pages.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Nanny Diaries, a Kirkus-style review

Authors: McLaughlin, Emma and Kraus, Nicola

Review Date: JANUARY 31, 2010
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Pages: 320 pages
Price (paperback): $13.95
Publication Date: 02/06/2007
ISBN: 031237433X
Classification: NOVEL

McLaughlin and Kraus ignore family and class experts to tell us just how horrible rich people really are to their children.

Nan is a college student in need of a part time job.  Figuring that taking care of a child should be pretty easy, she goes in search of a family needing a nanny.  Because they are rich, and therefore terrible people, family X is all too happy to hire her to raise their son Grayer.  Nan witnesses a long string of selfish parents, neglect, abandonment, extramarital affairs, and borderline emotional abuse – a series of events that could only be made mundane by the erratic pacing of this novel.  Through half-explained time jumps, several months pass in which Nan and Grayer bond.  But Mrs. X ultimately decides that Nan is a worse mother-substitute than she, herself, is a mother, and so Nan is unceremoniously fired.  Proving once again that poor people are superior to rich people in every way, Nan concludes the novel with dignity and some words of advice stolen from Dr. Phil.

A book with only one saving grace – Julia Robert’s performance on the audio.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Of all the genres we could read this semester, the one I hate the very most (yes, even more than nonfiction) is Romance.  Those stories bore me to tears.  I need something else going on along with the romance.  Afraid that I would be stuck reading something horrific, even after avoiding the covers featuring Fabio, I decided to make this genre my classic. 

I’m not a Jane Austen fangirl.  I don’t find her stories particularly inspiring, but I think that’s partly because I read books that used her as source material before ever picking up one of her novels.  In that regard, I admit that I’m a little unfair to Jane Austen.  All the same, I enjoy reading her novels, and I picked this genre because I’ve wanted to read another for a long time now.

Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot, second daughter of a pompous baronet whose frivolous spending has put his family on the edge of financial ruin.  To pay his debts and continue living as he thinks a baronet ought to, the family estate is rented.  The new tenant Admiral Croft is the brother-in-law of Captain Wentworth, who we learn was engaged to Anne 8 years ago.  While she loved Wentworth, Anne had been persuaded by a friend to call off the engagement on the grounds that he was not suitable for a baronet’s daughter.  In the 8 years they had been separated, however, Wentworth had done well for himself.

The romance between Anne and Wentworth is one of rediscovery.  Since the story is told mostly from Anne’s perspective, it is clear that she is not over Captain Wentworth, but she believes her chance is gone.  I feel that the romance is spoiled, however, by Wentworth’s abrupt declaration of love.  I knew it was coming as I reached the end of the book, but I didn’t expect such a sudden and impersonal conclusion.  Even for Jane Austen, that moment between Anne and Wentworth was mild.

There is always one character in every Jane Austen novel that takes my breath away.  In Pride & Prejudice it’s Elizabeth Bennett.  In Sense & Sensibility, it’s Colonel Brandon (who is the literary crush of my life).  I was very upset by the fact that, at the end of Persuasion, I still hadn’t found any character that really grabbed me.  There were plenty I liked and disliked, but none like Elizabeth Bennett, and especially none like Colonel Brandon. 

A friend once described Persuasion as “Jane Austen at her worst.”  I would have to agree in a qualified way.  Even at her worst, Jane Austen is the very best of romance authors.  This certainly wasn’t my favorite novel, but I did enjoy it.  I think Persuasion is an important book as Jane Austen’s posthumous final novel, and I’m glad I did read it, but I won’t re-read it.

Book Information:
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Barnes & Noble Classics, reprinted 2004. 416 pages.