Things Fall Apart - Review by Carole

Chinua Achebe's classic novel, Things Fall Apart, is celebrating its 50th year. A common read in high school curricula, the novel was enjoyed by both of my children. When the kids came home and told me that Achebe himself was going to read from the novel, I figured we would check it out. Chris, the kids, and I went to George Mason University to hear him read from his works. We also were treated to a traditional libation ceremony performed in his native Ibo language.

I had not ever read the book, so I spent time doing just that before the event. I'm glad I did. The book packs quite an emotional wallop, and I can only imagine how shocking a book it must have been when it came out in 1958.

Okonkwo, Achebe's main character, is a Nigerian who has grown to be a man, a husband (to multiple wives), and a father (to many, many children) following the mores, customs, and laws of his people. But his world is changing, faster than he is willing to recognize and accept. A harsh man, he reacts fiercely to adversity. Through his story, we learn about another land, another way of life.

Kids today often read books about other cultures, other lands, but in 1958, this was not the case. Described as Africa's first story by some, Things Fall Apart, flew in the face of Conrad's description in Heart of Darkness of African men as people of no language, no storytelling. Achebe mentioned that specifically before reading to us.

"When you write a book and read from it often, you learn new things all the time. I learned for instance that I was clearly reacting to Conrad when I wrote Things Fall Apart."

In addition to reading some of his poetry, some in English and some in his native Ibo, Achebe read one of my favorite passages from Things Fall Apart. In the story, one of Okonkwo's elders on his mother's side asks him a question: "Why is it that one of the commonest names we give our children is Nneka or 'Mother is Supreme'?"

"It is true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme."

Achebe's courtly manner and his lilting accent heightened the impact of the words as he answered the question.

When asked why he named the book Things Fall Apart, Achebe said he was "showing off." He drew the title from Yeats' "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Achebe graciously signed copies of his books for the many, many people who waited in line. It's always a thrill for me to listen to authors read their own words. In the case of an iconic work like Things Fall Apart, it was also a privilege.


Banned Books Week is September 27 to October 4

This year, the American Library Association's Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read is September 27 through October 4.

Recognized by booksellers and librarians across the nation and promoted by the American Library Association (ALA), readers are encouraged to think about intellectual freedom and freedom of expression through books.

According to the ALA, Banned Books Week also
celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.

Me, it makes me want to read banned or frequently challenged books. Visit the ALA Web site for a list of challenged books over the years.

What, may you ask, is considered a banned or challenged book? You'd be surprised. Well, some you wouldn't because they're old hat: The Color Purple, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, A Wrinkle in Time.

Then, there are the ones you could see coming — Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy's Roommate — because they introduce ideas and lifestyles that some people don't agree with expressing or revealing. (The latter book was introduced into the current presidential campaign in the New York Times.)

Finally, there are the ones that make you scratch your heads: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, And Tango Makes Three. (Click on the links to read my reviews.)

For me, Banned Books Week is a celebration of books and freedom of expression. More importantly, I want to see if there's anything to the fuss. I don't turn away from controversy, but wade into the middle of it. I research that which is being protested. If you tell me that something shouldn't be read, what do you think I do? I read it!

So, start shopping at your local library or bookstore. Read the challenged book and see for yourself if it's all that and a bag of chips.

Don't let others decide what you can read. Never let others make decisions for you. You're smarter than that. So go exercise that brain and your freedom. See what it's all about.

And whether you agree or not, decide what your course of action will be. This is, after all, the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Be both.


Mistress of the Art of Death — Review by Chris

With Mistress of the Art of Death, transport yourself back to 12th century England. Henry II is losing money in his kingdom because the Jews of Cambridge are holed up in a castle to save their lives. Children are being murdered and someone has accused the Jews.

This gruesome action against defenseless children cannot continue — but not for the reasons we might first consider. In this gripping novel, Ariana Franklin appoints an amazing and unlikely observer who, with an incredible cast of characters, weaves a tale that holds readers from the start.

To help his fellow regent, the King of Sicily sends two of his greatest minds to Cambridge. Simon of Naples, also Jewish, is a keen thinker who, as a man, can go anywhere and do anything. Adelia is a doctor and teacher in Italy — and a woman who looks on the dead for clues on how they died. Accompanied by a huge Arabian eunich for protection and Adelia's former nursemaid for propriety, they travel across the English channel — and, quite frankly, back in time.

Not all of Europe is created equal, then or now. In Italy, women were not full members of society, but a brilliant mind was less likely to be quashed (especially those adopted by physician-teachers already respected in society). Adelia is accepted, perhaps grudgingly, in her hometown.

But they're not in Salerno anymore. Adelia pretends Mansur, the eunuch who speaks no English, is the doctor; she guides him in Arabic and "translates" the doctor's findings. The nursemaid, an old woman, died on the journey over, and Adelia still mourns her — plus, Adelia discovers, she is missing a chaperone, which limits Adelia's ability to simply walk to the market. Simon is a man, which buys him some freedom, but as a Jew he is aware of his precarious situation.

England is medieval, lacks hygiene and open minds. Thankfully, Adelia's crew encounter Prior Geoffrey early in their travels. After providing him with emergency medical care (and his awareness through the procedure), he enables their investigation, all the while keeping Adelia's secret.

In this novel, readers are captured from the first by the interesting characters and amazing situations. I call them "amazing," but perhaps I need to call them "barbaric" or "antiquated." I hate cold and dirty places, and Franklin captures Cambridge with an accuracy and richness that transports readers to Adelia's side. We join her on the hillside with pilgrims, in the castle with frightened people, standing next to the aggrieved mother who taunts the "murderers" behind castle doors, in the convent where she slowly realizes what makes the "buzzing" sound she hears.

Humans always look for the enemy in "other," and through Adelia, Franklin introduces us to a fascinating array of "others." Ariana herself is "other." As an unbiased observer, she examines Cambridge society to find the killer. Are the disadvantaged — those easily hated and despised — apt to commit these heinous crimes because they are outcasts? Or is the killer someone of position? Do the people of Cambridge point to "other" because it is too horrible to think one of their own killed them?

Through Franklin, we see how little times change. We see brilliant minds, the end of friendships, the beginning of others, love among the least likely, "cleverness" that trumps "smarts," and the horror of horrors: murder.

I found this book hard to put down. Many were the night when I stayed up late to finish "just one more section." The story careened to an incredible crescendo, and the last 40 pages are simply astonishing. I recommend this book to those who like good stories, strong characters, true love, cleverness and English society.


A Year in the Merde - Review by Carole

Meant to be a send up of the popular A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, A Year in the Merde had a promising premise. Author Stephen Clarke sends Paul to Paris to open a chain of English tea rooms. It's a task for which his British company and he think he is well suited. Unfortunately, I found the situations more amusing than the characters.

I wanted the book to be more charming than it was. Trying to figure out where it fell short for me, I came to the conclusion that Paul just wasn't very likable. He often would lament the lack of l'amour in his life, but then he would do something stupid like go home with the wrong girl (as Katie in my book club pointed out, it was difficult to distinguish one girl from another--they were all rather one dimensional). Paul mentions that one of the girls thought he was like Hugh Grant, but I thought he lacked Hugh's charm. In fact, he isn't even clearly defined as British--it's too easy to forget that he is British and he struck many in my book club as American.

I was interested to read about the French approach to business. The realization that the people who work for you are pretty much there forever and cannot be fired must be a sobering one, particularly when you realize that they are not very motivated to do what you need them to do. Paul undergoes quite a transformative process in his assessment of the proposed name for the chain. The French people with whom he works want to call it My Tea is Rich. Over the course of the nine months he is there, Paul goes from thinking it was the worst name ever to realizing that it was very clever in a French sort of way.

Paul often shakes his head at the French's acceptance of inconveniences in their lives, such as copious amounts of dog merde in the streets and strikes of every conceivable sort, and invites us to marvel along with him. Unfortunately, because of my ambivalent feelings for Paul, too often I often found myself thinking, "it serves you right" when he would literally step in it.

I did enjoy watching Paul develop an appreciation of the Gallic shrug. Having had a French kid living with us this summer, I was on the receiving end of quite a few shrugs myself recently. The shrugging descriptions in the book were spot on.

Paul's attempt to buy real estate in the French countryside was probably my favorite part of the book. Observing him navigate his way through literally unfamiliar terrain was funny; if I liked him more, I would have been rooting for him to come out on top. As it was, I didn't care overly much how it turned out.

The book has two sequels, but I don't think I'll be picking them up. Some people just live right, I guess. Clarke writes an okay book and gets to publish two sequels? How does that work?


Richistan — Discussion by Chris and Carole

Editor's Note: Chris wrote her review first, and I've added my comments in italics throughout her review. We just posted this last week, and in light of the bleak economic headlines, I can't help but wonder how many of these people still live in Richistan and how much more difficult has it just become for the rest of us to every live there?

Close your eyes and think of how much money would make you comfortable. You know, pay your bills, give you a chance to do whatever you've told yourself you'd do if you didn't work, maybe fix the house and put the kids through school. Chances are, it's not an exorbitant amount. (Some of you are going hog-wild, I bet. Even then, add it up and I'll bet it doesn't top a high-end lottery winning.)

The older I get the more I realize that if I were to come into any appreciable amount of money, my ideas of what I would do with the money changes. When I was in my 20s, I would have been focused on what I could buy with that money; now that I'm-er-not in my 20s, I believe that what would bring me the greatest happiness is knowing that I no longer needed to worry about money. I would want to sit on a big ol' pile of it (metaphorically speaking), pay my bills, and relax! The conspicuous consumption doesn't really fit into my mental image of a rich me nowadays.

Now, think of the poor souls whose principle adds a few zeros to the end of that number. How did they get there? What kind of lives do they lead? Do you envy them?

Read Richistan to find out, and be prepared to leave behind your preconceived notions and your envy.

I envy some of them. I always admire anyone who has an idea for a product or a service, actually acts on it, overcomes the obstacles in the way of success, and follows through to achieve the dream. I have had countless ideas for things over the years, and they remain nothing but ideas. Others take it to the next level--they live in Richistan, and I do not. After reading the book, I think the sure bet would be to come up with a product that the nouveau riche cannot live without, like something for their kids, and you would be golden. Mind you, you might not live in Upper Richistan after successfully marketing your product and then selling your company in a huge "liquidity event", but you could become comfortably esconced in Lower Richistan. Speaking for myself, I could be perfectly fine with that.

Author Robert Frank identifies the lives and issues of the mega-rich with a clarity and honesty that is more than refreshing. From the first page of the introduction, I was riveted by Frank's tales of the homes and businesses of those with money. Frank's prose was crisp, wonderfully written and so un-self-conscious that every word flowed like a smooth river of Godiva.

Wait, I'm sure there's a chocolate that's better than Godiva in Richistan, the land of the wealthy — where a million dollars doesn't even gain you a toehold.

In this land, there are cars better than Rolls-Royce, watches better than Rolex, private jets better than Jetstream, private yachts bigger than a football field. There are homes with more amenities than an entire city block and closets bigger than the (non-Richistani) average home.

The descriptions of the products, and the realizations that there are brands of things that don't even want to be known by anyone who is not a Richistani, blew my mind.

How did this happen? Frank examines the economy and the people who found their way to this land. He looks at the nation — and the world — to see how this new phenomenon of mega-wealth occurred. He looks to the past, to the present and to the future.

Woven in with these real-life examples are statistics that help shape the reader's view of the nation's economy. Frank helps readers understand how fast the Richistan population has grown and how. And the residents of this heretofore unexamined country are fabulously and honestly drawn. When reading about the guy who made "Dickens Village" popular, one understands how he managed to make his mark and his money.

Frank's explanation of the different periods of wealth creation in the United States was fascinating. The various economic factors that have to come together to create the proper environment for wealth was eye-opening. His description of the "river of money" that is currently swirling through our economy just waiting for those bold enough to set their raft afloat in it made me want to become a metaphorical Huck Finn. What separates most people from those that are willingly to chance the river and those that won't even dip their toes in it? I would say generally it's fear--the risk of losing money is too great for most people to chance. So to the risk takers go the rewards--I think that's fair. Frank brings up many questions, however, about the influence that the Richistanis then get to wield on the economy, politics, and other social issues. And that's when I get worried. When does it become not fair? Just because you're rich doesn't mean you're the boss of me! But I also don't think that just because you worked hard and were wildly successful that you should have to give up your wealth to support people who haven't achieved what you have. The redistribution of wealth is a scary concept for me.

In addition to fine portraits, Frank offers wide brush strokes. While each Richistani resident is her or his own person, they create a group with certain behaviors and expectations. As a group, they are fascinating. Frank is kind and generous to his subject and treats them with respect they deserve.

I agree that Frank was very evenhanded--as someone who has to visit Richistan, but presumably does not live there--I often found myself wondering what he thought of it all. He does not share him personal impressions with the reader, other than by the examples he chose to share. Relative objectivity in this day and age--imagine that!

The book was addicting. Imagine life with a butler. Nice, huh? Really? The answer will make you think twice. How many people does it take to get a mouse out of the house? In Richistan, it's a different number than in the rest of the world. It's a world that most of us might have glimpsed on TV shows, maybe driven past in traditionally wealthy pockets of the nation, but never considered so personally until now.

Like I said earlier, I think there is great potential for Richistani wannabes to capitalize on fulfilling the needs of the Richistanis. My brain has been spinning with possibilities since I finished the book!

In the end, the broad strokes blended with the fine detail to create a portrait of unimaginable wealth. Every section, every chapter flows seamlessly into the next. It's impossible to put down once it's started, and it's easy to recommend — even to those like me who approach economics and business with great trepidation. It's like a novel, only real. And it oh so very interesting.

I recommended that everyone in my house give it a read. The one point in the book that had me rolling my eyes was the bit on the support groups for the rich. Poor, poor rich people. What are they to do? I think those elements highlight the differences between the wealthy of this era versus the Old Money folks of yesteryear. I think that the primary reason that the wealthy today run into so many problems, such as living beyond their means, worried about the effects of wealth on their children, and generally being unhappy that they are not as rich as others they know, is they become more concerned with everyone else knowing that they are rich than they are with just being rich.

All in all, a fascinating exploration of a world to which I'm not privy. But if I ever find myself in Richistan, I now know how to behave!


The Shadow of the Wind - Review by Carole

I'm always apprehensive when a book is a translation. I've read some that just lose so much that it nearly ruins the experience (The Reader leaps immediately to mind). That was not the case with The Shadow of the Wind--in fact, as I was reading it I forgot very quickly that it was a work from Spanish to English. So my hat is off to Lucia Graves, the translator.

I love books about books, and this was no exception. Carlos Ruiz Zafon draws many parallels between the main character and the character in a book that is pivotal to the plot, also called The Shadow of the Wind. As the parallels became clear to me, I began to wonder if other parallel lines were being drawn as well, keeping me constantly guessing as to where the plot was taking me. I love books that can do that!

Daniel is a young boy when the story begins. His father is a book antiquarian who takes him to a mysterious place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He tells Daniel that he now has the responsibility for choosing a book that he will watch over. Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind. He reads the book and is fascinated. He wants to read more by the author, but he begins to discover that someone is traveling around Barcelona destroying every book written by the author. Daniel becomes more determined to learn more and to save his book.

Set in Spain after the Spanish Civil War, Ruiz Zafon paints a vivid picture of the time and place for the story to unfold. I also found the secondary characters in this book richly developed--they all seemed real to me, with the exception of a certain blind girl for whom Daniel has a young man's attraction. I also liked how the neighborhood and the neighbors in the book were drawn. I liked the way that they forged alliances and helped one another.

The setting for the book was very vivid--I thought it was very cool to have a map in the back of the book. Others in my book club said their versions of the book didn't have the map, so be on the lookout. It showed photos of real places with indicators where the fictional ones would be. If I were to find myself in Barcelona, I would want to take that walking tour.

One character whom Daniel encounters, and who is aided by Daniel and his father, is Fermin. He was hands down my favorite character--I loved his resilience, his wit, and his insights. I liked the way he took Daniel under his wing, even though Daniel and his father were really his deliverers. He showed Daniel what being brave was all about, taught Daniel how to be a man (in many senses of the word), and wore his heart on his sleeve.

You know that the book is taking you to some creepy, tragic places, as any good gothic novel should, but I never guessed where they were going, so full points to Ruiz Zafon for not being predictable. It was a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience--the best pick from my book club since I joined.

I understand that there's a prequel to the book scheduled for release in English in Spring 2009. It's called The Angel's Game. I'll have to check it out.

Do you have a favorite book about books? Please share--Chris and I plan to have a section devoted just to that when we get our companion website up and running.


Reflecting on Beach Reading

I spent a week in August at the beach with a wonderful assortment of family and friends. While I eagerly awaited diving into the stack of books I brought for the week, I didn't anticipate all of the lovely book conversations I would have as the week progressed.

I looked around on Day 1 as everyone lay sprawled on the beach either on the blankets dutifully sunworshipping or cautiously shaded by the many umbrellas we rented, as various skin types warrented. My brother's girlfriend was reading Women are like Spaghetti, Men are like Waffles. My daughter was reading the first of a Nora Roberts' trilogy (she prefers fluff-n-trash at the beach); her best friend was plowing through A Farewell to Arms for school as quickly as she could so that she could read what she really wanted, The Twilight Saga. My son was reading The Godfather. My husband was reading Vince Flynn's series featuring Mitch Rapp. My mother was reading The Oath by John Lescroart. I began reading Leeway Cottageby Beth Gutcheon, a multigenerational novel, I also brought the sequel, Good-Bye and Amen, with me (more on those in an upcoming post--Chris and I plan to discuss these at the end of the month).

The French kid who was staying with us this summer was not a reader. He looked around at everyone with their noses in books and said to me, with a baffled expression on his face, "Always ze books?" I said, "Yep! We're all about the books." He much preferred to go fishing.

About an hour into our beach day, my daughter's friend bursts out with an "AAAAARRRRGGGHHH!" as she slammed her Hemingway to the ground. "Stupid, man-written book!", she wailed. I gathered that Papa H. was not her cup of tea. She quickly moved on to the saga of Bella and Edward to cleanse her palate (I also started that series at the beach and just recently finished it--look for a review on the saga soon).

When we all had our fill of sun and surf for the day, we headed back to the house. My dad returned from golfing, and we talked about books some more. His complaint is that so many of the books they read are formulaic and he gets bored. He referred to the Sue Grafton and Dick Francis types of books. Mysteries are enjoyable for what they are, but too many leave you with a lack of satisfaction. I asked him if he had read any Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins books. He had not, so I have started a bag of books that don't follow a formula to take to Dad soon.

Following the family beach week, we had an opportunity for just my husband, kids, and I to have an end-of-summer trip to Charleston and Charlotte. We brought along our individual reading choices at the time: my husband was still reading the Vince Flynn books (that's a big series); my son was reading A Clockwork Orange for fun and Woe is I for school (nothing like waiting until the last minute); my daughter was reading The Thirteenth Tale; and I was immersed in the vampire saga. We also brought along Hatchet and one of the Newbery books we read together, The White Stag. Hatchet was an exciting tale that had everyone intrigued for a few hundred miles, and The White Stag was an fascinating tale of Attila the Hun.

All in all, August was a satisfactory month for reading, but not for posting. I now have plenty of (mentally) stored up material for posting over the next couple of months. Did you read anything good this summer you want to share?


20th Century Ghosts — Review by Chris

It's official: Joe Hill is a Reading Buddy Writer.

Both of his books — Heart-Shaped Box (which I reviewed in January 2008) and, now, 20th Century Ghosts — frightened me enough to want to have someone else in the room, especially when I was foolish enough to read them at night.

I can see why 20th Century Ghosts won a host of horror genre awards. It's freakin' scary — but not all stories are scaring us equally. I read the stories in order, and I read them occasionally. (Usually, I would read one, which would whet my appetite, then I'd scare myself with the next one and put the book down.) Hill is not looking to leap out from behind the door and scream, "Boo!" Instead, he employs a number of different methods by which we can be horrified.

The stories veer wildly from the bizarre to the creepy to the chilling to the outright frightening, then back to bizarre. A couple are pretty tame in comparison to ones that might surround it. Many are character studies in which the supernatural is a player, but the character is the main event. A couple are too subtle — until the reader gets to the "punchline," which is well worth the read. Some names are familiar, borrowed from other horror stories or other media in the horror genre.

I recommend reading them in the order the author arranged them. I liked them that way — it gave me a chance to catch my breath from time to time.

Hill starts out with a bang with "Best New Horror." An editor receives a story that is wholly original — and, frankly, terribly disturbing — and wants to publish the story in his magazine. He has to track down the author, and the stories he hears about this man are unsettling. However, horror stories are filled with people who just can't believe what they hear is anywhere near true. If they practiced an ounce of caution, there would be no story. The ending of Hill's story is as disturbing as the fiction within the fiction. (At least, we hope it's fiction.)

Then there's the title story, which involves a movie theater, a young girl in the audience and just a little death.

After that there's an inflatable boy, a boy-turned-atomic-insect, an autistic child who is loved and accepted by his father, an abducted youth who's not alone after all, a man who can fly, a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time, a doctor who collects something priceless from the dying — and the list goes on and horrifyingly on.

His lead characters are all male. It's a little surprising, and a little disappointing. I was floored by Hill's credible and thorough development of female characters in Heart-Shaped Box and looked forward to his female characters in the next book of his I read. However, this collection was published before his novel, so I won't complain. If anything, it intrigues me to see how he will continue his great character development.

If you like horror, you will like this book. I'm not very good at hunting down individual stories before they're collected and handed to me, but for Hill, I'd search the shelves (or, more realistically, set up a feed to alert me to all things Joe Hill).

I just wish that, whenever I saw the spine or covers of his books, I didn't start humming "The Ballad of Joe Hill" (which, in my head, sounds like Joan Baez's famous 1969 Woodstock performance). However, I also start to dance whenever I hear "Fergalicious," which is much more embarrassing than humming, so I guess I should count my blessings.