Wednesday, September 17, 2014

All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey With Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith

All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey With Jane is Amy Elizabeth Smith's first book.  Smith is a tenured university professor in California who teaches literature; she specializes in Jane Austen novels (and is an Austen enthusiast), and she teaches a course in Austen novels.  The premise of this book was to travel to six different Central and South American countries to meet with both formal and informal reading groups to discuss various Jane Austen novels.  The groups read Austen in Spanish translation, and Smith wanted to find out if these readers connected with and reacted to Austen's novels in the same way that her students back home did.  Smith also wanted to find out if Spanish language readers thought Austen's themes were universal enough to translate across time and cultures.

Ya'll know I'm a sucker for an English period drama.  I've seen all of Austen's novels in film adaptation form (but sadly have never any of her novels).  So when this book popped up in the new titles list on the online catalog of the library website, the Austen in the title is what grabbed my attention.  Intrigued, I thought I'd give this book a try.  And overall, I'm glad that I did.

The introduction and first pages of the first chapter were slow and at first I wasn't sure the story would keep my attention.  However, after a few chapters I was all in.  The slowest parts of the book for me were when the author was describing the geography and physical settings of the countries.  The most fascinating were the descriptions of the reading groups' interactions and reactions to the Austen novels as well as the discussion of cultural differences, the gender roles in the different countries, and the history of each country visited.

The author's various personal struggles with the language barrier and her health as well as her account of her fledgling (mostly) long distance romance also add many layers to the story.  I also enjoyed reading about her trips to local bookstores and identified with her love of books, reading and acquiring various used and new books.  However, as someone who can spend hours perusing titles in a bookstore or a library, I have long ago committed to acquiring my reading selections pretty much solely from the local library system.  (This has saved me much money and book shelf space and makes the most sense for someone who never re-reads a book.)

As part of her literary adventure the author asked those who participated in her reading groups to recommend authors from their countries who were important to their national literature, were required reading in school or were very popular, best selling authors.  Reading about these authors and the literature scene in these countries and how it differs from American or British literature was also pretty interesting.  Through these authors and their works, Smith also touched a little bit on the history of each nation's literature and the development of each country's respective national literature.

While this book's built in readership is obviously Jane Austen enthusiasts, fans and scholars, ultimately I think any book or literature lover and anyone who considers themselves an avid reader will enjoy this book.  People who like to read about travel will also enjoy this book and it's original approach to the genre of travel literature.  I hope you will check this book out the next time you visit the library.

--Review by Ms. Angie

Friday, September 12, 2014

You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

You Know When The Men Are Gone is the debut short story collection by Siobhan Fallon.  Fallon writes from experience as she is the wife of a military serviceman, and the family was once stationed at Fort Hood where these stories are set.  This collection was also among the five finalists for the One Book One Community 2015 title selection; local readers were voting on their choice for the selection throughout the month of August, and the winner will be announced in October, while the reading (of the selection) will take place in February.  I don't normally read the OBOC selection (sorry not sorry); in the past there have been a couple titles that I had already read (years) prior to their selection as the campaign book.

This is a collection of loosely interconnected short stories populated by the soldiers and their spouses stationed at Fort Hood.  Each story focuses on the lives and perspectives of different characters, such as the deployed soldiers in country, the returned soldiers struggling to re-integrate into civilian life or the spouses left behind to worry about the safety and well being of their deployed husbands while they struggle to hold together their families on the home front.  The characters are bound together by the cavalry regiment to which they (or their spouses) are assigned.

I'm not normally a fan of short stories (they're too short and at the end you're like, wait, what was the point?), but something about this particular collection grabbed me.  The stories go by fast, and I think they benefit from the interconnectedness of the characters--for example, characters from one story might pop up in another story.  Each story is in itself heartbreaking, sad, and heavy with the struggles, fears and worries of its characters.  You can easily read through this short story collection in a day because it's hard to put down, the stories are compelling and it is an easy read.  I recommend that you pick it up the next time you visit the library.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age In An Inner-City Funeral Home by Sheri Booker

Lately I've been on a run of non-fiction--this is unusual for me because (and I know I say this every time I review a non-fiction book) non-fiction and I generally don't get along.  Every once in a while though, I find a non-fiction book that sticks and I read it AND I finish it.  Nine Years Under: Coming of Age In An Inner-City Funeral Home is Sheri Booker's first book... well, actually it isn't because during the course of the book she talks a little about how she's published a collection of poetry.  But this is her first prose book.  I saw this title come up in the New Titles list in the online catalog, and since I'd recently come across a review for another memoir set in a funeral home and added it to my reading list, I thought I'd request Nine Years Under and read it.

This is a quick and easy read and Booker's writing style is easily accessible.  There are a few quibbles--for example, there are a few passages in which the chronology and/or those people involved in the action of those passages and the actions ascribed to them are confusing.  I think it was a partially a pronouns issue in one of the passages.  In one such passage the author drops a huge bombshell regarding a family member's health and then after those paragraphs the issue isn't even mentioned for several chapters.  Meanwhile, I'm like, WHAT IS HAPPENING IS (S)HE GOING TO DIE?

Starting in high school, the author spends nine years working part time for a funeral home owned and run by a deacon in her church.  The account focuses heavily on her work in and for the funeral home, while some personal stories about her family and romantic life are shared.  Booker starts strictly as an office employee, answering phones and letting people in the front door when the buzzer rings.  By the time she's spent just a couple years working in the mortuary business, she has graduated to assisting with viewings, prepping bodies for services, and some accounting tasks.

This is clearly a business in which one sees it all, from family dramas and histrionics to unspeakable tragedies to murderers coming to the funeral to view the bodies of their victims.  There is clearly no shortage of dramatic stories.  When the funeral home itself becomes a crime scene after gunshots break out at the funeral of gang member because a rival gang wants payback, I'm surprised Booker's parents don't put an end to the funeral home job (although by this time, Booker may have been in college).

This memoir offers a fascinating and interesting glimpse inside the day to day business of a family owned funeral home in Baltimore.  And in many ways the business of the funeral home in which Booker worked serves as a window onto the rough streets and struggles of one of the most crime ridden cities in America.  It's also interesting to see how funeral customs differ even within the United States.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I Work At A Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories From the Stacks by Gina Sheridan

I Work At A Public Library: A Collection of Crazy Stories From the Stacks is the first book from Gina Sheridan who maintains a tumblr by the same title.  Sheridan is a librarian in Missouri who started writing down stories of the memorable encounters she had with the patrons of her library.  She then started sharing these stories on her tumblr which is where librarians and library workers from all over the country and the world found her and starting submitting their own crazy stories to her site.  This book is a collection of those stories.

Sheridan's stories consist mostly of snippets of memorable conversations with various colorful library patrons.  These stories range from the bizarre to the frustrating to the heartwarming as the book closes with a chapter of stories of patrons who shared their gratitude and appreciation of the local library and its hard working staff.

As a library aide, I could certainly relate to many of the stories Sheridan shares in this book.  If you're a librarian, a library worker, a library user or a book lover, you will enjoy this little book.  It's a quick read that you can finish in a morning or an afternoon.  And I recommend that you check it out today!

--Review by Ms. Angie

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand

The Matchmaker is the fifth book by Elin Hilderbrand that I've read and reviewed here on the blog.  I enjoy her books--they have a tendency to grab hold of the reader fairly quickly, and this one is no different.  If you click here, here, here, and here, you can read the previous Hilderbrand book reviews posted to this blog.  I could tell where this story was headed pretty much from the first complaints of "not feeling right" by one of the characters.  But when I tell characters to do something, they never listen to me, so this one kept putting off going to the doctor, which was really annoying.  Like there were several days when she couldn't get out of bed because that's how much pain she was in, and she still wouldn't go!  Then after three straight days in bed, her (grown) daughter says to her father, should we take mommy to the hospital?  And the father's all, oh, give it another day.  Dude.  This is why your wife stepped out on you--you're condescending, you're distant, you're disconnected, you treat her like a child, and when you should have hauled her ass to the hospital, YOU DON'T.  Also when you get towards the end of this book, make sure you have tissues, okay?  You will need them.  Lots of them.

Dabney hasn't felt right for weeks--she's exhausted, she has pain in her abdomen and her back, she's losing weight, and although she chalks it up to the distress and upheaval of her ex and one true 'perfect match,' Clendenin (what kind of name is that?  This dude isn't even a native Nantucketer, so there is no excuse for his name;) abrupt return home to the small island of Nantucket.  She hasn't seen nor heard from Clen for over a quarter of a century per her orders when he left which were to cut off all contact.  Meanwhile, Dabney's much older husband, Box, (I know his name isn't much better than Clen's, but at least it's a nickname taken from his middle name 'Boxwood') a world renowned economist and Harvard professor condescendingly and obliviously chalks up Dabney's symptoms to work stress.  Dabney's doctor can find no reason for the symptoms besides her mysteriously elevated white blood cell count.  But in order to run more tests to find out why the white blood cell count is elevated, Dabney would have to go to Boston, which she will not do.  This is because she hasn't been off island in over 25 years (!!!) thanks to a rather unique mix of OCD, paranoia, and agoraphobia stemming from her childhood abandonment by her mother and the conviction that nothing good comes when she leaves the island.  Girl. NO.  GO TO THE DOCTOR IN BOSTON FOR THE TESTS.  At this point I already know everything will end in tears.

Dabney has a special gift: she can match people with their one true love, and she has dozens of successful pairings to her credit to prove it.  But her gift didn't work for herself because Clen left even though she couldn't go with him and she knew he couldn't stay.  Instead Dabney settled for a life and marriage with Box the economist even though their relationship has devolved to being mere roommates/friends while his work and reputation takes precedence over their relationship.  AND Box (and Dabney's daughter) thinks her matchmaking gift is a bunch of malarkey and that Dabney shouldn't be meddling in other people's personal lives.  The only things Box has going for him is that he's a good father (even though his daughter's fiance has him so snowed that he can't see the man or the red flags for what they really are), and for the most part, he means well.  But when Clen returns, so do all Dabney's feelings for him.  And so the two begin rebuilding a friendship that a hot second later becomes a full blown extramarital love affair.

Complicating Dabney's already complicated life is the recently announced engagement of her (and Clen's) daughter, Agnes, to a man who is most certainly not her true match.  This Dabney knows; she knows the man is too old, too controlling, and she suspects that his charming exterior (that has Box so charmed) hides much more sinister personality traits.  Dabney knows it would be a colossal (and dangerous) mistake for her daughter to follow through with this marriage.  But previously sharing this knowledge with Agnes blew up in Dabney's face and resulted in a months long estrangement between mother and daughter.  So Dabney must tread lightly in the wake of the engagement news despite her determination to forestall and completely derail this marriage.  Normally I don't like meddling people, but this is one instance that requires a meddling mother--abuse is a dealbreaker, Agnes, and even though he hasn't physically battered you yet, girl, stop ignoring all the warning signs.  

There are some tension filled passages in this book involving Agnes and her fiance, and that whole relationship is thisclose to ending in tragedy, but pulls up short fortunately.  We have enough to cry about at the end, we don't need to cry about Agnes's ill fated love affair.  If you're expecting a happy ending, you should go read a different book.  This ending is bittersweet (with many tears).  I recommend this book to anyone looking for a good read.  Elin Hilderbrand fans won't be disappointed.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie