Saturday, February 28, 2015

February - This Month in Reading

At the end of January, I wrote that I wanted to read at least 1 book for each challenge and take care of a couple NetGalley reviews I needed to do. I didn't exactly manage this, as there were some challenges that went "unread" this month, but that's OK. I read a respectable 13 books in February, including several for the Harlem Renaissance Reading Challenge (which went unread in January) so I'm happy with this progress.

For March, I need to do some metaphorical spring cleaning and "catch up" with some outstanding reading items. I have some NetGalley reviews that need to be done, so they will be a priority for a few days, and I also have 1 library book that I need to complete before I go on another NetGalley/library diet for a couple months so I can get back to reading from the physical TBR pile. I'll do my best to work on challenges in March but I'll be happy if I can just get to a place where I can really attack the TBR pile in April.

How was your reading in February? Do you have any book-related "spring cleaning" planned?

February Reread - Having Our Say - Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

The subtitle of this wonderful book is The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years and that really says it all. This book contains the autobiographies of Sadie and Bessie Delany, two remarkable women who lived through Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance, two world wars (and then some), the Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and really made their mark on the world. I first heard of these amazing ladies many years ago through a stage production based on this book (it was great, if you haven't seen it and you get the chance, definitely go!), and then I got this book soon after that. I've been wanting to reread it for a while, but I kept putting it off because of the enormous TBR pile, but I decided now was the time. This book is written in a conversational style that makes you feel like you are sitting with the sisters and they are speaking directly to you in a conversation. It's a great read, and I recommend it highly.

When this book was originally published in the 1990s, the sisters were 105 and 103 respectively, still living on their own and evidently still sharp as tacks. They have both since passed away. Their life stories are amazing; their father was born into slavery, and eventually became the first black person to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal church in the U.S. Sadie was the first black person allowed to teach high school domestic science (what we later called home ec) in New York City, and Bessie was only the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State. These ladies were in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and they knew Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Dubois, and other prominent people of color of that time. They had close encounters with racist organizations like the KKK and everyday racist creeps, and lived to tell the tales; they had to deal with the entrenched racism in society and managed to work around it as much as they could. I can't imagine having to deal with some of the things they dealt with.

There are two other books I haven't yet read, The Delany Sisters' Book of Everyday Wisdom, and a book written by Sadie, On My Own At 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie. I'll have to add these to my ever-growing virtual TBR pile. I hope to live as long as these ladies, and to be even half as wise and smart and hardworking. This was a great way to wrap up this month's reading.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Native Son - Richard Wright

Well readers, I have been knocked back on my heels by a powerful classic book yet again. Before I started reading, I didn't read so much as the back of the book, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect going in. This turned out to be great, as the story took a turn I couldn't possibly have predicted. This relentless book maintains an almost unbearable tension and level of suspense throughout. I can't say I liked the main character particularly; for many reasons, I believe he isn't meant to be all that likable, he's meant to help the reader think through the author's main points - and this is very effective. The naturalistic use of language and description was skillful and made me feel I was right there in the story. In the final part of the book, one character gives a multi-page speech that is a scathing indictment of the entrenched racism in American society - I believe this speech should be required reading for everyone. All in all, this is a book that will linger in my mind and influence my thoughts for a long time. Highly recommended.

The particular edition I happened to read, which I found at the library, was made up of the original version of the book (which had been altered to remove some potentially offensive material before being offered as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940), an introduction by Arnold Rampersad of Princeton, extensive notes, a biographical timeline, and some early criticism and Wright's responses to these critiques. This version also includes Wright's essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born," which provided a fascinating view into how the novel came to be, the inspirations, and insights into the process, which I enjoyed. I recommend this particular edition because all the other material is really relevant and adds to the reading experience.

I'm going to claim this book for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge, as Wright evidently wrote the book in Harlem in the last 1930s. The book is also #27 on the ALA's list of frequently challenged classics (the link doesn't specify, but I can guess some of the reasons, including a smattering of somewhat frank talk about sexuality).

Friday, February 20, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

What a luminous book. I found it captivating, and I liked the way the two main stories came together. The book did a wonderful job at showing how people get swept up in war. The description brought vivid images to my mind while I was reading - I could vividly picture the settings, characters, and events. The main characters were entirely sympathetic, and we are fairly clearly able to see their motivations - even if we don't necessarily agree with them. Recommended.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Ways of White Folks - Langston Hughes

Reader, if you can read even one of these beautiful, heartbreaking, witty, haunting stories without becoming deeply angry or deeply depressed (or both), you are a person more in control of their emotions than I could ever hope to be. This collection made me deliriously happy to be alive in the early part of the 21st century, because the progress we have made now, while still very much a work in progress, is at least a major improvement on the daily conditions of the lives of so many African American people at the time these stories were written (the 1930s). Like I always say though, it's so important to have these stories to show us how much things have changed, and to point out what still needs work.

Since the time that I discovered Hughes' poetry, I've been a fan, but I hadn't read his prose until I read his novel Not Without Laughter and Mule Bone, the play he co-wrote with Zora Neale Hurston last year and became even more of a fan. His writing is just so fluid and elegant, that even when the subject matter is unpleasant, as a reader it's impossible to stop reading. I have some other books for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge that are up next, or I'd be reading more - maybe later this year when I have made more of a dent in the TBR Pile. Highly Recommended.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen

The Dusky Literati recommended Nella Larsen to me for the Harlem Renaissance Reading Challenge, and I'm really glad she did - I really enjoyed Larsen's writing. This book is deceptively slender, which is a shame, as Larsen was a very talented writer. Because I tend to prefer novels to short stories, I must say I enjoyed the two novels, Quicksand and Passing, that are both included in this volume, a bit more than the stories, but only just. I wish I had read Larsen in college, as comparing the two novels would have made for a great thesis. I think both are really about security, and what one might give up to feel secure. I don't want to say more lest I provide spoilers, but I urge you to read for yourself, and then leave me a comment so we can discuss :) I see there is a biography called In Search of Nella Larsen that I need to add to my virtual TBR pile for future reading. Recommended.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum (spoilers?)

Disclaimer: I can't discuss this book without describing some aspects of it that could be construed as spoilers, so I'm mentioning this up front in case you'd prefer to avoid them. 

I somehow made it through childhood without reading this book, although of course I have seen the movie numerous times. Strangely, I seem to remember owning copies of Ozma of Oz and Tik-Tok of Oz as a child, but for some reason I didn't read this book, or the entire series - ? What a strange child I apparently was! In any case, I have now read this book and enjoyed it considerably.

The movie adaptation mainly follows the book, with notable exceptions that I assume were made to simplify the plot and create a bit more drama. It's too bad that some parts, such as the china/porcelain town and the hammerheads, were cut, but I can see why they were. Movie making is often about condensing a story into a set timeframe, and many of these incidents didn't really do much for the overall plot and were more like creative interludes. I suppose too it would have taxed the special effects department, which did a fantastic job on the movie considering that they had none of the computer-generated tricks we rely so heavily on today for special effects.

Something I really liked about the book was that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all got a cool new life to lead after Dorothy left them to go back to Kansas. This was a nice detail that added closure to the story, where the movie left them hanging - we don't know what will happen to them.

All in all, this is a sweet and imaginative book for children that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

This book has the distinction of being the first book that I read entirely on my cell phone. As the book is out of copyright, I was able to download a copy for free; the drawback, of course, is that there are no cool illustrations (I adore the art from the beginning of the 20th century, so it's a shame I wasn't able to see any original art that may be included with other editions of this book). I don't have a Kindle, so this is a nice way to always have a book or 2 on hand, and to take advantage of those times when I have to wait for something by doing something good for my brain instead of something more mindless. I still prefer actual paper books, and I probably always will, but having options is nice too.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man - James Weldon Johnson (spoilers?)

Disclaimer: I can't discuss this book without describing some aspects of it that could be construed as spoilers, so I'm mentioning this up front in case you'd prefer to avoid them. 

Came across this book while I was looking for books for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge, and as I love stories about people who live secret or double lives, I found this irresistible, and got it from the library as soon as I could.

Despite the title, this book is a novel, about the life and times of a light-skinned man of mixed race (his father is white and his mother has African heritage). I found the writing to be wonderfully clear and descriptive. The narrator describes his life, education, work, social life, and travels as a boy through young adulthood. He includes some experiences studying foreign languages, and has some great advice for language learners that I heartily agree with. He also shares my love for Paris and France, as well as some views on American society that are sadly still true now, more than 100 years after this book was originally published (sigh). I really liked the narrator, and I could have read volumes about him and his life, as well as his views on society.

One thing that initially threw me was that this book was not so much about him living life as some who could "pass for white;" it was more about the process of the narrator deciding, after traveling abroad and around the U.S., and witnessing a real horror, to do so. But this did not dampen my enjoyment of this book - in fact, it enhanced my emotional reactions to some of the scenes (the scene at the theater in Paris, for one).

I did some research and found out that the author was an accomplished musician, poet, diplomat, teacher, and writer, who wrote the lyrics for "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" as well as co-writing many popular Broadway tunes of the day. He was also head of the NAACP. I am so happy to have discovered his writing, and I will have to seek more of it out. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Strawberry Fields - Marina Lewycka

OK readers, this review is going to be all over the place.

First, this book is apparently called Two Caravans in the UK and some other places, just so you know in case you may have read it or seen it under that name.

Second: This book threw me for a loop. The description on the cover made it sound like a comedy, and I had enjoyed the author's first book, so I grabbed this book when I saw it at the library, expecting a fun, fast read.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

This book is actually a modern, European take on The Grapes of Wrath. To be sure, it is written in a style that is more lighthearted and less serious than that classic, but the basic message was the same: the world is full of people who are trying to profit by any means necessary, and if they have to literally abuse their fellow humans or some animals to do so, most will gladly do it with no apparent thought for the feelings of other living creatures/humans. This idea was seriously depressing to me. I got about halfway through the book and there was an incident depicted that was so awful (in my opinion) that I almost stopped reading entirely. Luckily my impulse to finish the book was rewarded, and the book wasn't as relentlessly negative (for me) in the second half.

Ultimately I would say I liked this book ok ... but it's not a book that I would read again.

And evidently UK book reviewers get "the good stuff" from their doctors, since I can only imagine that they must be under the influence of something or another to call this a hilarious comedy. ?????

Having said all this though, I would in fact read the author's next couple books, because I enjoy the writing, even if the subject matter was a bit darker than I expected.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mac on the Road to Marseille - Christopher Ward

FTC Compliance Statement: I received a free, time-limited, electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via in exchange for my honest review, which is provided below. I have not been compensated for this review and my opinion is my own.

I think I liked this book, the second in what appears to be a series (I certainly hope for more books!), even more than the first one. It was fun to meet new characters in addition to those we revisit from the first book. As much as I liked Mac and her first-person narration in the previous book, I liked the change in narration in this book, where we switch between Mac telling us the story and some third person narration concerning other characters. It's so nice to have a book with clever riddles and wordplay, and a smart and resourceful young woman as the main character. These books would make wonderful animated films. Recommended.

Singing to a Bulldog - Anson Williams

FTC Compliance Statement: I received a free, time-limited, electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via in exchange for my honest review, which is provided below. I have not been compensated for this review and my opinion is my own.

Saw this book in a NetGalley email and I was unable to resist it. The subtitle, From "Happy Days" to Hollywood Director, and the Unlikely Mentor Who Got Me There, tells it all. I watched Happy Days as a kid, and I remember thinking the author's character was cuter than the other guys (no offense to them, of course), so I really wanted to hear more about his life in show business.

This book, a memoir in the form of a series of stories from the author's life, tells many fascinating tales of working with other celebrities. The stories are presented in chronological order, and each relates to a quote from the mentor mentioned in the subtitle. While this portion of the book veers dangerously close to what some call the "magical Negro" trope, the wisdom presented is sound. I found it to be a fun, enjoyable, fast read as I head into the weekend.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Gracefully Grayson - Ami Polonsky

What a lovely book. The author has created a character that is entirely sympathetic, and that allows the reader to have a glimpse of one trans* youngster's thoughts, feelings, and personal journey. I so wanted to hug Grayson and to slap a couple of the other characters. Recommended.

As a side note to the whole FTC thing, I heard of this book on NetGalley, but my request to read a free, temporary electronic copy of the book was turned down (Y U No Like Me Hyperion??). So I got this book after a lengthy wait on the hold list at my library. And I still gave it an honest review, so there.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Ghost World - Daniel Clowes

I love the movie that was inspired by this graphic novel, and I recently realized that although I had meant to read the book, I somehow never had. One quick library search later, I have now read and enjoyed this graphic novel.

It's impossible for me to not make comparisons between the film and the book, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will say it was interesting to see which incidents in the book were repeated in the film, which were altered, and which were left out altogether. The movie has a plot, and more background information about the main characters, whereas the book is more episodic and open-ended. If you're a fan of graphic novels, you will most likely enjoy this one too. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

FTC rules

So lately I noticed that a lot of blogs have been adding disclaimers and statements citing the FTC rules about disclosing whether or not the book you've reviewed on your book blog was an ARC or another otherwise free copy or not. I wondered why this was suddenly so common and I did some Googling about it and frankly it made me nervous. After more than 4 years, I don't want to lose this blog to something as stupid as neglecting to mention that a book I review is from NetGalley, as opposed to my large TBR pile, the library, the bookstore, a loan from a friend, or whatever else. And I don't do ads or affiliate links or ads on my blog, mainly because I don't want to clutter up the joint with a lot of ads, links, and other stuff.

The FTC has apparently stated that a single post like this is not considered sufficient for a statement - you have to specify in each post whether or not the book was a freebie in exchange for a review. I think this is meant to apply to "sponsored" posts, but I don't really have those. In 4+ years of blogging here, I have only been contacted 3 times by an author directly, offering an electronic copy of a book in exchange for an honest review (and I gave the books my honest reviews in exchange). Any other "freebies" I get are books I have requested through NetGalley, which are also given to me, for a limited time, in exchange for an honest review - so I am free to dislike them (and I have, in fact, done so). The FTC seems hung up on the idea that someone like me is somehow getting "paid" to review books on this blog, and/or that my reviews are influenced by outside sources. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do get free access to electronic versions of books from time to time, but I don't even get to keep them indefinitely - they expire after a certain amount of time, and my opinions are entirely my own.

TL/DR: I guess what I am trying to say is I blog for free, mainly just to keep track of the books I read and to have fun with reading challenges. I do not "get paid" for doing anything at all on this blog. Nobody "sponsors" any of my blog posts. I do read free books through NetGalley, but I also read free books from the library, and both types of free book are impermanent, so although they cost me nothing, I don't get to keep them forever either. All of my reviews are my honest opinions of the books I read - my opinions are purely that - they are my opinions.

I don't want to lose this blog, so I guess when I do read NetGalley books, from now on I will begin my review post with some kind of canned disclaimer/statement. It's annoying but oh well. I just wanted to explain to readers why you will start to see these mentions pop up in my posts. I apologize in advance for how stupid it will look.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mac in the City of Light - Christopher Ward

Requested what turned out to be the second book in this series from NetGalley, so I had to procure this first book and read it. This was a nice story with some clever wordplay and character names that I enjoyed. I think I would have also very much enjoyed this book had I read it when I was the age of the target audience. This is a nice series for young readers, with lots of age-appropriate adventure and fun characters. Recommended.

I"m going to claim this book for French Bingo, because it not only has La Tour Eiffel on the cover, it has some of the other famous sights in Paris, like the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame.