Monday, May 26, 2008

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Published in 2007. 284 pages (including notes and index).

Almost everyone has seen a version of the statement "Well-behaved women seldom make history," maybe on a bumpersticker or a Tshirt or a coffee mug, but do they know where the statement originated? A single line in a scholarly article published by Pultizer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1976, the statement has become a piece of popular culture. In Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, Laurel - who happens to be my aunt - goes beyond the slogan and explores the idea of what it means to make history.

The thesis of the book - "Well-behaved women make history when they do the unexpected, when they create and preserve records, and when later generations care" (p. 229) - is centered around an analysis of three classic works of Western feminism: Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Eighty Years and More, and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

My favorite sections of the book were "Amazons" - in which Laurel explores women warriors, including Mulan and Wonder Woman - and "Waves" - about the second-wave of feminism in the 1970s.

I'm counting this book for the "Every Month is a Holiday" challenge for Women's History Month (in March) and for the "Back to History" challenge, as well as the Spring Reading Thing.

If you've reviewed Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, please let me know. I'd love to link you here!


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Don't Know Much About the Universe
by Kenneth C. Davis

Subtitled Everything You Need to Know About the Cosmos But Never Learned.
Published in 2001.
344 pages (including references/resources and index).

Kenneth Davis has a number of entertaining as well as educational books in his Don't Know Much About series. Although this one needs some updating - published in 2001, it omits some important recent developments in space exploration, including the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, the launch of New Horizons in January 2006, the demotion of Pluto later that year, and today's successful landing of Phoenix on Mars - it was still a useful and informative book for me.

I actually started reading Don't Know Much About the Universe months ago for Fall into Reading, but I got distracted with a number of other things and didn't finish the book until now. The timing is nearly perfect, however, as Astronomy Day was May 10, and I needed a book for the "Every Month is a Holiday" challenge.

Among the most interesting ideas or facts I learned from Don't Know Much About the Universe are the following:

  • The courageous story of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for his visionary notion that we are not alone in the universe.

  • A reminder of the Greek myth of Icarus, whose father was Daedalus, the namesake of a starship on Stargate: Atlantis.

  • The existence of the Mercury 13, thirteen female astronauts-in-training who were denied the opportunity to be among the first in space in 1960 because of the sexist attitudes of NASA.

  • This quote from Carl Sagan:
    Our world is now overflowing with life. How did it come about? How, in the absence of life, were carbon-based organic molecules made? How did the first living things arise? ... And on the counltess other planets that may circle other suns, is there life also? Is extraterrestrial life, if it exists, based on the same organic molecules as life on Earth? Do the beings of other worlds look much like life on Earth? Or are they stunningly different - other adaptations to other environments? What else is possible? The nature of life on Earth and the search for life elsewhere are two sides of the same question - the search for who we are.

Windfalls by Jean Hegland

Published in 2004. 338 pages.

Windfalls - the second novel of American writer Jean Hegland - was the Book Buddies pick for May. This was my first exposure to Hegland's work. (Although I have had my mom's copy of Into the Forest on my bedside table for several years, I've yet to read it.) I found Windfalls to be a meaningful, emotional analysis of what it means to be a mother.

The following passage about the character Anna's feelings following her second daughter's birth powerfully describes the burdens of motherhood:

And suddenly a million threats suggested themselves to her. It was as though she were still dilated, still open and unfiltered, as though she were a lens that admitted all possible light, and every shadow. She thought of SIDS and AIDS and hidden heart defects, of strange viruses and untended swimming pools, of childhood cancers and E. coli-laden hamburgers. She remembered all the appalling numbers that filled the newspapers, the thousands of extinctions and billions of pounds of toxic chemicals that threatened the world. She thought of global warming, nuclear winter, and silent spring. Clutching the windowsill and staring down on the city stewing in all its ugly light, she wondered how she could ever feel safe again. [p. 146]

What I loved best about Windfalls was its depiction of motherhood as the truly tough, gritty, and on-our-own thing it is. Anna talks about this idea:
"We're all so alone, in mothering," Anna went on, her voice low and raw. "We can talk about how our lkids are doing in school and the cute things they say. We can even complain about how they're driving us nuts. But we can't talk about how much it terrifies us to love them as we do, or talk about how much we scare ourselves, trying to stay sane while we raise them. We can't talk about how much they teach us, how much they cost us, how much we owe to them. Or- " She shrugged. "Maybe it's just me." [p. 297]

There is a Book Group Guide here and a Q&A with the author here.

If you have reviewed Windfalls, please let me know. I'd love to link you here.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult

Published in 1995. 369 pages.

Why I read this book: Since reading My Sister's Keeper last year, I have become a big fan of Jodi Picoult. Of her fifteen novels to date, I've now read twelve. Last month my sister Elicia wanted to pick one of Picoult's novels for our book club for May, and she was kind enough to choose one that I hadn't read yet - so she picked Picture Perfect, even though it's not one of her favorites. Unfortunately, I discovered that it's not one of my favorites either. In fact, I might put it dead last in a ranked list of Picoult's work. That isn't to say that I hated it. In fact, if I didn't really love so many of Picoult's novels, I probably would have found this one to be just fine.

What was good about this book: Domestic violence is an important societal issue, and Picoult does a nice job of addressing tough, even controversial topics in the course of telling a good story. The three main characters - Cassie Barrett; her movie star husband, Alex Rivers; and the half-Sioux police officer, Will Flying Horse - are well-developed with detailed backgrounds that help us to understand them. I also liked the three Native American legends that introduced each of the main sections of the novel.

What wasn't so good about this book: The use of symbolism that I like so well in Picoult's work was not developed well enough in Picture Perfect to make a great impact on me; I think the potential was there - for example, her website says that "hands figure significantly and symbolicly" in the book - but it didn't quite do it for me. Another thing I usually like about Picoult's novels is that she tells the story from varying viewpoints. That was here to some extent but not used as effectively as it could have been; a few times, Cassie's story slips into second-person, which I found to be simply distracting. Finally, there was no major twist, like I've come to expect from Picoult, and, subsequently, I found the ending to be weak. (I guess a strong ending doesn't require a twist, but I just needed something more.)

Celebrating the author: Jodi Picoult's birthday is May 19, so I've "celebrated" her this month by reading Picture Perfect. To learn more about Picoult and her work, visit her website here.

Happy belated birthday, Jodi!

P.S. If you've reviewed Picture Perfect, I would love to link to you. Please leave me a comment!


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Weekly Geeks No. 4

This week’s theme: Choose a political or social issue that matters to you. Find several books addressing that issue; they don’t have to books you’ve read, just books you might like to read. Using images (of the book covers or whatever you feel illustrates your topic) present these books in your blog.

The organization that I work for has been lobbying over the past few years - unsuccessfully - for some legislation in our state protecting young people from dating violence. Until we can convince our illustrious leaders that this is, indeed, an important issue for the safety and well-being of our young people, we will just continue with our education efforts, including promotion of National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Week.

These are my book picks on this important issue - three young adult novels, one of which I've already read (and loved!), an autobiographical account of an abusive relationship, and a non-fiction guide for parents.


Just Listen


Not Another Sarah: Avoiding and Escaping Abuse

Saving Beauty From the Beast:
How to Protect Your Daughter From an Unhealthy Relationship

By the way, I've heard Sarah Southerland speak about her experience as an abused wife - a situation that should have been recognized before her marriage - and she has created the NAS Foundation "to provide and promote Action Campaigns to improve Public Awareness of Healthy Relationships and Prevention of Abuse and Sexual Assault."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini

Published in 2007. 367 pages.

First sentence: Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.

Last sentence: Because, if it's a girl, Laila has already named her.

Basic storyline (adapted from Publishers Weekly): Set in Afghanistan, the story covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war, and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women. Mariam is the scorned illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, forced at age 15 into marrying the 40-year-old Rasheed, who grows increasingly brutal as she fails to produce a child. Eighteen later, Rasheed takes another wife, 14-year-old Laila, a smart and spirited girl whose only other options, after her parents are killed by rocket fire, are prostitution or starvation. Against a backdrop of unending war, Mariam and Laila become allies in an asymmetrical battle with Rasheed, whose violent misogyny is endorsed by custom and law.

Two favorite passages:

But Aziza only muttered contentedly and dug her face in deeper. And when she did that, Mariam swooned. Her eyes watered. Her heart took flight. And she marveled at how, after all these years of rattling loose, she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of false, failed connections. [page 226]
Though there had been moments of beauty in it, Mariam knew that life for the most part had been unkind to her. But as she walked the final twenty paces, she could not help but wish for more of it. She wished she could see Laila again, wished to hear the clangor of her laugh, to sit with her once more for a pot of chai and leftover halwa under a starlit sky. She mourned that she would never see Aziza grow up, would not see the beautiful young woman that she would one day become, would not get to paint her hands with henna and toss noqul candy at the wedding. She would never play with Aziza's children. She would have liked that very much, to be old and play with Aziza's children. [pages 328-329]

Some comparisons and contrasts between A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner: I read The Kite Runner back in 2006 (and I posted some of my thoughts here). I really loved it, as I did A Thousand Splendid Suns. Besides their common setting in Afghanistan, however, I think the books are quite different. Hosseini is a terrific storyteller, of course, and that is evident in both books. But the level of emotional intensity in The Kite Runner - at least for me - wasn't quite the same in A Thousand Splendid Suns. I suspect that the details of lives of the main characters of A Thousand Splendid Suns may stay with me longer, though. I loved that this story involved women, while the main characters of The Kite Runner were men. I learned more about the recent history of Afghanistan from A Thousand Splendid Suns - perhaps because the main character of The Kite Runner escapes from Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet invasion. One final contrast: If I can summarize the theme of The Kite Runner as guilt and redemption, then the theme of A Thousand Splendid Suns is loss and connection.

Some discussion questions: Penguin Reading Guides has some great questions. I'd love to discuss them with anyone who has read the book.

Other book bloggers' reviews of A Thousand Splendid Suns:
If you have read and reviewed this book, I would love to link your review here. Please leave me a comment or email me your link!


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Bingeing on Books

book binge
Florinda directed me to It's Not All Mary Poppins and her second annual Book Binge. How can I not play along?!

Here’s how it goes: For the month of May, participants keep track of each and every book you read. At the end of the month, everyone will blog their list of books. Simple, no?

For simplicity’s sake, and to allow people time to hear about it and sign up if they want, we’ll start on Monday, May 5th. We will all publish our lists on June 1.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

April's Reading in Review

Total Books Year-to-Date: 27
(With a goal for the year of 104, I'm seven or eight books behind schedule. That's fewer than I feared, before I did the math, but I'm not sure whether I'm going to be able to make it up.)

    April: 5 books

      The Camel Bookmobile (for Book Buddies)
      Someone Like Summer
      Change of Heart
      Flowers for Algernon
      Speak (for my IRL book club)

    March: 5 books
    February: 7 books
    January: 10 books

Challenges Status:
    Expanding Horizons Challenge - 2/4 (ended April 30, but I'm going to keep going until I finish it; I'm part way through A Thousand Splendid Suns right now, which will be my third book).

    Series Challenge - 2 completed (ends May 31).

    Spring Reading Thing - 5/13 (ends June 19).

    Book Awards Reading Challenge - 8/12 (ends June 30).

    Themed Reading Challenge - 2/4 (ends June 30).

    342,752 Ways to Herd Cats - 0/3 (ends November 30; I haven't yet decided what three books I'm going to read).

    Chunkster Challenge - 1/4 (ends December 20).

    TBR Challenge - 3/12 (ends December 31).

    Young Adult Challenge - 9/12 (ends December 31).

    What's in a Name? - 1/6 (ends December 31).

    In Their Shoes - 1/8 (ends December 31).

    Back to History Challenge - 2/12 (ends December 31; I was trying to finish Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History in March, but I'm still working on it).

    Every Month is a Holiday - 3/12 (ends December 31; I need to finish March's pick, but I've already read November's, so maybe it'll all work out).

    1st in a Series - 0/12 (ends December 31).

    Celebrate the Author - 2/12 (ends December 31; I've skipped March and April, but I'll keep going and see if I can make those up later).

    Printz Award Challenge - 2/6 (ends December 31).

    Graphic Novels Challenge - 2/6 (ends December 31).

    Man Booker Challenge - 0/6 (ends December 31).

    In the Pub - 4/8 (ends December 31).

    Reading Full Circle Challenge - 2 completed (ends December 31).

    Triple 8 (or 888) - 24/56, with four overlaps (ends December 31).

    A~Z Reading Challenge - 23/52 (ends December 31; I was hoping that I'd be able to fit almost everything I read, but I'm starting to get some overlaps on the letters.).

    Suspense & Thriller Challenge - 4/6 for 2008 (challenge continues into 2009).

    Cardathon - 3 completed.

Plans for May:
Ideally I'll read ten books this month, but if I can get at least these seven done, I won't be too disappointed in myself.
  • Windfalls (for Book Buddies)

  • Picture Perfect (for my IRL book club)

  • Don't Know Much About the Universe for Astronomy Day (May's holiday for the Every Month is a Holiday Challenge); I started this one quite a while ago, so it would be nice to finish it.

  • I'd like to finish A Thousand Splendid Suns and Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History within the next few days.

  • My church women's group book club is reading The Kite Runner, which I read quite a while ago. But I am hosting the meeting, so I thought I'd make a point of seeing the film version and maybe picking a clip or two to show. Since I'm also currently reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, it'll be nice to be able to make a recommendation to the group about that one.

  • The GoodReads YA Book Club is reading Uglies this month. I read it last year and loved it. I'm not going to re-read it, but I plan to join in the discussion. I might also finally get to Extras - the fourth book in the "trilogy." (Extras would count for Celebrate the Author, since Scott Westerfeld's birthday is in May.) I'd like to read The Book Thief too, which is what the group read in April but I just didn't get time to read.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Camel Bookmobile
by Masha Hamilton

Published in 2007. 308 pages.

First sentence: The child, wide-legged on the ground, licked dust off his fist and tried to pretend he was tasting camel milk.

Last sentence: And then she couldn't speak for a moment; her throat constricted as Matani's fresh water dampened her cheeks before evaporating in the merciless, thristy air.

Basic premise (adapted from the book jacket):
American Fiona Sweeney goes to Africa to help start a traveling library, taking books to settlements where people have never even held a book in their hands. Though her motives are good, Fi doesn't understand the people she seeks to help. Encumbered by her Western values, she finds herself in the midst of several struggles within the community of Mididima.

Why I read this book: The Camel Bookmobile was the April pick for Book Buddies.

Where else I get credit for having read this book: After picking it up at the library, I realized that it is also one of the current Salt Lake County Library's Reader's Choice picks. So in addition to remaining a member-in-good-standing of Book Buddies, I've completed the first of my Triple 8 "Reader's Choice" category. I'm counting this one for the Themed Reading Challenge as well - since my theme is "Books About Books."

Some concepts explored in the book: Cultural differences. The importance of literacy and education. The role of women in society. Making a contribution to the world. Interpersonal relationships. Marching to a different drummer.

Three favorite passages:

It was more than a hope; it was an intuition now, or maybe a vow. [page 132]

There were limitations to language, even when it was shared. Sometimes words were not sturdy enough to hold all the needed meaning. She'd discovered that as a child, when she sought to find her mother in the harried and unreachable widow, and she felt it again now. [page 156]

Jwahir's father shook his head. "Those are words from your husband, not you. The issue is values. Ours are not theirs. We respect our ancestors' lessons. I know the name of my father's father's father's father. Do they in the city with their books know this?"

Here, Jwahir was tempted to interrupt, to ask whether he could recall the name of his mother's mother's mother's mother. She knew the answer, though. She'd heard this litany before, along with the recitation of the endless list of male preceded by male preceded by male. As if the women did not exist, except as containers shaped by others' visions, holders of the dreams of fathers, husbands, sons. She felt a surge of irritation coupled with resolve. Like her father, she was traditional. But her father's words fed her conviction that she had to break with tradition on some matters at least. It was right to risk everything to do what she believed, what she desired and needed - as a woman. [page 163]

Something else I liked: Fiona applies the metaphor of being "a zebra among giraffes" to herself and her situation in African. This idea comes from something she has seen on the African plains - a small herd of giraffes with one zebra among them. "He follows them everywhere," she is told. "Dreaming of being a giraffe?" she asked. "I imagine he lost his family somehow and he's longing to find another one to fit into" is the response.

One last thought: Fiona tries to learn some of the colloquialisms of the African community she visits. A final one she learns is "fresh water on your cheeks" - expressed to her as part of a good-bye and thank you. I find the phrase endearing.