Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

I am ashamed that I haven't read this before. I was a great devotee of the movie when I was young and it wasn't until I was a teen that I even realized there WAS a book. But even then, I remember checking it out once and trying it, but just preferring the movie. Silly girl. The book is just as good and definitely more profound. Or, maybe, I have just lived enough now to see that it IS profound.

The last unicorn doesn't know she is the last until she hears a hunter speak the words. Her journey to find out the truth about unicorns in the world leads her on a journey into the depths of the human condition. She gathers with her those who can see her for what she truly is: the kind and bumbling Schmedrick, the Magician, and Molly Grue, the crabby scullery girl. With these two by her side she travels towards the realm of King Haggard and his terrifying Red Bull. What she learns along the way about herself and the ways of humans will change the land forever.

What makes this book such a classic? Is it the complex characters? The unicorn is at once both naive and wise, teaching us what is human by putting words to what we have and what we lack. Is it the magic itself, fleeting and powerful - at the ready for some but tantalizingly fickle with others? Or perhaps it's because it is a tale of finding what is beautiful, old, and good and restoring it to its rightful place - but first having to learn what is worth living and dying for.

The writing is witty, lyrical and powerful. If you have seen the movie, you'll hear voices in your head as you read text that was lifted word for word and put into the movie. But even if you haven't - if you love tales of magic and love, unicorns and heroes - you should open the pages of this one and take the journey. You won't forget it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Spiegelman, Art. 1986. Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History.

This is a true-must-read of a book, well, a graphic novel to be exact. But still, must-read at all accounts. I loved the format of this one. No, not just the graphicness of it. But the framework of the story. How this novel is just as much about a father-son relationship--in all its complications--as it is about Jewishness, about the Holocaust. I also love the exploration of the psychology of it. So often with "Holocaust" books the issue of long-term effects, of psychological and emotional trauma that persists through the decades following such a horrific event, doesn't come up. It's a non-issue. Often memoirs are about a specific period of time. Liberation comes from either the Americans and the Russians. And voila. Horror over. But life isn't that easy.

In this first volume, we meet Artie, an artist, and his father, Vladek, a Holocaust survivor who is grumbling his way through a second marriage to a fellow-survivor, Mala. (Artie's mother, Anja, committed suicide in the late 1960s.) Artie seeks out his father in this volume wanting to hear his story, his past. Seeking answers to questions not only about his father, but his mother as well. Questions about the Nazis, the war, the Holocaust, how these two survived despite the odds. We, as readers, follow two stories, the contemporary setting where a son is asking some hard questions of his father and getting inspired to write about them in graphic novel form, and the historical setting--1930s and 1940s--where we meet his parents and learn their stories and backgrounds.

His father isn't in the best of health, and their relationship is strained. The book addresses the question of if parents ever really understand their children and/or if children can ever truly understand their parents. Can stressful tensions--ongoing issues and conflicts--ever be resolved peacefully? The drama is just as much about healing as it is the Nazis. And I think that is one of the reasons it's so powerful, so resonating. These characters--represented as mice in the novel--feel authentic. They're flawed but lovable. Their stories matter. (By the way, the Nazis are cats. The Polish are pigs. The French are frogs.)

The story is continued in Maus II.

Spiegelman, Art. 1991. Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here My Troubles Began.

If Maus I was great, Maus II is even greater. If you thought the first one was heart-felt and moving, wait until you get to this one. Everything is more intense. The sorrows and griefs are even deeper; the actions even more troubling. For here we get to the heart of the story. The darkest place of all. Artie's father and mother have been captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. (In this graphic novel, the name is "Mauschwitz" instead of Auschwitz.) In the contemporary story line, we see that Artie's father isn't doing well; in fact, it becomes obvious, that he's dying. This complicates things tenfold. More guilt. More anger. More frustration. Even in fine health, Artie had a difficult time getting along with his father. Now, when his father perhaps needs him more than ever, he's crankier and grouchier and meaner than ever. Life isn't easy. Never easy. This is a complex novel--graphic novel--with heart and soul. Highly recommended.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

genre: fiction/historical fiction
rating: 4/5

A centuries old manuscript is at the crux of this book - illustrated and written in Hebrew, it's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Australian conservationist Hanna Heath. Her conservation efforts lead her to clues within the book that shed light on who might have handled the book, where it traveled from and who drew the amazing illuminations. The narrative does one of my favorite things: switches us from chapter to chapter between the present time period and different periods of the book's history: each clue Hanna finds is more background about the book and the hands that have held it.

For the most part, it is a gripping story. We travel through centuries of time and all over the world as we follow Hanna and her book. Some sections were more engaging than others (a few were a bit raunchy), but it always kept my attention and I was always pleased whether a chapter took me back to Hanna or to somewhere (and sometime) new. The clues themselves were interesting and parts of the book felt like an episode of CSI or some other forensics tv show, but since I like that, it added to the book for me.

Hanna is a challenging character, bordering on emotionally dysfunctional. Sometimes her personality grated on me - and other times I really could relate to her. I like how she made a point of explaining her "Aussi-ness" and differentiated, at times, between American/British/Australian ways of thinking and doing things. Her back-story and the things she learns about her past along the way flowed well enough with the book plot and I never wanted to put it down.

While the ending wasn't what I'd imagined it would be, it worked. I thought this was a good read.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

genre: historical fiction
rating: 3.5/5

The Red Tent tells a fictionalized version of the story of Dinah, daughter of the Leah who is the sister of Rachel and the husband of Jacob from the Old Testament. Because it is based on the Biblical story, many of the characters and major events are familiar to those of us familiar with the Bible; what makes this story different is that it is told from Dinah's perspective, drawing readers into what the female half of the world may have been doing during Biblical times.

Dinah is a daughter between two worlds - the world of the Red Tent, where goddesses are worshiped and where the lives of women revolve around the cycles of the moon and the harvest. In this sanctuary, the female form and purpose is a sacred thing. Contrast this to the world outside the Red Tent, where women are bought and sold, beaten and worked into old age. As she grows and becomes aware of the nuances of family relationships, she begins to see divisions and unrest among her mothers, father and brothers. When tragedy forces Dinah to make a horrendous choice, her life and that of her family's will never be the same.

I liked it, as much this time as the first time I read it, years ago. I thought about it when I had to put it down and I wanted to know the end of Dinah's tale. I enjoy reading about familiar characters from fresh points of view and I think Diamant created a very realistic rendition of Canaanite society and of the world of Jacob, his wives and family. I loved that so much of the book had to do with birthing and midwifery and relationships between women and between mothers and children. Dinah's relationships were intricate and her friendships were a pleasure to read about.

I was sometimes frustrated that so many of her characters seemed hopelessly flawed, almost unrealistically so and the graphic nature of some scenes detracted from the story, for me. It's certainly an earthy story, set in a time when the old gods and goddesses are being replaced by the one God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, creating an interesting juxtaposition between "new" ways and the "old" ways. As much as the "earthy-ness" bothered me, I can't deny that Diamant has a way with words. One of my favorite paragraphs, written about the birth of a child:
There should be a song for women to sing at this moment, or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name that moment. Like every mother since the first mother, I was overcome and bereft, exalted and ravaged.
I recommend this with caution. There is much honeymooning and lovemaking and we don't have to imagine much. That being said, there much to appreciate in this story about the power and resilience of the female spirit.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

ATTN Participants

Most of you probably think I fell off the face of the earth completely while the rest of you figure I just gave up on this challenge blog. For that I am SO SORRY.

I was 4 months behind on adding some of you to the participants list. The challenge is getting close to the end but I DID add you. If you are participating and don't see yourself on the list, comment here and I'll add you.

For those who requested an invite to this blog, I sent them, so again, if it doesn't come, comment here.

I hope everyone is enjoying their reading. Don't forget if you aren't a member of this blog, leave a link to your review so we can all enjoy them. I'll make a post soon with links to all the reviews people have added to the comments.

Also please label your posts if you are posting to the blog with your name and the type of book, subject as well as type of post (like wrap-up etc..)

Friday, March 20, 2009


I just completed the Jewish Literature Challenge for 2008-2009.

The five books read were:

SEINLANGUAGE by Jerry Seinfeld
DREK! by Yetta Emmes
CONVICTION by Leonard Levitt
SARAH'S KEY by Tatiana deRosnay

Thanks to Callista for hosting this challenge - I'll be looking forward to the 2009-2010 edition.


SEINLANGUAGE by Jerry Seinfeld was read for the Jewish Literature Challenge, the Support Your Local Library Challenge, and the New Authors Challenge.

We've all seen the Seinfeld TV show. Remember in the earlier shows, at the beginning of the show, Jerry would be on stage, doing his act - his observations of life? That's what this book is - observations on various stages of life.

When Dom and I would watch the show, we could gauge how funny the show would be by the amount of hair on George's head -- much hair, not funny - little hair, funny. I think George had a full head of hair when this book was written.

There was one funny bit in this book on page 177. I'm going to post it now to save you the time and trouble of reading through this book to find something to bring a small chuckle.

To me, the thing about old people is that everything about them gets smaller. You know, their bodies get smaller, they move into smaller places, they sleep less time, they eat smaller meals ... except the car. The older they get, the bigger their car gets. They're all driving these Detroit behemoths. I've never understood that. And old people have a way of backing out of the driveway. They don't turn from side to side. Their attitude is "I'm old and I'm coming back." "I've been around a while, now. You watch out for be, buddy, I survived, let's see you do it."

And then once they get out there, they drive so slowly. I would think the less time you have left in life, the faster you would want to go. I think old people should be allowed to drive their age. If you're eighty, do eighty. If you're a hundred, go a hundred.

They can't see where they're going anyway, let them have a little fun out there.

Now, after reading that, you can feel you've read the entire book. You can thank me - I've saved you time and money!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sarah's Key

book 3 of 5 for the War Through the Generations Challenge: WWII
book 2 of 5 for the Jewish Literature Challenge
genre: historical fiction

Let me start off by saying I could not put this book down. I must also say, that this book ripped my heart into tiny pieces and I'm not sure I'll ever be the same. Really. Maybe it's because I'm a mom or maybe I'm just an incredibly sensitive person. But I now have images in my brain that will never leave.

Sarah's Key takes place in France - switching between the modern day and the early days of World War II. I really like books like this, and I think the author did a fine job of transitioning us back and forth and filling in the blank spots. Sarah is a 10 year old girl living in Paris when her life is shattered by the French Police, who come into her home to arrest her parents and deport them, along with thousands of other French Jews. Her haunting story is intertwined with that of Julia, a journalist who stumbles upon Sarah's story as well as learning about the involvement of the French Police in the deportations.

Julia's fascination with the story leads her on a journey of not only self-discovery, but also a discovery of a her family's past, a country's past, and the consequences of a terrible secret.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Bee Season

by Myla Goldberg
First sentence: "At precisely 11 a.m. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School tells their students to stand."

Eliza Neumann is an average student. She has above-average parents: Saul, the synagogue's cantor leader and who spends his time studying Jewish mystics, and Miriam, who is a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side but is a brilliant lawyer. And her older brother, Aaron, is a star student, too. So, no one expects Eliza to begin spelling words perfectly, seemingly out of the blue. Her consecutive wins at the bees -- first school, then district, then state -- throw her family's already precarious balance completely off. Her parents' marriage, which was already a bit tense, goes into a headlong downward spiral. Her father decides to throw himself into helping Eliza study, mostly because he believes she can become the next Jewish mystic, in the process alienating his son. And Aaron, unable to cope with Eliza's genius, decides that what he really needs is to connect with God and so goes about checking out different churches, eventually settling on the Hari Krishnas.

The only real thing that I liked about the book was the spelling bees. I liked how Eliza approached them, and Goldberg's description of the intensity surrounding them. Unfortunately, that ended halfway through the book, and the rest of the book, though, I could have done without. The family was troubled, of course; what Jewish family isn't? (Argh.) Miriam was completely quacked (what's with mothers who can't manage to be decent people?), and Saul was no better, being concerned only with his children's success rather than what they want. His show-down with Aaron over the Krishnas was, at the very least, embarassing, but probably more along the lines of stupid parenting. It was very frustrating to see two smart people being completely incompetent. And the sex... well, let's just say that it was enough to make me uncomfortable. Which was probably the author's intention. But, still. I felt like it qualified as overshare.

And in the end, I wanted the time I read the book back. Please.

Monday, March 2, 2009


DREK! THE REAL YIDDISH YOUR BUBBE NEVER TAUGHT YOU by Yetta Emmes was read for the Jewish Literature Reading Challenge and the New Author Challenge.

From the back of the book:

Who says Yiddish is a dying language? After hundreds of years, you should look so good! In fact, today Yiddish is spoken in almost all parts of the world. Whether you're a goy, a Jew, nebbish, schmuck, yenta, or klutz, you probably already know enough Yiddish to praise your best friend, insult your worst enemy, or at least order lunch. But what about the hundreds of other exclamations, expressions, profanities, colloquialisms, blessings, and curses your blushing bubbe never taught you? They're all here, in this comprehensive, uncensored, hilarious, not to mention delightfully illustrated book. DREK! is a walk on the wilder side of Delancey Street, where the mensch, the mamzer, and the meiser meet.

This little book (only 97 pages) hardly rates as Jewish Literature. It's basically a dictionary arranged by types of words with a few little stories thrown in for fun. It was interesting to learn the meaning of some of the words I've heard tossed around - and some I've used myself.

I'm sure we all know a little Yiddish. Remember the opening of Laverne and Shirley - "Shlemiel - Shlemazel - Hasenpfeffer Incorporated?" Yep, Yiddish. But now I know what they mean.

Here are a few Yiddish terms - how many do you know?
A fun little book!

Shlemiel - a foolish person, a simpleton, a dolt, a bungler
Shlemazel - a born loser, someone for whom nothing seems to go right or turn out well. When the shlemiel spills his soup, it always lands on the shlemazel. (page 15)