30 September 2012

40-Day Journey with Parker J. Palmer; Henry F. French (editor)

40-Day Journey with Parker J. Palmer40-Day Journey with Parker J. Palmer edited by Henry F. French
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rather than take a 40-day journey, I took a 40-week journey, using the thought exercizes and prompts throughout the week to reflect. This is the type of book you want to take slowly and it's worth redoing ever few years: your thoughts and ideas change over time, ditto your community (both faith and secular). Many of the exercizes were not done as completely as they could have been, so perhaps my revisiting of this will be next year. We'll see.

My only problem is that the sequencing of the readings isn't as smooth as it could be. At times I felt as though there was a transition to a new group of ideas that was abrupt - more careful curation would have helped with those movements.

21 September 2012

The Beautiful Mystery; Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #8)The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first Gamache mystery that really separates him from the Three Pines people: it's just him and Jean-Guy at a very remote monastery in Quebec. The order, the Gilbertines, virtually disappeared from the Vatican's eyes 400 years earlier, with 24 monks traveling to the "new world" to escape to a quiet, contemplative (this is a silent order) life dedicated to God and plainchant.

The question of who killed the prior is almost secondary. It was far more interesting (to me) to learn that St. Gilbert was around during the Henry II/Tomas a Becket clash, how plainchant evolved and what neumes were. I have places and names to look up, and none of it has to do with the Eastern Townships, cranky/crazy poets or gay innkeepers. The peace that Gamache finds during the chanted offices and the discomfort that Beauvoir feels spoke to me as a Quaker, and then there were moments of real humor ("The few. The proud. The monks." was one moment... and if you don't understand why the Inquisition was unexpected, well, shame on you!).

By the end, I was left wondering if the wounds the monastery suffered will heal (there's one solution to a problem that I suspect will happen - not that we'll know because there's no reason for us to return to this world.  Dommage.) and if the rift between Jean-Guy and Armande will ever be closed.  Unlike many of the other mystery series I follow, this one hasn't been afraid to surprise me and make me wonder how things will turn out in the next volume.

I'd bought this as a "reward" read and truly feel rewarded for having waited to read.

20 September 2012

How the French Invented Love; Marilyn Yalom

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and RomanceHow the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn Yalom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I felt privileged to have read this - and by that, I mean that the word "privilege[d/s]" appeared a little too frequently for my tastes (according to the Search feature on my Kindle, it was a mere 15 times, but a few of those times appeared in the same small Kindle window). As this was an ARC, perhaps that's changed in the final version.

My bigger quibble was that this was not really about the French inventing love, it was how French literature influenced and/or mimicked the state of love in France, starting with the courtly love of the Middle Ages and ending with the sexual revolution as described by Catherine Millet. In other words, literary social history. Now, that's not bad, but it felt like the title and subtitle were false advertising.

As for the contents, perhaps it helps if you've read many (most) of the books discussed (as I have, some in translation, some in the original). It added to my appreciation of how the works in question revealed something about the society at that time, although often I wondered what the "real" French were thinking and doing; literacy being a privilege of the upper classes in the earlier years, would peasants really have been aware of how Cyrano's words affected Roxanne? Or how best to woo a woman? Was adultery as accepted by those in the countryside as it was those in Paris and royal (or semi-royal) circles? These are questions that the author does not address. Obviously there's more evidence and discussion about how the non-literary/average classes feel about things once we move into the 1800s, but even at the end, when the question of Dominique Strauss-Kahn comes up, it feels like there's something missing.

ARC provided by publisher.

Blasphemy; Sherman Alexie

Blasphemy: New and Selected StoriesBlasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection of stories is not all new, which dropped the rating (not because they're not good stories, but because I'd already read them and really would have loved more new stuff).

What Alexie means by "Blasphemy" is, I think, that he's unafraid to talk about the things that most Indians don't want to talk about: the alcoholism, the HUD homes, the poverty of the rez, etc..  Very few of the stories fail to touch on one, if not all, of those themes, hammering home again and again how the Indian's lives are not on par with white lives, let alone those of other immigrant groups.  The people here before any of the rest of us have been reduced to a population that is largely uneducated, addicted to alcohol and drugs, and absent a hopeful future.

It's difficult to choose a favorite from among this collection, but "Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church" and "Basic Training" brought tears to my eyes.

ARC provided by publisher.

17 September 2012

Silhouette of a Sparrow; Molly Beth Griffin

Silhouette of a SparrowSilhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Set in the flapper era, when "proper" young girls pursued gentle activities and filled hope chests, got married early and deferred to their husbands for all major decisions, this story about a girl who doesn't quite fit in was trying to do a little too much.

It's entirely plausible that Garnet was really good at science, that she didn't fit her mother's expectations for what her life should become. It's also plausible that she fell in love with Isabelle. But both? That felt a little much. Her confusion about her role, her desire to do something more than marriage and family were all very real, as was her love of ornithology and her obvious talent at the paper silhouettes of the various birds. You could easily imagine how a smart girl in that era might chafe at societal expectations and yearn for adventure and freedom. Had Isabelle merely provided that outlet: a flapper, a runaway, a girl who fishes and lives alone and has that freedom, I would have been much happier. The love aspect just ruined the book for me - it wasn't necessary and read almost as though the author was trying to say "if you don't fit in, if you're smart, etc., you're possibly a lesbian."

ARC provided by publisher.

09 September 2012

Three Parts Dead; Max Gladstone

Three Parts DeadThree Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This may surprise my faithful review followers, but this book should have been the sequel, not the first (or only). Why? Read on...

Fifty years ago there were the God Wars (over what is not quite clear) and when the dust settled, all the gods were dead (or reformed, or something) with the exception of Alt Coulumb, still ruled by Kos Everburning (a fire god). Kos' lover, Seril (a moon goddess... I think) was remade into Justice and her Guardians (aka gargoyles) banished. Instead, Justice has Blacksuits, people who are kind of like the Borg in that they have a hive mind and are virtually invincible, but their connection to Justice is more of an incredible high. The world works via a series of power contracts between the former gods and various Powers That Now Be (including some Deathless Kings, but they're not quite explained). All this is sort of organized by Craftsmen and Craftswomen, who work some sort of magic. It's a little confusing.

We open with Tara, who has been kicked out of the Hidden Schools following an insurrection against one of her professors (she burns down his lab - only 2/3 of the way through the book do we learn why she did this). After an unfortunate episode with some guardian zombies (don't ask), she's whisked off to work on the case of Kos Everburning's death, which is tied to the death of Judge Cabot. Her boss, Elayne Kevarin, and the obligatory faithful Acolyte, Abelard, along with a Blacksuit/vampire bite addict named Cat and a vampire pirate, Raz, complete the group trying to figure out who (or what) killed Kos.

Confused? Yeah, me too. Had this world been introduced with Tara, her life in the Hidden Schools and what led up to her being expelled - slowly explaining Craft, how the gods worked, etc. - and then followed up with this "mystery" it would have been far better.

ARC provided by publisher.

06 September 2012

The Elephant Keepers' Children; Peter Hoeg

The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm giving this 2 stars even though this was a DNF - some readers will enjoy wading through the dense prose, the constant diversions and the overlong sentences more than I did. What I got out of the first 1/4 of the book was this was a world populated by slightly quirky people, with some sort of magical realism going on. Not paranormal, but more psychological magic.

Here's one reason for the DNF: all too often our hero/narrator says "I'll get to that in a moment" or "I'll explain that later" (in much more ornate language). Other reasons? I didn't buy that Tilte was such a force of nature, or that this island was so filled with bizarre people (a Buddhist nun/phone sex guru/computer expert all rolled in one).

ARC provided by publisher.

04 September 2012

The Night Circus; Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I read this, I kept thinking "I'll bet they could emulate this for real..." and "wouldn't this make an amazing movie?" The tents felt so real, I wanted to go to the Cirque des Reves!

The puzzle of the challenge bothered me a little; there seemed to be no rules, and Celia and Marco are sort of flailing around trying to figure out what was expected of them and what the outcome could have been. Was it about natural vs learned ability? Was there something more? Who knows? And ultimately, when we find out, it doesn't matter. The world of the Cirque is so very real, despite the use of magic, and the people that people it so interesting I didn't care about who won. By the time we learn how important Poppet, Widget and Bailey are to the future of the Cirque I'm rooting for them to somehow continue to today.

This was so magical that words can't fully capture the ice room, the clocks, the various living statues and all the other things that encompass the Cirque. Just read it.