Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward To In 2015

This week's Top Ten Tuesday list, sponsored by the Broke and the Bookish, is the Top Ten Books I'm Looking Forward To In 2015. I'm quite sure that I'll be learning about lots more new releases in the coming weeks (and hopefully today from some of my fellow bloggers!), but here are ten titles that I'm anticipating so far:

West of Sunset: A Novel by Stewart O'Nan. I haven't read O'Nan in a while, but the premise of his latest caught my attention: the last, difficult year of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, when he lived in Hollywood and tried to make it as a screenwriter. Sounds interesting! The publication date is January 13, 2015, and I'm happy to have an ARC--so this will probably be one of the first novels of 2015 that I read.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. Here's the publisher's mini synopsis: "For readers of Claire Messud and Mary Gaitskill comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning." This debut novel, with an expected publication date of March 24, 2015, tells the story of an American woman married to a Swiss banker who begins to have affairs and finds her comfortable life in Zurich falling apart at the seams. I don't have an ARC, but I'd love to get my hands on one; something tells me this might be a very promising debut.

A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison. Another debut novel, Ellison's book also promises an interesting story about a woman who has made mistakes. From the publisher: "A Small Indiscretion is a gripping and ultimately redemptive noel of love and its dangers, marriage and its secrets, youth and its treacherous mistakes." This novel, to be published January 27, 2015, has received some pretty impressive blurbs from the likes of Emma Donoghue and Ann Packer.

The Children's Crusade: A Novel by Ann Packer. I loved Ann Packer's 2003 novel The Dive From Clausen's Pier, which was a fantastic book (although a terrible TV movie!). I haven't read any of her other novels, which seem to have suffered some mixed reviews. The Children's Crusade, to be published in April of 2015, looks to be a sweeping, multi-generational saga that covers five decades in the lives of a California family. Well, I'm always up for a good family saga, so I have high hopes!

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. Oh dear, time for me to admit I have never read an Erik Larson book! I have certainly paged through his previous books at the bookstore, but for some reason never read one. Maybe this year I will start with his newest offering, which will be published on March 10, 2015. Well, I said I wanted to incorporate more nonfiction choices into my reading throughout the year (not just during Nonfiction November!). Any other great nonfiction titles you see on the horizon for the first half of 2015?

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh. I've heard buzz aplenty about this debut novel set in Baton Rouge in the summer of 1989. It sounds like a combination of a coming-of-age story and a thriller, with a touch of Southern gothic. Okay, I'm intrigued. I look forward to reading some reviews in the early part of the year--I'm sure some of you out there have ARCs of this one! My Sunshine Away is set for publication on February 10, 2015.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter. This novel, Aislinn Hunter's second, begins with a 15 year-old girl who loses the small child she was babysitting. The child, lost in the woods, is never found. The teenager grows up and becomes a museum archivist, who is searching for information related to another missing person--a woman who disappeared from a Victorian asylum. The novel moves back and forth between the archivist's search in contemporary London, the Victorian asylum, and a delapidated country house which may connect the missing people. I'm not sure why, but this captured my interest.

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James. This novel, to be published in March 2015, considers the moral complexities of the ivory trade in South India. James tells the story through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and most interestingly, an elephant known as the Gravedigger. This sounds quite original to me, and I can't resist seeing how the author offers the point of view of an elephant.

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson. From the publisher's description: "A provocative and hauntingly powerful debut novel reminiscent of Sliding Doors, The Bookseller follows a woman in the 1960s who must reconcile her reality with the tantalizingly alternate world of her dreams. Nothing is as permanent as it seems . . ." Well, this one caught my eye, and I'll be participating in a blog tour for it in the spring. The release date is March 3, 2015.

The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy. This novel, to be published in May of 2015, moves back and forth in time between Sarah Brown, the daughter of the abolitionist John Brown, and a contemporary woman who finds hints about Sarah and the Underground Railroad in the root cellar of an old house. I wasn't a big fan of The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd's novel about the abolitionist Sarah Grimke. I hope McCoy's book will be a better read.

What 2015 new releases are you most anticipating? Would you read any of the above books? I look forward to reading everyone's lists!

Monday, December 1, 2014

It's Monday, December 1st--What Are You Reading?

Good morning, fellow book lovers! I'm posting again on this weekly update meme hosted by Sheila at BookJourney. I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and a pleasant long weekend with plenty of time for reading a good book.

Here's the book I'm reading right now . . .

Fourth of July Creek, the debut novel from Smith Henderson, is absorbing and beautifully written. The plot concerns a social worker living in rural Montana in the early 1980s. He becomes involved in the lives of a family of survivalists, while his own personal life starts to come apart. This is one of those "glowingly reviewed" literary fiction releases from 2014 that I wanted to read, but somehow overlooked or simply did not yet get a chance to tackle. I have been trying to read a few of those books in these last weeks of 2014.

As part of that effort, here are three other stand-out fiction titles from 2014 that I have read in the past week and a half:

All three of these were very good reads, but I was especially taken with Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See--now that is a wonderful novel! I will post some more detailed thoughts on these soon, and some of them may make it onto my Best of 2014 list.

I didn't post a lot on my blog last week, given the busy hustle and bustle of Thanksgiving in my household. But you can find these new posts from me:

My November 2014 Reading Wrap-Up

My review of The Clever Mill Horse by Jodi Lew-Smith

What's on your reading agenda for this week?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

November 2014 Reading Wrap-Up

November is almost history, and I'm happy to report that it was another good reading month for me! Here are the books I read in the past month:

Ten books, so one less than my personal record of eleven last month. Hmm, I may have done pretty well in my reading, but I didn't post many reviews this month! Oops. I was going gangbusters earlier in the month, and then life got crazy. C'est la vie. I do hope to post some additional reviews (or at least mini reviews) in early December. Of my November reads, here are the reviews/discussions of books that I did post:

The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri by Avi Steinberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

The Clever Mill Horse by Jodi Lew-Smith

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

I tremendously enjoyed participating in Nonfiction November for the first time this year. I realized at the start of the month that I had read very few nonfiction titles this year. Fortunately, I didn't have many specific review commitments or blog tours, etc, planned for the month, and so I was able to turn my attention to some free-range reading in nonfiction. It was a delight to read five fascinating nonfiction titles this month, and the experience has reminded me that I want to weave more nonfiction books into my reading throughout the year. On my list as my next nonfiction title: In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides. I was delighted to receive this book in the mail from Katie at Doing Dewey, as part of the Nonfiction Book Swap hosted by An Armchair by the Sea. I am looking forward to reading it by a nice warm fire! I am NOT a fan of cold weather, but great books and warm cider by the fire get me through the season!

In the past week and a half, I've started to focus my attention on some of the most glowingly reviewed novels of 2014 that I have not yet read. I am hoping to read a few more of this year's stand-out fiction releases before I start to think about preparing my Best of 2014 list. Are there any 2014 releases that you want to read before the year is out?

I am looking forward to more free-range reading in December. What will you be reading during the final month of 2014?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Review of The Clever Mill Horse by Jodi Lew-Smith

The Clever Mill Horse by Jodi Lew-Smith
Publisher: Caspian Press
Publication Date: August 15, 2014
Length: 424 pages
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Synopsis from the Publisher: A young woman’s gift could weave together the fabric of a nation . . .

1810, upstate New York. 21-year-old Ella Kenyon is happiest gliding through the thick woods around her small frontier town, knife in hand, her sharp eyes tracking game. A gift for engineering is in her blood, but she would gladly trade it for more time in the forest. If only her grandfather’s dying wish hadn’t trapped her into a fight she never wanted.

Six years ago, Ella’s grandfather made her vow to finish his life’s work: a flax-milling machine that has the potential to rescue her mother, brother, and sister from the brutality of life with her drunkard father. The copious linen it yields could save her struggling town, subjugate the growing grip of southern cotton. Or it could be Ella’s downfall. If she’s not quick enough, not clever enough to succeed, more than her own life rests in the balance . . .

My Thoughts: Jodi Lew-Smith's historical novel The Clever Mill Horse piqued my interest when I first read the synopsis. A young heroine who is equally comfortable throwing a knife and inventing machines? Well, ok, that got my attention. I love strong female characters, and a novel centered on a young woman's invention in the early nineteenth century sounded unusual enough for me to give it a try.

And I enjoyed the book overall. The Clever Mill Horse read, in my opinion, like a Young Adult novel, although it doesn't seem to have been marketed that way. But I think many teens and other YA readers would find it appealing, with its adventurous plot, hint of romance, and intelligent, headstrong, Katniss Everdeen-style heroine. I'm a former American history teacher, and I'm always on the lookout for books that can entice young readers into learning more about periods in the past which may seem . . well, a tad dry (gasp!) in the classroom.

The Clever Mill Horse, fortunately, is anything but dry. Lew-Smith packs a lot of plot into her story of Ella Kenyon's flax-milling machine: kidnapping, horse-theft, fire, blackmail, and a drunk and violent father, for starters. And that's not even including the forbidden love between a Native American man and white woman, a dark and long-suppressed secret about Ella's parentage, and the lesbian who can never share the truth about herself and her desires.

At times, all of that added up to perhaps a little too much action and adventure for me, when I might have wished for deeper character development or more about the flax machine itself and how it could have changed early American society. But YA readers who appreciate a plot-driven novel will find much here to keep them turning the pages and, I hope, might encourage them to read more about the early years of the new American republic.

I enjoyed participating in the blog tour for The Clever Mill Horse. You can check out the rest of the tour stops here. In particular, you may enjoy an interesting guest post Lew-Smith wrote on Just One More Chapter about why Americans stopped using flax for linen. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

About the Author: Jodi Lew-Smith lives on a farm in northern Vermont with her patient husband, three wonderfully impatient children, a bevy of pets and farm animals, and 250 exceedingly patient apple trees which, if they could talk, would suggest that she stop writing and start pruning. Luckily they’re pretty quiet.

With a doctorate in plant genetics, she also lives a double life as a vegetable breeder at High Mowing Seeds. She is grateful for the chance to do so many things in one lifetime, and only wishes she could do them all better. Maybe in the next life she’ll be able to make up her mind.

For more about Jodi and about the lives and world of the characters in the novel, visit her website or blog. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Goodreads.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nonfiction November: Readalong Discussion for Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff

Today is Readalong Day for Nonfiction November! Becca at I'm Lost in Books is hosting the readalong discussion today of Stacey Schiff's 2010 book Cleopatra: A Life. This morning she posted a terrific conversation about the book with Katie from Doing Dewey. You can see that discussion post right here. Becca and Katie, I loved reading your conversation! It felt like listening to two friends at a book club meeting.

Ok, Becca and Katie posted a few discussion questions about Cleopatra . . . I'm going to answer a few of these with my thoughts about the book.

What did you think of the book overall?

Overall, I enjoyed reading it. Truthfully, I usually steer away from biographies, so reading this book was a little out of the box for me.

And I liked it, for the most part. But I did think, as Becca said, that it was very dense. At times I felt overloaded with information--and not always information about Cleopatra herself. Schiff includes a great deal about Roman politics here. And I realize, it's critical to understand Egypt's precarious position with respect to Rome in order to fully understand the central issues of Cleopatra's life. But . . . well, sometimes I felt that Schiff included too much information about events, people, politics, etc, that didn't really shed much light on Cleopatra herself.

And that kind of leads me to the issue of sources . . . there is so LITTLE known about Cleopatra herself, and pretty much NONE of it comes from Cleopatra herself or her close contemporaries. Schiff--or anyone writing about Cleopatra--is stuck with a few Roman sources written much after her death. It just made me wonder if there was really enough material about Cleopatra herself for Schiff to craft a full and convincing biography. That's why, I think, the book seemed often to me to be less a biography than a political history of Egypt's fall to Rome.

Cleopatra, despite her many achievements, is mainly remembered as a manipulative seductress while Caesar is remembered historically as a strategic ruler. What do you think about this distinction?

Well, that I'm not surprised. Men throughout history have been afraid of powerful women, and have painted them as manipulative and overly sexual. Schiff makes clear that Cleopatra was no more "wicked" than any of the male rulers from her time period. Sure, she had her siblings murdered, but apparently that was normal for the monarchs of her dynasty!

And of course it's ridiculous that Cleopatra is seen as the seductress, when, Schiff argues, she was likely a virgin when she first met Julius Caesar. Caesar was a fully grown man with a well-known reputation as a ladies' man, and yet the young virgin is the seductress? Cleopatra is blamed for driving Marc Antony crazy with her sexual wiles, as well, as if Antony (a handsome guy who'd long been considered a playboy in Rome) couldn't defend himself against her. Antony and Cleopatra had a relationship of over a decade and had three children together; they weren't officially wed, that we know of, but that sounds more like a marriage than a wanton seduction to me.

So it's odd that Cleopatra would be known throughout history as the manipulative seductress . . . but unfortunately not surprising, given that her history was written by Roman men. As Schiff demonstrates, it suited the purposes of Octavian Caesar to encourage a tabloid version of Cleopatra after her death, to depict her as "insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed." This enhanced Octavian's glory in defeating her and his brother-in-law Marc Antony, and ensured that their reputations were completely besmirched so that no one would challenge him in their name. This propaganda version of Cleopatra as evil and sexually promiscuous became the storyline that was passed down through the centuries. History, as they say, is written by the victors.

Were you surprised by anything in the book? Anything you didn't know that jumped out at you?

I had not realized that women had so many rights in ancient Egypt. Egyptian women had far more rights than Roman women, in fact. Egyptian women could own property and control their own marriages and divorces. Schiff writes, "Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter." Yikes! At the end of the book, Schiff argues that Roman fascination with Cleopatra caused a golden age for women in Rome. After Cleopatra's death, Schiff says, well-born Roman women--mainly the wives and sisters of Roman leaders--enjoyed a new role in public life that they had not before. I can't really assess whether this is true or not, as Schiff doesn't provide a lot of detail on this point, but I do think it is interesting and worth reading more about.

I've enjoyed participating in this readalong and in Nonfiction November all month long! I look forward to reading other perspectives on Cleopatra.

Thanks so much to Becca and Katie for hosting the discussion!

Mid-Week Update

Good morning, readers! This mid-week update meme is hosted by Miz B at Should be Reading. I haven't posted on my blog for a few days; this has been one of THOSE weeks, and the days have really gotten away from me. I HAVE been reading, though, so I thought I'd share what I've been up to . . .

What are you currently reading?

I have just picked up this book from the library, and started the first few pages . . .

Celeste Ng's novel Everything I Never Told You has received some stellar reviews. I realized it was one of those new releases in literary fiction that I should have read but didn't . . . well, there is time to rectify that before the end of the year! Are there any 2014 releases that you want to make sure to read before the end of the year?

What did you recently finish reading?

I have been participating in Nonfiction November, so I've been cruising through a number of great nonfiction titles this month. I haven't been able to post a nonfiction review or discussion piece yet this week. But here are the two nonfiction books I most recently finished:

Carl Hoffman's Savage Harvest offers a fascinating look at the still-unsolved 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Papua New Guinea. I read Stacy Schiff's biography, Cleopatra: A Life, in order to participate in the Nonfiction November read-a-long, to be hosted today by Becca at I'm Lost in Books.

What do you think you’ll read next?

That's a good question! I certainly have a list of great nonfiction titles from Nonfiction November, and I have a few of those books on hold at the library. But it might be time for me to return to fiction . . . there are several 2014 novels that I would like to read. So . . . what to read, when there are so many wonderful choices? I'm not sure, but it's a good problem to have.

How is your week in reading going? I hope it has been a good one!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nonfiction Reads and Bookish Outings for Book Clubs

As part of my involvement in Nonfiction November this month, I am encouraging one of my book clubs to consider a nonfiction book as our next reading selection. The members of this particular book club greatly enjoy planning some kind of activity, guest speaker, or outing to go along with the book that we read. We have had guest speakers such as a local author attend our meetings, for example. When we read The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin, we attended a panel of speakers about the Lindbergh trial, and a few of us even toured the Lindbergh estate (you can see a blog post I wrote about that here).

So I decided to do a little thinking about what nonfiction books my club might read that would lend themselves easily to some kind of outing. We are fortunate enough to live within driving distance of both Philadelphia and New York City; the combination of those great cities gives us a lot of options, if we are willing to take an all-day trip on the weekend. I thought I would share some of my ideas with you, and ask if you had any other suggestions. Although you may not live anywhere near me, you might be able to plan a similar kind of trip in your area to go along with these same books.

Here, then, are a couple ideas for nonfiction books and activities/outings to go with them:

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. This book tells the story of the 1936 American rowing team that competed in the Berlin Olympics, the games controlled by the Nazis. OUTING: Rowing! There are several local dragonboat teams and other rowing groups in our area, including all female teams, who row on the river near our home. Perhaps we will contact one of those teams and give rowing a try! Of course, this outing would be better suited for spring or summer. As an alternative, we could take a walk around beautiful Boathouse Row in Philadelphia, where there are historic clubhouses belonging to rowing teams that have been participating in the sport for over a century.

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman. This book considers the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of the Governor of NY and one of THE Rockefellers, back in 1961 in Papua New Guinea. The case was never solved, and the author seeks to determine if there is truth to the rumors that native tribesmen found him and... well, ate him. I am reading it now, and it's fascinating! OUTING: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC has all the native art that Michael Rockefeller found before he died. I've been to the Met a number of times, but I don't think I've ever seen the exhibit of Asmat art. Now that I'm reading the book, of course, I am very anxious to see it!

Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson. This new book, just released this week to very good reviews, is all about archeologists ("the real life avatars of Indiana Jones") and what they do. OUTING: We could take a field trip to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. The Penn Museum, as it is commonly called, has one of the finest collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world, and collections of archaeological finds from all over the globe. As an alternative, we could invite a real-life archeologist to talk to us, and hear his or her perspective on the book and whether or not it accurately reflects their field.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. This book offers the tale of a reclusive and eccentric heiress, the daughter of one of the Gilded Age industrialists, and the mysterious way she spent all of her fortune before she died. One of her many homes--the "empty mansions" which had sat unused for decades--made the news this summer when it was sold for $14 million in Connecticut (far under the value of what it is probably worth). OUTING: Perhaps we could take a field trip to 5th Avenue, where Huguette Clark once owned a lavish home, for lunch and shopping, just to pretend we are heiresses. Closer to home, Duke Farms, the estate of Doris Duke (another insanely wealthy heiress from the early 20th Century) is now open to the public as a park and gardens.

Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. This newly published book is a biography of Dr. Thomas Mutter from Philadelphia, who helped to revolutionize surgery in America, back when the doctors used to perform it without anesthesia and without even washing their hands. OUTING: A visit to the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities in Philadelphia, which houses the real Dr Mutter's specimens and collections. I have been there before, and it's very interesting, although not, I warn, for the squeamish!

I don't know if my book club will select any of these titles; it is still under discussion. But it certainly is fun to make "field trip planning" a part of book selection. And I can tell you that I WILL be making a pilgrimage to the Rockefeller wing of the Met soon!

Does your book club ever plan special activities or outings to go along with the books you read? If so, what kinds of activities and outings have you planned? What kind would you love to participate in?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review of Reunion by Hannah Pittard

Reunion: A Novel by Hannah Pittard
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Source: Publisher, through NetGalley

From the Publisher's Synopsis: Heartbreak and hilarity come together in this story of a far-flung family reunited for one weekend by their father's death, by the author of the highly acclaimed The Fates Will Find Their Way.

Five minutes before her flight is set to take off, Kate Pulaski, failed screenwriter and newly-failed wife, learns that her estranged father killed himself. More shocked than saddened by the news, she reluctantly gives in to her older siblings' request that she join them--and her many half-siblings, and most of her father's five former wives--in Atlanta, their birthplace, for a final farewell.

Written with huge heart and bracing wit, Reunion takes place over the following four days, as family secrets are revealed, personal deceits are uncovered, and Kate--an inveterate liar looking for a way to come clean--slowly begins to acknowledge the overwhelming similarities between herself and the man she never thought she'd claim as an influence, much less a father.

My Thoughts: Hannah Pittard's second novel, Reunion, is a quick read and a pleasant book. It centers on the reunion of a dysfunctional family, from the perspective of a troubled thirty-something woman whose life is starting to fall apart. Complicated family dynamics are always a good bet as a topic in fiction. There is such drama present in all of the tangled aspects of how we grow up, and then, in many cases, how we grow apart from those we love. A good novel about a dysfunctional family allows a writer to probe deeply into the characters' inner lives, emotions, secrets and relationships.

And Reunion does delve into the inner lives, emotions, secrets, and relationships of Kate Pulaski and her siblings .. . but never, I thought, quite enough.

While I enjoyed reading the book, I often felt like there was something essential missing from the story. Pittard doesn't fully explore the elements of what makes this family complicated and dysfunctional. I wanted more backstory on the Pulaski siblings' childhoods. Given the centrality of theme (the return to the hometown, confronting the ghosts of the past, etc) Pittard offers very few details on what Kate's childhood was actually like, and how it affects her in the present. Why did Kate think her father was such a terrible parent? Her father is a mysterious and unknowable presence in the book, and therefore I couldn't connect with Kate's strong emotions about him. Without understanding Kate's relationship to her father, it was hard to comprehend or care about Kate's epiphany that she is more like her father than she had realized.

I felt the same about Kate's relationships with her siblings Elliot and Nell. Pittard tells us they have a very strong bond, and this seems to be a key element to the story, but she doesn't provide a very deep or nuanced portrayal of their relationships. I wanted to know more, and felt frustrated with the surface-level characters of Kate's siblings. They seemed flat to me. I never felt Pittard provided enough to immerse myself in the family's dynamics or feel emotionally connected to the characters.

Pittard, however, does a good job with the character of Kate, a woman who is facing the breakup of her marriage and her own responsibility for it, and struggling to find a way through her own years of deception. Kate is a complex and often unlikeable character, and yet Pittard makes the reader feel empathy toward her, and hope that she will find the path to a better future.

It's interesting that Kate is a screenwriter; as I read this book, I wondered several times if the story might have worked better as a movie than as a novel.

Pittard's prose style is fluid and readable, and sometimes absolutely beautiful. I do think Pittard is a talented young writer to watch; I will certainly be willing to read her next novel. Many other bloggers and book lovers have had a more positive reaction to Reunion, so don't take my opinion as the final word.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I received a complimentary copy of this novel for review consideration from Grand Central Publishing, through NetGalley.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review of The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance In Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: September 14, 2014
Length: 368 pages
Source: My own copy

From the Publisher's Synopsis: An investigative journalist uncovers a hidden custom that will transform your understanding of what it means to grow up as a girl.

In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as "dressed up like a boy") is a third kind of child--a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom.

My Thoughts: Swedish investigative journalist Jenny Nordberg's book The Underground Girls of Kabul is magnificent. Have I used that word in a review this year? I don't think so, but trust me, it applies. I'm somewhat embarrassed to sound so gushing here, but I can't help myself. What I really want to say in this post is, "Read this book--it kicks ass!" But, uh . . . let's see if I can come up with something a little more cogent and well-considered to persuade you to read the book.

The Underground Girls of Kabul is revealing, complex, and utterly fascinating through-out. Nordberg conducted many interviews with women who have dressed as boys--and some who still present themselves as men even as adults--and these stories are enormously compelling. Nordberg's research into Afghan history and culture is impressive and extensive, and Nordberg presents her findings in a direct, readable way. Nordberg's absorbing book sheds new light on what it is like to be female in Afghanistan, a country that has been called the worst place in the world to be born a girl.

I was completely enthralled by the story of Azita, the central character in Nordberg's book. When Nordberg meets her, Azita is a member of the Afghan Parliament, representing a rural district--an impressive feat for a woman in male-dominated Afghanistan. Azita herself had been fortunate enough to receive an education as a girl, although her father married her off to an illiterate farmer at the age of nineteen. She and her husband have four children, all girls; this is a problem for Azita both personally and politically. In Afghan culture, the lack of sons indicates a lack of strength, and is seen as a serious failure on the part of the mother.

Azita decides to transform her youngest daughter into a bacha posh; the girl born as Mahnoush is now presented as a boy named Mehran. Mehran can now play outside and experience other freedoms unavailable to his sisters; he receives favored status inside his own family, even though everyone knows he is really a girl . . . and will be expected to live as a girl once again by the onset of puberty. Azita has many reasons to transform her daughter into a temporary boy, including her own complicated personal history, and Nordberg made me care deeply about this woman and her family.

In addition to Azita and her family, Nordberg presents other case studies of bacha posh, including Zahra, who at age 16 has no interest in transforming herself back into a girl and losing the freedoms she has discovered while living as a boy, and Nader, a woman in her thirties who managed to avoid marriage and still lives as a man. Nordberg uses these women's stories as the basis for a nuanced exploration of the meaning of gender, the oppression of women, and life in contemporary Afghanistan more than a decade after the defeat of the Taliban.

I highly recommend The Underground Girls of Kabul to all readers interested in gender, women's rights, Afghanistan, and life and culture in other countries.

Ok, why don't I just end with what I wanted to say in the first place? Read this book--it kicks ass!

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nonfiction November: Memoirs by Iranian and Iranian-American Women

The topic of Week 2 of Nonfiction November is Be/Become/Ask the Expert, hosted by Leslie at Regular Rumination. For this topic, participants are invited to share a list of titles that they have read on a particular topic, create a wish list of titles that they'd like to read on a particular topic, or ask fellow Nonfiction November participants for suggestions on a particular topic.

The topic I've chosen to tackle is Memoirs by Iranian and Iranian-American Women--Beyond Persepolis. First of all, let me note that I would never call myself an "expert" in this topic. I became interested in reading more nonfiction and memoirs by Iranian women after I read Marjane Satrapi's phenomenal graphic memoir, The Complete Persepolis. When I finished Satrapi's book, I wanted more . . . and so I read additional titles by women from Iran. There are still more that I would like to read. An expert, I most certainly am not--but I'd like to share a few words about these titles with you.

The place to start with memoirs by Iranian or Iranian-American women, in my opinion, is The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi's unique memoir-in-comic strips was first published in France in two volumes in 2000 and 2001, originally as Persepolis I and Persepolis II. Now you can buy them in one combined volume, and believe me, you won't want to read part I without going on to part II. Satrapi's clever, edgy, and sometimes hilarious memoir details her experiences growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. The daughter of well-educated and progressive parents, Satrapi was only ten years old at the time of the fundamentalist revolution, and of course it turned her world upside-down. It's no exaggeration to say I couldn't put this book down; as I read it, the story inhabited my dreams.

Nahid Rachlin's Persian Girls: A Memoir, published in 2006, is another story of coming of age in Iran, but quite different than Satrapi's. Rachlin and her sister Pari, growing up during the reign of the last Shah, hoped to leave the repressive, male-domininated society of their birth behind and live out their dreams of becoming a writer and an actress in the West. Only Rachlin managed to escape the weight of family expectations, however; she compares her own story with that of Pari, who is forced by their father to marry a cruel and wealthy man in Iran. As you might expect, Rachlin's fate contrasts sharply with that of her sister. Persian Girls is a poignant and compelling memoir. Rachlin has also published several novels, including Jumping Over Fire and The Heart's Desire.

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran is Azadeh Moaveni's interesting account of her identity and experiences as an Iranian-American. Moaveni grew up in California, the daughter of Iranian exiles. Although she appeared to be a typical California girl on the outside, inside she felt the pull of the country of her parents' birth. After college, Moaveni moved to Iran to work as a journalist. In this book, published in 2005, Moaveni searches for her own identity, as a citizen of two very different societies. She also reports on the rebellious younger generation of Iranians, who chafe against the restrictions of the Islamic Republic. I enjoyed reading Lipstick Jihad, but I often felt that, in this book, Moaveni was torn between writing a personal memoir and a journalistic account. The book is a bit of both, and they don't always mesh together seamlessly. Moaveni has also written Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran about her marriage to an Iranian man.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas, published in 2003, is a collection of short essays describing the author's childhood as an Iranian immigrant in California. This is a sweet, quick read, with an emphasis on the cultural confusion of recent immigrants and the absurd lack of knowledge of Iran or Persian culture by most Americans. I was especially amused by the author's struggles with her hard-to-pronounce (for Americans) Persian first name, and how she learned to answer to "anything beginning with F." I can relate--my first name is also Persian, and I've often said that I have to answer to anything beginning with L! I found this book to be a very pleasant read, although at times I wished Dumas had left humor behind and explored some of her themes more deeply. For example, she provides fascinating hints of what it was like to be an Iranian immigrant in America DURING the hostage crisis, when anti-Iranian prejudice in America was at a high point, and I felt this issue could have been developed further. Dumas is also the author of Laughing Without An Accent: Adventures of an Iranian-American, at Home and Abroad, which I would like to read.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books is Azar Nafisi's account of teaching seven bright female students in her Tehran home in the 1990s. Nafisi, a former professor at the University of Tehran, met weekly with this group for two years to discuss forbidden classics by Western authors such as Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and Austen. I must confess that I have not yet read this book. I am including it in my list because it is probably one of the most well-known (in America, in any case) nonfiction books by an Iranian woman. I am interested in the perspective of any of you who have read the book. I know that reactions among some of my book-loving friends have been mixed, but I suspect it is a must-read for me as someone interested in women's experiences in Iran. Nafisi has also written a memoir of her childhood and family in Iran called Things I've Been Silent About: Memories, which sounds like a book that I'd like to explore. Nafisi's most recent book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, an exploration of three classic works of American fiction, was released last month.

The above books are some important nonfiction titles written by Iranian or Iranian-American women, but I don't want to imply that I am the absolute expert on this topic. I'd love to hear other suggestions, and I welcome your comments. I look forward to reading other posts this week from participants in Nonfiction November.

Do you enjoy reading memoirs or other nonfiction titles about life in other countries? What country would like to read more about?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday Salon -- November 9

Greetings, Fellow Book Lovers! I'm posting for the first time under the banner Sunday Salon. I love the idea of a "salon" as a weekly update and book discussion forum. I'm going to link this up to It's Monday, What Are You Reading on Book Journey and The Sunday Post on The Caffeinated Book Reviewer.

This week I've become absolutely immersed in Nonfiction November! It's my first time participating, and at first I didn't intend to officially participate. I thought I would check out a few blog entries, maybe peak in to the group read-a-long. Instead, I am fully engaged and having so much fun with it! Nonfiction has completely taken over my reading life in the past week, which is not at all something I expected. You can read my Week I post (My Year in Nonfiction) here. Because of Nonfiction November, I've read these books in the past week:

Here are two reviews of nonfiction books that I posted on my blog last week:

The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, & Kansas City, Missouri by Avi Steinberg. Steinberg's book is a quirky memoir/travelogue style book, in which he makes a case for considering the Book of Mormon as an important piece of American literature. It's interesting and at times even hilarious, but also deviates into a few too many maddening digressions.

Without You, There is No Us: My time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim. I really enjoyed reading this memoir of journalist Kim's year teaching at an all-male college in North Korea. Kim's insights into the deep brainwashing of North Korean youth is, as you would expect, unsettling and disturbing.

So now I need to decide what I am going to read next for Nonfiction November! Here is what I'm thinking of . . .

And of course, I'm hoping to hear about lots of other great nonfiction titles from other bloggers this week. Nonfiction November is causing me to add to my list of library holds each day!

How about you . . . are you reading any nonfiction titles this month? How often do you read nonfiction during the year, and what kind of nonfiction do you like to read?