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?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review of The Lost Book of Mormon by Avi Steinberg

The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, & Kansas City, Missouri by Avi Steinberg
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication Date: October 21, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Source: Publisher, through NetGalley

Avi Steinberg’s The Lost Book of Mormon is a tough book to characterize, a hybrid of memoir, travelogue, literary and cultural criticism, and humor. Steinberg, a non-Mormon, sets out on a journey, both literal and figurative, to explore some of the landscapes important in the Book of Mormon. Along the way, he considers the meaning of scripture as a kind of uber-fiction, and makes a case for treating the Book of Mormon as an important work of 19th century American literature. Steinberg’s book is thought-provoking, interesting, and even hilarious in parts, but contains perhaps a few too many distracting tangents.

The Story: In 1823, Joseph Smith, the son of a backwoods farmer, swore that a visiting angel told him to dig in a hill near his family’s farm in upstate New York. Smith dug, and allegedly found the hidden history of America engraved on a series of gold plates. Smith “translated” these gold plates from an ancient hieroglyphic language into English, and published this as the Book of Mormon in 1830. The book became instantly popular with an American public deeply fascinated by both Indian lore and treasure-hunting.

Steinberg, who grew up in both Israel and Cleveland, Ohio, describes himself as a lapsed Orthodox Jew and professes to a fascination with religious texts in general, and the Book of Mormon in particular. In The Lost Book of Mormon, Steinberg travels the path of the characters in Joseph’s Smith’s text, from Jerusalem to the ruined Mayan cities in Guatemala and southern Mexico, and Hill Cumorah in upstate New York.

At every location along his journey, Steinberg offers an analysis of Smith not as a religious prophet but as a writer, a “regular Joe” as Steinberg calls him, who wrote a story and then had the tremendous audacity to publish it not just as a work of fiction or nonfiction, but as a bible. To Steinberg, Smith should be considered as one of 19th century America’s literary giants along with Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain. His Book of Mormon, Steinberg argues, is a quintessential American literary epic with a picaresque hero, Nephi, who predates Melville’s Ishmael and Twain’s Huck Finn; perhaps it’s even the Great American Novel. And yet few literary and cultural critics have given serious consideration to Smith’s work.

My Thoughts: I confess to a strong fascination with Mormonism as a cultural phenomenon, although I’m not a Mormon myself. It’s hard not to be fascinated with a religion less than 200 years old, whose origins seem like something out of a science fiction tale. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to read a copy of this book for Nonfiction November.

And I did find The Lost Book of Mormon truly interesting. Steinberg writes movingly of his interest in Smith as a writer and of the process of writing itself, that amazing act of creation that brings to life the stories that become so important to us. Steinberg can be enormously funny, as well. The middle of the book is a long set piece about a bus tour of Mayan archeological sites, with Steinberg as the only non-believer among two large clans of Mormons; it had me laughing out loud and quoting lines to my somewhat bemused family.

The book, however, is a tad heavy on personal anecdotes. Steinberg deviates frequently into lengthy, sometimes meandering digressions that don’t add much to his argument about Smith’s place in American literature. The book is, sometimes, a bit of a glorious mess. Maybe it’s best to go into The Lost Book of Mormon without expecting too much of it as a work of literary or cultural criticism . . . Just let Steinberg take you on a strange and amusing journey, and enjoy the ride.

In the end, Steinberg is not very interested in whether the stories in the Book of Mormon—and by extension, ALL stories--are literally “true” or not. Instead, he’s concerned with what those stories tell us about ourselves, and how the tellers of those tales find their inspiration and bring the stories to life. “The world is full of buried books,” Steinberg tells us, and writers, like Joseph Smith with his gold plates, must unearth them and tell the tales for their readers. “They’re there. That’s no bullshit. Other people don’t need to believe in that, but if you want to be a writer, you do. You must have faith. The gold plates are real: every book is a translation of them.” As readers, let's hope that writers keep finding those gold plates of inspiration and telling us their wonderful tales.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher, Nan A. Talese, through NetGalley.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

It's the first week of Nonfiction November! This is a project to celebrate great nonfiction books and to encourage book lovers to read nonfiction during the month of November, co-hosted by Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Katie at Doing Dewey, and Becca at I'm Lost in Books. I hemmed and hawed about participating, but you know what . . . I've already been commenting on other blogs about this, so I'm kinda involved. I might as well officially participate and link something to the Week 1 topic. Ok, so here goes . . .

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I have been commenting all over the blogosphere that I only read ONE single, solitary nonfiction book this year . . . but looking back over my Goodreads account (good thing for that), I did read a few others. Um, whew. It turns out I read a whopping FOUR nonfiction books so far this year. I know, I know--you are blown away!! I will pause and let you recover.

Alright, so my favorite nonfiction read of this year, out of that overwhelming and impressive number, is the one I have just completed ....

And that would be Suki Kim's memoir of her year teaching in North Korea, Without You, There Is No Us. I just posted my review of this book yesterday, which you can find right here.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

The nonfiction book I've recommended most over the past few years is probably Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken--although I think everyone in the entire world has read it now, so I can stop recommending it! Hooray, my work is done.

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven't read enough of yet?

I'd like to read more nonfiction about topics I don't know as much about--science, for example. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a great example of a nonfiction book about science that allowed me, as a non-scientist, to learn something new and push me out of my comfort zone as a reader. I'd love to hear some recommendations for other science books that I might try. I've heard many great things about On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss, so that ought to go on my list.

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Well, primarily, to read a few more nonfiction books! Although I mostly read novels now, for pleasure and entertainment, I used to read plenty of academic history books. My degrees are in history, and long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I taught American history at the college level. I still enjoy reading history, but sometimes I have issues with history books written for popular audiences that aren't adequately researched or sourced, or that include too much speculation or conjecture (it's hard to let go of that professional training! No joke--it's like a curse).

Right now, I am reading Avi Steinberg's The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri. Steinberg, a non-Mormon, traveled to the landscapes associated with the Book of Mormon, searching for clues about the Mormon holy books, and makes an argument for considering the Book of Mormon as an influential work of American literature. It's about as quirky as it sounds, and so far I'm enjoying it.

Two other nonfiction books I'd like to read soon are Jenny Nordberg's The Underground Girls of Kabul and Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson. I'm in the queue at my library for these, so we'll see when I can get my hands on them, but they both sound terrific.

Thanks to Kim, Katie, and Becca for organizing Nonfiction November! I will look forward to reading many interesting posts over the next few weeks, and adding to my Toppling Tower of TBR.

Review of Certainty by Victor Bevine

Certainty by Victor Bevine
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: October 21, 2014
Length: 358 pages
Source: Publisher, through TLC Book Tours

Synopsis from Publisher: When you’re fighting an injustice, can it be wrong to do what’s right? Inspired by the scandalous true story that shocked a nation at the close of WWI.

With America’s entry into World War I, the population of Newport, Rhode Island seems to double overnight as twenty-five thousand rowdy recruits descend on the Naval Training Station. Drinking, prostitution, and other depravities follow the sailors, transforming the upscale town into what many residents—including young lawyer William Bartlett, whose genteel family has lived in Newport for generations—consider to be a moral cesspool.

When sailors accuse a beloved local clergyman of sexual impropriety, William feels compelled to fight back. He agrees to defend the minister against the shocking allegations, in the face of dire personal and professional consequences. But when the trial grows increasingly sensational, and when outrageous revelations echo all the way from Newport to the federal government, William must confront more than just the truth—he must confront the very nature of good and evil. Based on real-life events, Certainty recalls a war-torn era when the line between right and wrong became dangerously blurred.

My Thoughts: In Victor Bevine’s novel Certainty, a civilian minister and a group of sailors are accused of sodomy by a special unit of Naval Intelligence in Newport, Rhode Island just after the end of World War I. The homophobia of that time comes as no great surprise, of course. What makes this book interesting is Bevine’s exploration of why these events occurred and how they played out in court in what came to be known as the Newport Navy Vice Scandal.

While I thought the case itself was fascinating, Certainty didn’t completely succeed for me as a novel. Many of the characters felt flat and undeveloped to me. Bevine portrayed the minister, Rev. Kent, as a man too good to be true; I would have found him to be a much more interesting character if he had a few believable flaws. William Bartlett, the young lawyer defending Rev. Kent, did not come alive for me as a character, either. The motivations of Chief Petty Officer Arnold, the homophobic leader of the unit pursuing the “fairies” (to use the term popular at the time), are murky, so he comes across as nothing more than a cardboard villain.

The most complex character in the novel is Charlie, one of the sailors who testifies in court against Rev. Kent. Bevine presents him as a young man on the make, an opportunist who always puts himself first, in his career in the Navy and in his relationship with Dottie, a local prostitute. Only Charlie really comes off the page as a fully developed, multi-dimensional character. I would have loved to read more about Charlie; to me, the sections of Certainty that focus on Charlie are the strongest and most nuanced parts of the novel.

Bevine indicates in his Author’s Note at the end of this novel that he first wrote about the Newport Navy Vice Scandal as a screenplay. I don’t know if there are plans in the works to produce Bevine's screenplay, but I think Certainty would work much better as a movie or TV mini-series than as a novel. As I read the book, I kept thinking to myself that I could see each chapter enfolding as a scene in a movie; the narrative structure really felt more like a screenplay than a novel. I would love to see a well-produced movie based on the events detailed in Certainty.

I would rate Certainty a 3 out of 5 stars. Despite my criticisms of the novel, I do think the topic is interesting and worthwhile, and many readers would enjoy the story.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from Lake Union Publishing through TLC Book Tours. Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for this book. You can visit the other stops on the Certainty tour at the official tour site here.

About Victor Bevine: For over thirty years, Victor Bevine has worked as an actor, screenwriter, audio book narrator, director, and more. A graduate of Yale University, his acting credits include many prestigious roles onstage as well as roles in the film version of A Separate Peace and countless television shows. He has read over one hundred and eighty titles as an audiobook narrator; in 2010, he received an Audiophone Award for his narration of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Beak of the Finch. He has written several screenplays, including Certainty, which was chosen for two prestigious writers’ conferences and which served as the basis for his first novel. His thirty-minute short film Desert Cross, which he wrote and directed, won accolades at the Athens International Film Festival. Currently, he serves as CEO of the World Freerunning Parkour Federation (WFPF), of which he is co-founder. He resides in New York City.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review of Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Length: 285 pages
Source: My own copy

Without You, There Is No Us is journalist/novelist Suki Kim’s interesting memoir about the year she spent teaching at a college in North Korea. North Korea, of course, is one of the most closed societies of modern times, and Kim’s book sheds light on the strangeness of that world under dictator Kim Jong-il. Without You . . . is a fascinating and intensely personal account of life in an intimidating and repressive regime.

Kim, who was born in South Korea but moved to the US as a young teen, posed as a Christian missionary in order to get a job teaching at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). During most of the year 2011, Kim taught English to the privileged sons of the North Korean upper class—young men likely to become the future leaders of the country.

As a teacher at PUST, Kim had the deeply disorienting experience of giving up her own personal freedoms. She was kept a virtual prisoner on the university grounds, with her movement on and off campus tightly controlled, for example. Kim had to provide each lesson plan for review, and felt under constant surveillance by the “minders” provided by the regime. At the same time, Kim kept up the charade that she was an evangelical Christian, because PUST is funded, in large part, by Korean-American Christian churches. Kim operated, in a sense, like a spy, secretly taking notes for this book and hoping that no one—either the North Koreans or the missionaries at PUST—would unmask her true identity as a journalist.

Kim found her young North Korean students to be bright and enthusiastic, and yet oddly uninterested in learning about life outside of their own country. The students had been brainwashed all of their young lives into believing that North Korea was the best and most powerful nation in the world. At a university for science and technology, these students were unaware of the Internet—and Kim, frustratingly, was not allowed to tell them. It is sobering, indeed, to think of these young men as the future of North Korea. They seem quite unlikely to question the regime or stage protests for democracy, as young people have done in other regions of the world.

Kim’s book will no doubt anger the regime of Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong-il and the current leader of North Korea, as well as the leadership of PUST. Kim changed the names of PUST staff and students so that they would not suffer reprisals from the regime. She notes that, although her book will cause waves in North Korea, she felt obligated “to tell the stark truth” about what she witnessed, “in the hopes that the lives of average North Koreans, including my beloved students, will one day improve.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Without You, There Is No Us. As a reader very interested in the topic, I would have appreciated a bit more background on PUST itself and its funders, as well as, perhaps, a chapter at the end of the book with Kim’s thoughts on the new leader of the North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Nevertheless, this is an unsettling and powerful account of life in a frightening and restrictive world, and I do recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about North Korea.

Monday, November 3, 2014

It's Monday, November 3 . . . What Are You Reading?

Good morning, readers. Hope everyone had a great Halloween! I'm posting again on this weekly bookish meme hosted by Sheila at Bookjourney.

Last week I posted reviews of these books:

The Book of Strange New Things is Michel Faber's new novel, just released last week. It's a really interesting, genre-bending mashup of literary and science fiction. You can see my review here. And Stone Mattress: Nine Tales is Margaret Atwood's new collection of short stories, published earlier this fall. Check out my review here.

Also last week, I posted my October 2014 Reading Wrap-Up. And I also posted some discussion questions on the novel Ghost Horse by Thomas H. McNeely, which I recently reviewed on this blog; you can read those discussion questions here.

Currently, I am reading this book . . .

I'm enjoying David Nicholls' new novel Us, the story of a man trying to keep his family together as they embark on a Grand Tour of Europe the summer after his son graduates from high school. It's very interesting, and somewhat different from what I expected . . . the jury's still out, but I'm glad I selected this as my next read.

Over the weekend, I started playing around with Edelweiss. I've been a bit intimidated by this site, but I knew that it was time for me to start using it, so I finally bit the bullet and registered. I've been learning how to browse the catalogues, tag books I'm interested in, and request review copies. I got help, thank goodness, from tutorials posted by Shannon at River City Reading and Monika at A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall. I'm still learning the ropes, but I can see what a great resource Edelweiss can be for learning about upcoming titles. So, I'm just curious--are you registered on Edelweiss, and if so, do you find it helpful? Do you use it for information or requesting digital ARCs, or both?

Well, here is something kinda funny . . . I realized that I have passed a couple of milestones as a blogger: my 100th post and 6 months of blogging. I was so busy reading and blogging that I didn't really notice those milestones go by; I think I was supposed to celebrate them! Well, um . . . Hooray! I am still learning as I go, and I know that I have so much I can still improve upon . . . but it's been a lot of fun, and I'll keep plugging away. I love the community of fellow book lovers I've discovered, and I'm becoming aware of so many wonderful books through blogging (more, now, than I can possibly read!). I really appreciate all the support I've received from others in the blogging community. As always, thanks so much for reading this blog and for your comments!

What's on your reading agenda for this week?