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Review: The Devil and Miss Prym

The Devil and Miss PrymThe Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Paulo Coelho‘s The Alchemist book is one of those books that I categorize as having a rabid, zealous following…much like Ayn Rand’s books, and to some extent The Catcher in the Rye…books that some people claim they love or were life-changing.  I read The Alchemist years ago hoping that it would be a book that I loved.  I enjoyed it but angels didn’t sing and fireworks didn’t go off while I read it. It was okay but not the best book ever (in my opinion).

A couple of years ago I read Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die and ended up really liking it.  It made me decide that I really should read more of Coelho’s books…so I took The Devil and Miss Prym out from the library and set off. I picked this particular book because it is also on the list of 1001 books to read before you die. 

Once again, Coelho has written a fable. This one is set in a remote mountain village. A stranger shows up in the village one day and talks with Miss Prym, a villager who works at the local inn and bar.  The stranger show Miss Prym a fortune in gold and tells her that if the villagers kill one of their own, they can have all of the gold.  The stranger is trying to find out if people are at their core good or evil.

So how did I feel about The Devil and Miss Prym?  Once again, this was a book that fell into the “it was okay” camp.  I didn’t love it.   It felt a little flat to me.  The characters were one-dimensional and not very believable. Nevermind that none of the characters were likeable in any way.  Deep down I didn’t care what decision they made or what happened to them.  The book was loaded with parables but the main story line was lackluster and did little to pull me in.  It would have been better if it was edited to be at least 100 pages shorter. In a nutshell: this book was just ‘meh’ to me.  I will cling fondly to my memories of “Veronika Decides to Die”: my past and still current favorite Coelho book.

Review: Austerlitz

AusterlitzAusterlitz by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Translated into English from the original German, Austerlitz is filled with beautiful, complex prose that is best read slowly.  The novel features an unnamed narrator recounts his encounters and discussions with a man called “Austerlitz”.  Austerlitz is a middle-aged man in search of answers about his past.  His past is slowly uncovered through a series of digressions and fractured narratives.  At every meeting with Austerlitz the narrator finds out more about him through discussions about memories and architecture.  We learn about how the Holocaust tore apart Austerlitz and his family and how a young Austerlitz repressed those memories to the point that he actually thought he was the son of the Welsh couple who took him in.

This book was a challenge to read, especially in the beginning and it definitely isn’t for everyone. There were sentences that went on for 5+ pages and the narrative style is far from what you usually find in novels.  But if you are up for a reading challenge with a book that requires your full attention you should consider reading Austerlitz.

The Sunday Salon: Overeating & Over-reading

I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed.

This year I hosted my first Thanksgiving.  My son is now 10 months old so I knew this would be a very special holiday season for me.   He is just starting to venture into the world of table food. He loves to feed himself and try new things.   I spent a lot of time reading cook books this past week planning the meal.    I love reading cookbooks and planning out menus. It combines some of my favorite hobbies: cooking/food, reading and making lists. The menu I came up with included Goat Cheese Rosemary Toasts, cranberry nut rolls, roasted root vegetables with parmesan gremolata, caramelized shallot mashed potatoes, roasted turkey (of course), wild rice with butternut squash, and Cranberry Almond bundt cake…. as I said, I. am. stuffed.

This weekend I am also reading Anthony Bourdain’s follow-up to Kitchen Confidential: Medium Raw.   I loved Kitchen Confidential when I read it years ago so just had to grab Medium Raw when I saw it on the NEW shelf at the library.  I am about half way through the book so far. In this collection of essays Bourdain rants about everything from The Food Network, the effect of the recent economy on restaurants, celebrity chefs and more.  Bourdain is his usual self, very raw (Medium Raw, you might say), honest, and entertaining.  I am getting some good chuckles from Medium Raw so far and am enjoying it.

I hope to read another chapter/essay or so while the baby takes his afternoon nap.

Once I finish Medium Raw, I plan to start on One Day by David Nicholls.

What have you been eating and reading this weekend?

Review: Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with RecipesLunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Whenever I go to the library, I browse the NEW shelf for any food-related books.  Whether they are works of fiction, memoirs, or  cookbooks, no food book is overlooked.  Some I flip through quickly and put right back since they just don’t appeal to me.  But many take a trip home with me…Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard is one of those that won such an all expenses paid trip.   At first, I was a bit turned off by the cover since it looked like a pure chick lit book…however the synopsis looked promising.  

The book turned out to be a cute memoir about an American who meets and falls in love with a man in Paris. She moves to Paris to live with him and eagerly dives into her new life.    

As I made my way down the street, a man shoved a strawberry in my path.  “Mademoiselle, goute, goute” (taste, taste), he said, trying to catch my eye.  This was not the French I learned in high school.   It was loud and fast and filled with the guttural click of Arabic. “Ca va, princesse?”  He handed me a slice of melon, broke open a pod of sweet peas.  I knew it was ridiculous, but after two years in England, it felt so good to hear this caressing tone of voice, to smile and lower my eyes, even if the guy was just trying to sell me a tomato.

Bard soon learns of the cultural differences of life in Paris vs. the United States.  She wonders why her husband and other Parisians don’t have a go-getter attitude and just settle for the status quo, but meanwhile she flounders while searching for the perfect job.

The book takes place over a time period of 8 years…from when Bard meets her future husband, Gwendal, up to a few years after they’re married.  Food is an integral part of the story.  Bard tells of the first meal that she shared with Gwendal.  Each chapter has 2-3 recipes at the end for dishes inspired by the events she has written about in that chapter.

Lunch in Paris was a quick & easy read.   It is a good escapist read for anyone who fantasizes about spending their days browsing in Parisian markets and cooking up dishes with their finds.      If you are looking for a hard-core foodie read, this may not be the best selection for you.  I wouldn’t say that I learned anything new about food from this book, but I did enjoy reading the recipes she included with each chapter.  I was tempted to cook a few but will be returning the book to the library tomorrow and haven’t had a chance to cook any of the recipes yet!  I just may have to take out the book from the library again to get a chance to try out some of the recipes.

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Review: The Book

The BookThe Book by M. Clifford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Steps to freak yourself out:

    1. Buy a Kindle or other e-book device.
    2. Purchase and download the novel The Book by M. Clifford.
    3. Consider yourself freaked out.

One of my book clubs selected the novel “The Book” as our monthly suggestion. I had never heard of this book until fellow bookclubber Joanie added it to her to-read list on goodreads. It sounded like just the sort of book I would enjoy reading (think dystopian novel where books are controlled by “the man”). 

“The Book” is a self-published novel that was release earlier this year. It is set in the United States in the  not too distant future at a time when everyone has an e-reader called “The Book”.  The Book is distributed and automatically updated by The Publishing House.  All books are read in electronic form as paper books are illegal due to environmental laws that have banned the use of paper. 

The lead character, Holden Clifford loves to read. He looks forward to his ride home from work where he can take out his Book and continue reading.  Holden has never read from anything other than The Book.  When he stumbles across a single paper page from “The Catcher in the Rye”,  Holden discovers that the text of his favorite novel is not the same in The Book as when it was originally published.  This leads Holden down the path of figuring out why the contents of The Book were altered and just how many other works have been changed from their original version. 

I highly enjoyed this book.  M. Clifford did an excellent job evoking a nation where what people read and think is highly censored and controlled.  It reminded me of some of my favorite dystopian reads such as Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.  If you were a fan of these classic dystopian novels I recommend that you read “The Book”.  I also recommend this book if you love the act of cracking open a book and flipping through the pages…smelling that book scent. 🙂  “The Book” will force you to think about how much we can trust what we read in an electronic medium.

For more information check out the novel’s website:

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Review: Animal’s People: A Novel

Animal's People: A NovelAnimal’s People: A Novel by Indra Sinha

“Animal” is a 19-year old Indian boy who was disfigured as a result of a chemical plant explosion in his town when he was a small boy. The disaster caused his spine to become bent in such a manner that Animal is forced to walk on all fours.  Since both his parents died in the incident, Animal is raised by nuns in an orphanage and also spends a good deal of time earning a living by running scams on the streets of Khaufpur.

My story has to start with that night. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless, it’s where my story has to start. When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve into darkness. That’s how it is here.  All the world knows the name of Khaufpur, but no one knows how things were before those nights.

“Animal” makes for an interesting if sometimes frustrating narrator. The text is full of his colorful language. Animal tells his story in a mix of English, Hindi, and French. His English and French are sometimes phonetically interpreted versions of the real word…for example he refers to spying on people as “jamisponding”, which he got from “James Bond”-ing.  (don’t worry, if you don’t know any Hindi, there is a glossary in the back of the book).  Just as Animal struggles with life in the aftermath of the disaster, the whole city struggles. There are major health and poverty issues throughout the city. Many of the people Animal interacts with lost loved ones after the explosion or have had negative health impacts.

“Animal’s People” is a fictional story based on the real Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India in 1984. The book is full of tragedy but has a good dose of black humor woven throughout.  The book is a gritty read that will definitely leave a mark on you. 

I recommend this book to people who enjoyed any of Salman Rushdie’s books or A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Read with caution though if you are turned off by crude language and lewd thoughts or if you don’t enjoy books with lots of foreign words in the narrative.

“Animal’s People”  was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize and was also listed as one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

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Review: The Painted Veil

The Painted VeilThe Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rented the recent film version of  The Painted Veil (starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) from Netflix sometime last year when I was deeply entrenched in my pregnancy. I vaguely recall watching it at home alone one Sunday and falling asleep on the ending. Oops, that is what pregnancy did to me…made me take naps in the middle of the day, no matter what else was going on.

So, as I was reading this novel, I had random flashbacks to my slumber-hazed memories of the film. In my mind the lead characters Walter and Kitty Fane were Norton and Watts.  But while the movie made Walter and Kitty equal “leads” in the story, the novel definitely focuses on Kitty.  Kitty is a pretty, young English woman in the early 20th century who clearly enjoys her carefree life of attending parties and socializing and refuses to settle down and get married…that is until her younger and less attractive  sister gets engaged and Kitty feels her mother’s disapproval about her unmarried state. In a panic, she quickly accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane, a serious and taciturn bacteriologist, who she has met a few times at parties.  Kitty doesn’t love Walter but she sees him as a way out of her looming “old maid” status.

If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers.

Walter and Kitty move to China where Walter is doing work as a researcher for the government. Kitty quickly becomes bored in her marriage and her husband’s apparent lack of social standing.  She soon becomes involved in an affair with a married man. Walter finds out and gives her an ultimatum: she can either divorce him (and be forever stigmatized as a divorcee) or move with him to the inland China where he has volunteered to help out with a cholera epidemic. Kitty choses to stay married and moves with Walter. This is where the true heart of the novel starts.

Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.

“The Painted Veil” was a relatively quick read and I quite enjoyed it.  The story focused on a woman character, who while I didn’t like her as a person, kept me engaged. The book makes you think about the choices women make in life and what the ramifications of those choices are. It also makes you think about relationships and what it takes to make them work.  I liked “The Painted Veil” more than I liked Maugham’s “Razor’s Edge” which I read earlier this year. I look forward to reading his work “Of Human Bondage” sometime in the future.  I highly recommend “The Painted Veil” to anyone looking to read a quick, straight-forward, well written work of classic literature.

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Sunday Salon: No Book Club for Baby

Since he was about 2 months old, my son has been going to my Sunday afternoon book club meetings with me. These happen about twice a month and B really seems to enjoy himself. I usually bring one of his soft cloth books or a board book so he can have a book too.

He is really quite the character and turns to look at whichever book club member is currently speaking and often speaks up to voice his own opinion.

I have a book club meeting today to discuss Her Fearful Symmetry (which I thought was kind of “meh”…I will get around to writing up a review later) but it looks like we might not be making it to book club. B woke up at 5:15 AM with a stuffy nose and a fever…and you don’t even want to know what was going on in his diaper…let’s just say I had to immediately start a load of laundry soon after.

So, I may just spend a quiet day at home today reading my current book, Animal’s People by Indra Sinha.  This book came to my attention because it was included on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  This novel is set in India in a town where a chemical plant exploded and poisoned many of the town’s inhabitants. It is narrated by “Animal” who walks on all fours due to a twist in his spine that occurred at the time of the chemical disaster when he was around 4 or 5.  In “present day” Animal is 19 years old and lives in the ruins of the old chemical factory. He makes his money by scamming others and running errands for the local resistance leader. He is smart young man with a skill for languages, particularly the vulgar kind. 😉

I am enjoying the book so far but it is definitely not one that I could read aloud to baby B or even discuss with him at a book club meeting. 🙂

What are you reading this weekend?

Review: Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

If you’ve ever baked with or seen molasses, you know that it is a substance that can make quite a mess. Now imagine if a 50 foot tall tank of molasses broke and let forth its contents on the world. That is exactly what happened in Boston in 1919. Puelo’s non-fiction book “Dark Tide” covers the infamous boston molasses flood and its aftermath.

Puelo writes with a style similar to many other non-fiction works that I’ve read in the last few years in that he attempts to put thoughts into the heads of individuals. This may make it more readable to a larger audience but some people may be put off if they are looking for a “just the facts” telling of the disaster.

I rate this somewhere between 3 and 4 stars. I liked the parts about before the flood and the immediate aftermath much more than I did the last few chapters about the resultant legal proceedings (that went on for years…and reading about them felt like it took years…).  I recommend this book to residents of the Boston area who want to know more about this sticky bit of Boston history.

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Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two of my favorite books from the past 10 years were by David Mitchell (number9dream and Ghostwritten). Both of those books were unique and slightly trippy, which are characteristics that I really enjoy in a book.   I have been eager to read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for the past couple of years.  The book was included on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die…and being the list-whore that I am… I feel an insatiable need to read as many books from that list as possible. 😉

Cloud Atlas did not disappoint. This book is like a nesting doll of interwoven short stories. Each short story is written in the style of a different genre, takes place in a different era, and is sliced in half…each story sandwiching another story. It is a very difficult book to explain, but at its core it is about good and evil.

The first story is a 19th century sea-fearing tale (think Billy Budd) about Adam Ewing who is travelling aboard a ship destined for California. The 2nd tale is set in the 1930’s and is about a young Englishman who takes a job working for a famous composer in Belgium…with plenty of scandal and romantic escapades (think Evelyn Waugh). The 3rd story is a mystery/crime drama set in California in the 1970’s, where journalist Luisa Rey is working to uncover the truth about a nuclear power plant that is being built in the area.  The next story brings us to present day England where publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself achieving career success but at the same time his life begins spiralling out of control and he finds himself committed, against his will to a home. The 5th story zooms forward to the near future of the 22nd century to Korea. In this future dystopia, most of the world has become a wasteland and the population is concentrated in large cities that are managed by corporations. These corporations use bioengineering to create “fabricants”, which are humans that are bred to be workers. The lead character is Somni, who works the counter at a fast food restaurant. She develops a mind of her own and a desire to learn. A group of rebels free her from the fast food enslavement and educate her so that she can help their cause.  The final story is set in the more distant future in Hawaii at a time where most of humankind has perished.  Most of the survivors have reverted to a primitive life where they simply try to get by on the land, with no technology.  There are a few more advanced groups left that travel by ship to try to find other people and try to rebuild society.  After this 6th story the other stories begin to unwind/complete in reverse order, until we are once again back to the tale of Adam Ewing.

This book is a brilliant work. Each tale may not be your cup of tea, but you can’t deny the overall literary excellence of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell has truly written a unique and special book that will leave you thinking.

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