Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton

Title: Under the Mercy Trees
Author: Heather Newton
ISBN: 978-0062001345
Pages: 352
Release Date: January 2011
Publisher: Harper Collins Paperbacks
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Southern Fiction
Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Publisher summary: Thirty years ago, Martin Owenby came to New York City with dreams of becoming a writer. Now his existence revolves around cheap Scotch and weekend flings with equally damaged men. When he learns that his older brother, Leon, has gone missing, he must return to the Owenby farm in Solace Fork, North Carolina, to assist in the search. But that means facing a past filled with regrets, the family that never understood him, the girl whose heart he broke, and the best friend who has faithfully kept the home fires burning. As the mystery surrounding Leon's disappearance deepens, so too does the weight of decades-long unresolved differences and unspoken feelings—forcing Martin to deal with the hardest lessons about home, duty, and love.

My Thoughts: I've always enjoyed Southern Fiction and wanted to read more, particularly with themes about family, community and physical and emotional connections to people and places. I learned about Heather Newton's debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees having read several bloggers' reviews. This led me to Heather Newton's website as well as the publisher's. Everything I read about Under the Mercy Trees piqued my interest and convinced me to experience it for myself. When I saw it on
Crazy Book Tours list there was no question I was joining the list for this book. I was very excited when it arrived and even if I hadn't had a seven day reading limit, I would have sat down and opened Under the Mercy Trees immediately. I wasn't disappointed. Heather Newton's writing is stunningly beautiful and she knows how to precisely use words to captivate her readers. This was a terrific, absorbing book with remarkable characters I still think about weeks later.

Martin Owenby reluctantly returns home to Solace Fork, NC from New York City when he receives a telephone message that his oldest brother, Leon, has disappeared. Martin doesn't go home out of worry or care about Leon, nor out of a sense of obligation. Martin may be a middle-aged man but he's still afraid of disappointing his siblings (two sisters, Ivy and Eustice, and another brother, James) and he doesn't have the emotional strength to tell them who he really is or what he actually thinks. Martin has hidden the truth about himself from his family and his best friends, Hodge and Liza, the latter being Martin's best friend since the second grade and high school girl friend.

Martin is not the only family member with secrets, which are a hallmark of the Owenby family. They were once a matter of survival and now, too much time has gone by: the secrets are woven into the framework of the family. In Newton's engaging debut, the Owenby family reunites in order to discover Leon's whereabouts and whether he is still alive. As the story progresses, some of the characters realize things aren't always as they seem. While Martin, Liza and Bertie (James' wife) learn the value in the truth and try to come to terms with their past in order to move on with their lives, Ivy struggles to figure out how to resolve the most painful aspect of her past and accept what she can't change. The plot of Under the Mercy Trees a little thin in parts is of secondary importance because it's the characters that make this a dynamic, engaging book.

Under the Mercy Trees is divided up into chapters that alternate between four of the characters, namely Martin, Ivy, Bertie and Liza. These characters describe life in Solace Fork today and years ago, when Martin and Liza were children. They tell us about their individual lives, past and present, and they tell us how they knew Leon Owenby and what they thought of him. The author does a remarkable job bringing these four characters to life and, through them, several others. Newton displays an amazing talent for making these characters real, fully-developed three-dimensional people. I fully expected if I was in North Carolina, I would see and recognize Martin, Bertie, Liza or Ivy walking the streets or sitting in a diner. Newton makes it possible for us to identify with the characters as much through their admirable qualities as their flaws.

I felt a variety of emotions throughout Under the Mercy Trees. Martin's sister Eustace, for example, made me angry with her comments about Bertie's trailer and her difficult son, Bobby. She's an unkind, caustic and critical woman who constantly speaks her mind. The more she can wound another, the more satisfied Eustace is. That was nothing, though, when I came upon Eustace's treatment of the schizophrenic Ivy with whom, I was surprised to find, I could relate. In Newton's hands Ivy becomes a sweet, charming, eccentric woman who's had an extremely difficult and painful life. It's nothing short of amazing she hasn't gone completely mad. Eustace made it easy to sympathize with Ivy after learning what happened to her and her son, Sean.

Similarly, I was amazed to discover I sympathized with Martin at times, a gay alcoholic. The more I read of Martin, the more I softened towards him. At times I felt irritated with him, a grown man functioning so poorly in life, putting himself before everyone else, even Liza, who he loves. Martin is intelligent but also terribly lost, confused, angry and disappointed with himself. Newton's compelling descriptions of the difficulties Martin experienced and his struggles with his father, with Leon and with himself, from a young age, makes it easy to feel for him and understand his behavior.

Newton has written a compelling, enchanting character driven novel that deserves all the recognition it's received. It's been chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) as a spring 2011 “Okra Pick” (great southern books “right off the vine”). Congratulations to Heather for this amazing honor she so richly deserves. Under the Mercy Trees is a terrific example of the wonderful genre of Southern Fiction. Heather Newton deserves a place beside other great southern authors such as Kaye Gibbons, Pat Conroy, Richard Ford and Anne Tyler, to name a few. She's so adept at making us feel with and for her characters, you can't help but wonder if their real live counterparts are somewhere wandering the streets of the south. I hope to read more about several of the wonderful characters in Under the Mercy Trees but, even if Martin, Ivy and Bertie have been put to rest by Heather Newton, I eagerly anticipate her future books.

Be sure to visit Heather Newton's website for all sorts of great information!

Thank you to Crazy Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review Under the Mercy Trees and thank you Molly E. for the copy of the book!

Additional reviews of Under the Mercy Trees:

Hey, I Want to Read That
In the Next Room

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

Title: Portrait in Sepia
Author: Isabel Allende
ISBN: 978-0060936365
Pages: 304
Release Date: October 2002
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: Internationally celebrated novelist Isabel Allende follows up her best selling novel Daughter of Fortune with a story epic in scope: a portrayal of a woman determined to solve the mystery of a past she cannot remember and a dream she cannot forget. . . .
With her earliest memories erased by a brutal trauma. Aurora del Valle is raised amid great wealth in Chile by her shrewd, commanding grandmother. But her nights are tormented by a nightmare set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Now, reaching womanhood and thrust into a marriage that quickly leaves her disillusioned, she begins a search for her missing years and unwinds a twisted saga linking three generations of a powerful family to a courageous Chinese physician and Eliza Sommers, protagonist of Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, in a tale that explores the complexity of passion, the power of memory, and a woman’s emerging self.

My Thoughts: I read and reviewed Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende recently as part of TLC Books Tours. (my review). Portrait of Sepia by Isabel Allende is also on tour with TLC Books. I knew if I read Daughter of Fortune I had to read Portrait in Sepia. Portrait advances the story of Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en, the main characters in Daughter and amplifies the story of Paulina del Valle, a secondary character in the first book, introducing several enthralling new characters whose lives are inextricably tied to those who intrigued and fascinated me in the first book.

Portrait in Sepia is narrated in the first-person style by the character Aurora del Valle. This is quite different from Daughter of Fortune which is told in the third-person, focusing on several different characters. In Daughter the history and personality of the main characters are revealed in great detail but because of the narrative style I always felt somewhat removed from the story. I prefer Allende's approach in Portrait because it provides a more personal experience. Aurora feels like an old friend who has resurfaced after many years away. I often felt like I was visiting with her and, over the course of the visit, Aurora shared with me the story of her life in great detail.

This book is divided into three sections, each covering a span of years. Aurora tells us a little bit about herself in the opening pages of the first section. She then makes it understood, after many years she has finally learned the truth about her parents and the part of her family she knew nothing about for a long time. Thus begins a tale spanning nearly half a century.

Through Aurora we experience love, death, betrayal, the end of one family, the expansion of another, secrets, lies, loyalty, the trials and tribulations of growing up, stress, joys, celebration, fear of the unknown and the relief that comes from discovering the truth. As her story progresses we ascertain that Aurora is a woman who has known terrible loss, love and loyalty of family and the sting of betrayal. It's easy to identify with this young, intelligent, thoughtful and caring woman. We can understand her desire to know the history of her family and feel her frustration when nobody will answer her questions about her parents and maternal grandparents. We sympathisize when nightmares and fear plague Aurora, hoping she’ll find answers to soothe her. She's close to her grandmother, Paulina, who has given Aurora a wonderful life but also hides the truth from Aurora. She discovers, with the help of her Uncle Severo, a remarkable talent for photography which provides an absorbing distraction from her troubles.

Isabel Allende's writing brings to life the places visited in Portrait in Sepia. It's as if a time machine has transported us back to San Francisco in the late 1800's. The city comes to life through her vivid descriptions and imagery and we practically smell the vanilla and sugar that wafts out of Eliza Sommer's tea & pastry shop. Then there's the overpowering aroma in the opium den as we share Severo del Valle's shock at what he sees while rescuing his cousin. Allende's beautiful writing similarly brings Santiago, Chile to life when Paulina del Valle moves her family to her childhood home.

Nothing jumps off the page, though, like Paulina del Valle, a woman who is larger than life in more ways than one! Allende's talent in attention to detail, from hair to clothing to jewelry is like a photograph in words, not unlike the many that Aurora actually takes of Paulina with her camera. Paulina is such a fascinating character that if there's a shortcoming to this book, it's that we never hear directly from Paulina, only about her, and then only from Aurora's point of view. This is a woman who grows in stature and size, literally and figuratively, due to her mind for business, fearlessness and love of pastry!. She, in fact, scares the bejeezus out of most men, so she's worth more attention than she's given in these pages, which can't really contain her.

Aurora is an engaging and interesting character in a book with many well developed characters. As the granddaughter of Paulina del Valle and Eliza and Tao Chi‘en, Aurora’s story provides us with the continuation of a saga of two intriguing families that began in Daughter of Fortune. This compelling and complex story with it's ability to transport us to different places through time, told by an engaging narrator and fascinating protaganist is one that can't be summarized in just a few paragraphs. This book is so much more than any publisher's "blurb" or book jacket information. Isabel Allende's book deserves a careful and appreciative reading that merits an investment of time that's well worth the effort and the rewards of which are numerous. Portrait in Sepia is a book you don't want to miss. If you loved Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia will thrill you. I highly recommend both books, although Aurora and Paulina del Valle give Portrait an edge in my book!

Isabel Allende's website provides information on the extensive list of books she's written.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity and a copy of Portrait in Sepia to review.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Armchair BEA 2011 ~ Giveaway Day!!

Win some Wonderful Books!!

I'm a little late posting my Giveaways in Celebration of Armchair BEA. I apologize for that! I'm in the midst of getting over bronchitis and I'm getting through the days in a kind of fog!

I have 4 books to giveaway, 2 ARCs, one Hardcover, one Paperback. They are all previously, gently read by me. You may enter to win as many of the books as you'd like. There will be 4 winners. This Giveaway ends at 11:59pm this Friday, May 27th

Please leave me a comment letting me know which book you'd like to win. If you want to enter my giveaway for more than one book, please leave a comment for each book. With each comment, please leave your email address so I can contact you if you're the winner!

Good luck!

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende (Paperback copy) (my review)

Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquín Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of northern California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealth. Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.
So begins Isabel Allende's enchanting new novel, Daughter of Fortune, her most ambitious work of fiction yet.
Daughter of Fortune is a sweeping portrait of an era, a story rich in character, history, violence, and compassion. In Eliza, Allende has created one of her most appealing heroines, an adventurous, independent-minded and highly unconventional young woman who has the courage to reinvent herself and to create her won destiny in a new country. A marvel of storytelling, Daughter of Fortune confirms once again Isabel Allende's extraordinary gift for fiction and her place as one of the world's leading writers

Cowboy & Wills by Monica Holloway (Hardcover copy) (my review)

In this exceptionally touching memoir, critically acclaimed author Monica Holloway shares the extraordinary, deeply moving story of Cowboy, the golden retriever puppy who changed her son's life.
The day Monica learns that her lovable, brilliant three-year-old son, Wills, has autism spectrum disorder, she takes him to buy an aquarium. It's the first in a string of impulsive trips to the pet store to buy animals as a distraction from the uncontrollable, crushing reality of Wills's diagnosis. But while Wills diligently tends to the growing menagerie, what he really wants is a puppy. And one Christmas, when Wills is six, Cowboy Carol Lawrence joins their family.
Like all dynamic duos, Cowboy and Wills complement each other perfectly. Wills is cautious, fastidious, and irresistibly tenderhearted. Cowboy, a rambunctious golden retriever, is overeager, affectionate, and impulsive. And from the moment Cowboy enters their lives, Monica sees her son step a little farther into the world.
For Monica, her husband, Michael, and their son, Wills, salvation came in the form of a puppy with pale blond fur, chocolate brown eyes, a fondness for chewing the crotch out of underpants, and a limitless capacity for love.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt (ARC copy) (my review)

July 1964. Chartwell, Kent. On the eve of his retirement from Parliament, Sir Winston Churchill has just woken up. There’s someone in the room with him, someone he’s known for a long time, but it’s not a friend. A dark, mute presence is watching him with rapt concentration. Soon after, in London, Esther Hammerhans, a young widowed government secretary, goes to answer the door to her new lodger. Through the windowpane she sees a vast, dark silhouette. Both the eminent statesman and the humble office worker have just been visited by Black Pat, “the black dog” of depression. For the man who saved Western Civilization he’s a familiar presence; for Esther he’s a stranger just come to rent a room. Or is he here to stay?
In this beguiling, inspiring, and completely original debut Rebecca Hunt illuminates the strange point of connection between two very different people and shows how the strength to persevere can pull a person from darkness to light.

Far to Go by Allison Pick (ARC copy) (my review)

Far to Go tells the story of an affluent Czech Jewish family at the onset of the Second World War. The lives of Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are observed through the adoring but misguided eyes of their son’s governess, Marta. A second, unnamed voice addresses the reader from the present. Part mystery, part love story, Far to Go asks questions about the legacy of secrecy and answers them with incredible heart. It is a beautifully written book that appeals not only to the history buff but to anyone who has loved deeply and lost.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Welcome to Armchair BEA...and My Blog!

Hi and welcome to my blog! I'm Amy (aka Aimala & Amestir).

**I've been blogging for close to two years. When I started, I planned to blog about a variety of stuff with books and cats at the top of the list. About a year ago, my blog became only about books and cats with books leading the way and the cats adding a touch of fun and personality, not to mention adorable pictures! I enjoy discovering and reading other blogs, getting to know fellow bloggers and discussing books. I'm not an ideal blogger: I'm slow to advertise my blog and, although I have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, I keep forgetting to link them to my blog! What I like best is reading and discussing books, reading what other bloggers think about what I've read and learning about other books from bloggers. I also enjoy authors’ blogs although I admit to some intimidation when it comes to commenting on their posts!

**I graduated from college with a BA in English, but my love of reading began long before then. My mother was an avid reader and my dad liked reading when he had some rare free time. Books were very important to me when I was little because I had quite a bit of time on my hands. Books helped me pass the hours. I was born with a rare bone and endocrine disease, so frequent surgeries and hospitalizations left me plenty of time to read! To this day I don't go anywhere without a book!

You will also notice that there are no pictures of me without a cat! This is me with Bob and at the bottom of the post you'll see me and Mr. Magoo!

**I love classic literature, having read a lot of it in college. I mean to re-read many of the books I enjoyed during those four years but I keep picking up others. One of these days I’ll focus more on the classics, especially many I haven’t read. I also enjoy contemporary, general, historical and even some YA fiction, mystery & suspense, memoirs and other non-fiction. I haven’t read many biographies but the few I have I liked and I want to read more. I have a long list of authors I love and this community has introduced me to a few wonderful authors of which I was previously unaware!

**I don’t care for paranormal, urban fantasy, horror, graphic thrillers or romance but I’m usually willing to try anything once. I haven’t read a lot of science fiction and several years ago would have said I didn’t like it. Then a friend lent me the Orson Scott Card book, Ender’s Game, and it was great! Now I’m hoping to read some of Connie Willis’ books soon.

**Tell me a little bit about you and share a favorite book or author if you’d like, I’m always happy too get recommendations!

Monday Movies ~ Author, Author...!

Feature Presentation...

The second Armchair BEA is happening this week. If you're not able to attend the live Book Expo America in New York City also happening this week, you can gather online at this virtual event with other book fans from the online book blogging community. Be sure to check out the Armchair BEA host site if you are a book blogger or a book lover! This week our thoughts will be dominated by books, authors and most things book-related. We have authors to thank for the wonderful abundance of books in many genres available to us to explore and experience. Movies also pay tribute to writers. The Bumbles came up with their list of writers in film and you'll find my own below. Share on your blog movies that feature writers, authors, poets and scribes, linking your post back to The Bumbles Blog.

Barton Fink (1991) written, directed and produced by the wonderful Coen brothers, this is an odd, terrific movie that is definitely worth seeing! John Turturro portrays Barton Fink, a young New York City playwright enjoying the success of his first Broadway play. He is lured to Hollywood, hired to write scripts for a movie studio despite his concern that it will separate him from "the common man", which is the focus of his writing and a major theme in the movie. He suffers a bad case of writer's block shortly thereafter. Trying to get his creative juices flowing, he meets a variety of quirky characters including insurance salesman, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), who turns out not to be the man he claims. Barton Fink also suffers hallucinations from the pressure and stress of it all. The themes in this movie include the contrast between high and low culture as well as life on Broadway versus life in Hollywood, labor conditions in the creative industries, fascism and WW II. John Mahoney, Judy Davis and Tony Shaloub are just a few of the actors who turn in great performances as odd tangent characters in this sometimes Kafka-esque movie where Barton Fink wants in on the joke but it just might be the joke is on him.

Wonder Boys (2000) based on the novel by Michael Chabon, Michael Douglas plays professor Grady Tripp, also a novelist who teaches creative writing. His life is kind of a mess: he's struggling to finish his second novel after 7 years, his wife left him and he's having an affair with the Chancellor (Frances McDormand)of the university at which he teaches, who is also the wife of the head of Tripp's department. His editor, played by Robert Downey, Jr. is in town to see Tripp's novel and, while there, becomes interested in a book just completed by one of Tripp's students, played by Tobey Maguire. The sexual attraction between the older Downey and younger Maguire just add to Tripp's headaches. Another of Tripp's students rents a room in his house. As if his own problems weren't enough, several of these people come to Tripp with problems and issues of their own, looking to him for help! Although this movie didn't do well in the box office, it has a cult following and is quite entertaining!

Capote (2005) Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Truman Capote during the time he is researching his book, In Cold Blood about the murder of a Kansas family. While researching and writing his book, Capote develops a very close relationship to one of the murderers. Catherin Keener portrays Harper Lee, a close friend of Capote, in this film.

All the President's Men (1976) Reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) work for the Washington Post. Woodward covers a story about a minor break-in at the Democratic National Party Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel as the 1972 elections approach. Surprisingly major lawyers are already on the defense case and the accused is discovered to have the names and addresses of Republican Fund organizers. Woodward and Bernstein are assigned to continue investigating the case and are surprised when it leads them all the way to the White House. This is the story of the Watergate scandal that leads to the eventual resignation of President Nixon's .

Adaptation (2002) this film, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman is a great comedy-drama. Nicholas Cage portrays very different twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie, an agoraphobic, is a depressed and cynical guy who desperately wants to be in love but cannot seem to make it happen. He is struggling to adapt Susan Orleans "The Orchid Thief" into a screenplay but he's finding it extremely difficult. Meanwhile, Donald moves in with him, starts mooching off of him and decides to prove to Charlie that being a screenwriter is easy. Unfortunately, Donald makes it look easy and sells his first screenplay for a lot of money. Charlie, confused and desperate decides to get his brother's help. Together they track down Susan Orleans (Meryl Streep). Things aren't as simple as the brothers expected...adventure, fun and some surprises occur. That's all you're going to get out of me except a high recommendation for this great movie!

Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) Bill Murray portrays Hunter S. Thompson in this semi-autobiographical movie based on the adventures of the gonzo journalist and his attorney friend, Oscar Acosta, "Laslow" (Peter Boyle). In the movie, Thompson covers the 1972 presidential elections and the Super Bowl VI in LA but given he's often in a drug-crazed state he frequently veers off-course promising interesting adventures and a few laughs. I'm a fan of HST, he's a fascinating man! The Bumbles included the best HST movie in their list!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sunday Salon ~ One of "those" kind of weeks!

What a week this has been! The first half of the week, as many of you know, involved several stressful days during which Sadie, one of my many ‘furry kids’ was missing. I love & adore all of my cats but Sadie is special, maybe because when we found her she was struggling to stay alive, or because she spent the first 4 months here convalescing: just eating & sleeping, nothing else, unlike most kittens. I think, although, that it's because she has a spirited personality and so much character in her little body. And, of course, she can be quite brat!

Finding Sadie and bringing her home was fantastic. The stress of those few days took their toll. By Wednesday evening I knew I was getting a cold...or something. I never get a simple cold anymore because of asthma and pulmonary hypertension so now it seems I have bronchitis. Ugh! But when I've been sitting in bed reading or watching tv the last couple of days, very often Sadie's sleeping on my lap!

I didn't make specific plans to attend BEA because of medical stuff which it seems now was fortuitous. I have a few doctor appointments this week and thought, if I felt up to it, I'd stop by the Javits Center. Truth be told, I still feel like a bit of a newbie in the blogging community, though I'm really not. I feel like I'm still learning how to navigate, still getting to know other book bloggers...I guess I take things slowly! The size of BEA intimidates me, too, as much as the thought of attending such a large Book Event excites me! Some of it has to do with attending in a wheelchair with my portable oxygen along for the ride. But if I was feeling up to it, those "accessories" wouldn't stop me from such an amazing Book Event. The Housing Works Bookstore & Cafe in downtown NYC is hosting an event Wednesday evening at which
Goodreads Book Club is hosting Jennifer Egan reading from A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as the punk band Care Bears on Fire (I'm not familiar with them but I like hearing unfamiliar music). I'd like to attend but I'll have to see how I feel as well as what the ticket situation is...the event is currently sold out but tickets may be sold at the door?!

My reading has been rather slow this week. It as hard to focus, of course, when I was worried about Sadie but I started Dreams of Joy by Lisa See and it was a good distraction during those days. I also started reading Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende which is a sequel of sorts to Daughter of Fortune. It's great to find out what's happened to some of the characters I loved in that book. My reading pace has slowed considerably sine I got sick because I tend to fall asleep after just a few pages! I seem to sleep just for a short time, though, and when I wake I continue reading a few more pages then I drift off to sleep for a bit....and so on! It's an interesting process. lolol I have some reviews to work on including The History of Love and Under the Mercy Trees which won't be easy since my mind is kind of foggy and my head heavy. I'll just have to see how it goes! I signed up to participate in Armchair BEA at the last minute. I'm disappointed that I missed the cut off for interviews with other bloggers but I'm looking forward to the blog posts and events of the next few days.

If you're going to BEA in NYC have a wonderful time!
Enjoy your weekend, everyone & I hope you have a good book to read!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cat Thursday ~ Sadie!

I'm posting a picture of Sadie today because she's sleeping on the bed now but for most of the week she was missing. There were several sleepless nights as we searched for her only to find her in the basement of the house next door. She got in through an open window but the drop was much too high for her to jump out ~ she's small with short legs ~ if she could have jumped out she would have because she was very upset, confused, running in circles and crying. It took several hours but we finally tracked down the owner of the house who came quickly and unlocked the door!

Cat Thursday is hosted by Michelle at True Book Addict

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Title: Faith
Author: Jennifer Haigh
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Pages: 336
ISBN: 978-0060755805
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: It is the spring of 2002 and a perfect storm has hit Boston. Across the city's archdiocese, trusted priests have been accused of the worst possible betrayal of the souls in their care. In Faith, Jennifer Haigh explores the fallout for one devout family, the McGanns.

Estranged for years from her difficult and demanding relatives, Sheila McGann has remained close to her older brother Art, the popular, dynamic pastor of a large suburban parish. When Art finds himself at the center of the maelstrom, Sheila returns to Boston, ready to fight for him and his reputation. What she discovers is more complicated than she imagined. Her strict, lace-curtain-Irish mother is living in a state of angry denial. Sheila's younger brother Mike, to her horror, has already convicted his brother in his heart. But most disturbing of all is Art himself, who persistently dodges Sheila's questions and refuses to defend himself.
As the scandal forces long-buried secrets to surface, Faith explores the corrosive consequences of one family's history of silence—and the resilience its members ultimately find in forgiveness. Throughout, Haigh demonstrates how the truth can shatter our deepest beliefs—and restore them.

A gripping, suspenseful tale of one woman's quest for the truth, Faith is a haunting meditation on loyalty and family, doubt and belief. Elegantly crafted, sharply observed, this is Jennifer Haigh's most ambitious novel to date.

My review: I was interested in reading Faith as soon as I read the book's summary. I grew up in a religious Catholic home, attending mass Sundays and every holy day. During Lent my family fasted, didn’t eat meat on Fridays and each went without something we loved, such as chocolate in all forms. My mother even went to Church every morning for the 40 days of Lent. I attended 12 years of parochial school and a 4-year Jesuit college. I knew many priests, especially in college. Some were wonderful, some were “eh”, but they were all fascinating and a bit of a mystery. When allegations of molestation against priests began surfacing it was shocking and horrifying.

I was intrigued when I discovered that is the focus of Faith and wondered how Jennifer Haigh approached the subject in her book, narrated by Sheila McGann. She is the sister of Father Art Breen, the priest against whom the awful accusation of molestation is made. Sheila tells her story a couple of years after her brother is accused and his life ruined. She’s anxious to figure out what happened, to find answers to who and what failed Art and why he did what he did. Sheila is, essentially, conducting an investigation, a very detailed one, of Art’s life In so doing, she tells us about several members of her family including Art, and uncovers some surprising secrets.

Sheila, a high school teacher, lives in Pennsylvania. She moved out of Massachusetts to get away from her complex, dysfunctional Irish family. Sheila tells us she stopped going to church when she moved away. She and Art became close at that time, speaking frequently. When Art is accused, although, he doesn’t get in touch and Sheila is forced to seek him out. While in Massachusetts, she also learns her brother Mike’s opinion about Art and the allegations. Despite distancing herself, Sheila is soon right back into the family dynamic. The difference is this time it’s by choice and in scrutinizing relationships and behavior and asking questions she uncovers truths she never could have guessed at but that help her to better understand her family.

Sheila shares information she learned from Art as well as what she learns through her research into the church and its priests. Sheila provides us with a lot of information about the life of priests-in-training and beyond, after they are assigned to a parish, not to mention painting a detailed account of her brother’s life. She also provides us with the answers given by some of the priests and others Sheila speaks with who knew Father Breen. Haigh has written Sheila in such a way that it often feels like she’s conversing directly with us as she informs us of what’s she’s learned.

Without giving anything away, it’s important to know that Sheila has no illusions about who she is and what she’s done. She’s a strong character and the more I got to know her the more refreshing I found her, especially from my perspective as a Catholic woman. Sometimes she seems distant as she relates a particularly troubling incident. At other times she’s intimately personal. This behavior, along with the depth Haigh gives her, makes Sheila alternately strong and frail: in other words, very human and very real. This is why we believe her, even if we do not out right identify with her. It’s understandable if we don’t as one reader my not share a similar background, while another, like myself, does. But seeing her as believable can‘t be denied. The author has a real flair for this kind of fleshing out and creation of complex characters.

Haigh excels at developing many of the characters into three-dimensional flawed human beings who we recognize from our own lives as well as understand and relate to on some level. She understands human behavior. I was surprised to discover I even sympathized with and related to the priest, Father Breen, at times. It was also shocking to read the cruel , selfish and thoughtless behavior the characters inflict on each other and then realize it rings true. It’s hard to go into more detail about these characters without giving too much of this poignant and amazing story away. Faith is a reading experience you don't want to miss. Haigh weaves together a myriad of themes including love, family, and deceit in a stunning, intense and complex narrative that is fraught with misunderstandings, revelations, justices and injustices. Haigh has written an engrossing and absorbing story that you'll have difficulty putting down. Faith is a book you won't soon forget once you've finished it.

For information about Faith and Jennifer Haigh see her website

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for a copy of the book and the opportunity to read and review Faith

Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday Movies ~ The Farmer in the Dell ~

Feature Presentation...

The Bumbles spent part of their weekend weeding, planting and trimming their garden beds and shrubs. They're preparing for having their driveway and front landscaping done, something they've been anticipating for quite a while. The Bumbles have been saving money and time for this since the infamous Shed Issue (you want to read this!). With the shed almost finished, the Bumbles are looking to making their front yard presentable to the neighborhood. The Bumbles are also hosting a Gardening Chat this Friday night for anyone interested. So, as you can see, growing and planting are on the Bumbles' minds these days. Farming and farms are popular topics in the movies, too. Their roles in film have changed and even diminished some as the industry of farming has waned but there are still plenty of films that feature farms, farming and related topics. My list of movies is posted below and the Bumbles have compiled a list of films on their blog. Share on your blog movies that are set on a farm, focus on farmers or reference farming in some way, linking your post back to The Bumbles Blog.

The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett and Amanda Pressner

Title: The Lost Girls
Author: Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett and Amanda Pressner
ISBN: 978-0-06-168907-9
Pages: 560
Release Date: April 26, 2011 (Reprint edition)
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
Genre: Memoir; Non-Fiction
Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Publisher's Book Summary: Jen, Holly, and Amanda are at a crossroads. They're feeling the pressure to hit certain milestones—scoring a big promotion, finding a soul mate, having 2.2 kids—before they reach their early thirties. When personal challenges force them to reevaluate their lives, they decide it's now or never to do something daring. Unable to gain perspective in fast-paced Manhattan, the three twenty-somethings quit their coveted media jobs and leave behind their friends, boyfriends, and everything familiar to travel the globe. Dubbing themselves the Lost Girls, they embark on an epic yearlong search for inspiration and direction.

As they journey 60,000 miles across four continents and more than a dozen countries, Jen, Holly, and Amanda step far outside of their comfort zones, embracing every adventure and experience the world has to offer—shooting blowguns with Yagua elders in the Amazon, learning capoeira on the beaches of Brazil, volunteering with preteen girls at a school in rural Kenya, hiking with Hmong villagers in Vietnam, and driving through Australia in a psychedelic camper van. Along the way, the Lost Girls find not only themselves but also a lifelong friendship. Ultimately, theirs is a story of true sisterhood—a bond forged by sharing beds and backpacks, enduring exotic illnesses, fending off aggressive street vendors, trekking across rivers and over mountains, and standing by one another through heartaches, whirlwind romances, and everything in the world in between.

This candid and compelling memoir will speak to anyone who has ever felt the desire to spread her wings and discover the world with her best friends by her side.

My review: A few years after college three friends and I traveled to Ireland for 2 weeks. We visited different towns and counties in South Ireland and spent several days in Dublin. It was a fantastic, fun trip. I've always enjoyed traveling and have always wanted to do more of it. However, it's difficult because I have a host of medical issues, the most hindering being a rare bone and endocrine disease that makes travel more stressful than agreeable. Fortunately, there's no stress in reading about other's travels. When I learned about The Lost Girls I was excited to read it, a book about three women friends traveling around the world together. I was interested in reading about the places they visited and their various experiences and opinions about the cultures, people and sites as well as what they learn about themselves and each other. However, The Lost Girls wasn't quite what I expected. It was more about the authors and some of the life issues they were struggling to figure out, and a little less about their travels. But, as it's labeled a memoir, that makes sense. It was fascinating to read how the many encounters and occurrences impacted each women and changed their perspective on life as their adventure progressed. Overall, The Lost Girls is a captivating and engrossing memoir about three young women in their mid to late 20s and their trip around the world.

The authors, Jen, Holly and Amanda, take turns telling the story in their own chapters, each with their own style. It's interesting to read their experiences in the different countries they visit, starting their trip in Peru. I expected riveting passages about adventures exploring Machu Picchu and other exciting occurrences, particularly because Amanda listed hiking the Inca Trail as one of her dreams on this trip. Instead, many pages in, several of the chapters are taken up with personal issues like Jen's troubled relationship and Amanda's focus on work. It was also surprising that a large amount of their focus in South America, (it’s unclear if they visit only Peru and Brazil, or if they also went to Bolivia) was on nightlife and partying. The first stop in Cusco, Peru, finds the women spending a lot of time in pubs, at festivals and at various parties and the following day nursing their ensuing hangovers. Precious little information is provided about places of cultural interest they visited. In her chapters on the Amazon Jungle in Peru, Jen mentions several of the interesting excursions they have taken so far and wonderful sites the women have seen. Unfortunately, we're not given any real detail. For example, she writes about their visit to Canopy Walkway, one of the longest treetop pathways in the world. She shares about having to traverse fourteen suspension bridges lashed together with steel cables and thick twine to get there, but doesn't tell us about the view or any other related details.

One of the highlights of Jen's chapter on Brazil is about the women's visit with the indigenous Yagua Indian tribe, known for their blowgun hunting. Jen writes about participating in a traditional dance, paying homage to the rain gods and being taught how to use a blowgun. This section was a good example of more of what I hoped to read about in The Lost Girls. The women's visit to Kenya is another instance where we're given more compelling chapters, as Jen, Holly and Amanda immerse us in the details of their activities with young female students. To inspire the girls and let them know they should believe in themselves, the authors write a play for the girls who act it out. The play is based on Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is known as "Tree Mother of Africa" and embodies the spirit of self-empowerment and serves as an inspiration to the young students. Jen wrote earlier in the book she's dreamed about volunteering in Kenya since she was a young girl. Reading about her happiness at the opportunity to bond with the young girls and help them learn about their heritage (they didn’t know who Ms. Maathai, was for example) and help empower them via the message of the play is wonderful. By the time the women left Kenya, they’d learned as much from the young students as they had taught them.

Holly is interested in the culture and lifestyle of the people in the countries she and her friends visit and her chapter about Kenya is one of the most touching. She writes about meeting Sister Freda, as she's called by the locals. Sister Freda has run a clinic for more than ten years for people who cannot afford medical care, relying mainly on donations. Holly was inspired by Sister Freda’s work, and seeing how faith provides the power for some people to make a difference in the world. For example, Holly connects with Esther, a 3-year old girl cared for by Sister Freda. Esther has no father and was abandoned by her mother. Esther refuses to be apart from Holly when she visits Sister Freda. Holly shares the profound impact of not only Esther, but the realization of the many opportunities of her privileged life. She requests and receives permission from Sister Freda to sponsor Esther, assisting with food, clothing, education and anything else the little girl needs.

I found Holly's chapters to be the best overall. She took this trip at least partly to broaden her cultural horizons. She displays an interest in learning about and experiencing the lives of the people in different countries. Her experience learning yoga and meditation at a Shraddha Ashram in India is absorbing while her descriptions of the Killing Fields in Cambodia are particularly potent. I identified more strongly with Holly's interests, rather then the other two women, and completely understood when she expressed a concern that their trip was, and I’m paraphrasing here, in danger of dissolving into a keg-party across the world. Holly was on this trip to have fun but, more so, to push her boundaries and grow by experiencing different cultures and lifestyles. I think I would have shared more with Holly than I would have with Amanda and Jen had I been on this trip. Still, I admire Jen and Amanda’s ability to balance their enjoyment of socializing with experiencing the culture.

After I read the chapters about South America, I was concerned The Lost Girls would be a memoir of the personal lives and troubles of these women, their trip used only as a colorful backdrop. Luckily, the chapters about Kenya, India and beyond proved The Lost Girls to be an engaging narrative. It’s not just about the authors and their friendship, but a detailed account of the countries they visit, citizens (and tourists) they meet, and the times the women shared while experiencing the world. In other words, it’s much more than just a memoir. It is not a small book, coming in at more than 500 pages, filled with amazing adventures, scary situations, entertaining anecdotes, intriguing ideas and inspiring people, including the authors. The Lost Girls is a book worth savoring. It moves at a nice, smooth pace, and is hard to put down. I recommend taking note of the passages you like so you can return to them later, which you'll want to do. The Lost Girls is a book worth reading and I highly recommend it.

For more information about The Lost Girls see their website and blog.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review The Lost Girls.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wondrous Words Wednesday!

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Bermudaonion's Weblog where we share words that we’ve encountered in our reading. Feel free to join in the fun (please do!) Be sure to leave a link to your post over at Bermudaonion's Weblog.

These words are from Faith by Jennifer Haigh (ARC copy)

"Two mornings a week he'd met Father Cronin in the vestry at St. Dymphna's, helped him into his chasuble and alb."

1. Chasuble (~ noun )
: The chasuble is the outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy for the celebration of the Eucharist in Western-tradition Christian Churches that use full vestments, primarily in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches, as well as in some parts of the United Methodist Church.
: a long sleeveless outer vestment worn by a priest when celebrating Mass

2. Alb (~ noun)
: a linen vestment with narrow sleeves, worn chiefly by priests, now invariably white in the Western Church but any color in the Eastern Church.

"He was young and fair-haired and wished himself elsewhere-among the ruins at Ostia Antica; kneeling before the sacrament at Santa Maria Maggiore; walking along the Tiber, breviary in hand."

3. Breviary (~ noun)
: in the Roman Catholic Church, a book containing all the daily psalms, hymns, prayers, lessons, etc., necessary for reciting the office.
: a book of daily prayers and readings in some other churches.

"Every few weeks Joe Veltri cleaned their droppings from St. Francis's tonsured head."

4. Tonsure (~ noun)
: the shaving of the head or of some part of it as a religious practice or rite, especially in preparation for entering the priesthood or a monastic order.
: the part of a cleric's head, usually the crown, left bare by shaving the hair.

“I can’t quite square it with the wild girl she once was, the céilí dancer, the hoyden of Dudley street.” (p.312)

5. Hoyden (~ noun)
: a boisterous, bold, and carefree girl; a tomboy

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Teaser Tuesday ~ The Lost Girls

Teaser Tuesdays is an interesting and fun book-related meme hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading. Be prepared to add several new books to your TBR list! I do every week!

My Teaser:

" I did believe my friends and I truly were on a pilgrimage, a search for what matters most. I wasn't sure if Jen and Amanda were as excited about being pilgrims as I was, but my life in New York, so lacking in spirituality, had left me hungry to feel more connected, either to a higher power or simply to the world around me. "

from The Lost Girls: Three Friends, Four Continents One Unconventional Detour Around the World by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett and Amanda Pressner

Anyone can play along! If you'd like to participate, Just do the following:
*Grab your current read
*Open to a random page
*Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. (I used 3 this week!)
*BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
*Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

*And, finally, don't forget to link your post at Should Be Reading. If you don't have a blog, simply share your "teasers" in a comment.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Monday Movies ~ Katharine the Great!

Feature Presentation...

Katherine Hepburn and her family lived in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, which happens to be where The Bumbles celebrated Mother's Day! Katharine Hepburn was an amazingly talented and wonderful actress. The American Film Institute calls her the greatest female star in the history of American cinema. Molly and Andy also shared that a new theater was dedicated to her memory and bears her name in Old Saybrook. Katharine Hepburn is a favorite actress of mine and I've seen many of her films, many times. It's difficult for me to choose one absolute favorite so I've listed a few I love but there are many more! Share on your blog your favorite moments, memories or films featuring Katharine, linking your post back to The Bumbles Blog. If you don't have a blog, list your choices in the comment section of The Bumbles Movie post!

Bringing Up Baby (1938) ~ termed a screwball comedy, this film also starred Cary Grant as a paleontologist, and a beautiful leopard, Baby. This film wasn't a success at the time but is now listed on AFI's top 100 films in the last 100 years and their list of top 100 Laughs in 100 Years.

The Philadelphia Story (1940) first produced as a play, Howard Hughes purchased the film rights for Katharine Hepburn (she was also in the play). The film, also starring Cary Grant and James Stewart, was Hepburn's first hit following several major flops that actually had movie theater owner's labeling her "box office poison". Considered a "comedy of remarriage", a popular genre at the time, this film was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning Best Actor for James Stewart and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Adam's Rib (1949) one of the many Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn films this movie was also features Judy Holliday in one of her first substantial roles. I love this film not only because of it's two wonderful stars but also because Tracy portrays a prosecutor whose wife, Hepburn, is also a lawyer. Hepburn decides to defend the female defendant in Tracy's current case. As you can imagine, the tension in the courtroom soon carries over to their home!

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967) this American drama stars Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier in addition to Hepburn. The controversial subject of interracial marriage is at the heart of this film. In the year the film came out, 17 American southern states still had laws against interracial marriage until June 17of that year when the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage. This movie is also the ninth and final of the Tracy/Hepburn films. Spencer Tracy died 17 days after the filming was complete. He never saw the film released.
Katharine Hepburn won an Academy Award for Best Actress.

The Lion in Winter (1968) a historical costume drama based on the Broadway play and starring, along with Katherine Hepburn, Peter O'Toole, Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. Hepburn also won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Queen Eleanor. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning a total of three as well as numerous other awards!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Snapshot Saturday ~ May 7th

Coming Mother's Day made me think of these little kittens, Gidget (gray & white) and Scout (black & white), we rescued off the street a couple years ago in the dead of winter. They relied on each other for warmth and used to sleep in big stone flower pots on our neighbors patio. It took many days for me to gain their trust and get them to come inside.
Within hours, Gidget and Scout attached themselves to Huxley, a male cat about age one. Both kittens followed Huxley everywhere, slept on him & around him, played when he played, ate when he ate, etc. We found a good home for Gidget and Scout but worried how they would cope without Huxley. Well, they were just fine! These photos always make me smile.. Gidget and Scout are so cute, & laugh about Huxley's very maternal side!

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by Alyce, At Home With Books. It's easy to participate, just post a photo taken by you, a friend or a family member and link to the Mister Linky at the bottom of Alyce's post.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Title: Daughter of Fortune
Author: Isabel Allende
ISBN: 978-0061120251
Pages: 432
Release Date: May 2006
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquín Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of northern California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealth. Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.

So begins Isabel Allende's enchanting new novel, Daughter of Fortune, her most ambitious work of fiction yet. As we follow her spirited heroine on a perilous journey north in the hold of a ship to the rough-and-tumble world of San Francisco and northern California, we enter a world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever. A society of single men and prostitutes among whom Eliza moves — with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chi'en — California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence for the young Chilean. Her search for the elusive Joaquín gradually turns into another kind of journey that transforms her over time, and what began as a search for love ends up as the conquest of personal freedom. By the time she finally hears news of him, Eliza must decide who her true love really is.

Daughter of Fortune is a sweeping portrait of an era, a story rich in character, history, violence, and compassion. In Eliza, Allende has created one of her most appealing heroines, an adventurous, independent-minded and highly unconventional young woman who has the courage to reinvent herself and to create her won destiny in a new country. A marvel of storytelling, Daughter of Fortune confirms once again Isabel Allende's extraordinary gift for fiction and her place as one of the world's leading writers.

My Thoughts: I read Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende in the early ‘90s and thought it was wonderful. I purchased her 1999 novel, Daughter of Fortune, not long after it was first published but made the mistake of lending it to a friend. She loved it and lent it to another friend and so the stories goes! I never got it back but I heard great praise! I was thrilled when I saw that Daughter of Fortune was part of TLC Book Tours spring line up and signed up to read it as well as Portrait in Sepia.

Daughter of Fortune is the story of Eliza Sommers, abandoned as a baby and adopted into the wealthy Sommers family in the port city of Valparaiso, Chile. The Sommers family consists of Rose, a beautiful young woman and her two brothers. First is Jeremy, the upper-crust arrogant businessman for whom appearances and reputation are everything. Then there’s John, a ship's captain who loves and enjoys life fully. Jeremy never completely accepts Eliza as a member of the family and wouldn't have adopted her except for his extreme difficulty in saying no to Rose. Rose has no interest in marriage but has always wanted a child. Between them, she and John make sure that Eliza has the best of everything, though they are reluctant to ask more of Jeremy than he has already provided.

Early in the story, Eliza is revealed to be an intelligent, ingenious and observant girl. Ms. Allende brings her alive in the first few pages as she describes Eliza's curiosity about her birth mother and the day she was found. The Sommers refuse to talk about her birth and an air of mystery surrounds it. There are other secrets in the family and Eliza senses that, especially when Rose locks herself away in her room for days, ignoring Eliza. We're able to feel Eliza's confusion, too, when one minute Rose is doting on her, dressing her up and showing her off to her friends. Then, when she tires of her, Eliza is sent to the kitchen with Mama Fresia, the Somers Chilean cook and housekeeper. She speaks Spanish with Mama Fresia, who loves Eliza like a daughter, teaching and telling Eliza everything she knows. Eliza is torn between two worlds, spending time in both but not feeling she belongs in either one. Still, there's no hiding which woman Eliza feels more comfortable with since she refers to Rose as “Ms. Rose” while the cook is Mama Fresia. It's one of those small but significant details which make Ms. Allende's writing so compelling.

Eliza falls deeply, desperately in love at fifteen with Joaquin Andieta, a young, very poor Chilean man a few years older who writes her amazing love letters. Many of us can relate to the feelings Eliza experiences and empathize with her distraction and restlessness after he’s gone to California in search of gold. That desperation she’s feeling is very familiar, one we recognize from our own teenage years. We wish we could give her a reassuring hug. So it comes as no surprise when, a few months later, she leaves Chile in pursuit of him, believing they are destined to be together.

Daughter of Fortune is divided into 3 parts. In part one we come to know many of the characters who will be a part of the rest of the book. Life in the port city of Valparaiso, Chile, is described by Allende in rich detail and vivid imagery enabling us to imagine it as if we’d been there. In part two, gold is discovered in California. As we read about men frantic to get to California and claim their fortune, what was an already engaging story now becomes riveting.

The narrative picks up as Eliza struggles to figure out how to get to California to find Joaquin. Although her upbringing has been traditional and unadventurous, Eliza is not a typical girl. She isn’t going to sit at home, lick her wounds and mourn her fate. She’s going to get what she wants, yet, despite her determination, the author has infused Eliza with very human fragilities. We see genuine moments of fear as she searches for an answer to her plight, making her all the more real to us. In short, Allende has given us an intriguing, unconventional heroine.

At this point in the novel, Eliza meets the fascinating Tao Chi'en, a cook on one of the ships her Uncle John captained. He becomes a significant part of Eliza's life for the remainder of the book. Allende takes us on a detour to the province of Kwangtung just outside Canton in China, showing us where Tao Chi’en grew up. In these pages Tao Chi’en becomes more than a name on the page. Allende has a talent for bringing characters to life. Tao Chi’en becomes a three-dimensional human being as we read his history and learn he was trained by a zhong yi, a traditional physician and acupuncturist. Things haven’t always gone smoothly for Tao Chi’en because Chinese men aren’t respected and have few rights once they’ve left their homeland. Still Tao Chi’en is happy, intelligent, and observant. His skills serve him well. I was more than a little surprised when I, an American woman over forty, found myself relating and identifying with him, a young, displaced Chinese man, in many ways.

The author uses foreshadowing throughout the book to great effect, perhaps the best example is found here, as we know both characters will be tested when Eliza and Tao Chi’en arrive in California. It would be a tremendous “spoiler” if I went into detail about the foreshadowing. But suffice to say you’ll know things will be more difficult then they could have ever imagined and that they are going to have to rely on each other as much as two people ever have.

At this point, I found it extremely difficult to put Daughter of Fortune down. Allende describes people, places and happenings so vividly, with such rich detail, that we feel as if we are there. Eliza and Tao Chi’en will need to use ingenuity and creativeness to fit into this society, particularly Eliza since there are extremely few women in California. We’ll see Eliza grow into a woman and discover who she is and what she’s capable of as she traverses the terrain of this new place in search of her lover.

In part three, we’ve come to know Eliza fully. I couldn’t help but care about her. I sympathized with her frustrations, breathed freely when she was happy and worried about her well-being. She becomes as real to us as our friends and family and we want to reach out and hug her one moment and smack some sense into her the next! We watch as Tao Chi’en grows into a man, honing the humane qualities that make him a healer people can trust. Tao Chi’en, who has already been through so much in his young life, realizes he has more to learn not just about himself, but also other people and the world around him. I felt privileged to be able to read along as Eliza and Tao Chi’en travel California together, both searching for something. What they find is so much better than they expected!

There is more to Daughter of Fortune than I’ve said here in my review. It’s a multi-layered story with several terrific secondary characters and even a good deal of humor. Universal themes of love, loss, family, growing up and finding your way weave their way through the story. Some characters learn difficult lessons, such as nothing good comes from secrets and deceit isn’t the way to accomplish things. My only complaint about this book is the ending comes rather abruptly. I would have preferred a more gradual approach with more information about the character‘s lives. But then, I’d have loved another 100 pages of this wonderful story! There is something for everyone in Daughter of Fortune, a remarkable, compelling story you don’t want to miss. I highly recommend it.

For more about Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende and her other books see her website.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for providing me the opportunity to read and review Daughter of Fortune.

Monday, May 2, 2011

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

Title: A Jane Austen Education
Author: William Deresiewicz
ISBN: 978-1594202889
Pages: 272
Release Date: April 28, 2011
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Publisher summary: In A Jane Austen Education, Austen scholar William Deresiewicz turns to the author's novels to reveal the remarkable life lessons hidden within. With humor and candor, Deresiewicz employs his own experiences to demonstrate the enduring power of Austen's teachings. Progressing from his days as an immature student to a happily married man, Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education is the story of one man's discovery of the world outside himself.

A self-styled intellectual rebel dedicated to writers such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, Deresiewicz never thought Austen's novels would have anything to offer him. But when he was assigned to read Emma as a graduate student at Columbia, something extraordinary happened. Austen's devotion to the everyday, and her belief in the value of ordinary lives, ignited something in Deresiewicz. He began viewing the world through Austen's eyes and treating those around him as generously as Austen treated her characters. Along the way, Deresiewicz was amazed to discover that the people in his life developed the depth and richness of literary characters-that his own life had suddenly acquired all the fascination of a novel. His real education had finally begun.

Weaving his own story-and Austen's-around the ones her novels tell, Deresiewicz shows how her books are both about education and themselves an education. Her heroines learn about friendship and feeling, staying young and being good, and, of course, love. As they grow up, they learn lessons that are imparted to Austen's reader, who learns and grows by their sides.

A Jane Austen Education is a testament to the transformative power of literature, a celebration of Austen's mastery, and a joy to read. Whether for a newcomer to Austen or a lifelong devotee, Deresiewicz brings fresh insights to the novelist and her beloved works. Ultimately, Austen's world becomes indelibly entwined with our own, showing the relevance of her message and the triumph of her vision.

My Thoughts: I've been reading Jane Austen books for years. My mother graduated with a BA in English and introduced me to many of her favorite Jane Austen works when I was a teenager. Like the author of this memoir, William Deresiewicz, I also studied English in college but I wouldn't have been able to obtain a BA without reading Austen. When I read about A Jane Austen Education, I was curious how he managed to get to the graduate level never having read Austen! We're never told, still I was interested in finding out what life lessons a young man in his early/mid 20s discovered in the complex works of Jane Austen.

A Jane Austen Education is, for the most part, an enjoyable and entertaining read while also providing interesting information about her life. Deresiewicz presents the life lessons he learns from each Austen work clearly and provides good examples of the points he makes using corresponding text. Deresiewicz is honest, sometimes brutally so, about the person he was before reading Jane Austen. At times he makes it seem that, without Austen, he would be an arrogant, ignorant, uncouth barbarian. This may be true but, considering that Deresiewicz didn't begin reading Austen until he was about 26 years old, it's a little difficult to fathom he didn't learn, earlier in life, some of things with which he credits her.

In the beginning of his memoir, Deresiewicz tells us he identified with authors such as Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad and Nabakov when he was assigned Emma. He and his classmates considered Jane Austen a dull, silly, romantic writer of fairytales. In other words: too girly. He didn't believe there was anything sophisticated about Jane Austen, despite having heard her works were more complex than anything by, say, Joyce or Proust. But then one day, he finally gets it. After finding Emma banal and tedious, he suddenly sees things in a different light, realizing the boredom and cynicism he's been experiencing while reading Emma is exactly what Austen wanted: "She had incited them in order to expose them". "She was showing me my own ugly face".

Deresiewicz credits Emma with helping him understand the importance of seeing, talking and thinking like a woman, things he'd scoffed at not too long ago. It seems that for 26 years, he hasn't found any women worthy of his respect. So it's a little harder to accept the revelation that after reading some of Emma, suddenly Deresiewicz understands the worth of being a woman and the possibility there might be "important things to learn from them". It's as if Deresiewicz never saw anything from a woman's point of view, let alone read a (good) book by one. But it's good to know he's finally seen the light!

The problem I have with Deresiewicz' first chapter is: those aren't the lessons he takes away from Emma. He wants us to believe the life lesson he learned is the importance of noticing life, of paying attention to the little things. Deresiewicz tells us Jane Austen taught him to take everything about his life seriously including the "little events", "the little moments of feeling". When it comes right down to it, isn't this a similar idea to "stop and smell the roses"? I can’t imagine Deresiewicz wouldn’t have heard or read of this concept elsewhere before reading Emma. In other words, it's hard to believe this was a 26-year old graduate student’s first life lesson in the "appreciate the little things" department. It feels like Deresiewicz is analyzing Emma a little too much, for some reason not content with what he's already learned. It also makes the "life lessons" concept look a bit like a cute gimmick and threatens Deresiewicz credibility for the rest of the chapters.

It is unfortunate he begins the memoir with Emma. It means he starts off seemingly trying to "shoehorn" a learned lesson to fit the book. On the other hand, although there is one other "flimsy" chapter, Deresiewicz is far more successful in presenting believable life lessons from many of Austen's other books. So, despite one or two shortcomings, for the most part the book is a success and quite believable.

Deresiewicz 's chapter about Sense and Sensibility, in which Austen educates him on love is intriguing and sincere. He comes to understand Austen holds that love is a culmination of all the other lessons she's imparted (to him) in her other works. It just takes Deresiewicz a little while to get there, admitting to struggling with Sense and Sensibility quite a bit. He describes it as a "sober, even bitter" book and finds it very different from Austen's other novels. Deresiewicz discusses societal notions of love from Romeo and Juliet to the concept of soul mates puzzling over why Austen's characters don't often end up in these very romantic type relationships. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne believes that true love means you have the same taste, the same ideas and it's "wild and free" and knows "no bounds or rules". Deresiewicz admits he subscribes to this kind of love and thought Austen did as well, which is why he struggles with Sense and Sensibility. Deresiewicz realizes that he had a relationship similar to Marianne & Willoughby's: love at first sight, agreeing about everything, unable to tear yourselves apart. And just like Marianne & Willoughby's, it crashed and burned.

Deresiewicz realized he'd projected his ideals of romance onto her characters just like the movie adaptations, which is why they're often so different from the books they are based on. Deresiewicz realizes that for Jane Austen love is about goodness, growing up, learning and friendship. Austen believed, he realizes, that you have to know your self before you can open your heart to another and then, you need to know that other person. Austen didn't believe in the notion of "falling in love". Instead, she felt that we learn to love as we grow up and mature. Deresiewicz looked beyond Austen's books and into her life to determine her true ideas about love. Jane Austen's niece asked her advice when trying to decide whether or not to accept a marriage proposal. Austen advised her that the most important thing when choosing a mate is "character". He remembered reading Austen's ideas about character in Pride & Prejudice, in which he came to understand what it really means to be an adult. Deresiewicz finally realizes what Austen has revealed in all of her novels: the person you love is the one who challenges you to be better and, in the same way, you will challenge them. A true love is someone who is different from you in opinions, tastes and ideas. Love is about "mutual respect, regard and esteem". For Deresiewicz, this was a lesson well-learned since he married the woman he was dating while studying Austen’s lessons on love!

It is Deresiewicz’s maturation and successful examples to prove it that make this memoir so compelling. Apart from an unfortunate section in his chapter on Emma that seems forced, this is a great book for anyone who needs an introduction to Austen, or, if you are already familiar with her works, a wonderful new way to look at her writing as well as to learn a little bit about her life. And it doesn't matter if you're male or female! Jane Austen is an extremely accomplished, much-loved and enduring author and A Jane Austen Education is a fitting tribute.

I want to thank TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review A Jane Austen Education.