Monday, September 12, 2016

Don't Tell Me You're Afraid by Giuseppe Catozzella

Greetings from the occasional book reviewer!  I have been MIA for quite some time now.  My August reading (and blogging!) was pretty slumpy all around.  I blame myself and the many distractions life has to offer more than the books (or the blogs) themselves.  Nonetheless, I'm trying to shake off the cobwebs and get back down to reading (and blogging!).  I kicked off my September reading with Don't Tell Me You're Afraid by Giuseppe Catozzella, a book translated to English written by a white Italian guy from the novelized autobiographical perspective of a black, young, female would-be refugee from Somalia.  Somehow this seems both terribly diverse and also a bit wide of the mark as far as reading diversely goes.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, found it simultaneously sad and enlightening, and learned a valuable lesson about not Googling the real-life subject of the book you're reading.

Samia Yusuf Omar knows she's an athlete from a young age.  Already at ten, she dreams of being the fastest and trains with a single-minded dedication on the streets of war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia despite the many dangers. In Mogadishu, a simple trip to the market can be a death sentence.  Not wearing the proper veils, stepping onto the city's beaches, or even being seen with her best friend and "coach," Ali, stand to put Samia in terrible danger. Samia finds refuge and support with her family in the relative safety of their home. Soon, Samia begins to win races, but as conditions in Mogadishu decline under the power of militant radical Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, the deadly risks of Samia and her sister Hodan's dreams strike too close to home. As tragedy strikes her family and the women of Mogadishu are forced to conform to the vigorous restrictions of Islamic law, Samia dreams not only of being the fastest but of making her family proud and being a beacon of hope for the subjugated women of her war-torn homeland.

The world saw Samia's potential at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics where she represented her country in the 200m sprint.  While she may have lost the race, she won the support of an international audience.  Unfortunately, conditions are even more dangerous for her in the wake of her Olympic competition.  Being a picture of possibility for Muslim women makes her a target in her hometown. It's virtually impossible for her to train, and she cannot gain strength with the meager food her family can provide.  When her sister Hodan successfully makes the Journey, being smuggled across the Sahara and over the sea into Europe, Samia is heartbroken, but as conditions decline, Samia has to admit that the Journey is the only way she will ever realize her dream of being a champion.

Don't Tell Me You're Afraid is a compelling novelization of the true story of Samia Yusuf Omar's childhood, rise to running excellence, and eventual desperate journey to escape the war and poverty afflicting Somalia.  Told in an extremely readable first person, the novel immerses readers in the life of a young girl who dreams of being the fastest and dreams of being a symbol of what her country had been and could be.  I was, at the start of the book, very ignorant of the conflict in Somalia.  While I had been aware of the growing amount of refugees, this novel puts a human face on the horrible conditions facing those whose desperation to escape would have them put their lives in the hands of deplorable smugglers who transport refugees in the worst possible circumstances and use every opportunity to extort every last resource from the desperate. 

With Samia as the narrator, the ongoing tragedy of refugees is set in even more stark relief, knowing that this girl Somalia had paraded on an international stage was no better off than the least of these seeking asylum.  Don't Tell Me You're Afraid is a heartbreaking story that needs to be read.  While there are certainly some departures from the true to life sequence of events and a tendency of the author to wander into a sporadic second person narration that might bother the more discerning reader, Catozzella and translator Anne Milano Appel do a great job of bringing the heart of Samia's story to the page and making a hard to read account of  hardship and hope virtually unputdownable.

Thanks to Penguin Press for providing a copy for review. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts

This July, not unlike last July, was a bit of a weird reading streak for me.  I don't read a whole lot of short stories, and I don't read a whole lot of non-fiction, but this July featured a little of both.  The randomizer (Because who makes decisions when computers can do it for you? Er, please contact me for use of that unique tag line when you're coming out with your next "robots take over the world" comedy) helpfully chose for me a book that, if I chose my own books, would probably not have made it off the shelf anytime soon but was well worth reading.


The Eighty-Dollar Champion is one of those horse stories that should unquestionably become a Disney movie.  When Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer arrives at a horse auction in Amish Country Pennsylvania on a cold February day, the best horses have already been sold to the highest bidders and the bidding is over.  No horses are around except for the ones that didn't sell that are being loaded up and sent away to be killed.  Not wanting to return to Long Island, where he teaches schoolgirls to ride at The Knox School, empty handed, Harry spots a plow horse with a certain look in his eye that he's sure will make a good teaching horse.  Eighty dollars later he's bound for home with a worse for the wear horse that is about to become a part of his growing family. 

Snowman turned out to be just the calm, patient mount Harry had hoped for, quietly teaching new riders the skill.  But when Harry tries to sell him to a local farmer to free up room in his stable during the off season, Snowman proves himself to be much more.  Little did de Leyer know that his affable plow horse had a penchant for jumping and the heart of a champion that would lead the pair to fame and fortune in the dangerous sport of show jumping.  

Elizabeth Letts didn't necessarily do Snowman's story many favors.  Bulked up with unnecessary historical background (this just in, horses falling out of popular use for transportation by the 1950s) and a grating amount of repetition, likely in the name of creating some dramatic effect, fall flat.  A little dramatic tension, a little reminder here and there of the significance of Snowman's success is understandable, but Harry de Leyer and Snowman's story is so inherently heart-warming and triumphant, there's really no need for Letts to go the extra mile to point out its significance.  She goes many extra miles, however, to the point of her cumbersome sentimentality becoming downright patronizing. 

Were in not for the inherent attractiveness of the story of a horse bound for death who defeats the odds to become a great show jumper, I might have laid this book aside unfinished.  Happily, the meat of Letts' account of Harry's determination and skill as a horseman and Snowman's joy in jumping and eagerness to please the man who rescued him from an early death was enough to keep me hanging on.  There's no doubt that Snowman's story might be a little lesser known, but it is easily as inspirational as any horse story going.  By the end, I was happy to have "met" the irrepressible Snowman and the man who saw Snowman's worth long before he urged the horse to show jumping greatness. 

Tomorrow, he would hitch her up to the wagon to lug corn to the silo, and he knew the horse would plod along, as quietly as before.  But just because you are hitched to a burden does not mean that you do not sometimes want to fly.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre

I am on a book reviewing tear.  I know, it doesn't look like it.  Probably because I haven't exactly been on a book reading tear.  The upshot of that unfortunate fact, however, is that it makes it easier to boost my book reviewing ego when I am essentially keeping up with reviews of the books that I am reading instead of 10 books behind. 

Lately, I have made another attempt at short stories.  Short stories and I have a checkered past.  I don't really like them on the whole, but occasionally I come across one or two that I really like.  Reader, I Married Him seemed like a natural choice since I once had Jane Eyre as required reading and actually liked it (When does that happen?), so stories inspired by that famous novel seemed an obvious place to look for a short story hit.

Reader, I Married Him is a collection of short stories by female writers inspired by the famous line from Jane Eyre.  The collection brims over with works by numerous well-known authors of literary fiction including Jane Gardam, Emma Donoghue, Salley Vickers, Lionel Shriver, and a good many more authors that you've undoubtedly heard of.  Some stories share a direct and obvious connection to Jane Eyre while others simply use marriage as a jumping off point to head in a different direction.  Like many short story collections, this one is a bit uneven, but definitely worth a read for some of the highlights.

My reaction to Reader, I Married Him covered the usual bases of my reaction to short story collections.  A little, "What was the point of that?" with a side of, "I don't get it..."  Some, "This is good, but I wish it was a whole book." And, of course, even a bit of "This is really good/clever.  Why have I never heard of this author?"  Oddly enough, yet somehow par for the course (I am going to mostly unwittingly get *all* the sports analogies into this review, just you watch.), despite this collection running over with big name female authors, the stories I found myself the most taken with were by authors that were unfamiliar to me. 

In Kirsty Gunn's selection, "Dangerous Dog," a chance encounter with a few boys and a dog whose bark is much worse than his bite changes the life of a fitness trainer taking a writing class.  In it, Gunn cleverly re-imagines Mr. Rochester as a dog, and somehow manages to weave together what seem like three stories in just over ten pages.  The other story that really captured me was "The China from Buenos Aires" by Patricia Park, about a Korean girl who leaves her Buenos Aires home to go to college in New York City,  There she feels homesick and isolated until she happens upon a boy she knew from home, but is ordinary Juan enough to bind her to a place where she never felt at home?  (Both of these stories were slam dunks.  Please, somebody stop me.)

All in all, I found this to be an enjoyable collection.  While I may not have been satisfied by each story, since I often find myself unsatisfied by the medium, I was impressed with each author's ability to evoke places and characters so fully in only a few pages.  A word to the wise, many of the stories in the collection have, at best, the faintest of connections to Jane Eyre, so if you're seeking mostly obvious parallels, I would advise adjusting your expectations before picking up Reader, I Married Him.  However, if you're looking for a solid collection by some well known female authors that is admirably diverse, definitely give this one a try!

(Thanks to William Morrow Paperbacks for providing a copy in exchange for review consideration.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Choose Your Own Comment Adventure! (4)

This month has been a struggle between me and my computer.  I started the month on call for work, and it didn't go particularly well.  I logged a lot of screen time trying to fix one problem or another and after that sitting at the computer just didn't seem too alluring.  I actually started a few comment adventures, wandered off and never finished them.  So commenting has been happening (free comments for all the strangers!), posting not so much.  Anyhow, I made up for my lack of adventuring this weekend, at last.  Here's my latest jaunt around the book blogosphere, now with Linky so if you're keen to play along, you can now do so officially!

Today's adventure begins with Sue at Book by Book who has the magical power of making me want to read more middle grade fiction. She reviewed Pax by Sara Pennypacker, the story of a boy and the fox he saves who are separated by war. Both boy's and fox's point of view are written. Sounds great!

My next stop is with Vicki at I'd Rather Be at the Beach who is participating in the Cook the Books book club, where they apparently read the book for the month and cook something mentioned in its pages. This month's selection is Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy which Vicki liked well enough, but not probably not as much as the paella it inspired, which sounds delish!

It doesn't surprise me much when I end up on familiar ground at BermudaOnion's blog when I'm on my commenting adventures, what with Kathy being a famously prolific commenter. Middle grade fiction seems to be the special of day. Kathy reviewed When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin, the story of a boy who's spent too much time in the foster care system but has finally found a friend. Maybe I *should* be reading more middle grade...

Mystica has been reading The Provincial Lady Collection by E.M. Delafield which while humorous and providing social commentary, also seems like great comfort reading!

Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books has signed up for a challenge to read 20 books this summer and shares the rest of her selections for the challenge. I haven't read any of her choices, but they sound good!

Jacqui at JacquWine's Journal penned a tantalizing review of a book by an author who is by no means new, but is certainly new to me. This is my first time hearing of Mary Hocking, but Jacqui's review of The Very Dead of Winter, a book about a dysfunctional family spending Christmas together that's not short on black humor, sounds like something I might like!

Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write usually shares a "Fun Friday" post, but this past Friday's post was replaced with a photographic moment of silence in mourning for the tragedy that took place in Nice. 

The next stop on my adventure is at A Haven for Book Lovers. Diana posted a review of The Step Mother by Claire Seeber, a mystery/thriller that while not totally satisfying, did keep Diana guessing throughout. I do love a good mystery where I can't figure out the twist...

I found another book to add to my wish list at A House of Books, The Museum of You by Carys Bray. This story of a father and a daughter grieving their lost wife/mother sounds very poignant.

Eloise at Eloise in Wanderlust is moving out of a house where she technically doesn't live anymore anyway. Her books are dreading the "getting rid of books" moment before the moving. (Mine dreaded the same last year, but have happily sunk back into a sense of security since I've been stationary for a year now.). Certainly her future roommate can't object to another bookshelf!

I had to backtrack a touch to get my comment adventure back on track, and I landed at Art and Soul where I may have unintentionally uttered a breathless "Oh my God" at the topic of Claire's most recent post - a recipe for caramel Rolo fudge. After a few moments of gathering myself and mopping the drool off my keyboard, I manage to leave a comment about mopping the drool off my keyboard.

Pssst, don't tell, but I did 11 instead of 10 this time.  Because I can't count.

Here are the very loose "Rules" for Serendipitous Comment Adventuring:
  1. Start with a book blog, any book blog (I usually pick the most recent post in my feed reader).
  2. Leave a comment.
  3. Visit the first commenter on that post.
  4. Leave a comment on their most recent post.
  5. And so on, until you've adventured through 10 blogs (or however many seems good to you).  Adjust as needed to stay on the trail of book blogs (if you so choose) or find commenters that are different from ones you already visited.  You get the idea. 
  6. Write up a post about your adventure and link it up below!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Today, I will attempt a rare but not impossible feat.  I will review an e-book.  I know, some people review e-books all the time, like good e-book reading citizens.  As for me, my best motivator for reviewing a book, you know, aside from actually liking it, is to, uh, get rid of the book and make space for more, um, other books.  Understandably, that makes the payout for reviewing e-books somewhat less awesome because, obviously, I think I'll probably hang on to my Kindle and all its hundreds of unread cheap e-book deals for as long as it will have me.

Nonetheless, I read this chunkster of a book by Kevin Baker, Dreamland.  Happily, since I read it on the Kindle, its 657 or so pages didn't intimidate me into reading something shorter.  I'm glad its largesse didn't scare me away due to its e-book format, because I highly enjoyed this story of early 20th century New York.

Dreamland, titled after the Coney Island amusement park of the same name that was in its heyday at the time, starts with a tale from Trick the Dwarf about a bizarre twist of fate and the love story that resulted.  The story then mushrooms out to take in the points of view of a couple notorious New York City gangsters, a factory girl involved in early union activity, a prostitute, a Tammany Hall politician, and, oddly enough, Dr. Sigmund Freud.  With these characters, Kevin Baker vividly brings to life the downtown New York of the early 1900s, plagued by crime and poverty but also somehow larger than life and full of possibility.

He was astonished, for the first time, to see how many people there were and how fast they were moving.  Straddling each avenue were high steel girders, pylons holding up the trains that raced madly through the night, sometimes two at a time, in opposite directions, until they made the whole street shake.  It was a frantic, crowded, nightmare world that he could not wait to join.

Baker's gangsters are based on real historical gang members, with their stories tweaked and their lives and motives re-humanized.  These gangsters disappoint their parents, immigrate from Eastern Europe in search of a better life that never seems to materialize.  They care for their sisters and their lovers, all in between killing and maiming.  Naturally, there is a love story, and a good one at that, between an exiled gangster and the girl he meets on Coney Island.  There is no small amount of crooked politicking.  There is disturbing violence, both random, provoked, and shocking, in the case of the early labor movement. 

With Dreamland, Baker paints a picture of a city struggling through its many growing pains and trying to come of age.  While there were definitely some storylines I could have easily done without (adios doctors Freud and Jung - what are you guys doing here anyway?), I was, for the most part, totally taken in by Dreamland and its gritty, larger than life portrait of New York City at a pivotal point in historyBaker ably breathes life into each of his many characters and marches them steadily toward an explosive conclusion that expertly weaves many narrative strands into one pivotal day on Coney Island. 

"A magnified Prater," he sniffed to Ferenczi and Brill, referring to the cheesy midway in the Vienna park - but the Prater was like a summer garden party compared to this.  Everything louder, bigger, more hysterical - more American.

I'll definitely be picking up Kevin Baker's other fiction about this time period since he made reading 657 pages seem like a pleasant walk in the park instead of the slog I'm used to expecting out of long books (when I'm such a very slow reader).

No disclaimer - I bought this for my Kindle at a price not exceeding $2.99, if I know me at all.