Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Some Leafing and Some Life and a Winner!

Ah, the book reviews that need writing are piling up on the stand beside me, but I lack the motivation or the energy to write one that will do any book justice. You see, the co-worker whose job I was to take over when she had her baby, uh, had her baby today...a couple of weeks early. So now I find, instead of being the odd-job work whenever you tell me I ought to girl, I've become (temporarily) a legitimate nine to fiver (or, 5:30, but that doesn't have such a nice ring to it...nor is it so nice to actually work). Good on the old paycheck, not so great on the old cache of free time fit for blogging and reading and other such activities that are actually enjoyable (but pay far less in currency that can be traded for great things like food and telephone service and fuel for my vehicle, not to mention its great value in paying off what seems to be only the interest on my student loans which will dog me all of my live long days, no doubt). Oh, and if you were wondering, after my mostly selfish digression there, both mom and baby are doing well after an enviably short labor.

I finished two great books in the not too distant past that I have yet to review. One is my Penguin Classic which I still must blog, A Tranquil Star by Primo Levi, a delightfully slim volume of short stories/essays which fit perfectly into my lunch time at work. All were thought provoking and open to interpretation, most were interesting, some were downright clever and a few were even a bit funny. I've got to get to reviewing it soon, but first I'd really better decide on a few of my favorites to spotlight.

The other book I finished last weekend was Ellington Boulevard by Adam Langer which I surprised myself by liking...a lot. Why was I surprised, you may wonder? Well, it's one of those books, that are becoming more and more common, that seems to think it exists on a higher plane than the common laws of dialogue and quotation marks, which means, of course, that dialogue in its quotation marked, new line for a new speaker format is not to be found in Ellington Boulevard. You may recall that this is a massive pet peeve of mine, but alas, having turned the last page of the book, there was no denying that I loved it despite this transgression. I don't stand a chance of giving you any sort of concise summary of it, but it suffices (for now) to say that it's a great book about New York City and the people who live there. Langer's talent for unique, believable, totally fleshed out characters who are somehow lovable despite their many flaws is undeniable.

Now, I'm in the midst of devouring Tears of the Desert by Halima Bashir. I read the first chapter of this, and I was instantly sucked into Bashir's memoir of her childhood in Sudan. Hers is already a powerful story of growing up in a small, poor Zaghawa village but having a father with the means and the dream to invest in her education. He gives her the opportunity and inspiration to go to university to become a medical doctor who dreams of returning to her village to be the first real doctor there. I know that this story will certainly take a turn for the sad and depressing, but for now, I'm enjoying watching young Halima beat the odds and follow her dreams.

On deck is All We Ever Wanted Was Everything which I've hardly read five pages of yet, but feel the need to share with you because it's got this nifty cover photo of a melting ice cream sundae. Weirdly enticing, no?


And finally...

As you may recall, my Farworld: Water Keep giveaway came to an end late last night, and I have, indeed, drawn a winner. And the winner is....


Congrats Janice!
If you happen to be seeing this, you can e-mail your name and address to me at toadacious1ATyahooDOTcom (if not, I'll be in touch) and I will pass it on to the awesome J. Scott Savage himself who will provide you with a signed ARC of his book. Thanks for playing everybody. Sorry everybody couldn't win. But keep your eyes open, I can assure that this is not the last giveaway that will grace the pages of Leafing Through Life. *exaggerated winking*

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

Shhh, quiet! I see it, it's right down there. Do you see it? Why, it's the wild mid-week book review. My, are we lucky to see one of these. Increasingly rare, they can normally only be found curled up in a drawer or burrowed into a brain at this time of the week, but this one seems to be unusually brave. Now, if we're very stealthy, we may even be able to see its content!

That's right, folks. It's me. On a Wednesday. I'm dreadfully ill with what seems like the same horrible cold that afflicted me earlier this summer minus a nice long holiday weekend to recover (not that I'd rather ruin a nice holiday weekend with a cold, but it would be nice to able to get some extra rest!). And I'm very angry about it, when I can muster up enough energy for anger. I also feel awful that I've let this review go this long. I finished this book, well, a while ago, but I have high hopes that I will remember sufficient details to give it the attention it deserves.

Let's start with a confession. I'm not a huge reader of the "foodie memoir." Okay, I'm not at all a reader of the foodie memoir. I don't really know how to cook nor do I have a particular interest in learning. That said, it's probably not surprising that I started this book thinking that perhaps I lay slightly outside of its, uh, "target audience." Nonetheless, baited by its tantalizing cover art and the promise of "love, laughter, and tears," I dove in with reckless abandon and soon realized that The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry has a little something for everyone.

When Kathleen Flinn is fired from her corporate management job in London, she greets the news with relief and some trepidation. "What now?" she wonders. When she asks her soon-to-be husband Mike that question, without missing a beat, he reminds her of her dream to study cooking at the famous French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. She hardly considers that it would be possible for her to pursue the dream she'd cultivated throughout her life, but pops by Le Cordon Bleu's website just the same - just looking, of course. Soon, with Mike's promise that he will join her in Paris, Kathleen has donned the uniform of a Le Cordon Bleu student and is studying among an ethnic melting pot of would-be chefs.

In The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, Flinn goes on to chronicle the time she spent in Paris pursuing her long-neglected dream. Her descriptions capture the rich atmosphere and cultural quirks of Paris. Each of the famous and demanding chefs that serve as her class's teachers are brought vividly to life, including the terrifying Gray Chef who is infamous for making students, including Kathleen, cry with his angry critiques of poorly prepared cuisine - yet, who also succeeds in making his students into stronger, more capable chefs. Each chapter ends with a recipe, which might be of interest to those more interested in the food aspect of things, but I usually skipped over in my rush to get to the next chapter. Flinn also attempts to draw life lessons out of her experiences in the kitchen which fail and succeed in equal measure with some flowing easily into natural conclusions and others seeming to be forced just for the sake of including a life lesson.

With its detailed descriptions of chopping, filleting, and boning, the food talk tended to get a little boring, but that could be chalked up to my own lack of interest in such things. Flinn's amusing and revealing stories of Le Cordon Bleu, its students, and life in Paris more than make up for any lulls while she sautes and kneads her way to a Le Cordon Bleu degree. The bittersweet portion about her graduation beautifully captures the difficult contrast between achieving a goal and knowing that doing so will end one of life's better chapters. All in all, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is a delicious read about a woman who dared to follow her dream and lives up to its promise of "love, laughter, and tears."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Farworld: Water Keep by J. Scott Savage Review and Giveaway

Some time ago, I signed up to be a part of the blog tour for the first book in J. Scott Savage's Farworld series. Once I started the book, I finished it in record time, but I have been chewing over my review. I really enjoyed the book, but I'm afraid to do any spoiling, so that should account for the shortness of my review here. It's not that I don't have plenty to say about it, it's that saying too much would be a great disservice for a book that depends on suspense to keep the pages turning, which is, admittedly, not my typical reading fare, and that makes this more of a challenge than I expected!

Marcus and Kyja are orphans, both with handicaps that mark them as outsiders. Marcus was discovered as a baby with crippling injuries to his arm and leg that would keep him confined to a wheelchair for life. His only relief from the struggle of everyday life is his uncanny ability to make himself "disappear" and his daydreams of an imaginary magical place called Farworld.

Kyja is without magical powers in a world where magic is commonplace and used for everything from cooking to playing children's games. She can neither practice magic nor be affected by the magic of others. When Marcus finds himself in a life or death situation, he and Kyja suddenly find themselves united in a distinctly unimaginary Farworld where it falls to the two of them to undertake the dangerous journey to save Farworld from the Dark Circle despite, or perhaps, it seems, with the help of their weaknesses.

Water Keep is a very promising start to what promises to be another addictive young adult fantasy series. Marcus and Kyja are engaging characters, easy to sympathize with as they are burdened with the fate of Farworld with only a evasive old wizard and their wits to guide them. Savage's Farworld is populated with fascinating creatures of all sorts ranging from the evil Thrathkin S'Bae, to the invisible Unmakers who feed on the magic of their prey, to the self-involved Water Elementals upon whom the fate of Farworld may well depend. A great page-turner with positive, but not preachy, messages of turning weakness into strength and finding the magic inside of yourself, Farworld: Water Keep is a tantalizing start to the series that already has me waiting for the next book.


There it is - the Farworld: Water Keep will be availabe for sale in hardcover as of September 2008. But wait! If you happen to want a free copy, an ARC has been made available to me to give away compliments of J. Scott Savage and his publisher Shadow Mountain (Yay! Look! It's my first bloggy giveaway!). If you want a chance at it, leave me a comment on this post - if you want an extra chance, link this post from your blog and leave me a link to where you linked from (hmmm, was that unnecessarily convoluted or is it just me?). The only stipulations are that you must live in the US or Canada, and that you must get your entry in before midnight on August 25th (when I will turn into a pumpkin, I mean...) which will, hopefully, give me a nice window of time to randomly choose and announce the winner before I get out of town for Labor Day weekend. I'll also (obviously) need a way to contact you if you win, so if you don't have an e-mail address on your blog - do leave one in your comment, please. Good luck!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

A strange thing has happened. A very strange thing indeed. I, the slowest reader in the book blogosphere, am nearly very behind in book reviews. I've got two books sitting here waiting for my review, another one upstairs that I'm nearly finished reading, and yet another sitting in my purse that I should be able to finish before the end of the weekend. For obvious reasons, this is a predicament I don't often find myself in. Part of it is work's fault, I'm pretty sure. By the time I get home I'm so worn out that while I might still have it in me to read, writing anything of consequence becomes a daunting task for my poor overtaxed mind. I worked yet even more than usual this week, and all indications point to this sort of thing becoming worse before it gets any better. But forget work! It's the weekend, right? I spent yesterday evening relaxing and chatting with my family around the campfire, and that's just the sort of thing that makes all the stress of the week kind of melt off of a person. So, my addled mind is back in action and ready to tackle a book review!

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta is, first, the story of Ruth Ramsey, a sex-ed teacher with a practical view on her subject that leads her to teach in such a way that her students won't be afraid of their sexuality and will make decisions to practice safe sex when they do. A comment that involves the words "some people enjoy it" sets off a chain of events wherein the very pervasive Tabernacle, a local evangelical Christian church, demands that the school curriculum be changed to an abstinence-only perspective. Ruth is forced, much against her belief system and better judgement, to adopt this curriculum and teach it to her students under the school principal and superintendent's watchful eyes.

Tim Mason, Ruth's daughter's soccer coach, is a divorced and mostly recovered drug addict who credits Jesus and the Tabernacle with resurrecting his life from ruin. Tim and Ruth cross paths none-too-favorably when after a particularly grueling match and scary moment in which Tim's daughter might have been seriously injured, Tim, without much thought as to the consequences, gathers his young team into a circle to pray. Soon Ruth is pioneering an effort to get Tim kicked out of coaching, and Tim's pastor Dennis, is wielding him like a religious weapon to open the eyes and hearts of the young to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

The Abstinence Teacher is not a character-driven novel, nor is it especially a plot-driven novel. It is an issue novel. For much of the book, the characters are not so much living, breathing people as microcosms for the many things that are wrong with both overzealous legalist evangelical Christian types and their polar opposite, the ever-liberal card-carrying ACLU member, "I have the right not to have you pray in front of my kids at a public sporting event" sorts.

Perotta does a good and surprisingly even-handed job of showing the problems with both extremes. First, you have the Christians trying to enforce their way of thinking on everyone without giving them a reason to choose their way. They naively believe that just because they choose only to teach abstinence and only in a climate of fear of the repercussions of unprotected sex, that teenagers will, indeed, abstain. Rather than preparing them for what may be their reality, they choose to frighten them about something that is natural, and in the right context, shouldn't be scary. Then you have Ruth, and her "type" of person who have nothing particularly against God or religion but object to it on priciple and who believe that young teens can be taught to make good decisions about sex but can't be taught or trusted to make their own decisions about religion and the belief systems they choose to follow. Perrotta exposes both sides' ignorance and hypocrisy.

This books is well done, but is one that is a struggle. Most readers, I would guess, have a pretty visceral reaction to this kind of religious versus secular debate which make it difficult to read without being enmeshed in one side or the other of the debate - or at least, believing that both sides are totally foolish in their inability to compromise and see things for what they are. At its heart, The Abstinence Teacher is frustrating to read not because it isn't a well-written book or a fast read, but because the people here act so much like people do, and people are often so frustrating. For me, personally, it's frustrating to see this all-too-realistic portrayal of heavy-handed Christians ignorantly doing more than anyone else could to actually keep people from believing in their God.

As it turns out, though, despite their beliefs and religious affiliations, Perrotta does bring home the fact that his characters are, when separated from their more radical ways, after all, just people. People who are struggling and failing in face of life's challenges, people who are trying to maintain good relationships with their children even as they enter the difficult years of young adulthood, people who despite their going about it in just the wrong way are desperately trying to do what they think is best for their children - people who have more in common than they think.