Saturday, March 29, 2008

TBR Challenge: Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief, by Stephen Alter

Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief, by Stephen Alter. Click on
the cover to buy from your local Book Sense-affiliated independent bookseller.

I got Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief as a gift, and having only seen two Bollywood films I'm definitely a newcomer to those phenomenally successful and popular movie musicals from India. The book is about the making of the film "Omkara," a remake of Shakespeare's Othello; author Stephen Alter, a writer and former MIT writing professor who lives and works in India, is probably as good a guide as any to this colorful world.

But sometimes, through no fault of its own, a book just doesn't work out.

I read this book for the TBR Challenge, but I was unable to finish it, at least for now. I got about halfway through it when I just had to admit that I have more compelling reading to do at the moment and for the foreseeable future. I'd like to see the movie, and perhaps then I'll come back to the book but for now I have to call it quits and move on.

There's nothing really wrong with the book, and it's gotten good reviews elsewhere. Personally I just found it busy and a little hard to follow, but I think my reaction is due to my overall lack of familiarity with Bollywood in general and the film in question in particular. Fans of the book seem to be fans of the movie as well. I enjoyed references to the few Bollywood films I do know, but I think I just don't know enough. I've heard other people say it's too light for real Bollywood aficionados, but it struck me as a touch confusing for newbies as well. The writing is pretty solid and I'm sure its good reviews are merited.

I have a lot on my plate right now but I'll hang on to the book for now and who knows, maybe over the summer I'll get back to it.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

REVIEW: Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist, by Nancy Goldstein.

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist, by Nancy Goldstein. Published: 2008 by the University of Michigan Press. Nonfiction.

I read this book as part of's "Early Reviewer" program.

As the title might suggest, this book is a biography about Zelda Jackson "Jackie" Ormes, the first African American woman to be a professional newspaper cartoonist. She drew four strips, Torchy Brown in "Dixie to Harlem", Candy, Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger, and Torchy in "Heartbeats" from the late 1930s through the late 1950s, at a time when there were few women in newspaper work at all, much less working as cartoonists. Her work appeared in newspapers aimed at the African-American community of that era, such as the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender and her work is known for its timeliness, humor and broad appeal. The Patty-Jo character was even made into a successful upscale child's doll for a number of years, and is now a sought-after collectible.

It's the Patty-Jo doll that got author and collector Nancy Goldstein interested in Jackie Ormes. For someone who is not primarily a scholar, Goldstein does a pretty good job of researching and telling the life story of this interesting, multifaceted woman. Jackie Ormes was an artist, fashionista, activist and social butterfly, mixing with the likes of Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt through the hotel managed by her husband Earl, and her comics ranged from cute gags about clothes or kids to romance to biting social commentary. She was also investigated by the FBI for possible Communist sympathies, one aspect of her story I found fascinating. Goldstein acknowledges the gaps in the available material about Ormes- there are, for example, no personal letters and little original art extant to help round her story out, and Goldstein's purpose in writing the book is in part to call out for anyone owning such material to donate to specific archival institutions, to enable further study. As such, the story sometimes feels like little more than a bare outline of dates and places, with little of Ormes's personality coming through. Goldstein also has a tendency to speculate openly when she doesn't have all the facts, which I found a little annoying.

Even with these gaps, Goldstein has done a decent job bringing together the material which is available. Unfortunately, her research is undercut by her writing and presentation, both a little bland. Even the chapter on the Patty-Jo doll, for which I had high hopes considering Goldstein's background as a collector, is a little dry. It took me a little longer than I hoped to get through the book, in particular the sections devoted to the comics, which seem dated. Goldstein's analysis is sometimes helpful in providing historical context but I think much of the true flavor of the comics has probably been lost with the passage of time. Torchy in "Heartbeats" series has aged the best of the bunch- its themes of pulp romance and environmental activism aren't as dependent on the day's headlines as the smart one-liners in Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger, for example. People who read these comics when they were published might enjoy the trip down memory lane, though, and doll enthusiasts will enjoy the helpful tips for identifying genuine Patty-Jo dolls in the chapter devoted to her, as well as some interesting information on the history of African-American dolls in general.

For the casual reader, though, the book is probably a pass. It's not bad, but I think Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist is best suited for either dedicated fans of the Patty-Jo doll or those with a serious, academic interest in cartoon- or African-American history. Jackie Ormes seems like an important figure, and I think Goldstein has done her a service by calling attention to her work- and preserving a taste of it- in this volume. More personal material is needed, though, to really make Ormes come alive in print. Hopefully those with information to share will come forward and allow a more detailed biography to be written in the future.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

REVIEW: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Published 2007 by Viking. Literary Fiction.

People of the Book is the latest novel from Pulitzer-Prize winning author Geraldine Brooks, author of March and other acclaimed novels. I enjoyed it a lot.

The term "people of the book" usually refers to the Jewish people, and the book is usually the Hebrew Bible. Here, though, the book is the haggadah, the ceremonial text used during Passover celebrations, and the people are everyone from an African artist to a German art historian to a Muslim librarian and a Jewish diplomat- and more. The plot centers on the Sarajevo Haggadah, an old, gorgeously illuminated version of the Passover story whose origins are murky and whose survival has been tenuous and chancy over the years. The book is real, and some of the events in the book are real, but for the most part the story is fiction. The haggadah was saved twice in the last century, both times by Muslim librarians- during World War II, a Muslim librarian in the Sarajevo National Library hid the book in an Islamic library, and later, during the Bosnian War, another Muslim librarian risked his life to save it again.

The story opens in the spring of 1996, shortly after the end of the Bosnian war, when fictional conservation expert Hanna Heath arrives in Sarajevo to restore the book before it is put back on display. From here, the narrative alternates between Hanna's forward-moving adventures and the backward-moving story of the book's creation and lifespan, from its rescue during World War II back to its origins in pre-Medieval Spain.

Brooks uses the little physical clues that Hanna finds in the book itself as the basis for each of the short stories comprising the book's back story- a butterfly wing, a white hair, a blood stain. Each object leads to an element of the book's history, as well as the stories of the people connected to the book- the "people of the book" to whom the title refers. Each of these stories is an individual marvel of short fiction- Brooks paints whole worlds in vivid miniature, with intriguing characters and detailed settings. The best of these stories is the last, "The White Hair," a gorgeous mini-novella in which we learn the book's earliest origins and meet a fascinating, wonderful character in the narrator whose now-quiet life is the result of a tumult of drama and intrigue. In all of the stories, the characters are complex and full, and just about everyone has a secret- important secrets that impact the book directly. But the narrator of the final story has the best secrets of all.

Everyone has a secret, that is, except our Hanna, an open book so to speak. I enjoyed Hanna the most when Brooks had her playing the intrepid investigator and dedicated professional- off duty, Hanna struck me as whiny and unappealing; Brooks gives her dysfunctions in place of a personality. The action of the book- tracking down clues and rescuing the book once again- is well-paced and engrossing, and much more interesting than listening to her complain about her mother. The family drama adds little to the story, and had there been nothing at all about her family the book would have been fine, perhaps better. The love story felt a little forced as well, like something that Brooks perhaps wanted to include but did not spend a great deal of time perfecting. The supporting characters in Hanna's time line are mostly appealing and add enough to the plot to keep it going. Towards the end, the past and present come together, hinting at discoveries to come.

Overall I found the book to be compelling, addictive reading. I read it from cover to cover in about three days and could barely put it down. The writing is solid and polished; it's not a literary masterpiece but it's not light reading, either. The themes, about the traces that history leaves behind and the secrets you can never know, are illuminated beautifully. It is a terrific book for anyone looking for a good meaty read mixing action, intellectualism and history.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

REVIEW: Megillat Esther, by J.T. Waldman. Jewish Literature Challenge, 5 of 5

Megillat Esther, by J.T. Waldman. Published 2005 by the Jewish Publication Society.

Click on the cover to buy via I'm an IndieBound affiliate and receive a small commission on sales.

I'm still here. It's been a busy week but I should have some new reviews soon.

For my last entry in the Jewish Literature Challenge series, I chose a graphic novel-style interpretation of the Megilla, the story of how Queen Esther saved the Jews from slaughter by King Achashverosh and his advisor, Haman, in ancient Persia. This story forms the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim, which begins tomorrow. Not your standard children's-book interpretation, this version of Esther's story is full of intrigue, conspiracies and reversals, not the least of which is the physical reversal of the text which occurs halfway through. At this point, the reader needs to flip the book over and read it right to left, all the better for the Hebrew but possibly jarring for readers unfamiliar with reading Hebrew or (in my case) Japanese manga. But I digress.

This Megillat Esther is a treasure- a beautiful and thoughtful retelling of the Book of Esther. The story is told in English and beautifully-lettered Hebrew, and includes rabbinic footnotes and a bibliography, as well as a section explaining the importance of citations and explaining the term midrash, the orally-told stories that expand on the Hebrew Bible. This section seems aimed at children, but this is no children's book. Waldman's rich, detailed black and white illustrations reward careful attention and a slow, deliberate pace, and there is some racy sexual content and innuendo which would make the book much more suitable for older teens and adults interested in Judaism and/or graphic novels.

Waldman's Megillat Esther is a real treat. I had a hard time tracking down a copy through my local public library system, but it's worth a read, at Purim time or anytime.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive a copy of this book for review from the publisher.

Monday, March 10, 2008

REVIEW: Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell

Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell. Published 2008 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

I first heard of Mary Doria Russell as a fantasy writer- my husband, a serious science fiction/fantasy buff, has several of her books in his to-be-read pile- so I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Dreamers of the Day. The book is a fictionalized account of the 1919 Cairo Conference, where Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill joined with other Western leaders to divvy up the Middle East, told from the point of view of a fictional onlooker, a middle-aged woman on the trip of a lifetime.

The title refers to those influential personages who have the dreams that change the world, and it's not exactly a compliment. Russell's point about the Cairo Conference is that major, history-altering decisions were made for millions of people by outsiders who didn't really have to deal with the consequences, and that the problems we face today are the misbegotten children of those decisions. Meddling in history, it seems, is a dangerous business indeed.

The narrator, Agnes Shanklin, a maiden Ohio schoolteacher, has lived her life serving others, especially her angry mother. She has never married, and only fell in love once, to a man who dropped her for her beautiful, gifted sister Lillian. Following the influenza epidemic of the early 20th century, Agnes is left alone but wealthy, and decides to take a trip to Egypt and the Middle East, in part to see where her sister lived as a missionary. Luckily for Agnes, her sister was close to T.E. Lawrence, and Agnes is welcomed into his circle and given ringside seats for some of the most exciting political negotiations of her time. She also attracts the attention of a charming, accommodating spy named Karl. In the Middle East, Agnes experiences independence and a sense of importance for the first time, and it changes her life.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Russell's writing is engaging and well-paced, and Agnes was an appealing, likable character despite being a little bit of a doormat when it came to her family. I think this tendency of hers is forgivable and understandable given the time and place she lived and the limited opportunities available to women. Once she has the means she relishes her independence and the large section of the book devoted to her time in the Middle East is fun, lively reading. Russell rushes through the rest of Agnes's life but it's interesting to watch her fortunes rise and fall with the waves of American history. The preaching Agnes does at the end dragged it down a little for me, but overall I thought Dreamers of Day was a lively read that would appeal to people who enjoy historical fiction with a dash of romance and a mid-life coming of age. And I might just take a second look at those other books of Russell's that my husband has been hoarding.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

TBR Challenge: Death in the Truffle Wood, by Pierre Magnan

Death in the Truffle Wood, by Pierre Magnan. Published in 2007 by St. Martin's. Fiction. Crime Fiction. Translated from the French.

I got a galley of Death in the Truffle Wood at the 2007 annual conference of the American Library Association; it was one of several advance-reader copies I picked up on the exhibit hall floor and then left in a pile. Trouble is, I don't really read mysteries, but I couldn't resist the premise- black humor in Provence, peppered with truffles, scandal, and murder.

Starring Magnan regular Commissaire Laviolette, it's a fun book. Laviolette is a (typically?) dry investigator; he arrives in the small village of Banon to investigate a series of unusual disappearances which are quickly revealed to be a series of unusual murders. Actually there are two sets of murders, and two murderers, but one of the murderers is known and the suspense lies in whether this individual will get caught. Banon seemed like a pretty typical French country town- a little isolated, a little inbred, and very, very old. The characters are divided between indistinguishable townies and a few principals who dominate the action- Laviolette (of course), truffle farmer Alyre Morelon, his unfaithful, jewelry-loving wife Francine and his treasured truffle-sniffing sow Roseline, buxom innkeeper Rosemonde and Lavoisette's friend Bredes. Clues are scattered throughout like the truffles in Alyre's woods, and you don't need to be Roseline to sniff them out.

The tone of the book is dominated by a kind of blasé black humor. Roseline's travails are an important part of the plot and the murders, while somewhat gruesome, have a comic aspect as well, especially the where-and-when of the discovery of the first body. There is some real suspense as the net closes around the killers although the action lagged now and then. Magnan includes a lot of great descriptions of the local color- the food, customs and geography of Banon are described with affection and attention to detail. Overall it's a fun, entertaining light read. If I ever have time I'd love to read more of Commissaire Laviolette's adventures outside the Truffle Wood too.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

REVIEW: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Published: 2005 by Random House. Literary Fiction. Young Adult.

The Book Thief, by Australian writer Markus Zusak, is going to be a tricky book for me to review because I'm not sure what I can say that hasn't already been said. On the back cover it appears that the list of awards it's won is almost longer than the plot summary- The Book Thief has been lauded by everyone from the American Library Association to Publisher's Weekly to Book Sense, and that list doesn't include everything. The Book Thief also won a Sydney Taylor Book Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and has been used in at least a few One Book programs across the country and it seems to me that I can't open a library journal without seeing that Zusak is somewhere accepting laurels.

I was also a little nervous about reading The Book Thief, since I tend to be a little on the contrarian side. If everyone else liked it, there would be a pretty good chance I wouldn't. Not this time, though. I loved it. Let me repeat: I loved it. It's a beautiful, compelling novel about the power of love (and reading) to help and heal.

Narrated by the figure of Death, The Book Thief is the story of little Liesel Meminger, a young girl orphaned in Germany during World War II, who goes to a Munich suburb to live with a couple named Rosa and Hans Hubermann, whose own children are grown. Rosa, a professional laundress, is frosty and difficult on the surface, but Hans shows himself to be a warm father to the scared little girl and she begins to blossom under his care, as, among other things, he teaches her to read. The story mixes a coming-of-age plot focused on Liesel and her best friend, Rudy Steiner, with the ever-present and ever-growing hostile atmosphere of Nazi Germany. Liesel also develops a crucial relationship with one of Rosa's customers, who helps nurture Liesel's passion for books. There are twists and turns right up to the end as Hitler's grip tightens on Germany and the family and though some twists are given away by the grim narrator, there are plenty of bittersweet surprises all the way through.

The book starts off a little slow but picks up steam rapidly; once it gets going, it's absolutely un-put-down-able. Liesel and all the characters are beautifully drawn with believable dialogue and tender, human relationships. Zusak displays remarkable control throughout- during some of the really grim and heart-rending passages, such as when groups of Jewish concentration camp prisoners are paraded through town, he uses a firm, deft hand to convey the characters' feelings without going over the top or being melodramatic. When the story takes a couple of surprising turns, they feel real and justified by the characters' personalities. Justice, such as it is, is meted out with the haphazard randomness of real life- nobody escapes unscathed, in body or in mind, and you can't take anything for granted. It's a very, very good read.

The Book Thief is an interesting example of how marketing can impact a book's audience. In Australia Markus Zusak is generally considered an author of books for adults and The Book Thief was marketed to adults there, and the heavy subject matter of Nazi Germany and Holocaust warrants that classification. In the United States, I understand that Zusak has a solid reputation as a writer for teenagers, and it was in the young-adult section of my local bookstore where I found the book. That classification is also justified because the writing, while well-done, is not done at a high degree of difficulty, the story centers on a pre-teen girl, most of the violence takes place off-stage and death is presented as inevitable but gentle. In a way it's too bad that it hasn't been marketed more to adults in the U.S. because I think a lot of people may miss out on a great read because they think it's a kid's book. On the other hand, it also has a great deal of potential for a teenage audience. So what to do? Zusak said once in an interview (and I paraphrase) that when he sits down to write, his goal is not to write an adult book or a young adult book, but to write someone's favorite book. I think for a lot of readers he has (and will have) succeeded admirably with The Book Thief.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Jewish Literature Challenge, 4 of 5

Such a Prince, by Dan Bar-el with illustrations by John Manders. Published in 2007. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.

Such a Prince, a new picture book for elementary-school children by Dan Bar-el, is a lively retelling of the "three peaches" folktale about a sick princess who needs three perfect peaches to get well. In return for providing the peaches, her father, the king, promises the girl's hand in marriage. This version is narrated by Libby Gaborchik, a fuss-budget little fairy who takes a liking to a skinny, feckless young man named Marvin and helps him win the princess.

The book is a joy from start to finish. The story is funny, the characters are recognizable fairy-tale types used perfectly. My favorite character is the unabashedly loud-mouthed, assertive Princess Vera, who even from her sickbed will express herself in quite the forthright manner. And the pictures! The guache and colored-pencil pictures are appealing, colorful and complement the fast-paced, rolly-polly story. Even the endpapers, depicting bunnies bouncing here and there, contribute to the overall atmosphere of hyperkinetic action.

When I first read the book silently, I enjoyed the humor and the beautiful, vibrant illustrations. But it really came to life when I read it out loud- Libby's playful, irreverent tone, only a little sarcastic at times, is a great match to the bouncy, bright pictures, and sounds great when spoken. The lively Yiddish-inspired syntax is to blame. Even without using a single Yiddish word Bar-el does a great job of capturing the uniquely expressive sound of Yiddish-inflected English and it's this trait that lends the book so beautifully to being read aloud. So read it, enjoy it, have fun with it, and read it out loud- though you might have to ham it up a little to really do it justice!