Wednesday, April 30, 2008

REVIEW: Bright Lights, Big Ass, by Jen Lancaster

Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly Ex-Sorority Girl's Guide to Why It Often Sucks in the City, or Who Are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door To Me? by Jen Lancaster, Published 2007 by NAL Trade. Nonfiction. Memoir. Humor.

I bought Bright Lights, Big Ass on impulse, on one of my husband's and my weekly trips to our local Borders, when we usually buy books on impulse. I didn't buy it the first time I looked at it- it looked kind of frivolous, and not serious, when I have so many serious books to read. Because I am a very serious person, and a serious reader. Seriously.

But after a certain point this spring, I decided funny was a good idea. And this book looked funny. Seriously funny. Which it is.

Bright Lights, Big Ass, the follow-up to Lancaster's best-selling Bitter is the New Black (which is now on my nightstand), is a silly and often endearing memoir of life in the big city- specifically, Chicago, and her adventures as an office temp and a homeowner with her husband Fletch and an assortment of pets. I sort of lost track, but I think she has a dog named Maisy, and maybe some other dogs, and maybe some cats, and maybe a goldfish or something. I may be getting that part wrong. Anyway the general impression conveyed of her life is one of barely contained chaos, from landing and working various temp jobs, to struggling through vile plumbing issues, negotiating with crackpot neighbors, finding and moving into a new home, and dealing with her husband's crush on Rachael Ray.

The book is terrific fun. I loved her turns of phrase and invented words reflecting the way some people really talk- "breastacular," from the meme I did the other day, is her impression of Ms. Ray, for example. She even punctuates? to emphasize her tone of voice? so the reader really gets how she's talking. It's not high art, but it's funny, and it works. A former office temp myself, her portrayal of that life rang true for me- the office politics, the day-to-day search for meaning. Her adventures as a homeowner and pet owner and her struggles with her weight also struck me as genuine and honest. I think a lot of women in their mid-thirties will relate to her and enjoy the book a lot. She's sort of like a female David Sedaris, although maybe not quite as outlandish. I enjoyed dipping into the book during commercials or whenever I had a spare moment and needed a laugh. She didn't disappoint.

Rating: BEACH

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Book Meme

Cribbed from Bookgirl's Nightstand.

Make an alphabetical list of some favorite books and authors. I tried to pick a decent mix but it was so hard to choose for some of these letters! Tolstoy, Paul Eluard, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Vladimir Voinovich... the list goes on. So many great books!
  • Addams, Charles - The World of Chas Addams
  • Barry, Brunonia - The Lace Reader
  • Campbell, Bruce - Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way
  • Dikkers, Scott - I Went to College, and It Was Okay
  • Esquivel, Laura – Like Water for Chocolate
  • Ferlinghetti, Lawrence - A Coney Island of the Mind
  • Goodman, Allegra - Kaaterskill Falls
  • Holbrooke, Richard - To End A War
  • Indiana, Gary - Gone Tomorrow
  • Japrisot, Sebastien - A Very long Engagement
  • Kennelly, Brendan - Poetry My Arse
  • Lukyanenko, Sergei - Night Watch
  • Mercer, Scott - Bigfoot vs. Chupacabras
  • Nabokov, Vladimir - Lolita
  • O'Brien, Tim - Tomcat in Love
  • Prevert, Jacques - Paroles
  • Queneau, Raymonde - Excercices de style
  • Reichl, Ruth - Tender at the Bone
  • Sacco, Joe - Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995
  • Taback, Simms - Joseph Had A Little Overcoat
  • Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher - The Age of Homespun
  • Vaite, Celestine - Frangipani
  • Winterson, Jeannette - The Passion
  • X - Nothing…
  • Yang, Gene Luen - American Born Chinese
  • Zinn, Howard - A People's History of the United States

Monday, April 28, 2008

Graphic Novel Monday: The Rabbi's Cat 2, by Joann Sfar

The Rabbi's Cat 2, by Joann Sfar. Published: 2008 by Pantheon. Fiction. Graphica. Translated from the French.

When The Rabbi's Cat came out several years ago, it caused a bit of a sensation in the graphic novel world. Author and illustrator Joann Sfar had been a well-known and respected children's author and illustrator in his native France for years, and The Rabbi's Cat was one of his first graphic novels to hit the United States, and its beautiful art and funny, sweet storytelling made a big splash. The story is about a cat living in Algeria in the 1930s with a rabbi and his daughter, who gains the power of human speech after killing and eating a parrot. He then proceeds to engage his rabbi owner in a series of Talmudic discussions. Later, the rabbi's daughter becomes engaged to a Parisian rabbi, and her loving cat is right there, providing his singularly feline point of view.

The follow-up, released earlier this month, is a fitting and fine sequel. In The Rabbi's Cat 2, we find out that the cat, still nameless, can speak not only French but Russian and Aramaic as well. There are two stories in the second volume. In the first part, the character Malka of the Lions, an old inveterate storyteller and scam artist, returns from the first book for more journeys. The second story starts when a Russian Jewish painter ends up in Algeria on his way to Ethiopia to find a fabled community of Ethiopian Jews living in the New Jerusalem. The rabbi, the artist, the cat and some new friends bundle off for Ethiopia, and what follows abounds with Sfar's characteristic humor, pathos, and sweetness.

I love these books. Sfar's expressive, slightly loopy artwork captures the characters' emotions and Findakly creates a vivid, lush landscape; the cat's sparkling green eyes and the gorgeous clothes and scenery add beauty and exoticism to the story. The cat is a great character- bratty, pushy and stubborn, yet full of genuine affection for his people, he's Everycat, and Sfar does a wonderful job bringing out his personality. I always appreciate how Sfar portrays a multicultural, multi ethnic society where people can live together peacefully- although maybe in this book, slightly less peacefully than in the first. There is a little violence and some sex in this volume, which, like the first, render it unsuitable for children but probably fine for older teens and adults.
personalities beautifully; he makes both the people and animals come alive. Colorist Brigitte

None of these elements detract from the overall appeal though. I really can't say enough good things about this terrific book. Funny, beautiful and sweet, The Rabbi's Cat 2 is a real winner. Go read it!

Rating: BUY

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

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sunday Salon- City Gardens: Creative Ideas for Small Spaces

The Sunday
You know you're domesticated when you buy your first gardening book. Or three, in my case. This spring my husband and I have decided to get serious about our yard- our little, weirdly shaped, poor-soil-having, no-grass-growing excuse for a yard. In the city where we live, we're lucky to have a yard at all, and I don't mind that it's small. What I mind is that it's ugly.

We got three books- two practical how-to books, and one lovely book of design ideas- City Gardens, by Pierre Nessmann. I knew this book was for me when I read the section on lawns for small gardens:
"Creating a lawn in a garden that has less than a thousand square feet or so of space is not a good idea. The lack of enough sunlight, the often poor soil quality, and the competition for nutrients, space, and water from the roots of neighboring plants make this a difficult endeavor. Even when the grass does take, it will not last more than a few years; weeds and mosses will invade some areas, and foot traffic and poor conditions will create bare patches in others."
It's like he's seen our house.

Other sections are equally insightful and he takes the city dweller through the planning and design process step by step. I love this little book! I love that he understands our circumstances and challenges, and he presents the information in a way that does not intimidate me. Nothing's worse than when someone is giving me advice on gardening and has all these fancy, outlandish ideas and I'm like, "that's great, but how about we start simple? You know, like, say, a window box?" So today I'm having fun paging through and thinking and getting ideas. And since it's chilly and gray out, it's the perfect day to dream about summer and a beautiful, achievable yard.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Meme

Okay, nobody tagged me but I wanted to do this little meme anyway. I found it over on Still A Dreamer's blog.

Grab the nearest book.
Open to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.
Tag five people and post a comment to Sheri once you’ve posted your 3 sentences.

The book: Bright Lights, Big Ass, by Jen Lancaster.

5th Sentence: "I like how Rachael takes simple ingredients and quickly cooks a great meal."

Next Three: "Today's program gave me some ideas and I'm going to make dinner tonight. Why don't you sit down and relax?" I grab a glass of wine and plant myself on the couch, idly scanning the channels for something slightly less breastactular.

I'm not going to tag anyone in particular but if you want to do this meme I'd love to know.

REVIEW: Memory, by Philippe Grimbert

Memory, by Philippe Grimbert. Published 2008 by Simon & Schuster. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.

A bestseller in France and winner and nominee for several awards, Memory is a slim little novel about the Holocaust that packs a big punch. It's about a boy named Philippe Grimbert who learns that when his father changed his name from Grinberg to Grimbert, it was to bury more than just his religious identity at a time when France was still reeling from the Second World War and its own shame at its collaboration with the Nazis.

Memory has some things in common with Gypsy Tears, another work of fiction on the Holocaust also based on a true story, and also one where it's difficult to tell fact from fiction. Sometimes these kinds of books can be frustrating, because I'd like to know for sure if I'm reading fiction or fact- it makes a difference to me, to how I evaluate the work and to how I orient myself within it. Over time, I made a decision that when I'm faced with this situation, I try to forget that any part of it might be true and just focus on evaluating the work as fiction. The truth is irrelevant- all that matters to me is whether the story on the page works, whether I care about the characters and whether it hangs together in a satisfying way.

Memory succeeds brilliantly on all fronts. Some people have said they've read this brief book in one or two sittings; it took me a little longer (maybe four sittings) and I'm glad I lingered over it a little. The writing, even in translation, is gorgeous and evocative and hits all the right emotional notes. The story begins in France in the 1960s. Philippe is a weak only child of beautiful, athletic parents, who has always felt like he didn't fit in somehow, that he was always a disappointment. As he talks to a friend of the family and uncovers his parents' secrets, he begins to understand his own place in the world and how he got here, and he finds out that his parents and their relationship are infinitely more complicated than he ever imagined. His discoveries combine with his own coming of age naturally and beautifully, as uncovering their story helps him uncover his own. Haunting, bittersweet and beautiful, Memory is a tiny jewel of a book.

Rating: BUY

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

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack?

Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?

My reading habits don't change much in the spring. There is a series of books by a Tahitian author named Celestine Vaite, that I've enjoyed reading during the early summer; the final book came out last year and I've been saving it for this summer and I'm definitely looking forward to it. Sometimes I pick some big Russian novel to tackle during the summer; maybe I'll give War and Peace another try. I don't read gardening books, or much light fiction, or travel books. The only way my reading habits change in the spring is that I try to read outside as much as possible- nothing's better than an afternoon in the hammock with a good book!

See other responses to this meme here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

REVIEW: Gypsy Tears, by Cora Schwartz

Gypsy Tears, by Cora Schwartz. Published 2007 by Hobblebush Books. Nonfiction.

You can visit to order a signed copy from Schwartz.

Gypsy Tears: Loving a Holocaust Survivor is a very unusual book. Part Holocaust book that doesn't really talk much about the Holocaust, part quasi-roman a clef about a real-life love story, and part travelogue, Gypsy Tears covers a lot of territory. The short version: it's the story of a couple- a nameless American woman and her older, Ukrainian lover Rudy, a damaged, hard-drinking, gambling Holocaust survivor- who travel together to Rudy's Ukrainian home and try to help his surviving family, all the while trying to keep their relationship intact. Rudy is Jewish, but grew up around and with Roma people, and has developed a great deal of affection for its culture and especially its music; his relationship with this community is a crucial aspect of the story and will culminate in a very emotional denouement.

Generally speaking I enjoyed the book. It was has two main themes- the emotional devastation and trauma the Holocaust has left in its wake, and the efforts by the narrator, Rudy's lover, to maintain a relationship with him in the face of this trauma. The love story was beautiful and compelling- I really believed in their love for each other, and felt for the struggles and frustrations they went through. Their adventures in Ukraine and Europe- the music, the bureaucracy, the family, the gypsies- made for great reading. I really enjoyed the material on the Roma, a subject I don't often see covered in the fiction I come across. The detail given to living conditions in Ukraine gave the story richness and pathos and I thought it was unbearably sweet when the narrator says she wants to send goods and money to help the people there have a better standard of living- even if it's only a drop in the bucket. I wanted to, too.

The biggest weakness was the abrupt ending. One minute, we're in Ukraine, and something important is happening. Turn the page, and it's years later- and what just happened? When you get there you'll see what I mean. I think I figured out most of the intervening narrative through context, but it would have been nice to have a little more narrated explicitly. It didn't ruin the book for me, but it was a problem.

On balance though I thought Gypsy Tears was a terrific book. Rudy's story really brought home the psychological devastation of the Holocaust, and the information throughout on Roma culture was fascinating. A beautiful love story, well-written, and recommended.


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

Monday, April 21, 2008

New Feature: Graphic Novel Monday

Breaking Up: A Fashion High Graphic Novel, by Aimee Friedman; art by Christine Norrie. Published 2007 by GRAPHIX. Fiction. Young Adult.

Today marks the inauguration of a new feature on Graphic Novel Monday. Meaning, every Monday I'll review a graphic novel! Mainstream, zines, hot off the presses, or old favorites- doesn't matter.

First up, a book I bought and read cover-to-cover yesterday, Breaking Up, by Aimee Friedman, with art by Christine Norrie. It's published by Scholastic and aimed at teens, but this charming story about friendship is good for teenage girls and grown-up women, too. (Some sexual references probably makes it inappropriate for younger kids though.) The plot centers on Chloe, one of a group of four friends made up herself, glam Mackenzie, musical Erika, and dancer Isabel, and the changes that take place in their relationship during their junior year of high school as they experiment with who they are and who they want to be. What that really means is, what happens to their friendship once boys enter the equation. Chloe likes an ostensibly nerdy boy who isn't cool enough for her girlfriends, and so on. Their junior year ends up being nothing like they expected.

To say this book is light reading is an understatement, but I found it really enjoyable nonetheless. Friedman does a great job of showing what high school can be like- passing notes, hanging out with friends, crushes, parties. Norrie's terrific, expressive black and white artwork brings the girls and their trials to life beautifully and keeps things from getting too serious. What makes it work for me is the honest way the girls are portrayed- everyone makes mistakes, and the girls are portrayed like real girls, who can be cruel as well as loving to each other. Reading this book really takes me back to my high school (and college) years, and all those fights and jealousies and conflicts that girls can have with each other- and also to the wonderful rewards of close female friendships. Because ultimately that's what the book is about and Friedman and Norrie have created a sweet tribute to a turbulent time in a girl's life and the bonds of friendship that can pull her through and see her to the other side.

Rating: BUY

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

Friday, April 18, 2008

REVIEW: Gardens of Water, by Alan Drew

Gardens of Water, by Alan Drew. Published February 2008 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

Gardens of Water is the first novel by author Alan Drew, who moved to Turkey to teach English just days before the horrible Marmara earthquake in 1999. This novel is the story of how one Kurdish family weathers this life-changing natural disaster.

The family is made up of Sinan Basioglu, his wife Nilufer, teenage daughter Irem and eight year old son Ismail. The story opens on the day of Ismail's circumcision, and the reader learns immediately that this traditional Muslim family values its little boy above all. Ismail is treated like a king on his special day, which Sinan only regrets is less fanciful than his own ceremony as a boy. Irem and Nilufer wait on the men, and the guests, an American family living upstairs in their apartment building, are ignored.

Sinan and his family are Kurds in Turkey, and Sinan blames America and, by extension, all Americans, for the sufferings his family and his people have endured. Irem, on the other hand, is rebellious- fascinated by and drawn to things Western, especially the Americans' vaguely rebellious son, Dylan and the freedom he represents, and resentful of her lesser status as a daughter. What starts as innocent flirting becomes a full-blown teenage love affair after the earthquake, when the Basioglu family is living in a refugee camp run by Dylan's father Marcus as she looks for validation and escape. It is in the camp that the family tensions become unbearable. Irem wants to be free of the confines of a Muslim woman's life, while Sinan wants dignity and respectability. He feels that his daughter's wishes are in conflict with his own, and as he works to get the family out of the camps and back with Kurdish relatives, they pull and stretch at their bonds until something has to snap.

Drew has written a very, very good book. It is meticulously crafted- little things that seem like throwaways at first, turn out to be careful foreshadowing. The prose is rich and descriptive without being flowery or overblown, but what is most remarkable is the empathy and respect he shows for his narrators, Sinan and Irem. The book alternates perspectives between the two, giving each a turn to explain an event or offer his or her perspective; sometimes we see the same event twice but never the same way. We see all of their missed connections and misunderstandings- how they yearn for each other but cannot reach through the thick smoke of pride. The ending is so sad because it didn't need to be the way it is, if only one had had the courage to make a last attempt.

That ending, which I won't give away, frustrated me but I understand how it fits into the bigger picture. The big story about this book really is the degree of understanding Drew has for his characters, even the supporting ones. I was particularly struck by how he understood Irem's inner world and how logically, and sadly, her chain of events plays out. I think Gardens of Water would be a terrific book for book clubs especially, because it offers complex characters and situations, pays attention to the characters' reactions and refuses to judge. In other words, there is a lot of food for thought and food for discussion. It's almost unsatisfying for me to not talk about the issues raised and the perspectives on offer. Gardens of Water seems like a book that was almost made for conversation. Go read it, and then find someone to talk to.

Rating: BUY

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

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

REVIEW: Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel. Published 2007 by Anchor Books. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Spanish.

It took me a long time to get around to reading Like Water for Chocolate- years- and I can't quite say why. When I was a student at a New England all-women's college, the film version was just out on video and it was the go-to chick flick. Romantic and magical, it was a passionate love story with an intellectual, foreign-film veneer, perfect for those Saturday nights in the dorm when everyone would crowd around the TV in the common room with cocoa and bathrobe. It sounds like such a cliche, I know, but in cliche veritas, sometimes.

So anyway, the book. I finally got around to reading the book this spring, and with all of the other reading I do sometimes it's hard to find time to read something just for me- not for a challenge, or for work, or for the blog per se, but just for me. I'm glad I did. A quick, light read, Like Water for Chocolate is romantic and passionate like the movie, but with a heavier heart. Covering about forty years, the story is about Tita, the youngest daughter of a strict matriarch, who is raised as the family cook and caretaker. In Tita's family, there is a tradition that the youngest daughter never marries but takes care of the mother until the mother dies, and Tita's Mama Elena is not about to see the end of that tradition. She and a neighbor, Pedro, fall passionately in love, but since Mama Elena will not allow her to marry, Pedro marries Tita's sister Rosaura instead. But Tita is tough, smart and rebellious, and not content to live without love.

But it is through her incredible cooking that she finds an outlet for her emotions. Each chapter opens with a recipe and with Tita preparing a dish of one kind or another, and Esquivel describes the preparations in loving, careful detail. As in a fairy tale, Tita's feelings are transmitted through the food she cooks to those who eat it, with sometimes bizarre and magical results. Her cooking spoils her sister's wedding day, and later causes her other sister, Gertrudis, to go through a liberating transformation. The years pass, and though beautiful, accomplished Tita has her share of admirers, she stays loyal to Pedro. The story has the narrative arc and emotional sweep of a folk tale and the ending, bittersweet and tragic, is consistent and believable in the context of magical realism.

Like Water for Chocolate is a short book and a very entertaining, compelling read, lots of fun and highly recommended for the girly-girl in all of us.

Rating: BEACH

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

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

REVIEW: Out of Line, Growing Up Soviet, by Tina Grimberg

Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet, by Tina Grimberg. Published 2007 by Tundra Books. Nonfiction. Memoir.

Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet, by Tina Grimberg, is a vivid, affecting memoir of a childhood and adolescence spent in Ukraine under the Soviet regime. Grimberg, now a rabbi in Canada, lived in the former Soviet Union until she was 15 and emigrated with her family to Indiana. The book is a memoir about growing up in a world that doesn't exist anymore.

Grimberg's narrative jumps back and forth through the years, from early childhood to her emigration. Grimberg frames her narrative in terms of a young girl and her family doing what they needed to do to survive- queueing up in long lines, working connections for that extra little luxury that made life bearable and worthwhile. The reader gets to know her parents, deeply in love with each other and devoted to their two children, Tina and her older sister Natasha; we meet her grandparents, especially Inna (always "Babushka Inna"), who changed her name from the Jewish Ginda to the more ethnically indeterminate Inna to fit in, and a small cast of friends and some family members who passed away before Grimberg was born.

Throughout the book the tone is warm and affectionate but not really sentimental; Grimberg depicts a loving family struggling to survive and is open about the trials of life as a Jewish family under the anti-Semitic, anti-religious Soviet regime, as well as her own lapses and failings. One of the most touching, albeit sad, anecdotes in the entirety of this slim volume is when Grimberg tells us the time she rode on the bus with Babushka Inna and heard Inna speaking Yiddish with another Jewish woman. After a brief altercation with another passenger they got off the bus; then little Tina told her grandmother never to speak Yiddish in public again, so ashamed was she of the attention it attracted. She speaks then of the heavy, loaded silence and shame that lived between her and Babushka Inna for the rest of the day, even as Babushka lovingly laid out Tina's nightclothes and put her to bed. I have Russian Jewish friends who escaped like Grimberg's family did and most of the time they don't like to talk about their more painful experiences, or only do in general terms, but this anecdote in particular brought something home to me about the damage done to families and to people by the Soviet system.

We also see some other aspects of Soviet life. Through her grandparents' story we see the terrible price the Soviet people paid for World War II, with nearly every family missing that entire generation of men; we see the role played by that generation of women, including Babushka Inna, as essential childrearers and neighborhood watchdogs. We see privations and little victories, such as when Grimberg is able to buy flowers for her mother for Women's Day even after the florist has sold out.

Grimberg draws herself as a basically happy, normal little girl and although her circumstances were grim, we have to remember that the story has a happy ending for the Grimberg family, however unlikely it may have seemed to them even up to the very moment they boarded the train for western Europe. I'm grateful for them that they made it, and grateful for being able to read this sweet, moving book. Out of Line gives some great insights into everyday life in a time and place that shaped a lot of people and is definitely worth checking out. Aimed at young adults, I think it would be a great read for teens (or anyone) interested in the former Soviet Union, in Jewish life there, and in the world that was swept away with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Rating: BUY

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

Monday, April 7, 2008

TBR Challenge: A Little Love Story, by Roland Merullo

A Little Love Story, by Roland Merullo. Published 2005 by Vintage. Literary Fiction.

A Little Love Story will feel like familiar territory for fans of Roland Merullo, author of the novels Breakfast with Buddha and Revere Beach Boulevard, among others. The protagonist is a regular Boston-area guy, a carpenter as a matter of fact, privileged by upbringing but carrying some guilt. In Breakfast with Buddha, Merullo's protagonist dealt with his bourgeois ennui by trying to be a good liberal; in this case, the main character, Jake Entwhistle, deals with it by rejecting a career in medicine for the less glamorous (but still remunerative) life of a successful tradesman and artist.

When Jake meets Janet Rossi, a beautiful and whip-smart political aide with a difficult chronic illness, it's a year after his girlfriend Giselle has died on the plane over Pennsylvania in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The book chronicles Jake's efforts to forge a relationship with Janet with death always close at hand, as well as deal with his lingering sadness and the after-effects of 9/11. In that way, this book is similar to Perrin Ireland's Chatter, another story of post-9/11 angst among the bohemian bourgeoisie. The terrorist attacks are a metaphor for instability and the fragility of life- not that we need a metaphor since we have Janet, who weakens before our eyes.

It probably sounds like I didn't like the book very much; actually I'm ambivalent. As always with Merullo I admire his writing- he's a superb craftsman- and his compassion and respect for his characters. Even the slimy governor, Janet's former lover and the key to her survival, is treated with a certain amount of dignity. As in Breakfast with Buddha, Jake relies on a quasi-religious figure (this time his brother) to help him stay focused; in fact, sometimes A Little Love Story read almost like a rough draft for Breakfast with Buddha, a much better novel. I can't say I liked Jake very much, although he acts with great love and devotion towards Janet. I just found him to be almost too good, and I didn't find their relationship, their great romance, very convincing either. Merullo doesn't show any ambivalence in Jake, any complications to his personality, or to Janet's. Jake keeps telling us how smart Janet is, but I didn't see much evidence of that either. They both just came across as bland. Maybe it was too workaday, too ordinary- an ordinary story about ordinary people, where what appeals to me sometimes are stories with greater narrative flourish. They're both supposed to be wildly admirable people, and I guess they are, but the whole saint thing didn't work for me.

Well, it's not a bad book. It just wasn't that great. If you're interested in cystic fibrosis or a decent novels about the heroics people are willing to undergo to hang on to a lover, you'll like A Little Love Story, probably more than I did.

Rating: BORROW

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

Friday, April 4, 2008

REVIEW: Rashi's Daughters, Book One: Joheved, by Maggie Anton

Rashi's Daughters, Book One: Joheved, by Maggie Anton. Published 2007 by Plume. Literary Fiction.

Joheved is the first in a planned trilogy on the daughters of Rashi, otherwise known as Salomon ben Isaac, possibly the most important commentator on the Talmud, the sacred collection of Jewish law. Author Maggie Anton became intrigued with the his three daughters, who are referred to now and then in his story (which is very well-documented) as being unusually well-educated and learned women, something almost unheard-of for medieval Jewish women. In Jewish families of the time, only men were allowed to study Torah and Talmud- women only needed to know enough to run the household and participate in a limited way in services.

But Rashi, the great scholar, had no sons, and Anton portrays him as a loving, devoted father who takes great joy in teaching his intelligent, lively daughters, who do not want to be limited by their gender. He has three- Joheved, Miriam, and Rachel; this book is focused on the oldest, Joheved, as she works in the family vineyard, learns the wine trade, prepares for marriage and motherhood, and learns.

I enjoyed reading Joheved. Anton does a fine job of creating memorable, compelling characters; her historical research into the lives of medieval French Jews is impressive and woven skillfully into the narrative. There is enough material on the other two girls to whet the appetite for the sequels, but this is definitely Joheved's story. It's part coming-of-age, part feminist plea and part light fiction aimed at women. The writing is competent and accessible and I cruised through it pleasantly. There was a fair amount of 0h-my-goodness-I-can't-believe-I'm-a -girl-studying-Talmud tut-tutting but not enough to be truly tiresome, and enough homey detail surrounding the particulars of everyday life to be fun and interesting. Anton provides a timeline of medieval history and dates each chapter so the reader can situation oneself within the narrative. I don't remember (or never learned) enough about medieval France in the first place for the names of kings and such to mean much to me, but it's a nice feature.

The story includes a lively cast of characters- neighbors, nobles, yeshiva students, servants, Christian friends- and I appreciate the way she portrays French Jews as very much a part of the larger medieval French society. Fairs and holidays come and go, and the reader gets a fascinating insiders' tour of the lives of French Jews of the era- also a treat. I think the book would appeal particularly to those who enjoy light historical fiction, especially of course those interested in French or Jewish history. But Joheved is an enjoyable read in any case.

Rating: BUY

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