Thursday, May 5, 2016

Three reviews:Free Men (Smith), Rare Objects (Tessaro), Father's Day (von Booy)

I feel like I've been flying through books lately.  Luckily, my lovely folks at Harper help me keep the shelves stocked (let's pretend I have the new place organized enough for that to be literally true)!
This is the story of four men, three who are fleeing their pasts (and a major shared event in the book's present) and one on their trail.  We are taken through the pasts of all four men and we follow them as they strive towards their different futures.  Bob is a recently escaped slave seeking to journey west in the hopes of finding his own land where he can one day bring his family and live free.  Istillicha has left his Creek tribe after a dispute with the leader who grabbed power after Istillicha's father's death. The third member of their group is Cat, a poor white man, perhaps a bit intellectually impaired, who lived through an abusive childhood, time in an orphanage, and being given to the service of a doctor. Tracking them is Le Clerc, a Frenchman who is supposed to be hunting the men but also finds himself compelled by the developing relationships and desires.  The reader hears each man tell his story and watches as the present unfolds.  

I enjoyed this book, provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review, but can't say I loved it.  It is a story of the search for freedom, in all the many ways that word can be read.  The characters are interesting and I was especially drawn by Cat.  I didn't find Le Clerc nearly as interesting, however, and some of the events of the men's shared journey left me wanting something meatier.  I had some trouble fully buying the event that bonds the men together, which oddly didn't bleed over into the well-imagined relationships that develop.  

This is certainly not a happy tale.  Each man comes from a painful past and their path together is cemented by a bloody event.  However, it is a compelling read particularly for people interested in the vast range of experiences that made up late 18th Century America (notably, and fascinatingly, politics and the Revolution seem pretty meaningless to these men).  

Three-and-a-half to four stars.

Maeve has returned to her native Boston after having fled to New York in search of a more vibrant life.  Her journey ended with a stay in an asylum where she met an intriguing young woman wearing pearls before shock therapy.   Back in Boston, in the midst of the Great Depression, Maeve hides her Irish roots (literally, I suppose, since she dyes her hair) and takes a job in an antiques store.  The store's owners include a kindly older gentleman and a mysterious adventurer who sends his finds back to the store.  May, as she's now known, eventually reconnects with the woman in pearls when she is sent to deliver a special find to the home of a wealthy family.  The friendship that develops changes May's daily life (she grew up quite poor and with only her mother as family) and threatens her well-being because of the casualness of alcohol in her new crowd. 

This is definitely a novel of characters and I like characters.  May is intriguing and, while I'm not sure I liked her, I was interested in her story.  Some of the other characters weren't as well-drawn, even May's friend who has more than one secret but never quite felt real to me.  Nonetheless, this is an easy and enjoyable read with some lovely, quotable language tucked inside.  I might liken it to potato chips, enjoyable and fast but not the truest of sustenance.  Still, I think it is worth taking for what it is and I'll give it 3.5 stars (I'll balance out the review sites between 3 and 4).  Thank you to Harper for supplying the book in exchange for an honest review. 

Aside from a few "flashback"-like moments, this book is generally told in two parts that are interspersed throughout the novel.  The earlier time period involves the aftermath of Harvey's parents dying.  A social worker decides to seek out the young girl's estranged uncle, a man with a history of violence and alcohol abuse who has been living a very solitary existence.  We watch the two learn to be family and we also see them many years later when Harvey is living in Paris.  This second time period involves Harvey anticipating her uncle's (whom she now calls her father) arrival and his visit.  The pair have come to love each other deeply and the visit includes several meaningful Father's Day gifts but Harvey is also a bit nervous because she intends to discuss a secret she's learned about their past. 

This novel (received free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review) fell a bit flat for me.  I like the idea behind it, but I never really felt compelled to dive into the story.  The characters had their faults (well, at least the uncle did), but it still didn't feel like a fully rounded story and I never really believed in either protagonist.  I felt like I was supposed to feel a whole lot more than I actually did.  I don't mean to say it was a bad book, more kinda "meh."

That all said, it was an easy read of the sort that might fit a commuter looking for a simple book to pass the time.  Two (labeled "it was ok" on at least one review site) to two-and-a-half stars. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Moving Joys and Two (Interestingly Related) Reviews: Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape (Orenstein) and Terrible Virtue (Feldman)

So, is it just me or does everyone label a box "Best Books" when they move?  We left Central PA and are now in Alexandria, VA, just outside DC.  Going from a three bedroom house with a large basement to a one bedroom apartment means most of my book collection (the only thing I hoard!) will live in storage for some time, but I can't fathom being book-less so I've got some of my favorites ready to be Virginians.  

Anyway, I've been a bit slower in my progress of late (hello, packing and unpacking!!) but have some reviews to share....

Orenstein's prior book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a look at the "princess-ification" (my term) of girlhood, remains one of the most interesting book's I've had the opportunity to read in many years.   So, I was really excited to have the opportunity to read a pre-release version of her newest book courtesy of the folks at Harper Publishing.  Short version: It wasn't Cinderella, but it is still a revealing read and should make it onto the shelves of parents of teen and pre-teen girls (and, perhaps, boys as well).

Girls takes up where Cinderella left off and looks at the lives of young women from junior high through college, with a tight focus on intimacy and sexual activity.  There's a lot covered: The rise of the "hook-up culture;" Issues of consent, rape, and assault; Alcohol and it's relationship to sexual activity; Coming out and the LBTQ community; and more.  There is an overriding theme though involving the pressure to act and perform sexually, a pressure that weighs very differently on females than males.  It isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but the lack of reciprocity in sexual relationships (especially with respect to oral sex) is disturbing.  Orenstein's viewpoint and message can certainly be heard throughout the book, including the idea that we need to teach girls that sex can be and, critically, that they have a right to have it be fulfilling and enjoyable.  

I didn't feel like I learned as much as I did in Cinderella; much of the content didn't feel new but it was valuable nonetheless.  The stories she tells put "faces" on the trends many of us have heard about.  She also provides some "hope" with reference to what most will call "more liberal" sexual education and a climate that accepts sexuality as part of life and part of adolescence.  I'd pick Cinderella over Girls for a "must read" list, but this is still useful.   It would be particularly interesting to parents of teens and pre-teens, including parents of males, but it has value for all of us who in subtle ways take part in constructing the climate in which kids come of age.

Four stars.
Terrible Virtue (which I coincidentally read at the same time as I read Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein, both received free of charge in exchange for an honest review) is a fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Sanger, generally considered the founder of the birth control movement and a key player in making birth control available to women.  We meet Sanger in childhood where her mother is physically and mentally worn down by her brood of fourteen children (which doesn't include lost pregnancies).  This climate heavily influences her path which takes her through nursing school, passionate love affairs (perhaps trying to capture an intimacy lacking in her childhood), and a (often conflicted) role as a mother herself.  

Sanger works on the birth control movement from a philosophic, political, and practical vantage point.  She without doubt sacrifices a lot to the movement and women today owe her a debt.  Still, one can't say she's a perfect heroine and the novel leaves the reader a bit conflicted.  Sanger made important strides for women and society, but I can't say she's portrayed as likeable.  

I had high hopes for this story, but it never fully drew me in.  I can deal with a less-than-likeable protagonist, but I had trouble relating to Sanger and understanding her actions.  She is very polyamorous which doesn't necessarily bother me in principle but never felt very real.  It is an interesting read and I definitely learned about an important figure in women's history, but I can't really say I'd recommend the book wholeheartedly.  It may be an interesting starting point for people looking to learn more about Sanger (with the clear note that it is fictionalized), but I struggled to pay attention even with a relatively short length.

Three of five stars. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Introducing The Healthiest Sick Gal You Know

Amid the chaos of moving, I decided to split off this blog into two separate sites.  This one will continue to host book reviews and hopefully get back to some of the more random musings that earn me the title moniker.  A new site, launched today, will deal more specifically with health issues (fitness stuff may bridge the two).  Please check out The Healthiest Sick Gal You Know and the first post in a series talking about the use of medications to manage chronic pain (spoiler: I used some tough meds over the years and even after a grueling withdrawal process, I don't regret it and I think it's important to remember these drugs DO have a legitimate use...don't let the "bad guys" stigmatize those who use pain meds to survive actual physical pain in accordance with their doctor's guidance).