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Book Review: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

I read this book for the title.  How could I not?  I want to be as informed about the afterlife as possible, since someday I'm going to spend quite a lot of time there.  
     This book has a very interesting conception of the afterlife.  There's a God and a Heaven, but God doesn't make an appearance and Heaven is not a place of eternal rest and harp music.  Instead, Heaven is where the deceased meet with five people who influenced their lives.  From these people, the dead learn why their lives played out the way that they did.  Five People follows the journey of just one man, an amusement park maintenance employee named Eddie, through Heaven.
     I like Albom's Heaven, and the book's ending was satisfying.  But I didn't love its overall tone .  It felt preachy.  You know, everything happens for a reason.  A Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul kind of tone.  But hey, lots of people love Chicken Soup for the Soul!  You might like this one better than I did.

     - Car…

Best School Reading

Seeing as I am re-reading Beloved and thus have no new books to review for you, and seeing as the school year is (wahh) about to start again, I thought I'd share a list of my favorite assigned books from this past school year, if only to give me hope for this year...

1. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess - You already know. 2. Dispatches by Michael Herr - The Vietnam War veteran experience, as reported in stream-of-consciousness style by an Esquire magazine journalist.   3. Paradise Lost by John Milton - Antiquated perception of women's role in society aside, the writing is beautiful and the characterization of enigmatic figures such as the Devil is daring. 4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien - The Vietnam War veteran experience, expressed in short story form. 5. The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker - I can't recommend this book highly enough! You'll learn all kinds of crazy stuff about psychology, society, language, and the connections between t…

Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison

(I know, I know, my blog posts have not been very varied lately - too much Toni Morrison.  I'll find a new writer to fixate on soon, I promise.  In the meantime, here's a review of another one of her flawless books!)




Beloved is set in post-Civil War Cincinnati, Ohio.  More specifically, it takes place at the address 124, in a house haunted by the "spiteful" ghost of a baby girl who died a horrific death.  The baby's mother, a former slave named Sethe, and her remaining family continue to live at 124 for years after the tragedy. This story explores the effects of the baby ghost and of the memory of slavery on the men and women who are connected to the house.        This book is disturbing, desolate, tender, audacious, and gorgeous.  Can I just give you a sample of the writing?  I don't trust my words to do hers justice.
And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of the land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its eart…

Book Review: Love Poems by Pablo Neruda

This is probably the sappiest-looking book I own.  It's small, thin, and pink.  The cover is stamped with gold curlicues and gold lettering.  And the title could not be more straightforward.  
     All that aside, damn.           I'm not sure what makes these poems so good.  They surprised me by not being cryptic. Normally, when I read poetry, I have to annotate to get the full meaning.  But at no point in this book did I find myself knee-deep in symbolism and in need of a pencil to pull myself out.  (Not that puzzling out a poem isn't fun too, haha.)  I guess the simplicity is part of it.  Neruda wrote these poems to talk about love, not to show off his skills.        I loved that, in this edition of the collection, each poem was printed in both Spanish and English.  I liked comparing the English translations to the original poems.  The translations weren't awesome - the words used in English seemed more shallow to me than Neruda's original choices.  But I get it, li…

Book Review: All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou

I just realized that I'm reading Maya Angelou's autobiographies WAY out of order.  I read the first one, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, last summer, and this summer I read the fifth one.  I am not reading them out of order on purpose.  I happened upon both books by chance (I found Traveling Shoes at a secondhand bookstore in Cincinnati) and bought them with no knowledge of the series' sequence.  Luckily, I was able to enjoy this book despite my ignorance.
     This book was most interesting for its exploration of the yearning of some African-Americans to return to Africa in the 60s'.  Over the course of the book, Angelou creates a life in Ghana and struggles with her suspicion that slavery has left African-Americans without a home country: they are oppressed in the United States and out of place in Africa.  She desperately wants to feel at home in Ghana, but because of the centuries of separation and abuse that her ancestors endured, Ghanaian culture does not feel li…

Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

I'm on a Toni Morrison kick and I am NOT sorry.  Seriously, she's incredible. She has this way of flooding a page with the feeling of a place or character.  She identifies and writes down the tiny dust mote details that make life.
     Anyway, Sula.  The story is set in Ohio during the first half of the 20th century and focuses on two African-American women who choose very different lives, although they were childhood friends.  I didn't get the impression that Morrison wants the reader to favor one woman's choices over those of the other.  She honestly describes their lives in all their courage, arrogance, smallness, ecstasy, and heartache.  She also explores the lives of the people around the women (she does something similar in The Bluest Eye): mothers, grandmothers, husbands, lovers, etc.  She precisely describes how race and gender influence her characters' relationships with the world and each other.  Her writing is so brave and beautiful.
     I have no …

Little Libraries: A Gallery

Little libraries are so damn cute!  The books inside are usually kind of eh, but I still love them and whenever I see one, I stop to take a picture. These pictures have been accumulating on my phone for quite a while now, so I thought I'd share them with y'all.      You're welcome!  Unless you had your heart set on reading a nice book review.  In that case, sorry?



     - Carly

Book Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The best part of this book was its structure.  I've never read a book whose structure served its message so perfectly. The narrative of Bluest Eye is built around Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl living in Ohio in the late '30s, early '40s.  The story is never told from Pecola's perspective, however.  It is told from the perspectives of the people around her who destroy her.  I won't say how she is destroyed or what these people do to her.  But I will say that they are ordinary people, neighbors and friends and family members, whose acts of racism eventually tear her apart. Many of these acts are not drastic or unusual, and their very ordinariness forces the reader to reflect on the effects of his or her own actions and prejudices.
      Morrison chose to write each chapter from the point of view of a different character.  Only one narrator, one of Pecola's friends, recurs in multiple chapters, and she also happens to be the only first-perso…

Book Review: Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I know this book is good because I shook with silent laughter while reading it on the subway.  I was so enraptured that I did not mind the silent judgments of my fellow passengers - all that mattered to me was the madness I was reading.  
     Quesadillas is called Quesadillas because that is all that the protagonist, Orestes, and his impoverished family can afford to eat.  The setting is Mexico during the 1980s', a time of economic and political turmoil for the country.  The endless inflation, corruption, and poverty which Orestes's family is forced to endure is so extreme (though true) that it seems absurd.  But instead of trying to piece together a traditional narrative with this absurdity as a backdrop, Villalobos gives the absurdity free reign and allows it to run the story.  UFOs, hysterical pilgrims, a Polish cow inseminator, a universal remote control, and pretend twins all wreck random havoc in Orestes's life. 
     This book's primary goal seems to be to destr…

Books About Music

I went to GovBall a few weeks ago!  It was my first music festival and I had a blast.  I saw so many amazing artists - Florence + the Machine, Kate Tempest, Marina and the Diamonds, Angus and Julia Stone, Drake, et cetera.  I could go on forever but I'm probably boring you all, so I'll just say that I've had music on the brain since GovBall, and this reading list is a result of that.
1. Elenor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: This cute YA romance is made interesting because it dares to break several conventions of the YA romance genre.  For example, the girl is not drop-dead gorgeous.  Anyway, the couple, Elenor and Park (durr), connect through music - Park brings his Walkman on the school bus every morning, and they share earbuds on the ride to school.
2. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan: Another romance in which the characters are united by their love of music!  Don't get cynical on me, though.  This book is hilarious and it's ful…

Book Review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This book left me conflicted and disturbed, as all good books should.  It's set in a future world where teenage gangs terrorize the streets while the Government attempts to control and reform them.  The protagonist, who refers to himself as Your Humble Narrator, is a rat bastard named Alex who spends his free time looting and raping with his friends.  (Keep in mind that there are lots of graphic and violent scenes in this book.  Don't read it if this will upset you.)  At the tender of age of 15, he is a proud sadist and his society doesn't know what to do with him.  His story is a meandering answer to several tough questions: Is it better to choose to do bad or to be obliged to do good?  Can the price of goodness ever be too high?
     The best part of this book is probably that it dares to deal with such controversial questions.  The next best part is the slang that Alex and his friends use, because it's really colorful and gives interesting insights into how their mi…

Websites Built for Bibliophiles

So I love to read, but I am also a child of the Digital Age, so I spent a fair amount of time screwing around on the Internet.  As a result, I frequent a lot of book-centric websites.  Here are a few of my favorites!

1. http://www.whatshouldireadnext.com/
I can't tell you how helpful this little search engine is.  Just type in the name of a book you like and it will pull up a list of related recommendations.
2. http://www.hatrack.com/
This is Orson Scott Card's blog.  Through it, he imparts his writer-ly wisdom.  You all know how much I love Card, so you can probably guess what I think of this site.
3. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/
The magazine is famous, but who has the money to subscribe?  I like rummaging through the site's archives, reading essays and stories from old issues.
4. http://www.sparknotes.com/
Before you tear me to pieces, allow me to explain.  I'm not suggesting that y'all read Sparknotes instead of actual books.  I would never condone such trea…

I Never Thought I'd Write an Obituary

My non-fiction writing idol, William Zinsser, died last Tuesday at the age of 92.  I didn't know him but I spoke to him once on the phone, to interview him for this blog.  
     It's a strange thing when someone you adored from a distance dies.  I'm not grieving, although I feel for his family and friends, who must be.  I just wish he was still out in the world, advocating simplicity and advising writers.  I knew that he was old, but I didn't think about the implications of his age.  I had hoped that if I ever wrote a memoir, he might want to see it.  An improbable fantasy - but now it's impossible.  
     It's also strange that Zinsser's death should come in the same week as the anniversary of another, more personal death.  I don't know.  It is sad that these people aren't here anymore.  I feel Zinsser's absence like I would feel the loss of a molar.  
     This isn't much of an obituary - sorry.  This is just to say that I'm going to…

Book Gift-Giving Guide

Is this post relevant to this season?  No.  But do I care?  Again, no.
     Below you will find a list of personality types and books that might make good gifts for each.  I don't pretend to address all or even most of the personality types on Earth with this list, and I can't guarantee that the recipient of your gift will enjoy the books that I recommend, but hey, I'm trying.

NERD: This one's easy - wrap up a science fiction classic!  I suggest Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card, or The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.  The His Dark Materials trilogy is great too, although it's more fantasy than science fiction.

That Person Who Loves Inspirational Quotes: A Chicken Soup for the Soul book is definitely a safe bet here.  

Traveler: 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz is perfect for someone who is constantly planning their gap year or retirement trip around the world.  

That Person…

Book Review: Gotham Writers' Workshop Fiction Gallery

Remember when I said I was going to read more short stories this year?  Well, I'm keeping my word, because this is a collection of short stories!
     Initially I was disappointed that the stories in this collection were written by famous authors and not by students of Gotham Writers' Workshop, because I liked the idea of supporting new writers.  I guess some Gotham teachers just picked from the general pool of published short stories?  Anyway, they made some excellent selections.
     I especially liked "For a Long Time This Was Griselda's Story" by Anthony Doerr. It describes the very different life paths chosen by two sisters and makes you wonder whether one is better than the other.  "After the Plague" by T.C. Boyle is a hilariously realistic post-apocalyptic tale in which the antisocial survivors of a plague really, really can't stand each other.  "Crazy Life" by Lou Mathews was my favorite, though.  This story explores the strang…

Book Review: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Shout-out to my friend Isabelle for lending me this book!  We have started an informal book club, meaning the two of us lend each other our favorite books and discuss them at lunch.  Anyway, I probably would not have read past this book's detailed and dull beginning if she had not recommended it so strongly.  And I am so glad that I did!
     Yes, the beginning is dull - a description of a murder trial, which I had no emotional connection to at first - but after that things pick up nicely.  We learn that the trial takes place on an American fishing island not long after World War II, and that a Japanese man has been accused of murdering a man of German descent.  Both are American veterans, but the islanders don't see it that way because of the accused man's race.  This would be a fascinating story in itself, but Guterson weaves a billion other story threads around the central cord of the trial.  These threads work to bring out the significance of the trial rather than dist…

Book Review: Anne Sexton: A Biography by Diane Wood Middlebrook

I have good memories of biographies.  My elementary school classrooms always had a set of biographies (the condensed kind that are about a quarter inch thick), and I was probably the only kid in class who enjoyed them.  I still remember random details about the lives of Milton S. Hershey (of confectionery fame) and Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb.  For example, when I'm feeling hopelessly scatterbrained, I like to remind myself that Edison once forgot his own name for several hours after spacing out in a long line.  Clearly my forgetfulness is a mark of genius.  Right?
     Despite these fond childhood associations, Anne Sexton is the first biography I've read in years. But I'm so glad I did read it!  Anne Sexton was one of the first poets to write "confessional" poetry about her own life, as opposed to the third-person, universal idea-centered poetry (think T.S. Eliot) that was preferred up until the late 60s'.  She began to write poetry at the…

Some War Novels

I was going to title this post "Best War Books" or something like that, but then I realized it would be really, really arrogant to assume that my little slapped-together list actually contained the very best books on a subject that has been so well covered by so many authors.  So I only hope to share a few of my favorite books about war with you; I can't promise they are the best.  
     War is terrible, but it sure inspires some wonderful books.
1. Dispatches by Michael Herr - I've never read a book like this before - it's very stream-of-consciousness and studded with historical and musical allusions (I actually made a playlist out of all the songs and artists that Herr mentions).  It's a mash-up of poetry, journalism (Herr was reporting on the Vietnam War), and novel that captures the chaos of war in a way that no standard narrative could.

2. Exodus by Leon Uris - Reading Exodus, which in simplest terms explores the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Je…

The Iris Bookcafe

Tonight I am not writing to you from New York City.  Tonight I am writing to you from Cincinnati, a half-shuttered and intriguing Ohio city, and I would like to tell you about a book store that I have discovered here.
     It is called the Iris Bookcafe, and I love it already.  Today was blowy and snowy and frozen, so I took refuge there for about an hour (although I would have liked to stay much longer).  The Bookcafe sells exactly what the name suggests: books (used ones) and coffee (as well as standard coffee shop foods like soup and pastries).  There are shelves of books in the front 'eating area' of the shop and even more in back.  I got really sucked in while browsing!  Used book stores always have an interesting mix of book topics.  The Bookcafe also sells records.  I spent quite a while going through the "5 for $1" singles box :)  Then I ordered a mocha latte - my first ever, shhh, I'm pretending to be a grown up - and found it delicious.  Like hot chocola…

Podcast Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Before I begin: Is this ok?  Do you guys mind if I extend the scope of this blog to include podcasts as well?  
     I only ask because I am a rabid enemy of e-readers - e-readers will eclipse bound paper pages over my dead body - and feel perplexed as to why podcasts enchant rather than irritate me.  I think that I feel this way because podcasts are too different from books to be a replacement.   
     The podcast is less like a book and more like the descendant of old-fashioned serial radio programs. Listening to a podcast, you can close your eyes.  You can picture the story and its characters and its setting in your head.  You can appreciate the skill of voice actors and the power of a few well-chosen sound effects. And the podcast listener receives other benefits - she can escape her morning commute or a sleepless night just by slipping on a pair of headphones, for example.  
     In short, I feel no shame in promoting podcasts on this blog because they are alternatives to and not su…

Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I'll start with my one and only complaint about this book.  My complaint is that the entire time I was reading the story, I thought that it was true.  I thought, because of the title and the tone of the book and theTranslator's Note, which is narrated by a (I assume) fictional author/historian, that a geisha named Nitta Sayuri had dictated the story of her life to the author, who had simply massaged her memories into a plot arc.  (Ew, was that phrasing creepy? Massaged?)  Only when I read the Acknowledgments, at the end of the book, did I realize that Sayuri is a made-up character with a made-up life story.  The actual author, Arthur Golden, did extensively interview an actual geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, in order to write the book, and I realize now that the cover professes itself "a novel by Arthur Golden," so I can't be too mad at him.  But I did feel betrayed when, after 428 pages of rooting for the captivating, resourceful, unstoppable, improbable Sayuri, I …

A Resolution for the Rapacious Reader: Read More Short Stories

Ahaha, sorry I haven't updated in so long.  I have no excuse other than that this month, once I was done with a frenetic school day plus homework and studying, I wanted to do something mind-numbing like watch Skins and documentaries rather than blog.  But I feel disciplined today, so I am suggesting a New Years' Resolution to you all: Read more short stories!  
     This is a resolution for me too because I read far more novels than short pieces.  But I have read some really awesome short stories in the past and I feel like I should seek out more this year.  A good short story is the bridge between a poem and a novel: it is as concentrated, delicate, and detailed as a poem, but allows for more story, more character development, and more drawn-out exploration of themes.  Short stories deserve more love than the word is inclined to give them.  Here are a few that you should try reading this year:
1. "The A&P" by John Updike - This was one of the first great shor…