Evel Knievel Days

by Pauls Toutonghi
ages: adult
First sentence: “Everyone knows that the Ancient Egyptians mummified their dead.”
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I was in the mood for something weighty, in between all the YA and MG books I was reading, and I wandered around the bookstore looking for something suitable. I finally settled on this one, mostly because I was curious about a book (and an author) who can make more than one of the managers go all *swoon* every time they mention him.

Khosi Saqr is living a quiet life in Butte, Montana. He was raised by his single mom, and aside from a trip to a museum in Seattle, he’s never left Butte. Content, at age 23, to get up, go to work at the local historical museum, and be the taster for his mother’s (who is on medication for Wilson’s disease and has lots of allergies) Egyptian catering business (she’s white; it was his father who is Egyptian; she commandeered his family recipes), Khosi never really expected much from his life.

Then Butte’s Evel Knievel Days come around, and Khosi’s life is turned upside down. Next thing he knows, he’s done the impossible: gotten on a plane (against his mother’s recommendation) and flown to Cairo to find his father. What he does find is a mess: his father, a compulsive gambler and an equally compulsive liar, is getting remarried. And has neglected to tell his fiance, or his family, that he has a (living) son and ex-wife. Everything comes to a head when Khosi comes down with yellow fever, and his life hangs in the balance.

So, I’m not quite sure what to think about this now that I’m done. It was weird: part magical realism (he’s hallucinating a ghost that gives him advice), but not really. Part a foodish book (his mother cooks Egyptian food and he goes on about the eloquence and importance of dishes), but not really. Part a coming of age book (he goes to Egypt to find his father and reconcile with him after 20 years), but not really.

That said, I liked the book. Toutonghi has such a comfortable way of writing, a very companionable way of writing that even though it wasn’t really a lot of things, it was entertaining. I liked Khosi as a character, I liked going on his (somewhat weird) journey with him, and I liked the outcome: he was able to find a place to belong, and break out of his shell.

So, yeah, I can kind of see what the managers are talking about. He’s a good writer and an interesting storyteller. I’m not sure it was what I was looking for, but it was enjoyable at any rate.

A Desire Path

by  Jan Shapin
ages: adult
First sentence: “By the time Japan surrendered, Andy’s disappointment extended to just about everything.”
I’d tell you to buy it at your local independent bookstore, but you can’t. 😦
Review copy provided by the author.

It’s the 1930s, the height of the Depression, and everywhere people are struggling. To find work, to find a path, to find themselves. Andy’s in Washington, D.C. when he meets up with an old friend (she always liked him more than he liked her), Anna Mae, who, in the wake of her successful books about Communisum, has fallen in with a hot-shot defense lawyer. Andy falls for the lawyer’s wife, and they fall into an affair. One which goes on for a while, but is finally ended because Ilse isn’t willing to leave her husband and family. In the midst of all this, Anna Mae has her own trials: her father’s mind is going, and she needs to find a home for him, since she’s in Russia and neither of her brothers live nearby. On top of that, after years of reporting on Communism, Anna Mae finally has decided to take the plunge and join the party. Except the people in charge of the party in Seattle are petty and want revenge for the part they think Anna Mae has in all this. Ilse, over the years, is an impartial observer of all this, not really engaging — aside from her affair with Andy — and mostly just being a friend.

I was offered this book to review because I liked the author’s previous one, quite a bit. She seemed to have a way with making grand epics seem personable. But this three-pronged story didn’t do that for me. I struggled to connect with the characters, to find meaning in why these three disparate stories were connected. Aside from the obvious — that they knew each other, and knowing Anna Mae led Andy and Ilse together — there really wasn’t any reason for their stories to be told together.

Out of the three stories, though, I did find Anna Mae’s fascinating. The book I would have really loved to read is the one about Anna Mae, about her journey into reporting about Communism, the reasons behind her ending up in the Soviet Union, her tumultuous relationship with her father, how she and Andy met. In comparison, Andy and Ilse’s affair seems trite, a fleeting moment of passion without the depth that I think the characters wanted to believe they had.

Shapin’s writing is still spare and elegant; giving life and meaning to lives that aren’t that meaningful. It’s what kept me turning pages, even while I was frustrated with the direction of the story. I really did want to like this book; I like the author. But in the end, I just felt that it was flat. Which is disappointing.

Poser

My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses

by Claire Dederer

ages: adult

First sentence: “Taking up yoga in the middle of your life is like having someone hand you a dossier about yourself.”

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Memoirs are an interesting breed of book. On the one hand, they are incredibly self-indulgent: anyone who thinks that their life is one that people are going to want to read about have to be at least a little bit arrogant. On the other hand, there are lives that are fascinating, and the writing is good enough to help even the most disconnected reader connect to the story the author is trying to tell.

In Poser, Dederer walks a fine line between those two memoir extremes. Sometimes, she is overly arrogant about her experiences and her plight; her insular liberal white enclave in North Seattle (and eventually Boulder, Colorado) has warped her perception of child raising (she feels guilted into attachment parenting; and feels guilty again when she doesn’t like everything that espouses), marriage (as a child of divorce, of a sort, she feels like everything needs to be perfect), and sacrifice (shopping at Trader Joe’s instead of Whole Foods) and makes the book unrelatable to anyone who doesn’t live or aspire to that life.

There was a moment, about halfway through, where I got fed up with Dederer’s self-pity and judgment of others and seriously considered abandoning the book. One can only handle so much whining from an author, after all.

On the other hand, when Dederer wrote about yoga, she was lyrical and often spot-on in her observations. She reminded me of things I need to remember in my own life and practice, simple things, like being present both physically and mentally. And that yoga is a process, not an end goal. In fact, some of the most interesting passages were her exploration of yoga’s place in western culture; whether or not yoga is, in fact, an exercise; and the connection between the movement and spirituality. One quote that I found to be particularly true:

I thought I would do yoga all my life, and I thought that I would continue to improve at it, that I would penetrate its deepest mysteries and finally be able to perform a transition from scorpion directly into chaturanga. But here’s the truth: The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it. I can’t tell you what a relief it is.

So, for that reason alone, I found the book to be worth the time. Dederer’s life was fascinating, if a bit warped, and her writing excellent. But that wasn’t enough to carry the book. Thankfully, she had the yoga bits to pull the rest of it along.

(Oh, and can I mention that I adored the little yoga figures at the beginning of the chapters? So cute.)

Mad Love

by Suzanne Selfors
ages: 12+
First sentence: “When you’re sixteen, summer is supposed to spread before you like a magic carpet, waiting to carry you to new, exciting places.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher

From one vantage point, it looks like Alice Amorous has a charmed life: her mother is the Queen of Romance Fiction, she lives in a quaint apartment in the College Hill area of Seattle. It should be good. Except that her mother has been hospitalized for mental illness, and it’s up to Alice to hold down the increasingly shaky fort.

Then she meets Errol, a strange boy (wearing black hoodies in the middle of the Heat Wave of the Century qualifies, I think) who claims he’s Cupid and wants Alice to write his story. Of course she doesn’t believe him: mental illness runs in the family, she must be going mad, right? Which terrifies her.

Much of the book is given over to convincing Alice that Cupid is really who he says he is. There’s some side stories, a distraction in the form of a Cute Skateboarding Guy, and conflicts with Alice’s neighbors as the lies and stories she’s surrounded herself with slowly fall apart. The characters are quirky and interesting and clever, as is the idea of melding mythology with writing romance fiction.

Sure, it gets a bit melodramatic at the end, but I was kept guessing as to where Selfors was going with the book, and delighted that she didn’t go for the easy road out. It’s always nice when a book ends well. I was thinking though, as I finished it, that the book doesn’t really qualify for a romance (though there is one). It’s more about love in general. And the song that went through my head when I finished was this one:

It’s what makes the world go round, after all. And this book is quite full of love.

Heart of a Shepherd

by Rosanne Parry
ages: 10+
First sentence: “Grandpa frowns when he plays chess, like he does when he prays.”
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There are obviously powerful books, books about Problems or Trials or Oppression, books where the main character has something obviously Moving happen to them. And then there are books that are quietly powerful. Ones that seem simple on the surface, but then work their way under your skin and move you in ways that you totally didn’t expect.

This is one of those books.

Twelve-year-old Ignatius — Brother to everyone, since he has four older brothers — part of the east Oregon ranching community. Even though he’s small, and he doesn’t like killing the animals, he — along with his father, grandfather and brothers — does the work: take the cows to the mountains, raise and shear the sheep, mend and tend the ranch. Except, all the brothers are away, at school, in the army. And then, when Brother’s dad’s National Guard gets called up for a fourteen-month tour in Iraq, Brother is left with Grandpa to manage the the ranch by themselves. It’s up to him to prove that he can be what he doesn’t think he can: a rancher. Except, over the course of the year that his father is gone, that’s not what Brother finds out, about himself or his family.

It’s a deeply religious book — Brother and his family are Irish Catholics, though his Grandpa is a Quaker — but not overly preachy. There’s a lot of references to God and His will, but it’s a quiet religion, one that’s open, accepting and fluid in ways that are unexpected and ultimately beautiful and movie. It’s a harsh reality, east Oregon ranching life, but Parry writes about it in ways that will keep you thinking about Brother and his family long after you close the book.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Boston Jane: An Adventure

I really liked this book by Jennifer L. Holm. It’s a great girl book. An awkward 11-year-old goes to refinement school in Philadelphia because she has a crush on an apprentice of her father’s and then goes out to Oregon Territory (this is late 1800s) to marry him only to find that he’s abandoned her (because of the time it takes for the mail to get there…). So, she learns to survive. And the beauty of it all is that it’s really, truly believeable (at least to me). You laugh at her, you cheer for her, you want her to succeed. And she does (of course). It’s actually the first in a series and now I’m sorry I didn’t checkout all three at once. I can’t wait to see what she does next.