Thursday, October 29, 2009


Ostrich Feathers by Miriam Romm
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: When reading a book in translation, it's always hard to tell whether any awkwardness in the text comes from the original or the translation. And there's a lot of awkwardness in this story, though not all of it can be attributed to problems in translation. Some of the awkwardness could go either way, such as the stilted dialogue (I understand that recreating dialogue in a memoir can be problematic, but I think most readers would agree that ease of reading trumps efforts to be strictly faithful to events, as long as gist and meaning are maintained).

Other kinds of awkwardness are easier to pinpoint, such as when the author tells us that she wishes she had broached the subject of her father earlier so that she would have had an opportunity to talk to his friends who are now either dead or past the point where she can talk to them about their memories of her father. This would indeed be unfortunate, except that throughout the book we are repeatedly given the memories of several of her father's friends, given, we are told, directly from them to her.

This extensive awkwardness is a very unfortunate factor in what otherwise could have been a very good read. The author's quest to find her father, lost during the Holocaust, is a very interesting subject, but this book would have benefited greatly from either a ghost writer, or a better editor, or both.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

it's all a matter of perspective

The Girls by Lori Lansens
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Imagine writing a book with two characters that must inevitably share every experience, and yet giving each character a unique and vivid perspective. That is what Lansens has done with her novel of conjoined twins Ruby and Rose, the oldest surviving (they are approaching their 30th birthday) craniopagus (joined at the head) twins.

Lansens demonstrates that her twins have different perspectives on life by having them by joined such that they face at angles to each other (as Rose says, "I have never looked into my sister's eyes."), a neat literary trick. And of course they sometimes remember the same events differently as any two people, real or imagined, will. In some ways, Lansens ability to create two such different characters is not very remarkable, since most authors do it in every book. But we must return to the fact that Lansens' characters are not the same as any other two characters in a different book. And yet, they are. And it is Lansens ability to make them so normal, and so real, to her readers that is just a part of what makes this book so good.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

no easy virture

The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries that Defined America by Jeffrey Rosen
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: Here’s an interesting technique of historiography: match up pairs of historical figures, making sure that in each pair you agree with one, and disagree with the other. Then praise the one in almost every way, while denigrating the other. Lastly, declare that the first was on the side of truth and justice, while the other was merely self-serving. Rosen applies this rubric to pairs of Supreme Court Justices through the ages (although, oddly, he pairs John Marshall with Thomas Jefferson, who of course was never on the Court). Rosen is somewhat ambivalent about the actual role of truth and justice on the Court, but he pulls no punches in proclaiming his thesis that a jurist who looks only to his own legacy will, in the end, have a very poor legacy indeed. He holds in high regard those Justices who essentially play along to get along, and work toward consensus and unity on the Court (he includes Marshall, Harlan, Black, and Rehnquist as the more collegial Justices), rather than those Justices who carve their own jurisprudential path and stick to it (Jefferson, Holmes, Douglas, and Scalia get labeled as “ideologues” under this rubric). Rosen’s thesis may seem unbiased, but he doesn’t give us enough of a reason to believe that consensus is a virtue in its own right. As hard as it is to come down on the same side of any issue as Justice Scalia, I find myself wondering if developing a clear and consistent legal theory, and then applying it fairly, isn’t more important than trying to get people to agree with you.

Having dispensed with the basic premise of Rosen’s book, I did quite enjoy the book itself. It’s very well written, and the anecdotes about both current and historical figures are very interesting. Any student of the Court, or even those with a more cursory interest, will find this book a valuable and enjoyable read.

Friday, October 2, 2009

another challenge complete - Banned Books Week 2009

I completed my Banned Books Week 2009 Challenge!

Here's the official ALA Banned Books Week page.

A fun tongue-in-cheek look at banning books: Ban the Dictionary.

Lastly, just in case you thought that challenges to books don't really happen any more... Here's a post from Laurie Halse Anderson from just last week. Incidentally, Speak is one of the most powerful books about surviving rape that I've ever read.

too subtle for me

Vegan Virgin Valentine by Carolyn Mackler
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Challenge: Banned Books 2009
Review: First, an article about a challenge to this book by parents in a school in Jacksonville, FL.

My response: Honestly, I didn't much notice the word that the parents were complaining about. I had a much bigger problem with the names the girls in the book call each other, but obviously, not a big enough problem to think that I had the right to control what other people can or can't read.

Overall, I think this book might have been too subtle for me. Mara and V don't get along, can't stand each other, etc. until suddenly they can. I felt like there was a little bit of character development that I missed. Otherwise, this is a good story about how the "good girl" can have a positive influence on the "bad girl" and (more importantly?) vice versa, without being too heavy-handed.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

7 down and more on the way

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I really hope that Diana Gabaldon is already at work on the 8th book in this wonderful series. I certainly think she left too many cliffhangers at the end of this installment not to be. I'm not entirely sure that this book is quite up to the standard set by the first 6 in the series, but anyone as taken with Jamie and Claire (and their various compatriots) will be left as breathless as ever.