Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

May Reading Wrap-Up

May 30, 2008

I read 14 books in May. I likely would have read more, had it not been for the reading ennui I experienced near the beginning of the month and the resulting theme read of some long books. If I hadn’t had two four-hour plane rides and a fair amount of time in airports and on public transit, I probably wouldn’t have attained 14. It didn’t hurt that both “Monique and the Mango Rains” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” were so engaging that I read them each in basically one sitting.

Of these books, two were read for ReaderViews, three (well, 2.5) for a theme read on Dracula/vampires, one was provided by Literary Ventures Fund, one was read for book club, one for LibraryThing Early Reviewers, one for a LibraryThing group read, two ‘just because,’ and three were sent to me for review.

Note: The titles of the books link to my reviews.

My Reading Wrap-Up for May

Fiction (Novels)

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – Buy on Amazon

Dracula by Bram Stoker – Buy on Amazon

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Buy on Amazon

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (review to follow later today) – Preorder on Amazon

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (review to follow after book club) – Buy on Amazon

Fiction (Short Stories)

Politics Noir edited by Gary Phillips – Buy on Amazon

Historical Fiction

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff – Preorder on Amazon

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman – Buy on Amazon


Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine – Buy on Amazon

Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway – Buy on Amazon

Have I Got A Guy for You! edited by Alix Strauss (review coming) – Buy on Amazon

Storm Over Morocco by Frank Romano – Buy on Amazon


Kings and Queens of England: A Tourist Guide by Jane Murray

Vlad the Impaler by M.J. Trow – Buy on Amazon

Top Pick for the Month

Monique and the Mango Rains cover

“Monique and the Mango Rains,” by Kris Holloway, is the story of Kris’ time in the Peace Corps in Mali, particularly her interaction with Monique Dembele, Kris’ host and the village midwife. Monique was an amazing woman and this is a well written, amazing story. David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife,” Andrew Davidson’s “The Gargoyle,” and Jerramy Fine’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” were in a close three-way tie for second place with “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Middlesex” not far behind (man, I read some fantastic books this month!), but there was such power in Holloway’s story, that I was compelled to choose it for the top honor. The only thing that could have made this book better was if it was three times as long.

Reminder: There is still time to get in on the contest! All of these books (and any others I have reviewed) are up for grabs!

Storm Over Morocco – Book Review

May 28, 2008

Storm Over Morocco
Frank Romano
ISBN 9781934209431, $17.99, Publication Date February 3, 2007
Reviewed by Jen Cardwell for Reader Views 05/08

Travel Dysfunction
3 Stars

Frank Romano tells the story of his youth and his attempts to find himself in “Storm Over Morocco.” For quite a while I wondered why exactly he chose to write this book and tell this story, what precisely he was trying to say or accomplish. I have finally decided that telling this story is his attempt to cleanse his soul and lift his burdens, along the lines of Jeannette Walls or Julie Gregory writing memoirs of their childhood and their messed up parents.

Although this book is the story of Romano’s disastrous trip to Morocco, I felt he could have quite easily have been written about his messed up childhood, since, and I don’t mean to get into too much pop psychology, he clearly had one. Romano’s entire trip seemed to be characterized by dramatic swings between desperately needing love and affection and being completely distrustful and paranoid about everyone he encountered. I became repeatedly distracted from the story he was actually telling to wonder about the story he wasn’t telling about how he came to be both so needy and so distrustful.

Romano writes well, and definitely infuses his words with his feelings. The first five chapters or so, even before he left on his journey, were written with such intensity that I was only able to read a chapter or two at a time. It took me a while to truly get into this book, but by the end I was caught up in the story.

Although I did eventually get caught up in the story, it was hard for me to truly enjoy it. As I stated earlier, what I would really have liked to have read is the story of Romano’s childhood in order to figure out how he ended up as he did. In addition, I was too busy yelling at the book, “No! Don’t do THAT! That’s a terrible idea! Listen to your friends!” etc. I don’t do well with people who do really dumb things, which Romano did in spades in his trip. However, I did like the book for its semi-insider’s view of Moroccan culture in the 1970s. If you’re the kind of person who can watch people do stupid things in books or in movies without yelling at them, then this book could be very interesting.

Buy this book on Amazon

Monique and the Mango Rains – Book Review

May 20, 2008

Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway

In 1989 Kris Halloway became a member of the Peace Corps and was sent to Mali in Africa. She went to help people, and immerse herself in another culture. She went and came back changed. Other than perhaps the fellow Peace Corps volunteer who would one day become her husband, the person who had the greatest impact on Kris’ time in Mali was Monique Dembele, Kris’ host and the village midwife. Monique had a love for life, good humor, and a friendly, comforting demeanor.

According to my contact at Literary Ventures Fund, Kris originally published her book through a textbook company that sold only directly to professors through a mail order catalog, a company that had no connection to major bookstores. Thank goodness that Literary Ventures Fund got involved! It would have been a shame if this book hadn’t been released to a wider audience.

This book is valuable for a number of reasons. First, it describes in a very straight-forward way the lives of these people in this small village in Mali. Although Kris occasionally pushes back against parts of the culture she disagrees with (female circumcision, for one), this is done in a decidedly un-paternalistic way. Second, the book is, quite simply, wonderfully written. The words flow beautifully, and the emotions are real and completely accessible to the reader.

I picked this book up Friday morning while I was on the train on my way to the airport. While I was reading nothing else existed for me but this village and these people: not the people on the train talking on their cell phones, not crying children at the airport, not airline announcements, nothing. Thank goodness I finished before my flight was announced! I will give this book the highest praise I can: even though I read it a mere 5 days ago, I’ve already bought another copy and given it as a gift.

Buy This Book on Amazon: Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali

Someday My Prince Will Come – Book Review

May 2, 2008

Someday coverWhen I was a little girl, I wanted to be a princess. I was positive I was going to meet and marry Prince William. In fact, I was so sure that I was going to become a princess that I constantly practiced drinking my ‘tea’ with my pinky finger up in the air. I did that so much that, to this very day, I cannot sip or pour a beverage with my pinky on the glass, can, or bottle. This even applies to pouring soda from a two liter bottle into a cup. Finger in the air. Always.

I’m sure lots of little girls had similar experiences, so I am sure that many of us can relate to Jerramy Fine, author of “Some Day My Prince Will Come” as I did. The daughter of die-hard hippies, Jerramy had an odd fascination with royalty from the first moment she was able to express it. She knew about things like armoires and chambermaids at an age this knowledge seemed highly unlikely – it certainly did not come from her TV-disdaining nudist parents.

I was a fairly fickle four year old. Around the same time I had decided I was to marry Prince William, I ALSO informed my mother than when I was approximately 20 I would be marrying my best friend Ryan. Well, all of these years later I am not marrying either Ryan or William. Jerramy, however, was more unremitting. Not only when she was four, but also when she had graduated from college, she was certain she would one day meet and marry Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, Peter Phillips. “Some Day My Prince Will Come” is Jerramy’s memoir of her quest to become part of the royal family.

I could not decide whether Jerramy was completely fantastic and hilarious, or just completely insane. A bit of both, I think. Half the time I was laughing, half the time I was just shaking my head at her. There but by the grace of God go I, I suppose. I all but read this book in one sitting – had I not started it before I absolutely had to go somewhere, I would have simply read it straight through. This book is really, truly fantastic. Not only is it endlessly entertaining, but Jerramy learns, and shares with us all, some wonderful (but not overdone) morals about the true meaning of loyalty. Go out and find this book!

Buy this book on Amazon – Someday My Prince Will Come: True Adventures of a Wannabe Princess

April Reading Wrap-up

May 2, 2008

I read 13 books in April, including my two audiobooks. Two were audio books, four were given to me specifically to review, one was sent to me by a fantastic fellow blogger, one was for book club, and the rest I just picked up because they sounded interesting. There are two more books that I began in April, but since one I just finished and the other I’m only half way through, they will count for May. Here’s the basic rundown of what I read and reviewed. At the bottom you’ll find my top pick for the month…

My Reading Wrap-up for April


Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (audiobook)

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (audiobook) – review coming soon

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

Historical Fiction

The Venetian Mask by Rosalind Laker (LibraryThing Early Reviewer book)

Queen of Shadows by Edith Felbar

The Last Queen: A Novel by C.W. Gortner

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Two Brothers: One North, One South (LibraryThing Early Reviewer book)

Alternative History (Fiction)

Eleanor Vs. Ike by Robin Gerber


Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

A Year Without ‘Made in China’ by Sara Bongiorni (book club book)


Franklin and Lucy by Joseph Perino (LibraryThing Early Reviewer book)

Historical Genesis by Richard Fischer (ReaderViews Review Book)

Top Pick for the Month:

The Last Queen cover

C.W. Gortner’s “The Last Queen” is a novel of Juana of Castile, also known as ‘Juana la Loca’. Gortner is very sympathetic to Juana and writes her fantastically. This is a wonderful novel of a woefully overlooked and maligned Queen. See my full review here.

A Year Without “Made in China” – book review

April 27, 2008

Year Without Journalist Sara Bongiorni is one of those people who habitually checks the bottom of everything that she buys to the “made in” country of origin, primarily just for curiosity’s sake.  One Christmas, after stepping on a sharp, plastic, “made in China” toy, Bongiorni reflects on just how many of the Christmas goodies in her house seemed to say “made in China” on the bottom. After tallying them up and becoming overwhelmed at China’s predominance in her house, Bongiorni decides that her New Year’s resolution will be that next year shall be, “A Year Without ‘Made in China'”.

A Year Without ‘Made in China’” is essentially Bongiorni’s memoir of her year and her struggles keeping faithful to her China boycott.  She made the decision to boycott not out of any deep-seeded hatred of China, or even because of safety or human rights concerns, but simply to see if it could be done.  The verdict: yes, sort of, but with great difficulty.  Difficulties included “the weakest link” (her husband); the fact that certain components of lamps are not made at ALL in the U.S., but only in China; and the all-consuming desire of a four year old boy for a light up plastic sword. 

Although slightly less funny, this book was written in a similar style to A.J. Jacobs’ “The Know It All,” which chronicles his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a year.  Both are books that are very much in the author’s head, their internal narrative as they attempt to do what others around them think impossible, or just plain stupid. 

This was my book club book for this month.  While I enjoyed it fairly well, perhaps because of my very enjoyable previous experience in this style with “The Know It All,” it seemed that the rest of my book club felt fairly ambivalent about it.  They very much enjoyed the concept, but had a hard time being so totally in Bongiorni’s head, finding her a bit neurotic.  She was a bit neurotic, I would agree, but I think that may be a result of trying to convince a four year old that he can wait an entire year for a light up sword.  She did drive me slightly crazy with her children.  She is far too susceptible to the guilt a four year old can dish out when he wants something.  To answer your question, Sara, no, your child is NOT “suffering” because he wasn’t allowed to buy a purple plastic pumpkin. Be his mom, not his friend. 

This book doesn’t explore the intricacies of globalization, but if you want to know how hard it would be to stop buying things from China, pick this up when it comes in paperback or get it from the library, and give it a read. 

Buy this book on Amazon: A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner – Book Review

April 7, 2008

Stealing Buddha's Dinner coverStealing Buddha’s Dinner is a memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen, teacher of Asian American literature, creative nonfiction, and fiction at Purdue University. Nguyen’s father, sister, grandmother, and uncles left Vietnam the night before the fall of Saigon. After spending some time in the Philippines, the received a sponsor in Grand Rapids, MI to come to the United States, where Bich’s father eventually met and married Rosa, a woman of Mexican heritage. Growing up in a bi-cultural family was difficult for Bich in white, middle-class (as it was at the time) Grand Rapids. Her family’s food, traditions, and ways of thinking were markedly different from those of her not-so-understanding classmates.

The book was definitely different than I expected. I committed the age-old sin of judging the book by its cover and believed that the book would focus predominantly Nguyen’s rejection of her family’s culture through a desire for American junk food and distaste for traditional food. This was both not quite accurate and not quite as predominant a theme as I had guessed. Nguyen’s desire for ‘American’ food seems to be more about understanding and wanting to fit in with her peers. She definitely does not reject the food her grandmother makes, she simply seems to wish that her family could also eat pork chops, roasts, and hamburger helper.

This book was organized differently from most of the memoirs I’ve been reading lately. There was only a very general narrative flow. Nguyen began at the ‘beginning’ and ended at the ‘end’, but the middle chapters jumped around a good bit, organized more by theme than by chronology. This could have easily gotten annoying and was, at some points, slightly confusing, but Bich generally did a good job at providing ages or other sign posts to indicate where you were in her story. The beginning of the book was definitely stronger than the end – there is a conclusion that you as a reader are not really prepared for in the book and isn’t fully explained. However, it is perhaps more authentic that way, it does not seem that Bich was prepared for this resolution either, although I’m not totally sure how it enriched her story of a child’s immigrant experience. Overall I enjoyed this book; it was a fast and engaging read.

Buy this book on Amazon: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir

The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur – Book Review

March 12, 2008

The Translator coverI was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari from someone who received it as an Early Reviewer and passed it along to me:

This was a very poignant memoir of a very important issue. Daoud is a Zaghawa tribesman from Darfur. After being educated, he leaves the country to find work and make money to send home to his family. Daoud returns home to Darfur in the midst of the genocide to check on his family. Shortly after he arrives, their village is attacked and everyone who survives is forced to flee for the border with Chad. It is in the refugee camps in Chad that Daoud finds his role in fighting the genocide: as a speaker of Zaghawa, Arabic, and English, Daoud is able to act as a translator first for UN and aid workers serving the refugees and later for reporters going into Sudan to report on the genocide first hand. While describing his experiences, Daoud is quite good about explaining the history of the conflict and of the region as a whole in a very understandable way.

Daoud Hari’s voice is supremely evident in this memoir. As I was reading I felt that I was sitting in front of him, listening to him tell me about what he had seen and experienced. I was actually glad only to be reading the account, not hearing it personally; there was so much pain and hardship in the words that I know I could never bear to hear those words with an emotional voice behind them. The story comes out both with a freshing straight-forwardness as well as with elegant use of foreshadowing and building the narrative, it is really beautifully told. This book should be purchased and then passed on to as many people as you can get to read it so that more people can actually feel what is happening in Darfur, instead of just hearing about it in a detached manner.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur

Book Clubs

February 29, 2008

I am very excited, because tonight I am going to a meeting of my book club. It is perhaps one of the most fun book clubs around. Instead of being purely a book club, it is a book and wine club. A friend of mine and her roommate decided to start this one year ago. They each invited some friends, and asked them to invite some friends, figuring this was a way for everyone to meet some new girlfriends and have fun and learn a little something.

We start the night with the wine (it gets us nice and talkative for the book discussion, plus this way people can sober up during the book discussion, so everyone can get home safely). Each month we do a different variety of wine, this month is Pinot Noir. Everyone brings a different bottle of the wine of the month. We read about the wine The Everything Wine Book and Wine for Dummies and similar books, then we pour small tastes of each wine and compare and discuss the wines. We have learned lots of great stuff. For example: Pinot Grigio has been quite over-planted, but is still very good when it is from Northern Italy, look for Pinot Grigio labeled ‘Friuli’.

Once we thoroughly understand our wine, we get on to the book. We tend to talk mostly about the parts of the book that really struck us, and occasionally get into character motivations and other such things. Occasionally, like with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the conversations end up getting very deep and personal. You have GOT to love books, outside of therapy, why else would people who really don’t know each other that well, share personal, sometimes painful things about their lives and families, if it wasn’t brought up by the shared experience of a book? Our book for tonight is Three Cups of Tea, which I have read before but am re-reading. This book is also going to serve as my first non-U.S/Euro-centric book for my Reading Around the World challenge, so look for Pakistan to be lit up soon on my map!