Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

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!

Kings and Queens of England: A Tourist Guide – Book Review

May 2, 2008

Kings and Queens of England CoverThe fantastic thing about books chronicling the rulers of Britain is that, even if they are from the 1970s, they aren’t all that out of date.

I picked up Jane Murray’s “The Kings and Queens of England: A Tourist Guide” from a library bookstore recently because, well, why not? I am unashamedly interested in British history and British royal history. The last such book I read, Norah Loft’s “Queens of England” was very interesting in that it looked exclusively at Queens, whether they were regnant or not; however, it didn’t keep me from getting muddled about the line of succession from Queen Victoria to QEII (all those Hanovers/Windsors seem to have the same names).

I must admit, I’m still a bit muddled about the more recent kings, but this book cleared things up for me somewhat. As interesting as it was to read about all of the Queens, it is somewhat more instructive (to my mind) to read about all of the actual rulers. One thing I also appreciated about this book, in contrast to Loft’s book, is that it is written for an American audience. Essentially, as the title implies, it was written for American tourists to brush up on their royal history before their trip or carry the book around with them and look up a monarch when they see his or her name mentioned somewhere around Britain. Because of this, it also didn’t have the blatant pro-monarchy agenda of Loft’s book, written just four years later.

Obviously no book can cover every ruler from Edward the Confessor to Queen Elizabeth II in an in-depth manner, but I thought Murray did a good job at hitting the high and low points of each ruler. Definitely enough to help American tourists remember the difference between Edward II and Edward IV. The only odd thing about this book was that it started in the ‘present’ and worked its way backwards towards Edward the Confessor. Although this at first interrupted the flow for me, by the end I think it helped me piece everything together.

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.

Historical Genesis – Book Review

April 23, 2008

Historical Genesis: From Adam to Abraham
Author: Richard James Fischer
Publisher: University Press of America
Published March 2008
Reviewed by Jen Cardwell for Reader Views 04/08

The Science of Genesis

4 Stars

Historical Genesis coverWas there a real man named Adam? What is the location of the Garden of Eden? Who is Cain worried will kill him after he kills his brother, if Adam’s family are the only people on Earth? How could Noah and his sons have repopulated the earth in the time since the flood? How would they have even gotten all the animals of the world onto their ark? And how would the animals have gotten back to places like Australia and the Americas with time for evolution into different species?

Questions like this are asked over and over by people questioning the Biblical account of Genesis and creation. The stories of Adam, the flood, and the tower of Babel tend to be considered mere allegory, if not dismissed outright as a story cribbed from other, older creation stories. The other option is for a literal, traditionalist interpretation: Adam was the first man, the flood covered the entire world, all post-flood people spoke a single language until that debacle at the tower of Babel.

Richard James Fischer believes there is a fourth, more correct option. In an attempt to reconcile the Biblical record with the historical record, Fischer comes up with an extremely interesting hypothesis: Genesis is literally about southern Mesopotamia. Essentially, Genesis 2-11 is the story not of the world, but of the Jewish people and their origins. This is not to say that he claims that Genesis 1 is not the creation of the universe and the world. He in fact makes no claims at all about Genesis 1, his entire analysis is of Genesis 2-11.

Although I took a number of religious studies classes in college, I am not a Biblical scholar by any means. I have never made an exhaustive study of Genesis in the ancient Hebrew, nor do I know any ancient Hebrew at all, other than the bits Fischer taught me in “Historical Genesis”. Neither can I speak with real authority to the veracity of statements about pottery types and flood layers, kings lists and linguistic similarities between the names Ziusudra and Noah. I can say, however, that I felt that I knew far more about the scientific basis for placing the events of Genesis in Mesopotamia and the cultural implications of many parts of the creation and flood stories.

“Historical Genesis” has a very easy style for a book packed with so much scholarly research. The author and editors wisely chose to impart information under short subheadings in relatively short chapters. This kept the pace moving, and kept me from getting bogged down in nearly incomprehensible (to me) discussions about the differences in pottery in different layers at Eridu.

This book would be fantastic for a religious studies or seminary course on Genesis. Readers should have some familiarity both with the story itself as well as with some basic principles of anthropology and linguistics, if not being read in a class, or with some similar type of support system. I would highly recommend this book for any interested in the accounts in the book of Genesis. Whether you agree with him or not, Fischer’s book will make you think.

Buy this book on Amazon: Historical Genesis: from Adam to Abraham

Franklin and Lucy – Book Review

April 8, 2008

Franklin and Lucy coverLT ER birdJoseph Perico’s latest book is called Franklin and Lucy: “President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherford, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life.” This is an incredibly readable and engaging history of President Roosevelt as seen through the lens of his relationships with women. Unsurprisingly, the book deals primarily Eleanor and Lucy Rutherford.

Overall I thought this book to be fantastic, it read very easily for the most part and had some interesting new research. It is a book I would absolutely recommend to anyone interested in the history of any of these people. Much of the first half of the book was devoted to Eleanor and it was perhaps her psyche that was most deeply explored of any.

The most difficult thing for me in reading this book was finding its true sense of purpose. I was not sure if it was meant to be simply a history of FDR told through his relationships with the variety of women in his life, or if it was supposed to be more about the women and their relationships with FDR, and how those relationships influenced his presidency. My frustration was that I believed the goal to be the latter and, while it was present, the former dominated. I finally achieved peace with this in the last chapter of the book, entitled “A Judgement” which was really Perico’s summation of his work. In this I learned that the purpose of the book tended more towards a different lens through which to write an FDR biography, which just happened to include the psychological effects on Franklin that these relationships had. That being the case, these peeks into FDR’s development were merely a welcome treat. It would not hurt, however, for future editions to have more of a thesis statement in the introduction than is currently there.

The other thing that bothered me while reading the book was a lack of mention of Japanese internment during the war. However, this omission is easily explained if this was not something Roosevelt particularly discussed with the women in his life so, while it bothers me, I do not think it necessarily a failing of the book.

Viewing history through relationships often makes it much more accessible for the casual studier. No matter your degree of knowledge of and familiarity with FDR and his presidency, this book is worth reading.

Buy this book on Amazon: Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life

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

News of a Kidnapping – Book Review

March 30, 2008

News of a Kidnapping book coverNews of a Kidnapping is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s true account of the kidnapping of 10 people in 1990 during a standoff in Colombia between the government and the drug trader Pablo Escobar. Marquez wrote this book at the behest of one of the captives and her husband.

I had a very difficult time getting into this book and nearly gave it up half way through. I was not really intrigued until about page 130 or so of the 290 page book. My problem was twofold: first of all, the journalistic style made this story very dispassionate, which was difficult for a story of kidnappings. I never felt that I knew any of the people involved in the story, and I didn’t particularly care about or for them, not because they were bad people or unsympathetic, just because there was little to no emotion expressed in the writing. Secondly, this book was decidedly written for a South American, if not solely Colombian, audience. I say this because names of prominent Colombians and Colombian politicians are thrown about with the expectation that you will know exactly who they are. This isn’t necessarily a failing on the part of the author, it tells me that the book was written more to explain and heal? remember? the kidnappings within the country than to tell the story of the kidnappings to a wider audience. This book is for people who followed the kidnappings as they happened and want to know the details.

This is not a bad book by any means, but unless you followed or have studied the kidnappings in Colombia in 1990 or are familiar with Colombian politicians in 1990, this is probably not the Gabriel Garcia Marquez book for you.

Buy this book on Amazon: News of a Kidnapping (Vintage International)

The Botany of Desire – Book Review

March 19, 2008

Botany of Desire coverThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World is the second book I’ve read by Michael Pollan (and still, his name makes me laugh everytime…his name is ‘Pollan’…and he writes about plants…anyone?). I picked up this book because I very much enjoyed The Omnivore’s Dilemma and was hoping for something similar which, in some ways, this was.

Unlike Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire was not primarily about our food supply and what/how we eat, for that I’ll have to pick up his new book, In Defense of Food. In this book, Pollan was making the case that the relationship between people and plants was not as one-sided as it may seem; it is not only people that are using plants, but also plants that are using people. Essentially, the argument is that certain plants have adapted to fulfill certain human desires (hence the title), leading to their further propagation. The plants and desires he looks at are apples:sweetness, tulips:beauty, marijuana:intoxication, and potatoes:control.

Pollan really did do a good job showing how the ability of each plant to fulfill the stated desire led to its genes being spread by people, often at the expense of plants that had not adapted to fulfill any great human desires. I am by no means a botanist, so it is somewhat hard for me to determine the accuracy of all of Pollan’s statements, but the ones with which I did have familiarity seemed plausible at the least. The Botany of Desire is not a title I would typically see myself pick up, and if it had been any other author, I would have left it on the shelves for the next interested party; however, Pollan has a gift for making topics of plants and food both interesting and accessible. He is also fantastic at showing the impact of plants, food, and the topics surrounding them on the lives of normal people, without getting ‘preachy’. I was happy to find out that The Omnivore’s Dilemma was not just a fluke, and I will continue to seek out Pollan’s writing, published both in books and in the New York Times.

Buy this book on Amazon:
Paperback: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
Hardback: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Queens of England – Book Review

March 14, 2008

Queens of England coverQueens of England by Norah Lofts is a comprehensive overview of every Queen of England beginning with the wife of William the Conqueror and going through Queen Elizabeth II. It was a remarkably easy read, considering it comprises about 900 years of English royal history. It was also a very engaging read, I learned about many queens I had never heard of, the wives of many kings I had never heard of.

The book, however, definitely had an agenda. While it didn’t ruin the book for me, it definitely dampened my enthusiasm for the the work a little. When I noticed the chapters on each queen start to get much longer shortly before the reign of Queen Victoria (as many pages on Caroline of Brunswick as Elizabeth Tudor? And as many on Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as Mary Tudor? Really?), I thought that I detected a 19th and 20th century bias. By the time I reached Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II, I realized that a ‘recent history bias’ wasn’t quite what the issue was. The book actually seems to have been written as an apologetic for the modern institution of the monarchy, to establish the long history of English royalty and in doing so argue for its continuation in the person of Queen Elizabeth II.

Lofts directly addressed some specific criticisms against the Queen and in fact attacked what she referred to as the “Age of Criticism.” This aspect of the book made the last two chapters my two least favorite of the book. The book had some other issues as well.

First, Lofts definitely assumed a fair degree of prior knowledge with British history, she would make off-hand comments referring to other events or the fates of the princes and princesses who were the progeny of whatever queen was currently being discussed. As the book was clearly written for a British audience (to whom else would she need to defend the continuation of the monarchy?), perhaps that was actually a fairly safe assumption and, while I was often confused, the nonchalant references sometimes made me simply want to know more about the subjects.

Second, there seemed to be some significant editing errors. There were absolutely sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, of which I could not make heads or tails no matter how many times I tried. Often these sentences or paragraphs seemed to be flatly contradictory, so I would generally just skip them and read on.

Lastly, I simply wanted more information about many of these women! Some had as little as two pages, including a picture.
However, even with these problems, Queens of England is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in royalty, the history of England, or just of the lives of women throughout history.

Buy this book on Amazon: Queens of England

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