Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Troy Redux

I had absolutely no intention of staying up until 1:00 am last night reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, but that's exactly what I did.  I was just reading along, minding my own business, when suddenly I got to the fight between Agamemnon and Achilles, and then, really, how could I stop?

When I read Helen of Troy by Margaret George, I didn't know the story.  I had heard of Achilles and some of the other heroes, but the plot of the marriage of Helen and then the siege of Troy was completely new to me.  I had heard of Miller's version, but I wasn't sure that I was interested in it.  I mean, since I already knew the whole story from George, what could Miller add?  Quite a lot, it turns out.

The Song of Achilles focuses on Patroclus, and his relationship with Achilles.  To be frank, Miller makes them an openly gay couple.  In one sense, it bothered me that Miller felt compelled to take our 21st century values and labels and apply them to these heroes.  On the other hand, that's what anyone who writes about Troy and the heroes is doing.  Even Homer lived generations after the war. What bothered me though was that by making them a gay couple, the implication is that  male friendship would not have been enough to make them risk their lives for each other.  Apparently, the nature of their relationship has been debated for centuries, so it isn't so strange that Miller and George disagree.

One thing that I thought was interesting was that when Achilles and Patroclus were both dead (really, that can't be a spoiler), their ashes were mixed together.  That also happened with Finn's and Toby's ashes in Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  Is this a gay thing?  I've never heard of an old married hetero couple that wanted their ashes mixed after their deaths, and as an estate  planning attorney, I talk about ashes more than most people do.

There were a few other ways that Miller's story differed from George's.  Miller made Patroclus into more of a home body than a warrior, which I didn't think was fair.  I also thought it was interesting that Miller blamed Achilles for extending the war.  Achilles knew of a prophesy that he would die after Hector died, and Miller, via Odysseys, accuses Achilles of refusing to engage Hector on the battlefield so as to delay his own death.

After finishing this telling of the story of the Trojan War from Patroclus' point of view, I only want more.  What would the story sound like from Hector's point of view?  Or from that of Priam's wife, or even Paris?  I have The Iliad as one of the books to read for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  Now I just have to move it to the top of the pile!

Next up:  Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Still Listening to:  Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  I am really loving this story.  All of the reviews that I read talk about how much the reader cried.  Now I'm on disc 8 of 12, and the tears haven't started yet. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Honey Thief Winner Announced!

The winner of the The Honey Thief giveaway is Laurie!  Laurie's favorite recipe is Caramel Pecan Rolls, and if we are lucky, maybe she'll pass that recipe on to us.

Laurie, please email me with your mailing address at SoNotARunnerBlog@aol.com, so that The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman can be mailed to you. 

Laurie noted in her comment that she had a hard time commenting on the blog.  Remember that if you ever have a hard time commenting, you can always reach me and enter giveaways by emailing me at SoNotARunnerBlog@aol.com

Next month's Industry Requested Review will be Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld.  I loved American Wife by Sittenfeld, so I am excited to read this new one.

Still Reading:  The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Still Listening to:  Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Typical Book Report - 13

Last night The Typical Book Group met to discuss Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  There were 9 of us there, and only one of us hadn't read the book.  In her defense, she tried, but picked up the wrong book with "wolves" in the title by accident. 

All of us really liked it.  We talked about how much parent-free time June had, and wondered if that was normal in the 80s.  None of us remembered our parents being that absent, but it may have just been nothing out of the ordinary.  It seemed like June was really on her own more than she should have been though. 

Some of us started crying in the first third of the book and never stopped.  Others of us never cried at all, but still found the story moving.  One person mentioned how great it would be to have a gay uncle.  The idea being that he couldn't have his own kids, so he would adore his nieces, like Finn adored June.  That may have been true in the 80s, but now gay adoption is so common that it can't be assumed that a gay uncle wouldn't also be a dad.

There is one little piece that we discussed that I want to tell you about, but it's a bit of a spoiler.  If  you are interested, click here to get to my spoilers page, and see what we said.  The hint is that it has to do with Toby in hiding.

Next month we'll discuss The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy.  The people who have started it are already saying that they would never send their sons to military school after reading it.  That wasn't exactly part of my plans anyway, but I'm sort of dreading reading about torture in the guise of hazing.

Still Reading:  The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Still Listening to:  Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Monday, May 20, 2013

More Afghan Noodles, I Say!

The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman is a collection of folklore and remembered stories from Mazari's native country, Afghanistan.  Mazari is member of Afghanistan's third largest ethnic group, the Hazara, whose home base is the mountainous region of Hazarajat.  Most of the stories are from the second half of the 20th century, while Afghanistan was fighting the Russians, and later while it was at war with itself.

The stories are really great.  Most Americans know about Afghanistan only from the evening news.  The readers among us gobbled up Kahled Hosseini's books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns which were set in Afghanistan and gave the reader a glimpse of  life with the Taliban, and life as a woman in Afghanistan.  The Honey Thief offers a different perspective, by focusing on the stories of one Afghan ethnic group, prior to the Taliban's rise to power. 

In addition to the stories, Mazari also includes a map in the front cover, so the reader doesn't have to go digging for an atlas to know where we are reading about.  Additionally, he includes a glossary at the end, where he defines the few words that he doesn't explain in the stories themselves. 

Mazari ends the stories with the tale of the Cookbook of the Master Poisoner of Mashad, which if carefully followed, was believed to keep the eater from being susceptible to poisoning.  From there, Mazari gives us his thoughts on cooking and eating, including his personal opinions on spices that are frequently used in Afghanistan. His recommendations are conversational and sort of make me like him even more.  For example, his entry on nutmeg reads:  "We use nutmeg with meat dishes, together with cumin and coriander.  Not too much nutmeg.  Don't be crazy." 

Saving the best for last, the book ends with traditional recipes from Hazarajat.  Before I read the stories, I was excited to see the recipes, just because I like books with recipes in general.  But since I've never eaten Afghan food, I wasn't really planning on trying them.  After reading the stories, the spice recommendations, and the recipes, I'm ready.  Of the 6 recipes that he includes, I want to try 4, and make the noodles from the 5th.  Like his spice notes, the recipes show Mazari's personality.  He makes comments like these, which I have taken from his noodle recipe: 

"First make the noodles with plain flour and salt and water.  What could be simpler? . . . .Wrap the three balls of dough in cloth . . . leave them alone for maybe half an hour.  Read a book, a good one, not a book about vampires or serial killers or anything like that.  A peaceful book. . . .Then take your knife with a sharp point and slice the dough into strips - and that's your noodles.  Thin strips, of course - I'm sure you know how wide a noodle should be. . . ."

But he also includes enough details that I feel like I could make these noodles.  This I get from an Afghan man, and not from a nice semi-Italian girl.   Huh.

Although I am (overly) enthusiastic about the recipes, I want to reiterate that The Honey Thief is a great book for anyone who would like to learn about the Afghan culture.  Remember a few weeks back when I talked about Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende?  The reason that I read that was that it was being used in my school district for a class that combines social studies and English for 9th through 12th graders.  The Honey Thief would be perfect for a class like that, where the reader is learning about a culture by reading its stories.  The recipes would make a nice extra credit opportunity.

So, now that I've convinced you to read The Honey Thief, the good news is that THIS IS A GIVEAWAY POST!  I read this book at the request of Jane Shim of Viking/Penguin Publicity.  No promises were made, no payment was received.  I'm keeping my copy, but Jane has also allowed me to make a copy available to one of you.  If you'd like to be the lucky winner, just comment on this post, or shoot me an email at SoNotARunnerBlog@aol.com, before May 26.  To make it easier, I'll give you a topic:  What is your favorite recipe?  You can comment about that, or anything else that you want.

LEGALESE: One entry per person. Numbers will be assigned to each entrant, and the winner will be randomly picked by number.   If you choose to comment as "Anonymous", please leave your first name, so that you will know who you are when I announce the winner. The winner must then contact me via email with his or her U.S. mailing address (not a PO Box), within 7 days. If the first announced winner fails to respond within that time, the book with go to the second place winner, and so on and so forth. Got it? If you have questions you can post those in the comments section too. Good luck!

Next Up On Paper:  Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Still Listening to:  Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Alone in the 80s

In Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, the main character, June, is a 14 year old LARPing party of one.  She loves to dress up in a Gunne Sax dress and Medieval boots, go into the woods, and pretend that she has gone back in time.  Not surprisingly, June doesn't have a lot of friends her own age.  Her best friend is her uncle, Finn, who lives in New York City, and who is the only adult who pays much attention to her. 

Unfortunately, we are in the 1980s, and Finn has AIDS.  Shortly after the story begins, June loses him to the disease.  At his funeral, June learns that Finn had a man who was his "special friend", Toby.  June's family is full of accusations and hatred for Toby, and June really doesn't know why. 

June and Toby are drawn to each other by their feelings of loss for Finn.  Although their relationship is secret and fragile, they become more important to each other as the story progresses.  June's relationship with her sister, Greta, also develops.  From the beginning, June sees Greta as the perfect one.  As the outside world sees Greta's life getting better and better, June begins to see cracks in her sister's facade, and through those cracks, she sees signs of the sister who she used to be friends with.

There were a lot of good things that I really liked about this book.  However, the 1980s pop culture references were awkward.  They felt more researched than remembered.  I checked the author's bio, and was surprised to see that she is the same age as me, and lived all of her teenage years in the 80s.  What rang true, however, was our misunderstanding of AIDS, how one could get it, and how a person with AIDS should be treated.

I listened to the book on audio form.  Coincidentally, there was an article in the NYT yesterday about how the audio book reader makes the book.  I'm not sure if the NYT asks John Schwartz to write an article about great audio book readers every year, but it was his article on the topic that was published last May 18 that inspired me to listen to Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  June, in Tell the Wolves reminded me a lot of Rose in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  Aimee Bender read Particular Sadness herself, and I really liked how she made Rose sound real.  Amy Rubinate read Tell the Wolves, and I found myself wishing for Aimee Bender, even though she is an author and not an audio book reader.  I think that she would have made June sound more authentic and less dreamy.

While listening, it occurred to me that this was not my first AIDS story involving a "June."  I was thinking specifically about Three Junes by Julia Glass, which also had a character who was touched by AIDS.  I remembered though that the three Junes that Glass was referring to were months, not people.

All told, I really liked Tell the Wolves, and will definitely recommend it to friends.  The Typical Book Group will discuss it next Tuesday, so I'll talk more about it then.

Next up on CD:  Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Still Reading:  The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Karma in the Psalms

I'm not sure that I can explain exactly what it is that I liked about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, but I tore through it, and kept trying to sneak away to find time to read more. 

Set in 1799, the story is based in Dejima, which was an island in the port of Nagasaki.  At that time, the Japanese would not allow foreigners into Japan proper, but they had allowed the Dutch to establish a trading post on Dejima.  Dejima is full of politics among the Dutch, and more complicated politics between the Dutch and the Japanese.  DeZoet is a sincere character, who strives to maintain his integrity.  He is more respectful of the Japanese culture than most of his compatriots, and even makes efforts to learn the language.  Through the course of the story, Jacob falls in love, fights injustice, and stays true to himself. 

What is it about talking cats in books set in Japan?  There was a talking cat here, reminding me of the character in Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami who talked to cats.  Apparently, it's not just a Japanese thing.  When I was googling around about this, I found lots of YouTube videos purporting to feature cats speaking Japanese, but I also found this site, where avid readers posted a huge list of books set all over the world and in outer space, where the cats talk.  So, if you are interested in books including talking cats . . . . Funny that no one listed The Cat in the Hat which has to be the most famous talking cat book ever.

In Dejima, the Dutch were not allowed to practice Christianity at all, and had to turn over all of their Christian artifacts if they wanted to live there.  Jacob managed to conceal his family's book of psalms, which had been given to him by his father.  Although The Thousand Autumns was not an overtly religious book, my two favorite quotes both had to do with religion.  The first is the thirty-seventh Psalm.  It goes a little like this:

"Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of inequity.  For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.  Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in land, and verily thou shalt be fed. . ."

I had no idea that I liked a psalm, but I like that one.  Jacob tries to live his life by those words, and he does a pretty good job of it.  The other quote that I liked is "we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love."  That may have been applicable in 1800, but it is certainly true in the modern day.

Mitchell also returned to his question of whether there is a light at the end of the working man's tunnel, which he first explored in the Sonmi chapters of Cloud Atlas.  As in Cloud Atlas, certain members of the society are slaving away at a truly terrible labor, with the belief that if they only do it for 20 years, they will be allowed to retire and be reunited with their families.  A little inquiry punches holes in the propaganda.  By returning to this question again in an entirely separate book, Mitchell is clearly posing a challenge to his readers.  Do you love your job, or do you just plan to suffer through it for another 10 or 20 or 30 years so that you can enjoy your golden years?  What if those golden years never come?  Mitchell wants us to realize that what we are living now is our life, not just something to do until we get to our real life in the future.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2010.  It was also a NYT Notable book for that year.  This is the 11th book that I read for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

Next up on paper:  The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman

Still Listening to:  Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.  Yes, I finally got it.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

An American in Paris

So, you might remember that when the new Books A Million store opened in my neighborhood, I rushed right in and bought The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz.  This book had been on my radar for a while, because I seem to be drawn to books written by cooking bloggers, like Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond, and My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.  And this one is set in my favorite city, Paris.

I have to say, it wasn't quite what I expected.  David Lebovitz tells his tales about what it is like for an American to move to Paris.  Many of the stories are exactly what you would think - the shop keepers are surly, the stores have unpredictable hours - that kind of a thing.  But David Lebovitz is a cookbook author, who has written books about desserts, chocolate, and ice cream.  So when he promises a "sweet life in Paris", that's what I expected.  The thing is,  I think he told the truth and didn't sugar coat it, as much as he may have been inclined to do, and as much as his consumers may have hoped.

This book is full of recipes, which is one of the reasons that I bought it.  Generally, when a book has a lot of good recipes in it, it is sort of pointless for me to borrow it from the library, because I know that I'll buy it sooner or later anyway.  But there weren't a lot of corners that I turned down with the intention of trying them myself. 

Truth be told, I like his blog better.  Here is a link to it.  In his blog, when he discusses a new recipe, he tells the story of where he found the ingredients, or why he wanted to try it.  In his book, the recipes are sort of just things to put after the vignettes about his life.  For instance, there's the recipe for Chocolate Spice Bread, that immediately follows a discussion about whether it is better for a man who needs to be hairless "from belly to toe" for a surgery to shave or use a hair removal cream.  How could I eat that bread?

Given that I was unlikely to make many of the recipes, I was sort of regretting my decision to purchase this one.   Then we came to the end (as Joshua Ferris might say).  At the end of the book, Lebovitz, gives us two things that are pretty great.  The first is a resource list for where Americans can find French ingredients.  This is what was missing from My Berlin Kitchen, and I was so glad to find it here.  The second is the list of Lebovitz's favorite French addresses.  You should probably buy the book just for this.  He lists great restaurants, chocolate shops, hot chocolate stops, and department stores.  I trust him completely, and want to go to every place that he mentions.  If only I could go back to Paris now.

Next up:  Well, it's kind of a funny story. . . no, it's not all that funny actually.  I still haven't gotten Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt from my library, even though I am first on the list for both the audio and paper versions.  So, now I am listening to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell, and tonight I'll start reading it on paper too.  That way, it doesn't matter if I get Wolves in audio or paper version.  I'll continue with Jacob DeZoet in one form, and start Wolves in the other.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Yep.  It's that time again.  Time for my library's semiannual used book sale!  I got some good ones tonight. 

To begin with, I got two books off my TBR list - Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  In the past I have complained about the complete absence of books by Murakami and issues of McSweeney's at these sales.  Not this time!  I got a copy of Murakami's IQ84.  Yes, it was withdrawn from my library, meaning that no one in my zip code wanted to read it, but I can take the jacket off, tear out the bar code page, and pretend that it is just like new.  And I need to come to terms with the fact that I should send Dave Eggers more money and buy McSweeney's, because those are clearly *never* going to show up at this sale.

I got a few books by authors who I have liked before.  Specifically, I got The Zero by Jess Walters, which I had never even heard of before; A Secret Kept by Tatiana DeRosnay, which I can hardly wait to start; Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart; and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin.

GoodReads thinks that I'll like Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, so I grabbed that one when I saw it.  I also got a "Not for Sale Advanced Reader's Edition" of The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, which people on GoodReads are constantly talking about.

In the spirit of judging a book by its cover, I got The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto.  Doesn't that one have an awesome cover?  It's hard to tell from this picture, but the flowers are glossy, and the black and white photo behind them is matte.  Electrical Field is apparently the story of Japanese Canadians during World War II.  There's one WWII Civilian Story that I haven't read yet.

Finally (and worth the wait) I got a hard cover copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Somehow, I have never even seen a hard cover copy of this book before, and it's my very favorite.  A while back I met JSF, and he signed my son's copy of Extremely Loud.  I have an unsigned paperback, but I'm happy to have the hard cover too.

And now, I'm off to read . . . By the way, but totally off topic, my son says that he had a dream last night that I was a famous author.  Isn't that a great dream?  I love it.  Now to get him thinking of being an author himself . . .

Listening to:  OK.  I broke down.  AM radio was driving me crazy, and FM radio was in constant repeat mode.  I'm listening to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell.  I have holds on Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt in both audio and paper form at the library, but haven't gotten either one.  Since I already own  Autumns on paper, I figured that if I get Wolves on audio, I'll stop listening, and just read  Autumns.  If I get the paper version of Wolves, I'll keep listening to Autumns.  Whatever.

Still Reading:  The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Recently I learned a new song.  My daughter will be dancing to it in her recital next month, so I have been hearing it every week while she is in her dance class.  It is called "Omigod You Guys", and it is from the musical "Legally Blonde".  To get the full effect, you are going to need to click here, and see a Youtube video of the cast performing the song. 

Now that I've set the mood, you are prepared to hear about The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella.  In Undomestic, Samantha, a high priced London attorney, is about to become a partner in her law firm.  It is nothing for her to work 80 hour weeks, and she rarely even visits her apartment, let alone cleans it.  Then it happens.  Samantha makes a big mistake.  In fact, she makes a fifty million pound (as in "quid" - I just don't have the right symbols to type this properly) mistake that can't be fixed.  Samantha is so shell shocked when she realizes what happened that she walks out of her office and gets on the nearest train, not knowing or caring where it is headed.  When the train stops, she walks up to a nearby home to ask for a glass of water.  The homeowners, Trish and Eddie Geiger, are expecting a new cleaning lady to be stopping by for an interview.  In a comedy of errors, you can guess what happens.  Samantha's competitive spirit comes through when she realizes that the Geigers are actually considering turning her down for the cleaning lady position.  She instinctively pads her resume until the Geigers are so impressed that they can't let her go.

The antics that follow would make Amelia Bedelia proud.  Predictably, the Geigers also have a hunky gardener.  It is at this part of the story where "Ohmigod You Guys" lodged itself solidly in my head, and the story gets a little too light and fluffy . . . Omigod, oh my God you guys, looks like Sam's gonna win the prize . . . . You remember that Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde" was a lawyer too, right?   Just when Samantha has grown accustomed to the English countryside, something clicks in her brain, and she realizes that her mistake might not be what it appears.  For me, the story picked up here, when Samantha started thinking like herself again.

This book was given to me by my former boss at the law firm where I worked when I first became an attorney.  I sort of wondered while listening to the story if she was trying to tell me that I had really screwed up when I was working for her, and that maybe I should give housekeeping a try.  Somehow I don't think she would have waited 15 years to tell me, if that was her intended message.

Are there flaws in the story?  Certainly.  But nothing that you won't be able to get past if you are looking for a light beach read.

This is the 10th book for the Off the Shelf Challenge!  5 more to go.

Up Next on CD:  I'm not sure.  I'm next on the list to get Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, but it's not mine yet.  I checked out The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, but I'm going to hold off on starting it for another day or so to see if Wolves becomes available.

Still Reading:  The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

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