Monday, January 31, 2005

Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria by Carolly Erickson

I was very disappointed in this book. I loved Alexandra: The Last Tsarina so much that I expected to delight in this one; but it was barely tolerable. I think the problem is simple: Erickson tried to smush over sixty years on the world stage into less than 270 pages. Consequently, she doesn't tell a story, she just summarizes one. It read too much like a textbook: broad generalizations, head-snapping lurches of time, and little human detail.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Good News

I've been reading a lot more than usual since Truman was born 12 weeks ago. I realized in December that I was setting new records for book expenses. I decided with my husband that I'd have a certain budget for books so that I wouldn't feel guilty. The budget began January 1st. January's budget was amplified by (1) some Christmas money a relative sent to me and (2) the Barnes and Noble gift certificates that we get from our credit card.

As of today, I have spent all of the above and all of February's budget. I talked to my husband, and we have decided to abolish the book budget.

A Disciple's Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell by Bruce Hafen

Virtually every book that one might find in a Church bookstore will cause one of the following for me: shuddering, wincing, or eye rolling. The exception is the category of LDS biographies. In general, I love them. (In fact, I think we need more of them: some of the prophets of this dispensation are missing decent biographies.) So I was eager to read this one, and it did, in fact, have the predicted effect: I gained a real appreciation for Elder Maxwell, and I felt the Spirit testify to reality of his calling as an apostle. I also appreciated, as Hafen mentions in the introduction, that this is not hagiography. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to find out that when Elder Maxwell shifted from working at the U of U to the Church, he had to give up his habit of mildly cussing (as Hafen puts it) at rebellious mechanical devices. Knowing this gives me hope that I can eventually overcome my own peccadilloes (which is what we call sins when we don't want to admit their seriousness). I also realized that I had quite a bit in common with Elder Maxwell, from a love of books, to a struggle with developing patience.

That said, there are a few flaws here. The book gets a little flabby as soon as Elder Maxwell becomes an apostle. I think the problem is that Hafen thought he needed to give the reader a lot of background about the current policies and situation of the Church so we could better appreciate the changes that Elder Maxwell saw. While this information was interesting, I occasionally forgot that I was reading a bio of Elder Maxwell; it felt like a modern Church history without a particular focus. And it didn't seem to be particularly chronological, either (although so little reference to Elder Maxwell was made that I can't be entirely sure of that). Also, I think Hafen comes off, in his chapter on Elder Maxwell's books, as unnecessarily harsh. I've only read maybe 2-3 of Elder Maxwell's books, but I liked them.

But these are minor issues. Overall, I loved this book and would recommend it.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts

Here is hell for the bibliophile: a book just barely good enough. If it were any worse, it would end up in your reject pile. But there is . . . just . . . barely . . . enough there to keep you reading. And so you suffer, not wanting to give up, not wanting to go on . . .

After disliking it from the start, I gave up halfway through. Her anecdotes are interesting, her little commentaries on virtually every single quotation made me batty. There have to be better sources for information about the Founding Mothers. Reject.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

I'm usually annoyed when the jacket copy for a book includes words like 'lyrical' or 'evocative.' But in its early chapters, this book really is lyrical and evocative. Flash to the end, where all is lost, and I assume that there must be a moral to the story: How did we get from heaven to hell? In my flu-induced stupor a few nights ago, I could think of several possible theories. (And if I weren't still sick, I'd spell them out.) But I'm not sure which theory Buck intended (was that the point?). I don't like to think this hard about novels.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Alexandra: The Last Tsarina by Carolly Erickson

It bothers me that an author capable of writing books as stunning as this one could elude my notice for so long. I absolutely loved this book--just couldn't get enough of it--and can't wait to read her other books.

The end of the Romanov dynasty is a fascinating story and this book does it justice. Perhaps what I appreciate most about Erickson is that the writing just disappears; I was simply ensconsed in the story. There have been times, with other books, where I have gone back and reread sentences because they were so beautiful. But even that is a distraction from the story. Here, there are no distractions. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Mask of Motherhood by Susan Maushart

Pregnancy is a pain. Labor is a real pain. Breastfeeding can involve pain. Childcare can be a pain.

These things shock--just shock!--Susan Maushart. I'm not sure why. I doubt anyone can really appreciate the extent to which all of the above statements are true until they experience them, but reading Susan whine about it for 200+ pages isn't particularly helpful.

Can you tell that this book annoyed me? Not recommended.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Fortunate Son by Lewis B. Puller, Jr.

In the late 1960s, Puller, a young marine officer in Vietnam, stood alone facing seven enemy soldiers who opened fire on him. He returned fire until he gun locked. Then he ran until he triggered a booby trap. The explosion blew off both of his legs, fingers from each hand, and some of his torso.

This incredible autobiography, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is not so much about his wounding as his recovery, both physical (which involved over a year in the hospital and one dozen operations) and emotional (which included addiction to alcohol). The book ends on a high note, with one year's sobriety under his belt and a positive experience at the dedication of the Vietnam memorial. There is no hint that a few years after writing the book he would return to his addiction and then end his life, but knowing this before I read the book made a tragic story all the more so. And I didn't even mention that his father was famous: the most decorated man in the history of the Marines. A remarkable story; highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greelaw

If you read The Perfect Storm (or saw the movie), you might remember Andrea Gail's sister ship, Hannah Boden. That boat is captained by perhaps the only female swordfisherman (and yes, she does prefer 'fisherman'), and this is her story. It is an interesting companion book to The Perfect Storm, because nothing goes wrong on this trip. The fascination in this story is with the everyday world of swordfishing. Recommended.

Monday, January 03, 2005

A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk

I hated being a mother at first. I was completely unprepared for the raw relentlessness of the work. Exacerbating the problem was the isolation; isolation not only from the rest of the world, but from other mothers, smiling mothers, who somehow didn't seem to mind.

I've read a lot of books--a lot of books--on mothering and parenthood. Rachel Cusk is the first author whose voice feels authentic. Sure, The Girlfriend's Guides cover much of the same territory, but for some reason, Vicky thinks this is all funny. It isn't. Rachel knows that. I would highly recommend this book to anyone struggling with new motherhood. Cusk articulates several dimensions of new mom angst amazingly well.

(A post script: Seven years later, and again with a newborn, I feel delighted each morning at the prospect of spending another day mothering.)

Moving in His Majesty and Power by Neal A. Maxwell

I was initially disappointed by the small package--this book is maybe 5 by 7 inches, lots of white space, and just at 100 pages. But, after reading it, I realized that it might not be a quantity read, but it certainly is a quality read. Elder Maxwell wrote this, pulling together material from some recent talks, in the final weeks of his life. His reflections on agency, the cosmos, and the Constitution are profound. As usual, his one-liners shine. Recommended.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Pot on the Fire by John Thorne

Some people read mysteries for their brain candy. I read books about food. Here we have yet another entry in the Anecdotes about Food category, and this one is uneven. His chapter on Vietnamese sandwiches had me wanting to leap out of bed and head to the little knot of Vietnamese businesses near 183 and Lamar in search of one; his chapter on cioppino had me skimming and watching the clock. The essay on potatoes, heavy on the Irish famine, had me enthralled and wondering if there is a good book-length treatment of the famine. Anyone know?

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