Under The Covers and Reading

September 24, 2009

Have I Got a Bookclub Two-fer for You!

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 8:23 pm

give me the world

Eat Pray Love

Sometimes my book club friends just amaze me.  Amy is today’s case in point.  She chose a book that was a bit hard to find locally (not a problem on the internet) that has turned out to be a fabulous find.  She chose Leila Hadley’s 1957 book, Give Me the World.  It’s a travelogue extraordinare and chronicles Hadley’s post divorce trek across Asia and the Middle East with her 6 year old son.  Hadley’s writing is so rich and evocative that you can truly taste, touch, see, and smell the places and people she describes.

But here’s the best part– I asked Amy why she chose a 1950’s travelogue and was surprised when she brought up comparisons to Elizabeth Gordon’s, Eat, Pray, Love.  I would never have thought about that and yet as soon as she mentioned it the parallels were obvious.  Both books document restless post-divorce women seeking something to help them recover their balance and sense of purpose.  Some differences are obvious (Hadley is travelling with a child and it’s the 1950’s) but it made for a fascinating conversation.

Here are some of the things we talked about:

Why does Leila say she’s going to travel ‘to the Orient?’

Why does Elizabeth Gilbert think travel is the solution to her situation?

Are they in search of the same things?

What does it seem to be like to be a divorcee in the late ’50s vs. the turn of the 21st century?

What impact does Hadley’s son Kippy have on her trip?

What is Hadley’s view of men?  Gilberts?

What is Hadley’s view of other cultures?  Gilberts?

What is Hadley’s view of religion?  Gilberts?

Is Hadley a reliable narrator of her own story?  Is Gilbert?  What impact does that have on how you read the book?  If you’ve read about either woman before or after reading their books did that change your mind about their respective stories?

What do you think they’d say to each other if they were speaking?

Why is Hadley’s book considered a ‘classic’ travelogue?’


September 11, 2009

Flavia deLuce is the coolest 11 year old girl this side of Hermione Granger

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 1:22 pm

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

I just finished reading Alan Bradley’s book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and it was one of the best books I’ve readin 2009. No question.

‘Sweetness’ is set in 1950 and introduces the reader to Flavia de Luce, a British 11 year old Chemistry prodigy, who stumbles onto a mystery when she finds a nearly dead stranger in her family’s cucumber patch. The dying man utters the Latin ‘Vale!’ and dies at Flavia’s feet. Instead of being frightened, Flavia sets out to determine the dead man’s identity and the reason for his trespass on her family’s extensive estate. Her father is eventually arrested for the murder, but Flavia is certain there must be a more logical (and happy) solution to the murder. She uses her vast chemical knowledge and insatiable curiosity in surprising ways to secure a predictably happy ending (the solution isn’t obvious, but the journey to the happy resolution will keep you on the edge of your seat).

I’m not sure how to do justice to the remarkable character that Alan Bradley has created. Flavia is 11 going on 65 at some points in the story (much to the chagrin of the police detective) and at others every bit the scheming and ‘put upon’ little sister to two older teenage sisters. She’s impressively brave and clever–Miss Marple-ish at times requiring refinement and a cool head in her interactions with adults, and Hermione Granger-esque when faced with overwhelming physical challenges. I loved the fact that Flavia did something unexpected on almost every page. She kept revealing new facets of her personality as the story unfolded.

Luckily for me (and other fortunate readers), Bradley has apparently finished a second Flavia mystery and may well be at work on book number three. I believe I heard this is to be a four book series. I hope it lasts much, much longer as I can’t wait to see what else Bradley does with Flavia’s character.

August 14, 2009

Luckiest Reader

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 9:38 am

My birthday is this weekend and my husband just surprised me with the greatest birthday present ever (at least for me!)–A KINDLE!!!


Obviously, I am giddy with excitement and will probably spend the whole day reading. 🙂  Kids are in school and I’m off to explore– I’ve wanted one forever but never dreamed I’d get one– too many other things come first.  I love my husband for such a surprising and thoughtful gift.  🙂

Sacred Hearts

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 9:18 am

Sacred Hearts

The girls rubs the back of her hand roughly across her nose to stop the stream of tears and mucus.  “You don’t understand.”  And now there is a furious pleadingt in the voice.  “I should not be here.  I am put in against my will.”

Zuana sees her, kneeling in a whirlpool of velvet before the altar, head bowed while the priest guides her through the litany of assent.

“What about the vows you spoke in chapel?” she says gently.  “Words.  I said words, that’s all.  They came from my mouth, not my heart.” [p.11, ARC]

Sarah Dunant’s novel Sacred Hearts is set in a sixteenth century Italian convent.  Dowaries to secure ‘good’ marriages for young women have become so inflated that most families cannot afford to marry off more than one daughter.  As a result, convents have become a convenient place to send those  daughters ‘left behind.’    Santa Caterina’s convent is the beneficiary of many of these young women and the fortunes of their rich and influential families.  In return for taking them in, the convent recieves a sum of money for support and puts the young women to work within its walls.  Santa Caterina has become known for its gifted women’s choir.

Sacred Hearts tells the story of an angry novice, Serafina, who has been placed at the convent far from her home against her will.  The dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, a veteran of life at Santa Caterina, is charged with calming the rebellious young woman and assimilating her into life at the convent.  Their relationship is complex — Serafina’s rebellious nature challenges not only Zuana, but the other sisters who appear to have made peace with their cloistered lives and their roles in society.  Serafina is certain that her hometown lover will appear to rescue her from her prison and Zuana must decide whether she will assist in this rebellion or stand by the societal and religious pressures that require unmarried women to live within the convent walls.

Dunant’s writing is, as ever, an enjoyable and easy read.  Readers who enjoyed her previous novels (The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan) will enjoy this addition to her work.

July 29, 2009

Almost as Good as Oscar Day!

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 7:33 am

The Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced and it’s a day I really look forward to.  Now to get reading (or at least seriously considering reading) some of these finalists.  Their list always highlights something I’ve missed.  Hooray for the Man Booker Prize!

This year’s longlist:

  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
  • Summertime by J. M. Coetzee
  • The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
  • How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
  • The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey
  • Me Cheeta by James Lever
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • The Glass Room by Simon Mawer
  • Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin
  • Heliopolis by James Scudamore
  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
  • Love and Summer by William Trevor
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The shortlist will be unveiled September 8, and the winner named October 6 at a dinner at London’s Guildhall.

July 27, 2009

The Indifferent Stars Above Shines its Light on the Donner Pary

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 10:07 am

Indifferent Stars AboveAs I wrote weeks ago, I’m an admitted devotee when it comes to reading about the Donner Party and their ill-fated sojourn across the west. I have found this topic strangely compelling since I first learned about it as a child and I am often attracted to books and media discussions about it. Such was the case with Brown’s book– as soon as I saw it was up for review I jumped at the chance to read it. The strange part was it took me quite a while to get to reading it.  I knew it would take me places I was not yet ready to go and I wanted to make sure I was in a space that would allow for undisturbed reflection about the novel and Donners.  Hard to do with young children home and running about.  I finally carved out some time and dove in–I was not disappointed!

Brown tells the story of the Donner party through the eyes of Sarah Graves (Fosdick), a 21 year old newlywed who traveled from IL along with her husband and her own extended family to California. Brown does a fabulous job of recreating the circumstances surrounding their departure. We see the whys and hows of the trek planned out as well as the stunningly bad decision to depart too late in the season to prevent tragedy. We are with them as they meet up with the infamous Donners on their journey to California and as they find themselves trapped in the mountains for the winter with little hope of rescue. Readers feel the anxiety of these people as they anguish over the best course of action: stay and await the spring with ever decreasing food stores or make an attempt to seek help.

What separates this book from others I have read is that Brown does an excellent job of giving us more than just ‘the gory details’ of the Donner party’s descent into madness and cannibalism. We see Sarah before, during, and after Donner and there is as much of interest in the book ‘after’ her rescue as there was in the decision to hike out of camp.

Another excellent aspect of this book is Brown’s use of contemporary wilderness/survival stories within Sarah’s story. We not only see historical information from the period, but Brown uses 20th and 21st century stories of survival (or death) to parallel Sarah’s circumstances. The dramatic juxtaposition of these old/new stories heightens Sarah’s courage and extraordinary will to live instead of just re-rehearsing historical facts.

Brown invites readers to learn about Sarah Graves with him as he travels across the country recreating her journey. This is a personal quest for him as well. He wants to recapture what she might have felt leaving her home and setting out for a ‘better’ life in California. He seeks to know not only what happened to these ill-fated travelers, but how they survived and to what end. This is NOT a book that focuses on the cannibalistic aspect of the Donner saga– it’s much more. It’s about recapturing the humanity of the travelers and asking what propels us to move forward into the future when life seems indifferent to us. ( )

Of Bees and Mist

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 9:33 am

Of Bees and MistIf there was ever a book that should be made into a film by Tim Burton, it is Eric Setiawan’s novel, Of Bees and Mist.  That may not mean much to many readers, and I hope it’s not off-putting.  I love Burton’s quirky films and I loved Setiawan’s book so I think they would be an extraordinary combination.

Of Bees and Mist is an extraordinary trip into another world.  I’m not sure of the definition of ‘magical realism’ within literary circles, but if this book doesn’t embody it, I don’t know what would.  The reader is transported into the main character, Meridia’s world — one that reminded me quite a bit of Harry Potter, minus the broomsticks and potions.  It’s a timeless world– it feels simultaneously modern and old.  Brides are ‘chosen’ by families and a dowry matters.   The setting is gorgeous and all I could think about was the village that Tim Burton’s art directors would create.  He’s the perfect person to transform this book into film and I hope somehow, somewhere, he discovers it and buys the rights to it.  I know he doesn’t usually deal with female protagonists, but Meridia should be an exception.

I don’t know what I expected from the publisher’s blurb, but it wasn’t what I got.  I adored the main character, Meridia, and she reminded me (in a strange way) of a female Harry Potter.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s no overt magic being done by Meridia, but she’s a young girl who grows up before our eyes with little help from her parents (they are broken by their own passions for each other).  Meridia fights to understand the nature of love that simultaneously saves and destroys her family.  She marries into a family that never fully appreicates her and she endures more than her share of persecution and misunderstanding in the name of keeping her husband and family together.

* Who is family to us?  How do we construct our families?  What part does biology play and what part something or someone else?

*What should we get from our parents?  What do we have a right to expect from that relationship as we get older.  What do we ‘owe’ our parents?  Siblings?

*What makes one a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in-law?

*What is the role of intuition in our lives?  Do you rely on it?  Fear it?

*What are the bees?  What are the mists?

*What kinds of love are present in the novel?

*What is the role of magic in this book?

*Who is Hannah?

Read this one, it’s a charmer!

May 4, 2009

The Indifferent Stars and an Interested Reader

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 4:51 pm


Here’s a little secret:  I have a thing about reading narratives about the Donner Party.  Yep.  It’s creepy, but it’s also true and you can’t beat them for pure American creepy real life drama (with a mildly happy ending).

Given my penchant for this topic (I love History Channel /PBS documentaries on this subject, too), you can imagine my glee at receiving a copy of Daniel James Brown’s new book, The Indifferent Stars Above. The William Morrow imprint of Harper Collins sent me an uncorrected proof of this new book to review via Library Thing.  I am VERY grateful.   It’s all I can do not to dive into it immediately, but I’m in the middle of T.C. Boyle’s, The Women, and loving it so I must finish it before I throw myself in with the Donners.

Ethan Rarick’s 2008 book , Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West, has been on my TBR list for a while but I haven’t been able to find a copy to read– even my library doesn’t have it.  Back in the late 1990’s Doris Betts did a fabulous job combining paranormal aspects of the Donner story with modern day quest for identity in her novel, Heading West.  I should re-read Betts’ book.  She’s a fabulous writer and I’ve lost track of her.  But, that’s a digression.

Donner books, like books on Salem & witchcraft are best savored months (or years) apart.  Too much of a topic like that and I can’t enjoy each book distinctly.  I begin to compare the books in ways that don’t allow the writer’s a fair chance to show me what they know and to shed new light on the story.  I want to ask new questions and hear new perspectives when I read about this part of our nation’s history so I need to spread these fictionalized accounts out amongst other reading.  At least with this new entry into thge category I know I have something I can look forward to reading.

Identity Politics in the Civil War

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 4:21 pm

all-other-nights-dara-horn1I was determined to finish  this book despite a slow start  so I forged ahead and completed it.  I don’t often do that– if I don’t ‘feel’ the book immediately I usually stop.  This time, however,   I was really afraid I was the problem and to some extent I think that remains true.  I just wasn’t as into the subject (Civil War espionage from the perspective of a Jewish soldier from NYC) as I could have been.  I resisted  Horn’s narrative in ways and didn’t allow myself to go with the flow of the book.

This is disappointing because I think All Other Nights is a genuinely good and compelling read, but perhaps just not for me.  I’ll be analyzing why that is for a long time.  It’s got the elements that should, and probably will, grab anyone else who picks this up– it’s an historical novel of the civil war but the protagonist is a Jewish Union soldier who must go undercover in the deep South to marry a Confederate female spy.  Surprisingly it was the female characters that I didn’t really ‘get’ in the book.  They were a strange combination of vapid Southern Belles and Jewish Scarlett O’Haras.  Very odd.   I don’t know enough about American Judaism in this period and region to know if they are really plausible.

What I did connect with, however, was the anti-Judiasm that was so prevelant in the South at that time as well as the ways in which prejudice reared its head within the military.  I had no ideas Jews were expelled from American towns during the Civil War.  That alone should have make this compelling reading for everyone.  At this point in our country’s history I think many readers  know about and respect the service of african american civil war combatants, but I know I had never considered the role Jews might have played in the Civil War.

Anti-Judiasm gets overlooked or trivialized today in ways that are inexcusable.  This book would definitely be a fascinating starting point to discuss religion, ethnicity, and war.  In the United States we pride ourselves on our heritage as a “melting pot” — but this book forces the reader to wrestle with questions of identity and allegience.  Which is more compelling– Religious identity?  Family connection?  Love?  Ethnicity?  Regional heritage?  Politics?  I appreciate Horn’s book for allowing me to consider these questions.

April 19, 2009

Frustration with My Current Reads

Filed under: Uncategorized — by underthecoversandreading @ 1:19 pm



I’m in the midst of two quite different ARCs and having trouble with both of them.  On the heels of a book I absolutely could NOT put down, I’m now reading the BN First Look selection, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Dara Horn’s new book about a Jewish Civil War spy, All Other Nights, and much to my dismay, I’m not having trouble putting either of them down.

Thus the problem.  I absolutely do not like Deliverance Dane.  I think it’s quite contrived and I haven’t gotten past the first six chapeters.  I’m really disappointed.  I wanted to like this book so much, but there is nothing I dislike more than an  unbelieveable female heroine and that’s how I’m viewing the protagonist,  Connie Goodwin.  She’s a complete caricature of the female graduate students I have encountered and, as I am a female graduate student in ancient history, I take umbrage at that.  I’m contrasting this novel, or at least what I’ve read of it, to The Heretic’s Daughter, another novel based on the  Salem witch trials by an ancestor, and The Monsters of Templeton‘s grad student heroine, Willie Upton,  for the academic vibe.   Willie may be flak, but Groff’s grad student is much more beliveable (even with a crazy plot premise!)    Each of these novels is fabulous  and deserves a wide reading.

I can’t say the same for The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. I’m guessing, though, by the BN book club boards, that the book will be a big seller for them.  I’ll be in the minority on this one, but I found it more like this past summer’s blog hit The Lace Reader.  I really, really disliked that book.  I did finish it although I’m not sure why.  It was completely unbelievable from start to finish.  That’s how I’m feeling about Deliverance Dane.  The characters are too overdrawn and pat for me.   I shan’t finish it and that makes me very sad (it’s got a GORGEOUS cover!).

As for the other ARC I’m reading, All Other Nights, I’m having a completely different problem.  The characters are interesting enough and the plot is definitely meant to be exciting, but something is missing.  I think it’s the fact  that Horn sets up the protagonist in a series of challenges and as he finishes one I feel like I can put the book down.  It’s like the story has been totally completed and there’s nothing compelling to push me to follow his next expoloit– they’re just strung together.

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