Final Spring Cleaning Challenge Update & Summer Challenge sign up!
This is the final update I’ll be providing for our Spring Challenge since it is over next week. If you haven’t already signed up for our summer challenge, please do so early since it will start June 21st. Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll get.
I will mail hard copies to the first 10 people who request one (they took longer than I thought to make them so I’m limiting how many I make). I have 5 left since most have requested email copies. Once those are gone, everyone else will get a PDF copy. Inside is a list of reading destinations for the challenge!
Now on to the Spring Challenge update. The last two weeks have seemed like a back and forth between Kate and Tracy who are currently tied for first with 23 points. Special props to Kate who powered through Infinite Jest — a fairly mean assignment on my part.
As a group, you’ve read an amazing 135 books for this challenge! Please check your scores to make sure they are correct. You have one final week (until June 20 at midnight) to submit your last book. Here are the current standings.
Kate – 23
Tracy – 23
Andrea – 6
Ellen – 6
Nicole D – 5
Becky – 4
Lynsey – 4
Sushicat – 4
Tessa – 2
Brandy – 1
Tricia – 1
Prizes: The grand prize could go to any of you, although odds favor those with more entries. I will announce the winners on June 21st. What could you win? A box filled with a selection new books from a variety of genres, an amazon gift card, and several book-related items. The first place reader will also win an Amazon gift card and 1 new book. Anita (for being the first person to complete a book) also wins a small prize. And one final mystery winner (who will be announced) will get a copy of Judy Blume’s latest book!
NOTE: If an international reader wins the grand prize, she will receive the equivalent amount in Amazon gift cards and other online redeemable prizes since it might bankrupt me to mail the box overseas. In that case, a second randomly drawn person will be selected to win the box – so an extra person wins. Good luck everyone!
Keep reading to check out all the books you’ve read as a group along with the latest reviews. You might find a good book to add to your own TBR.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Read by Tracy
Set in an Italian Villa, from early 1945 to August of that same year, this is many love stories rolled into one story. Four people are staying here- Hana is a Canadian nurse, caring for the burned man known only as the English patient. He was found by nomads in the Egyptian desert, burned badly from crashing a British plane, and he speaks English. Therefore, it is assumed that he is English. As the war is drawing to a close in Europe, the one time soldiers’ hospital is being abandoned, but Hana insists on remaining with her patient, as he should not be moved. The two are soon joined by a spy/thief who is like an uncle to Hana, and a Sikh man who is part of the British military, responsible for defusing bombs and mines.
As the story progresses, Caravaggio, the spy, draws more information out of the English patient, and his love affair with an associate’s wife is revealed, as is his true identity, war affiliation, and role in the war. In the meantime, Hana and Kip, the Sikh, have their own fun. The story reaches its peak on the day the bombs were dropped in Japan.
I loved the story, and I was fascinated with Kip’s sections- especially how he defused bombs. I held my breath during these times. This would have been a solid 4 star read, except I didn’t feel especially connected to any of the characters. They were well drawn, but not sympathetic. I know many are sad that this wasn’t tied up in a neat little bow at the end, but I didn’t mind the end- reading so many books on the 1001 list has taught me that neat little bows don’t always make the best stories.
The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes – Lucy H. Spelman, DVM and Ted Y. Mashima, DVM. Read by Ellen
Dedicated veterinarians from all areas of the world contributed stories to this collection concerning medical treatment of exotic animals in zoos, aquaria, and in the wild. Many of the procedures used on their patients have never been attempted before but the advances in technology and research has allowed the vets many more options than in the past. A pair of water-breathing dragons (similar to a seahorse) were treated in a hospital decompression chamber after their air bladders overinflated during transport from Australia to Florida. Patch, an Australian hobby falcon, had successful surgery to repair its coracoid, the bone that supports wing movement, while Sally, a red kangaroo, had spinal surgery to repair a disc. Cancer treatment on a goldfish, a root canal on a hippo, removal of mites on dung beetles, and aluminum shoes glued to the foot pads of a rhino are just a few of the creative medical procedures undertaken. By far my favorite story is the one about a green moray eel who had lived in an aquarium in a bar until the eel became too large for his tank. The bartender donated the eel to the New England Aquarium where the eel constantly hid in the rocks and refused to eat. Despite all attempts to lure the eel out of hiding it steadfastly refused and the aquarium staff feared they had an anorexic eel on their hands. After the bartender was contacted to question him about special foods the eel might like, he decided to come to the aquarium himself to visit. As soon as the eel saw his former friend it immediately came to the front of the tank and stared at the bartender. The eel ate its first bite of food and continued to do so from that day forward. That story just warms my heart. If you love animals you will more than likely love this book as well.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Read by Tracy
The middle child of the Lee family, Lydia, has died, and her family is left to deal with it. In 1976 small town Ohio, an Asian family is a novelty, and racism is not only rampant, it is unashamed. Especially when Dad is Chinese and Mom is white.
Each family member has flashbacks, including Lydia, to the time before, trying to find answers. This makes for some interesting family dynamics. I can’t really say much more without spoilers- sorry!
The book was pretty good: characters were well done, and the transitions in voice were smooth and coherent. The writing was tight- no meandering. I felt it was a bit melodramatic, and maybe too simplistic- as if it was written for a target audience, instead of from the author’s heart. Otherwise, it certainly went fast, and an enjoyable, but not overly memorable read.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Read by Tracy
Jun Do is not an orphan- his father took the position of orphan master so he could keep him, after Jun Do’s mother, a singer, left. In North Korea, under Kim Jong Il, having the status of orphan means the worst jobs. One day, Dad disappears, and since Jun Do gives the orphanage as his address, he gets some interesting training, including learning English so he can spy on the Americans. His life is full of assignments and punishments for doing his job well. His life gets most interesting when he is assigned the identity of a commander who is married to North Korea’s most famous actress.
This was a well written book. It won the Pulitzer in 2013. I enjoyed the story and the characters were very well drawn. The settings also came to life, with beautiful descriptions. But: I had a hard time shaking the idea that this may not be an accurate portrayal of life in North Korea. Well researched or not, and knowing it’s fiction, still didn’t stop me from thinking that maybe this was no better than the propaganda thrown to North Koreans. I would need to do my own research on history and politics to set my mind at ease, I guess. Because of my unease, 4 stars.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Read by Kate
Nearly infinitely long tale of a near dystopian future where the former United States, whose President is an OCD former lounge singer, merges with Canada and Mexico to form the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN). This union was more coerced than entered into voluntarily, hence the existence of radical Quebecois terrorists epitomized by the dreaded Wheelchair Assassins (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents or AFR). The separatists desperately want to get their hands on a mysterious film-cartridge known as the “entertainment” that is so compulsively entertaining and absorbing that viewers can’t voluntarily stop watching it and will literally starve to death rather than turn away. ONAN government agents want to secure the film-cartridge to prevent dissemination because it is of course assumed that the whole U.S. can be brought to its knees by just this sort of bad-for-you-entertainment.
Most of the action takes place in either the Enfield Tennis Academy or in or around their near neighbor the Ennet House for recovering addicts in a Boston suburb. ETA was founded by the late auteur of the entertainment, patriarch of the bizarre Incandenza clan, whose youngest son Hal, teenage tennis prodigy, is as close as we come to having a protagonist for this tale. Action at the Enfield House centers around the travails of hapless recovering addict, and accidental murderer, Don Gately who while celebrating several months of sobriety has graduated to become a live in staff member of the facility. The search for the entertainment and the back and forth between agents of the AFR and ONAN ties the two settings together.
Each setting features literally dozens of characters and needless to say it takes a very long time to sort them out and learn the back story of each. It seems like virtually all of the back stories involve some sort of horrific abuse, neglect or perversion. The reader is also treated to a fairly encyclopedic discussion of just about every abusable substance known to late 20th century science. You definitely develop your favorites amongst the characters and it can be very frustrating when Wallace pulls away at a cliffhanger in a particular thread and then when he returns maybe a hundred pages later he has skipped ahead past the climax and makes you piece together what happened in dribs and drabs.
I knew that I was going to give this book at 4 stars when I realized about half way through that I was probably going to start over when I finished so that I could better appreciate the earlier scenes after becoming more familiar with the characters. Little did I realize that I was going to have to at least partially re-read just to decide for myself how the story actually ends. This enormous book is obviously not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who lacks a robust vocabulary and a high tolerance for footnotes. I dreamt about it while reading it, I find myself using novel phrases introduced in it, and I amused myself during a dull work assignment the other day be mapping out the plot as a 12-part mini-series. Personally I’m predisposed to like any novel that includes off-hand references to huge herds of feral hamsters roaming the woods of Vermont.
The Accidental by Ali Smith. Read by Tracy
A family rents a summer house for their vacation in 2003. One day, a woman in her 30s shows up, and each family member assumes she was invited by someone else. Next thing they know, she’s turned their world upside down, and started to fix what is wrong with each of them.
Astrid, the 12 year old daughter is having issues with her friends, and they have started bullying her. Amber, the stranger, helps her “find her power”. Magnus, the 16 year old son, has inadvertently contributed to a female classmate’s suicide, and cannot get over his guilt and his grief. Amber provides him with, well, an outlet, albeit a questionable one. Michael, the stepfather, is a college professor who wants what is forbidden, so he regularly seduces his female students. Amber denies him herself. And Eve, the mother, doesn’t know what she wants. She is a messed up individual, who boots Amber out of the house when she forces Eve to see this about herself. And this is the middle of the book…
I enjoyed this one a lot. The conclusion was indeterminate- we never really know for sure who Amber is, or why she showed up on this family’s doorstep. The way she appears, then disappears without a trace, it could be speculated that she is a ghost. But she leaves an indelible mark on the family, and their lives change for the better afterwards. The writing style is quirky, but not unpleasantly so- I enjoyed the break from traditional, but if asked to pinpoint where the differences are, I’m not sure I could. Smith’s wordplay, and music and movie references were fun, and I’m sure had much deeper meaning than I caught, especially the movie references. I feel as if I had caught all those movie references, I could have gotten even more out of this, perhaps an identity of sorts for Amber.
I don’t think this is a book for everyone- I could certainly see someone over 60 not liking this one at all, due to the writing style. But I found it refreshing and a good, enjoyable read.
And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini. Read by Nicole D
This is technically a novel, but really it feels more like connected short stories, and/or just character studies. This leaves it open for parts to be quite good, and parts to be not as good. My favorite part of the book was Nabi’s letter, in which he detailed out his life of service in Kabul. It elevated the book for me. My least favorite part of the book was Pari’s young adult life in France – not because I didn’t love that story – I did and I was looking forward to that part, but I felt like Hosseini wrote that whole section in tele-type, like I was reading a Reuter’s newsfeed. It was almost like he didn’t like here. And finally, a quibble – though I really enjoyed the Greek doctor his part was oddly positioned, and the last thing I wanted at that point in the book was the whole backstory on some peripheral character.
There were a lot of themes explored. It put me in mind of Kite Runner more than once, and I felt and feel that the author is really trying to work something out for himself with his writing. Working through guilt… and then I came to this passage “Dig beneath a beautiful piece of writing, Monsieur Boustouler, and you will find all manner of dishonor.” I’m taking this deliberately out of context, it perfectly fit what the character was saying at the moment, but it also perfectly suited what I was feeling about the author in that moment.
Flawed book, but good.
And the Mountains Echoed– Khaled Hosseini. Read by Tessa
Audiobook performed by Shohreh Aghdashloo, Khaled Hosseini and Navid Negahban.
From book jacket: It begins with the unparalleled bond between two motherless siblings in an Afghan village. To three-year-old Pari, big brother Abdullah is more mother than brother. To ten-year-old Abdullah, little Pari is his everything What happens to them – and the large and small ways in which it echoes through the lives of so many other people – is proof of the moral complexity of life.
Hosseini is a great storyteller. This is his most ambitious novel, covering several generations over six decades and across continents from Afghanistan to Paris to San Francisco to Greece.
There are many heart-wrenching scenes that echo what happens to Pari and Abdullah: Parwana and her twin Masooma; Nabi and Nila; Mr Wahdati and Nabi; Nila and Pari; Markos and Thalia. And however far apart – in terms of time, or distance, or relationship – these stories are, they are all connected.
Having multiple narrators and multiple time lines is a difficult style to pull off successfully. Hosseini does it masterfully in this novel. However, it did take me a while to get the rhythm of the story arc because of the changes in narrator, focus, time frame and location. The audio actually helps in this regard because of the three distinct performers. And once I was accustomed to the way Hosseini shifted focus, but still stayed centered on that central theme and story arc, my appreciation for the way he wove the stories together grew.
Khaled Hosseini, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Navid Negahban are all skilled narrators, with good pacing.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Read by Kate
The twenty year-old author arrives in the Ukraine in possession of an old 1941 photograph of his long dead grandfather with the mysterious woman that family legend says saved him from the Nazis. In his quest to find this woman and his grandfather’s home shtetl of Trachimbrod, Foer is assisted by his translator Sasha, whose marvelously exuberant English is a wonder to behold, his driver, Sasha’s crusty old grandfather, and the grandfather’s “seeing eye” dog Sammy Davis Junior, Junior. Not only to the locals profess to have no knowledge of Trachimbrod but they seem to be downright hostile to the seekers. Eventually the unlikely foursome stumble across an old woman who recognizes the photo and she leads them further back into the bloody and tragic story of the community destroyed by the Holocaust and then willfully forgotten by the gentile survivors. No matter how many times I read about Nazi atrocities a well crafted story or account of their behavior and deeds still takes me by the throat. This story is set in the first few years of Ukrainian independence. It made it even more poignant to realize that war is once again ravishing this same countryside.
Inside Mr. Enderby by Anthony Burgess. Read by Tracy
Mr. Enderby is a poet, who writes in the modern, almost beat, style. He eschews women, excess clothing ownership, and bathing more than weekly. He also has terrible gas issues (kind of reminds me of my husband!) He is successful, though, for a poet- he’s published a few volumes over the years, and sold a few hundred copies of each. And he’s admired enough to receive a prize, which he rejects, and thus begins his real troubles. At this poetry gathering, he meets a woman who rescues him, marries him, and, after the wedding, tries to change him, thus becoming just like his stepmother.
I was enjoying this, laughing out loud at times, until I realized that its plot was repeated, in a better way, in A Clockwork Orange. Sorry, kind of a spoiler there, but not really. Otherwise, an interesting read, with lots of gaseous sound effects. Apparently, there is an Enderby quartet, but I can wait to read it, I think.
Book: The Stranger by Albert Camus. Read by Andrea
Rating: 3.5 stars
With a very simple way, almost like writing a personal diary, Camus tells the story about Meursault, since the death of his mother to a series of events that takes him to jail. After I read the book, I read a little analysis I found about it, which gave me a better understanding of the novel. The way Camus represents the main character in the first part of the book, as a senseless person, indifferent to life, disconnected from this world, is what is known as “absurd sensibility”, where people live their lives in order to hide their own self. In the second part, it is like an explosion, which exposes the true self of Meursault, his way of thinking and his feelings.
At first I wasn´t very happy with the book, but I looked for an analysis and review, for I thought maybe it was because I haven’t got the meaning of it. When I read a short essay about it, I liked it better, for I understood the psychology in it. My recommendation: read it and maybe look for a little help as I did.
Jacob the Liar by Jurek Becker. Read by Tracy
One night, while out a little too far from home, Jacob Heym is sent by the Nazis guarding his ghetto to the guardhouse. They abuse their power and tell him he’s out past curfew, he must report and ask for punishment. While he’s there, he hears on a radio that the Russians are 200 miles away. This begins Jacob’s one man attempt to bring hope to the Jews in the ghetto. Since he lies about having a radio, he keeps up his reports of the Russian progress. In the meantime, life in the ghetto goes on, with a much lower suicide rate. His campaign is working.
This was a well written book of love, loss, and hope where all seems lost. Jacob is a wonderful man, for the hope he brings to others, and for the love he shows for the orphan girl Lina. I could visualize the hope as a brightly colored balloon as I read, with everything else in many dismal shades of gray. This was a very powerful book to me, and though I didn’t care for the end, that is the way that Jacob would want it for us.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Ready by Kate
Nine year old Chiyo lives in desperate poverty with her elderly fisherman father, her dying mother and her elder sister. Chiyo is aware that her mother does not have long to live and when the wealthiest man in their small village, the proprietor of the seafood plant, takes an interest in her and has closed door discussions with her desperate father, Chiyo convinces herself that she and her sister are about to be adopted into a life of leisure. After willingly leaving home to present themselves to her supposed benefactor, Mr. Tanaka, the girls find themselves unceremoniously hustled onto a train and sold off to strangers. Chiyo has been sold as a maid and prospective geisha trainee to a house in Kyoto. Her less attractive older sister is sent to a house of prostitution.
The rest of the novel tracks Chiyo’s life as she grows from a desperately unhappy little girl whose focus is only on escape to her old life to a driven and ambitious young woman determined to become a successful geisha. The lives of the geishas are full of politics and intrigue where crippling debt is used to bind young women to their houses as they must work to pay off the costs of their own enslavement. Chiyo has a more personal goal than wealth, she is determined to earn the attention and affection of The Chairman, a wealthy industrialist who showed her kindness and compassion when she needed it most.
Strangely about 90% of the way through this book I began to see a very strong parallel with Gone with the Wind with Chiyo as Scarlett O’Hara juggling her gentleman callers, pining for a seemingly indifferent man while putting off her most ardent suitor. The settings were parallels as well, the American Civil War vs. World War II Japan. The endings though diverge so although there sort of is a “frankly my dear” moment our heroine’s reaction is different.
Redeployment by Phil Klay. Read by Tracy
A series of short stories, similar to the style of The Things They Carried, Redeployment is about Marines in the War on Terror. Each story tells, in the first person, of each narrator’s experience in Iraq, and when they come home. Klay was there, and he tells it like he saw it. If punches are pulled in these stories, it had to be horrible beyond description. The author also makes it pretty clear that he’s not a fan of war.
I liked the writing style. It was gritty, raw, and real. All stories were full of military jargon, which lost me frequently, and some were downright unreadable, because that’s all they were. Some were poignant, others funny. My favorite was the memories of an engineer of sorts who wants to help rebuild, but the man who runs the water plant refuses to run water to Sunnis, who live across the street. Finally he agrees when he’s told that the water pressure will blow up the Sunni toilets. Sadly, this wasn’t a lie. Then our officer received baseball uniforms and instructions from a wealthy supporter of a senator to teach those Iraqi boys how to play baseball. They need institutions over there to promote democracy. Nothing better than the institution of baseball.
My biggest obstacle with this one was the subject matter, and the foul language. Sometimes it was more gritty than I liked. I’m not one to bury my head in the sand, but descriptions of the dead, body parts and taking three shots to “take care of” a Marine’s aged and ill dog upon his return was a bit harsh for me. I can see where this will be a must read book about this war, and soldier experience. It was worth reading.
The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart. Read by Kate
Despite the challenges of housekeeping in a drafty, possibly haunted tower in the Tower of London, Balthazar and Hebe Jones are deeply in love. The sudden death of the only child Milo changes everything. They cannot share their grief or seemingly anything else and find their marriage fracturing. Meanwhile the Queen of England has decided to reopen the royal menagerie at the Tower, stocking it with all of the exotic animals that she has received as state gifts, and Beefeater Balthazar has been chosen to head the project. Balthazar manages to shower the animals, especially the bearded pig, with all of the love and care he can’t seem to express to his wife. Hebe has her own adventures while working in the Lost Property Office of the London Underground. There are several entertaining subplots and romances involving the couple’s colleagues at their respective workplaces. As a wildlife/exotic animal professional I can attest that Geoffroy’s marmosets do indeed flash their privates at you when they are upset but hanging parrots do not mimic human speech. Even if it does further the plot. All in all this was a quick, entertaining, but not very deep read.
Half of Man is Woman by Zhang Xianliang. Read by Tracy
Communist China is a mystery to the rest of the world. How people live, survive, and can be happy with a way of life that seems oppressive to the rest of us is truly mind boggling. This book talks of the really paranoid time in China- post Revolution- where no one trusted anyone. A friend, relative, spouse, parent, child- any of these could turn a person in for “subversive” behavior, even if there was no evidence, and that person could be sent to work camps, prison, or worse. Zhang Yonglin is a poet, convicted of writing rightist verse, and is in a work camp when he spies a beautiful woman bathing in a secluded section of a pond. She, too is sentenced to the work camp, but we are not told why. Years later, on a State Farm, they meet again, and marry. Their marriage is rife with stress- he is impotent, and unable to write, she cheats on him, both carry bitterness, until one night when a flood threatens the collective, and Zhang Yonglin plugs the hole in the canal wall. Then his manhood is restored, and he is able to write again. They fall in love, which is dangerous in China.
This is hailed as a great political novel. If taken at face value, it is certainly a love story, albeit a strange and sad one. The metaphors are certainly there- she is China, he the people, and I’m sure a better scholar than I could find many more metaphors, as well as much deeper meaning than I could. I will think more about this one, and try to find those political references. This author skillfully combines politics and a beautiful story, set in a gorgeously drawn landscape, in a country’s time period where just writing in a diary could have gotten him killed. For this, it deserves a spot on the 1001 list.
The Likeness by Tana French. Read by Kate
Ever since the disastrous conclusion of her last case as a member of Dublin’s Murder Squad, Detective Cassie Maddox has been keeping her head down in the less stressful Domestic Violence Division. That is until she gets an urgent phone call summoning her to the scene of a murder. The victim not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Cassie, she is carrying ID that identifies her as Lexie Madison, which just happens to be a name that Cassie used in her first undercover assignment. Cassie allows herself to be talked into another undercover assignment, as the murder victim herself.
This is the second entry in the Dublin Murder Squad series and my least favorite so far of the three that I’ve read. I felt that it was overlong by about half and I found several of Cassie’s decisions while pursuing the case to be puzzling. They made sense from a plot development point of view but little sense from the perspective of a detective trying to solve a murder, which annoys me as a reader.