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Book Review: The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Young African man peaking around a door.Summary:
Dawit is a twenty year old Ethiopian refugee hiding out illegally in Paris and barely surviving.  One day he runs into the elderly, famous French writer, M., in a cafe.  Utterly charmed by him and how he reminds her of her long-lost lover she had growing up in Africa, she invites him to come live with her.  But Dawit is unable to give M. what she wants, leading to dangerous conflict between them.

Review:
This starts out with an interesting chance meeting in a cafe but proceeds to meander through horror without much of a point.

Although in the third person, we only get Dawit’s perspective, and although he is a sympathetic character, he sometimes seems not entirely well-rounded.  Through flashbacks we learn that he grew up as some sort of nobility (like a duke, as he explains to the Romans).  His family is killed and imprisoned, and he is eventually helped to escape by an ex-lover and makes it to Paris.  This is clearly a painful story, but something about Dawit in his current state keeps the reader from entirely empathizing with him.  He was raised noble and privileged, including boarding schools and learning many languages, but he looks down his nose at the French bourgeois, who, let’s be honest, are basically the equivalent of nobility.  He judges M. for spending all her money on him instead of sending it to Ethiopia to feed people, but he also accepts the lavish gifts and money himself.  Admittedly, he sends some to his friends, but he just seems a bit hypocritical throughout the whole thing.  He never really reflects on the toppling of the Emperor in Ethiopia or precisely how society should be ordered to be better.  He just essentially says, “Oh, the Emperor wasn’t all that bad, crazy rebels, by the way, M., why aren’t you donating this money to charity instead of spending it on me? But I will tooootally take that cashmere scarf.” Ugh.

That said, Dawit is still more sympathetic than M., who besides being a stuck-up, lazy, self-centered hack also repeatedly rapes Dawit.  Yeah. That happened. Quite a few times.  And while I get the point that Kohler is making (evil old colonialists raping Ethiopians), well, I suppose I just don’t think it was a very clever allegory.  I’d rather read about that actually happening.

In spite of being thoroughly disturbed and squicked out by everyone in the story, I kept reading because Kohler’s prose is so pretty, and I honestly couldn’t figure out how she’d manage to wrap everything up.  What point was she going to make?  Well, I got to the ending, and honestly the ending didn’t do it for me.  I found it a bit convenient and simplistic after the rest of the novel, and it left me kind of wondering what the heck I just spent my time reading.

So, clearly this book rubbed me the wrong way, except for the fact that certain passages are beautifully written.  Will it work for other readers?  Maybe.  Although the readers I know with a vested interest in the effects of colonialism would probably find the allegory as simplistic as I did.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Specific country? Ethiopia. South African author.

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Book Review: The Book of Lost Fragrances by M. J. Rose (Series, #4)

March 19, 2012 2 comments

Woman smelling a spilled fragrance.Summary:
Jac ran away from her family’s traditional perfumerie in Paris to pursue a career in mythology in her mother’s homeland of the USA.  This move was spurred on by her mother’s suicide, and Jac’s own subsequent loss of touch with reality.  Years of therapy later, all is well, but when Jac’s brother and current manager of the perfumerie goes missing, Jac must face up to her demons at home, as well as scenes in her own mind.  Are they delusions or past life memories?

Review:
I requested this on NetGalley without realizing it was part of a series, but it is evident each entry in the series is about different people whose lives intertwine in a minor way.  Thus, I was able to read this book without feeling that sense of disorientation that happens when you jump into the middle of a series.  I’m glad too, because I found the story an intriguingly different plot-line for a thriller.

Essentially, there are some pottery pieces that Robbie discovers in his home that may or may not have once held a scent that allows whoever smells it to remember their past lives.  A past life therapist wants these pottery pieces, Robbie wants to give them to the Dalia Lama, and the Chinese government wants to keep them out of the Dalai Lama’s hand in their on-going quest against Tibet.  It’s a good big world plot, but the overall focus is mostly on Jac, which is how I tend to prefer thrillers.  And Jac is a great character.  She is strong, intelligent, a caring sister.  She had a rough childhood, but still has her head on straight.  Her struggle with whether or not she had past lives ends up not being as important as the reader might at first think, which I also appreciated.  Jac’s character development is about accepting herself for who she is and not making selfish choices.  It is not at all the romance I thought at first it was going to be, and that is a good thing.

Rose evokes the settings of Paris and NYC with equal aptitude.  I must say I found myself craving an afternoon at the museum and some creperies when I was done with the book.  The perfumerie business and house are equally beautiful and easy to picture, but also the tunnels underneath Paris are evoked well.  Setting and characterization are strong points of Rose’s.

I did periodically feel the book moved too slow in the beginning.  Also, I was disappointed that people who were evil now were evil in past lives and the good were always good.  Similarly, only one person had a past life as a different gender.  I get it that Rose’s point is that one needs to know one’s past lives in order to fix your mistakes that you make over and over, but I think it’s a bit short-sighted to think that if reincarnation did exist it would be that simplistic.  Also, personally, I just don’t believe in soul mates, so having that as a strong theme in the book was rather eye-roll inducing.

Overall, this is a fun worldwide thriller with educated people at the center of it that includes thought-provoking themes like self-improvement and self-acceptance.  Fans of the modern, globe-spanning thriller will enjoy it, as well as anyone who has a love of Paris.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Previous Books In Series:
The Reincarnationist
The Memorist
The Hypnotist

Book Review: The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)

January 17, 2012 7 comments

Jewish girl holding a gray cat.Summary:
The rabbi’s cat gives us a glimpse inside the home world of an Orthodox Rabbi and his young adult daughter in Algeria in the 1930s.  The cat is who we could call the “questioning” member of the family, a fact that isn’t too bothersome until one day he gains the ability to speak.

Review:
I loooove animal perspective books, and the drawing of Zbalya holding the cat on the cover was so adorable that I just had to grab this off the library shelf.  I was not disappointed.

Although I think anyone could enjoy this book, it definitely helps to have a bit of an understanding of how Orthodox Judaism works in order to catch some of the inside jokes.  The first chapter sucks you right in when the cat eats the “forbidden fruit”–the family’s pet parrot.  This renders him with the ability to speak.  Since I don’t have the book right in front of me, I can’t quote, but allow me to paraphrase the first conversation the cat has with the rabbi:

Rabbi: You ate the parrot!

Cat: No, I did not.

Rabbi: You are lying!

Cat: I am not lying, I am questioning. Good Jews question.

Rabbi: You are not a Jew.

Cat: Why not? You’re a Jew, and you are my master.

Rabbi: You are not circumcised.

Cat: I’m a cat. Cats can’t be circumcised.

Rabbi: Fine, but you have not been bar mitzvahed.

Cat: I am only 7.

Rabbi: In cat years that is 49.

Cat: Fine, than bar mitzvah me.

The rabbi agrees to start teaching him the Torah, and the questioning and ridiculousness continues.  It’s completely hilarious.

The cat is everything you imagine a cat to be–snarky, questioning, judgmental, but ultimately wants nothing more than to be held by Zbalya while she studies or sleeps, which leads directly into the second conflict in chapter two–Zbalya gets married and leaves the cat behind in her father’s household.  The final chapter covers a family visit to Paris to meet Zbalya’s husband’s family.

The drawings are rich and quirky.  The cat is not a beautiful cat, but he with his big ears and funky body shape matches the tongue in cheek witticisms of the story.  Algeria and Paris are exquisitely drawn, albeit from a cat-eye perspective.

It’s obvious that Sfar respects Judaism yet questions some of the rigorous rules of Orthodox Judaism.  Among the things the cat questions are Shabbat rules, why he can no longer sleep in his mistress’s room after she is married, why humans are so secretive about sex, why questioning is supposedly welcomed yet it annoys the humans, and why the name of god must not be spoken aloud except in prayer.  Even if you’re not religious, the book does make you wonder just what your pets think about your own habits and belief systems when they’re not purring in your lap.

Overall, this was a fun book with a cool perspective on Orthodox Judaism, Algeria, and Paris.  Although the last chapter wasn’t as strong as the first two, it was still well-worth the read, and I am eagerly anticipating diving into the next entry.

I recommend this to cat lovers and those with a knowledge of Judaism.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Book Review: For a Dancer: The Memoir by Emma J. Stephens

December 19, 2011 4 comments

Two blond childrenSummary:
Emma recounts her childhood growing up with an outgoing older sister, a permissive father, and an addict stepfather in rural America.  She then relates attending college as a single mother, her failed marriage, and studying abroad in Paris.

Review:
Imagine the most whiny, entitled, immature person you know.  Now imagine that person perceives herself as simultaneously awesome, intelligent, and put-upon.  Now imagine that person wrote a memoir and couldn’t even maintain the same tense throughout.  That’s Stephens’ memoir. To a T.

Yes, a few things in Emma’s childhood weren’t perfect, but most people don’t have life handed to them on a silver platter.  Her sister overshadowed her a bit.  Her stepfather was an addict who had to go to rehab.  Interestingly, though, Emma and her sister were unaware of his addiction until her mother and stepfather sat them down to explain why he was going into rehab.  It seemed to me that they actually handled the situation quite well.  When Emma’s stepfather returns from rehab, he and her sister clash a bit in the typical teenage angst style, but since the girls also have a father, Emma’s sister moves in with him and their stepmother.  It is at this point that Emma starts making the series of dumb decisions that really mess up her life for….well for forever.

Emma ditches her mother and stepfather who had just made over her room for her and goes to live with her absentee father and stepmother who really aren’t behaving like parents at all.  Emma proceeds to whine about this situation, when she did it to herself.  She whines about everything about living there, when all she had to do was go back to the healthy household with her mom and stepfather.  Why didn’t she?  Dare I to suggest that she actually liked the freedom, no responsibilities, slacking off in school, getting drunk, having sex, etc…?  Why, yes I do.  She then proceeds to run away from home multiple times, scaring the crap out of her mother, who appears to be the only one who goes looking for her.  It’s the typical what do we do with this horrible out of control teenager story only told from the teenager’s perspective.  Aka, it’s terrible.  It’s horrible to read about.  There is no remorse, no chagrin.  Everyone else is always at fault but Emma.

Perhaps teenage angst can be forgivable, but what occurs later was simply horrifying to read about, partially because at first it seems that Emma is straightening her life out.  She gets pregnant, keeps the baby, and still completes her pre-med courses and graduates with her BS.  This is admirable.  I’m sure it was difficult, and she seems to be focused on providing a good life for her son.  That all quickly ceases though when she gives up on becoming a doctor, gets married, moves to LA, gets a boob job, and then starts shopping herself and her son around for movie roles.  You claim you want to give your son a better life, so you throw him to the wolves in Hollywood? Really?

Naturally, the marriage doesn’t work out, and we then see a series of men coming into and out of her son, Gabriel’s, life.  He is routinely left with friends or family so Emma can gallyvant around with these various men, oh, not to mention go do a semester abroad in France without her son when he’s only 11 years old.  All she can seem to think about or focus on is money.  Not creating satisfying relationships. Not broadening her horizons.  Not anything but money.  Think I’m exaggerating?  She ends up ditching her son for weekends so she can fly across the country to be a high-class hooker.  Meanwhile, her mother has settled in the mountains and become an addiction specialist.  If you’ve ever needed proof goodness isn’t genetic, there it is.  In fact, I’d love to read her mother’s memoir.  I bet she has a lot more valuable things to say.

Perhaps all of that could be bearable if she simply wrote well, but she doesn’t.  She talks in circles and constantly changes tenses to the point where following the story is incredibly difficult.

Overall, this is a badly written memoir by a person who is a bad daughter and irresponsible mother who has seemingly learned nothing from her mistakes.  I cannot in good faith recommend it to anyone.

1 out of 5 stars

Source: Print copy via LibraryThing’s EarlyReviewers

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Book Review: Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Woman holding a reusable bag over her shoulder.Summary:
Elizabeth has always been drawn to museums and the Old World, so when she’s doing her graduate work in London and meets Gwendal, a Frenchman, she jumps right into dating him.  Gradually she falls for not just Gwendal, but Paris in general, especially the food.  This memoir tells about her falling in love and the process of becoming an expat in France through the lens of food.

Review:
This memoir starts out strong.  Who doesn’t enjoy a good real life love story?  Paris sounds incredibly romantic and appealing to anyone who enjoys open food markets, museums, and the big city charm of small spaces.  Two things held me back from really enjoying the book though.

First, as a vegetarian, I really didn’t appreciate the incredibly long and frequent sections describing eating meat, cooking meat, how awesome meat is, etc…  Where Elizabeth describes her future husband, Gwendal, telling her “I love you” for the first time over a piece of bloody meat, I was thoroughly distracted by the poor, dead, bleeding animal.  I could not identify with Elizabeth at all in these frequent sections.  How can she claim to be a romantic at heart yet have so much of her life revolve around eating innocent creatures?  I wound up skimming a lot.

Granted, I know readers who enjoy eating meat themselves won’t be bothered by these passages, but I am fairly certain they’ll be irritated by the change of tone of voice partway through the narrative.  From telling us about how lucky she is to be living this life in Paris, Elizabeth suddenly changes into a bit of a pity party.  Poor Elizabeth, living in Paris with a man who loves her, cooking food for him every day, giving tours of the Louvre.  This isn’t how she imagined her life would work out.  Um….ok.  I’d suggest Elizabeth try reading some memoirs of true struggles such as The Glass Castle and get back to us.

Overall, the scenes of real Paris life are interesting and enjoyable, but the frequent scenes featuring bloody meat and Elizabeth’s pity party really detract from the book.  If you are a meat eater yourself and a foodie, you’ll probably enjoy this memoir anyway.  I’d advise others to stay away.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

December 15, 2010 3 comments

Boy and girl sitting in front of the Eiffel tower.Summary:
Anna Oliphant’s dad totally sold out and started writing crappy books that for some reason became incredibly popular.  Now he’s insisting that she spend her senior year at a boarding school–School of America in Paris.  Anna knows she should be enjoying her year abroad, after all, it is Paris!  But she can’t help but miss her friends and family at home.  She slowly starts to find her own new circle of friends and discover the wonderful things in Paris…..and to realize that she may be falling for one of her friends.  A boy who is decidedly off-limits for multiple reasons.

Review:
Perkins takes a typical YA storyline–teenage girl sent away to boarding school, complete with teen angst–and puts just the right amount of her own twists and flavors in it to make for a delightful, unique read.  I enjoyed this as an adult, but I’m sure 15 year old me would have been in love with it, re-reading it, and sighing over the main interest St. Clair.

The setting of Paris is delightful.  Perkins captures the binary of excitement and trepidation at being in another country for the first time enough so that Anna is realistic but not annoying.  Similarly, all of the characters act like actual human beings.  They are neither perfect nor evil.  They are simply doing their best to figure out how to function in the world.  I appreciated this, and I’d imagine teen readers would too.  Similarly, Perkins describes Paris in such a way that I wanted to move there instantaneously myself if for no other reason than the descriptions of the bread and eating meals in cemeteries.  This is what it should be to be young.  Angst combined with first-time glorious experiences.

Perkins manages to be both subtly funny:

“Huh?” I have such a way with words.  I should write epic poetry or jingles for cat food commercials. (Location 1054-1058)

And perfectly capture what it is to be an adolescent female:

It makes me dizzy. It smells like freshly scrubbed boy.  It smells like him.  (Location 3100-3104

This is what an ideal YA book should be.  Realistic about what young people face, but also about who young people are.  Holding out hope that they can become good people, and they can learn and grow and overcome their mistakes.  I highly recommend it to teen girls, as well as to adult women who still enjoy YA.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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