Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Body Scoop for Girls: A Straight-Talk Guide to a Healthy, Beautiful You by Jennifer Ashton, M.D., OB-GYN - 304 pgs

Book CoverIn this practical and frank new book, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a prominent OB/GYN, offers adolescent and teenage girls a bevy of information surrounding all areas of their physical, emotional and sexual development. Written with openness and a very candid and no-nonsense style, Dr. Ashton tackles many of the burning questions that your teenage daughter would never dare to ask you herself. Not only does she discuss the basics of sexual health and development, she also brings up the realities and hazards of body piercing, the fundamental facts on eating disorders and a section on managing moods and mood disorders. Sharing her advice and real life examples, Dr. Ashton respectfully offers her guidance and discernment with a perceptive and sensitive style that will win over even the most reluctant teenage reader.

Getting my teenage daughter to talk about the intimate details of her life can be a frustrating experience for me. She is by nature a shy and quiet person, and although I try to come across as non-judgmental and considerate as I can, I am often left frustrated by my perceived lack of success. I am not sure if this a common experience with others who have girls of this age, and I often wonder if I am alone in my struggle. I always wanted to make sure that when my daughter reached this age, I would be able to provide better support and understanding than my own mother did. Her answer to everything that had to do with sex and development was silence. I learned most of my facts through friends and at school during those crazily uncomfortable human growth and development classes. Needless to say, I was often very misinformed about most things. I wish I had had a book like this back then, but I am also really glad that I have the opportunity to share this one with my daughter now.

This is not really the type of book you read cover to cover. It is more the type of book to be used as a resource and go-to when you have a nagging question that just can't wait for a doctor's visit or a talk with mom. It covers a wealth of subjects and does so in a very detailed yet clear style. Often chapters end with colored boxes containing the more pertinent facts of the material just read. It also contains several sections where some of the myths of puberty and sexuality are debunked and tips on when to call a doctor. I was really surprised to find out how comprehensive this book actually was. There were some things in there that I had never even dreamed would be included, like how to respond to and what can cause a genital injury and some of the scary things that can happen if a piercing does not go as expected. I really liked the way the book was structured and the way that every topic got a full rundown, and thought that the style of the book would appeal to the younger crowd.

I also liked the way that Dr. Ashton relates to her readers throughout the book. She is very respectful and relevant without resorting to the coyness and cuteness that many books like this one seem to suffer from. The effect of this is that she comes off as very disarming and knowledgeable while not being boring and repetitive. She doesn't try to talk like an overgrown teenager but she manages to speak the language of teenagers very well. Dr. Ashton's candor was one of the best things about the book. The book isn't on a mission to be cool and hip, but it ultimately manages to do so without really trying.

I think this book is definitely a must have for those of you who have a teenage girl in your life. Even if your teenager is very communicative about things of this nature, there are enough questions and answers between these pages to keep them busily flipping through the book and discovering more and more about their ever-changing bodies. I think this book is a wonderful resource. In today's society, ignorance about one's sexual and developmental health are things that could have long lasting and devastating effects. I applaud Dr. Ashton's willingness to write this book that will help young girls discover the secrets of their bodies, and I highly recommend it.

TLC Book Tours

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour. Please visit these other sites for the continuation of this tour:

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Believers by Zoë Heller - 352 pgs -- Giveaway!

Book CoverAs radical political activist and lawyer Joel Litvinoff lies in a coma after a major stroke, his unusual family threatens to begin it's own breakdown. Joel's wife Audrey, always razor-tongued and opinionated, must not only deal with Joel's absence from her life but also come to terms with the nasty secret that her husband has been hiding from her for years. Meanwhile, Joel and Audrey's adopted son Lenny, a wastrel and drug addict, is working his usual game of manipulation and subterfuge on the rest of the family, seemingly unconcerned that his father lies incapacitated and dying. Daughter Rosa, once a socialist and activist like her parents, has decided to begin studies as an Orthodox Jew, much to the chagrin and disappointment of her antitheist mother who takes her conversion as a personal affront. Rounding out the bunch is daughter Karla, an obese and unhappy woman who is struggling not only to find fulfillment, but also to become pregnant at the behest of her uncaring and oblivious husband. As days turn to weeks with no news or improvement from Joel, situations begin to heat to a rapid boil, and each member of the family comes to their own moral precipice and must decide whether to let go and jump off, or to hang on to the things that are pulling them apart. Both comically astute and morally penetrating, The Believers is Heller at her skillful and avant-garde best.

A few years back, I had the unexpected pleasure of picking up my first book written by Zoë Heller. The book was What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, and even with my relative inexperience at writing reviews at that time, I knew this author was someone to take seriously. When the opportunity came for me to read and review this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, I jumped at the chance. The book certainly didn't disappoint, and not only did I find it really hard to tear myself away from the pages of the story, I read the book in two sittings.

First of all, I felt that in her creation of the Litvinoffs, Heller does an amazing job of capturing the idiosyncrasies of a modern family in turmoil. Each character was like the point on a star, twinkling away in disorder and confusion. Although most of the characters had a somewhat repulsive outlook on life, they were the kind of characters you love to hate and whose antics you ingest feverishly in order to see just how bizarre and recalcitrant they will become. Each character was remarkably detailed and original, and for a work of fiction, these people were crazily realistic creatures. I think Audrey fascinated me the most. She was so scathing and fierce about everyone and everything that she came in contact with. I cringed in embarrassment and discomfort whenever she opened her mouth, but Heller had a way of making her so intriguing and interesting that you couldn't help but be completely absorbed by the woman. Audrey was a true original and although I was mostly scandalized by her behavior, I was unendingly entertained by her. Although I chose to focus mainly on the qualities of Audrey, I was truly impressed by all of the characters in this book. I didn't really like most of them but I felt that there was enough character dissection and detail in their creation to be able to understand what made them tick and why they acted as they did. I also liked the fact that Heller doesn't spend a lot of time worrying over the acceptability of her characters' beliefs and morals. There are no apologies here; these characters are who they are with no holes barred and no reservations.

I thought there was a huge amount of social commentary and irony here. One of the greatest ironies in the story was the fact that although the characters (mainly Audrey) constantly spouted socialist rhetoric and worked from that mindset, in their personal worlds people were far from equal and the common man in society was somewhat peevishly denigrated. It seemed as though they aspired to much loftier ideals than they could ever attain. This came up repeatedly throughout the story in their complaints about female doctors, their opinions on the hopeless futures of children of minorities and their unhappiness with their subjugated Latin housekeepers. They would walk through the story believing that they were on the side of the working man, the minority and society, but in reality their idealism was stripped away by their everyday experiences and actions. This book was simply a satirical masterpiece and I marveled at the way Heller created such meaningful social commentary in a tale full of miscreants.

I also thought that the research Heller did for this book was interesting. In the subplot involving Rosa, the reader is given a deep and extensive look into the tenants and rituals of Orthodox Judaism. I am very green to this subject but I felt that Heller did a wonderful job of explaining and highlighting these concepts for me. The book also also had some hysterically funny moments. The humor in this book was much like the characters: scathing and searing. I found myself snorting with amusement at these people and their absurdities and idealism. I think Heller has an incredible gift in the executions of her characters, and although I have never really found any of her characters to be likable, I do find them all engrossingly cruel and wickedly amusing.

If you are the type of reader who doesn't necessarily have to like the characters in a book in order to be fascinated with them, then this is definitely a book you need to read. Those who enjoy works of great satire and irony will find much to amuse themselves here as well. After completing this book, I must conclude that Heller is a writer at the top of her form. I am a huge fan of her work and can't wait to see what she offers her readers next. A highly original and entertaining read, highly recommended.

Harper Collins has generously offered one paperback copy of this wonderful book to my readers. If you would like a chance to win, please leave a comment at the end of this post with a valid e-mail address where I can contact you if you win. You must leave a valid e-mail address to be entered in this giveaway. A winner will be drawn at random on February 10th. Good luck to all entrants!

TLC Book Tours
A hearty thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. I encourage you to visit these other sites to continue following the tour:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Steph and Tony Investigate!
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Write for a Reader
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
A Reader’s Respite
Thursday, February 11, 2010
The Brain Lair
Monday, February 15, 2010
Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Sasha and the Silverfish
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Nonsuch Book

About the author: Zoë Heller is the author of Everything You Know and What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and made into an acclaimed film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Heller lives in New York.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Samson's Walls by Jud Nirenberg

Book CoverIn this fictional recreation of the biblical Samson story, a young woman is visited by an angel who announces that she will soon bear a special child to be raised as a Nazarite among her people. Growing up as a Nazarite, Samson must never pollute his body with wine or grapes, must not defile his spirit by being in close proximity to the dead, and must show his obedience to God through study and prayer. All of these guidelines that the boy must follow make finding real friendship and companionship with others a very difficult task for him, and when he decides to take a wife, he hopes that things will begin to change. Unfortunately, the family of the bride insults Samson in a way that he can't tolerate, spurring him to abandon his wife and take to the road in hopes of revenge. Thus begins the true tale of the life of Samson; warrior, scholar, and man of God. As Samson moves among the desert cities, he amasses followers and land, becoming a formidable leader of men. Both brutal and misunderstood, Samson longs to find someone to share his life with and discovers Delilah, a woman who will change the course of his destiny. Written with soberness and pragmatism, Samson's Walls gives a fresh voice to the tale of the man who had the strength of a hundred warriors and the lonely and angry heart of a nomad.

I must admit that the only thing I knew about Samson going into this book was the G-rated Sunday School stories of my youth. That is why I was so surprised and pleased to get a chance to pour over this retelling of Samson's story. First off, I think that Samson's character was really amped up in some great ways. I didn't have any trouble seeing why he was so distant and felt so superior to those around him. It was made very clear throughout the beginning sections of the book that Samson's every movement had been segregated from those of others and that he was never one to mix with those in the crowd. In addition, the fact that the relationship between him and his father was distant and stilted and the fact that he received more responsiveness from the Nazarite priests all came together in a really believable way and stressed the point that Samson was alienated and had a huge chip on his shoulder. I think creating the character in this way was a clever way for the author to make Samson multi-layered and to outfit him perfectly for the things he later attempts in the tale.

I also thought that the politics of the story were very well integrated into the narrative. There is a whole subplot running through the book dealing with the friction between the Hebrews and the Philistines that I thought was very well done. Since I am not really that well versed in Scripture, it was really very enlightening to me to discover that these two factions lived peacefully among each other but had skirmishes regularly and that each side wished to subjugate the other. When Samson comes along to fight for his people, the Hebrews begin to get a leg up on the battle that they could never dominate. This section of the story was very well developed and candid, and I really enjoyed the added intensity that it gave to the plot of the book. Had this not been the case, the book would have probably seemed very thin and underdeveloped.

The one thing that I had trouble with was Samson's eventual naiveté regarding Deliah's schemes. I couldn't believe that a man so cunning and strong could be so weak and trusting when it came to her deception. Of course, this was not the fault of the author. This is the actual meat and bones of the story as it appears in the Bible, so to change that aspect of things would have ruined the author's credibility in the area of fictional augmentation. In fact, Nirenberg does a wonderful job in his efforts to explain Samson's behavior, making his character mentally dance and twirl to the crazy ramblings of lust and hope that he feels for Delilah, despite the things she has already done. It just made me so mad that he couldn't see what was going on, and some of the time I was reading, I was screaming aloud to Samson not to be so stupid as to trust her again. But as a side note, I felt very appreciative to have become so invested in Samson and his story after having been so unmoved by my past few reads. I was grateful to the author for giving me such meat to sink my teeth into, and for creating a hero of such complex moral structure.

I think this is a book that would have wide appeal to many different types of reader. There is something here for almost everyone, from history to romance to battle scenes and action. Even though I knew the basics going in, I felt that this story was told with great novelty and skill and I had no trouble investing myself in it at all. I felt that this book had the perfect mix of modern storytelling mixed with a historical flavor that not only felt accurate, but believable as well. I enjoyed this read and think that both its unimposing length and accessibility would make the perfect drop-in read between heavier works.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Book CoverIn this mysterious and multifaceted work of fiction, Kerewin Holmes, recluse and failed painter, unexpectedly discovers a young boy hiding in the stone fortress that she calls home. Discovering that the child is mute, Kerewin fosters him for the day hoping to contact his parents and deliver him home safely. When the boy's father comes to collect him, she learns the strange truth of the boy's history. The boy, known as Simon Gillaley, was found washed up on shore and severely wounded next to other mysterious dead bodies after a shipwreck and taken home by a Maori man named Joe. Initially Simon was adopted into Joe's family and raised by him and his wife Hana, but in more recent times both Hana and Joe's infant son took ill and never recovered. Now the two are struggling alone together, painfully coexisting in a brutal dance of savagery and love. As Kerewin begins to develop a relationship with both the Gillaleys, she discovers secrets about Joe and Simon's life that will painfully alter all of their futures, and after one tragic night, things change between the three forever. Forced apart, the three must fend for themselves against grave illness, disillusionment and heartbreak, and must find a way to reunite themselves from the fractures that society has placed against them. Both elegant and brutal, The Bone People is a great literary achievement that was awarded the Booker Prize for fiction.

This review is going to go a little differently than any other I have posted before. A few months back, my very good blogging friend Aarti, from the awesome blog Booklust, invited me to read this book with her and write a joint review. I jumped at the chance to be able to discuss this book with such an articulate reader and blogger. Both of us were a little intimidated by the reports that this was going to be a difficult read and we figured that along with being able to share the book's complexities with each other, we would provide e-mail commentaries to each other for each section of the book. The experience went very well and enabled both of us to heighten our understanding of this difficult yet powerful book. In attempting to put together a review, we decided to each draft three questions that we had formed while reading the book and to share our answers on both of our blogs. Here are the questions that I posed, both to Aarti and myself, for my half of the review. I encourage you to hop on over to Booklust to see Aarti's very thought-provoking questions and our shared answers of the same.

1) What do you think was the underlying message of the book?

Aarti - Oh gosh! I actually started laughing seeing this question because I have no idea! I don't even know what the title means. I think it is doubly difficult to decode the book because I don't think it was as hopeful at the end as it was made out to be. I do think the story is about forgiveness and redemption. All three characters start out very isolated and then come together. Then they draw apart again due to misunderstanding, realize how much they need each other, and come together once more. It is a simple story when put that way, but I suppose all stories can boil down eventually to a few sentences. This book, to me, is really about how much we all come to rely on friends and relationships to enrich our lives and make us better people. And that it's important to not only forgive other people's faults but to forgive your own.

I think it also hits a lot on culture clashes. It was interesting to me the melding of western thought and Maori thought, and how the two worked together and worked against each other. I am not sure if I fully understand the message of that aspect of the book, but it's there! All three characters came from different Maori-European backgrounds but somehow made a family.

Zibilee - In my opinion, I think the book sends a great message about isolation, not only spiritual and physical but cultural as well. What it says to me is that although isolation can sometimes be a preferred state, there is a necessity for inclusion with a group for wholeness to be reached. I think it played out several times in the story, from Joe's loss of his wife, leaving him isolated in the care of Simon, to Simon's isolation from everyone in his muteness, to Kerewin's isolation from the rest of the world around her. In fact, I think that isolation was just one of the many themes running through the story, but I agree with you that the story is also about forgiveness and redemption as well. I think there were several messages in this book and that each reader will see something different in the main message of the story, which is one of the things I think is so great about it. The interpretation of the entire book can be really fluid and there are many things going on at once, and many different ways in which to read this story.

2) Which character stood out to you the most, and why?

Aarti - Simon. He's such a fascinating character. He's this young boy who can't talk but manages to communicate so much with the people around him. He takes such delight in small things, like music and food and family, but he also gets so angry and frustrated at times. There was such a capacity for kindness and empathy in him. So many scenes of him taking on other people's hurt, or showing kindness and laughter, or sharing in music, made me want to cry. He was so well-written and such a force in the novel. I liked the scenes with him far more than any of those without him.

Zibilee - I liked Simon a lot as well and felt a tremendous tenderness for him, but I felt the most affinity for Kerewin. There was a stark juxtaposition in my feelings for her that it intrigued me. On the one hand, she was very different from me and all her instincts and behaviors were so alien, but underneath all the pride and bravado, I felt that I could identify with her personality in some ways. She was hard and careworn but had a motherly instinct that she couldn't deny, and for all her independence, she needed Simon and Joe just as much as they needed her. I fought my feelings for her for a long time because some of the things she said and did were less than admirable, but in the end I thought that she was the glue that held everything together and she was far, far stronger than I ever thought. Her ability to forgive was somewhat less affecting than Simon's was, but I found it miraculous none the less. My answer to this question surprises me because I pretty much hated Kerewin for most of the first half of the book. I hated her mannerisms and coyness and her complete lack of self control. All I can figure is that she ended up growing on me, or I ended up understanding her a lot better than I thought I did. Whatever the case may be, I was really surprised to find I felt this way.

3) It's obvious that this book contained a lot of symbolism. Did you feel that the symbolism in the story was easy to spot and decipher, or was that an element of the story that was more confusing than the other aspects of the story?

Aarti - I am one of those people who don't really see symbolism until it hits her over the head, or unless she's told what to watch for. In this book, I knew to watch for symbolism of the three main characters being the Holy Family of Christianity, so I was able to spot that fairly easily. I am not nearly as familiar with Maori history and imagery as I am with the Holy Family, so if symbolism existed for that, I sadly missed most of it. I think there were a lot of symbols regarding communication, and the different ways people have of communicating and understanding (or misunderstanding) each other. I also feel that some of the side characters in the story were symbols of kindness, forgiveness, etc., but I didn't really focus on those. I think the symbolism is there if you wish to see it, and that it adds a lot of depth to the story. I don't think this is the sort of book you read "for the story," so to speak, but more to understand its underlying message. So, with that, I don't think the symbolism is confusing (since I think it's a main aspect of really "getting" the story), but I also don't think it's easy to find. I'm really, really glad I read and discussed this book with you as we went along because it really helped me to sort out my thoughts and reflect on certain aspects and scenes more than I would have if I didn't have someone to talk about them with. It made it so much easier to pick this book up and read, and I think this is a book that is made for discussing.

Zibilee - I am also not great at finding the hidden symbolism in the things I read, but in this case I felt that there was just so much symbolism running throughout the story that it was hard not to pick up on some of it. I had no clue as to the symbolism of the Holy Family until Aarti pointed it out and then it seemed pretty clear to me! Ah, well, I did find some of the minor symbolism on my own. For example, I found the symbolism of the semi-precious stones that Kerewin collects were imbued in the text with some of the qualities that Kerewin possesses in her character. I also think I found symbolism in the knife that Simon stole from Kerewin. To me it embodied the strength that Kerewin had and that Simon wished to have, which is why he attempted stealing it from her. These are only small things, and I agree with you, Aarti, that there were a lot of symbols of communication, kindness and forgiveness. I wasn't expert at picking everything out of the story, which only means that I might need to read it again with an eye to the symbolism. I wouldn't exactly call all the symbolism confusing, but it was a bit difficult to spot if you didn't know what you were looking for.

I really am glad that I was able to tackle this read with Aarti because there was a depth to the story that I think I would have missed had I not had her to share it with, and there were definitely some things that I had missed in my reading that she was able to point out to me. It was a wonderful experience to be able to share this with her, and by extension, all of you. Thanks so much for reading our thoughts on all this and if you haven't gotten the picture by now, I think this book is a must read for anyone looking for something with intense emotion. It is a story that I don't think you will ever forget.

Don't forget to head on over to Booklust for part two of our joint review!

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone - 384 pgs

Book CoverDestined from birth for greatness, Joanna I begins her early life with her younger sister Maria as an orphan raised in the opulent court of her grandfather, Robert the Wise. When her grandfather dies in her early teens, Joanna is crowned queen of Naples and begins a reign fraught with treachery and difficulty. Not only does Joanna deal with the political upheavals that were so common during the middle ages, she must also contend with the meddling papacy, financial disasters and challenges to the legitimacy of her reign by the King of Hungary. To make matters worse, Joanna is wed to Andrew of Hungary, a union that is strained and unpopular with her subjects from the very start. When Andrew is viciously murdered, Joanna's reign takes a a frightening trajectory into the realm of revenge and savagery. But as the Queen fights for her life and her kingdom, she maintains an attitude of nobility and graciousness showing the world that she is truly fit to lead her nation and leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.

I am not usually a reader of history or historical biography, so when I received this book I was a little concerned that it wouldn't be engaging enough to hold my attention. As I cracked the spine on the book and sat down to read, I found that it did take a little bit of time to orient myself into the medieval world that the author was documenting and for the first few chapters I struggled a bit. I think this was due to the fact that there was a huge section of exposition on the history of the area that was necessary to set the stage for the main story to be told. As I waded in further, I found that the tale of Joanna's reign was not only very engrossing, but exciting to read about and ponder over. I think that Goldstone has an incredible gift for bringing history to life and a way of telling her tale that absorbs the reader and places them squarely into the grist of the drama. The writing was not showy or flashy but it managed to capture me and keep me involved until the very last page.

I marveled at the strength of Joanna, for it seemed that her reign was plagued with every sort of trial that could possibly come along. During her time as Queen, not only was there the regular pressure of running the kingdom but also challenges to her sovereignty coming from every side and faction. It was incredible to me that she was able to withstand so much disaster and never even think of abdicating her throne. It was also amazing to me how many threats came from her immediate family. Some of the most grievous situations came from her sister Maria, but other relatives didn't bat an eye at creating dangerous situations for her or committing treason as well. It is said in many instances in the book that Joanna had the demeanor and staunchness that the ruler of a nation needs, and that her tenacity to hold on to her kingdom, and even add to it, was extremely impressive, not only for her time, but for ours as well.

On of the things that surprised me about this time in history was how many schemes and machinations were going on within the realm. It seemed that most of the troubles started over attempts to increase domains and kingdoms, or the possibility of generating revenue. It was almost comic the way people switched alliances at that time. One minute they were the Queen's trusted advisors and the next moment they had switched sides and were attempting to overthrow her. These schemes were most obvious from courtiers and family members, but I was flabbergasted to see that many of the Popes played this game as well. It was almost as if everyone was operating for themselves and their fortunes alone and that loyalty was a foreign concept to them. It must have been devastating for Joanna to have everyone turn on her at one time or another, and I can imagine it made it very hard for her to truly trust anyone.

There were some really exceptional qualities about Joanna's rule that are worth mentioning in this review. First of all, during Joanna's tenure as Queen, there were more women matriculated to become doctors in her kingdom than in any other place during that period of time. It is not clear if this was because there was just more opportunity for the schooling of women or if this situation existed because there was a female in power during this time, but I find the fact amazing. Also amazing was the fact that not only did Joanna hold onto her kingdom, but she was able to increase the size of her domain through several military campaigns during her reign. This is doubly impressive when you consider that she had to rely on those whose loyalties were suspect to accomplish this goal. She also managed to keep in her subjects' good graces throughout her reign and made sure that all of them received aid and alms as long as she was in power.

Reading about Joanna was very enlightening for me and I found that I was very invested in this particular woman's story. I think that there were two factors that made this so. The first was the quality of the writing. The clarity and crisp style of the narrative was definitely something that made the book exceptionally entertaining to me, and the second was the story itself. There was simply too much going on to be bored by this tale. Although it was sometimes work to keep the players in the drama straight, there was so much intrigue and scandal scattered throughout the book as to make it a very rollicking read. I think that this would be a great read for those who like historical biography. I also think that this book would have wide appeal to those who are interested in this time and place in history and it would be a great read to cut your teeth on if you are not usually a reader of this genre. A highly entertaining read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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