Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: North of Ithaka


[amazon template=leftimage&asin=031234029X]This book tells the true story of Eleni Gage, a young American woman who spends almost a year in the Greek village where her father was born, overseeing the restoration of her ancestral home. The home had been abandoned for decades after communists used it as a headquarters and a jail in the late 1940s during the Greek civil war. Those same communists executed Gage’s grandmother for helping her children escape the village and for (allegedly) hiding treasure.

Despite these unhappy circumstances, Gage keeps this memoir fairly upbeat. This book is not a downer. It didn’t make me cry. It didn’t make me sad.

I did get a little tired of Gage’s self-doubt. There was more waffling here than in an Eggo factory. She wondered a lot if renovating the house was the right thing to do. Members of her dad’s family were upset by her decision to remodel the place of so much pain. But what were the neighbors thinking? Were they upset by her actions too? Of course, Gage never asked because she was afraid of the answer. I’m all for questioning motives and actions, but it just kept going on and on in every chapter. Am I doing the right thing? Am I upsetting people? Should I just quit? If Gage were truly concerned about the feelings of her fellow villagers, perhaps she should have actually discussed those feelings with them and explained her motivation. Instead, she did what she wanted to do without soliciting input, but tried to look good in the eyes of her readers by letting them know she really did (constantly) question whether or not she was doing the right thing.

I found two aspects of the book very strange.

#1 Gage got the idea to go to Greece and restore the ancestral home “the weekend after Thanksgiving 2001.” (For those who may have forgotten, that was less than three months after the September 11th attack on New York City.) At the time, Gage was living in New York City, yet there is not one single mention in this entire book about the September 11th attack. Gage does not mention how the attack influenced her decision to leave the U.S. She doesn’t mention how the aftermath of the attack made getting her paperwork in order or her actual travel more difficult. One could read this book and think the attack of NYC on September 11, 2001 never happened.

I lived in the Midwest at the time of the September 11th attack, and folks there couldn’t put the attack and related events out of mind for a long time. To New Yorkers, the attack was (understandably) a HUGE deal. It seems strange for a New Yorker to fail to even acknowledge the attack and related events in a book covering the time period from late 2001 through December 2002.

#2 Where’s the money coming from? Gage mentions (at least twice) that her father (the author Nicholas Gage) is paying for the renovation of the family home. Fair enough. But Eleni Gage quit her job in NYC to spend almost a year in a tiny Greek village where she never references a paying job. Who bought her plane ticket? Who’s paying for her rental car (and its fuel), her Greek cell phone, and the internet access on the new computer she bought in the city? Who’s paying for her to eat? Who’s paying the expenses for the several side trips she writes about? Is she living off her savings? Is she getting paid for free lance writing she’s doing about her time in Greece? Is she living off the advance she received on the deal for this book? When a twenty-seven-year-old woman spends a year abroad and doesn’t mention gainful employment, I think the reader deserves to know how such a thing is possible.

The parts of this book I enjoyed most were the ones where Gage explained the cultures of her region of Greece. Although I’m not religious myself, I enjoyed reading about the villagers’ Easter preparations. I liked reading about the “Gypsy” wedding. (Isn’t the proper term “Roma”? If so, someone should mention that to Gage.) I liked reading about festivals and dancing and name day celebrations.

Gage does a great job of weaving Greek history (ancient and more modern) in with her own experiences. I like having context for why people do what they do. Gage knows how to give that context.

The book ends with six recipes and a bibliography. A glossary of Greek terms would have been nice. (Greek words were defined in the text, but I certainly don’t remember every new word I encountered while reading this book. A glossary would have been a handy reference tool.)

All in all, I did enjoy reading this book, but I have no desire to read it again.

Book Review: A Prairie Populist


I really enjoy books about pioneer women in the United States. I enjoy reading about their spunk and grit, especially if the women get to tell their own stories in the first person. I had A Prairie Populist in my stack of things to read for quite a while. (I think I picked it up in a free pile somewhere in New Mexico, but I can’t remember the details.) I finally read it in the early days of this season’s camp hosting. The following is a review I wrote of it:

This book contains both the personal and political memoirs of Luna Kellie, the prairie populist of the title.

The stories Kellie tells in her personal memoir took place when she was a young mother on the prairie of Nebraska, before she was politicized. She and her husband moved from Missouri to Nebraska to farm the land, in hopes of providing a good life for the big bunch of kids they hoped to raise. They experienced happy times, but hardships as well.

Kellie was a great storyteller, although her writing was often difficult for me to follow. She mostly eschewed commons, and her sentence structure often seemed odd to me. However, I could typically figure out what she was trying to say.

This book is great for any adult who grew up reading the Little House series, but be warned, the trials and tribulations were not edited out of this one. Several babies died and even the ones who did survive had close calls. Animals dropped dead too. On more than one occasion, the family barely had enough to eat. Crops failed. Both Mr. and Mrs. Kellie struggled with illness. Pioneer life really weeded out the weak.

One aspect of the book that really surprised me was the number of liars, cheaters, and swindlers encountered by the Kellies. Most pioneer authors focus on the the we’re all in this together attitude of their good neighbors, but Kellie writes of the woman who stole the author’s quilting fabric, the man who sold her family dead sweet potato and grape starts, and the “friends” who tricked the Kellies into taking on a hear of cattle–promised to be good milkers–which gave hardly any mild at all. It seems like for every good neighbor the family encountered, there was someone trying to pull a fast one on them. The trusting family was often taken advantage of.

The personal memoir ended abruptly, leaving me with many questions. What happened to Kellie’s beloved brothers after they headed West? What other children did Kellie have and when? Did Kellie and her family have more exciting experiences?

The political memoir is much shorter than the personal one (thirteen pages vs. 126 pages), but reading about the labor organizing of farmers in the late 1800s was interesting. Unrest wasn’t invented by industrial workers in the early years of the 20th century!

The editor gives context to incidents in Kellie’s life in the afterward. She give more information about Kellie’s early life, and explains “The Political, Economic, and Social Climate” of the 1870s and 1880s. She also included information about the Farmer’s Alliance in Nebraska and Kellie’s role in it.

All in all, this was an enjoyable, if sometimes sad, account of pioneer life on the U.S. prairie.

[amazon template=image&asin=0877453683]


Book Review: Hawkes Harbor


[amazon template=image&asin=B005EP277K]I wrote the following book review in July of 2009. The review is basically one big spoiler, so if you think you may want to read the book, don’t read this post.


The woman who wrote The Outsiders wrote this mess of a novel. Ok, I am no longer under any illusion that The Outsiders is great literature. I appreciate it for what it is, but I can see its faults too. I also cut S.E. Hinton some slack with The Outsiders, as she wrote that book when she was 16. She was all grown up when she wrote Hawkes Harbor, so I don’t know what her excuse is with this one.

She’s still basically writing about the same character: handsome young man; difficult childhood; no parental figures; lives rough and takes care of himself; gruff, but with a good heart. Who is this guy she’s still obsessed with? Her father? Her brother? Her first love? Whoever he is, he was still on her mind when this book was published in 2005.

The handsome young man is in a mental hospital. He’s been shot. He has had a mental breakdown. What, oh what, has happened to him?

The story is spun out slowly, in a series of flashbacks. The young man is a criminal. A pirate of sorts. He loves the sea. Ho Hum. Then the vampire shit starts!

A vampire? Are you kidding me? I couldn’t believe it. A vampire. In 1960s New England.

It’s as if Hinton were trying to think of some gimmick to make this book popular in an early 21st century market and hit on the popularity of vampires, so decided to go that route.

But it gets even dumber. The vampire becomes human again (through some rituals never fully explained to the reader). Although the vampire originally had total control over the young man, threatened to kill him if he didn’t do what he was told, by the end of the book, the vampire becomes the young man’s best friend. Weird. Weird and corny!

As I read this book, I kept laughing aloud, because the premises of the story were so ridiculous.

I realize that the theme of this book is redemption. Redemption is a good theme. But a vampire! Give me a break. If the captor had been a military torture expert, the young man the torturer’s captive soldier, the plot may have worked, but a vampire? That’s just silly.

Book Review: The Urban Homestead


[amazon template=image&asin=1934170100]Today I will share with you a review I wrote for a feminist review website in 2009. The book in question is called The Urban Homestead and was written by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen.

Subtitled “Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City,” this volume in the Process Self-Reliance Series bills itself as “a project and resource book, complete with step-by-step illustrations and instructions to get you started homesteading right now.” It really delivers, both to absolute beginners and to folks who have already ventured into the world of urban homesteading.

The authors start with growing food. Chapter One offers guidance on the four general strategies for growing food in an urban setting, followed by directions for making seed balls. This chapter gives basic yet useful information about permaculture, then goes into helpful detail about the seven guiding principles of successful urban farming.

Chapter Two gives step-by-step instructions for five projects the authors deem essential for growing food, including starting a compost pile, composting with worms, mulching, building a raised bed, and building self-watering containers. The second half of the chapter includes guidelines for a variety of undertakings, including staring seeds, transplanting, making fertilizer tea, container gardening, installing drip irrigation, controlling insect and animal pests, and rotating crops. The directions are comprehensive; it is not assumed that the reader already has a lot of gardening knowledge and experience, which is beneficial to both novices and folks needing a refresher course.

Urban foraging is the topic of chapter three, and everything from eating acorns to dumpster diving is covered. Six things to know about eating wild are explained in the feral edibles section, along with a list of “some of the most liked, most widespread edible weeds in the continental U.S.” There are also sections on invasive edibles, fruit foraging, and reviving day-old bread.

Chapter Four focuses on keeping livestock in the city. It includes ample advice about chickens, including where to get them, what to feed them, and how to house them. Other livestock considered include ducks, rabbits, pigeons, quail, and bees.

“Revolutionary Home Economics” is an extensive chapter dealing with the “indoor arts.” The first part of the chapter is about food. There are instructions about preserving food through canning, pickling, and drying, as well as by other means. There are also directions for making yogurt, ricotta cheese, and butter. The second half of the chapter is all about cleaning and includes formulas for making DIY cleaning supplies using baking soda, distilled white vinegar, and liquid castile soap. There’s also a short section on dealing with household pests. The chapter ends with valuable tips on what to look for and what choices to make if choosing a new urban homestead.

Chapter Six is about water and power for the homestead and includes information about conserving and harvesting rainwater. There are several projects pertaining to greywater, including running a greywater source directly outside and making a greywater wetland. Topics in the energy section include using insulation and solar heat to increase energy efficiency, alternatives to gas-heated showers, solar cookers, and wind and solar power.

The last chapter, “Transportation,” is rather short. It touches on walking but basically emphasizes cycling. The book ends with a comprehensive resource list, including websites, books, and magazines. Disappointingly, there is no index.

The Urban Homestead is a fantastic introduction to living off the land, even when there’s not much land available. It’s not meant to be read once, cover to cover. It’s meant to be kept on hand as a resource, a book to refer to again and again in the garden, in the kitchen, in the workroom. There’s a lifetime of information packed in to these 308 pages, and the time to start using that information is now.


November’s Book Review: Living Oprah


[amazon template=image&asin=B011MEZ2ZA]This month I am sharing a review of the book Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant. I read this memoir at the end of August/beginning of September 2015 and wrote the review shortly after finishing the book.

I bought this book for $1 at the Dollar Tree. Score!

I don’t remember hearing about Robyn Okrant’s life experiment in 2008 when she was actually living Oprah. In fact, I don’t recall having ever heard about Okrant’s experiment or the book she wrote about it. So I came to this memoir with no preconceived notions. (That happens so seldom, but I love it when it does.)

So for any other latecomers to this book, the premise is that for an entire calendar year, whatever Oprah said her audience needed to do (via her television show, O magazine, or the official Oprah website), Okrant did. When Oprah said every woman needs a crisp white shirt, dark jeans, and leopard print shoes, Okrant bought those articles of clothing and wore them (as shown on the photo on the book jacket). Okrant turned to Oprah resources for makeup tips and recipes. Okrant decluttered and decorated her home according to the word of Oprah. When Oprah said, “Watch this movie” or “Read this book,” Okrant did it.

Okrant kept meticulous records of the time and money she spent living Oprah. (Her monthly spread sheet information is included in the book.) All told, Okrant spent just shy of 1,203 hours and $4,782 living Oprah in 2008.

(When Okrant started her project, she was blogging about it. The book deal came later.)

Overall, liked this book very much. I found the whole “walk[ing] the walk of the Queen of Talk” premise fascinating. I’ve never been a huge Oprah fan, although of course, I am aware of the phenomenon that is Oprah. If I ever sat down and watched an entire episode of her show, it was in the last century. I have read a few (thrift store purchased) issues of O magazine (but Oprah’s favorite things are all out of my price range). I was really interested to find out what sorts of things Oprah might tell people (women, mostly) they should do.

The part of Okrant’s writing here I liked the least was her super corny joking and the way she usually felt the need to point out she had just made a corny joke, which came across to me as a written version of her elbow jabbing me in the ribs, letting me know I should be laughing. Thankfully, as the book progressed, there was less of this sort of joking and less of Okrant’s (written) elbow in my ribs. By the end of the book, I had laughed spontaneously and out loud at several truly funny cracks Okrant made (one of which was referring to Oprah as her own personal Chicken Little).

I first started liking Okrant (as a writer and a person) when she got real about her scoliosis. In my eyes, this personal sharing (in a highly personal book) made Okrant seem like not some whiny, busy, “broke” grad student I couldn’t relate to, but a like a real person.

The parts of this book I liked the best were the times Okrant critiqued the dissonance between the messages Oprah gave her audience. Why does Oprah sign the Best Life Challenge contract, then let herself be shown on TV a few days later eating a decadent ice cream treat? Why does Oprah tell her audience it’s what’s inside that counts, then tells them they need to buy specific clothes and have those clothes tailored to fit perfectly? Yes, I loved the critiques and analysis, and Okrant was up for the task.

I am envious of Okrant for picking a topic that was certainly hot at the time, figuring out a project she could carry out related to the topic, writing herself a blog on the topic, then getting a book deal out of the experiment. Good for her! I wish I could pull of something like that.

I would like to read more books by Robyn Okrant. Another memoir (maybe about her life with scoliosis) would be fine, but I’d dig some nonfiction. More analysis, more critique, please Ms. Okrant.

Here’s a Book Review: The Biggest Bear


[amazon template=image&asin=0395150248]Today’s review is of The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward. I wrote this review in August 2015. The Lady of the House saw it in a thrift store and picked it up for me. She picked it up at first because she thought a book about a bear would be cool. After looking at the last page, she read the whole thing, and sent it to me, even though the story is all kinds of fucked up.

This has got to be the saddest children’s book I’ve ever encountered.

Little Johnny Orchard carries a big gun. He is “humiliated” because while other barns nearby have bear skins nailed to them to dry, his family’s barn has never had a bear skin hanging on it. One day Johnny goes into the woods to shoot a bear and comes out with a (live) bear cub.

Where is the cub’s mother? That issues is never addressed in the book, but I suspect she’s nailed up to somebody’s barn. If mamma bear had been there, I bet she’d have fucked up that little shit Johnny.

Of course, the bear eats everything it can get its paws on. (And you thought giving a mouse a cookie or a pig a pancake caused trouble.) The bear wreaks havoc and grows huge.

After leading the bear far away on three occasions, only to have it return within days each time, Johnny and his father decide the boy will shoot the bear. (Ok, this impending shooting is not spelled out, but anybody over the age of six is probably going to look at the illustrations of a sad boy with a gun and figure it out.)

What passes for a happy ending still seems pretty sad to me, but I guess it’s better than having your best friend shoot you because the neighbors think you’re a nuisance.

I guess this book is what passed for children’s entertainment in the early 1950s. No wonder my parents’ generation is so messed up.

Unless you are from a bear hunting family, don’t read this to your kid unless you want to answer a lot of uncomfortable questions.

Interested in Shanghai? (A Book Review)


[amazon template=image&asin=1481931512]Today I’m sharing a book review. I won the book, Cutted Chicken in Shanghai, through a First Reads drawing on GoodReads. The author is Sharon Winters, and I wrote the review in January of 2014.


I enjoy travel memoirs, especially when the travel happens in countries I will probably never visit, like China, so I was very excited to win Cutted Chicken in Shanghai  from a First Reads drawing. I was a little disappointed when I started reading and found the author is nothing like me. Well, ok, we are both “white” American women, both educated, both writers. Unlike me, Sharon Winters is married to a man whose job took them both to China in the mid-90s. Also, it quickly becomes apparent that Winters and her husband have a lot more money than I’ve ever had. I don’t know if Winters would call herself rich, but she sure seems rich to me. (Some examples: Winters loves to shop and most of her adventures recounted in this book center around shopping. She buys over 150 paintings during her two years living in Shanghai. She also buys countless pearls; at one shop in Beijing, she buys 15 pounds of pearls in one day! Most telling is where she and her husband live. The two of them inhabit a four bedroom, four bath apartment for which the rent is $6300 per month! [Winters is quick to point out that “this price does include the furniture rental.”])

At the beginning of the book, I thought I was getting the “adventures” of a rich, pampered lady, and I didn’t think I was going to enjoy that very much. I kept reading, though, and by the middle of the book, I was charmed.

The aspect of Winters I most admire is her desire to communicate in Mandarin, a notoriously difficult language to learn. She starts studying the language before she leaves the US, and continues her studies as a student at Fudan University in Shanghai. Most importantly, she speaks Mandarin every chance she gets. She speaks to her driver in Mandarin and gets him to correct her homework before class every day. (She also helps him with his English, including teaching him the term “SOL” without telling him what it means). Chinese people are constantly surprised (and usually charmed) when Winters speaks to them in their own language. Sure, she makes mistakes. (Once she addressed her language teacher as “rat” instead of “professor,” then humorously writes, “[f]ortunately, I also know how to say [in Mandarin], “Oh, I’m sorry.”) But she doesn’t let her mistakes stop her from trying again (and again and again), and I highly respect her determination and perseverance.

Yet, some of Winters’ experiences in China perplex me. She is terrified to cross streets because of the thick traffic and lack of crosswalks, so she always gets someone (friend or stranger) to walk her across while she keeps her eyes closed. After two years she still has no idea how to cross a city street, and I want to shout at her to grow the fuck up!

She has a driver, provided by her husband’s company, and she seems to go nowhere without him. She explains, “Because a car accident in Shanghai could cost a company millions of dollars, the company [her husband] worked for assigned drivers to all US employees and their spouses.” It is unclear if Winters is even allowed to go anywhere without her driver. The first of only two times she leaves her apartment alone (yes, at two o’clock in the morning, but only to walk one block to buy an ice cream bar at a kiosk), the night guard at her apartment building narcs her out to her driver, who is very mad at her and tells her she should never go out alone at night. She chalks this up to “the protective instinct men have where women are concerned,” but I wonder if the driver was worried about losing his job or having to answer to some governmental force if Winters had been harmed in some way.

Winters does seem to genuinely like her driver; she calls him her friend and writes that they kept in touch after her return to the U.S., but I can’t help but think that if I were living in Shanghai, I would have wanted to ditch my driver at least some of the time in order to have adventures on my own. If Westerners were simply not allowed to wander off alone during that time period, I wish Winters would have just come out and said that. Otherwise, she looks to me like a bit of a ninny too scared to even take a walk alone.

As I said, Winters shops a lot, and she’s not afraid to negotiate with merchants to get what she considers a good price. I’m always skeptical of Westerners who want to haggle to get even lower prices on what seem like bargains to me. Yet Winters shows herself to be a really sweet person and not a cheap American by her interactions with a “nearly blind old woman” who sells string at a flea market. On several occasions, Winters addresses her with the respectful form of hello, then proceeds to buy all her string at ten times the asking price with no bargaining at all! Winters writes, “Do I feel sorry for her? No. I admire her greatly, and when I hold her string in my hand, I see her face and whisper to myself—a great woman held this string before me.”

Some parts of this book seem to be filler. Winters tells stories about her children, her childhood, and her family history. None of these stories have a lot to do with Winters’ life in Shanghai. Many passages read like a holiday newsletter sent out to family and friends to show them how cheerful and chipper Winters is in the face of this whole new world that is China. I’d rather hear more about the gritty side of China (such as the memorial dedicated to the massacre of over three hundred thousand Chinese civilians killed by the Japanese Imperialist Army in 1937 and having to meet the seafood before eating it at many restaurants.)

All in all, I did enjoy reading this book and learning about one woman and her time in China. I guess I can learn some things from a rich lady too scared to cross the street.