Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Weekly Reading Update #6 - Reviews of Haiku Mind, A Taste of Salt, Learning to Bow and To the Moon and Back

Before we talk books, we must admire the spider lilies!!!

I'd never seen spider lilies before I moved to the Deep South and every year I am awed by them. This year, the spider lilies bloomed early. Usually, they don't show up till October, but I'm assuming our very early cool front fooled them into blooming prematurely. Spider lilies don't last long if it warms back up (which it did, after a few blissful days), so I rushed down to my neighbor's yard, walked around and sat on her driveway to snap a few photos. Three days later, her yard service mowed them all down. They're not exactly a precision lawn-care service.

So . . . books. Books, books. This past week was a good one. I finished 4 books and only one of them didn't thrill me -- but I still managed to get something out of it.

Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan - I've been hacking away at this book of "108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart" for at least 6 weeks. It's best taken in small doses, actually. From the intro:

This is not just an anthology of haiku poems, but rather spiritual reflections on 108 haiku--I used 108 because it is an auspicious number in Buddhist thought as there are 108 difficulties to overcome in order to become awakened [. . . ]

The haiku chosen to talk about the theme of "adversity", for example:

violets here and there
in the ruins
of my burnt house

After the haiku, the author talks about the haiku, it's meaning or (sometimes) why the author wrote it. And, then she talks about the concept and how we can react to it on a spiritual level. The book is really about being open and accepting in life. It's quite lovely. My only complaint is that the author has a tendency to write in fragments, which can become irritating, hence the recommendation to read it slowly and in small doses. Definitely recommended for those curious about haiku and/or seeking a book for relaxing daily reading and reflection on spirituality.

The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate is a book Algonquin Books sent me unsolicited. I tend to love a lot of those Algonquin surprise books, but this one was a little disappointing. Josie is a black marine biologist married to a white man. It's challenging enough being a smart black woman in a white man's world, but she also has her family in Cleveland to deal with. Her alcoholic father has been sober for a decade but her parents' marriage never recovered. And, Josie's brother is following down his father's path, battling addiction.

After a trip home to fetch brother Tick from rehab, Josie finds that she's must confront her difficult past. But, while Josie finds herself still unable to share her inner feelings with her husband, she encounters someone who helps her to forget the fact that she never seems to quite fit in, anywhere.

I don't think I'll say much more than that because I might give too much away, but I'll tell you what I liked and disliked about The Taste of Salt. It was fascinating peeking into the world of an educated black woman, seeing the world through her eyes and realizing just how incredibly difficult it must be to succeed when bettering yourself is considered somehow betraying your entire race. The author didn't attempt to make sense of the whole "acting white" concept or why it's irrational, but the glimpse into Josie's world is revealing.

Unfortunately, the story is a little sordid and definitely too tragic for my personal taste. Josie allows herself to be ruled by her emotions and her refusal to work on her issues in a moral, positive way causes her world to crumble. The Taste of Salt is a sad, sad story. I'd have liked to see a bit more of a redemption and an ending with hope.

Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler is about Feiler's year spent teaching English in a Japanese school. As memoirs go, it's beautifully written, honest, clear and engrossing. He talks about his triumphs and errors, friendships and occasional disastrous social experiences, travels outside of the small town where he taught and the contrast between city and small-town life in Japan.

I think the highest praise I can give Feiler, besides the fact that his writing is excellent and obviously well researched (when he goes into detail about historical background, you know he's done his homework) is that Learning to Bow is written with great respect. He observes and records his thoughts on Japanese society (often in comparison to the West or the U.S., since he's American) from the perspective of an outsider viewing Japan through the educational system without ever stooping to cliche or demeaning the Japanese in any way.

Also, I think it's a testament to Feiler's fine writing that I found myself thinking, "I can't wait to read more of his books," even while I was still in the midst of reading Learning to Bow. Highly, highly recommended.

To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell is over 400 pages long, but her books are such breezy fun that I whipped through it in about 2 days. Ellie Kendall's husband has died in a tragic automobile accident. She conjurs up his image up and speaks to him, now and then, knowing he is a figment of her imagination -- not a ghost but a deliberate creation, her way of holding onto him just a while longer.

After a time, Ellie becomes tired of the knowing glances and comments that people make at work, the way they treat her more gently because of her loss. She needs a change; it's time to move on. When her famous father-in-law decides to purchase a home in upscale Primrose Hill, she moves in as its caretaker. There, she finds a new friend, slowly reenters the world of romance and locates a job where she can be herself without worrying about the word "widow" hanging over her head. Her boss is handsome and wealthy but happy to have an office manager who is not the slightest bit interested in him.

Meanwhile, Ellie's new best friend is in love with a married man, her father-in-law falls for a woman who is going through a time of turmoil, and her relationship with her husband's best friend becomes more than a little confusing.

Like all of Jill Mansell's books, there is one main romantic storyline but there are other little romances going on, on the side. Honestly, I don't know how she does it. Jill Mansell is such a pro. There's always an inciting incident and you know the heroine will fall happily in love. But, the journey is inevitably surprising and always massively entertaining. As I mentioned last week, I cried through a good portion of this book because the death of Ellie's husband hit a little too close to home, but I knew that was just me being emotional. Like every other Mansell title, I loved To the Moon and Back. I'd particularly recommend her books as a light read for beach or plane or anytime you're looking for an uplifting, happy storyline.

Next up, I hope to finish that book on outdoor design. But, I've been happily diverted. I'm currently rereading Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy. You know I adore Simon and am enamored of his writing but I confess the beginning of the book is rough. It's very flowery. If you haven't read it or you've tried and the metaphorical onslaught conquered you, I recommend patience. The heavy use of metaphor tapers off, eventually. Everything Beautiful Began After is truly a lovely story about wounded souls, deep friendship, grief, and learning to live every moment as if it is your last.

The other book in my sidebar is a book of poetry by a friend of Simon's, Lives by Lucas Hunt. The jury is still out on this one. It's not lyrical poetry . . . I'm not sure quite how to describe it. But, having seen the author do a bit of reading online, I can tell you that this author's poetry sounds better coming from the author's mouth. Lucas appears to be utterly charming.

In other news, one of the main reasons for my minimal blogging (my new fitness regime) has resulted in yet another drop in size. I've now lost 3 dress sizes. Oh, how fun it was to hear the zipper go up with ease on my goal dress, this weekend! I rustled around in the closet and found a new goal dress to work toward fitting into, this morning. I've still got a long way to go, but I am really excited to be on a downward trend in clothing sizes. And, I'm sure future airplane seat mates will appreciate my shrinking hips, as well.

What's up in your world, this week?

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  1. Learning to Bow sounds like my kind of book. Congratulations on the weight loss - keep up the good work!

  2. Kathy,

    Learning to Bow is excellent. If I rated books, it would be a 5-star.

    Thanks! It's such fun fitting back into old clothes that I liked. I'm throwing out anything that no longer appeals to me, also, which is kind of fun and freeing.

  3. Jill Mansell2:53 AM

    Hi, and thanks so much -again - for such a beautiful review. You always describe my books so well - better than I ever could! I'm so thrilled you enjoyed this one. Am also delighted to have been introduced to Spider Lilies, which I'd never heard of before either. Gorgeous!
    Jill xxx

  4. I just finished reading Everything Beautiful Began After and really enjoyed it! I also really enjoy Jill Mansell's books and To the Moon and Back is no different!

    Well done on your weight loss!

  5. Spider lilies are one of my favorites! Beautiful pic, Nancy.

    I abandoned The Taste of Salt; it just didn't hold my interest. Now, I'm really glad I didn't finish!

  6. I also really like the sound of Learning to Bow, and think that is one that I am going to need to check out!

    I am so proud of you with the weight loss! I know how hard it can be to shed even one pound, so 3 dress sizes is amazing! What a wonderful job you are doing! Keep up the good work!

  7. Jill,

    Why, thank you! That's high praise, indeed. I love all of your books, of course -- I'm sure you knew that from previous reviews. I'll be sending To the Moon and Back to a friend who hasn't read your work (and who works in a bookstore . . . so she'll have opportunities to recommend you to the right readers). :)

    Spider lilies are lovely, especially up close. They fade too rapidly, though! I miss them, already.


    I'm so glad you enjoyed Simon's book!! I plowed through Henry's letters, last night, and I was thinking about you and Kelly as I read -- just imagining what it was like to read around them.

    Jill Mansell's books are always a breath of fresh air, aren't they? I still have the titles I ordered from Amazon UK, when her books weren't available in the U.S. I can't bear to part with them!

    Thank you! Saturday may have been the best day I've had in 2011: The day I discovered I have a waistline, again. :)


    Aren't spider lilies lovely? I wish I'd had my camera with me, when I first spotted them in Kiddo's little college town. Someone had planted a lengthy row of them and it would be fun to take a photo of such a long line of red flowers. They were gone, by the time I returned.

    I sort of wish I'd given up on The Taste of Salt. To be honest, the only reason I finished . . . it was a quick read. I had a feeling I knew what was going to happen and I was right. It wasn't surprising and it was a downer. Fortunately, I've enjoyed absolutely everything else I've read, lately, so I just moved on. Sometimes a downbeat book can send me into a slump. Not so, this time.


    Oh, yes, definitely check out Learning to Bow. It's excellent. I also enjoyed Abraham by Feiler. He is a sharp writer, very insightful.

    Thank you! I'm really thrilled about the weight loss. I was getting to the point that knee pain was keeping me from accomplishing much of anything, but working out and losing weight have made a huge difference.

  8. Pretty, pretty spider lilies!

    I have only read one Mansell but I do not disagree with your desc of her talent. I look forward to reading more by her.

    I like your thoughts on the SVB desc. Are you actually going to write a review this time?

    Congrats on the dress size number being smaller!

  9. Care,

    Did I send you the one Mansell you've read? I have a vague memory of sending one out to someone else, but I can't recall if it was you.

    Yes, I am going to review. LOL It's kind of ridiculous why I didn't. I just blasted through it so fast that I didn't take the time to mark any quotes and thought, "Wait! I need quotes! I'll read it, again!" Then, summer ate my brain. This time, there were many pretty Post-its involved in the reading. Loved it just as much. I just left Paris, where someone fell on the steps.

    Thank you!

  10. I've read one book by Mansell and really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to reading her newest one as it sounds like a fun read. Congrats on all of the weight loss. I'm working on TRYING to find the time to work out myself but most days it gets the better of me :) Soon...

  11. Yes, it might have been these spider lillies. Who knows--everything is kind of a blur to me these days. But they are quite beautiful.

    And congrats on the dress sizes!! Every week I tell myself that I'm going to hit the treadmill at lunch but...but...but... Need to just buckle down and do it!

  12. Samantha,

    I've read at least a dozen of Mansell's books, I'm sure, and they're all equally entertaining. You have lots of fun reading in store, if you've only read one!!

    Thanks! I know exactly what you mean. It was joining a gym that finally saved me from myself. I kept saying, "Later, later." Then, a friend invited me to Zumba, I joined this wonderful little gym, and I took an intense class to try to really jump-start some weight loss. It's a slow process losing, when you let yourself go as long as I did, but such a great feeling to watch the inches melt away! My trainer, Rachel, really knows how to work me and "confuse the muscles" to get more out of them.


    Ha, could be anything. I've had the camera since right before Eldest's wedding, so close to two months. But, I had to borrow a lens for a while -- it'll take me some time to get the equipment I need. Next up will be a hot-shoe flash. Not surprising that things are a bit of a blur with baby and job!

    Thank you! I don't know that I could talk myself into working out on a lunch break. That would be hard. But, I'll bet you have to get up pretty early, as is, and are tired by the time you get home. Maybe long walks with baby would be the best thing, for now? There's only so much you can do with the limited time you've got, I'm sure. But, anyway, you look terrific and you're enjoying your little love bug. That's what's most important, eh?

  13. I love those spider lilies. Shame on those yard boys!!

    The cover art for The Taste of Salt would've have sold me on the book, but it doesn't really sound like my cup of tea, so I'll just admire the artwork. :)

    Congrats on your shrinking hips! I've been doing a lot of biking and my clothes are feeling a bit more comfy, too. I'll probably have to hit the treadmill once it gets too cold/snowy/icy for riding, though. Keep up the good work! BTW, I think I only own one dress. :)

  14. BTW, I can't wait to read Jill Mansell's book!

  15. Les,

    Yeah. Like I said . . . not a precision lawn-care service. But, at least they help keep the neighborhood from going totally to seed. :)

    I think it was really the cover art that drew me to pick up The Taste of Salt. So disappointing, really. I was hoping for more of a marine biologist story than a tragic tale of a woman who couldn't face up to life.

    Thanks. I'm so envious of your biking. Now that I can't run, I'd like to do something else outdoors but I'd have to haul my bike to the park and the park is actually too challenging -- very steep hills -- anyway. So, I'm stuck in a gym. But, I have a trainer who is really challenging me, so I'm happy. You always look good, silly girl! I'd put on a ton of weight. And, I do still have a long way to go, but at least I'm making progress.

    In the South, you need sundresses. Can't live without 'em.

  16. Anonymous7:05 PM

    Congrats on fitting into the goal dress!

  17. Thank you, Ms. Fizz!

  18. So envious, and proud of you!, that you're down three dress sizes. What, are you eating Fiona's food? :) I've put on the 7 I so painstakingly took off last year, and now debate taste vs. size on a daily basis.

    Love the reviews here, from Jill Mansell to all the Japanese titles. I have a Jill Mansell for my nook, as yet unread, and you've added to my already huge interest as far as Japanese literature/haiku goes. Pretty soon you can host the JLC6? :) XOXO

  19. Bellezza,

    LOL No, I'm just trying to eat good foods and avoid anything high-fat, go easy on the Cokes (I *love* Coke), etc. Mostly, it's a matter of burning a lot of calories at the gym, I think. I have a personal trainer and she really works me. Some days, she'll put me on level 20 on the treadmill and I feel like I'm climbing mountains.

    Oh, definitely read that Jill Mansell! Her writing is a breath of fresh air. As to the JLC6 -- I am a terrible challenge host. I found that out early on, when I created the Chunkster Challenge. But, I'll bet you can find someone to take over, if you're tired of it. Maybe New Orleans Chris?


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