Book Chat July 2015

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I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog primarily because it has hedgehog in the title, and we have a pet hedgehog. Odd reason, I know, but I’ve read books for stranger reasons.

If you’re considering it for the same reason — don’t. There is no hedgehog in the book; the title comes from a description of one of the main characters: “Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog; on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog.”

So. This book is odd. It’s translated from French, and it has a very French feel. I am not sure how to put that into words exactly, but there are some things that are just different in other cultures. Take for instance the German words gemutlichkeit, schadenfreude, etc. — they have no English equivalent. This book has that same issue. At times, it read strangely, due I’m guessing to translation issues. Other times, the whole narrative just had a French feel to me. Can’t explain it; you have to have spent time in France to get it. Kind of existentialist: “life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure.”

The book consists of alternating chapters by Madame Michel, a 50-ish concierge (basically a maid) who, despite her lowly occupation, is a deep thinker; and Paloma, a 12-year-old likewise deep-thinking girl who plans to end it all on her 13th birthday. The two narratives go on and on about life’s meaninglessness. This becomes very tiresome. Eventually, a Japanese man moves to the building where Madame Michel lives and he starts to bring a little zest to her life. Likewise, Paloma and Madame Michel meet each other and begin to form a bond.

The book does have a huge event that comes seemingly out of nowhere, in about the final 5 pages. But honestly, that wasn’t enough to justify the first 250 or so pages of existential angst for me.

*****

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The Healer’s Apprentice is the first of a series of 5 books in the Fairy Tale Romance Collection by Melanie Dickerson. My 14-year-old has read and enjoyed each of these books, so I decided to try one out. She recommended reading them in order, as some characters carry over from one to the next.

The story claims to be loosely-based on Sleeping Beauty, but when I was about 80% through it, I asked my daughter if that was really so, because I hadn’t seen any parallels. “It’s just a little, and just at the end,” she said, and she was right.

So. Rose is apprenticed to the village healer. Of course she’s beautiful, and of course both the duke’s handsome sons are in love with her (this is a fairy tale, you know). But evil is lurking around the corner, and the Rose’s true love is engage to someone else, and oh dear, how will it all turn out? You’ll have to read to find out.

I enjoyed this book overall. It was a sweet romance — nothing at all objectionable, just holding hands, etc. Even the Duggars would approve 🙂 It’s a Christian book as well, with characters calling on God and Jesus, praying, etc. That was refreshing, in this day and age. The writing reads smoothly. It would be a good, light “vacation read,” in fact, that’s when I read it.

One minor quibble with the Kindle version I have of the collection: I think the covers of these books are gorgeous, and one of their best selling points. However, with the Kindle version, you only get to see the cover pictured below 🙁 This was a disappointment. Also, if you read e-books, I’m sure you’re familiar with charting your % progress through a book. Since this is 5 books in one document, your progress looks EXTREMELY slow. In fact, I was just at 21% when I finished the Healer’s Apprentice.

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Fairy Tale Romance Collection also includes The Merchant’s Daughter, The Fairest Beauty, The Captive Maiden, and The Princess Spy.

Thanks to BookLook Bloggers for a review copy.

*****

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After visiting Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on our recent trip, I knew I wanted to read The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.

In this book, I learned more about the history of Oak Ridge in the 1940s, when thousands were recruited to work on enriching uranium to be used in creating the bombs used in Japan to end the war.

Interesting things:

  • Things have changed so much for women in the past 70 years. In the ’40s, in Oak Ridge, only heads of households could apply for on-site family housing. Women were never considered heads of households. Women almost always wore dresses (see the photo of the book cover), but in some jobs that involved lots of climbing they wore pants. One woman interviewed recalled the first time her sister saw their mom in pants: she started sobbing and wouldn’t stop. What a long way we’ve come (and not always for the better, I fear).
  • Secrecy surrounded Oak Ridge. Employees were instructed not to talk with anyone about the work they were doing; even family. Letters addressed to Oak Ridge were returned to sender with a note “There is no such place as Oak Ridge, TN.” When potential employees had questions, interviewers simply told them, “Everything will be taken care of.” The area where the work was done was known as “The Reservation.” I have a Facebook friend whose parents lived in Oak Ridge in the 1940s. She was just a small child at the time and said she knew there was an indian reservation nearby. I’m wondering if what she had heard about was actually “The Reservation?” It all sounds a bit creepy, and I can see how shows like “The Twilight Zone” could have been inspired by events of the time.
  • Enriching uranium must take a whole lot of space. I don’t really understand what’s involved, but apparently it requires a massive number of huge buildings. One building, the foundations of which our tour guide pointed out, was the size of 44 football fields (no, I really can’t imagine that). I guess Iran has its hands full in its quest for “tubealloy,” as uranium was secretively called in the day.
  • One of many amenities built was one of the nation’s largest swimming pools — over 1 acre in size! When we visited, a few weeks ago, our tour guide drove us past the pool. It’s still in use, and did look huge.
  • The author made use of many phrases of the era — “a real pip,” “a pretty penny,” etc., and I thought this was a clever way of evoking the feel of the time. A device she used that wasn’t so effective was compartmentalization — she tells the stories of several women, but each lady’s tale is told for a couple of pages before being interrupted with an interlude about another lady, or about tubealloy, or about something else. She states at the beginning that the book is compartmentalized, “as was much of life and work during the Manhattan Project.” I get that, but still, it makes it really hard to keep all the characters straight and to try to develop an affinity for any of them.
  • From the Knoxville newspaper, after the bomb was used: “Both science and industry worked under the direction of the United States Army, which achieved a unique success in managing so diverse a problem in the advancement of knowledge in an amazingly short time. It is doubtful if such another combination could be got together in the world. What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. It was done under high pressure and without failure.”

Still, really interesting book overall, and a great glimpse into a part of our history.

Check out what others are reading at 5 Minutes for Books and at Semicolon’s Book Reviews.

11 thoughts on “Book Chat July 2015

  1. My summer reading stint very soon will shut down. While I’ve read some books this summer, I have a stack of magazines I have received and yet, not opened. Part of my problem is TV. In the evening I watch National news, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Megan Kelley. There is 2 1/2 hours of quilting or embroidering – both of which I love, as well. But I cannot look at magazines or read while the TV is on. Life is all about choices. I celebrate that I can pick and choose.

  2. Thanks for your honesty on the hedgehog book. Yes, sometimes even a great ending doesn’t justify a book that I didn’t enjoy up until that time.

    I love Melanie Dickerson’s books. I’ve read the first 3, but want to read them all. The Girls of Atomic City sounds like a wonderful read too!

  3. Good reviews! I have looked at the Hedgehog book before, but couldn’t get it to go anywhere. Girls of Atomic City was an excellent read. Glad you read it and enjoyed it.

  4. I think I might enjoy Girls of Atomic City. I’m still thinking of the one I finished last week, One Step at a Time. That book is compelling.

  5. My summer this year allows no spare time for reading books! I am very lucky to even get newspapers read each week and my daily devotions, too. If I were to read one of the books that you reviewed, my pick would definitely be Girls of Atomic City.

  6. And after your review, I know I simply MUST read The Girls of Atomic City. What a fascinating story – I was not at all familiar with it before.

  7. Oh yay….another person recommending a Melanie Dickerson book. I’ve not read any of her books but plan to. they sound like a good light read….light reading books are fabulous in between heavier reading books. I find ebook covers frustrating. Book covers attract me and I can never get over the disappointment when the publisher chooses to not feature the cover on the ebook but rather goes with a plain title/author kind of page with no design whatsoever. I tend to not buy collection ebooks because of the reason you state — I like to see progress, I need to see progress….good progress, when I am reading.

    Girls of the Atomic City sounds fascinating, and your review helped to spark further fascination. It is going on my to-read list. I think my 16 year old may enjoy it too (she loves reading about this era).

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I enjoy hearing your thoughts.