Monday, December 24, 2018

If All the Seas Were Ink

If All the Seas Were Ink: A MemoirIf All the Seas Were Ink 
Ilana Kurshan 
Memoir, Judaism 

At the age of 27, alone in Jerusalem in the wake of a painful divorce, Ilana Kurshan joined the world s largest book club, learning daf yomi, Hebrew for "daily page" of the Talmud, a book of rabbinic teachings spanning about 600 years and the basis for all codes of Jewish law. A runner, a reader and a romantic, Kurshan adapted to its pace, attuned her ear to its poetry, and discovered her passions in its pages. She brought the Talmud with her wherever she went, studying in airplanes, supermarket lines, and over a plate of pasta at home, careful not to drip tomato sauce upon discussions about the sprinkling of blood on the Temple altar. By the time she completed the Talmud after seven and a half years, Kurshan was remarried with three young children. With each pregnancy, her Talmud sat perched atop her growing belly.

 Wow! I just realized how long it's been since I've reviewed anything in English. Rest assured, I'm still reading, but in Hebrew. If it's relevant for you, check out my Hebrew reviews. 😙

I came across Ilana Kurshan's memoir while babysitting and was immediately drawn to it. The book is a celebration in my eyes of what it means to be a smart modern Jewish woman. 

To me, like most religious women in Israel, the world of the Talmud (or Gemara) has been closed for the most part. Almost every religious high school for boys requires rigorous Talmud study whereas girls' schools don't even offer it. The system goes so far as to separate the girls' and boys' mixed-classes in elementary schools so as to teach the boys Gemara but not the girls. 

Why, you ask? No reason. Tradition. 

But Jewish tradition is not something I (and I believe many others) would want to leave. It's rich and beautiful, an amazing and timeless intellectual and personal challenge. So I was enthralled by Ilana, one of many pioneering woman in Israel today living a dream and learning Torah in the traditional sense but connecting it simultaneously with her life.  

Despite not being able to study the original texts so well on my own, I did grow up on many talmudic tales and halachot, in addition to actively studying currently as an adult. Ilana's study, with a woman's eyes and at once feminine and feminist mindset led to wisdom that is relevant and unique. Thus, I was at home with the stories and the laws but at the same time was exposed to a wonderfully new perspective on them. 

The writer's scholarly journey is naturally intricately intertwined in her thoughts and life, so the writing is association-based and not entirely chronological. This made the book so much more real to me, and was an authentic window to her thoughts and experiences. 

Based on the book, Ilana is clearly an especially capable and qualified woman. She details her time in Harvard and Cambridge, as well as an astounding ability to multi-task. She is an achiever who also can't go a day without running or swimming. 

I think for some, successful women such as her cause a certain amount of backlash, inducing feelings of she's-a-show-off or over-privileged. However, I think when reading her story you won't be able to help empathizing. 

You can be smart and successful - but also be divorced and not good socially. As much as I envied her academic and literary abilities, I wouldn't have traded places with her. 

This book is a true story of lifting yourself up from hard places, of adding your voice to 2000 years of learning, and of a wonderful symbiosis of the two. And also of taking leaps of faith. I loved it. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review: The Queen of England: Coronation

The Queen of England: Coronation
Courtney Brandt

Set in an alternate universe of London, after the untimely death of Queen Victoria in 1840, recently crowned Juliette faces a mysterious organization. The New World Order threatens her country and claims responsibility for the dirigible accident which killed off much of the aristocracy. Add in distracting romantic entanglements, a gifted unicorn, and tracking down the legendary Excalibur and this teenage Queen has an uphill battle leading to her coronation at Westminster. Will her reign be over before it has a chance to begin? 

I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

England! Victorian Era! Royalty! All of my favorite things. The premise for this story is brilliant and super imaginative. Naturally I was happy to dig in to QoE.

So -

The writing and dialogue need work- people often stated the obvious where they wouldn't in real life, words were repeated and used incorrectly, contradictions arose.

Plot: Overall good. It moved around, lots of players and events. I was constantly engaged and there wasn't a dull moment. However, there were too many convenient occurrences that I just couldn't overlook. People managed to avoid Juliette's guards all too easily, someone in the middle of nowhere traveling exactly where she needed to go exactly when she needed it, and the list goes on.

Characters and Relationships: Juliette is smart, curious, active and modern. Truly, a heroine written for the purpose of being a literary female role model. Unfortunately, she was also naive and quick to trust, something that in a more realistic novel would have gotten her killed.

Relationship-wise, in QoE there was an unusual element I liked a lot- multiple love interests! I found that to be realistic. The Queen of England, pretty and young, would naturally have many suitors and in real life wouldn't immediately fall desperately in love with one of them, contrary to what stories would have us believe. It also allows for many things to happen in further installments.

The other characters in the book were cool, but none fleshed out enough. I want complexity!

All in all, given the sequel I would probably read it. The flaws in the writing are workable and with a little more professional editing the story could go far.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
Jan-Phillipp Sendker 

A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.
I gave this book 5 stars, because it really is a five-star novel. However, that doesn't mean I didn't have issues with some things. 

I heard of this book from a really smart woman I know, the same one who recommended me The Five Love Languages.  What she enjoyed about this novel was the same idea - someone may be telling me they love me in a way I don't understand, or vice versa. In The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Julia grapples with her father's disappearance, and asks the question- if he loved me, how could he leave? 

We read the story of Tin Win, a young Burmese boy in the 1950s and his love, Mi Mi. The story was beautiful and heartbreaking, and presented big questions about love. One if which is the concept of loving in such a way that there is no need to prove it, to anyone in any physical way. Of knowing so deeply that you are loved that years apart cannot ruin you. Amazing, and yet, do I believe in that?

I believe that relationships need upkeep, hard work and growth. With a lifetime apart and without all that, could Tin Win and Mi Mi 's love stay strong in real life? I can't say. It's interesting though that The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was written by a westerner- the themes and beliefs portrayed in the novel were true to their Eastern setting. 

Another wonderful concept in the book was of how our eyes can blind us to the true nature of things. Of Tin Win listening to the world with his ears and heart, deriving more truth from them than when he sees with his eyes. The woman I admire very much once said that there is a reason heartfelt or in depth conversations happen often in the wee hours of the morning. There is something about the darkness, when we see less with our eyes, that allows us to see and speak from our hearts. 

The writing was beautiful and captivating. 

As for criticism - Spoilers:
Why would Tin Win start a family in America? Is that really a more respectable thing to do than confronting your uncle in Burma? 
And after doing that- having lived your life away from Mi Mi until her last moments, and then deciding to die with her- you have lost both loves. You loved Mi Mi but did not live her life with her, and you love your family in America but leave them.

This angered me. Love, in my opinion, must be more than an abstract feeling. It must be acted upon, lived to the fullest. If those who love you never get your company, what is it worth? 

All in all, a thought-provoking and heartfelt read. You don't have to agree with the character's choices to derive meaning from the novel. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down 
John Green 
Young Adult, mental illness 

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 
In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship. 

My copy is signed!!
Ok I said it moving on.

I came into this knowing it would be different from John's other books and therefore with no expectations. I remember hearing him read the first chapter last year and being nauseated, not even sure I wanted to buy it at all. 

But then it was gifted to me, and obviously I got excited anyway 😊

So yeah, Ava's condition is frankly nauseating for the rest of us. Aside from the thoughts themselves, she was self absorbed, annoying, and basically thought of herself as the victim all the time. I couldn't understand her - she often seemed like she wasn't even trying. Not taking her pills, being honest with her therapist, or throwing herself into a hobby or something she likes to give her other (good) things to think about. 

But then it was addressed. Daisy, her best friend, wasn't some sort of self-sacrificing saint who never said a word. The whole fanfic plotline was such a beautiful way of understanding Daisy, and for her to let out her feelings while still being a loving and loyal friend to Aza. The confrontation was due and satisfying, even if the whole car-crash thing was a little over done in my opinion.

In general, Turtles All the Way Down was more character-oriented than plot-oriented, just the way I like it (: The search for Davis's father was more the backdrop for Aza figuring out how to live life. In the end she became more aware and more at peace with herself, which allowed to stop just surviving but to be part of the world around her and think of the future. 

The end is truly beautiful. Suddenly you're in present tense, and Aza tells you what she learned from the whole book. How she grew, and continued to grow after that. It was happy and sad at the same time. John Green in all his glory. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Review: After You

After You (Me Before You, #2)After You (Me Before You #2)
Jojo Moyes 
Romance (I guess)

Lou Clark has lots of questions.
Like how it is she's ended up working in an airport bar, spending every shift watching other people jet off to new places.
Or why the flat she's owned for a year still doesn't feel like home.
Whether her close-knit family can forgive her for what she did eighteen months ago.
And will she ever get over the love of her life.
What Lou does know for certain is that something has to change.
Then, one night, it does.
But does the stranger on her doorstep hold the answers Lou is searching for - or just more questions?
Close the door and life continues: simple, ordered, safe.
Open it and she risks everything.
But Lou once made a promise to live. And if she's going to keep it, she has to invite them in . . .

Wow. So unfortunately, I read Me Before You two summers ago at a very tumultuous point in my life, and I never got around to reviewing it. 

Back then, I didn't want to read this sequel. I was mad that Will killed himself, and I felt that the story missed its own point and I did not care to read further. But then last week, I thought of this for some reason. I'm dealing with a breakup right now, and something about that sense of loss from choice called to me. I picked up a copy of After You and started right away. 

After You was not what I hoped it would be. I wanted to hear a tale of moving on, of learning to live without someone you loved so much and changed you. I'm not sure that was the case. The book centers more than anything on Lou meeting Lily, Will's long-lost daughter. It was about bad parenting, and Lou always doing the selfless thing out of fear of doing anything different or brave. An interesting concept, basically what everyone kept telling her in Me Before You. But no, not exactly what I was hoping for. 

The whole presence of Lily seemed a bit weird to me. Everyone felt like they got a piece of Will back, Lily felt such a connection to him - but she never knew him, he knew nothing of her. It seemed a little unrealistic to me that the Traynors just accepted her so quickly. If he had been alive they probably would have freaked out, right? However, the circumstances were beyond normal so I sort of accepted it. 

Lou, understandably, wasn't her adorable, quirky self. While totally understandable, I was hoping to see her regain some of that. 

The whole Sam thing didn't thrill me. It was just so.... nothing special. I didn't read them fall in love.. just into a relationship. 

The most moving part for me was The Moving On circle (no pun intended). There I related to the heartbreak, and was angry at the characters but also sympathetic. I wanted them to discover happiness again. Sadly though, Moyes never fleshed out Jake, Fred, Daphne, Natasha, Marc. I felt that it could have been a good framework around which to tell Lou's story. 

Lou's family had an interesting arc though - Josie Clark discovers feminism, Bernard doesn't know what hits him, and Treena deals with her jealousy of Lou. However, I feel like even this wasn't done fully. Josie goes from totally content traditional housewife to on the brink of divorce in the space of a few months. Specifically the leg-shaving thing- that's a point that even hardcore born feminists usually do anyway.  So you're telling me small-town Josie Clark jeopardizes her marriage on it after a few books??  

I actually came to like Treena a bit more this time though. In Me Before You, she is the supposedly 'smart' one that because of her Lou has to take jobs she doesn't like and hand her paycheck to the family. In After You, the strain between the two sisters shows up and I liked how that was realistic. Treena also rightly pushes Lou to live - what she would be doing if she could. 

Overall, there were too many small plotlines in this book, none of them fleshed out enough. However, the writing was superb and despite all my criticism, After You sucked me right in. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Review: Lord of Shadows (SPOILERS)

Lord of Shadows (The Dark Artifices #2)
Cassandra Clare
shadowhunter book 

Emma Carstairs has finally avenged her parents. She thought she’d be at peace. But she is anything but calm. Torn between her desire for her parabatai Julian and her desire to protect him from the brutal consequences of parabatai relationships, she has begun dating his brother, Mark. But Mark has spent the past five years trapped in Faerie; can he ever truly be a Shadowhunter again?
And the faerie courts are not silent. The Unseelie King is tired of the Cold Peace, and will no longer concede to the Shadowhunters’ demands. Caught between the demands of faerie and the laws of the Clave, Emma, Julian, and Mark must find a way to come together to defend everything they hold dear—before it’s too late. 
How can we talk about anything before addressing the ending. 


I don't want to read the next book.

In Harry Potter, we never had to live with the aftermath of the deaths in The Deathly Hallows. If we did, we would have hated it. I don't want to imagine reading about the Weasleys after Fred. There's no coming back from that. All the dynamics we know and love change. I DON'T WANT TO EXPERIENCE THE BLACKTHORNS AFTER LOSING LIVVY. Things like that wreck families. I don't want Cassie Clare to try to insert the usual banter or even just normal behavior into Queen of Air and Darkness. It's not possible or right- the Blackthorns will never be the same, and as fans we have to understand they may not be the same people we know and love. ARE YOU READY FOR THAT? 

And Robert... how much more can the Lightwoods take? And the Clave... he was the right person to lead them to a better future of positive change. He even embodied that change in his own life. And after Tales of a Shadowhunter Academy I just can't... basically sobbing. 

But enough of that (I write with tears in my eyes). There are 699 other pages to discuss. 


Mark-Kieran-Christina. I, unlike everyone else apparently, hate this. I believe in marriage, partners. I love the love between all of them, but this can't work IRL. I feel like CC is trying to recreate Will-Jem-Tessa and I do NOT want more convenient life extensions. Unfortunately I can't remember if Diego was still in the running for Christina or not. Hope not though. 
About Kieran- I LOVE HIM. I love how he balances himself, becomes more moderate in personality, temperament. I loved how Mark went to save him, how they love each other even as they struggle to understand their relationship in the real world. 

Dru and Jaime - anyone else completely flummoxed but also charmed by this? At first I was super worried - there is a power imbalance. Dru is young and easy to be taken advantage of by older, cool Jaime who is the first one to treat her like an adult and also asks her to keep a secret. However I was pleasantly surprised that things didn't go down that road and in general I love Dru and can't wait to hear more from her POV in future books. 

Jace and Clary- WTF is going on. *Prays* 

 Ty-Kit-Livvy. I love them, I want the best for them. The boys are absolutely the best thing that could happen for each other. My only complaint is that is was very obvious this was gonna happen last book- personally I dig subtlety. Which brings me to Diana- her story was amazing and full of heart and pain and it's kinda cool that the internet figured that out but I wish it wasn't spoiled for me

Magnus - ALL THE FEELS. I love him, I love what he brings to the stories. I can't get over what happened- if Magnus had been there LIVES COULD HAVE BEEN SAVED. 

Julian and Emma - I was so happy when they were in the cottage. Characters in the Shadowhunter world deserve more happy times. I don't know what to think about Julian... I feel like the writer is forcing this darkness upon him. He hates himself for the things he needs to do sometimes, and yes, he shouldn't think dichotomically- NO JULIAN, THE CHOICES AREN'T ALWAYS THE WORLD OR YOUR FAMILY. However, sometimes it is and I don't think it's fair to judge him in positions like that. 

As I'm sure you've realized, for me Shadowhunter books are all about the people, the dynamics, the relationships. But in Lord of Shadows CC really hit the ball out of the park with a metaphor for real-life war, politics, bad choices and mistakes. As always, a beautiful and very flawed installment.