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August 28, 2010

Book Review: Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller, is the author's account of growing up in the countries of Rhodesia , Malawi and Zambia. Fuller's family was originally from England, where Alexandra was born. Her family moved to Africa during a time of great unrest. Rhodesia was still white-ruled, but at the tail-end of British colonialism. The parents like to live in isolated areas, far away from towns and cities.

However, Fuller's parents were not rich, titled landowners, but rather poor farmers barely eking out an existence. Of course, they still had black servants. Even if Rhodesia didn't have an official "apartheid" which in Afrikaans means "apartness", everything is separate. The different races go to different schools, stores, and hospitals.

Alexandra and her sister Vanessa are shaped by the racist attitudes of their parents and the white society around them. After all, why would she question it? That is all she knows. Even though she grows up in the 1970's and 1980's, there is no television in her house, the only radio broadcasts seem to be from the BBC, and most of the people she meets on a daily basis are her family and the black servants.

Those blacks fighting for independence are considered "terrorists". So life is tough for everyone:

Vanessa and I, like all the kids over the age of five in our valley, have to learn how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and ultimately, shoot-to-kill.

Fuller also loves Africa. The book is filled with rich imagery and poetic language:

What I can't know about Africa as a child (because I have no memory of any other place) is her smell; hot sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.

This story is fascinating, mostly taking place during the time of the Rhodesia Civil War, when blacks decided that they wanted their land back and to rule, which is what eventually happened (Rhodesia is now called Zimbabwe). Eventually, their land is taken away from the family and eventually the Fullers move first to Malawi, and then to Zambia.

The book is not heavily political, however, as it mostly concerns what happened within the Fuller family, and that story is almost unbearably tragic at times. Out of five children born to the family, only two survive. Alexandra blames herself for the death of her sister, and I strongly suspect that she still is bearing that terrible burden today:

No one ever came right out and said in the broad light of day that I was responsible for Olivia's death and that Olivia's death made Mum go from being a fun drunk to a crazy, sad drunk and so I am also responsible for Mum's madness. No one ever came right out and said it in words and with pointing fingers. They didn't have to.

Fuller also makes no apologies for or commentary on the racist attitudes of the white Rhodesians, including those of her own family. Is that a weakness of the book? Perhaps, or else she just feels that it is unnecessary to do so. She prefers to write about it as she saw it at the time when she was a child. After all, it does not show these people in a very flattering light. She doesn't spare herself, either.

However, I still highly recommend this book. It is very funny but also achingly sad at times. You will be a richer person for having read it.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

It's a Blog Hop!

Book Blogger Hop

Every weekend, Crazy for Books has a Blog Hop for Books Blogs!

The question of the week:

Q. Do you use a rating system for your reviews and if so, what is it and why?

A. No, I don't. I find it hard to compare totally different books with each other. If I was writing a books blog reviewing books all from the same author, I might very well rate them. But how do I compare a very serious, tragic book with a light-hearted one? Or a book that has a message with a book that is light-hearted and fun to read. I do admire those book bloggers who rate books, but I have decided not to do that.

August 25, 2010

Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

When A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was originally published in 1943, it was a huge success, and Betty Smith's book became an instant classic. It is about several years in the life of the Nolan family in the early 20th century and it is mostly about the coming-of-age of the main character, Francie Nolan. It is that rare novel that can be enjoyed by both teenagers and adults.

This book very definitely has its own style, I think partly because it was written as a memoir and changed into a novel. Smith obviously poured her heart into this book. Her other novels are charming, but they don't have the depth of this book. Because Smith could fictionalize apparently real people, she could flesh out the characters until they seem like real people, not characters in a novel. Sometimes even minor characters are given thoughts and feelings, as how they relate to the main characters in the book.

A strong point of the novel is its sense of place. Smith even describes in detail the neighborhood. the neighbors and everyday life until you feel are actually in the Brooklyn of 100 years ago. The novel opens by describing Brooklyn in 1912:

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in the summer.

The women are the stronger people in the book. Many of the male characters are weak-willed, while the women persevere. Francie Nolan, the main character, is the daughter of Johnny and Katie Nolan and the sister of Neeley. Francie is a fully-realized character. Francie is a strong person, who you know will do well in life.

Katie, the mother, is very hard-working. She cleans apartment buildings for a living. She is scrubbing floors when she is an advanced state of pregnancy. Katie refuses anything that smacks of "charity." One wonders what she would think of Section 8, food stamps, free school lunches, and WIC. Sometimes there is no food in the house, and the children go hungry.

Johnny Nolan, the father, is a singing waiter, but has no steady job. He mostly works at one-shot jobs like weddings and parties. Johnny is an alcoholic. There was little understanding or treatment of alcoholism when Smith wrote the book. We now know that alcoholism is a disease, with both powerful psychological as well as physical components. So even though Johnny is lovable, and really loves his children, he is perceived as weak and a loser. Johnny comes from a long line of alcoholics; perhaps his problems were at least partially due to a genetic disposition toward the disease.

Francie senses that her mother loves Neeley more by her actions, but she eventually comes to peace with it. This does not mean that her mother doesn't love her, of course she does. It is partly because Neeley is reminiscent of the father and Katie does not want him to turn out the same way. Francie is like her mother in that she is strong and smart, but she has also inherited her father's creative ability and his dreaminess. One of the main differences between Francie and her father is that Francie takes action, and Katie admires that. Francie works hard at school and at her various jobs, and in improving upon her hardscrabble beginnings.

The novel does have flaws. Some of the psychoanalyzing and character analysis is quite dated. Women are thwarted by "starved love instincts." However, I find the book to be mostly very strong, especially about the characterization of Francie. She is a completely realized character. You feel as if you know her. The book takes her from an eleven-year-old child to a young woman about to leave Brooklyn and start new adventures. Even though she is going far away, she will never really leave Brooklyn behind:

She might get rid of her Brooklyn accent that way. But Francie didn't want to get rid of it any more than she wanted to get rid of her name. It meant that she belonged some place. She was a Brooklyn girl with a Brooklyn name and a Brooklyn accent. She didn't want to change into a bit of this and a bit of that.

You just wish that there had been a sequel.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.

It's a Book Review Party at Cym Lowell!


August 19, 2010

Book Review: My Sparkling Misfortune by Laura Lond

My Sparkling Misfortune is a children's book by Laura Lond. The book is set in medieval times, in the days of knights, sword-fights, and vast kingdoms. What makes this book so unusual is that it is told from the point-of-view of the villain. What is even more surprising is that it is told with a great sense of humor.

The protagonist-villain is Lord Arkus of Blackriver Castle. As Arkus says:

I am the villain. What? You wanted a noble hero? Well, tough. You've got the wrong book then. But let me tell you something before you put it down: there are no heroes without us villains.

As the book progresses, however, the line becomes blurred between the villains and the heroes. The apparent hero really becomes the villain, and Arkus . . . well, it turns out that Arkus has some surprises ahead.

Arkus' nemesis throughout much of the book is a monster with revenge on his mind. Arkus flees from the monster, only to find out that nothing quite turns out the way he planned. One of the reasons the book is so enjoyable is because you never quite know where the plot is going. You are continually surprised.

The title of the book is a pun, because Arkus, the villain, ends up with a sparkling for a servant. A sparkling is a "goody-goody" spirit that helps heroes. Arkus isn't a hero . . . or is he?

This book is a terrific book to read for anyone of any age. Children will love it, and their parents will love it too, because the author is obviously trying to surprise us at every turn and not write the standard prince-and-princess fairy tale.

Disclosure: This book was sent to me for an honest review by the publisher.

August 9, 2010

It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

Right now I'm reading so many books! I have books in every room and I'll pick one up, read it for awhile, then put it down and read another. Here is my current list:

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter. Because I love cats and libraries.

Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog by John Grogan. I love dogs, too.

An Innocent, A Broad by Ann Leary. An American gives birth to her son in England.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. A classic coming-of-age novel.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller. Growing up in a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?)

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by
Book Journey.

August 5, 2010

Time Out for Books

(Public Domain photo from Wikipedia)

More than anything else, I love to read and write. So if I could choose anyplace to have a time out, it would be a bookstore or library. I love going to bookstores, drinking in the cafe and reading magazines. I always carry a small notebook and pen in my purse, and will sit in the bookstore, writing away at essays, short stories and blog posts. I love to write with pen and paper. I even collect small notebooks -- I love anything that is in the shape of a book! I also love to wander the aisles of books in the bookstore and look out for new books that I want to read.

I just feel so comfortable, safe, and secure surrounded by books. When I was in college/university, I would always do my homework at the university library. I would study there for hours in the second floor "stacks" area. I had a heavy load of reading and writing to do, since I majored in English and minored in Journalism. I would sit in a private carrel, tucked away on the sides of the building, and work hard, occasionally gazing out the windows at the passing students below. I was especially happy if I was studying a subject I liked, such as World Geography, History of Cinema as Art, or my literature and writing courses. I would look around me, surrounded by books, and sigh with pure contentment.

I used to own over 4000 books, but the very small space that I live in now doesn't allow me to do that. But I still have 4 bookcases filled with books. I cannot imagine not having books surrounding me. Even if I ever was able to afford an e-reader, I would still have physical books around. I love the look and feel of books.

I had so many books because I live in a town that is obsessed with them. In the spring they have dozens of book sales all over town. There is one weeklong sale that has a bag sale on the last day -- all the books you can stuff in a paper grocery bag for $5.00. The line forms by the door and down the parking lot before the sale even opens for business. I still always carry a paperback in my purse. My elderly car was called The Bookmobile. I always had many books tucked away in the glove box, seats and trunk. I didn't want to end up stranded without books!

This post was written for the Mama Kat's Pretty Much World Famous Writer's Workshop, from Prompt #2: If you were put in “time out”, where would you want to be placed and why?

August 4, 2010

Wordful Wednesday #1: Daisy the Cat, a.k.a. Shortcake

Why did I pick a photo of one of my dear, departed cats for Wordful Wednesday? Because Daisy looks so self-satisfied (and spoiled) in this photo. This photo was actually taken with a Polaroid camera! It not only captures her cuteness but her outgoing personality.

One of the reasons I chose this photo is because I love cats, which is partially why I chose the name The Literary Lioness for this blog. Cats and books just go together! Everyone knows that, right?

Daisy came to our house in an unusual way. It was a beautiful May day in 1984. My mother was in the backyard hanging up the wash on the line. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Suddenly my mother heard a sound, which sounded like meowing, but she told herself that it had to be a bird. After all, our seven cats were all indoors.

Then she heard the sound again.

My mother decided to investigate. She walked from the quite large back yard to the patio. Now she knew she was hearing something from the screened-in back porch. She opened the door and her jaw dropped. This beautiful little kitten came running over to her and meowing loudly, apparently crying "what took you so long!" That cat knew a sucker, er, Good Samaritan when she saw one.

My mother took one look at that face and that vivacious personality and was smitten with that kitten forever.

My mother brought out milk and watched her drink it up. Then my mother went back into the house through the back door from the patio. My mother swore up and down that she couldn't stop the kitten from squeezing in between her legs and running inside as if she owned the place. If you say so, Mom! She walked right by our other cats, who were spitting and hissing at her, and went straight to the kitchen. My mother was so impressed.

Someone must have deliberately put Daisy on the porch and shut the door, because it was impossible for her to get in there by herself. We never found out who it was, but we were grateful. She eventually acquired the nickname Shortcake because one day she sat in a cupcake box from a bakery, and well, that evolved into Shortcake. We loved and cherished her for the next sixteen years.

She remained a tiny cat all her life, never weighing more than six pounds, but she had a big mouth and a big heart. She slept on my pillow with her paws in my hair for many years. I had to gently untangle her paws from my long hair each morning.

It is very appropriate to write about Shortcake on Wordful Wednesday, because in sixteen years, she never stopped talking. It's so appropriate that my mother heard her before she saw her.

Wordful Wednesday is run by The Seven Clown Circus.

You can read more Wordful Wednesday here.

August 2, 2010


In the late 1960's my Swedish grandmother visited the United States. She was supposed to stay for two weeks but ended up staying for two years! "Mormor" had an effervescent personality and was eager to try new things. She loved America – the food, the people, and the garage sales! She’d never been to America before and just loved it.

Her favorite American television show was "The Lawrence Welk Show." It featured bubbly “champagne music” – old-time music that senior citizens loved. She loved the effervescence of the bubbles in the champagne bottle in the opening credits. The cast was full of very attractive, wholesome-looking men and women with effervescent personalities. Mormor loved singing along with the songs in her fractured English.

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Effervescent is the Word Up, Yo vocabulary meme's word this week. You can read about the Word Up, Yo meme here.
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