Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: Welcome to Braggsville

When I first moved to Chicago back in August of 2008, I felt very Texan. People kept telling me "You sure don't seem very southern!" but I absolutely felt like the outsider. Honestly though I really enjoyed both being somewhere different and being from somewhere different. These days, having left Texas over six years ago, I think of myself as fairly acclimated to the north. Every once in a while though, I'll say something that makes everyone else in the room come to a complete stop, and I'll realize that yep, things are pretty different south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A recent example is when I was telling a group of friends that my high school's biggest rival school flew a confederate flag and had as their official school mascot the "rebel." A quick Google search revealed that this was not completely banned until 2012. The school still plays "Dixie" as their fight song. All of this is to say that when I read the description for Welcome to Braggsville, I could more than relate, and I knew I had to read this book.

Born and raised in the heart of old Dixie, D’aron Davenport finds himself in unfamiliar territory his freshman year at UC Berkeley. Two thousand miles and a world away from his childhood, he is a small-town fish floundering in the depths of a large hyperliberal pond. Caught between the prosaic values of his rural hometown and the intellectualized multicultural cosmopolitanism of “Berzerkeley,” the nineteen-year-old white kid is uncertain about his place, until one disastrous party brings him three idiosyncratic best friends: Louis, a “kung fu comedian” from California; Candice, an earnest do-gooder from Iowa claiming Native roots; and Charlie, an introspective inner-city black teen from Chicago. They dub themselves the “4 Little Indians.”

But everything changes in the group’s alternative history class, when D’aron lets slip that his hometown hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, recently rebranded “Patriot Days.” His announcement is met with righteous indignation and inspires Candice to suggest a “performative intervention” to protest the reenactment. Armed with youthful self-importance, makeshift slave costumes, righteous zeal, and their own misguided ideas about the South, the 4 Little Indians descend on Braggsville. Their journey through backwoods churches, backroom politics, Waffle Houses, and drunken family barbecues is uproarious at first but has devastating consequences.

Although the satire in this book was spot-on and I can appreciate what Johnson was aiming for, the writing style was pretty hard to get used to. It's written in stream of consciousness, a lot of the punctuation is absent, and the point of view of the story switches with no warning. Once I pushed past those issues, the story arc was fairly interesting, and definitely picked up the pace once D'aron has met and assembled his motley crew and they arrive in Braggsville. Unfortunately the other characters didn't seem as fully formed to me, more "types" the author felt he had to fill. Overall, if you're not into alternative writing styles (and I'm not, although I appreciate how difficult it can be to write in that style, and do it well), you might have a hard time pushing past the noise of the style and enjoying this book. If that's your bag, this is the book for you.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book Review: Girl Runner

It's no secret that running is a big part of my life, and I can't fathom living in a time when it wasn't acceptable for women to race or even run. What would my outlet have been if it wasn't running? That's a scary thought. All that said, I realize the struggle is ongoing for women's sports to get as much attention as men's do. When TLC Book Tours asked me if I wanted to review Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder, how could I say no?

An unforgettable novel about competition, ambition, and a woman’s struggle to earn a place in a man’s world, Girl Runner is the story of 1928 Olympic gold medalist Aganetha Smart. Will Aganetha’s undeniable talent help her to outrun the social conventions of her time, or the burden of her family’s secrets?

As a young runner, Aganetha Smart defied everyone’s expectations to win a gold medal for Canada in the 1928 Olympics. It was a revolutionary victory, because these were the first Games in which women could compete in track events—and they did so despite opposition. But now Aganetha is in a nursing home, and nobody realizes that the frail centenarian was once a bold pioneer.

When two young strangers appear asking to interview Aganetha for their documentary about female athletes, she readily agrees. Despite her frailty, she yearns for adventure and escape, and though her achievement may have been forgotten by history, her memories of chasing gold in Amsterdam remain sharp. But that triumph is only one thread in the rich tapestry of her life. Her remarkable story is colored by tragedy as well as joy, and as much as Aganetha tries, she cannot outrun her past.

Part historical page-turner, part contemporary mystery, Girl Runner peels back the layers of time to reveal how Aganetha’s amazing gift helped her break away from a family haunted by betrayals and sorrow. But as the pieces of her life take shape, it becomes clear that the power of blood ties does not diminish through the years, and that these filmmakers may not be who they claim to be...

The book has a nonlinear structure, with lots of flashbacks (that aren't in chronological order themselves) and I'm not going to lie: I had a hard time following along. If the author's intent was for it to be disorienting, she succeeded. That complaint aside, this book was a good read. The parts of it that were about running and the Olympics were fascinating (to me, at least, but I'm the kind of person who finds books about marathon training interesting), but it was also a great portrait of the whole life of an individual. Sure, people are famous for the 5, 10, maybe 15 years during which they're a professional athlete, but there is so much more to a life than that. Aganetha is famous for a short period of time for her running, but as her flashbacks reveal, there is much more to her life than her talent for running.

Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Europe 2014: Ghent

If you're new here, I'm recounting how my husband and I backpacked around Europe for two weeks over our winter break. First on the itinerary was a quick stop in Brussels, then almost a week in Amsterdam, then a night in Delft. 

By the time we decided to go to Europe for Christmas instead of South America (which had been our original plan until we found a killer airfare deal for Brussels), there were a few cities we wanted to visit that did not have much choice in the way of accommodation. This is how we ended up staying in Ghent instead of Bruges. Ghent, which I'd never even thought about before, is only about 30 minutes by train from Bruges and about a third of the price. So Ghent became our home base for a few days, including New Year's Eve.

When we arrived in Ghent by train from Delft, it was already dark and kind of drizzly, I didn't have high hopes for a rockin' NYE because most of the town seemed to be buttoned up and asleep. A lot of the shops and restaurants we passed were close. We found a pizza place that was both open and had a table for us and ate NYE pizza before heading back to our hotel to celebrate. We stopped at a little bottle shop and bought a few delicious-looking beers to take back to our hotel room. It doesn't matter where you are or what you do for New Year's as long as you're with the one you love, right?

Our low-key celebration the night before meant we were up early to explore Ghent properly. The historic part of the city is beautiful, and the skies had cleared up enough that we had crisp, sunny weather for exploring. We did a walking tour from the book, ducked into a few churches to ooh and ahh over the architecture, and then trekked the 2 miles to the city's historic beguinage.

We went to a few different beguinages in Europe. The beguines were women who dedicated their lives to God and essentially lived as nuns but never took vows and thus could rejoin the laity if they desired. In the 13th century they founded the beguinages as places where they could live and work and pray together. They were built in the traditional Flemish style and most are still used for housing for single women today. The one we visited in Ghent was by far the biggest we'd seen, and the architecture was beautiful. All the buildings were painted red and white except for the church in the center of the village, which was traditional stone.

We also went to this 13th century building that used to be the city's meat market. It's now dedicated to promoting traditional Flemish food and drink. We had the best meal of our trip there. Good job, Flemish food.

The houses in Ghent were built right up to the canals, unlike in Amsterdam or Delft where the road separated the two. I still don't quite understand how everyone doesn't have water in their basement.

Although I don't think it would have occurred to us to make a special trip to Ghent if we hadn't stayed there, I'm glad we got to spend some time in the city. It's pretty and clean and inexpensive, especially compared to it's more famous neighbor, Bruges.