Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Giftolutions

So, I read a lot of other blogs. About all sorts of different things, not just books. Some are friends' blogs whereby they update the rest of us on happenings in their lives and daily musings; some are topical, about books or publishing or fitness or entertainment; some are written by authors I really like; etc. I have recently started reading a blog called Cranky Fitness, written by Crabby McSlacker, which really appeals to my feelings about working out - it truly truly SUCKS but we should really try to do it anyway and here are ways to make it a little easier. Anyway. So Crabby wrote a post earlier this month about a friend of hers who's all one with the universe and whatnot. And this friend of hers doesn't make resolutions at the start of each new year. She makes a list of gifts she's going to give to herself. It sounds a little hippity-dippity and corny, but I kinda like it. I mean, making resolutions has certainly never worked for me, so I might as well give the positive spin thing a try.

Therefore, today's post has nothing in particular to do with books or reading. It's just about me and my life. Here is a (short) list of gifts I'm going to give myself in 2010:

  • The gift of a house I feel comfortable living in. This means organizing so that we don't feel we're bursting at the seams. I think if I commit one weekend day per month to this task (and a little money on organizational tools), I can give myself a house I love to come home to and some peace of mind.
  • The gift of smaller jeans. I have made no secret among my friends of the fact that I'm trying to be all healthy, both for the sake of my health and the sake of my waistline. I will never be a teeny-tiny waifish person, but I am still definitely overweight. I've lost 25 lbs since June 2009, and I plan to continue that trend by keeping on with my current eating habits (and tracking everything I eat on SparkPeople) and by exercising - either at the gym I'm currently trying out to see if I want to join it or on my own at home. But I kinda like the gym, and I've been good about going, so it may just be worth the money.
  • The gift of a good night's sleep. Or actually, many good nights' sleep. We need a new mattress. We've known this for about a year. We've put off actually going out and shopping for a new mattress for about a year. It's going to be expensive, and choosing the right one is going to be a pain in the butt. But no more procrastinating - our good sleep (and uncricked backs) is the most important thing!
  • The gift of financial security. We've done pretty well with budgeting and saving money in the past year - but I think we can do better. And that would make me feel better. I seriously worry about what would happen if one of our cars (both of which are over 10 years old) were to die AND one of us lost his/her job at the same time. Or a major appliance needed replacing or any other infinite number of bad and expensive things. We have a hefty emergency fund - about 6 months of living expenses - but it's still scary. We're young enough that our 401ks and IRAs are not as flush as they will be in 20 years, so borrowing against them (if that became necessary) would be a really, really bad thing and set us back possible decades in our retirement. I want to do everything we can to ensure our financial security, even when things are bad. I think this means a big, scary money conversation with my husband and possibly adjusting our budget to make better financial decisions.

So what are your giftolutions for 2010? Think we can all stick with them?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What I Got for Lootmas

Joshilyn Jackson, an author I love and adore, has dubbed the gift-giving portion of Christmas as Lootmas. I have gleefully adopted the phrase.

First, before I get started on my multitude of goodies received, I wanted to share what I got for my husband. Mostly because I'm super-proud of my purchases - NOTHING that I got was on his wishlist, which is terrifying and heady all at the same time. I got him:
  • black leather messenger bag (the canvas one he's been toting around for a few years has a broken handle and he's always complaining about it; leather is much nicer and doesn't break!)
  • 3 months of membership (2 books per month - he listens to audio books like a fiend at work, and 2 per month won't even put a dent in what he listens to, but he normally gets free ones which are in the public domain, so this will let him listen to some more modern stuff)
  • Super Mario Bros. Wii (he said he wanted it but never put it on his wishlist; I obliged)
  • small chess set (he wanted something that would fit on his desk to practice with when he does chess puzzles and tutorials online, so he'll have something tactile to use to play out the scenarios before he "answers" on the computer)
  • iTunes gift card
  • candy and nuts

Now! On to me! I got lots and lots and lots of Lootmas gifts, and they're not all done yet - I have several friends with whom I haven't exchanged gifts yet! But these are the bulk, and I'll add to this post when I get more. But I have quite a haul listed here already!!


  • Mental Floss History of the World - the husband
  • Mental Floss magazine subscription - the parents
  • My So-Called Freelance Life - the parents-in-law
  • Tender Hooks (poetry) - the sis- and bro-in-law
  • Murder and Obssession (murder mystery story collection) - the sis- and bro-in-law
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Arthur, Yi Ru and family (friends)
  • People of the Book - Paul (friend) *added 1/1/2010
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Paul (friend) *added 1/1/2010
  • Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies... - Kristine (friend) *added 1/1/2010
  • Hungry Girl: 200 under 200 - Kristine (friend) *added 1/1/2010


  • EA Sports Active: More Workouts (for Wii) - the husband
  • Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (for DS) - the parents-in-law
  • Rhythm Heaven (for DS) - Kristine (friend) *added 1/1/2010


  • Christmas in the Heart by Bob Dylan - the husband
  • Maybe This Christmas Tree - the sis- and bro-in-law


  • Crazy good high-quality dark chocolate bars - the husband
  • Assorted candy - the parents
  • Assorted candy - the parents-in-law
  • Assorted candy - Wanda and Mickey (aunt/uncle)
  • Whitman Sampler - Steve (uncle)
  • Homemade Gourmet mixes (assorted) - Janet (aunt-in-law)
  • Harry and David pears - Paul, Jackie and family (uncle/aunt-in-law)
  • Small box of assorted See's candy - Lynne (coworker)
  • Homemade gingersnaps - Peggy (coworker)
  • Homemade vanilla rum truffles - Erin (coworker)
  • Small bag of Jelly Belly jellybeans - Emily (coworker)
  • Merci chocolates - Kristine (friend) *added 1/1/2010


  • Wine fridge (to both of us) - the parents
  • KitchenAid food processor (to both of us) - the parents
  • Flamingo ornament - the parents
  • Black & Decker cordless screwdriver - the parents-in-law
  • Silk placemats and chopsticks for six - the parents-in-law
  • Snowman figurine - Mike and Patti (uncle/aunt)
  • Angel figurine and teddy bear ornament - Stephanie and family (cousin)
  • Snowman photo holders - Shannon and family (cousin)
  • Frog princess ornament - Barbara and Ricky (aunt/uncle)
  • Girly flask - Jean and David (aunt/uncle-in-law)
  • Martini glasses and mixers - Allison B (coworker)
  • Ribbon ornament - Barb (coworker)
  • Snowflake wine glass - Erin (coworker)
  • Cocktail party plates and wine glasses - Janet (aunt-in-law) *added 1/1/2010
  • Cheese board and cheese knife - Janet (aunt-in-law) *added 1/1/2010
  • Recycled wine bottle bread dipping/serving board - Janet (aunt-in-law) *added 1/1/2010

Money/Gift cards:

  • Cash - the parents
  • Real silver dollar - the parents-in-law
  • Check - the parents-in-law
  • LOFT gift card - the sis and niece
  • Target gift card - Mike and Patti (uncle/aunt)
  • Cash - Wanda and Mickey (aunt/uncle)
  • Donation to Feeding America - Josh, Lauren and family (friends)


  • My favorite foot lotion (from Earth Therapeutics, and ridiculously hard to find) - the husband
  • LL Bean flashlight that charges in your car cigarette lighter - the parents
  • Flip Ultra video camera - the parents-in-law
  • Sweater - the parents-in-law
  • Two necklace pendants - the parents-in-law
  • Calendar and small Maglite-style flashlight - Wanda and Mickey (aunt/uncle)
  • Handmade soap - Jean and David (aunt/uncle-in-law)
  • Chinese hair accessories - Arthur, Yi Ru and family (friends)
  • Earrings and frog toy - Allison T (coworker)
  • Fancy soap - Judi (coworker)
  • Funny post-it notes - Emily (coworker)
  • Sparkly bracelet - Arthur, Yi Ru and family (friends) *added 1/1/2010

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Walk in the Woods: Who knew a hiking memoir could be so awesome?

Oh, Bill Bryson. You intrigued me with your A Short History of Nearly Everything. It took me a couple of months to get through it, but I felt like a better, more enlightened, and more amused person after having read it. So I decided to try another book you wrote on the recommendations of my book club friends. I chose A Walk in the Woods because it featured Virginia in some parts of it, and I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, spitting distance from your subject matter of the Appalachain Trail. My friends, they did not do justice to how awesome this book is.

Imagine, if you will, a middle-aged, slightly overweight guy living in New England. He's pretty happy with his life, but some part of him wants a new challenge. Don't we all go through that with some regularity? Don't we all want to do something different from time to time so we don't stagnate? Well, Bill Bryson is perhaps more ambitious than most. He decides he's going to hike the Appalachain Trail (or as you'll come to know it in the book, the AT). All 2,000-some miles of it, from Georgia to Maine. He's an amateur hiker at best; a Sunday walker at worst. He has no training and no real idea of what the AT is like when he decides it. After he starts his research, he begins to get very nervous - but he's now told everyone he knows that he's going to do it, so he feels bound to complete the mission. At the last minute, an old buddy asks if he can come along. An old buddy who has driven him insane on previous trips, who is incredibly overweight and out of shape, who is prone to complaining about less-than-ideal conditions. Bryson is so thankful not to have to do it alone that he gleefully welcomes this companion. And the adventures begin.

I loved this book. Every blessed minute of it. It could have me in stitches one second and contemplating earth conservation the next. Bryson is an absolute genius at weaving together hysterical personal anecdotes with meticulous research and poignant observations. My absolute favorite moment of the book comes early - when he is in a camping store purchasing all of his equipment to make the trip. His description of meeting with the store owner, an experienced AT hiker, going through the list of supplies the owner tells him he'll need, complete with items that sound to him like he's going on a moon excursion instead of hiking in the woods. I also learned a great deal, about the history of the AT and how it's currently maintained, about the history of native flora and fauna all along the Appalachains and how they have fared, and how our dear National Parks Service has been responsible for completely eradicating several species of both plants and animals from the area.

The book is both educational and a complete riot. It's like Thoreau and Dave Barry rolled together with a famous biologist (sorry, I was never good at biology, and Darwin seems too cliche!). It works brilliantly. Five stars.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Magicians: Not So Magical as I'd Hoped

I am so, so far behind. I know this. It's just that the blog, which I do for fun and not profit, is the first thing to drop from my schedule when life gets hectic. You know, as it tends to do this time of year. In good news, all my gifts are bought and wrapped and all cards are mailed, and I have been going to the gym regularly and doing everything I am supposed to do except write on this blog and clean my house. This comes before cleaning the house :)

The Magicians was my book club's pick for our October discussion. I admit, I was not particularly excited about it from the description, so I did not want to buy it. Unfortunately, BookMooch has a waiting list 300 miles long for this book. I did, however, find a recent review on Goodreads that indicated the reviewer had a copy to sell or swap. I contacted the guy and he was happy to mail me his copy, an ARC he'd received as a librarian, if I'd just pay the postage. He was kind enough to trust me and sent me the book first, and I sent him the postage by PayPal when I received the book.

The book is described as a coming-of-age story about a guy, Quentin, who is invited to attend a magical college when he is a senior in high school because he has some inherent ability to do magic - which of course he never believed in or knew existed until his entry exam when he somehow managed to do a little magic with no instruction. It's normal college - alcohol, sex, etc. - just the students are studying magic. He and his friends graduate with little to no direction in life until they find out the magical land of Fillory from their favorite childhood books is real, and is in trouble, and they decide to go save it.

If the description sounds a little familiar, that's because Lev Grossman borrowed from Harry Potter and from the Chronicles of Narnia, the latter heavily and intentionally, and added an emo, postmodern tone. The Fillory books mirror the Chronicles of Narnia pretty much identically, changing just enough to not incur any legal issues. And the heart of the story is really about Quentin learning that his beloved Fillory is no more clear-cut than anything in the "real" world - there's corruption, power-grubbing, mixed motives, good intentions accomplished through wicked methods, etc. And it deflates him. While I found it easy to read the book and went through it very quickly without ever feeling it was a labor, I ultimately found it depressing. The moral of the story essentially seemed to be that when you grow up, you realize life sucks and people are hateful and corrupt, and you would be better off to just accept it and settle down to the rest of your dull, miserable, disappointing life. I suppose the last scene of the book could be interpreted as hope of some kind, but it felt more like Quentin leaves his job to go off with some of his friends to Fillory again - to claim the four crowns of the land that can only be held by humans - because he has nothing better to do and being a king might at least be better than what he's doing now.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Bibliophile's Holiday Gift Guide

Man! I lose at being a diligent blogger. I totally blew you guys off over the long holiday weekend after I said I wanted to catch up on my posts! I really do have about eight book reviews I need to write in order to get caught up - yikes! I'll get to them. I really will. There are a few fantastic books among those reviews, so stay tuned. My online class has now ended and the next one in the series doesn't start until January, so I'm not bogged down trying to keep up with homework. Hopefully this means I will be a better blogger in December, but we all know how those kinds of promises go...

Today, instead of catching up on my book reviews, I have a treat for you! I am offering my first ever holiday gift guide - book-centered, of course! Since it's my first one, I've had the luxury of selected some of my favorites of all time. Next year I'm going to have to work harder and pay attention to some of the better new books for kids and teens that I don't necessarily pay strict attention to normally because I don't have kids and I don't teach any more. I've broken the guide into four sections, with four selections in each (very symmetrical, which appeals to my OCD). The sections are guided by age groups, so there are gift ideas for babies, kids, teens, and adults. SO! Without further ado...

As I mentioned, I do not have children. I do, however, have a niece and many friends with children. I have a lot of experience picking out books for babies and kids, and I think I've given every single book in the Babies and Kids sections of this guide as a gift to a child in my life at some point.

The Monster at the End of This Book: An absolute classic. Who can resist Grover?

Boynton's Greatest Hits: Vol. 1 (Moo, Baa, La La La!; A to Z; Doggies; Blue Hat, Green Hat): A HUUUUUUGE hit with babies and their parents. Sandra Boynton is a modern-day classic in board books, and they teach the kind of things babies love to learn, like animal sounds and letters and colors, with great illustrations. And they're board books, so they're hard to destroy.

Richard Scarry's Biggest Word Book Ever: Right when babies start talking, they're fascinated with words and language, making this book fantastic. Plus it's Richard Scarry, who was a childhood favorite of almost everyone I know. Be warned, though, they're not kidding that it's the biggest book - it's HUGE. It's an open-it-on-the-dining-room-table kind of book. Don't ship it unless you can get free shipping!

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?: This book explores colors and animals with rhyming words and gorgeous artwork. This is a guaranteed winner with both babies and parents.

As I said, I don't have kids, but I still read (and buy) kids books! Again, I've given all of these as gifts, and I think I might even own them all myself!

20th Century Children's Book Treasury: This book is incredible. It has a BUNCH of classic children's picture books all bound together. There's Goodnight, Moon, Stellaluna, Amelia Bedelia, Guess How Much I Love You...and a ton of others. You cannot beat this book for the price - it's like giving a child 40 pictures books for the price of 2 or 3.

Piggie Pie: A fantastic read-aloud story about a witch who needs a piggie to make piggie pie and is frustrated at every turn when she can't manage to get one. This one will keep adults and kids alike giggling.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales: Fairy tales turned on their heads. The feature story about the Stinky Cheese Man is a parody of the classic story about the Gingerbread Man - only nobody wants to catch the Stinky Cheese Man. This book is hysterical, even as a grown-up, and kids familiar with the usual fairy tales will love hearing them given the funny treatment.

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Who did not adore this book as a child (or as an adult if you were grown when it was first published)? I wore out the library copy of both the book and the cassette tape of Shel Silverstein reading selections from the book until my mom finally gave in and bought me my own copy. I still have it. I still get the poems stuck in my head sometimes. The man was a genius. Added bonus: it teaches lessons, too, about not watching too much TV (or you'll turn out like Jimmy Jet!) and other things kids need a little prodding about.

I was, once upon a time, a middle school teacher. I also just kind of like reading young adult (YA) literature from time to time because it can be just as good as adult literature. So these were pretty easy for me to come up with, but this is the age when boys and girls tend to be attracted to different types of books, so I've tried to include books that will appeal to both genders, and I'll discuss gender preferences in my description of each.

Ender's Game: I just re-read this for my book club, so a review is forthcoming, but generally - wow. This is a definite sci-fi story, but there's a heavy focus on the pressure that bright kids are under from adults to perform as expected. Smart kids REALLY identify with this - both genders - and any kid into science fiction will probably love it. More likely to appeal to boys than girls, but a large number of girls I taught also loved this book.

Uglies: Another sci-fi story, and again for either gender, but I'd say that this probably appeals to girls more than boys. In the future, people undergo surgery around age 16 to make them beautiful, no matter what their original features are - they become Pretties. All of the Uglies (children who haven't yet had the surgery) live together and dream of the day they become Pretties. Until some of the kids start to question the practice, and learn about a community far away where people have shunned this practice, believing that more than appearance is changed in the surgery and that people are fine just the way they are born. I've read the two books in the series following this, and they're all good, but Uglies is definitely the best one.

Looking for Alaska: A boy goes to boarding school and becomes fascinated by his weird, wild classmate, Alaska. She clearly has some issues, but he has the instinct to both have fun with and to protect her. An interesting twist on the familiar old boarding school books, and highly recommended for both boys and girls.

Dangerous Angels: This is almost exclusively for the girls, I must admit, and be fore-warned that there is sex and foul language throughout. That said, this book (or rather this collection of the Weetzie Bat books) is both a coming-of-age and a somewhat supernatural story without dumbing anything down just because it was written for teens. I would have worshipped this book had I found it as a teenager; instead, I had my gifted middle school students introduce me to it and I strongly liked it as an adult. But I can absolutely see how a teenager would identify enormously with the story and bond with the characters.

Obviously, I have some knowledge of adult books. I've again tried to consider what might appeal to the different genders, but honestly, by the time most people grow up I find that a good book is just a good book, regardless of whether a man or a woman is reading it. So here are four of my all-time, five-star favorites.

The Thirteenth Tale: A spooky, gothic tale just custom-made for book-lovers. Everyone in my book club - all ages, all genders - adored this book and gave it top marks. I have personally read it twice in the last 12 months.

Water for Elephants: I gave this to my mother for her birthday this year, and she says it's the best book she's ever read. It's story about a guy in a circus, and his life from joining the circus to being an elderly man. It's dripping with plot and character and language.

Between, Georgia: This is probably my personal favorite book of all time. It's the story of a war between families, and of enduring love between families, and of how crazy and wonderful Southern people in a small town can be. It's definitely set firmly in the South, and it's hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time. I think of Joshilyn Jackson as a modern-day Carson McCullers.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: Well, this book won the Pulitzer a few years ago, and deservedly so, in my opinion. It's a long one - almost 700 pages, I think - but the story sweeps you up. It's about two Jewish cousins in New York - one of whom is a refugee from the Europe, fleeing the Nazis - who team up to create comic books in a time when they were first coming to popularity. Chabon is an incredible storyteller.

And that's it! Holiday Gift Guide done! What are some of your favorite books to give as gifts? No really, I'm always looking for ideas, especially for the kids!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Awesome Giveaway over at the Bibliophilic Book Blog!

Hey, guys - the Bibliophilic Book Blog is giving away a Sony Pocket eReader! Plus two runner-up prizes! WOO-HOO! Here's the direct link to the giveaway post. Now get on over there and see if you can snag yourself some delightfully bookish loot!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, friends! I have so many posts that I need to write and get out into the world, but today I just wanted to list some things for which I'm thankful on this day our country chooses to devote to appreciating the good things we have in life. I'm just going to list the most important things; otherwise, I could be here all night!

  • My husband, who not only puts up with my little habits and hobbies and idiosyncracies but even loves me for them
  • My family, who has always shown me love and support and spoiled me rotten and called me on my bullshit and generally just made my life good and me a better person
  • My husband's family, who acted from the start as though I were their own, with whom I can laugh and play games and joke around and have fun and just be myself
  • My dog, who is the most adorable dog ever and makes me feel better whenever I'm sad or angry
  • Our friends, who are awesome and funny and good people (and most of whom seem to be making cute babies lately)
  • All the good food in the world: sweet potatoes, pizza, peanut butter, bananas, chocolate, wine, rosemary pork chops, pastry, pies, french fries, pancakes......
  • Books, the world's best form of entertainment
  • The internet, the world's second best form of entertainment
  • My own little editing business, which keeps me entertained and brings in a little extra money
  • Trips to all of my favorite vacation spots: London, Chicago, Phoenix, Austin, New Orleans, and more coming as I visit more places :)
  • Firepits
  • Kashi Vive
  • The best purse I've ever owned (a Maruca Worker Bee)
  • Danskos
  • Curel Itch Relief Lotion
  • My education, both at William & Mary and in life afterward
  • Excedrin Migraine
  • Hulu and Netflix
  • Two good jobs, two driveable and paid for cars, a house with central heat and air, plenty of food to eat, good doctors and easy-to-obtain medicine

We are truly blessed. I hope you all have a fantastic Thanksgiving and find you have lots to be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Got an Award!

My friend Carrie over at Dog-Eared and Well-Read passed on a Kreativ Blogger award to me! I don't know what on earth I did to deserve it, but apparently she likes reading my book reviews or something :) She's a much better blogger than I am, but thanks for thinking of me, Carrie! There are rules to go with the Kreativ Blogger award:

  1. Copy the picture and post it on your blog.
  2. Thank the person that gave it to you and link to their blog.
  3. Write 7 things about yourself we don’t know.
  4. Choose 7 other bloggers to pass the award to.
  5. Link to those 7 other bloggers.
  6. Notify your 7 bloggers.

Well, numbers 1 and 2 are accomplished, and I'm about to give you number 3. Numbers 4, 5 and 6 are coming in a future post. I'm way backed up on book reviews, too, AND I have a book-based holiday gift guide to share with you! Because of all of that, I am hoping to make a post every day I'm on Thanksgiving holiday. No promises, but I'm going to try to get caught up :)

Okay, now I'll move on to telling you 7 things about myself that you (probably) don't know:

  1. I am a giant, enoromous sap. My husband calls me a Weeple. I have a few tears on my face right now because I'm watching an episode of Designing Women. I have cried at commercials, at blog posts, at What Not to Wear, at bad movies and good movies, at bad books and good books... I can't help it. I think my interpersonal intelligence is overdeveloped :)
  2. During one summer in college, I had a job delivering drugs. I love saying that; it totally cracks me up. I really did, but it was nothing illegal - I delivered regular Rx orders (and special one-time orders) to nursing homes and other health care facilities. It was actually one of the best summer jobs I ever had - I spent most of the time driving around listening to the radio in between stops.
  3. I hate seafood/fish. Except tuna - I do like canned tuna, tuna steaks, raw tuna... Otherwise, though, no thanks. I try it every now and again to make sure my tastes haven't changed, but so far, it just tastes gross to me.
  4. I dated the same guy from the time I was 16 until I was 21. I was crazy about him and ignored our obvious incompatibilities. I was young, and stupid, and I got my heart broken. And it made me a better person and a better partner, despite the missed years of prime dating opportunities.
  5. I eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich at least once a week (and three times so far this week). It's been my favorite sandwich for as long as I can remember and at least since I was 5. I prefer Jif Extra-Chunky and a perfectly ripe banana, just before it starts to go brown. The addition of honey to the concoction is also acceptable.
  6. I have a not-so-secret but guilty love of La Femme Nikita. The TV show, not the movie. I mean, the movie is actually quite good, and I do like it, but that's not what I'm talking about - there's no embarrassment in that. The TV show is terrible, and I love it anyway.
  7. I love kitsch and cult. Those awful, awful horror B-movies from the '50s and '60s? Love 'em. I got to see John Waters give a talk a few weeks ago - was enthralled. I once owned a pair of red velvet-covered cat-eye sunglasses with rhinestones on them. I seek out the weirdest Christmas music I can find and just revel in it (I get the song "Santa Claus Is a Black Man" stuck in my head all the time, all year round). I have been to Graceland and thought it was loads of fun. My family sneaks pink flamingos onto one another's property as a joke. I don't decorate with it - I'd call our home decorating style "classic eclectic library" - but I do adore the weird and wonderful.

Thanks, ya'll! I'll try to get a review to you tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Now that my book club has met to discuss this book, I can write about it. I picked up Lottery on the cheap from the Green Valley Book Fair a few months ago. It's about Perry, a man who is NOT retarded, he is just slow. Perry lives with his grandmother, who has raised him and homeschooled him. They love each other and they understand each other. Perry works a job he really enjoys at the fishing shop down the street from his house with his boss, Gary, who appreciates his hard-working attitude, and his best friend, Keith, who has never treated Perry any differently than he treats anyone else. Perry's life isn't perfect; he is constantly made uncomfortable when people get angry or violent, and he gets upset when people treat him as though he's retarded. His brothers make him call them his cousins, his father ran off to who knows where when he was a child, his mother only comes around when she wants something, and his beloved grandfather, who taught him everything there is to know about boats, died a few years ago. On top of all of that, he's in love with Cherry, the cashier at the convenience store he frequents, but he can't tell her. Still, he's pretty happy.

Then his grandmother dies. His cousin-brothers and his mother swoop in, kick him out of his house, sell it and give him his share - all of $500, according to them. Gary lets him move into an apartment over the store, which Perry thinks is pretty cool. He misses his Gram, but he still hears her voice in sticky situations, and he still does his five words a day, and he still buys a lottery ticket every week just like they used to do together. Then a funny thing happens: Perry wins the lottery. The big jackpot. His cousin-brothers and his mother, who make him very uncomfortable, keep coming around, talking about his Power and how he needs to give it to them. And things change - some things for the good, some for the bad.

I really liked this book. It was a little bit of a pat, happy ending - but sometimes I really want a happy ending. And in this book, I really wanted a happy ending. I thought Patricia Wood nailed the voice of Perry. It was very believeable to me, and I liked Perry very much. I also liked Keith and Gary and Gram, and while I was clearly meant to hate Perry's brothers and his mom, they were realistic characters to hate - I know too many people like them. I'm even related to some, too. I definitely thought this was a worthwhile read. 4 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

No time to review, but I'm in love with The Nook!

Skipping the book review for today. I’m running a conference in Philadelphia this week, which leaves me with not much time for writing. However. I do want to offer a short rant about how absolutely ENTRANCED I am by Barnes & Nobles’ new e-reader, The Nook. If you haven’t seen much information on this thing yet, go take a virtual tour of it. It is almost everything I could want in an e-reader. It might be enough for me to buy it. I will definitely be going to touch and feel one at a B&N near me when they are released at the end of November. They have wireless downloading and free 3G like the Kindle, coupled with the ability to expand the memory with an SD card. There is also a limited lending feature where you can lend books to people for 14 days (if the publisher gives permission to do so) to anyone for a multitude of devices – not just The Nook. The things I’d like it to do that it doesn’t: have a more flexible lending feature (which no other e-reader does at all, so it’s hard to complain), allow access to Word documents, and have a full-color screen for reading comics/graphic novels (which would admittedly reduce the battery life significantly, so I guess what I really want is color e-ink!). But I absolutely believe this is the best e-reader that has been marketed so far, and I am more excited about it than I expected I ever would be about any e-reader. And it’s not just me, either – Gizmodo published this article about the eight reasons The Nook rocks. I wish B&N would send me a free one to review on this site!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If You Can Get It for Free, the Recipes are Pretty Good...

I did read another book between The Concrete Blonde and this one - Lottery by Patricia Wood - but my book club is discussing that book at our November meeting and I don't want to spoil my contributions to the discussion because I know some of my club-mates read my blog. I'll review it after our November meeting :)

So, my curiosity was peaked about this book, French Women Don't Get Fat, a long time ago when I actually still watched The Today Show and I saw Katie Couric interview the author. I thought, That's a good point. French women really do eat bread and cheese and chocolate and drink lots of wine, but they are almost all thin and well-dressed and adorable. I finally scored a copy on BookMooch and then it languished in my to-read pile for months before I was finally in the mood to pick it up and read it.

Mireille Guiliano, the author, claims that she learned the science behind what most French women do naturally because she gained a significant amount of weight in her youth as a result of studying abroad in America and eating lots of processed food there, then coming home and going to university in France and eating lots of pastry. Her mother sent their family doctor to visit her and he kindly helped her remember the way to be a slender French woman. See, she's trying to identify with her primarily American audience by saying, "I know, I understand, I've been there - America made me fat too; it's not your fault but I can teach you better!"

Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to realize how condescending this is. And that pretty much sums up my feelings about the book. She doesn't say anything revolutionary. Apart from the recommendation for a cleansing weekend of eating nothing but Magical Leek Soup (her words, not mine) to kick-off your reconditioning, and her weird pushiness to eat yogurt all the time, this book largely gives average, common sense advice. Eat a balanced diet. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Eat bread and sweets and drink alcohol in moderation. Eat more fresh and fewer processed foods. Get your body moving regularly. Half the time I was rolling my eyes saying, "DUH. I know that already." And the other half of the time I was bristling from the condescension inherit in her stories. She tells these stories about American women she knew and befriended and taught these "French" secrets, and how they had miraculous weight loss and became happy and fulfilled! Hooray! The French have all the answers! Seriously, I know a number of French people who I like very much, who are good, kind, sweet, normal people. This lady, however, comes off as your stereotypical self-righteous Parisienne snob.

The redeeming part of the book is the recipes. She gives lots and lots of recipes. Most of them are pretty easy, and every one that I've tried so far is delicious. I have started making a version of her Baby Blueberry Smoothie for breakfast some mornings, and I love it. I've dog-eared about 25 recipes in the book that I want to try. So I say that if you stumble across this in the bargain bin and are interested in easy authentic French recipes, pick it up. If you get it for free, it's worth it for one or two recipes alone. Just don't read the rest of the book - it's not worth it. Flip straight to the recipes and enjoy those without subjecting yourself to the condescending attitude.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When You Can't Identify with the Main Character...

Hoo-boy. It's been a while. I know. I've added the blog to my Tuesday to-do list, so hopefully once a week I will really, truly be here, giving you news and reviews and exposing you to fun stuff.

So. First things first. You may have heard something lately about the FCC cracking down on book bloggers. No, I'm not kidding. Apparently, there is some rampant problem with publishers *gasp* giving bloggers copies of their books for free, to read and review, and the bloggers not stating that they got a free book for this purpose. Can you say YAWN?! Seriously? Do our governmental agencies have so little to do that THIS is a major concern? Because I can think of a thing or two that they might do instead. So here's my disclaimer: I have not ever received a free book from a publisher. Ever. For any purpose. And I don't anticipate getting one in the future. With that, I'll jump down from the soapbox.

Okay. I read this book months ago, but I'm going to do my best. The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly is a book in his series of mysteries about Detective Harry Bosch. I picked this up because an author I adore recommended it as one of her favorite mystery series, and this her favorite of the series. I am a mystery lover, so I immediately put it on the to-read list.

The premise is that Harry was on a case a long time ago - something like 9 years ago - that was a serial killer case. And he shot and killed a guy who he had good reason to believe was the killer in a situation where he thought the guy was reaching for a gun. Turns out he was reaching for a toupee, but Harry didn't know that until after he had shot him. After the kill, though, all evidence pointed to the fact that he still shot the right guy - the scary Dollmaker serial killer. The guy's family, however, has now brought a civil suit against him for wrongful death. Meanwhile, bodies have started turning up again bearing the marks of the Dollmaker killings. Harry is caught in a courtroom drama combined with a fear that maybe he did somehow, despite the evidence, get the wrong guy and the Dollmaker is really still out there.

Sounds exciting. Didn't really grab me. There are a lot of fans of this series - a LOT - and I am no stranger to the mass market paperback series in the mystery section. I kinda like a lot of them. But this one...was fine. It wasn't bad, but I never bonded with the main character. I was also driven nearly insane by Connelly's habit of "recycling" famous people's names in his characters - something that I'm sure fans find cute, but Heironymous Bosch is already a famous, real-life 15th century Dutch painter. He doesn't also need to be a fictional LA cop in Connelly's books. John Locke also makes an appearance as a fictional psychologist specializing in serial killers and sex crimes. I prefer the real John Locke, the philosopher. And every time I read these names, I was jolted out of the story in annoyance.

I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading this book. The story is well-written and well-crafted; it had me guessing as to whodunnit until near the big reveal. I just...did not identify with Bosch. And have no desire to read more about his life. Maybe that's just a thing with me, but them's my two cents.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Funny Name and an Excellent Story

Well, crap. I just wrote a whole, long beautiful review of this and it DISAPPEARED. For no apparent reason. I'm mad and sad at the same time. But I'll try to recreate to the best of my ability...

This is an incredible book. And I don't mean, "incredible for a comic book." While it is a graphic novel, Asterios Polyp is a better book than 80% of the prose books I've ever read in my life.

It's a fairly simple story when boiled down to its basics. A man, our hero Asterios, has a broken heart, and it's really his own fault. So he's depressed and miserable. Then he goes through some mental and spiritual rejuvenation in a small town where he happens to get off the bus. And then he goes and tries to get back his girl.

The genius of the book is in its construction. Everything is laid out in dualities. The book uses two main colors, as you can see from the cover image. The story is told in segments alternating between the present and the past. The narrator is not Asterios himself, but his twin brother Ignazio - who died at birth. And there is imbedded in the story some literal discussion of duality in architecture and design, in art, in science, in human nature, in the universe. Layered on top of all of this duality is the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, acted out in the persons of Asterios and his love, Hana, and also making a literal appearance in the story when Hana becomes involved in an actual production of Orpheus, the musical. Add to all of this some insights into the nature of architecture and design, told in a story constructed in an architectural manner and through artwork that is the epitome of good design, and you have a pretty complexly constructed book.

That brings me to the art. The very colors used in each scene are weighted with meaning. In a book where even the colors have such significance, you can guess how important the rest of the artwork is. It's very modern - in a late-'50s/early-'60s kind of way - and very focused on high design. The lines used to draw the characters are frequently used to give the reader insight into their personalities, even when they are minor characters. I have never read a book where the art was so important to understanding the moods, personalities, even souls of the characters.

This book was just amazing. It touched my heart; it made me think; it made me laugh; it made me slow down and study the art; it's stayed with me for weeks. I want to read it at least 10 more times in my life. And I'd highly recommend anyone else do the same. I'd give it 6 of 5 stars if that were possible.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Love a Character I Love to Hate!

Man oh man. I wasn't expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. I thought it would be just another mediocre chick lit book - which is honestly about the level of brain power I wanted to expend - and it didn't disappoint me in being an easy read. But it was so much more clever and well-written than I generally expect from the chick lit genre.

First a description (from Like the legendary London Bridge, Diana Lively has been transplanted from England to the Arizona desert. Trained as an architect and top in her class, she makes dollhouses. Widowed at a young age, she distrusted people who were kind to her, and married Ted, the one man who wasn't. Maybe it's a good thing that Diana Lively's life is suddenly out of her control. A brash American billionaire wants to put up a King Arthur Theme Park smack in the middle of the Arizona desert. With dollar signs dancing in its head, Oxford University is only too happy to send Ted Lively, their resident Arthurian expert, to consult on the project. There, in the most unlikely place, in the most surprising ways, Diana is about to discover that the happiness she thought was lost forever can shower down on her again, can flood her dry life like a lake in the desert, and make it bloom. Oh, and Ted. Ted is about to discover that there is justice in the world...

I felt so much for Diana. I couldn't identify with her necessarily - I don't have kids, haven't given everything up for my kids, didn't lose my first husband and love of my life, didn't marry a douchebag as a second husband. But I felt her SPIRIT in there, and I was just rooting for her the whole time to come out and be herself! And her son, Humphrey - man was I cheering for that kid. He was really, honestly too good to be true, but I loved him anyway.

And then there was Ted, her jackass husband. It was so much fun to HATE him. He was a character written expressly to BE hated, and Curran makes it so much fun to do so. I have rarely had a better time watching such carefully laid evil plans unravel...

So, again - easy on the brain, fast to get through, totally chick lit, but a higher quality than what you might expect. And such a good time to read. 5 stars for this one just because I had a blast reading it!

Hypocrite on a Book Blog

Bad blogger! Bad, bad!! I am so far behind on reviews - I have at least four more books to review after this one, maybe five. I might get through two tonight...maybe.

I'll kick it off with my book club's August selection, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman. This is a reasonably amusing and entertaining memoir - there were moments that had me clutching my gut with laughter. Unfortunately, there were also moments that had my eyes rolling over some of her preteen and teen antics.

I did enjoy reading about her bucking against her hippie upraising. Her parents are quite the individuals... I died over the guy who threw out his back trying to do the stupid "how many hippies can we fit in a VW Bug" stunt, and the whole chapter about her mom trying to force the entire family to learn meditation was awesome. Her reflections on anti-racism being pushed down her and her classmates throats when she lived in an extremely multicultural neighborhood was interesting. But DEAR GOD. The chapters on her high school years were PAINFUL. She was selfish and an idiot. As we all were as teenagers. She had nothing meaningful to contribute to the world from that part of her life, IMHO.

After she gets out of college, though, and gets her first journalism job for a Jewish newspaper, the story picks up again. I love love love LOVED the chapter about how she writes a piece about gay and lesbian rabbis, trying to push the buttons of her conservative readership and do something interesting to her at the same time, and then starts getting calls. From Jewish mothers. Who want her to date their daughters. Because she seems like a good Jewish girl, just perfect for their good Jewish girls. And she doesn't know how to tell them that she's actually straight. HA! And then her wedding planning chapter, from which the book takes its name, was a bit of a let down for me. It elicited a kind of a DUH reaction from me.

So, good, then blah, then really good, then meh. That's how I feel about the book. 3.5 of 5 stars, maybe up to a 4 if you really like memoirs (as I do).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The. Best. Site. EVER.

DUDES. I know it's been a long time since I've posted. I have three books I need to review for you, and I'll get to them soon, I promise. But I absolutely could not delay sharing this website with you: It is, clearly, the best website of all time.

You sign up, FOR FREE. You verify your account, and then you add books you want to sample to your "shelf." Every day, this website, this beautiful, awesome, lovely website, sends you the first chapter of the book. FOR FREE.

If you ask me why this is awesome, I am going to ask you why you bother calling yourself a reader. I have, as I'm sure you have, been disappointed by more than one book in my life. I've gotten all excited and geared up to read what I think will be a fantastic story, only to hate the writing style or feel the characters are flat or the pace is too slow or some combination of these and many other problems. I will admit that reading the first chapter is not always a fair assessment of how you'll feel about a book at the end, but it definitely gives you an idea of whether you're excited enough to buy it or if you just want to check it out of the library or just wait until your friend who buys every book offers to loan it to you...or just never read it at all, period. With hundreds of books on my wishlist, the ability to narrow it down to what will really grab me is much desired.

Plus, don't you just love it when an author you love has the first chapter of their next serial book in the back of the book you're reading? I love that! This is like having that for lots and lots and lots of books. They don't have every book ever. I searched for some titles that did not pop up in the search results. But they have LOTS. And if you don't have books on your shelf, they'll send you a link to their book of the day. Generally, I find all of this to be awesome.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Review and a Meme

I am a lazy and tired beast lately. I haven't been up to snuff in posting on ye olde weblog. I will try to improve, internet friends, I will. For now though, a review of a monster of a book I recently finished: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and then a meme from my favorite author of all time (who I am trying to get to do an e-mail interview with me), Joshilyn Jackson.

I have brought this book up about a hundred times in conversation since I finished it two weeks ago. I think my husband is getting tired of my referencing it! It took me a long time to get through it, but I'm so glad I read it. Interesting and funny and frankly just a little bizarre and completely fascinating.

Bryson took it upon himself to write in plain language about a pretty long story - that is, the history of the universe as we know it (or as we don't know it in some cases). He begins quite literally with the birth of the universe. Of course, no human being can really know how the universe began, but Bryson introduces the reader to a lot of theories, both from the past and the present, some based on logic and good sense and some based on...well, rather hair-brained ideas. He takes us through the weights and measurements of the universe and then our planet in particular, and then into the very basis for everything in the universe. He moves through atoms and into molecules and back into subatomic particles and some quantum and particle physics. Then he goes a bit bigger to discuss earth science and then biology, beginning with how life began on this planet. We move through theories of evolution and some really interesting arguments about classifying animal and plant life - and life that seems to fit in no category but its own. He wraps up with the evolution of man from an ape-like creature into...well, the slightly more articulate and less hairy ape-like creatures that constitute modern man.

All along the way, Bryson discusses many theories for everything and exposes the reader the wacky lives of our most important historical scientists and the feuds they had amongst themselves. I got a little bogged down in the physics section, I admit - physics has never been something I understood or was interested in very much - but the interplanetary topics and the earth science and biology topics totally rocked and fascinated me. I learned so much - I kinda feel like this should be a high school science textbook! I would have learned a lot more in high school science if it had been. Totally awesome, and now I'm seeking out more Bryson books to read. Highly recommended!

Okay - now for the meme! Joss posted over on her blog today, Faster than Kudzu, about how several people have told her she looks like Katy Perry, and she thinks they're on crack but is flattered nonetheless. She also posted how someone once told her that she looked like Rod Stewart and she almost murdered them. Cheerfully. She put photos of herself and all of these people on her blog for compare/contrast purposes, and then dared her readers to do the same. I for one am up for it!

I have been most frequently compared to Drew Barrymore. Like most people when someone says they look like a celebrity, I think these people are smoking something special and mind-altering, but I like Drew and I'm flattered by the comparison. Here we are, side by side, me on the left and Drew on the right (in case you wouldn't recognize Drew Barrymore or something):



See the difference? We look nothing alike. At all.

Okay. So, she did also ask for the least flattering comparison. Well, I've never had anyone personally compare me to a celebrity that I was appalled by, but I have done that online thing where you upload your picture and it's supposed to analyze your face and tell you what celebrity you look like? Yeah, that thing pissed me off. It told me I look like this:

Why, yes. Yes, that is Malcolm in the Middle. Grrrr. And on that note...g'night, folks!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stalled Out

I'm having a problem lately. I think it has to do with over-committment to very large books. See, I started a group read of George Eliot's classic Middlemarch with the gang over at the Fill-in-the-Gaps Project, and then I also decided to finish A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson for my real-life book club, and to join Infinite Summer, an internet group committed to reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest over the course of the summer. So where am I? Playing on the computer and not reading :)

I have missed the deadlines for Middlemarch already - everyone was supposed to be finished with it this past Monday, and I'm only in the 6th of 8 books. I like the book and I want to finish it, but I've been beating myself up a little bit that I got so far behind and didn't catch up in time for the big finale. It's on the back burner for a bit now, though, because I haven't missed the deadlines for the other two books yet, so I need to turn on the heat to get on schedule with those!

For our July meeting, my book club decided that we'd all read different books by the same author and then discuss the author as a whole. Bill Bryson won the vote for which author, and that was fine with me because I was already 1/3 of the way through A Short History of Nearly Everything and figured that might give me the motivation I needed to finish. And I have read a LOT more of it...but I'm still only halfway through at this point. It's just so friggin' long!! I read it for about three hours on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, and I felt like I got nowhere. I'm supposed to have that finished by a week from Tuesday, July 7.

And then there's Infinite Jest, which is a 1000+ page tome that, if you aren't familiar with it, has been lauded as a contemporary masterpiece, one of the greatest pieces of literature to come out of the current generation of writers, and further idealized because of the tragic suicide of the author, David Foster Wallace, last year. I've never read it, and it was on my Fill-in-the-Gaps list. A friend of mine told me about this organized internet movement to read it over the summer, so I figured I might as well join up. I haven't even cracked it yet. The deadline for the first 63 pages was this past Friday, and the next deadline is tomorrow, and I have not even started.

The moral of that story is that I'm a little burned out and overwhelmed. I took on too many hefty committments at one time, and now all I want to do is read comic books. I am going to devote a significant portion of today to reading these books, though, because I don't like reading to feel like a chore, something hanging over my head, and if I make some headway and get a little caught up, it will be better. I am going to tell you soon, though, about the comic I've been reading recently, Scalped, because it's fascinating. But that's a tale for another day. Off to read some gigantic books.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Chick Lit Worth Checking Out of the Library If Your Brain Needs a Break

Wanda, the heroine of Time Off for Good Behavior, just can't seem to catch a break. She crashes through a witness box when she tries to take a swing at the defense attorney of the jerks who caused her office building to blow up (landing her in the hospital with severe burns), hits her head on the floor and ends up in the hospital again in a "light coma." She gets fired for missing too much work - because she was in a coma - and she falls in love with the attorney she hires to threaten her former employee for firing her under such terrible circumstances. And then her psychotic and abusive ex-husband - who has tried to kill her before - tells her he's going to kill her, with all signs indicating that he's headed straight to her town. All this and she has a phantom tune that keeps playing in her head that no one else can hear.

Because of all of this, or maybe in spite of it, she befriends a straight-talking therapist who helps her define what she needs to do in order to take back control of her life and, ultimately, prove to herself that she is good enough for the man she's fallen in love with. The reader learns a lot about all of the crap Wanda has been through - some of it her own fault, some of it not - and naturally pulls for her to get her shit together and come out on the other side as a grown-up who actually does something she likes for a living and likes who she is. Which, of course, she does.

I won't pretend that the story isn't a bit predictable and formulaic. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. I did get attached to Wanda as a character as well as some of the other secondary characters (particularly her friend Elizabeth's kids) and I got some catharsis. It was like watching a reasonably good Lifetime movie (I know, those are few and far between). Since I'm currently reading Middlemarch and A Short History of Nearly Everything with Infinite Jest in line to be next, I needed the mental break!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Meet Manny...

Filled with lots of small, touching, embarrassing, outright hateful human moments, this book is not about a big picture. Last Night at the Lobster is all about the small stuff, and it celebrates that quiet awesomeness of the little guy, and also how he unfairly gets shafted time after time after time...and keeps on being a good, caring guy because that's just the way he is.

Manny is the general manager of a Red Lobster in Connecticut that is being closed down by the corporate headquarters. He and five employees get to move on to an Olive Garden in the next town (with a demotion for him to assistant manager), but at least they will have jobs. It's the last day the place is open, and it's right before Christmas, and a bad snowstorm hits. The whole story is about the history and loyalty and petty grievances of Manny and his crew as he struggles to keep them together and keep the place open until closing time, despite the worsening weather outside.

It's really a very quiet story, and that's why it's wonderful. It's also a really quick read - just a couple of hours, I'd say - and it's well worth the time investment just to meet Manny and get to be his friend for a little while.

My Father Bleeds History, and Here My Troubles Began

Maus is a two-volume comic book memoir written by the son of Auschwitz survivors, about their story of survival and also the author's story of his somewhat difficult relationship with his dad. (An aside here - I had a hard time coming up with that first part, because I didn't want to say "graphic novel" [it's not a novel] and "graphic memoir" sounds like a Penthouse exclusive, and "comic book memoir" sounds kind of dumb, but it's the best I've got. ) As the inside flap of the book says, it's a story about the Holocaust and also a story about those who survived the survivors.

We've all seen/heard/read a million stories about the Holocaust at this point. It's horrible and heart-breaking every time. It never gets easier to witness in any way, largely I think because most people have a very difficult time imagining how anyone could treat another person in that way. People have treated other humans as animals or worse throughout history, and it still goes on today (which is partly why the stories are still so relevant and raw), so I know the attitude is certainly within the human capacity...but I don't understand it. Spiegelman ups the ante a little by depicting the characters as animals already - the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, the Americans are dogs, etc. It eliminates the hackneyed cliche of "treating people like animals" and it also makes you view the story with fresh eyes because it's told a little differently than usual.

As for style, I thought Spiegelman's style of story-telling was very similar to that of Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame), which is to say it's very common man, it's a little self-deprecating at times, it breaks the fourth wall on occasion...and something else intangible that I can't describe. I love Pekar's work, and I love this as well. It's hard to choose which parts of the books I liked most. The moments between the author and his father in the present are so realistic, rotating among frustration/anger at his father's irritating habits and attempts at guilt/manipulation, and worry/tenderness over his father's advancing age and physical/mental deterioration, and admiration for the strength and ingenuity his father had in order to survive the Holocaust.

On the other hand, the historical parts about Vladek and Anja in Poland and the many hells they went through to come out again alive and to find each other were so poignant and gripping - those were the parts that were impossible to put down. I'm still affected by this, two days after I finished the books - I have tears in my eyes as I type, thinking about all the people they lost, including their first son, and all the terrible things they saw, and what an unbelievable miracle it was that they both survived and found each other after they earned their freedom (because they were separated in Auschwitz and didn't see one another or hear from one another for a long time).

It's an incredibly moving story told in a somewhat unconventional manner. It has won several awards and a great deal of recognition. All well-deserved, in my opinion.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Infinite Summer

I know that I'm probably not the only one with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace on my to-read list. I'm probably also not the only one intimidated by the modern-day behemoth. Well, some folks have started an internet collaboration to read the book over the summer. They're calling it Infinite Summer. It starts on June 21 and breaks the book up into about 75 pages a week until around September 21 or so. Just thought some of you might be interested - their web page is and they have a group going on Facebook too. I haven't decided yet if I'm going to participate, but I'm thinking about it...

How exactly does one scientifically study ghosts? Now I know...

I enjoyed Mary Roach's Spook a great deal more than I did her first book, Stiff. Stiff was pretty good. I did learn some things about what really happens to your body when you donate it to science and various ways you can request disposal of your remains when I thought the only options were a regular burial or cremation. But the book wandered a bit and lost me at times. This was not the case with Spook.

Perhaps it was the subject matter - I am inherently more interested in life after death and ghosts than I am in cadavers. But I also think Roach learned a lot about writing a book the first time that she was able to apply this time. Her writing in Spook is tighter; the flow from chapter to chapter is better. Her sense of humor even seems sharper. She's no stranger to writing - she's been a journalist for a number of years, but writing a book is quite different from writing an article for a newspaper or magazine, and I think she's honed her craft in the second book.

Spook is about, as I have implied, life after death. Specifically, it's about the scientific study of life after death. Who knew that my very own Charlottesville is a hotbed of paranormal research at the University of Virginia? Who knew that a number of historically brilliant scientific minds had projects to try and communicate with the dead? Who knew that electromagnetic fields or strong (but too low to hear) sound waves could be responsible for the creepy-crawlies we get when we think something ghosty could be going on? I thought the book was fascinating, and I liked her conclusion very much. Science has not yet proved any sort of afterlife one way or the other - neither that it exists or that it doesn't. After studying the research and talking to lots of scientists, Roach says that the only conclusion she can come to is: who knows? But, as she points out, it's no fun to go to a graveyard with a non-believer.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Report from the Green Valley Book Fair!

Today, I took a little me time. I left work early and drove 45 minutes out to the Green Valley Book Fair. I wrote about the Book Fair a couple of weeks ago, but this is the first chance I had to get out there. I bought about 15 books, all of which cost me between $2.50 and $5.00, for a grand total of $52.50. If I had bought the same books today on, I would have paid $186.16 for them (I typed the ISBNs into Amazon to make sure I was price-checking the same editions). So - big savings! I'm quite pleased.

First, some observations. The place is in the middle of nowhere, on farm land between Staunton and Harrisonburg. Right after you turn into the driveway, the road you were driving on turns into a gravel road. Even so, it's really only a few minutes off the interstate, so it's not at all complicated to find. They do try to place the books by category, and they succeed in this for the most part, but I found that the fiction section was TOO divided. I ended up looking at pretty much every book in the fiction section because I didn't want to miss something I was looking for and I wasn't sure exactly which subdivision it would be in. I had to laugh because, on the same aisle, two books with "suspicious" titles had been turned around so that the spine faced the back of the shelf and you couldn't see what it was. I had visions of a 50-year-old self-righteous mom deciding they were too risque for the kids to read. I turned them back around so you could see them, of course (for the curious, the titles were Confessions of a Romantic Pornographer and Hideous Kinky).

Book sections I saw while there: science fiction, mystery, popular fiction, gay/lesbian fiction, assorted romance fiction categories (regular, contemporary, erotic, paranormal, etc.), African American fiction, Christian fiction, historical fiction, bestsellers, world literature, classic literature, 20th century literature, literary biographies, literary criticism, poetry, fiction anthologies, drama (including a whole separately labeled section for Shakespeare), manga, game books (like crosswords), reference, business, travel, self-help, personal finance, diet, cooking, crafts, gardening, history, science, a large children's section, and audiobooks. There may have been even more categories; those are just the ones I remember!

Okay, on to what everyone's been waiting for - a list of the books I bought. Some of these were for the Fill-in-the-Gaps project, and some were purely for entertainment.
  • A Company of Three by Varley O'Connor
  • Lottery by Patricia Wood
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  • The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
  • Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (I would have bought Mr. Bridge too, but they didn't have that one)
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  • The Night Villa by Carol Goodman
  • If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend by Alison Pace
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • My Ántonia by Willa Cather
  • Time Off for Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich
  • Diana Lively Is Falling Down by Sheila Curran
  • The Next Big Thing by Johanna Edwards

My advice for those considering going themselves some time? Go early in their open window - they're usually only open for 2-3 weeks at a time, and a friend of mine told me that near the end, everything is really picked over and the good stuff is gone. Next, give yourself plenty of time. I didn't think I'd need more than an hour, and I was there for almost two...and I didn't even see everything. There was a whole downstairs area that I didn't get a chance to go look at because I had to leave to come home. Set a budget, bring a calculator, and make sure you stick to your budget. Also, if you have a wishlist of books you want, bring a list with you so you don't stand there thinking, "Was this book I wanted? I can't remember if it was called The Little Chair or The Little Table."

And that's all I've got. Their dates for the rest of this year are June 27 - July 12, August 22 - September 7, October 10 - 25, and November 27 - December 13. Anybody else been before? Do you want to go now?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Let's not call it a memoir...

I'm going to throw out there my perfectly honest gut assessment: this book is funny, disturbing, disgusting, and literally unbelievable. I do imagine that Burroughs had a dysfunctional childhood, and that some of the things that happened to and around him probably left deep emotional scars. I don't, however, believe for a second that every word of this book is truth. It rings of over-embellishment - there's just too much crazy to be real. If you're fascinated by crazy the way I am, though, you just might be highly entertained.

I'm a closet psychology student. I seriously considered a double major in English and psychology when I was in college until my advisor pointed out that I was also in the School of Education trying to get my teaching license, and if I did all three I'd probably be there for five or more years. So I dropped psych, but I still loved it. I'm utterly fascinated by mental illness, even my own minor anxieties and obssessions. And this book...well, let's say I got my fill of psychological studies for a while.

The sorta memoir, sorta novel (the author and his publisher have agreed, in response to a lawsuit from the family represented by the Finches in the book, to call it a "book" and not a "memoir" any more), focuses on Augusten Burroughs' life growing up in Massachusetts. His mother is completely insane at times - we're talking takes baths in broken glass crazy - and completely self-obssessed the rest of the time (focusing solely on writing poetry and exploring her sexuality instead of taking any responsibility for her son). His parents divorce early in his life, and his father essentially never talks to him again. His mother sends him off to live with her psychiatrist's family, which is borderline psychotic and unquestionably unhealthy and disgusting. And riotous (and disturbing) adventures ensue.

The book is not for the faint of heart. There are several explicit descriptions of his first sexual experiences with a man 20 years his elder, not to mention the nasty things he describes his adopted family doing (such as drying the patriarch's bowel movements in the sun and studying them as messages from God). Despite the insanity and grossness, the book manages to be bitterly hilarious at the same time. I am really glad that I didn't have to live through anything even approximating this book, and I'm sorry that anyone had a childhood that led them to write like this, but I was definitely held captive by the humor and the crazy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Not So Spooky, but Good Fun!

When it comes to fantasy and mythology, no one but no one living today can top Neil Gaiman. I have read a lot of his work and enjoyed it all. So I was excited when my book club picked The Graveyard Book. It's a tale of a boy (Nobody, or Bod for short) growing up in a graveyard, simple as that. Except he lives there because his entire family was murdered when he was a child and it's the only place he's safe from the man who killed them. He's being raised by ghosts and a creature that is neither living nor dead. He's been given the run of the graveyard, so he can see the ghosts and learn the ways of ghosts like Fading from notice of other people and Haunting and Passing through Objects.

All of these skills could be useful in hiding himself from the man called Jack who wants to kill him, but as he gets older and is told the reason for his confinement, he knows that he may want to kill Jack more than Jack wants to kill him.

Overall, I really liked this book. It was fun and entertaining and kept me interested the whole time. But I felt like a lot of the mythology that Gaiman created was unrealized in the story. I got a snippet of something cool and then it was dropped and gone. It could have been better if it had been longer and taken its time with many of the ideas he started in the book. The only other of his children's books I've read is Coraline, which I think is the superior. I feel like this book may have won the Newbery because someone felt he should have won it for Coraline and didn't, because I don't think The Graveyard Book is really at the Newbery level. But I still really enjoyed it and I'm a huge Gaiman fan!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

And Pray Tell Why, but I Do Love to Eat...

I was actually thinking this book would elicit 3-4 stars from me. I confess - I was a little jaded and maybe just a touch snobby, thinking a crazy popular bestseller of a book would not impress me. I read it only because a friend recommended it and I said I'd read it. Color me humbled. I thought it was awesome - 5 of 5 stars.

The memoir covers the period in the author's life after her divorce when she goes on a worldwide quest to rediscover herself and soothe her mind and heart. She divides the trip (and the book) into three parts - four months each in Italy, India and Indonesia. Her aim is to figure out how to enjoy the pleasure in life, and to be very spiritual, and how to balance the two. The book is structured like yogi prayer beads - 108 stories, divided into three sections, 36 stories in each section.

The section about Italy was crazy and awesome and funny and triumphant. She kicks her depression, makes tons of friends, eats an insane amount of food and learns to speak passably good Italian. It made me want to go live in Italy for a few months, not that it would take all that much convincing. The section about India was deeply revealing about her spiritual life and progress in her meditations. I don't know that yoga is the path to a relationship with God for me, but I don't think it was about that - it was about finding your own path, and her showing what her path looked like. The section in Indonesia was honestly the least interesting to me, but it's very important to the story because that's where she finds love and closure. And it's a really interesting look at Balinese culture, making me want to go to Bali someday!

Part travel guide, part memoir, all funny and touching and human and healing. I enjoyed this book a lot and plan to give it to my husband to read next.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Go get yourself some cheap books!

A book club friend reminded me tonight that this weekend starts the next open window of the Green Valley Book Fair! If you are anywhere near Harrisonburg, Virginia or can get near there over the weekend when they're open sometime, you really ought to check it out. They're only open for 2-3 weeks about 5-6 times a year, but you can get amazing deals there. They have all sorts of books available at really steep discounts. A friend of mine went the last time they were open and bought about 20 books for less than $50, which is absolutely insane even compared to used bookstore prices. Seriously, go check it out!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Book Contest over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find!

Mindy Friddle, author of the acclaimed debut novel The Garden Angel, has written her second book, The Secret Keepers, which was released this week. She blogged over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find with a contest imbedded in her post. Go read her post and find the contest and you can enter to win a signed hardback copy of The Secret Keepers. I read her first book and thought it was great; I'm very much looking forward to her new book!

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Smorgasbord of Reviews!

I have been away for over a week, in San Diego running a long and tiring conference for work. Needless to say, when I'm working 13+ hours a day on my feet and getting up at 5:00 am, I don't really feel I have the time or the inclination for blogging. Fortunately, this only happens 2 or 3 times a year :)

Being away, however, does NOT mean that I haven't been reading my little heart out! After all, I did have many, many hours on airplanes and in airports to get to San Diego and back. Rather than doing these separately, I'm going to give you all three reviews below.

Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips

This is a fascinating crime story. A criminal known as much for his cowardice as for his talent and intelligence somehow lets himself get involved in a really messy heist that goes bad...and for the first time, he can't run away. The most interesting element of the story to me revolves around why our hero is known as a coward: he doesn't generally carry weapons, if something goes wrong he runs from the scene immediately, he always has a back-up plan to get himself out of any sticky situations. And that is what has caused his fellow hustlers and theives to label him a coward. In the end, though, he reveals that his so-called cowardice has a rather unexpected reason (as he tears to pieces everyone who caused the hell of the last several days, including himself). There are some touchy-feely moments with him and a dead buddy's wife (and her daughter), a bartender friend, a heroin junkie with Alzheimer's who raised him after his dad went to prison...but mostly, the story itself is fascinating and gripping and the art is BEAUTIFUL.

Bound South by Susan Rebecca White

I picked this book up after hearing the author read from it at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Her description of it at that reading felt like it was equally about three characters whose lives were all tied together, but really, I think this is Louise's story. Her daughter, Caroline, and her housekeeper's daughter, Missy, also have stories to be told during the book, but Louise is the tie that binds. She has the most chapters in the book written from her perspective, and she is the character who experiences the most real growth. So I'm going to talk about her last.

Missy's story is the most concise. She's a teenager living in a poor area outside of Atlanta. Her mom has been working for Louise Parker for as long as she can remember, and Louise is kind to her, like a second (wealthy) mother. Her dad abandoned them when she was a small child, and she has hoping for him to come back and have a relationship with her ever since. She finally gets the chance to meet him when she finds out he's starring in a Christian drama on public access out of North Carolina, and she goes on a road trip with Louise's son, Charles, to find him. She finds out the truth about her dad, so she can let him go, and also goes through an experience that will change her life forever.

Caroline is the rebellious wild child of the Parker family. She's the oldest child and has been openly defiant of her mother's proper Southern ladylike ideals since she was five years old. She won't eat, dress, talk, or act in any way befitting her heritage and stature. She and her mother are constantly battling over everything, until she gets caught in a compromising position with her teacher. Then she runs off to San Francisco with her teacher, and their relationship is remarkably improved by the distance. She explores her desires and passions, works in the local theatre community, gets in and out of a bad marriage, gains a lot of weight and finally ends up with someone suited to her. In other words, she grows up. And it's a nice growing up story, but not ground-breaking.

Then there is Louise. Bizarre, struggling, complicated, proper Louise. Her entire adult life has been structured around being a good wife and mother and a wonderful hostess and friend. She believes in being polite at all costs and serving delicious food. The one thing she does for herself is buy folk art. She doesn't care what anyone else thinks of the art she buys; she just buys what she responds to emotionally and intellectually. Her daughter moves out, her son announces he's gay, her husband shares that he thinks his twin brother who committed suicide while they were in college was gay, she turns her house into an art gallery a few times a month, she smokes weed for the first time with her daughter in California, she lets an artist take a photo of her lady parts...and she generally lets go and becomes herself. And becomes happy. Hers is by far the most detailed and interesting transformation.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I'm a total Southern lit junkie, as most of you know, and this is right up my alley.

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Let me just say up-front that I read McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when I was in 10th grade, for English class with the best English teacher I had ever, including in college. And I loved it. With all of my heart. I've read that book over and over, and I even wrote a curriculum unit on it when I was in college for secondary education. Interestingly, I haven't read that many of her other books. I got The Member of the Wedding for free off of BookMooch, and I decided to do this crazy Fill-in-the-Gaps Project around the same time, so I put the book on my list and knew I'd read it soon. So this is book #2 I've finished for Fill-in-the-Gaps.

I read this book almost entirely on the plane to San Diego. I was about 30 pages in when I got on the plane, and it was over 2 or 3 hours before I landed in CA. It's good to know her writing is always amazing. I adored this book. It's sad and touching and nostalgic and beautiful. Frankie (aka F. Jasmine) is a rough-and-tumble tomboy just entering puberty and feeling desperately alone. Her best friend has moved away, her other friends have all turned into teenagers and she's not ready to do that, her dad works all the time. She spends most of her summer with her dad's cook/maid and her six-year-old cousin. When her brother comes home from the military and brings his new bride-to-be to visit, she falls in love with them because they belong to each other. And she decides that she belongs with them to, that she'll finally not be lonely any more when she goes to their wedding and they will of course take her with them after they're married.

Ninety percent of this book takes place the week before the wedding happens. Not a lot happens as far as action, but a lot happens in Frankie during this week. Her decision to grow up and to belong somewhere, and the actions she takes to make it happen, and her anticipation of the wedding are all so true emotionally, it's hard for me to believe that this could have been written by a grown-up and not by an 11-year-old. And then her utter heartbreak when her brother and his bride leave the wedding without her, and her determination to run away from home are stunning. It's such a simple tale, a child's story of the last vestiges of her childhood being stripped away from her. But it's just so real. And that is McCullers' true talent in all of her books I've read. She puts you through the same emotional paces as her characters, and you come up from the book gasping for air. I can't think of another writer who does this as viscerally, at least for me.