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!